Reflections on the Bible: Human Word of Word of God

bibleReflections on the Bible: Human Word of Word of God
Author: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated by M. Eugene Boring
ISBN: 9781619709089
Price: £11.99
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Year: 2017
Publisher: Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts

In the anglophone world, Bonhoeffer has tended to be associated with famous misinterpretations of his Letters and Papers, but in recent years things have begun to change. This is due in large part to the English translation of his complete works in 17 volumes. The true breadth and richness of Bonhoeffer's writing, for Christians of all denominations, has thus been more widely acknowledged after decades of being obscured; not only by erroneous readings, but also clumsy translations from the German.

But weighty, multi-volume critical editions do not suit all readers. Many find lengthy footnotes cumbersome and distracting, and have neither the time nor inclination to wade through all the obscure fragments therein. Much of Bonhoeffer's uniqueness stems from his accessibility. At his most memorable, he writes in pithy, succinct and powerful statements, which can leave an impression on any reader, not just an enthusiast or specialist. Think of his comment that Jesus is 'a man for others', or his claim that 'when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die'. So there are good grounds to compile short and affordable compilations of salient moments in the Bonhoeffer corpus, and disclose the treasures hidden inside.

One such compilation is Reflections on the Word of God, which is arranged thematically around Bonhoeffer and Scripture. There is much to celebrate here. Bonhoeffer engages directly and explicitly with Scripture in ways perhaps more evident than in certain other theologians. Some of his most important theological texts were even dismissed as mere 'sermons' in his own lifetime. His working with Scripture is not a mere commitment to Sola Scriptura, but a profound reworking of Luther's orientation to the Bible as the primary locus of God's revealed Word, with ecumenically significant consequences.

Bonhoeffer discerned and wrote about his own distinct devotional 'method' for living the Scriptures in daily life, borrowing from Thomas ˆ Kempis and St Ignatius Loyola. He worked with a weekly pattern of meditating on a particular verse, repeatedly asking oneself, meditatively, how the verse is 'concrete' (meaning fully real) in one's own life. One of his descriptions of what he termed his 'Spiritual Exercises' is included in the final chapter of these Reflections, in which he states 'I...ask with all my powers what God is trying to say to us' (p. 110).

Bonhoeffer was also remarkably ahead of his time as regards more formal Biblical interpretation. Trained in the rigours of German historical criticism, he was one of the first to highlight the weaknesses of an overly scientific method, and to outline what he termed 'theological interpretation', that is, reading the Bible as 'the property of the church' (as 'God's Word') and not as a mere historical source ('human word'). While the contrast between the human word and God's Word is the subtitle to this book, a key text on this topic (from Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall), is unfortunately not included.

There is much more that could be said on Bonhoeffer's relationship with Scripture, and so there is much to commend the writings compiled here. Nonetheless, there is some biographical confusion in the ordering of the texts, which would benefit from a little more editorial glossing. The opening chapter ('A Grand Liberation') describes a powerful moment in Bonhoeffer's 20s, when he says he truly became a Christian through reading Scripture. The second chapter then moves back to Bonhoeffer's university days, and a rigorous academic essay on hermeneutics (from which he felt liberated). The reader needs this information behind the two texts. Editorial problems are evident elsewhere. There is no indication as to the genre of the chapters - which include letters, sermons, essays, chapters in monographs - which makes the book feel a touch confusing. Finally, the translations here are not consistent with the critical edition, and there are thus potentially confusing renderings of key Bonhoefferian terms. That said, any Christian who wants to freshen-up their encounter with Scripture, or for those engaged in preaching and catechesis, there is nothing like reading Bonhoeffer to foster his sense of the Bible as 'the place where God has chosen to meet us' (p. 109).

Jacob Phillips, St Mary's University, Twickenham