How to Read the Bible: Bonhoeffer’s Practice of Reading Scripture
When we speak of hermeneutics— the art and science of interpreting the Bible —we tend to move quickly to methods and steps to getting biblical interpretation right. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was interested in such things. He spent a great deal of time learning how to exegete the text, and he made sure his students learned such skills as well. But he was also deeply concerned about our approach to Scripture, our “posture” before Scripture. For Bonhoeffer, how we read the Bible is far more about our approach to the Bible than about following a method to get the right interpretation. His approach to reading the Bible may be summed up in these five ways:
- We read the Bible directly—it is God’s Word to us.
- We read the Bible prayerfully and meditatively.
- We read the Bible collectively.
- We read the Bible submissively.
- We read the Bible obediently.
Let’s look at each of these.
We Read the Bible Directly
We start with the Bible as God’s Word to us directly. In a passage from Life Together, we see what this means:
We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness.
We are not mere spectators of biblical history. Rather, “we are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth.” And it is only in Scripture that we come to know our own history.
We can all too easily approach Scripture the way a scientist approaches a specimen on the dissecting table, impassionate and disconnected from the object. Bonhoeffer reminds us that God’s Word is no such object and that we are not scientists. We belong to God and he has given us, addressed directly to us, his Word. As Inge (Karding) Sembritzki, one of Bonhoeffer’s students at Berlin, remembers, “[Bonhoeffer] taught us that we had to read the Bible as it was directed at us, as the Word of God directly to us.” She adds, “He repeated this to us very early on, that the whole thing comes from that.” By the “whole thing” she was talking about the Christian life, life in the church, and theology—everything springs from reading the Bible as
God’s Word directly to us.
We Read the Bible Prayerfully and Meditatively
Of life at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer writes, “We have learnt here once again to read the Bible prayerfully.” He goes on to describe the details, starting with the morning and evening devotions “in which we hear the word of the Bible continuously”:
After we have read a Psalm together, each of the brethren in turn reads one passage from the Old Testament and one from the New, interspersed with verses from hymns and leading up to a free prayer and the Our Father said together. In the daily period for meditation we consider a fairly short biblical text appointed for the whole week.
These practices described are over and above the course instruction at the seminary.
Bonhoeffer instituted both a daily public reading of large portions of Scripture and a daily time of private meditation. In those public readings, the seminary community worked through the Bible, always including a chapter from the Psalms. This practice of lectio continua, Bonhoeffer explains in Life Together, is necessary because the Bible is a corpus, a whole. But when it came to the meditation times of the day, Bonhoeffer preferred a different approach. Here he selected a short text for the whole week. Putting these two practices together, students were getting the view of both the forest and the trees.
The stress was on meditation on these short texts. Students weren’t to use the time for sermon writing or for working the passage into their course papers. They were to allow the text to take deep root in their lives. They returned to the same text each day for a week, turning the text over and over and over again. Many of the students bucked this practice of forced meditation, especially those who transferred from other seminaries and universities. It was foreign to them and they reacted against it. But soon they were won over.
Bonhoeffer modeled such reading himself. He loved books and counted them among his most precious possessions. But the book he regarded the highest was his brother Walter’s Bible. Walter Bonhoeffer was wounded in France, fighting along the front during the First World War. He died five days later in a field hospital on April 28, 1918. At Bonhoeffer’s confirmation in 1921, his mother, Paula, gave him the Bible that had belonged to Walter. Dietrich kept that Bible for the rest of his life and used it for his daily time of prayerful and meditative reading.
We Read the Bible Collectively
That Bonhoeffer advocated the reading of the Bible collectively is obvious enough by now. But this means far more than reading it aloud together or in community. Bonhoeffer lists seven ministries, among them the ministry of proclaiming. You might recall that Bonhoeffer claimed the ministry of the Word to be “the ultimate and highest service [that] can . . . be rendered.” When he tells us to read the Bible collectively, he’s actually telling us that we proclaim the Bible to each other, and that’s the best thing we can do for each other. We speak the word to each other, from one life to another life.
This speaking, Bonhoeffer observes, “is beset with infinite perils.” People can use the Word like a weapon, cutting others down. People can use the Word to gain power over others. People manipulate the Word in the sole service of manipulating others. But those are only the bad intentions. Even with good intentions we can walk into the high grass. Nevertheless, we have a duty to speak the Word to each other. Our temptation is to speak from our preference and our own sense of things when we challenge each other. Or maybe we never get beyond playful talk with one another. But we have to “declare God’s Word and will to one another.”
We do this knowing that we are sinners, too, “lonely and lost” without help. So Bonhoeffer encourages us: “We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We admonish each other to go the way Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction.” Reading the Bible collectively means we are bound together by, through, and in the Word of God.
We Read the Bible Submissively
We may not like what we read in the Bible. We may not always be able to make sense of what we read. We may not think that what we are reading is even sensible at all. But Scripture does not rest with us; it rests with God who gave it. Bonhoeffer put it boldly: “The Word of God rules.” Our role is to serve, to submit. The Word’s role is to rule. Returning to the Bethel Confession, we find these words: “We are not the judges of God’s Word in the Bible; instead, the Bible is given to us so that through it we may submit ourselves to Christ’s judgment.”
Theological liberalism errs fundamentally when it submits the Word of God to its own preferences and dictates. The rationalism of modernity sets up the human mind as the ultimate authority in epistemology (matters of knowledge and truth). If something accords with our notion of reason, then it counts for truth. In Ethics, Bonhoeffer will call this the “cult of the ratio.” This basic principle forms the bedrock conviction of higher criticism. Miracles do not accord with reason. They are not rational explanations. Therefore they are irrational.
Consequently, we should rethink whether or not they are genuine historical events, and whether they are authentically recorded in Scripture. Maybe they are the figment of overexcited imaginations. And so on it goes. The issue here is one of posture. The Word of God is either over us or under us. Either we submit to it or we force it to submit to us.
What theological conservatives need to guard against, though, is thinking that because we affirm the Bible to be God’s inerrant and authoritative word, we have therefore submitted to the Bible. We can be conservatively confessional and functionally liberal. In other words, submitting to the Bible is far more than affirming an orthodox statement of Scripture. Affirming such a statement is crucial and essential. We should never minimize that. But affirming a high view of Scripture is only the first step of submission. We fully submit to God’s Word when we accept its authority over our lives as we read it.
Submitting to Scripture is a sort of halfway house between reading the Bible and obeying it. If we want to see God’s Word at work in our lives, submission is the posture we must adopt.
We Read the Bible Obediently
Finally, we read the Bible obediently. In one of his London sermons, Bonhoeffer references how we like to add “ornamentation” to things. We plant flower beds. We hang pictures on walls. Artists embellish landscapes; they don’t merely copy what they see. We look at the beauty present in the natural world, and we feel the urge to add to it, to decorate it. Bonhoeffer explains, though, that “the Word of God needs no ornamentation,” for “it is clothed in its own beauty, its own glory.” But then he backpedals, noting there is one thing that those who love God’s Word can bring forth to decorate and adorn it: “Those who have loved this Word of God throughout two thousand years have not let themselves be prevented from bringing the finest they had with which to adorn it. And what could be the finest if not that which is unseen, namely, an obedient heart?”
In one of the London sermons, Bonhoeffer quips that we have made “the church into a playground for all sorts of feelings of ours, instead of a place where God’s word is obediently received and believed. . . . We keep thinking we have God in our power instead of allowing God to have power over us.” He continues, God is “demanding that we hand ourselves over, in life and death, in heart and soul and body.” This kind of obedience comes rarely. Maybe that is why we neglect to read God’s Word. We know all too well that it requires things of us. The Bible puts obligations smack down upon our comfortable and self-sure lives.
As Bonhoeffer was preaching this—and thinking about unmitigated obedience to the Word as a necessary corollary to belief in the Bible as the true, divine revelation—he was reading the Sermon on the Mount (meditating actually) and beginning the early stages of writing The Cost of Discipleship. He waded into those waters carefully because he knew he really hadn’t read the Bible—any text in the Bible—until he submitted in obedience to it.
Martin Luther once said, “We can spare everything except the Word.” In the context, he was speaking of the church. But the same is true of our Christian life. In the Word we find the gospel. In the Word we find comfort. In the Word we find challenge. In the Word we find the Word, the incarnate Logos. We find Christ and his call upon our lives.