Home » The Contribution of Dietrich Bonhoeffers Interpretation of the Old Testament

The Contribution of Dietrich Bonhoeffers Interpretation of the Old Testament

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.

Bonhoeffers 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. 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 Gods 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 Bonhoeffers day and will be expounded upon later. To discard the Old Testament is to negate the recognition of Gods 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, Bonhoeffers 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 Gods character, his relationship to his people, and the lives of the people he blessed that are more Old-Testament-specific such as Israels reverence of God, Gods wrath, and Israels 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 Gods law that one may speak of grace; and it is only when Gods wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of ones 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 Churchs reading of the Old and New Testaments, Christ speaks to the Church. Christ is seen in the Three of Bonhoeffers 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. Bonhoeffers 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 Christs 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 Bonhoeffers 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 authors original intent was to signify his role in Creation (Harrelson 121).

Bonhoeffers 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. Davids 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 Davids 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 Bonhoeffers Germany) (Pangritz 147), and their association with the outcasts of society (Kuske 69). One fascinating correlation is that of Davids 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, Davids victory over Goliath is seen in the light of Christs triumph over death (Kuske 69). This victory is not seen as Davids victory but as Christs. 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 Bonhoeffers 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 Bonhoeffers day. Is this acceptable? Bonhoeffers 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.

Toward the end of his life, most of Bonhoeffers 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 Bonhoeffers 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 Gods name, YHWH. This was done out of a profound reverance and awe of a holy, omnipotent God.

By refraining from the use of Gods name, the Israelites showed a submission or a rendering of power to God. By displacing the use of Gods name into Gods hands, they displace their control to Gods 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 Gods 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 Christs 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. In the evaluation of Bonhoeffers 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, Bonhoeffers 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, Berlins 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).

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