Essay, Research Paper: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Interpretation Of OT


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In reviewing the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the study of the Old Testament
seems to be almost non-existent. It is not until his time in Tegel Prison,
nearly one year prior to his execution, that he fully commits himself to serious
thought on the subject “My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and
more like those of the Old Testament, and in recent months I have been reading
the Old Testament much more than the New (Bonhoeffer, Letters, 156).” Though
his Old Testament study was fairly dicey and incomplete, the contributions of
his interpretation have been tremendous. Bonhoeffer’s distinct Christological
approach to the Old Testament may not have pleased an orthodox readership, but
the “kerygma” and additional impact of it was in one word, masterful,
especially in view of the theological and historical context of his day. Due to
his tumultuous academic life resultant of the German crisis (Bethge 1025), his
cohesion of the Old and New Testaments centered in Christ was not systematically
expressed and was primarily encountered in his exegetical studies, sermons, and
letters and miscellaneous papers (Harrelson 115). As with all biblical
interpretation, careful evaluation is required. View of the Bible Bonhoeffer
views the Bible as the place where God reveals himself to the individual in the
context of the church (Ballard 116). The Bible is not merely an instruction book
or a magical book of answers to confirm or order human thinking about God and
the world. It is not something to be manipulated, rather it to be come to humbly
and in expectation of God’s revelation of himself in relation to humanity
(Harrelson 116). It is where “God speaks” to humanity and it listens (Kuske
20). To do otherwise is “to make man the measure of the Gospel rather than to
learn from the Gospel the true norm for human existence (Harrelson 116).” This
God who reveals himself and his plan in the Scriptures is, according to
Bonhoeffer, the God of the Old and New Testaments. Because God the Father of
Jesus Christ in the New Testament is the God of Abraham, Moses, and David in the
Old Testament, he is the one God of the one Bible (Kuske 23). The synthesis of
the Old and New presents one complete history on a continuum. This claim was
highly significant in the historical and theological context of Bonhoeffer’s
day and will be expounded upon later. To discard the Old Testament is to negate
the recognition of God’s creation, his intimate involvement with fallen
humanity and a chosen people, and the preparation of the incarnation, death, and
resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ who is the center of the Church.
Bonhoeffer will take this a step further and claim that the incarnation and
crucifixion are found in the Old Testament, further driving the need for the Old
Testament(Harrelson 117). This also will be discussed in more detail later. This
united corpus of Scripture is considered the book of the Church. Bonhoeffer
portrays an almost symbiotic relationship between Jesus and the Church. As Jesus
witnesses to the church in the New Testament and provides life to it, so the
church looks to Christ via his biblical witness as its foundation. The Bible is
where God speaks to the church, revealing himself and his plan. This God is not
the only the God of the Gospels and the book of Acts, but he also is the God of
the Law, Prophets, and the Writings, the one God of the one Bible. Given this
framework, Bonhoeffer’s view of the relationship between the Testaments and
Christ can be examined more closely. Because the New Testament is seen as the
book of Christ, Christ must be seen in the Old for the two to be seen as one. To
overcome this difficulty, he sees the entire Bible in relation to Jesus Christ
(Harrelson 117). By placing Christ at the center of Scripture, Bonhoeffer points
to the necessity of seeing the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ in the Old
Testament (Kuske 47), as Jesus is the word who became flesh (Harrelson 119).
According to Bonhoeffer, the only access to the Old Testament is through Christ.
Because we can only know God and his revelation through Christ, the only way we
can read the Old Testament is through Christ (Kuske 47). Speaking from a more
historical standpoint, since Christ has been an active part of the Trinity since
the beginning of time, he cannot be exempt from the reading of Old Testament
Scripture. What then should be done with this Christological view of the Old
Testament? Bonhoeffer writes, “In my opinion, it is not Christian to want to
take our thoughts and feelings too quickly and too directly from the New
Testament (Bonhoeffer, Letters, 157).” This enlightened view of the Old
Testament should not be held in solitude, but should be used to shed light onto
the New Testament, providing a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the
text. The dimensions of God’s character, his relationship to his people, and
the lives of the people he blessed that are more “Old-Testament-specific”
such as Israel’s reverence of God, God’s wrath, and Israel’s worldly
living, work to convey a more encompassing view of God and his desires for the
church (Bonhoeffer, Letters, 157). He beautifully describes this marriage of the
Old and New, It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God
that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and
the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may
believe in the resurrection and the new world; it is only when one submits to
God’s law that one may speak of grace; and it is only when God’s wrath and
vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that
something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts (Bonhoeffer,
Letters, 157). Bonhoeffer seems to be, knowingly or unknowingly, striving for a
more holistic view of Scripture even in his narrow Christocentic approach. In
the holding together of these witnesses, he sees a more lucid revelation of true
“reality” in Christ. To summarize, through Christ, the church is founded.
Through the Church’s reading of the Old and New Testaments, Christ speaks to
the Church. Christ is seen in the Exegesis Three of Bonhoeffer’s exegetical
works (which are hardly exegetical at all as will soon be evident) include his
study of Genesis 1-3 (Creation and Fall, 1933), King David (1935), and Ezra and
Nehemiah (1936). By scanning the dates, one can see that these studies were
conducted early in his career. As tension mounted in Germany, he shifted to a
more pastoral focus, as he concentrated his efforts in the maintenance of the
church in Germany through his sermons and letters and papers. Bonhoeffer’s
early exegetical work in Creation and Fall clearly exemplifies the centrality of
Christ in relation to Scripture and more specifically Christ in the Old
Testament. He makes the observation that the world was created out of nothing by
God, out of the freedom of God. This is likened to the Christ’s death and
resurrection. Christ submitted himself to the cross, died and rose again. In the
same way, God chose to create the world out of nothing. The implications of this
correlation are found in the significance of the resurrection. Jesus’ death
without resurrection would have spelled the death of the Creator of the universe
(Kuske 37). He continues with the narrative of Adam and Eve. In the Garden of
Eden, Adam and Eve have complete freedom to love and act responsibly because the
center of their existence is God (more specifically, Christ, the cross, and the
Church which will later be discussed), symbolized by the Tree of Life. After
partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, their freedom is
limited by sin and death. Living is no longer pleasurable; it is inescapable and
monotonous (Harrelson 120). Here Bonhoeffer’s Christological lens is evident
in his insertion of Christ into the Creation narrative. Is this insertion
necessary in attempting to prod the Christian mind as to the significance of
Genesis 1 and following? Moreover, is this really exegetical? One could hardly
admit to this! Christ is not even mentioned, and it is doubtful that the
author’s original intent was to signify his role in Creation (Harrelson 121).
Bonhoeffer’s study of King David yields an even more interesting
interpretation than that of Creation and Fall. According to Bonhoeffer, David is
the “shadow” of Christ. The shadow of Christ falls on David as the lives of
the two parallel each other. Even though David came before Christ in history,
Christ existed eternally previous to David, yet the life of David foreshadows
and witnesses to Christ. The lives of the two parallel in many ways. David’s
annointment into earthly kingship by the Spirit is likened to the annointment of
Christ at his baptism to messianic kingship (Pangritz 146). Other parallels
include the David’s status as a justified sinner and Jesus’ as sinless,
their humble entries into the city of Jerusalem (this stands in opposition to
the leadership of Bonhoeffer’s Germany) (Pangritz 147), and their association
with the outcasts of society (Kuske 69). One fascinating correlation is that of
David’s “confused” attempt to build a Temple for God. Only God can build
his “church”. Jesus built the church and his followers became the church.
Bonhoeffer applied this finding to his situation. In this application, he
provided the encouragement that nothing including the Nazi regime could destroy
the church as it has been built by God. The church does not exist in man-made
buildings and institutions but in the hearts of men and women (Pangritz 147).
Lastly, David’s victory over Goliath is seen in the light of Christ’s
triumph over death (Kuske 69). This victory is not seen as David’s victory but
as Christ’s. Bonhoeffer deducts that because of this, Christ was inside David,
his shadow (Kuske 72). The “exegesis” of the story of David is another
example of Jesus’ presence in the Old Testament. Out of the three examples of
Bonhoeffer’s exegesis, the study of Ezra and Nehemiah lends perhaps the most
far-fetched interpretation. In his work, he ignores the historical and
interpretive problems with the text and goes on to interpret it in his fashion
(Harrelson 126). He sees God calling individuals to resist human effort to build
a church (Kuske 81). In doing so, they experience accusation and the like, as
they subsequently seek God fervently and reform the church through discipline (Kuske
82). Neither biblical figures or places are mentioned. Instead the stories in
Ezra and Nehemiah are combined to reflect the German situation of Bonhoeffer’s
day. Is this acceptable? Sermon Example Bonhoeffer’s sermon on Psalm 58 (July
11, 1937) grapples with the difficulty in understanding the biblical soundness
of the desiring of vengeance. Should Christians be permitted to utilize this
form of prayer? Is it biblical (Kuske 85)? The person praying this prayer must
be sinless. David is permitted to pray such a prayer because Christ, the sinless
one, was (as mentioned in the study of King David) in him. Because Christ is
sinless, he has the right to condemn injustice. In this Psalm, Christ calls for
the annihilation of evil and later enacts this in his death and resurrection.
David stands in the shadow of Christ, bearing witness to him (Harrelson 129).
Bonhoeffer finds a way to present this Psalm in an acceptably “Christian”
way. Is this not the Old Testament, the Torah of the Jewish people? How can
Genesis, the stories of David, Ezra, Nehemiah, and others be read by the Jews if
the Bible can only be read through the revelation of Christ? Is Bonhoeffer
swindling the Torah from the Jewish people? This will be extrapolated more fully
later on. Letters and Papers Toward the end of his life, most of Bonhoeffer’s
theological formation was recorded in letters and papers to friends and family.
Because of its fragmented nature, the meaning of many of his ideas from this
time is ambiguous, yet it is important to realize the significance of his
theology from this time period. Two important concepts in Bonhoeffer’s letters
and papers are the “unutterableness of the name of God” and the “world
come of age”. The “unutterableness of the name of God” refers to the
Israelites’ extreme reserve in the use of God’s name, YHWH. This was done
out of a profound reverance and awe of a holy, omnipotent God. By refraining
from the use of God’s name, the Israelites showed a submission or a rendering
of power to God. By displacing the use of God’s name into God’s hands, they
displace their control to God’s control. Bonhoeffer saw this as integral to
the Christian understanding of relating to Christ appropriately (Kuske 99). The
“world come of age” refers to the Europe of Bonhoeffer. How is the Church
supposed to function in the modern world? In his Old Testament study, Bonhoeffer
saw in Genesis that God created Adam and Eve to relate freely in the Garden of
Eden. They were able to do so because God was in the center of their reality. He
was Christ represented as the Tree of Life (Harrelson 120). Bonhoeffer also
notes in a letter to Eberhard Bethge, the significance of God’s blessing in
the Old and New Testaments. This not only includes physical but material
welfare. In the Old Testament it seems that a blessing is given after suffering
has been experienced, and in the New Testament, the cross of Christ yields a
blessing (Bonhoeffer, Letters, 374). Following the example of Christ and the Old
and New Testament communities, the church is called to the sufferings of Christ
in this world. The church like the Tree of Life is not to be at the edges of the
world but in the center, participating in the sufferings of Christ (Green 123).
This is not the entire picture. As the church in faith suffers in the world, God
blesses her with physical welfare and life. As the church must be in the center
of the world (outward), so must Christ be the center of the church (inward)
(Ballard 117). Taking all of this into consideration, the church in the
“godless world” envisioned by Bonhoeffer is not one that merely has a
specified niche for God and faith. It rather, as a community, sees Christ as the
ultimate meaning of the world. In addition, the church recognizes Christ’s
incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection in and for the world and has faith in
him. Further, there will come a time when the church will discover the Bible in
a new, existential sort of way. The church is only to talk about God when the
topic comes up in conversation with unbelievers. In other times, the church is
to challenge them to discover the truth of the human condition in personal
experience with the world. This Christian life in a “godless world” involves
both a private and communal faith and commitment, a commitment to Christ and the
world (Ballard 122). This dual commitment is witnessed by both Old and New
Testaments. Evaluation: Positive In the evaluation of Bonhoeffer’s
interpretation of the Old Testament, more than just his methodology needs to be
taken into consideration. Give n the historical and theological climate of his
day, Bonhoeffer’s work was truly brilliant. Two major contributions resultant
of his Old Testament study are the salvaging of the Old Testament for the church
by promoting the unity of both Testaments and his emphasis of responsibility and
action in the world. The question of the Christian treatment of the Old
Testament was of great importance to early twentieth century Germany. What
should Christians do with the Old Testament? Is it relevant for the church, and
if it is, how should it be studied and applied? These questions buzzed around
theological circles stirring up much debate (Kuske 7). With the strong pull of
German nationalism and anti-semitism lurking more quietly in the background,
German theologians posed inquiries that were heated by nature, having great
impact on the church and country at large (Bethge 126). This was the situation
Bonhoeffer faced as a young theologian. The three predominant views of the Old
Testament were the rejection of the Old Testament, the Old Testament as a
primitive development to the New Testament, and the Old Testament as Scripture
in unity with the New Testament. When hearing the possibility of the rejection
of the Old Testament, one almost automatically assumes such a suggestion was
made in centuries past. It is nearly unimaginable that such a proposition was
made merely 67 years ago (Bethge 335)! Nevertheless this movement was modern.
Two figures stand in the forefront of this movement, Dr. Reinhard Krause and
Adolf von Harnack. Though they both were striving for the same goal, their
reasoning was very different. In the winter of 1933 at the Berlin Sports Palace,
a historical event that shook the German Church took place. Pastors from all
ends of Germany gathered to hear the address of a certain man. These pastors
converged as the leaders of the new Reich Church, and the man for whom they
traveled to listen to was Dr. Reinhard Krause, Berlin’s Nazi Party leader. In
this meeting, Krause challenged these ministers to the immediate application of
the Aryan Clause and subsequent weeding out of non-adherents (Bethge 335). This
new church was to see to the “‘liberation from the Old Testament with its
money morality and from these stories of cattle dealers and pimps (Bethge
335)’”. anti-Semitism proved to be a powerful force in the attempt to
divorce the Old Testament from the Bible. A second resounding voice against the
embracing of the Old Testament was that of Adolf von Harnack. He stated that the
Old Testament should not be counted as part of the Holy Scriptures because it is
irrelevant to the Christian church. Because of this irrelevance, it should only
be considered a helpful book to read. Never should it be held on the same level
of infallibility as the New Testament (Kuske 9). While arguments for the
rejection of the Old Testament were raging, many were advocating for the
retention of the Old Testament because of its demonstration as a primitive
forerunner of Christianity. Proponents of this view see the Old Testament as
archaic, presenting mythological ideas of a religion that gets replaced by
Christianity. The view of the Old Testament as a “pre-stage” for the New
does not certify the rejection of the Old Testament, but rather it encourages
the Christian to study and appreciate the development of the Church and
Christianity through the ages (Kuske 11). Those on the more liberal end of this
standpoint, cannot release the Old Testament from its canonical status because
some of the Old Testament is good and necessary for Christian understanding.
Some parts cannot be kept and others discarded. Logically, or perhaps
grudgingly, the Bible must be kept whole (Kuske 13). The third position accepts
the Old Testament as having equal status as the New Testament. Both are holy and
are complete only in their combined unity. Bonhoeffer embraces this position in
the tradition of Karl Barth and Wilhelm Vischer.BibliographyAnderson, Francis, I. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Old Testament,”
Reformed Theological Review, 34 (May-August 1975), 33-44. Ballard, Paul.
“Bonhoeffer as Pastoral Theologian,” Theology, 94 (1991), 115-123. Barnett,
Victoria J. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Vision,” Christian Century,
112 (1995), 454-457. Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised
Edition). Barnett, Victoria J., ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000. Bonhoeffer,
Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition). NY: Touchstone,
1997. Klassen, A.J., ed. A Bonhoeffer Legacy. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981.
Green, Clifford J. “Bonhoeffer, Modernity, and Liberation Theology”. In
Floyd, Wayne Whitson Jr. and Marsh, Charles, eds. Theology and the Practice of
Responsibility: Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1994.
- - -. “Interpreting Bonhoeffer: Reality or Phraseology?,” JR, 55 (April
1975), 270-275. Hummel, Horace D. “Christological Interpretation of the Old
Testament,” Dialog, 2 (1963), 108-117. Kaiser, Walter C. Jr. Toward an
Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching. Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker, 1981. Kuske, Martin. The Old Testament as the Book of Christ: An
Appraisal of Bonhoeffer’s Interpretation. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.
Harrelson, Walter. “Bonhoeffer and the Bible”. In Marty, Martin E., ed. The
Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems, and Possibilities in His Thought. NY: Association
Press, 1964. McCrown, Wayne and James E. Massey, eds. Interpreting God’s Word
for Today. Anderson, IN: Warner, 1982. McKim, Donald K., ed. A Guide to
Contemporary Hermeneutics: Major Trends in Biblical Interpretation. Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986. Pangritz, Andreas. “‘Who is Jesus Christ, for
us, today?’”. In DeGruchy, John W., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich
Bonhoeffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Radmacher, Earl D. and
Preus, Robert D., eds. Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI:
Academie, 1984. Rosenbaum, Stanley, R. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Jewish View,”
JES, 18 (Spring 1981), 301-307. Murphy, Roland, ed. Theology, Exegesis, and
Proclamation. NY: Herder & Herder, 1971. Willis, Robert E. “Bonhoeffer and
Barth on Jewish Suffering: Reflections on the Relationship Between Theology and
Moral Sensibility,” JES, 24 (Fall 1987), 598-615.
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