Michael Pasquarello: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the theology of a preaching life

Detail from book cover.

The role of preaching in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work is often overlooked by the academy, but it was at the very heart of his theology and ministry, says the homiletics professor and author of a new book on Bonhoeffer and preaching.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is studied and remembered as a theologian, philosopher, ethicist, martyr and saint, but rarely as a preacher. Yet preaching was at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s life and work, inseparable from his theology and ministry, says Michael Pasquarello.

The Lloyd John Ogilvie Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasquarello sums it up in the title of his new book: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life.”

Book cover“I wanted to show that for Bonhoeffer, preaching is something that is lived,” Pasquarello said. “It’s not a skill or a technique. It’s not something you pick up and put down.”

From the time Bonhoeffer entered the University of Berlin to study theology in 1925 until he was executed by the Nazis in 1945, he “preached in the manner he lived and spoke and led,” Pasquarello said.

“Even in his struggles and his failures and his many questions, there’s just a wonderful narrative, a story of someone who’s being formed over time to be a certain kind of person called preacher.”

Bonhoeffer was appalled by much of the preaching of his day, both in Germany and in the United States, and believed that it had nothing distinctively Christian to say, Pasquarello said.

“It was just a kind of religious talk that was not at all conducive to the life and mission of the church, and actually was undermining the life and mission of the church even when it succeeded,” he said.

Portrait of Michael PasquarelloPasquarello talked recently with Faith & Leadership about Bonhoeffer and preaching. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You note in the book that Bonhoeffer is mostly remembered as a theologian, philosopher, ethicist, political thinker, activist, pastor, martyr and saint -- but not as a preacher. Why is that?

We who study Bonhoeffer have been shaped by the form of theological education that predominates in North America. And in that context, theological education disciplines tend to be divided and often don’t have a whole lot to do with each other.

So if you’re a theologian or an ethicist or someone who works in political ethics or political theology or moral theology or biblical studies, there’s a lot of Bonhoeffer that could interest you. But if you don’t see how your particular discipline needs to be integrated with the church and its ministry, and especially preaching, it’s easy to overlook the many places in Bonhoeffer’s life and career where he was either engaged in preaching, thinking and writing about preaching, or teaching and mentoring preachers.

The filter or the lens through which we read Bonhoeffer is shaped by our own presuppositions about the relationship between the disciplines and preaching -- how it is often seen as something practical that doesn’t have much to do with the other so-called “more substantive” disciplines.

Q: You contend that preaching for Bonhoeffer was inseparable from his work as a theologian and pastor, that it was at the very heart of his entire career. Explain that.

Well, he was a Lutheran. And as a Lutheran, he was a dogmatic theologian, which means, in terms of doctrine, that the Trinity, Christology, the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the church as the body of Christ were inseparable.

To think of God and God’s self-revelation in Christ and the people who are called and form the body of Christ through the Word as it is proclaimed and as it is consumed in the Eucharist is to see Bonhoeffer’s work as a whole.

That’s the way I chose to read him -- as a Lutheran who very much desired being faithful to Luther in a fresh way for his time and was also deeply influenced by the theology of Karl Barth.

Q: You say it was hard to discern where his theology ends and his preaching begins.

Yes. That’s true. The language that he uses may change somewhat, but the content is the same. He’s doing the same thing but in different ways, because the time, place and circumstances require it.

A sermon that takes place in a liturgical setting will use language in a certain way, especially with a congregation in a small town somewhere in Germany, as opposed to giving a lecture in theology at the University of Berlin. But the subject of his discourse is always first and foremost the living God who’s known in Jesus Christ and who takes form in the world through the life of the church.

In the early 1930s, he makes a turn that coincides with the rise of Hitler, where that commitment becomes clear to him in ways that it never had been before, and it shapes everything he does for the rest of his life.

Bonhoeffer was deeply concerned about what he had seen over a period of years. Hitler didn’t rise up out of nowhere. His National Socialist Party gradually gained more and more popular support until finally, in the early 1930s, he was appointed chancellor, with the hope that he might be contained and the government might hold together.

That wasn’t what happened. And Bonhoeffer read the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in theological terms without neglecting the political implications and consequences of Hitler. He saw it as a very aggressive and intentional move to try to co-opt the church in service of the Nazi agenda, and a form of idolatry.

Some people read it as just a matter of political opinion. But he could not conceive of politics being removed from theology, particularly for Christian people. His commentary about the Nazis and what they were doing in Germany always arose from his theological commitments. That’s a constant that runs through his entire career until his death.

Q: What was his view of the role of preaching, particularly in the kind of circumstances you describe?

Bonhoeffer has this remarkable theology of preaching that began as very Lutheran, and it’s based in the incarnation, that the Word became flesh. The second person of the Trinity took on human form and entered into history.

He saw preaching as both analogous to that movement and an expression of it. He wrote early in his academic career about Christ taking existence in community. So Christ and the church, the Lord and his people, the head and the body, were inseparable.

He refused to separate them. For him, the church was not just a human organization or a human institution that promoted religious or moral things. It was the living manifestation of Christ in the world, and preaching both named that and participated in it.

Bonhoeffer would talk about the sermon and say it should take the form of Christ walking and speaking and being in the congregation when they gather for worship.

Q: What was his assessment of preaching in his day, both in Germany and later when he was in New York?

He was appalled by a lot of what he saw happening. The descriptions that historians have provided of preaching in the 1920s and ’30s in Germany between World War I and World War II are interesting. If you read those and don’t know that it was almost 100 years ago, you might think that you are reading about a lot of preaching in America today.

Bonhoeffer went to New York twice, and he wrote on both occasions about what he observed visiting churches in New York City. He was appalled. He talked about how the sermons were entertaining and the preachers had dynamic personalities and were very emotional.

He thought that it was manipulative, but what concerned him the most was that the substance was incredibly shallow. They didn’t have a lot to say that was distinctively Christian.

In Germany between World War I and World War II they tried to prove that preaching could be useful and serve the needs of the German people. The defeat in World War I was devastating for the German people. After the war, many left the church and turned against Christianity, and they blamed God for allowing that to happen to them.

So there was a strong desire on the part of leaders in the church and pastors to reorient what they did, particularly their preaching, to attract German people back to the church. They wanted to show them that God was not to blame and that Christianity could still be useful and make their lives better and provide value and values for them to live by.

Bonhoeffer saw early in his career how that completely missed the mark and had nothing Christian to say. It was just a kind of religious talk that was not at all conducive to the life and mission of the church, and actually was undermining the life and mission of the church even when it succeeded.

Q: The book isn’t a biography, but it’s very much focused on Bonhoeffer’s life and career, in three areas in chronological order -- preparation, preaching and consequences. Why did you frame it that way?

The title tries to say it -- “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life.” I wanted to show that for Bonhoeffer, preaching is something that is lived.

It’s not a skill or a technique. It’s not something you pick up and put down.

From 1925, when he entered the University of Berlin to study theology, until 1945, when he was executed by the Nazis, he preached in the manner he lived and spoke and led. Even in his struggles and his failures and his many questions, there’s just a wonderful narrative, a story of someone who’s being formed over time to be a certain kind of person called preacher.

Q: His life shaped his preaching. His preaching shaped his life.

Absolutely, and that’s true for all of us who are called to preach. Who we are and what we say and do work together. The heart of our calling is bringing those together in a more and more closer unity or integrity, which is what gives preaching credibility.

Bonhoeffer was very concerned that preachers in Germany had lost credibility, because if you listened to them, you wouldn’t even know they were a pastor. He said they just sounded like everybody else.

Q: What is the message of this book for preaching today and for the church today?

I had a couple of aims in mind.

One was simply to invite preachers or seminary students and teachers of preaching to just pay more attention to Bonhoeffer, because he’s a wonderful exemplar for us. There’s much in his wisdom that is good for us, and we can learn from his story.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to act like him and speak like him or say what he said. I tried to show the habits of thinking and speaking and living that informed his life and ministry. There is a pattern there that we can learn from and appropriate in our life and our work.

My second aim was to show how preaching is a practice like medicine or law, rooted in a history of practitioners. So when we come along in the 21st century and take up preaching, we’re part of a long history of preachers, a great company of preachers.

Bonhoeffer is included in that, and we would be foolish not to learn from them. They weren’t infallible, but there’s still much that’s true and good about who they were and what they said and did that could help us find our way forward in what’s a very confusing time.

Q: What do you think his assessment would be of the state of preaching today?

Talking only about the North American context, one thing that might stand out to him -- and this was a concern he had in his time -- is how abstract our preaching is. For Bonhoeffer, abstract preaching produced what he called an invisible church.

In the early 1930s, as Hitler was gaining popularity, Bonhoeffer wrote that invisibility is killing us.

If we were in Germany in 1932 and walked around Berlin, we would see churches everywhere. It wasn’t as if the institutional church was invisible.

But Bonhoeffer saw how abstract talk, removed from life, produced a church that was invisible in that it was removed from life. It did not make visible or incarnate the reality of Christ in the world, whose very being and presence would be a point of resistance to and protest against the growing evil and darkness that they were all experiencing in Germany.

He saw a church that essentially had lost its voice and faded into the background.

Q: What encouragement would Bonhoeffer give preachers today?

One of my favorite pieces from “Letters and Papers from Prison” is a sermon that he wrote for the baptism of his godson, Dietrich. He talks very candidly about what had happened in Germany, and he says that his generation had failed because they had put the self-preservation of the church ahead of the faithfulness of the church.

He describes for little Dietrich what that looked like, and how on many counts they failed to do what they knew was right and good. Part of it was a lack of courage. Part of it was a lack of hope. Part of it was just the numbness from all that was happening under the Hitler regime.

People had lost the nerve to really live. They were just trying to survive, and yet he admits to Dietrich that they had failed and were not handing over a church that was in very good working order, and that was true for preaching as well.

He said his hope was that someday preaching would once again be done in a way that was robust and strong and life giving, and that preachers would be so attuned to the things that they spoke, that their lives would be so close to the things that they believed, that they would speak a word into the world that would be able to change it in dramatic ways.

That was his hope for the future. Even as he knew that his death was imminent, he looked forward to a time when a new generation of preachers would come along and grasp again the depth and the richness and the power of the gospel and be able to speak it to the world in a way that would truly change it according to God’s good intentions and purposes.

For those today, it’s both a challenge and a call as we go forward.