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Thinking Out Loud

Bonhoeffer and the Mission of a Seminary

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 26, 2014

The kind of education needed to lead congregations wisely and well has been debated for centuries. One can discern the battle lines being drawn in the early church. But in the modern era this battle has often broken out in the apparently placid halls of academe.

What do those preparing for ministry need to know and when should they know it? And where should it be taught and by whom?

In Europe, during the past couple of centuries, there was a sharp division between theological education as it was understood and taught in universities and the practical instruction for ministry provided by seminaries. The most recently published volume of the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937 (Fortress 2013) reveals Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attitude to this division.

The editor comments: “Like many other university students of the time, Bonhoeffer viewed the requirement of attending one of the church’s seminaries which were designed to provide practical instruction preparing students for the second examination necessary for ordination, as a waste of time. Students such as Bonhoeffer, who had been engaged in the rigorous academic work demanded by the universities, did not think that much was to be gained from this requirement. However, by the mid-1930s his attitude had changed dramatically; the changed circumstances in which the church found itself made the underground seminaries of the Confessing Church a necessity.” Virtually overnight, we learn, the seminaries went from being, as Eberhard Bethge said, “the step-child” to “the darling” of the church (2). In fact, one need only peruse the companion volumes 14 and 15 (the second of which was previously published in 2012 as Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940) in Bonhoeffer’s works to understand why both Bonhoeffer’s and the church’s attitude changed toward theological education.

The crisis faced by the church in Bonhoeffer’s time was, of course, the rise of Nazism and its totalitarian claims, its efforts to bring every aspect of human life under the singular rule of Hitler and the political, nationalistic, racial and social ideology he represented.  For an all too brief, shining moment there was a viable resistance movement within the church, but this soon splintered then calcified, as the world plunged into war. By attending to the efforts of Bonhoeffer and others during this interlude we can learn a great deal about the purpose of theological education.

Bonhoeffer, as leader of a seminary to provide ministers to the “Confessing Church,” adamantly refused to allow the study of scripture and theology to devolve into merely “objective” disciplines. His deep critical understanding of scripture and his astonishing knowledge of theology and the history of Christian doctrines are evident everywhere in his lectures. He is unsentimental in his views of community, staunchly anti-utopian and subtle in his analysis of social justice. He is courageous and courageously inconsistent, a man of integrity who navigated the realities of a dangerous political world deftly. All of thiscould have been said of him as a university professor. What one sees coming to the fore during these crucial years, however, is the confessional subjectivity of this remarkable teacher and his understanding of the vital roles of preaching, pastoral care, spiritual nurture, teaching, catechism and biblical study in the lives of the whole people of God.  He wants his students to inhabit a theological world, to allow spiritual realities to shape them into a particular kind of congregational leader.

Bonhoeffer points to the incompleteness of the study of theology that refuses to be mindful of confession of faith. He also notes the fragmentary nature of a study of scripture that will not recognize that this text which we critically examine is the earthen vessel through which God’s Word is communicated. Perhaps even more significantly, Bonhoeffer’s change of attitude reflects an elevation of the life of the laity—to seeing the whole people of God (in all the complexities and contradictions of their lives) as Christ’s Body in the world.

Each crisis bears its own gifts. The crisis faced by Bonhoeffer’s church and academy is very different from the crisis we face today. Our culture is racked by divisions of all sorts; some people seem to nurse a spirit of aggrievement in order to gain power over others who are different. Others just nurture the divisions themselves for personal and political gain. A galloping sense of entitlement and exceptionalism fans the flames of individualism, threatening even the most essential institutions. At the same time, the hide-bound entrenchment of institutions resists even the most necessary changes that would allow them to adapt, flourish and nourish human life for generations to come (the essential benefit of institutions in the first place).  I could, of course, go on and on, but analysts of our society and church have trodden this ground until it is a beaten path. Theological education that hopes to address the contemporary crisis must hold together the critical and the constructive. It must be courageously counter-cultural in insisting on the highest standards of knowledge and critical thinking. But it must be equally courageous and equally counter-cultural in insisting on the scandal of the gospel. I find that the three sentences beginning with “our culture is racked” could be more explicit and clearer overall. I find the assertions rather too abstract to know precisely which societal/cultural divisions and problems you are alluding to.

The biggest questions facing theological education today are not related to which “delivery platforms for educational content” you may wish to choose; the biggest questions concern the very purposes of graduate-level theological education in the first place. For what ends are our students learning? The roles they will play in leading congregations must determine what they need to know and how we can best teach them (and learn with them).

What I find most hopeful in Bonhoeffer’s story can be summarized simply. I find it hopeful that in the midst of crisis people are indeed able to change and to grow. Bonhoeffer certainly caught a new vision for theological education which led him to serve as leader of the seminary at Finkenwalde (1935-1937) and to find new ways to provide theological education underground after Finkenwalde was closed. The students who studied with Bonhoeffer were products, as was he (as are most of us who teach in seminaries today) of the university system which had previously had no time for the kind of seminary they founded together at Finkenwalde. I also find it encouraging that the seminary they founded was not a replication of the ones that preceded them. In a time that demanded uniformity of thought (under the totalizing power of Nazism) they formed a kind of Protestant monastic community whose allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ was a deliberate provocation and act of resistance. And, I find it deeply hopeful that they believed that history lies in God’s hands and that the Word of God speaks whether through us or despite us, but that what we do matters as an expression of God’s love for God’s whole world.

As Bonhoeffer said in a sermon on Isaiah 60: 1-6: “But be consoled, do not become depressed at the darkness over the earth; it will become light, light through you.” (598)


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  • Howard W. "Skip" Smith | Jan 28, 2014
    I was a student at Louisville from 1967-1970.  It was sort of the tail end of the Civil Rights movement and the beginning of the anti Vietnam War period.  I was introduced to Bonhoeffer at that time.  I was struck in your blog at how familiar it sounded to my experience in Seminary.  This was the atmosphere I remember from that time.  Dr. King was assassinated while I was working on the streets of New Albany with poor young black and white youth.  Students were being shot at Kent State.  Some of us discovered that clerical collars were targets to those wearing them in protest marches.  My class was among the first to experience "field education" which was a marvelous opportunity to bring theology and the real world together in a critical manner.
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