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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Bible: Beyond Textual Criticism and Into Real Life (How To Read the Bible)

This is an excerpt from a letter that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher (a liberal theologian) in 1936. It has been transcribed from the biography by Yale graduate,  Eric Metaxas -  “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet , Spy. A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich.” 

Some background: 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the youngest son of renowned German neurologist  Karl Bonhoeffer and Paula von Hase , an extraordinary woman whose grandfather was theologian Karl August von Hase (preacher to Kaiser Wilhelm II).

He earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin, graduating summa cum laude at the age of 21 and was considered intellectually brilliant. Although he studied under some of the most liberal theologians of the day ( eg. Adolf von Harnack…) , Bonhoeffer remained conservative in his theology and soon found and embraced the writings of Karl Barth an eminent and conservative Swiss theologian. All the while Bonhoeffer remained no man’s blind disciple but would criticise an argument whenever he felt it necessary.  He wrote “The Cost of Discipleship”, considered a modern spiritual classic.

Although he was surely a believer for most of his life, it was after a year long stay in America that his faith begin to deepen and his intellect and heart were truly mingled. It is this mingling that is so beautifully portrayed in this letter.

It was also in America that he visited Harlem and the southern states and observed the Gospel piety and suffering of the African American people. Little did he know this would prepare him for what was about to happen in his native Germany and how he would react to it – the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s.

In 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer died a martyr’s death at the age of of 39 after steadfastly resisting Hitler, assisting Jews in escaping to Switzerland (Operation 7) and eventually becoming involved in a plot to assassinate him ( Valkyrie ).

The Letter:

First of all I will confess quite simply – I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One simply cannot read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God on one’s own strength, one has to enquire of Him. Only if we seek Him, will He answer us. 

Of course it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible…

If it is who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find Him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands.  This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New but also in the Old Testament…
And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way – and this has not been for so very long – it becomes every day more wonderful to me.  I read it in the morning and the evening, often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer. 

"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God..."  II Timothy 3:16

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. 
Not to act is to act.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Not hero worship, but intimacy with Christ.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer