Bonhoeffer on the Importance of Reading Scripture

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wikimedia Commons

In his book Life Together, in which he is promoting a new kind of monasticism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about “The Day Together” in chapter 2. I am using the translation in the Deitrich Bonhoeffer Works (DBW) series, and more specifically the Reader’s Edition (DBW-RE).

There are a lot of good things in this chapter, but for now, I just want to reflect on this remarkable and almost counter-intuitive statement.

It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, in God’s son Jesus Christ, than to discover what God intends for us today.

Life Together, DBW-RE, p. 35

This statement comes in the midst of Bonhoeffer’s reflections on reading Scripture. There is a great deal of resistance to reading and studying Scripture, resistance put up by Christians, by people in church. There are Christians who think of Scripture as old and irrelevant, and we need something for today, we need something that touches us where we live. Many Christians want the “living voice” of God in their head, rather than the old stories about God, as a popular song expresses it. I love the quotation above because it turns that idea on its head. Something relevant for today, the most relevant thing for today, is what God did for Israel in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, I can see the other side of it. Here I’m trying to account for my bias. Of course I would agree with Bonhoeffer, because, like him, I’m an academic. The people to whom Bonhoeffer is responding are often people who are distrustful of experts, and Bonhoeffer, with his two completed dissertations, would certainly be classed among the experts. So it’s not surprising that I find Bonhoeffer’s statement appealing: I have a built-in bias. I wonder what people who don’t have my built-in bias would think about Bonhoeffer’s statement. Moreover, I do think Christian teachers should try to help people see how Scripture is helpful to people in their lives today. So I have some sympathy for the other side of it.

But, honestly, it’s not super easy to figure out how every passage of Scripture speaks to issues of today, except in a most general way. If people today are struggling with, say, marital problems, or cancer, or loss of job—I do think every passage of Scripture has something to say to those situations, but often in a very general way that will seem to some people irrelevant. Every passage of Scripture proclaims—or can be construed as proclaiming—that God is in control, that God loves people, that God cares about justice, and all of these things have bearing on all our issues, from marital problems to cancer to loss of job, etc.

It can seem pretty nebulous, I admit. What does Isaiah 10 have to do with my situation right now? You’re right, the connection is not immediate and direct. What I can say is practice makes perfect. When I first started making homemade pizza, it was like a fun little experiment. It was maybe a little cheaper than buying from Pizza Hut, but it was a lot more work and it didn’t taste as good. Fifteen years later, my weekly routine of pizza-making has trained my family to desire this my homemade pizza almost to the point of regarding any store-bought pizza as not only inferior but downright distasteful. So also with the Scriptures. A first reading will often seem pointless, irrelevant, disconnected from the realities of life, as if these words are from a world different from our own. Scripture invites us to inhabit the world that it creates (HT Luke Timothy Johnson).

I think that’s what Bonhoeffer is getting at. He says in the fuller quotation below: “I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer’s quotation above is not describing a feeling that we have when we read Scripture but a commitment with which we approach Scripture. We commit ourselves to seeing in these ancient words the word of God for us today. We affirm that the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. We know that it has power, even if we fail sometimes to recognize it.

Below is the fuller context of the quotation from Bonhoeffer, which is all great, I think. Notice in the second sentence that the emphasis falls on “there.” I might paraphrase: “It is there—whether in Scripture or in the world of ancient Israel, but in any case not here in modern times—that God has dealt with us, and there (not here) God still deals with us today ….” Or, specifically, it is an event that happened two thousand years ago that is still the pivot of history and the focal point of God’s relation with humans, the scene where God takes care of things. God is committed to focusing on that scene, and we want God focusing on that scene much more than we want him to focus on our own lives.

We are uprooted from our own existence and are taken back to the holy history of God on earth. There God has dealt with us, and there God still deals with us today, with our needs and our sins, by means of the divine wrath and grace. What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there. A complete reversal occurs here. It is not that God’s help and presence must still be proved in our life; rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, in God’s son Jesus Christ, than to discover what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is “from outside ourselves” (extra nos). I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ—in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection—are with God and God with them.

Life Together, DBW-RE, p. 35

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