Bonhoeffer: Approaching Scripture

July 30, 2010

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German theologian and pastor who stood bravely against Hitler and the Nazis' attempts to co-opt the church for political purposes. He was imprisoned and then, shortly before the Allies took Berlin, executed by the Nazi regime. In light of last Sunday’s sermon on the Sixth Commandment, Bonhoeffer’s clear teaching on loyalty to Christ above loyalty to state, his leanings toward pacifism, and his eventual involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler are thought provoking. I highly recommend Eric Metaxas’ new biography, from which this quote is taken (p. 136-37). Bonhoeffer is writing in 1936 to his brother-in-law, who did not hold a high view of Scripture – Coty]

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 to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply 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 in 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 by 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 alon[e] with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible . . . .

If it is I 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 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.

Comments

4 Responses to “Bonhoeffer: Approaching Scripture”

  1. Craig DuBose on August 6th, 2010 3:32 pm

    “First of all I will confess quite simply – I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions”

    Deitrich Bonhoeffer was an exceptionally courageous and intelligent man. I admire him for those qualities and have read a number of books by and about him- (may I recommend “Costly Grace” by his friend and husband of Bonhoeffer’s niece, Eberhard Bethge; also Bonoeffer’s “Ethics”. But the quote above is problematic and the operative word is “believe”- “I believe that the Bible alone…” He doesn’t elaborate on why he believes that or how he came to that belief or why he has ruled out other beliefs or the sacred texts of other religions; nor does he claim to “know” that the Bible is the answer to all our questions. He simply states that that is his “belief”. Should we make a distinction between “believe” and “know”. And if so, what are the implications?

    He goes further to say that, “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.”

    Apropos of the recent post on John Piper’s blog “Should Christians be willing to read the books of other religions?” -

    If we really enquired of other sacred texts and expected from them “the ultimate answer”, would we receive it? How would we know?

    I encourage you to think very deeply, critically, and honestly about this?

    May I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Bonhoeffer:

    “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others, and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain honest straightforward men. Will out inward powers of resistance be strong enough, our honesty remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”
    Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”

  2. Craig DuBose on August 6th, 2010 4:27 pm

    “If it is I 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 the irony is that we are always the ones who “choose” where to “find God”. Why do we not choose to “find God” in the Koran? Why do we not choose to “find God” in the deeds and writings of Albert Einstein, or Benjamin Franklin, or Mahatma Ghandi, or (insert name here)? We always determine where we choose to look for and find God.

  3. Craig DuBose on August 10th, 2010 7:36 pm

    “loyalty to Christ above loyalty to state”

    I’d say that Bonhoeffer’s fundamental loyalty was to his own intellectual integrity, his own integrity as an individual human being capable of thinking and acting from his own commitments formed through his own intellectual pursuit rather than from any ideology imposed upon him. That’s the essence of the quote in my previous comment.

    It appears, however, that the “comment” function on this site is not intended for alternate points of view.

  4. Coty Pinckney on August 13th, 2010 11:25 am

    Surely Bonhoeffer here is not distinguishing between “believe” and “know”. He is staking his life – literally – on his belief that Scripture is the Word of God. This is rather akin to a marriage commitment. In my marriage, I do not conduct a series of experiments to see if Beth loves me. I believe it – I know it. Any deep relationship – such as Bonhoeffer’s with Christ – is built on much more than the type of knowledge that comes from the scientific method.

    The question about other sources of authority is a good one. A book-length answer can be found in James Sire’s The Universe Next Door. My sermon on Acts 17:1-3 points the way to how I would address this question: http://www.eqotw.org/audio/20090412-acts17a.mp3

    The quote from “Letters and Papers from Prison” is excellent. Thanks for offering it. But in light of this 1936 letter, there is no way it means what you are interpreting it to mean. Bonhoeffer saw himself very much as a man under the authority of the Word.

    No, we are not the ones who choose to find God wherever we wish. That is a position of human autonomy. That is like saying a two-year-old chooses his parents. He may do so – but if he chooses anyone other than his real parents, we will simply be amused. He HAS parents, whether he chooses them or not. Just so, we are dependent beings.

    We’ll post comments that appear to us sincere and to the point. As with any blog, the blog owners will make those determinations.

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