Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life

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Michael Pasquarello III
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer lit up the screen in a heated game of Catch Phrase, few players would shout out “preacher!” as a clue to their teammates. It is far more likely that players would offer up “martyr,” “prisoner,” or “conspirator” as possible clues. Unfortunately, as Michael Pasquarello states in Dietrich: Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life, these more popular descriptions of Bonhoeffer have served to buttress the neglect of his homiletical significance (3). Perhaps another contributing factor is the fact that after over seventy years of scholarship on Bonhoeffer, one is hard pressed to find any extended analysis of his life-long commitment to preaching. Dietirch not only addresses this dearth of studies, but also serves as a call for future Bonhoeffer scholars to seriously engage Bonhoeffer’s pastoral work and sermons as untapped hermeneutical keys to his theology.

While Dietrich is not a biography, a point Pasquarello stresses, it does read that way, tracing Bonhoeffer’s life through three different phases: preparation, preaching, and consequences. However, Pasquarello has done something new by providing a narrative retelling of Bonhoeffer centered around his preaching life. Accordingly, Pasquarello does not begin in 1906 with Bonhoeffer’s birth, but rather in 1924 with his enrollment at Berlin University. Pasquarello details Bonhoeffer’s development as a “homiletical theologian,” Pasquarello’s term for describing Bonhoeffer’s combined focus on preaching and theology (13). Readers of Bonhoeffer often associate these university years with nuanced academic arguments. However, Pasquarello notes that in so doing, many have overlooked the ways Bonhoeffer simultaneously articulates a theology of preaching. For example, Pasquarello highlights that embedded in the argument of Act and Being is a Lutheran theology of preaching “generated by God’s self-giving in Christ present with and for the church as the community of faith across time” (223). Following the work of Reggie Williams (Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, Baylor University Press, 2014), Pasquarello concludes his analysis of Bonhoeffer’s preparation phase by arguing that Harlem was an awakening for Bonhoeffer that helped him reconcile his love of Germany with God’s revelation in Christ for all people.

Pasquarello’s engagement with Bonhoeffer’s post-university preaching life from 1931-1937 not only provides excellent theological analysis of Bonhoeffer’s sermons, but unearths the ways Bonhoeffer’s historical context informed both his homiletics and hermeneutics (84). Pasquarello notes how Bonhoeffer was often preaching to a German church which had lost its place and was desperate to show that its religion was compatible with the Nazi agenda. Against this backdrop, Pasquarello turns to Bonhoeffer’s sermons, analyzing how they often served as powerful polemics countering the prevailing nationalistic agenda. For example, Pasquarello details how Bonhoeffer’s sermon for the first Sunday of Advent in 1931 draws upon the “strange world of the Bible” to urge his audience to wait on God to fulfill his promises rather than seeking to take hold of history (89). Even while Bonhoeffer was in London, his preaching continued to be shaped by the events in Germany. Pasquarello notes how Bonhoeffer’s sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9 was timely since the Nazis had begun targeting vulnerable populations. The text, which states that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, is in opposition to the Nazi Party’s glorification of strength and contempt for weakness (126). Pasquarello asserts that the London sermons warrant more attention, but claims that Bonhoeffer’s time in London was a period of exile, “a time of voluntary silence that was necessary for discerning how to speak of God and the church in a future that was still unknown” (119). Here Pasquarello seems to depart from Keith Clements (Bonhoeffer and Britain, CCBI Publications, 2006), who has argued that London was central to Bonhoeffer’s story, noting that his involvement in the German Church Struggle unexpectedly intensified as a London pastor.

The third section of Dietrich details Bonhoeffer’s post-Finkenwalde years until his death in 1945, a period not often associated with Bonhoeffer’s preaching. Yet Pasquarello explains the ways Bonhoeffer’s preaching life continued through his sermon to the congregation at Gross-Schlonwitz and through his circular letters to members of the Finkenwalde community. Pasquarello also examines Bonhoeffer’s two publications during this period: Discipleship and Life Together. Pasquarello argues that the two texts articulate a prophetic vision of the Church community—one capable of fostering resistance to the Nazi state (166). He notes how, contrary to popular interpretations, Life Together is a subversive text that challenges the ways the Nazi regime was seeking to organize and classify people into communities based up human ideals (164). While brief, Pasquarello does analyze Letters and Papers from Prison, and claims that the text provides little insight into the practice of preaching, but rather “daring proposals that draw from [Bonhoeffer’s] previous work and experience to discern a concrete direction for preaching in a radically changing world” (188). While Pasquarello details Bonhoeffer’s claims that, for the time being, the words Christians use should lose their power and be silenced in favor of prayer and doing justice, he concludes the text by arguing that Bonhoeffer was convinced of the visibility of the church (195).

Perhaps the lasting merit of Dietrich will be the new research that its publication will inspire. For example, what was the gospel for Bonhoeffer and what precisely did he mean when he used the term? How did Bonhoeffer’s cultural formation impact his hermeneutics and homiletics? And lastly, how does Bonhoeffer’s understanding of preaching develop throughout his life—most notably in prison? Dietrich will also serve as an important companion text to the recently completed collection of Bonhoeffer’s sermons (see Victoria Barnett, ed., The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Vol. 2, Fortress Press, 2017). There is perhaps one, seemingly simple, question woven throughout the entire interpretive history of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work—who was he? Regrettably, scholars have often answered this question by presenting whichever depiction of the man aligns most closely with their chosen agenda. However, Pasquarello’s presentation of Bonhoeffer is justified and will challenge interpreters to consider the implications of Bonhoeffer the preacher on the rest of his life and work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew K. Jones is a doctoral student in Divinity at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Pasquarello III is Lloyd J. Ogilvie professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary.


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