Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together
Reviewed by Stephen L. Woodworth, Bible and Religion, Montreat College
In recent years public interest in the person and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has grown exponentially. Due in part to the popularity of Eric Metaxas’s accessible work Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,1 countless individuals have come to understand the important story of the Lutheran pastor and professor from Germany who stood against the Nazi regime during Hitler’s rise to power and throughout World War II. Paul House has recently made a unique contribution to our understanding of Bonhoeffer’s life by focusing attention on the years of his ministry largely ignored by most biographers, the years he spent as a seminary director. In drawing attention to this deficit, House makes a solid case for exploring this particular aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life with a concentrated aim of exhorting seminaries, and by extension all colleges and universities that seek to develop Christian leaders, to “think theologically, not just pragmatically, about the training of pastors” (16).
House’s book is not particularly lengthy, as it does not seek to reexamine ground that has already been well covered by various theologians and biographers. While House does offer enough biographical information for those who may be largely unfamiliar with the major contours of Bonhoeffer’s life, his book does an exceptional job of remaining focused on the primary topic of critiquing, exhorting, and encouraging those who are leading the modern enterprise of pastoral development. Toward this end, House aims to accomplish two tasks through this work: he seeks “to examine Bonhoeffer’s theology and practice of theological education in their original context” and “to assert the biblical necessity of personal, incarnational, face-to-face education for the health of pastors and churches” (29).
In his opening chapter, House lays out both an argument and justification for a detailed analysis of Bonhoeffer’s seminary vision. By comparing the world of Bonhoeffer to our modern setting, House contends that the need for seminaries to produce “sacrificial teacher-pastors” who will serve the church is not constrained by geographical or historical boundaries, but is a timeless endeavor regardless of one’s cultural milieu (95-98). House asserts that in place of the typically pragmatic questions regarding budgets, enrollment numbers, and new technologies that tend to drive the vision of many institutions, seminaries instead need to be asking: “What sort of education fits the Bible’s vision of ministerial preparation? What sort of minister does the church need? And what is the right thing to do in complicated times?” (29).
From this conviction, House turns his attention to a detailed exploration of Bonhoeffer’s journey to the role of seminary director by tracing the outlines of his pastoral and professional career that precipitated his calling and prepared him for the task. This includes a brief introduction to his early life and education, his role within the Confessing Church movement, and his dogged dedication to assist the German church to remain faithful in the face of the rising threat of the Nazis.
Chapter 2 centers on an examination of the seminary sites under Bonheoffer’s care, including a superb profile of the faculty and students involved with Bonhoeffer’s seminaries, as well as the great cost that came upon all who were involved in the covert and, eventually, illegal enterprise. House repeatedly makes reference to the often dangerous and exhausting nature of participating in Bonhoeffer’s learning communities as the educational process remained committed to holistic spiritual formation through communal living and rigorous theological reflection.
This discussion prepares the reader for the following chapter, in which House dedicates his writing to a full exploration of what has long been considered Bonhoeffer’s most famous and enduring work, The Cost of Discipleship. Without being overly exhaustive, House offers an outstanding analysis of Bonhoeffer’s seminal work with an eye toward drawing parallels between the high cost of following Jesus and the necessary corollary of the high cost of preparing ministers to lead Jesus’s church. House points to Bonhoeffer’s reflections on discipleship to call for an increased awareness of seminaries to hire faculty and admit students who share Christ’s vision of a life devoted to sacrifice, humility, and obedience in the kingdom of God.
From here, House devotes the fourth chapter to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, a publication that offers the most detailed insight into daily life at Bonhoeffer’s seminaries. Written in the context of the German church’s growing allegiance to Hitler, Life Together highlighted the particular benefits of Christian community, as well as the unique setting of seminaries, which served as “a reminder of the promise that believers will be together forever” (107). In addition to clarifying Bonhoeffer’s distinctive framework for communal living, Life Together also offered an unparalleled vision of true Christian community and its role in the educational experience. House reflects, “If one views seminary as a place that only trains for tasks, transfers information, offers credentials, or sells the commodity of academic credits, then one will not see the need for time together in community” (113).
In chapter 5, House briefly surveys the truly holistic nature of Bonhoeffer’s seminaries by investigating the vital connection between theory and praxis imbedded into Bonhoeffer’s pedagogical vision. Here House introduces readers to the ongoing care Bonhoeffer gave to his graduates in the local pastorate, as well as the intentional relationships between the seminary and the church they were preparing students to serve through ongoing mentoring and internship programs.
House concludes with practical applications of his research, as the final chapter does an excellent job of summarizing House’s findings and personal convictions applied to a variety of settings. Among his handful of practical suggestions, he urges communal worship, smaller class sizes, faculty mentoring groups, fellowship meals, and shared morning prayer. In addition to these programmatic suggestions, House outlines the key characteristics of the kind of faculty members needed to pursue faithful seminary training, including those that are dedicated to the task of face-to-face instruction, community life, and, most importantly, living faithfully as men and women guided and directed by the Word of God. House’s book does an admirable job of sending a necessary warning to pastoral educators in our modern age, an age in which a consumer approach to education has slowly created institutions where speed, cost, and availability are increasingly trumping the more important work of spiritual formation, leadership development, and personal devotion.
As a veteran educator, House is keenly aware of the current challenges facing modern seminaries, yet his ability to defend his minority opinion is both encouraging and inspiring. In every page of this book, House’s prophetic voice can be heard as he leans upon the wisdom of leaders like Bonhoeffer who learned to train pastors amidst cultural obstacles that no modern institutions in the West have ever confronted. Surely, House might argue, “tough times” can be no justification for cultural capitulation when places like Finkenwalde found ways to remain faithful to their task.
And yet, perhaps one critique of House’s work is the degree to which he is able to adequately confront the most common arguments in favor of online education. While House is clearly aware of the most common critiques, his dismissal of any potential redemption of technology appears at times to be far too pessimistic. Despite the fact that current practices in online education may very well fall short of the “ideal,” House’s work might have proven to be of greater value to seminaries if he discovered ways in which Bonhoeffer’s seminary vision might still be realized through non-traditional methods.
Furthermore, House appears at times to be fairly narrow in his understanding of the modern ecclesial landscape, in which an increasing number of churches are choosing to employ internal training programs for their pastors rather than look to seminaries. And while it is a fact to be mourned, the rising popularity of independent churches which forgo the need for any theological training at all seems only to point to a future in which seminaries must compete for an even smaller group of potential students. While I wholeheartedly agree with House’s passion for holistic and theologically rich pastoral training, the fact remains that much of what ails seminaries today is not that they have grown too pragmatic, but that, for many denominations and churches, they have not become pragmatic enough to meet their desire for pastors who more competent at fundraising and building campaigns than they are at handling the original languages. Whether or not it is always a justified stereotype, the perspective that traditional seminaries are ivory towers disconnected from the real challenges of an ever-changing and complex world still lingers in the minds of many today.
With this in view, some will undoubtedly accuse House of being too idealistic in his view of seminary life, yet his opinion is clearly founded on his dual passion for the academy and the church. Whether or not his exhortation will ultimately prevail in stemming the tide of the growing number of alternative delivery methods remains to be seen. In the meantime, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision serves as an important reminder that connects the historical past, our ever-changing now, and our uncertain future as theological educators. It is a prophetic call to remember even as it urges anyone training pastors to lodge their vision firmly in the Word that we proclaim.