Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Interpretation Of OT 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.
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 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 Exegesis 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? Sermon Exampl …