To the already stunning list of monikers on the Dietrich Bonhoeffer resume — pastor, martyr, spy, author, faithful brother — Paul R. House has added another: theological educator. In Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision, the author has fulfilled the promise of his subtitle by making A Case for Costly Grace in higher theological education, but there is more on the agenda as well. I have not attended seminary (not to make a virtue of ignorance), but I found House’s book to be immensely practical on four levels:
- Whether or not one has read Life Together or The Cost of Discipleship, House has created a companion volume for these books (as well as some of Bonhoeffer’s lesser known writing), that will either serve as a guide for a first time reader or as a tool for enhanced appreciation of these classic works. Written during his five year tenure as a seminary educator in Nazi Germany (1935-1940), the principles in these practical and deeply theological works were formulated in the crucible of preparing ten separate groups of students for pastoral ministry under hostile conditions. Far from being the prototype for a Protestant monasticism in Germany, Bonhoeffer’s practices were a means to the end of shaping shepherds to “lead communities of costly grace.”
- For those with the delightful option of attending seminary in the future, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision will provide an enhanced check-list for weighing the merits of various schools. The prospective student, counting the cost on every level, may find that Bonhoeffer’s students displayed a degree of commitment that will encourage the formation of iron in their own souls. For example, of the approximately 180 students who trained under Bonhoeffer at the seminary level, 27 spent time in prison for their faith; most were denied positions or lost existing salaries because of their association with the Confessing Church’s seminary; most were drafted and sent into the heaviest areas of fighting. A few relevant criteria to ponder based on Bonhoeffer’s model: Will this institution help me to become a Bible-formed pastor? Is the educational experience provided there a visible expression of the body of Christ?
- Individuals and churches who are influential in the formation of seminary curriculum and educational philosophy will want to give long deliberation to the questions Paul House raises and the biblical answers he suggests. He recommends that the body of Christ rethink the CEO model for pastors in favor of a shepherding leader. He questions whether the concept of distance education aided by technology can truly provide a community of faith that will result in pastoral formation. He contrasts Bonhoeffer’s incarnational method with the predominant “industrial model” of today.
- House, Bonhoeffer, and Zechariah the prophet have spoken, and I have been rebuked for “despising the day of small things” in my own ministry. One of the best things I do all week is to sit down in the church library on Sunday morning with a group of women who are there to learn the Word of God. It’s a small space, so it’s full with a half-dozen of us, and I have wondered if my work of study and preparation is a good investment. Is this meager response, or is this an opportunity to build well into the lives of an intimate group? I am encouraged by my reading of Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision to view that time as an opportunity to participate in “preserving a cross-bearing community” in our harsh world through common prayer and serious study. My prayers for my students will now include the words “rigorous thought” and “rigorous practice.”
True to Bonhoeffer’s vision on every level, Paul R. House advocates for a weighty and refreshing ecclesiology, supporting the truth that the training of pastors, yes — but also the training of every Christian in a life of costly grace is “worthy of our ultimate commitment.”
This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
If you are new to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend Eric Metaxas’s excellent biography. For my review of the student edition, click here.
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