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

In the spring of 1938, a young pastor and theologian by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached to a group of youth about to be confirmed and their sponsors and congregation in Pomerania.

Based on a single verse from the Gospel according to Mark–“I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24)–the sermon is striking not only for the seriousness with which it takes both its audience and the biblical witness, but also for the way in which it expresses this regard. That is, while the sermon treats only one verse and is not overtly exegetical in any traditional sense, it is nevertheless thoroughly biblical, as it takes this single verse as a microcosm of the biblical witness’s testimony to our human condition of dependence on God’s word and mercy. Similarly, while the sermon never once attempts to sketch the contemporary scene directly, it still pulses with the urgency of the time and is permeated, if largely in the background, with the historical events surrounding it.1  It is this capacity to invite the biblical witness into the present circumstances that marks Bonhoeffer’s preaching, suggesting him as a useful resource and model for those interested in renewing “biblical preaching” in the church.

That there is need for such renewal few would argue. Recognizing that many of those who listen to preaching know very little of the biblical story, preachers from a variety of traditions have voiced in recent years a desire to reclaim preaching that has the biblical text as its central, animating impulse, as opposed to the pastoral, psychological, story-based, and motivational preaching that has swept through much of the mainline church in recent decades. Thus far, and not surprisingly, homileticians committed to the cause of renewing biblical preaching have turned toward developments in biblical studies like the emerging interpretive methods of literary, canonical, and listener-response criticism, and this quest has led to many fruitful developments in preaching. Amid this movement, however, I want to suggest that biblical preachers will also find an ally in the person and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

On one level, it may seem surprising that in light of the recent Bonhoeffer revival, occurring in fields as wide-ranging as ethics and youth ministry, little has been written about Bonhoeffer’s preaching. The major book on the subject, Worldly Preaching, offers a translation of Bonhoeffer’s lectures on preaching to the seminary of the Confessing Church in Finkenwalde and a lengthy introduction to both Bonhoeffer as a preacher and his theology of preaching, but says relatively little about his potential impact on contemporary preaching.2   At another level, though, perhaps it is less surprising, as Bonhoeffer’s preaching rarely treats the biblical passage in a way those who have been influenced by recent trends in biblical studies would at first blush find attractive. He often treats a single verse or brief passage, at times exploring its historical or literary context only briefly, and occasionally seems to sacrifice biblical interpretation to theological aim.

Yet I would suggest that the time is ripe to consider three aspects of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of preaching: (1) his insistence that all Christian preaching is, inherently, biblical preaching; (2) his sense of what I would call the immediacy and integrity–or “present-tense” character–of the biblical word; and (3) his concern to promote preaching that is “worldly” rather than “religious.” After outlining these themes briefly by working primarily with his Finkenwalde lectures on preaching, I will return to the sermon he preached in 1938 to reflect on his possible value to contemporary biblical preachers.

Inherently Biblical Preaching

As noted, Bonhoeffer’s sermons were only occasionally overtly exegetical and rarely took expository form, two attributes often associated with biblical preaching today. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s own testimony about preaching should itself warrant us giving him another hearing. Consider this pronouncement, made during his lectures at Finkenwalde, the seminary of the Confessing Church: Christian preaching is “commissioned by and bound by the biblical witness. It does not spring from our own private interests or initiative. Its content is the biblical witness alone.”3  Similarly, Bonhoeffer asserts, “It is not a good sign when someone says that the sermon was beautiful or moving. It is a good sign when the congregants begin to open up their Bibles and to follow the text.”4  Preaching, for Bonhoeffer, is inherently biblical. In fact, when it strays for its content from the biblical witness it strays from its evangelical mandate and validation. Hence, Bonhoeffer asserts that the proper question for a Christian preacher is never “what” shall I preach on, but rather, “from what” biblical passage shall I preach.5

The roots of this insistence rest in Bonhoeffer’s conviction that Christian preachers are dependent, or secondary, witnesses, and both the noun and its modifier matter. First, like the apostles, preachers are called to witness to what they have seen and heard; they do not bear witness to themselves, but to Christ. At the same time, and unlike the apostles, contemporary preachers “do not testify to what we have seen and touched, but to what we have not seen and touched. We declare the biblical testimony as faithful witness.”6  Hence, preachers are dependent witnesses, called to the same task as the apostles yet dependent on their prior and primary testimony to execute that task.

This, in turn, leads to two related elements of Bonhoeffer’s theology of biblical preaching: the relationship of the gospel to Scripture and the relationship of Scripture to preaching. First, for Bonhoeffer, Christ stands at the center of the Scriptures and the gospel of Jesus Christ therefore offers Christian preachers the hermeneutical lens by which to make sense of the whole biblical witness. Because Jesus is not simply “found” in the word, but actually “is” the Word, his life, death, and resurrection serve as the focal point and interpretive key of all Scripture.7  This leads to a very high sense of Scripture’s standing and authority: “The Bible is the book in which God’s word is stored until the end of all things.”8  It simultaneously leads to a clearly christocentric hermeneutic–the biblical, apostolic witness “is therefore a witness only because it has the testimony of God and of Jesus as its subject” for, as Bonhoeffer asserts, “only where Christ is preached is God present.”9  From this vantage, then, we can appreciate Bonhoeffer’s conviction that “the church preaches only one sermon in all of its messages,”10  as the God revealed in Jesus Christ is consistently and simultaneously the subject of both Scripture and the evangelical sermon.

Second, it is important to note that, for Bonhoeffer, while Scripture is central to Christian faith and life because of its witness to Christ, Scripture nevertheless finds its primary expression not as it is read but as it is preached in the gathered assembly. Why? Because through the actual, concrete act of preaching we gain access, not to historical facts, data, or stories about Christ, but rather to the living Lord who meets hearers in the present. According to Bonhoeffer, as Clyde Fant describes, “Revelation must not be located in a unique occurrence in the past in some objective entity which has no connection with our present existence.”11  Rather, as Bonhoeffer himself asserts, “The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One.” In fact, the proclaimed Christ provides our only “access to the historical Jesus.”12  Like Luther, Bonhoeffer describes both Scripture and sermon as “word of God,” but gives preeminence to preaching, as “Scripture is intended to be interpreted through proclamation that it might go forth into the life of the congregation.”13  For this reason, the primary task of the preacher is to interpret Scripture in order that the witness of past events and deeds may speak into the present and thereby usher hearers into an encounter with the living Lord.

Continue to Part 2 of “Bonhoeffer on Biblical Preaching”.

1The sermon, entitled “Faith and Daily Bread,” can be found in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Neslon, re. ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollings, 1995) 294-297.
2Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Worldly Preaching: Lectures on Homiletics, ed. and trans, with critical commentary by Clyde E. Fant, rev. ed. (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1991). To distinguish between Bonhoeffer’s lectures and Fant’s introduction, I will cite references to Bonhoeffer’s lectures as FL (for Finkenwalde Lectures) and to Fant’s introduction as WP (for Worldly Preaching).
3FL, 106.
4FL, 129.
5FL, 128.
6FL, 106.
7See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology, intro. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. John Bowden (London: Collins, 1966) 52ff. 
8FL, 116-117.
9FL, 105-106.
10FL, 139.
12FL, 126.
13FL, 143.

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.