Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision

This week, I intended to write the final blog on the original Constitution, leading to a review of the ratification and Bill of Rights. Then, I took time to read a book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision, for another project in which I am involved. [1] The book made such an impression, and was so important for the project, that I am doing a blog on Bonhoeffer’s vision for theological education. This undertaking is not wholly unconcerned with the larger issue of political theology, because Bonhoeffer wrote much related to political theology and his life is a testament to faithful Christian political involvement in difficult times. Near the end of this series of blogs, we will again consider the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It seems to me that he is the most important figure of the Twentieth Century for those who wish to ponder the role of faith in political life.

Bonhoeffer’s Life and Seminary Experience

Briefly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in February 1906 to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. His father was a psychiatrist and not religious. His mother came from a family which included notable German pastors and was deeply religious. There is no question but what his mother’s faith impacted Dietrich. Shortly after an elder brother was killed in World War I, young Dietrich announced to the family that he would be a pastor.

At eighteen, Bonhoeffer entered the University of Berlin. There Bonhoeffer first read and was influenced by the work of Karl Barth. He became a Biblical theologian deeply influenced by Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. He finished his doctoral dissertation, entitled, The Communion of Saints: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church at the age of twenty-one. [2] By his late twenties, Bonhoeffer was teaching theology and making a name for himself as a theologian. His interest in theology and church practice continued for the rest of his life.

In 1930, after a brief pastorate in Barcelona, Spain and finishing post-doctoral work in Germany, Bonhoeffer had the chance to visit the United States to do post-graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York. There, he had a spiritual awakening, largely as a result of his experience with the black community and their congregations. For the rest of his life, he was dedicated to putting faith to work in life, first and foremost in his own life.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer immediately opposed his rule, and was known as an adversary of the Nazi regime from its inception. When the German Church movement began, instituting both Nazi control of the German church and Nazi ideology within its confessional life, Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler and the Nazi party and joined the Confessing Church movement. When the Confessing Church movement needed a person to lead its efforts at theological education, it naturally turned to Bonhoeffer, and so in 1935 he became head of the seminary of the Confessing Church. [3] He served in this position until 1940 when the seminary was closed. Shortly after the closing, he became involved with the German resistance to Hitler in a different way. He was arrested in 1943 after an unsuccessful attempt was made on Hitler’s life. He spent the rest of his life in custody, and was executed in April 1945.

During his years as leader of the Confessing Church seminary, Bonhoeffer wrote two of his most important books, Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. [4] Both books emerged from, and drew upon, his experience as a seminary leader and instructor, his already well-developed theology of the church, and his experience as a leader of the Confessing Church, who was concerned for the faithfulness of the church within a hostile political and cultural environment.

Cost of Discipleship grew out of lectures on the Sermon of the Mount that Bonhoeffer gave at the seminary. Its concern was to warn the pastors in training about the danger of “Cheap Grace” and to empower them to model discipleship in their ministries. The original German title best translates, “Following.” His concern was that German Protestantism had become too much a matter of intellectual subscription to a creed and attendance at worship and too little concerned with hearing the call to “Follow me” as a disciple willing to live and experience life just as did Jesus Christ. In the book, he describes Cheap Grace as, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” [5] His belief was that the Protestantism of his day in Germany had been guilty of this offense against the Gospel.

The most distinguishing characteristic of the Confessing Church seminary was the integration of spiritual disciplines and theological education. Life Together is a theological reflection drawn from the “Rule of Life” by which the seminary lived, which included, in addition to academics, prayer, Bible Study, meditation, common worship, and confession. The daily times of worship included singing, scripture, prayer, and sermons, often given by Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived in the community except on the occasions when his other duties for the Confessing Church took him away. In particular, he was the first to confess in the community when present to set an example for the students. Not all of the students appreciated Bonhoeffer’s approach but those who did were profoundly changed by the experience.

Application of Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision

Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision outlines the implications of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought for modern seminary education. For the most part, the book draws Life Together and the Cost of Discipleship in making its case.  In so doing, House develops a consistent, Biblical, and historical challenge to much of contemporary theological education on all sides of the denominational and theological spectrum. The book is so well-written and theologically and biblically deep that I will not even try to give a detailed account of his argument, but will be content to summarize House’s conclusions. I do encourage anyone interested to read the book. With this background, here is a summary of House’s conclusions:

  1. Seminaries Need to Educate Committed Students to be Committed Pastors. As anyone remotely interested in education knows, seminaries have been profoundly impacted by changes in American society and by the implications of certain policies for education generally. In particular, some students attend seminary not out of a call to ministry, but out of a desire to explore Christian faith. Student loan programs have made it possible for many more people to attend seminary than would attend without generous scholarships, federally-insured loans, and admission committees willing to admit nearly anyone who can find a way to pay the cost of the education. The result has been a decline in the pastoral quality, and perhaps particularly in the spiritual qualities, of students. Students who attend seminary with an immature faith, poorly-formed spiritual habits, and little commitment to a “Costly Discipleship,” often do not find in seminary the kind of spiritual formation they need for pastoral ministry. The need to focus on recruiting pastors who are committed to emulating Christ and doing the kinds of things Christ did in his earthly ministry means seminaries must be smaller and almost certainly connected to local congregations in some real way.
  2. Seminaries Need Committed Faculties, with Significant Pastoral Experience. Given that students today need more pastoral formation than students in the past, faculties primarily made up of scholars with limited pastoral experience are not able to give students the formation experience they need. This need cannot be met by having a limited number of pastor/teachers on a faculty, often part-time. The need is too great. The movement to electronic classrooms, made worse by Covid19, is an additional threat to effective pastoral formation. Just as Jesus came in the flesh and had a personal, concrete, physical relationship with his disciples, so also contemporary seminaries need to provide that experience for their students. To paraphrase a line from the book, “Jesus did not send an email or text message. He came in the flesh to disciple his followers.” [6] Pastors must be willing to do this, and seminaries need to find ways to model this for students. Bonhoeffer lived in common life (a “life together”) with his students, modeled a pastoral devotional life, and sacrificed himself for Christ in the presence and in personal relationship with his students.
  3. Seminaries must focus on developing pastors with the skills to disciple people, build congregations, and serve their congregations with the same commitment that took Christ to the Cross. This is particularly important. When I went to seminary, we got a good education in Biblical studies, theology, and even preaching and some pastoral care. However, few students got any education in the hard jobs of evangelism, discipleship training, small group formation, and other skills that not only are necessary today, but are likely to become even more important in the future. Bonhoeffer saw that the spiritual condition of Germany and the loss of faith in society would demand a new kind of seminary. The same is true in America today. The emerging post-modern, post-Christian American society requires a different set of skills for future pastors, a set of skills and character more in line with Bonhoeffer’s vision.

Discipleship and Seminary Education

House’s purpose in writing Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision was to inform the community of those interested in seminary education. In reading the book, and in reflecting on Cost of Discipleship, it struck me that discipleship is not unconnected with seminary education and both lay persons and professionals will be helped by the message of the book. We often think of discipleship and professional training as two different things. This is not strictly true. Seminary is actually one part of the life of discipleship for those called into seminary training to become full-time pastors. Ideally, a person attending seminary is already a disciple of Christ, already known to have spiritual and natural gifts for ministry, but needs the kind of specialized training that pastors need to meet the needs of their congregations. As such, seminary should be an extension of the normal life of a disciple.

By the same token, congregational discipleship programs are not “little seminaries” but experiences designed to assist laypersons in living out their vocations as disciples of Christ. The two cannot be completely divided, though they will in some ways be different. Both involve active learning to be a better disciple of Christ in a specific situation. In both, the role of life together under the word of God cannot be ignored. If seminaries need committed students and committed faculty, churches need committed disciples and committed pastors, which is why Bonhoeffer designed the program for the Confessing Church seminary the way he did.

Conclusion

Before attending seminary, I was an active layperson for over fifteen years, during which time I was a deacon, elder, Sunday school class teacher, and lay preacher. Our church helped send us to seminary, and there was little doubt but which I would be able to pastor some church somewhere, someday. While I have never regretted the fine theological and Biblical education I received, a good bit of what made the difference was a personal devotional life that had already weathered storms before seminary, experience in the leadership of a church for a considerable period, prior activity in small groups, and a host of other discipleship skills learned before seminary and only much improved by seminary experience. As mentioned above, seminary was simply a continuation and extension of an already existing discipleship path.

It is common for churches to complain that they cannot find a pastor and for pastors to complain that it is difficult to attract associate pastors, especially to smaller and less appealing congregations. I believe that the final resolution of these needs will involve something like the vision Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision has for seminary education: a form of education that is smaller, more congregational, interested in pastoral character and formation as well as skills and Biblical and Theological knowledge, intentionally designed for the culture in which contemporary pastors must minister. It will focus on creating shepherd/servant pastors who can create the kind of community and discipleship Bonhoeffer tried to create for the Confessing Church.

Pastors and Church leaders will want to read Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision, and they will not be personally or institutionally disappointed by what they learn.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Paul House, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2015), hereinafter “BSV”.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sactorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church Collected Works, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998).

[3] Although there were actually three locations for the seminary, it is often referred to as the “Finkenwalde seminary” even by scholars. House treat it as such, though the situations resulted in slightly different seminary experiences for the students. House is careful to delineate the differences

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York, NY: Harper One, 1954) and Cost of Discipleship (New York, Macmillan, 1960). Both of these books are available on the internet and often in bookstores in various editions.

[5] Cost of Discipleship, at 47.

[6] The exact quote from Bonhoeffer is, “God sent witnesses, not a recording.” See, BSV at 99.

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