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

Present-Tense Preaching

Bonhoeffer’s interest in the capacity of biblical preaching to encounter hearers in their present existence helps to explain what often strikes contemporary preachers as one of the more curious aspects of his understanding of preaching. For at numerous points in his writing, Bonhoeffer evidences an almost allergic reaction to what he termed “relevant” sermons. Very much like his elder contemporary Karl Barth in this respect, Bonhoeffer distrusted the strivings of many preachers to be relevant, contemporary, even contextual. As he insists, “The source of the preached word is not the pious Christian experience or consciousness of the preachers, nor the need of the hour of the congregation, nor the desire to improve and influence others.”1 

Given this sentiment, one may naturally wonder if Bonhoeffer was arguing for irrelevant, a-contextual preaching. Given the degree to which his own sermons were clearly shaped by and addressed to the events of his day, that is hard to imagine. Rather, it appears that Bonhoeffer’s distrust of the quest for relevancy rested in his concern that when preachers approach the Bible seeking relevant or contemporary answers to contemporary questions they unwittingly transform the Scriptures from a present-tense, living word into a static, past-tense reference book. What Bonhoeffer objected to, finally, was by no means the desire of the preacher to speak to the present realities of hearers but rather to the desire to apply so-called biblical concepts or principles to contemporary situations rather than interpret Scripture so that it might speak into the present.

This difference between application and interpretation is central to Bonhoeffer’s theology of preaching. Application, for Bonhoeffer, consists of seeking to find some past principle or religious truth and apply it to today’s questions and circumstances. For instance, if you have a question about how to handle the stresses of contemporary life or are wondering what candidate to vote for in a given election, then you should turn to this or that passage of Scripture and find a religious principle or timeless truth that fits your situation. Interpretation, on the other hand, is the attempt to speak Scripture into the present on its own terms so as to see what questions and answers, problems and responses Scripture itself elicits. In the interpretative act, neither the answers nor the questions are presupposed; rather, the task is to see what happens when we stand amid our own circumstances and attempt to listen as attentively as possible to the living and active word.

Bonhoeffer’s counsel invites a reversal of the common expectation about the flow of biblical preaching. That is, rather than begin with contemporary issues and probe Scripture to see if it has anything relevant to offer, the preacher begins with Scripture to see what insight it might shed on the nature of our contemporary issues. As he writes, “The relevant is not where the present age announces its claims before Christ, but where the present age stands before the claims of Christ.”2  Or, to put it another way, were we to ask Bonhoeffer whether he thought the Bible is pertinent, he would not only insist that it is, but then also warn us that it is also reliably impertinent as well, calling into question even our own questions and issues and demanding that we rethink all in light of the gospel of Christ.

At the heart of this difference between application and interpretation, Bonhoeffer insists, stands a fundamental question about the relationship between preacher and Bible: Is the preacher the primary actor in the sermonic enterprise or is Scripture? When we attempt to apply Scripture to present circumstances, Bonhoeffer fears, we place ourselves over Scripture: “Every application on our part indicates that we stand above the Word rather than beneath it; that we regard it as a principle which has to be applied to each individual case.”3  In contrast, the preacher who attempts to interpret Scripture attempts to stand in the background, not advancing a particular agenda but rather merely assisting with the release, or even birth, of the word into the present that it may affect and shape the congregation. As Bonhoeffer writes, “The Scripture is intended to be interpreted through proclamation in order that it might go forth into the life of the congregation. The preacher is only its servant and helper. He does not bring it into the pulpit for his own use; he allows himself to be used by it for the congregation.”4

Bonhoeffer’s conviction that the sermon is a present-tense, immediate word (rather than merely a relevant one) stems from his earlier conviction about Scripture itself as a present-tense, immediate word, through which Christ encounters people through the proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, as Bonhoeffer intuits, one’s sense of the nature of the sermon is intimately related to one’s sense of the nature of the gospel. Posing a rhetorical question about the aim or end of preaching, Bonhoeffer offers several possible answers:

For what purpose do I preach? The preacher should have something he wants to accomplish through his sermon. But it may be that the preacher for that very reason may spoil the essential thing if he sets out to ask, into what frame of mind do I intend to bring the people? What do I want? As with Schleiermacher, to declare the pious consciousness of the congregation? To build up the congregation, to inspire them, to teach them? To convert the people?

Dissatisfied with these possibilities, Bonhoeffers offers the following insight:

Everything hinges on the question of what the gospel is. Is it inspiration, education, conversation? Certainly it includes all of these things, but all under the one goal that the congregation of Christ might become the church. I preach, because the church is there–and I preach, that the church might be there. This means that I do not set a personal goal for myself to pursue, a goal of either inspiration or edification.

In fact, as Bonhoeffer continues,

I must refuse to indulge in tricks and techniques, both the emotional ones and the rhetorical ones. I must not become pedantic and schoolmasterish, nor begging, entreating, urging. I do not try to make the sermon into a work of art. I do not become unctuous and self-centered or loud and boastful. By forsaking my personal ambitions I accompany the text along its own way into the congregation and thus remain natural, balanced, compassionate, and factual.5  This permits the Word’s almost magnetic relationship to its congregation. I do not give life to it, but it gives life to me and to the congregation. The movement of the Word to its congregation is accomplished through the interpretation of it.6

Biblical preaching, according to Bonhoeffer, is precisely present-tense interpretation that rests on confidence that the Scripture is a living, active word, not merely a static reference book of religious principles that are to be applied to contemporary life. And when this happens–when Scripture is set loose and goes forth to create an encounter between contemporary hearers and the living Christ–a congregation of persons is transformed into the church of Jesus Christ.

Continue to Part 3 of “Bonhoeffer on Biblical Preaching”.

1FL, 111; emphasis added.
2Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Interpretation of the New Testament,” in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, ed. with introduction by Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) 311.
3FL, 114.
4FL, 116.
5Editor’s note: In the translation of FL, Bonhoeffer’s “sachlich” is regularly rendered as “factual,” though a better translation throughout would be “objective” or “material” (to the matter at hand).
6FL, 111-112.

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.