Paul House’s book on Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision grows out of his many years of investment in “personal, incarnational theological education” (p. 11) and his long-term interest in Bonhoeffer’s life and writings. He sees in Bonhoeffer’s seminary vision an example and perhaps a corrective to trends in seminary education today. This work aims to discern Bonheoffer’s “theology of seminary ministry and to consider if or how to apply his theology and practice to our current situation” (p. 15). House notes that with all the interest in Bonhoeffer, the focus is on him as a pastor, ecumenist, theologian, and member of the Resistance. His biographers tend to neglect his role as a seminary educator.
In chapter 1 House addresses this neglect by pondering the reasons why his biographers may have written so little on this important period in his life. and in so doing makes a valuable contribution to the study of Bonhoeffer’s thought and labors. “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” (p. 29).
In the next chapter, House outlines Bonhoeffer’s path to seminary ministry. House briefly sketches why he left the lecture hall to become a seminary director, introduces his students and the places the seminary met, the schedule the seminary kept, and the curriculum Bonhoeffer oversaw (p. 32). House quotes Bonhoeffer: “I no longer believe in the university; in fact, I have never really believed in it.…The next generation of pastors, these days, ought to be trained entirely in church-monastic schools, where the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously” (p. 41).
Chapter 3, the longest chapter in the book, is House’s effort to focus attention on Cost of Discipleship. The German title, Nachfolge, which is best translated, Following, better captures Bonhoeffer’s intention for the book. In House’s words, “Christian life and ministry require following Jesus, whatever that means at any concrete moment, according to what the Bible teaches” (p. 58). Themes of discipleship and the Sermon on the Mount had long gripped Bonhoeffer, but it was his first two years as seminary director at Finkenwalde where he brought it all together, teaching it, and preparing it for publication in 1937. This chapter insightfully unpacks this classic and shows how it was applied in its original context and how it applies to seminary life today.
Chapter 4 is devoted to helping the reader understand how Bonhoeffer’s Life Together was written primarily with seminary life as the primary focus. House lets Life Together open the window on Bonhoeffer’s convictions about “ministerial formation in visible seminaries” (p. 102). He unpacks the five chapters of the book and shows how Bonhoeffer viewed the seminary, like other communities of faith, as a visible community of the Body of Christ. In 1937 Cost of Discipleship was completed. Bonhoeffer’s own experience of this cost intensified with the Gestapo closing down Finkenwalde and the Brother’s House where “life together” was forged. The political situation leading to the outbreak of World War II was escalating. Amidst these pressures Bonhoeffer devoted four weeks to write the first draft of Life Together. House spells out what Bonhoeffer means by the seminary (and the church) being the visible body of Christ and how this community is both a gift and a challenge. House also pulls together what a day in the life of the seminary community looked like with its spiritual disciplines, its academic study, its solitude, its service and its rest and recreation. He closes this chapter by drawing implications for seminaries today as incarnational communities.
In chapter 5, House moves beyond Cost of Discipleship and Life Together to focus on briefer writings such as sermons and letters composed by Bonhoeffer in the final phase of his service as seminary director (1937–1940). House calls them “short gems devoted to specific sequential aspects of the enduring, faithful life of Christian service” (p. 144). Bonhoeffer emphasized during this period the need for the Confessing Church and his former and current students to persevere in faithfulness amidst increasingly difficult circumstances. This chapter also includes Bonhoeffer’s decision to take an opportunity to go to the United States for a year. He went, but then returned after only a month. He regretted his decision to leave Germany and desired to come back to “the joy in the work at home.” A significant portion of this chapter recounts Bonhoeffer’s extended Christ-centered meditations on Psalm 119.
In the sixth and final chapter, House concludes his insightful and provocative study of Bonhoeffer’s seminary work reflecting on “some possibilities for incarnational seminaries” experiencing “life together today” (p. 183). He discusses the pitfalls of distance education, shares thoughts on the size of seminaries, the importance of church-based internship programs, the uses of electronic devices, and the list could go on. House’s passion for Bonhoeffer-inspired incarnational seminary education is summed up in this chapter but is woven throughout this excellent work.
One cannot help but be inspired by Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together. Passion for the church and the preparation of its shepherds exudes not only from Bonhoeffer but from Paul House as well. Bonhoeffer’s vision resonates deeply with the vision of Bethlehem College & Seminary, the church-based school at which I serve. My hope is that in reading this work there will be a growing commitment to Bonhoeffer’s and House’s vision, to seek to experience “life together” while not shrinking back from the “cost of discipleship” as we seek first the Kingdom of God. May House’s book be read and contextualized by the movers and shakers in our seminaries.