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Bonhoeffer's Path to Seminary Ministry
The matter of the proper education of preachers of the gospel is worthy of our ultimate commitment.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1942)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a seminary director and teacher for five years (1935–1940), longer than he served consecutively in any other job. This work provided the context for some of his best and best-known writings, for meeting several key persons, and for making some of his most significant decisions. It seems logical to conclude, then, that understanding Bonhoeffer requires some particular focus on his theology and practice of pastoral formation in a seminary context. Yet Bonhoeffer's biographers and scholars writing about him rarely highlight this aspect of his life and writing. They usually emphasize his roles as pastor, ecumenist, theologian, and Resistance member.
This tendency likely stems from the fact that these are the elements of Bonhoeffer's life his close friend and literary executor Eberhard Bethge stressed in his editing of Bonhoeffer's unpublished writings and in his magisterial essential biography of Bonhoeffer published in 1967 and revised in 1989 (English revised edition 2000). Bethge had good reasons for his choices. Bonhoeffer was not a hero in Germany immediately after World War II, even in some church circles. Many Germans thought he died as a political prisoner, perhaps even a treasonous one, not as a martyr of the faith. Bethge could also see that Bonhoeffer's writings might eventually be forgotten. Thus, it was natural and right for him to stress his close friend's theology and describe how it led Bonhoeffer to take actions that ultimately resulted in his execution. Bethge's narrative is certainly defensible. Despite its length, it is also brisk and often quite moving.
Subsequent biographers and commentators have understandably followed Bethge's lead. After all, he knew his subject extremely well and had access to family records, in part because he married Bonhoeffer's niece Renate, who aided and participated in his historical research. Furthermore, as John de Gruchy, Bethge's biographer, demonstrates, Bethge was a tireless and accurate historian. Bethge did not just draw on his own and other eyewitness memories and Bonhoeffer's published works. He recovered and utilized reams of documentary material. Indeed it was largely due to Bethge's exhaustive and efficient efforts to preserve items written by and to Bonhoeffer that the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series numbers sixteen volumes. Bonhoeffer studies as we know them would not exist without Bethge.
Interestingly, de Gruchy also observes that Bethge does not always mention the full extent of his own part in some of Bonhoeffer's activities. He keeps himself in the background as much as possible as he tells Bonhoeffer's story. For instance, Bethge discloses conversations he observed Bonhoeffer have with others without noting he was an eyewitness. Bethge clearly wishes to introduce and validate his friend. He does not write to preserve his own legacy in the Bonhoeffer story.
Though admirable, Bethge's humility about his shared work with Bonhoeffer may result in his readers' missing Bonhoeffer's ongoing significance as a theological educator and Bethge's important collaboration in that era of Bonhoeffer's life. Bethge was part of Bonhoeffer's seminary ministry from the beginning. He was a student in the first class Bonhoeffer led as director in 1935, and afterward was Bonhoeffer's indispensable associate director until the Gestapo closed the seminaries in 1940. Bethge certainly recounts this phase of Bonhoeffer's life. But it seems to me he does so always with an eye on Bonhoeffer's continuing role in the Confessing Church and his gradual decision to enter the Resistance. The seminary work stays in the background along with Bethge.
It is also possible that Bethge does not highlight Bonhoeffer's (and his own) efforts in seminary work more fully because one could assume certain things about seminary education in those days. First, it occurred in a face-to-face, personal setting. Second, the students were generally men who had studied theology at a university and taken the first of two ordination exams. Third, the students received standard instruction in selected practical disciplines. Fourth, seminary studies were a capstone experience. They took place at the end of the educational experience and over a short period of time, only six months or so. Fifth, there is some monotony in the tasks associated with receiving and sending out seminarians over and over again. Bethge may have given the subject as much attention as he thought interesting to readers, or found interesting himself. Sixth, and perhaps most tellingly for our day, Bethge could not have predicted how unusual Bonhoeffer's approach to personal theological education would become.
Other Bonhoeffer scholars have not dealt with this portion of Bonhoeffer's life for other reasons. Jürgen Henkys observes:
No period of Bonhoeffer's life and work seems more inaccessible today or more inclined to put people off than does the Finkenwalde period. Indeed, in many readers it generates genuine opposition. The academic, ecumenical, political Bonhoeffer presents a more welcoming figure to many who turn to his work than does the Bonhoeffer ... who was confrontational and demanding in ecclesiastical matters, radically biblical, and rigorous in matters of piety.
Today we can add to that list the Bonhoeffer who put so much emphasis on theological education in a personal, communal setting. Henkys adds that the trajectory of German seminary life after World War II also leads Bonhoeffer experts away from analyzing his seminary work. Seminaries in West Germany became interested in "asserting their own status and mission within the larger framework of the official college and university system," while seminaries in East Germany ceased to operate or were incorporated into universities. Thus, Bonhoeffer's seminaries have been considered simply part of a historical era instead of a direct ancestor of what remains a living witness.
These reservations are understandable, but they are not decisive. Bonhoeffer's time as seminary director deserves further specific analysis, for at least three reasons. First, by any measure it was a crucial era in his life. In fact, Bethge noted in 1954, "It was in this task that Bonhoeffer's theological and personal influence was at its greatest." Second, those who wish to understand Bonhoeffer as theologian and activist may wish to consider how he integrated those tasks in his seminary work. In an essay arguing for Bonhoeffer's desire to be "with" and "for" others, Samuel Wells concludes, "In this sense, Bonhoeffer's most radical step was to become an educator. In setting up the seminary at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer trained students ... to learn to do what they could do for themselves." He then adds, "In Life Together, Bonhoeffer's whole attention is upon the challenge, gift, imperative, and grace of 'being with' one another. In that sense ... we can see Life Together as the book that sums up Bonhoeffer's theology as well as his own life." Third, current events warrant seeking resources for the renewal of theological education. Thus, closer attention to Bonhoeffer's time in seminary directorship may well help us, as Henkys puts it, "find unfinished business in what might initially seem rather alien to us, or to be motivated by something quite apart from the usual list of fashionable issues."
His Most Radical Step: The Importance of Seminary Ministry in Bonhoeffer's Life
While instructing and directing seminarians Bonhoeffer published what are certainly among his most influential works, The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939). He also delivered talks at a 1938 retreat of former students that were published in English as Temptation, gave a significant lecture on faithful endurance to Confessing Church pastors, published meditations on various passages, and composed meditations on Psalm 119:1–21. He developed the framework for Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), which appeared after his seminary ministry ended. He made his now famous decision to return to Germany from the United States and England on the eve of World War II in 1939. The letters and diary he wrote while in England and the United States indicate that one of the main reasons he returned was to stand with and care for his spiritual brothers by continuing his seminary ministry. He had told his former students in the messages on temptation, in circular letters, and in a public lecture that they should continue to follow God's call in the Confessing Church. How could he do less?
The end of his seminary ministry and other setbacks were factors in Bonhoeffer's joining the Resistance. He was banned from lecturing at universities in August 1936. He was denied a military chaplaincy by February 1940. The government closed down his last seminary site in March 1940. In September 1940 he was banned from speaking in public, and in March 1941 banned from publishing. Most of his former and prospective students were drafted into the German military by 1940, and some had already been killed in action. His public ministry options were almost down to zero, and he did not wish to be a regular soldier in the German army for several reasons. Thus, he had few options, a point that needs to be recalled when analyzing why he took the steps he did afterward. He became a member of the German secret service by 1940 and was involved with a Resistance group until his arrest in 1943.
Some Unfinished Business: The Importance of Bonhoeffer's Seminary Ministry for Today
Clearly, there are historical reasons to examine Bonhoeffer's seminary ministry. But there are other reasons too. Through his writings from these years he left rich resources for all of us involved in "seminary education," a term I use in this book to include any institution preparing persons specifically for pastoral ministry. These works provide a theological basis for seminary education as a ministry of the visible body of Christ. They portray a seminary as a community of faith and state how that community may live for Christ and for one another. They offer encouragement to former students who have entered the sometimes-harsh world of church ministry. His example from this era demonstrates the need for sacrificial teacher-pastors in seminary education, given the inherently personal, incarnational, and visible nature of ministerial preparation. Finally, Bonhoeffer's seminary ministry stresses the importance of educating the next generation of pastors. Bonhoeffer believed the German church's future rested in the quality and commitment of its pastors. He went to great lengths to safeguard this future. Frankly, he could not stem the tide. His efforts to do what was right in the face of what he eventually saw as temporarily impossible odds should hearten those of us who face hardships that pale in contrast to his.
To aid seminary education, it is important to read Bonhoeffer's writings from 1935–1940 in their original historical context. Millions have benefited from reading these books and shorter pieces as general guides for individual and corporate life. These works certainly aid believers and Christian communities of various types in living for Christ and with one another before a watching world. Yet they had a more specific context when they were written, and that context was the life of a director of a seminary and what he hoped this ministry could achieve.
These works were presented to and written about seminary students, seminary supporters, and seminary alumni. Thus, it is right to examine them with that context in mind for our current situation's sake. They will not provide every answer to current problems, and one need not always agree with all Bonhoeffer's theological formulations and ideas about seminaries in that day. Still, some sustained interaction with these writings may help us in an age when theology is regularly replaced by marketing strategies and financial plans, and often by flawed ones at that.
To be even more frank, in my opinion seminary educators desperately need these theological underpinnings and this example of determined personal education today. Financial concerns that have been building for decades have recently been made more acute by dwindling church support for seminary education and by worldwide economic troubles. At the same time, electronic devices have made online credits and degrees that require little or no personal time with teachers or other students feasible. Accreditation policies have adapted to these options because the institutions that constitute the associations and the governments that approve them desire such programs. The seminaries often believe these programs will help their budgets. Government entities want as many credentialed (though not necessarily educated or spiritually formed) persons in the work force as possible. To fuel interest, seminary advertising campaigns use terms like "online community" as if one may have communion without actual physical presence. I recently saw a seminary advertisement that had the audacity to call online degrees "personal" because there could be a voice on the phone, a potential letter in the mail, and a hand to shake on graduation day — surely a minimalist definition if I ever saw one.
It is likely that seminary education has entered a new phase in the United States and elsewhere. The phase of proving that theological traditions of various types can produce a viable academic setting through good faculty credentials and an enduring physical plant has passed. So has the phase of proving that seminaries can govern themselves and set and reach reasonable, assessable goals and objectives. It appears we have now entered a phase that will focus on the form of theological education, what more industrially oriented persons call "delivery systems." The biblically based, centuries-old belief that theological education should occur in person through mentors with peers in communities in communal places is no longer necessary for every seminary degree's accreditation. Many educators have expressed to me privately that they think that impersonal education through credit and/or degree-granting online or hybrid means (mostly electronic delivery supplemented by students' having brief times with teachers) is simply inevitable, even if they do not think it is desirable or theologically viable. Thus, many existing seminaries need courage for sustained work and for renewal.
On a more positive note, many seminaries are trying to refresh and continue face-to-face education. Also, I believe that new forms of personal seminaries and related ministries will arise in response to impersonal approaches. Meanwhile, current and hoped-for expansion of Christianity around the world creates the continual need for pastoral formation. Thus, new seminaries will be needed as part of this training. These new seminary expressions will arise in all kinds of cultural settings. It is important, then, to understand the biblical-theological bases on which they should be established.
Bonhoeffer's life and writings can help us ask the right questions about the future of seminary education. It is hard to conceive of a person less likely to accept the notion that current trends are unavoidable or that past practices are inviolable. Rather, his approach to theological education reminds us of the necessity of determining what is right and then following that course of action. His writings remind us that like all Christian work theological education needs grounding in theology. We cannot simply accept nontheological means of education as our norm. So he reminds us that the right questions are, What sort of education fits the Bible's vision of ministerial preparation? and What sort of minister does the church need? and What is the right thing to do in complicated times? They are not, How do we give our constituents whatever they want? Or, How do we sell degrees like any other commodity? Or, What brand of education pays well in a hurry? Or, How do we fit into the newest trend of educational technology? Or, How do we survive at all costs?
This book attempts to do two things. First, it tries to examine Bonhoeffer's theology and practice of theological education in their original context. Second, it endeavors to assert the biblical necessity of personal, incarnational, face-to-face education for the health of pastors and churches. To try to achieve these goals I will first sketch briefly how Bonhoeffer became a seminary director and note the settings of Bonhoeffer's seminaries. I will then focus on selected writings from 1935–1940 and on his daily and seasonal work as a seminary director. I will quote generously from Bonhoeffer's works, both because his prose is often so telling and because, though I hope my observations about him and his writings are well founded, they are not infallible. In each chapter I will also analyze selected current methods of theological education and suggest alternatives to simply repeating the past or accepting the next wave of education innovations. Finally, I will discuss some objections to the incarnational imperative and suggest ways Bonhoeffer's views can be implemented today.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bonhoeffer's Seminary Vision"
Copyright © 2015 Paul R. House.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
1 Bonhoeffer's Path to Seminary Ministry,
2 Bonhoeffer and His Seminaries,
3 Ministers for the Visible Body of Christ: The Seminary and The Cost of Discipleship,
4 A Visible Community of the Body of Christ: The Seminary and Life Together,
5 Visible Faithful Witnesses: The Seminary and Perseverance,
6 Life Together Today: Some Possibilities for Incarnational Seminaries,
What People are Saying About This
“This is the best book I have read on Dietrich Bonhoeffer the theological educator. Against great odds in the time of Nazi terror, Bonhoeffer forged a distinctive pattern of preparing faithful ministers of the gospel for the service of the church. Paul House argues convincingly that those engaged in the same work today have much to learn from Bonhoeffer’s model.”
Timothy George, Research Professor, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture
“In all the writing about Bonhoeffer, few scholars focus on his work as a seminary leader. As a result, we forget that one of his most famous works, Life Together, emerged from such a community. Paul House dares to apply this and other Bonhoeffer works to the challenges facing contemporary seminaries. Even those who ultimately disagree with House’s argument for life-on-life education will benefit from reading his countercultural critique.”
Collin Hansen, Editorial Director, The Gospel Coalition; author, Blind Spots
“While the circumstances Bonhoeffer and his students faced are very different from the challenges facing seminaries today, Paul House illustrates why Bonhoeffer’s approach to theological education and the ministry remains a model for today’s seminary leaders and their students. This is a fine, thoughtful study of Bonhoeffer’s approach to theological education and its implications for the complex, changing world of seminary education today.”
Victoria J. Barnett, General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition
“Paul House not only offers a primer on an often-neglected role of Bonhoeffer’s life, but also insightfully critiques much of contemporary American higher educationtheological or otherwise. Reading this splendid book might not alleviate all the ills of modern higher education, but House certainly leaves educators and administrators with fewer excuses.”
Richard A. Bailey, Associate Professor of History, Canisius College; author, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England
“The church in North America just passed the sign announcing dangerous rapids ahead. We need strong pulpits. What’s more, we need faithful theological training. Paul House draws our attention to the courageous wisdom found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We know Bonhoeffer for his classic texts and for his resistance to Hitler. But he also directed a seminary. Listen to Bonhoeffer. He will help us navigate what lies ahead.”
Stephen J. Nichols, President, Reformation Bible College; Chief Academic Officer, Ligonier Ministries; author, Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought and The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World
“With clarity and verve, Paul House ably demonstrates, synthesizes, and applies Bonhoeffer’s historic insights into theological education. The result is a timely and fresh reclamation of our life together for the church and for colleges and seminaries seeking to come alongside the church in discipling future pastors. A must read for professors, pastors, administrators, and students who want to know the what, why, and how of theological education.”
Christopher W. Morgan, Dean and Professor of Theology, California Baptist University; editor, Theology in Community series; coeditor, ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible
“Bonhoeffer’s prescription for seminary training should only be followed if we want to see a generation of ministers characterized by faithfulness, courage, and community. Otherwise, we can continue in the same path we’re on, where pastors learn to be entertainers, life-coaches, and pop-psychologists. Thank God that during this current revival of interest in Bonhoeffer, Paul House had the wisdom to focus on what Bonhoeffer knew best and did so very well.”
C. Ben Mitchell, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University, Jackson, Tennessee