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A Bit of Brilliance from the Boy Bonhoeffer

March 25, 2014

The Bonhoeffer Reader

At the age of 19 Bonhoeffer wrote a paper called, “Paper on Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture.” When I was 19 I was just about to stumble upon the Hegelian dialectic, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what “pneumatological” meant. Bonhoeffer was getting warmed up.

The Bonhoeffer Reader (pictured above) leads off with that paper, which Fortress Press has available as a sample on its Website, here (pdf). The Reader is “self-consciously a theological reader,” keeping specifically in mind “the general reader or beginning student of Bonhoeffer.” Here, by the way, are the seven major sections of the Reader:

  • Part 1, Student Writings: Berlin, Barcelona, New York
  • Part 2, University Lectures
  • Part 3, Ecumenical and Pastoral Writings
  • Part 4, Theology and the Third Reich
  • Part 5, Christian Life and Community
  • Part 6, Christian Ethics and Public Life
  • Part 7, Theology from Prison: Worldly, Religionless Christianity

The Reader excerpts all of Bonhoeffer’s major works, at length. Sanctorum Communio, his dissertation, is here, as well as DiscipleshipLife TogetherLetters and Papers from Prison, lectures, talks, and even a draft of a catechism he co-authored. It is rich.

Back to the 19-year-old Bonhoeffer. “Paper on Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” is engaging, dense, and refreshing, even if occasionally unclear or in want of a re-write here and there. Bonhoeffer wrote the paper in 1925 when he was a student in Berlin. In it he reflects on the historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture that was so popular in early 20th century Germany, as well as the idea of Scripture as God’s word, i.e., the locus of revelation–what Bonhoeffer calls “pneumatological interpretation.” Of the latter he writes:

The first statement of spiritual interpretation is that the Bible is not only a word about God but God’s word itself. In some way the decisive concept of revelation must be introduced here. When revelation is found, the extraordinary enters and its power is self-evident. The past is made present or—better—the contemporaneity and trans-temporality of God’s word are recognized.

As impressive as Bonhoeffer’s command of theology and language already is his use of Latin and Greek throughout the paper (which the editors of The Bonhoeffer Reader are gracious enough to translate).

The bit of brilliance that most inspired me was an almost throwaway clause where Bonhoeffer refers to God as the one

for whom the terms “God spoke” and “it became so” are identical.

Of course on a semantic and grammatical level it is not true that “God spoke” and “it became so” are identical, but Bonhoeffer’s point is that the phrases are, in fact, one and the same. God, as others have put it, spoke creation into being, so that his speaking and its becoming are one and the same act. Bonhoeffer would later develop this idea in his 1932-33 Creation and Fall lectures, also excerpted in the Reader. In a section not found in the Reader, Bonhoeffer would write,

That God creates by speaking means that in God the thought, the name, and the work are in their created reality one. What we must understand, therefore, is that the word does not have ‘effects’; instead, God’s word is already the work. What in us breaks hopelessly asunder–the word of command and what takes place–is for God indissolubly one. With God the imperative is the indicative.

It seems that even this early paper contains some buds that will more fully bloom in his later writing.

The paper closes:

Scriptural understanding, interpretation, preaching, i.e., the knowledge of God begins and ends with the plea: “Veni creator spiritus” [Come, Creator Spirit].

Scripture, for Bonhoeffer (and for us), is “where God speaks and… where it pleases God to be personally revealed.” In the moment that God speaks, it becomes so, and God is revealed.

This,” the Scripture readers say each Sunday, “is the Word of the Lord.”

Thanks be to God.

This is the third post in “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer.” See the first one (on forgiveness) here. The second post covers Bonhoeffer’s early life, here. I describe the series more here. The Bonhoeffer Reader can be found at Amazon here (affiliate link) or at Fortress Press’s page here

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