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

Worldly, rather than Religious, Preaching

The third aspect of Bonhoeffer’s preaching deserving our attention is his insistence that true Christian preaching is not so much religious as it is worldly. If we take “worldly” to mean contemporary, of course, this may seem at first quite inconsistent with his counsel that preachers should not to seek to be relevant. But when Bonhoeffer spoke of worldly, he had an entirely different conception in mind, one that has its roots in his conviction that God meets humans always and precisely in their own space and time.1  In fact, it was “religion” that Bonhoeffer mistrusted, believing that religion was humanity’s attempt to use God to fit our own ends.

The issue at the heart of the distinction between pious religion and worldly faith is not dissimilar to that between biblical application and interpretation. In each of the former, the believer or preacher makes use of God or God’s word in order to secure a measure of certainty or independence, while in each of the latter the believer or preacher remains dependent on God’s grace and mercy alone. It is this dependence that Bonhoeffer believes Christians must cultivate, dependence like the children of Israel on the manna from heaven. Preaching, then, becomes important because, like manna, it establishes the church anew in each hearing.2

Worldly preaching, then, stands against any attempt to ground Christian faith in anything but dependence on God’s word and grace, and urges Christians to expect God’s promise and summons to come to them precisely amid their day-today circumstances. These convictions have at least three implications for biblical preaching. First, and as anticipated above, the preacher should focus not on prearranged agendas, even when these are developed to meet the perceived need of the congregation, but rather should seek to set the Bible loose in the assembly so that it may surprise, confront, and comfort them. The word, according to Bonhoeffer, is self-propelled, working according to its own self-momentum. As he writes, the word

proceeds from itself toward the congregation in order to sustain it. The preacher does not therefore accomplish the application of the word; he is not the one who shapes it and forms it to suit the congregation….The self-movement of the word to the congregation should not be hindered by the preacher, but rather he should acknowledge it. He should not allow his own efforts to get in its way. If we attempt to give impetus to the word, then it becomes distorted into words of instruction or education or experience.3

For this reason, Bonhoeffer conceives of exegesis primarily as attentive listening, discerning in what way Jesus is calling us to be his disciples gathered as the church here and now, responding to the need of the world not simply on the world’s terms but in light of the biblical witness.
Second, sermons should be concrete, that is, not focused on abstract doctrine or ethics, but rather delving into the concrete actions and events described in Scripture so that they may speak to the concrete realities of our present life. As Bonhoeffer contends, “It is possible for the church to preach pure doctrine that is nonetheless untrue.”4  We should again note, however, that to be concrete is not the same as pandering to the perceived needs or issues of the congregation or larger culture in the vain attempt to gain a hearing by being relevant. Rather, Bonhoeffer insists that only by being faithful to its unique and concrete identity will the church find an audience. Such a commitment, as he contends,

implies discipleship and not proximity to what people expect, or unity with their culture. It is not the church which suits the people, but the church which is obedient, that is heard. This form of existence does not simply mean that we do the same things that others do, except that we do them a little better, but that we do things differently.5

Only by creating for hearers an encounter, even confrontation, with the concrete witness of Scripture to God’s action in Christ can a preacher hope to speak into the actual world that his or her hearers inhabit.

Third, a preference for worldly faith rather than pious religiosity demands preachers to pay careful attention to the language they employ. In particular, Bonhoeffer warns against fleeing too easily to the language of the church–which he sometimes refers to as the language of Zion–be that the language of piety, doctrine, or liturgy. Rather, preachers should strive to speak naturally, in the vernacular of their people, so that the biblical witness might more easily address contemporary hearers. In this regard, Bonhoeffer took Luther’s translation of the Bible into German as a model and urged preachers similarly to render their biblical interpretations as simply and clearly as possible.6  The preacher, in short, should strive for language that makes the biblical witness imaginable, compelling, and inviting, so that the hearer is drawn into the witness to take his or her stand. As he himself urges in a 1932 sermon: ” [A] proper sermon should be like holding out to a child a shining red apple or to a thirsty man a glass of fresh water and asking: Wouldn’t you like it? In this way we should be able to speak about the things of faith so that hands were stretching out faster than we could fill them.”7

As we have seen, Bonhoeffer’s concern for a “worldly,” even nonreligious faith was occasioned in part by his conviction that religion regularly served to distort the true import of the gospel. That is, while, in the humiliation of Christ, God clearly determines to meet us in our finitude and vulnerability, religion urges us to find the means ourselves by which to reconnect with the divine (hence, the linguistic connection between legio–“attachment,” as in “ligament,” and re-ligio, as in “religion”).8  But it was also occasioned by his conviction that the world had “outgrown” and even become suspicious of typical religious explanations of the events of the world that the church had been accustomed to offering without question.9  In a “world come of age,” as Bonhoeffer termed his society, Christian theologians and preachers need once again to avoid simply trying to apply religious principles and instead ask what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in this day and age. In fact, Bonhoeffer contends that such a world–aware as never before of its stark “aloneness”–will be more open to and appreciative of the kind of genuine, concrete, and worldly preaching he advocates.10

Continue to Part 4 of “Bonhoeffer on Biblical Preaching”.

1WP, 30-31.
2See FL, 99-100. See also his sermon that stands in the background of this essay, in Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom, 295-296.
3FL, 102.
4FL, 113.
6FL, 143-144.
7WP, 88.
8Bonhoeffer’s chief complaint about the preaching he heard during his visit to the United States, interestingly, was precisely that it was a “self-satisfied celebration of religion” in consonance with the self-help impulse that seemed to animate the culture (WP, 17).
9See WP, 24-26 and 67-73. Interestingly, Bonhoeffer does not agree with Bultmann’s desire to strip the biblical witness of its mythic elements, believing that this is a classically liberal attempt to reconfigure the biblical narrative precisely in order that it may be applied once again rather than truly interpreted. The mythic elements, according to Bonhoeffer, are part of the scandal of the biblical witness and do not need to be explained away but rather interpreted and accompanied so that they may speak into the present {WP, 32-33).
10WP, 69-71.

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.