Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together

Written by Paul R. House Reviewed By Travis L. Myers

Paul House is a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School where he has also served as academic dean. He has previously served at Taylor University and Wheaton College and as a local church pastor. His new study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to seminary training serves to articulate his own concern for the appropriate spiritual development and ministry skills formation of future pastors. Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision demonstrates House’s admiration for Bonhoeffer as well as his familiarity with the relevant primary and secondary sources.

House asserts that Bonhoeffer’s most important writings, namely The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939), should be considered in light of the fact that he wrote them while serving as the director of the Confessing Church’s seminary or “church-monastic” school (p. 41). Likewise, a study of that particular aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life, not highlighted in other biographies, should be taken up in light of those important writings. House concludes, from this approach, that the best explanation for Bonhoeffer’s fateful return to Germany from the U.S. was his love for the seminary work (p. 113). In a letter to Karl Barth in 1936 Bonhoeffer wrote that he found “great joy” in the task of teaching and mentoring students in the seminary where “the academic and practical work are combined splendidly” (p. 114). Between 1935 and 1940 Bonhoeffer directed the training of ten groups of students in various successive locations as changing circumstances necessitated new venues for the work (p. 45).

The book’s first two chapters, both relatively brief, well frame the rest of the book by succinctly introducing House’s thesis and method, the historical context, and pertinent biographical information (i.e. “Bonhoeffer’s path to seminary ministry”). The next three chapters are theological. Chapter three primarily culls The Cost of Discipleship for Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology proper. Chapter four focuses on Bonhoeffer’s ideas in Life Together regarding Christian community as both a gift and challenge, among other things noting the specific daily practices of Bonhoeffer’s seminarians in two sections, “the day together” (pp. 114–23) and “the day alone” (pp. 123–29). Chapter five incorporates a broader range of Bonhoeffer’s writings, including his unfinished Meditations on Psalm 119. This penultimate chapter portrays the seminary as a place to learn Christian faithfulness and perseverance in the midst of persecution and other temptations to compromise such as the prospects of wealth and celebrity. These three theological chapters are ordered chronologically as House considers each document in its respective historical context.

Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision reads at times like a personal manifesto, moving back and forth from an academic study of Bonhoeffer to a professional critique of current modes and trends in biblical higher education. House concludes chapters three through five with “observations for incarnational seminaries today” (pp. 88–100; pp. 136–42; and pp. 178–81). The book’s sixth and final chapter is titled, “Life Together Today: Some Possibilities for Incarnational Seminaries” (pp. 183–97). House posits that Bonhoeffer’s “incarnational” model of training budding ministers is worthy of emulation because it is grounded in the theological principle of God’s presence with his people as well as the Bible’s “face to face” intergenerational educational pattern as precedent (p. 15). In fact, House says the “incarnational principle” is at the heart of both the gospel and reality (pp. 195–96). Seminaries should reflect the church’s identity as the body of Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology provides much of the theological underpinnings for House’s seminary vision in the book. Bonhoeffer considered the essence of the church to be community (p. 33). A Christian community should be a “visible righteous community” whose good works draw attention to Jesus (pp. 67–68). The church exists wherever the Word is preached, the sacraments are duly administered, and ministry gifts of the people operate in daily life. Jesus is present in the church via the Word, sacraments, and fellow believers (p. 79). In fact, the church is the “real presence” of Christ and continues the incarnation (p. 83).

According to Bonhoeffer, “church” must begin with the brotherhood of the clergy (p. 58). Jesus knit together the hearts of the apostles for their fight against temptation(s) and their perseverance in ministry. Therefore, seminaries should be places where future pastors experience the same. Students should learn the kind of encouraging cooperation in ministry and community that a “collective” pastorate entails (p. 76). In addition, a seminary’s mode should reflect the fact that students and their teachers will share eternity together (p. 181).

The Confessing Church’s program for training future pastors was only six months long. It included theological analysis, spiritual formation, and the practice of ministry while residing together in close quarters. Bonhoeffer himself lectured on ecclesiology, biblical studies, catechesis, preaching, and pastoral care (p. 49). The program was designed for students who had completed the university requirements for ordination and were already able to engage the Bible rigorously in its original languages. The program was designed to build upon previous academic training while also correcting the errors and deficiencies of that curriculum which assumed higher critical scholarship. Bonhoeffer wrote in 1934 that he “no longer believe[d] in the university” since that mode of training future ministers neglected “pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship . . . taken seriously” (p. 41).

Bonhoeffer believed what qualified men to be pastors was the daily habit of Bible reading, meditation, and holy living (p. 44–45). They should have absorbed the Bible deeply and broadly, knowing it as well as the Reformers did (p. 120), practicing both biblical exegesis and biblical devotion (p. 116). They should have a “thorough acquaintance” with the confessional writings of the Reformed and Lutheran churches (p. 44–45). They should know that their calling demands their all (i.e. their “commitment” or costly discipleship). Each of them should have spent time as an apprentice with a fellow pastor and mentor who provided the apprentice opportunities to preach, prayed with him, and guided his work so that he grew in pastoral skill (p. 45).

Bonhoeffer also believed compassion for God’s people is prerequisite for the ministry. A pastor must be someone who follows Christ and serves others in Christian community (pp. 74–75). Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “The community of faith does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and of one another. It does not lack the former, but the latter” (p. 133). House is similarly concerned that seminaries produce committed “Bible-formed” shepherds rather “visionary leaders” who act more like chief executive officers or community activists (pp. 112 and 139): “It is hard to find biblical passages that call for ‘leadership’ in anything approximating what that term implies in American life” (p. 139).

There were four general acts of serving others required of students in the Confessing seminaries (pp. 129–34): listening to others, humble tasks of “active helpfulness,” bearing with one another’s quirks and failures “as a reflection of the cross,” and speaking God’s Word to others. In addition, students were to confess their sins to one another, especially before monthly services of the Lord’s Supper (pp. 134–36). Daily (Monday-Saturday) one-hour-long chapel services were designed to build the esprit de corps. They consisted of corporate prayer usually led by Bonhoeffer, the public reading of extended passages of the Bible, and the singing and praying of psalms, with a sermon on Saturday. The seminary experience should produce men able to reform a congregation around all of these relational and liturgical practices (p. 122).

House is wary of models of seminary education that maximize scale at the expense of the incarnational principle and a “life on life” mode of education, or what he also calls “embodied pastoral formation.” He maintains that seminary programs and practices should be formed from theological convictions about the church and ministry rather than the need to generate more revenue (pp. 92–94) or the desire to expand an institution’s influence (p. 137). He calls the practice of enrolling and graduating more students than will ever make it to full time ministry, creating a stockpiled surplus of degree holders and maintaining cash flow for the seminary, a practice “very American” though not theologically informed (pp. 92, 139).

House is most critical of “disembodied” online programs. He responds to the argument that the epistles are biblical precedent for distance education by noting that most of these letters were occasional and supplemental to ministries in person, most were addressed to congregations, and the writers usually knew the recipients well (pp. 185–86). He also observes that biblical writers, like many isolated Christians still today, longed for face-to-face fellowship with other believers (p. 106). After all, God sent prophets and witnesses, not a recorded message; Christ has a relational body on earth, not a mere voice in a machine (p. 99).

The experience of the Confessing Church and its seminaries is becoming more relevant for Christians in the United States (we might consider House’s treatise a proposal for “the Bonhoeffer Option”). Bonhoeffer knew that in Nazi-led Germany seminaries must prepare students to be able to preach and model “costly grace” (p. 62). In addition, seminaries must train future pastors to posture themselves toward unbelievers as agents of grace who are in fellowship with the Christ who can save the latter rather than perceive the unbelieving stranger as merely a threatening enemy (p. 71).

House makes a case for why seminaries should apply to themselves biblical principles for and about “the body of Christ” though he “state[s] unequivocally” that seminaries are not a church (p. 186). Readers will not find in Seminary Vision an argument for why local congregations might be the ideal primary agents for training future elders. House does note, though, the existence of “church-based internship programs” and their similarity with Bonhoeffer’s model. My church-based institution (Bethlehem College & Seminary) only accepts full time M.Div. students who are committed to being a community with their cohort mates, who are “willing to get out of their pajamas to go to class” (p. 91), and who think theology and pastoral work are “life-and-death matters” (p. 46). Professors aim to be “committed teachers” and mentors who pursue time with student-apprentices in the home, in ministry situations, and in recreation (pp. 51–52; 95–97). House suggests that more of these local, practical, personal, theologically driven, and mentor-oriented programs will emerge and flourish in the next generation, especially if seminaries continue to become more “impersonal” and online education fails like he thinks it will (pp. 193–94).

One might object to House’s proposal for the normativity of incarnational seminaries by asserting that a student can experience healthy fellowship in a Christian milieu other than his or her seminary. But House, like Bonhoeffer before him, is concerned about the obligations of those who would train pastors and the best practices for cultivating the kind of pastors the Bible envisions. Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision is a fine and stimulating contribution to the growing body of literature about Bonhoeffer and to the contemporary effort by Evangelicals to glean lessons and encouragement from his thinking and experience. Seminary professors, administrators, and other stakeholders who want to be guided by theological principles will be well served by House’s labor of love. It is a sober yet refreshing read.

Travis L. Myers

Travis L. Myers
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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