Bonhoeffer on Theological Education

Paul R. House has written this helpful reminder about Bonhoeffer’s commitment to theological education.

A Most Treasured Vocation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) died 70 years ago this month.

As recent bestselling biographies by Eric Metaxas and Charles Marsh indicate, Bonhoeffer is usually remembered as university professor, pastor, spy, and martyr. Yet he served as a seminary director from 1935 to 1940, longer than he did in any of these other important roles.

Seminary work was his most treasured vocation. He returned to it from America in 1939, and stayed in it until he had no other option. As director, he insisted on face-to-face, community-based pastoral formation for theological reasons he gives in The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, which he wrote during these years. As I survey the landscape of seminary education these days, especially as practiced by evangelicals, I pray that Bonhoeffer the theologically-driven seminary director will be taken seriously.

Rooted in Ecclesiology

Bonhoeffer’s commitment to face-to-face, community-based pastoral formation grew from his understanding of the church, the subject of his first two books. In those books he argued from Scripture and sociological theory that the church is a living community of practicing believers. This community is a flesh-and-blood body—the body of Christ on earth. This body moves, speaks, and takes up space. It is not abstract. It is not invisible. Thus, where there is no body there is no church.

Bonhoeffer believed that a seminary shaping future pastors is a ministry of the church, not a credentialing service selling credits. So it must include the hearts, minds, and bodies of students, teachers, staff members, and church people. All are responsible to their brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus and Paul shaped ministers this way, and so should all who wish to be biblical.

A Powerful Warning

Bonhoeffer’s accurate understanding of the church and its seminary ministry offers a powerful warning to us. Where there is no body, there are no disciples, no church, and thus no seminary. Since a body cannot exist on a screen or online, neither can churches or seminaries. Being physically present is essential for ministerial preparation.

As we mark Bonhoeffer’s death, let us celebrate Christ’s body by giving up disembodied seminary education. Let us help donors see the importance of supporting face-to-face formation. Let administrators and teachers commit to in-person education. Let students insist seminaries provide biblical formation. Let mission boards send people—not videos—to international seminaries.

Let us all commit to costly discipleship and life together for Christ’s body’s sake.

Paul R. House (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has been a pastor-teacher in churches, Christian colleges, and seminaries for over 30 years. He has served as a department chair at Taylor University and Wheaton College, and as academic dean at Beeson Divinity School, where he currently teaches. He is a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature. He is the author of Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together.