Recapturing Bonhoeffer’s Vision: Seminary as Radical Discipleship

With the rising cost in education, classical notions of education (liberal education aimed at character formation) are being squeezed out.  Seminary education (by which I mean any collegiate biblical education) has been especially hard hit.  Paul House, a seminary professor, describes the reigning questions tempting today’s seminaries: “How do we give our constituents whatever they want? Or, How do we sell degrees like any other commodity? Or, What brand of education pays well in a hurry? Or, How do we fit into the newest trend of educational technology? Or, How do we survive at all costs?”[1] He concludes that the age in which the seminary is able to produce a viable academic setting through a “good credentialed faculty” is passing as these questions come to dominate the course of seminary education.[2]

As House describes the situation, “theology is regularly replaced by marketing strategies and financial plans” as financial concerns take precedent over education.[3] He concludes that seminary education has entered a new phase: “It appears we have now entered a phase that will focus on the form of theological education, what more industrially oriented persons call ‘delivery systems.’”[4] In my experience, optimal delivery has meant the streamlining (commonly known as dumbing down) of content and the treatment of the entire process as a business transaction.  This commodification has a direct impact on what is taught as scholarship is displaced by a system of information transfer and any notion of real discipleship is, as House describes it, laughable.[5] As costs rose the institution with which I was once affiliated made false promises (“free tuition” they claimed, when the typical student leaves with tens of thousands of dollars of debt). They reduced the workload, amped up the sports program and attempted to attract students by any means. “Biblical discipleship,” “Christ-like leadership,” “humble service,” becomes something akin to blasphemy when it is contained in the advertising of such an institution.  Unfortunately, I fear – following House, this is not atypical.

What House proposes is an examination of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s philosophy of seminary education as a possible model in the midst of the present crisis. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church came to the realization that the official seminaries had been so infected with Nazi ideology that they would have to institute their own training program.  For five years (1935-1940) Bonhoeffer would direct and teach in several different seminaries, constituting his longest continuous work and the period in which he would produce the writings for which he became famous.  It is notable that this is the work to which this highly gifted individual would turn in this dark period in which training disciples might have seemed irrelevant. From its founding, the Church has depended upon true shepherds and the enemy has understood that the way to throttle the Church is to get a hold on the source of its leaders.[6]  In Germany, if any vestige of authentic Christianity were to survive it would be through the important work of these emergency seminaries.

Bonhoeffer’s recommendations as to how to conduct these seminaries and how to sort out authentic and inauthentic leadership seems especially timely.  Commodification of the Gospel may not rank with National Socialism in terms of blatant evil but its insidious nature may make it all the more difficult to recognize and confront.  Those who formed the Confessing Church concluded that the German Church (those who had accepted that only Aryans could be part of the Church) no longer qualified as Church.  It was a difficult question to raise then and it may difficult now, but I think it is once again the question of the day – at what point is the church no longer the Church?  What are the minimal beliefs and what are the necessary elements to have a Church?  One of the themes of Bonhoeffer’s answer to this question is “community.”  He outlines the essential aspects of Christian community or doing life together.

Bonhoeffer’s goal of setting seminary training within the context of community gets at the heart of his project (and perhaps this is the failure of the American Church and seminary).  If they were all present, a total of eight men (there were no women in his classes), attended his final class and made up the full student body of his last seminary. Even when there were a few more students it was Bonhoeffer’s goal to know each of them personally, to walk with them (literally and in terms of doing life together).  As House describes it, “Together they began to conceive of a visible community of committed followers of Christ that would seek God’s will for their lives and ministries through Bible reading, prayer, common worship, and concerted action.”[7]

The anonymity of the mega-church, calls for a form of leadership which Bonhoeffer seems to specifically repudiate. “Never let a disciple of Jesus pin his hopes on large numbers. . .. The rest of the world are many, and will always be many. But they are on the road to perdition” (The Cost of Discipleship, (CD) 190).  The equivalent of the mega-church for Bonhoeffer was the church of the German Christians: “It is becoming increasingly clear to me that what we are going to get is a big, völkisch national church.”  In contrast would be those few Christians who were willing resist the herd mentality and separate themselves out.  Bonhoeffer maintains, “The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better.”  To pretend otherwise and to try to conceal this, he warns, would be the greatest danger of all.[8]

Bonhoeffer makes it clear that this false Christianity and its false leaders are sometimes hard to discern.  The false teacher he warns, “is a prophet and a preacher. He looks like a Christian, he talks and acts like one. But dark powers are mysteriously at work . . . his words are lies and his works are full of deceit. He knows only too well how to keep his secret dark and go ahead with his work” (CD, 191).  This sort of false Christianity is going to appeal to the human psyche and it will be built on the human spirit on “the dark, impenetrable urges and desires of the human soul” (Life Together (LT), 39).

The most obvious difference between false and authentic Christianity is that the former is built on charismatic leaders while the true Church is built on God’s Word (LT, 40).  “The community of faith does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and of one another. It does not lack the former, but the latter” (LT, 107). “Every personality cult that bears the mark of the distinguished qualities, outstanding abilities, powers, and talents of an other, even if these are of a thoroughly spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community of faith; indeed, it poisons the community” (LT, 106).  It is not simply the problem of the leader but indicates on the part of the community “a spiritually sick need to admire human beings and to establish visible human authority because the genuine authority of service appears to be too insignificant” (LT, 106).

Discerning the motives of the false teacher serves not only as an identifying mark of others but as a means of self-examination for those who would shepherd. The false teacher acts as he does perhaps because “he hopes his intellectual ability or his success as a prophet will bring him power and influence, money and fame. His ambitions are set on the world, not on Jesus Christ” (LT, 191).  Christians, as the false teacher knows, “are credulous people,” (so) he conceals his dark purpose (perhaps even from himself) beneath the cloak of Christian piety, hoping that his innocuous disguise will avert detection. He knows that Christians are forbidden to judge, and he will remind them of it at the appropriate time” (LT, 191).  Bonhoeffer urges his students to judge their motives, and if like false teachers they desire success and fame they should not proceed into ministry.

Bonhoeffers example and writing should cause us to pause and examine our own situation in light of this recent history. Does American evangelicalism, undisturbed by nationalism, caught up in consumerism and the cult of personality, resemble the German Christian Church in any way?  Is there the possibility, as Eugene Peterson claims, that the mega-church is no Church at all – is it something like the “big, völkisch national church?”  Is “leadership development” aimed at producing pastors who are chief executive officers true to the biblical model?  Could it be that the administrators of the typical American seminary education have “gathered like eagles around the carcass of cheap grace, and . . . drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ” (CD, 53)?

Bonhoeffer’s description of the students he was receiving from the regular seminary fits many of us at Forging Ploughshares who have been victimized by such an institution: “You can hardly imagine how empty, how completely burnt out, most of the brothers are. . .. Empty not only as regards theological insights and still more as regards knowledge of the Bible, but also as regards their personal life.”[9]  His picture of the victims of the German Church describes the typical victim of so-called “biblical training” with which I am intimately familiar.  Just as recovery groups have formed among the victims of mega-church, there is something of a recovery group formed around the local Bible College.  How can we move beyond this situation and find Christ, true Christian community, and authentic biblical discipleship?  I believe Bonhoeffer’s vision for costly discipleship in a seminary couched in Christian community is the remedy to the German Christian-like situation we find in this country.

Bonhoeffer concludes, “The community of faith will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus, because it knows that it will then be guided not by human wisdom and human conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd” (LT, 107). The community grounded in God’s Spirit and not the human psyche “differs absolutely from all other communities” (LT, 38). The Christian community’s basis “is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ” (LT, 39).  The difference between the two types of communities is that of light and darkness (LT, 39). It is the difference between love and lust (LT, 39– 40).[10] It is the difference between life and death.  Christian community – the body of Christ – is the means by which we are being saved: “Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ” (LT, 33). “We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity” (LT, 34).  Where this community is lacking salvation is lacking but where this community is in place salvation is a reality we can begin to live out in a costly form of discipleship.


[1] Paul R. House, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Kindle Locations 361-362). Crossway. Kindle Edition. I am following House’s quotes of Bonhoeffer.  Thank you Jim Kilson for recommending this book.

[2] House, 343-345.

[3] House, 335-338. Several seminaries and Bible Colleges among Independent Christian Churches paid the same consultant out of Oral Roberts University to tell them how to survive.  Business and sports programs are now the nearly universal result. As House maintains, financial pragmatism has also meant that mechanical/electronic delivery systems have forced out personal discipleship. (Meanwhile, accreditation policies have adapted these options and have accelerated their use as the new trend is made an official goal.) As House points out, the seminaries believe these programs will help their bottom line and they are mostly desperate to survive.

[4] House, 345-346.

[5] “To fuel interest, seminary advertising campaigns use terms like ‘online community’ as if one may have communion without actual physical presence. I recently saw a seminary advertisement that had the audacity to call online degrees ‘personal’ because there could be a voice on the phone, a potential letter in the mail, and a hand to shake on graduation day— surely a minimalist definition if I ever saw one” (339-342).

[6] Perhaps, Jesus own example of a three-year intensive training program in face of a looming disaster is the model. Jesus knew that the Jews had their official shepherds, the priests and Pharisees and religious leaders, but that was precisely the problem.  The people are harassed and helpless and the would-be shepherds are themselves abusing their charges (Mt 9:35-38). To start over would mean to start with new shepherds trained up in a new way.

[7] House, 451-455.

[8] Letter to his grandmother, August 20, 1933. Quoted in House, 500-502.

[9] Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 454. See also DBW 14: 252– 55. Quoted by House, 1859.

[10] House, 1811-1813.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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