Bonhoeffer: Martyr, Prophet, Spy…and Youth Pastor

20th anniversary of the assassination against ...
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Author Eric Metaxas has written a massive new biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. In some ways, Metaxas’s book is as intimidating as its subject. Skillfully written, thoroughly researched and comprehensive in its scope, it is a work that is worthy of someone who was larger than life.

 For many evangelicals, Bonhoeffer has been elevated to near sainthood. And it is easy to see why. Bonhoeffer stood fast in his opposition to the Nazi regime when many in the church did not. Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s opposition was so strong that he was eventually arrested, imprisoned and executed at a concentration camp in Flossenburg for being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler.

 However, Metaxas gives insight into Dietrich Bonhoeffer before he was the Bonhoeffer of legend. Even then it was clear that he, like Moses, was “no ordinary child” (Acts 7:20). Yet many of his early ministry experiences leading a small youth group in a church were so much like that of my own students, that I could not help smiling. The group was small and Bonhoeffer was anxious to see it increase in numbers. His early teaching too was marked by the kind of zeal often sees in young ministers, an eagerness to share the ideas they have learned in the classroom that sometimes outstrips their own ability.

 As I read about Bonhoeffer’s early days in ministry, I was reminded of his colleague Helmut Thielicke’s advice published under the title, “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” In it Thielicke explains why the “ordinary Christian of a live congregation” fears theology. Their aversion is often the sad result of personal experience. Thielicke describes the young theological student who: “Under a considerable display of the apparatus of exegetical science and surrounded by the air of the initiated…produces paralyzing and unhappy trivialities.”

 However, while Bonhoeffer may have tried to say too much in those early days, nobody would have accused him of dealing with trivialities. If anything, one can’t help thinking that “trivial” is exactly the word Bonhoeffer would use to describe the church in the United States. In fact, this was exactly how he assessed the theological liberalism of this country in his day. After Bonhoeffer visited New York’s famous Riverside Church and heard Harry Emerson Fosdick preach, he summed up the experience this way: “The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference.”

 Bonhoeffer’s critique not only correctly assessed the flaw that lay behind Fosdick’s considerable talent but looked into the future and diagnosed the soul of the modern church. I fear that while Bonhoeffer might commend us for resisting liberal theology, he might take us to task for adopting its chief vices. We thank God that we are not like that theological liberal over there but we suffer from our own conservative brand of egotism and indifference. The worship of the contemporary evangelicalism is just as prone to be self indulgent, self-satisfied and self-congratulatory as the liberalism Bonhoeffer condemned. We may have avoided the theology of liberalism but not its pride.

On Preachers and Preaching-Inflecting the Text

Preaching is an exercise in inflection, one that involves much more than pitch, volume and tone. In the sermon the preacher makes God’s written word incarnate by speaking the biblical author’s words into the contemporary context. This is an inflection not merely of the preacher’s voice but of the text itself. The task of inflection places a dual responsibility upon the preacher. One area of responsibility is to the text itself.

The preacher’s aim in the sermon is to animate the text without altering it. The written word has been detached from its original context but is not freed from it. We who preach must speak to circumstances that the biblical writers did not originally envision. But this does not give us liberty to wrest the Scriptures from their original context and make them say whatever we please.

The other area of responsibility involves the audience. An uninflected text is a dead text as far as the listener is concerned. “Somehow or other, every other agency dealing with the public recognizes that contact with the actual life of the auditor is the one place to begin” Harry Emerson Fosdick chided. “Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” Fosdick’s point has been heeded, perhaps too well, by contemporary preachers. But this does not make his assessment less true.

Inflecting the text requires application and application is local in nature. Despite this, preaching cannot afford to ignore what happened to the Jebusites any more than it can afford to overlook those who are actually present. A sermon which focuses only on the concerns of the contemporary audience and pays no attention to the historical and literary context of Scripture also removes the biblical text from its living voice. Such preaching co-opts the text instead of inflecting it, turning the living and active word into a ventriloquist’s dummy, a caricature whose hollow voice merely echoes the preacher’s own (or that of the audience).

Question: Do you think the preacher is important to the sermon? Why or why not?