Bonhoeffer, Theology, and Ministry
When a young seminarian first crosses the threshold of the hallowed halls of seminary, I suspect that he is impressed by his professors. The freshly minted seminarian goes to class, hears the profound truths flow off the professor’s lips and over the lectern, and he watches his peers soak up every last drop. In one sense, this is perfectly normal and understandable. I can remember sitting at the feet of one of my professors in awe. There seemed to be no fact of historical theology of which he was unaware. Maybe it was the fact that he had been teaching for over forty years and had two PhDs? Nevertheless, as common as such a scenario might be within the context of a seminary, it is utterly extraordinary within the broader context of the church. How so?
I think that far too many seminarians walk away from seminary with the idea that they want to reproduce the seminary experience in their own churches. They therefore drift towards the more serious theologically minded people in their churches. I find few seminarians, for example, who want to invest in ministry to children.
While Dietrich Bonheoffer certainly has some questionable doctrinal beliefs, one thing that cannot be denied is his brilliance. When you read his Sanctorum Communio, his doctoral dissertation written at the age of twenty-one, you quickly get the impression that you are reading the work of a brilliant man. The same can also be said of his second doctoral dissertation, Act and Being. If there was ever a minister who could have floated away to the upper limits of the white tower of the academy, it was Bonhoeffer. Interestingly enough, Bonhoeffer never purposefully ascended to such heights.
Early in his ministry he took an assistant pastorate in Barcelona, Spain, ministering to expat Germans. One of the reasons he did this was because he wanted to communicate his theology to the church—“whether to indifferent businessmen, teenagers, or younger children”—Bonhoeffer believed such an activity was as important as theology itself (85). In fact, when Bonheoffer arrived in Barcelona, he was given the responsibility of the children’s service. When he started, there was only one little girl. He nevertheless continued and the next week there were fifteen children. He visited the homes of each of the children later that week; the following week there were more than thirty children (77). In a word, Bonhoeffer invested himself in the life of his church and God’s people, regardless of their age.
One of the most important things to remember is that one’s time at seminary is unique. It is a blessing and a privilege to devote several years of your life to the full-time study of God’s word. But once that time is complete, chances are it will never be duplicated. Once you finish, it is not time to float up, up, and away. Rather, it is time to descend the mountain and take up the labors of ministry and pass on to the church what you have learned. The true mark of a good theologian is the desire to teach all of God’s people—not just the learned.