My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
It is not often that a biography kickstarts a re-imagining of how I envision my calling as a seminary professor. Yet that is what happened with my recent reading of Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010). I had read books on Bonhoeffer before, and even had students write a paper on Eberhard Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison (1953). Yet for some reason this biography struck a few chords.
Whatever you think of his recent statements on politics, Metaxas knows how to write a punchy, gripping, insightful, and inspiring biography. There is much that is impressive in the book. His comments about the role of parents in the upbringing of Bonhoeffer are encouraging (8). Bonhoeffer’s affirmations of life, marriage, and hope in the midst of darkness speak powerfully to our modern generation that questions whether or not to have children due to gloomy prognostications of the future (408, 456). Bonhoeffer’s willingness to use the Nazi salute or sign “Heil Hitler” in his letters (which he knew were being read by the Gestapo) is a compelling – if controversial – example of deceit for a higher truth and covert calling.
Yet what struck me most the most this time around was Bonhoeffer’s vision for theological education.
Bonhoeffer could have been a respected and well-published university professor, yet his calling was to theology and theological education. That decision alone cost him dearly, for it was a down-grade of money, opportunity, prestige, and perhaps even safety as the Nazi regime tightened its grip on its citizenry.
Bonhoeffer created an underground seminary that worked covertly in the face of increasing Nazi pressures. It was a necessary innovation that enabled him to train his Confessing Church students free from the prying eyes and corrupting influence of the state-supported Reichskirche.
Bonhoeffer expected a rigorous intellectual formation of his students. He was unimpressed with the shallow theology of American seminaries that focused on pragmatic matters, and he made sure that his students did not suffer from the same malady.
But what struck me most was Bonhoeffer’s love for his students and the way that love was expressed in how he carried out theological education. What mattered was deep relationships formed outside the classroom around campfires, sports, prayer, meditation, and food. And he opened up his family’s property to his students to ensure that their formation was enriched by the wealth and privilege of a patrician family.
At the heart of his vision for theological education was spiritual formation – something that he felt was lacking in traditional seminaries. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“The entire education of the younger generation of theologians belongs today in church cloister-like schools, in which pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount and worship are taken seriously – as they never are (and in present circumstances couldn’t be) at the university. It is also high time we broke with our theologically based restraint towards the state’s actions – which, after all, is only fear. ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak’ – who in the church today realizes that this is the very least that the Bible requires of us.” (247)
His vision was more monastic than university, more cloister than dorm. The goal was to nurture devotion to Jesus in the community of like-minded leaders-in-training, a community that included the discipline of having a personal confessor among your cohort of students (as well as memorization of Bible passages). And the professor was to be at the heart of that community, living as much as possible among the students. As Metaxas states, “Bonhoeffer had in mind a kind of monastic community, where one aimed to live in the way Jesus commanded his followers to live in his Sermon on the Mount, where one lived not merely as a theological student, but as a disciple of Christ. It would be an unorthodox experiment in communal living in the ‘life together’ as Bonhoeffer would so famously put it.” (263)
I have now moved on to new books (the stack never seems to get lower), but my imagination is still at work thinking through the implications of Bonhoeffer’s vision for theological education. There is no cookie-cutter copying of his solution for trying times, but I hope in some way to emulate some aspects of Bonhoeffer’s vision in what and why I do what I do.
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