“I believe: help my unbelief” : Bonhoeffer on Biblical Preaching Part Four

“Faith and Daily Bread”

In light of these brief reflections on several elements of Bonhoeffer’s theology of proclamation, it seems useful to draw on his sermon to give concrete examples of how these theological and homiletical concerns played out in his actual preaching. While no one sermon should be expected to embody any theologian’s complete theology of preaching, nevertheless, there are several characteristics of this sermon that are useful to note.

First, while drawing only upon a single verse–Mark 9:24, “I believe; help myunbelief”–yet Bonhoeffer’s sermon explores a major theme of the entirety of Scripture, our daily dependence on God for faith, as encapsulated in this one verse. It is, in this regard, a thoroughly biblical sermon, drawing upon various elements of the biblical narrative in order to flesh out this single verse as a microcosm of the whole.1

Second, while Bonhoeffer does not attempt to preach a relevant sermon in the sense of self-consciously highlighting aspects of his audience’s day-to-day world and consequent concerns, the sermon, nevertheless, brims over with the significance of the current events. That is, Bonhoeffer’s sermon strikes the hearer as incredibly relevant precisely because he does not aim it at some contemporary issue but rather because he listens to Scripture from within his world, eager to hear what Scripture may say about his world and what it means to be a disciple in this world. Hence, today’s reader–and, we presume, the original audience–could not help but see the implications of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation in light of the given circumstances. Consider, for instance, the following quotation where the context seems compellingly implicit and yet is never explicitly mentioned in order to make room for the self-propelling word:

Belief means decision. But your very own decision. No one can relieve you of it. It must arise out of solitude, out of your heart’s aloneness with God; it will be born out of fierce struggles against the enemy in your own breast. You are still surrounded by a community, by families which support you, by parents who take care of you, by people who help you whenever they can; thank God for that! But more and more, God will lead you into solitude. God wants to prepare you for the great hours and decisions of your lives, in which no other person will be able to stand by you, in which only one thing will count: I believe, yes, I myself, I cannot do otherwise; dear God, help my unbelief.2

Third, Bonhoeffer does not offer his young hearers the comforts of a religion that divorces the physical and spiritual but rather drives them into the world, promising, “your faith will be tried by sorrow,” all in order to urge them to depend upon God. There is no escape from worldly faith, Bonhoeffer preaches, because it is in the world and its struggles that God determines to be found. Hence, the Christian cannot escape the challenges and trials of the day–and keep in mind the place and date of the preaching–but rather will be driven by them to dependence on God so that he or she may engage the powers that be with the courage of faith, saying again and again (and as Bonhoeffer does seven times during this brief sermon), “I believe, dear Lord; help my unbelief!”

While Bonhoeffer’s sermon on Mark 9 may lack the exegetical specificity to which we have lately become accustomed, he nevertheless offers an interesting, even alternative vision of biblical preaching, as through his direct, clear, even urgent probing of the text he offers the listening youth a clear sense of the significance and import of the faith they are about to claim as adults during this confirmation service. He does so by parsing a single verse and theme so as to open up the whole of the biblical witness in order to make room for his hearers to place their decisions, their questions, indeed, their very lives in the biblical story that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. Or, to use language more conducive to Bonhoeffer’s own theology of proclamation, he accompanies the word into the congregation that it may encounter his young hearers with the invitation and summons of the living Lord to become his disciples in their own time and place, linked to those who have come before by a common dependence on God’s grace and serving as a witness for those yet to come. Given this, I’d argue that if you’re looking for a model of how to renew the biblical preaching of the church, you could certainly do worse.

1This is not the only form a typical Bonhoeffer sermon takes. Indeed, Bonhoeffer resisted holding up a single biblical form, insisting rather that the concrete form of the sermon should arise from the preacher’s engagement with a concrete text (FL, 129).
2Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom, 295.

This article can be found in its entirety in the Winter 2006 issue of Word and World, available from Luther Seminary and at Word & World/ .
Copyright © 2006, Word & World 26/1 (2006) 86-97. Used with permission.