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Reading in the Presence of Christ: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Bibliography and Exegesis

Book Review: Reading in the Presence of Christ: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Bibliography and Exegesis

Dianne Rayson —

JOEL BANMAN, NEW STUDIES IN BONHOEFFER’S THEOLOGY AND ETHICS. LONDON: T&T CLARK, 2021. Xiii + 228 PP. 978-0-5676-9859-9. $65.02 (paperback), $40.77 (Kindle)

 “Let me first admit quite simply: I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we merely need ask perpetually and with a bit of humility in order to get the answer from it. One cannot simply read the Bible like other books.” So states Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a 1936 letter to his brother-in-law.
Joel Banman’s study of Bonhoeffer’s approach to and use of the scriptures fills an important gap in vastly increasing area of Bonhoeffer studies. Bonhoeffer’s devotion to reading, preaching, and manifesting the word of God was fundamental to his theological and ethical expressions and yet Banman breaks important ground in analysing Bonhoeffer’s bibliology. Bibliology, as Banman uses the word, speaks of Holy Scripture theologically, in terms of ontology and in agency. It addresses the questions of what precisely Scripture is, and in relation to this study of Bonhoeffer, how God’s revelation in history impacts the life and work of the believer.

What follows is a work of careful attention to the place of revelation as seen throughout the unfolding story of Bonhoeffer’s short but rich lifetime. Where others such as John Godsey and Stephen Plant have investigated Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Scripture, or examined, like Victoria Barnett, his sermons, Banman moves into virtually uncharted space by moving from interpretation and into evaluation. This is a move anticipated by Michael Mawson and Philip Zeigler and brought to fruition in this study.

Banman successfully achieves a demonstration of Bonhoeffer’s Christological focus that draws him into the Scriptures even while adhering to the “first principle” of theology, that is, that bibliology precedes exegesis. This Christological exegetical lens, as Banman has it, “has an expansive rather than a reductive effect” (9). Consistent with the “who” question that underpins Bonhoeffer’s “Christology Lectures”, Bonhoeffer’s exegetical question then becomes not what does this text mean for us today but rather, who is speaking these words today. Readers of this review not familiar with Bonhoeffer may well have heard his famous question penned from a prison cell, “who is Christ actually for us today?” According to Banman, Bonhoeffer first finds Christ is made present by the Spirit whenever the Scriptures are spoken.

Banman then examines some of Bonhoeffer’s exegetical and homiletical writings, especially from around the time he was leading the underground seminary at Finkenwalde and drawing together this material for what would become The Cost of Discipleship and Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms, two of Bonhoeffer’s most popular books in our time. Banman bears witness to Bonhoeffer’s exegesis of the Hebrew Bible Christologically. Just as Bonhoeffer understands the tree at the centre of the Garden in Genesis to be the cross of Christ, so too he prays the Psalms in Christ’s name. “In the Psalms, God’s word to human beings takes the form of human words to God,” Banman states (93). Banman convincingly argues for the legitimacy of Bonhoeffer’s approach to scripture: prayerfully discerning the right word for the present moment and aiming for a “present-tense act” of finding truth in Scripture (9).

Such an approach continues throughout Bonhoeffer’s corpus and into his final works, the unfinished Ethics manuscript and the letters from Tegel prison. Banman treats Ethics in a chapter titled, “Doing the Truth” and frames it as “an enquiry into the exegetical logic of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought” (165). Whilst Ethics itself contains little exegetical material, it is Bonhoeffer’s utilisation of reality, the unification of all things in Christ, that bridges Scripture and Christ. Banman says, “Bonhoeffer speaks of reality as the reality of revelation, and where Bonhoeffer speaks of revelation, it is appropriate to speak of God’s self-revealing address in the words of Scripture…Scripture does not tell human beings what to do; it testifies to Christ, thereby teaching the reality of revelation” (10).

The result of these case-study-like chapters is a demonstration of the unifying feature of Bonhoeffer’s bibliology throughout his theological and pastoral career. Banman’s unique contribution is at its richest, I think, in making the case for the exegetical logic persisting throughout his pastoral and preaching years and into his Ethics and letters, and indeed into his own life story.

Readers unfamiliar with the density of Bonhoeffer’s theological works and their enduring freshness and importance for our own times will find Banman’s thesis a way into Bonhoeffer’s deep Christological reliance on God’s revelation. Those more familiar with Bonhoeffer, will, with me, appreciate Banman’s careful construction of a way of appreciating the bibliological trajectory throughout Bonhoeffer’s work. This is a beautifully written work, careful and convincing, and honours Bonhoeffer’s reliance on the Word of God. Just as Bonhoeffer did in his own time, Banman also pushes back against a historical-criticism lens that reduces Bonhoeffer to a heroic political activist and reminds us that for Bonhoeffer, to read Scripture is to read for and to find the real presence of Christ. Revelation-as-Christus-praesens was the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s theology and the grounding of his significant ethical action.

I will read this book over and again for both its overarching argument, and the well-crafted illustrations and attention to detail. Banman is to be commended for pressing into this under-investigated area of Bonhoeffer studies and arguing for Bonhoeffer as a theologian of the Word of God. The series editors, McBride, Mawson, and Zeigler, are to be thanked for bringing cutting edge research to publication.

Dianne Rayson is Lecturer in Theological Studies at Charles Sturt University, and Deputy Editor of The Bonhoeffer Legacy: An International Journal.