Friday, May 8, 2015

Book Review: Bonhoeffer's Seminary Vision

This book is not for everybody, but it’s probably for more than you’d think at first glance. In fact, if you’re reading this review, it is probably for you. Paul House offers a worthy parry & thrust into the discussion on the future of education. This book is a polemic, and House tells you upfront which side he comes down on—and strongly at that. However, I don’t think you can walk away from this book thinking that House has pigeonholed Bonhoeffer onto his own side; he lets Bonhoeffer speak. (Self-proclaimed) non-historian House expertly retells the seminary years of Bonhoeffer, setting his most popular works in their chronological and more powerful context.

Book thesis: This book attempts to do two things. First, it tries to examine Bonhoeffer’s theology and practice of theological education in their original context. Second, it endeavors to assert the biblical necessity of personal, incarnational, face-to-face education for the health of pastors and churches.

I need to say at the start that there may be two reasons why readers will be disappointed in this book: first, they may think it uses most of its pages to recapitulate information we already know if we have read (1) a biography of Bonhoeffer, (2) the Cost of Discipleship, and (3) Life Together; and secondly, they may think it is too argumentative and critical of ‘technological advancements’ for ‘distance education.’ And yet, House (and by extension, I) warn you that such ‘problems’ with the text are precisely what House wishes to communicate. In other words: House accomplishes his thesis to the utmost; so if you don’t like the thesis, you will not like this book.

But let me explain why I think his thesis is valuable. It’s easy to read The Cost of Discipleship or Life Together and extrapolate all of the pithy statements and insightful ideas divorced from the context they were written in; but when the manuscripts are placed  in a chronology of Bonhoeffer’s life, and the editor constantly turns to show influence and implications of each section, the works come alive with new vigor. And so Bonhoeffer becomes less an ivory-tower theologian, and especially less a spy, and more a committed disciple of Jesus Christ striving with all his efforts and energies and passionate heart to equip more disciples of Christ for the ministry of the church in dark days. In some sense the two major chapters that form this book are 75% summary of Bonhoeffer’s books, and yet I think even the reader familiar with Bonhoeffer’s books will find fresh and powerful insight into the weightiness of the call of Christ. And, perhaps more significantly, they are struck with the example of one who remains faithful to the commission with which he charges others. Reading Bonhoeffer’s ideas in this context both magnifies the call and encourages the called: for he who calls is faithful and preserves his people to the end.

As far as polemics are concerned: you will find a sincerely convinced seminarian espousing a very specific seminary philosophy and critiquing a similarly specific seminary philosophy. House shows a humble conviction, however, always reminding readers that his idea is not staunch traditionalism, but rather an informed faith in Christ, God incarnate, who gathered disciples face-to-face, and builds his church doing the same. The final chapter reveals the deep wisdom House has accumulated from sincere and lengthy reflection and dialogue about arguments and counterarguments; about seminary life now and future. His arguments are not trite and childish, but measured and thoughtful. He takes disagreement seriously and (I believe) proves that more than anything, he wants to be faithful. He announces his indebtedness to others and his pleasure at serving with seminaries who model this incarnational model, but he does not pretend that these are the only institutions who are truly honoring Jesus. He offers suggestions for a variety of ministerial training centers from large seminaries to denominational programs. You may disagree with his conclusions, but you will have to wrestle honestly with the biblical text and example. Nonetheless whether you find the argument persuasive, you will have no doubt that House really does “endeavor to assert the biblical necessity” of this education model.

I offer one potential area of improvement. House states pretty early on that he is not an Hagiographer (he also states that he is not an historian). And it may be difficult to believe this is true from this text alone. Not only does he show apt ability in bringing the history to life, but he does not critique Bonhoeffer’s own ideas or actions. Surely Bonhoeffer was not yet perfect, and yet we find no mention of failures. This is, in part, due to the de facto nature of history and the purpose of the book: ‘what did Bonhoeffer believe and do about seminary?’ but it may leave the reader wondering if everything Bonhoeffer did really was appropriate. Perhaps there is nothing worth criticism that fits the scope of this book, but I am at a loss to know whether that is true. Indeed, every time a place for possible criticism arises—the daily seminary schedule, the absence/return from seminary, the correspondence with friends or family, the resistance, etc. House mentions that ‘others’ have disputed the reasons or integrity, but House himself never does. For this reason, I believe House is open to the charge of hagiography; and yet I am the more grateful that his focus is upon edifying and building the body of Christ. Indeed, you must remove a false structure before building a sound one in its place, and so accuse me of hagiography: I find House’s work excellent.

As I stated before: this book isn’t for everybody, but it’s for quite a few more than you’d expect at first. With 5/5 stars, and no comparable work I’m aware of, I recommend this book to

Seminary Presidents (and Christian Universities)
Seminary Prospects
Parents of Seminary Prospects
Church Elder Boards
Senior Pastors
Youth Pastors
Directors of Denominational programs

I received a free digital copy of this book for review as part of Crossway’s Beyond the Page program.

This review is crosslisted on Amazon and Goodreads