Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision by Paul House

Fantastic work by Eric Metaxes
Fantastic work by Eric Metaxes

Do you know the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer? I imagine it will be well known to most of the readers of this blog. If you know the name, what comes to mind as you read it? My first thought is usually the connection to Eric Metaxes phenomenal biography of Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, but to limit our view of Bonhoeffer as the subtitle of Metaxes’ book does to a mere four descriptions is neglectful of who Bonhoeffer was. Yes, he was a pastor, and by all accounts an excellent one. Yes, he was a martyr and a tragic one. Yes, he was a prophet of sorts—like many other Christian thinkers (C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer come to mind). Taking Metaxes research, yes, he was a spy. But as Paul House points out in his recent book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together, to neglect Bonhoeffer’s pursuit of the raising and training of faithful and knowledgable shepherds and ministers is a critical oversight. As the subtitle suggests,

The critical edition, a new readers edition is available on Amazon.
The critical edition, a new readers edition is available on Amazon.

Bonhoeffer’s most crucial days might be those as a seminary leader thanks to the two works that they produced—Discipleship (originally published in America as The Cost of Discipleship, highlighting the theme o the book not its actual German title) and Life Together. Both of these works have been very influential on my theology and subsequently my life and I am deeply thankful for them, but we would do well to remember that “these works were presented to and written about seminary students, seminary supporters, and seminary alumni” (27). So let us heed House’s advice and consider Bonhoeffer and his vision for the seminary.

House on Bonhoeffer on Seminaries

Paul House makes three legitimate criticisms that I believe the seminary, and churches, need to hear:

Think Theologically Not Pragmatically

House believes that “Seminary educators desperately need [Bonhoeffer’s] theological under pinnings” because he reminds us, “like all Christian work theological education needs grounding in theology” (29). At Talbot School of Theology and during my biblical studies undergraduate work at Biola University, I was taught that everything is theological, that all of life needs to be looked at through the prism of theology, discipleship, and the kingdom of God. At Biola and Talbot I was taught to think theologically, which means that it was probably not surprising that I think about my education theologically—though it seemed like others rarely did. I would often find younger students asking me who to take for a certain class, only to respond to my answer with “oh I heard that guy is pretty hard.” I would try and explain that he was not unnecessarily hard, but rather that he was trying to challenge so that students would really work and grow and understand the material. Often my advice was not taken. Many of the students were just trying to get through so they could hang a parchment colored piece of paper on their wall.

then_a_miracle_occurs_cartoonI got the distinct feeling that it wasn’t just the students, but some of the administrators who neglected to think theologically about theological education as well. The primary result was a few degree programs that should not be offered as anything more than a certificate, not a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. For example as an undergraduate I encountered two degree programs that I have always found odd, Intercultural Studies and Christian Ministries. The former is widely understood to be the missionary training degree and the latter the youth pastor or pastor’s wife degree. I found this troubling wondering why students who wanted to be pastors or theologians were assigned to Biblical and Theological Studies (as I was) and aspiring youth pastors and missionaries were pointed in a different direction. Do missionaries not need to study Greek and Hebrew or understand modern theology (like say Liberation theology popular in South America) and do youth pastors not benefit from reading Augustine or Calvin?

The same thing was true at the graduate level with the Biblical Exposition and Apologetics degrees. I never got a good answer to the question “how can I trust someone’s apologetics if they have never read a primary source from the worldview they are critiquing?” I don’t mean that they don’t know how to critique postmodernism, but that they critique is meaningless to me if they have never opened Nietzsche, Marx, Freud. And what good is a degree in Biblical Exposition if you don’t (this is true) study the original languages? What I say in all of these programs was pragmatism. A lot of my friends criticize me for my criticism of pragmatism, but they misunderstand what I am saying. They mistake me for criticizing being practical, but that is not the same thing. Being practical is to choose the common sense approach or the approach that works in one instant, being pragmatic is to believe that the right choice is always the practical one.

The problem with pragmatism is that it seems to run contrary to how God does things. He picks a small, scrappy, defiant nation rather than a powerful and submissive one. The King he chooses is handsome and ruddy, not mighty and dignified. When Jesus selects his disciples he pick fishermen not scribes. The gospel itself is said to be foolishness to the worldly wise.

In many cases I see why the pragmatism has slipped into the seminary, not to mention into the church, and House is write to challenge them noting, “Seminaries must take stock from time to time. They must make certain their programs and policies have not gotten detached from stable biblical-theological moorings. That many seminaries drift is a fact” (56).

Why so serious?
Why so serious?

Consider Calling

There were two types of students that I was concerned about, I believe House is too. The first was mentioned above, they are usually youth ministers who see their M.Div as a parallel to an MBA, it was just something to put on a resume, a paper to hang in their office, or something to give them legitimacy for a higher position. The other group felt attracted to theology and thought I must be called to be a pastor since none of the believers around me feel the same tug. House writes, “Some seminary students are seeking a bit of biblical and theological information, often because in-depth teaching is not offered at their local churches. Others hope to use seminary education as a pathway into an academic career” (91). House is concerned with these people, I believe we can lump the ladder-climbing-youth-pastor in this group, because their lack of calling. To accommodate students who are not motivated by God’s call to ministry often lowers the bar of our seminary training. Bonhoeffer’s very own students tended to think his theological vision of education was too intense, “The disciplined approach to each day was on of the most controversial aspects of the seminary at the time” (48), that is until they were launched out into the chaotic world of ministry in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Reading about the rigors of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual requirements made me think about Patrick Willis and Mike Singletary. An odd connection for many, but consider that Willis retired early and has a shot, even with his shortened career, at the Hall of Fame. During his years on the 49ers he was one of the NFL’s most feared defensive players, and when he won the NFL defensive rookie of the year award he dedicated it to his linebacker coach Mike Singletary. He said, in essence, that he hated Singletary during training camp, he felt that he was always riding him and pushing him. He didn’t understand why, until game day. Bonhoeffer’s students, while having kinder feelings toward him throughout their training, would have been able to resonate with Willis.

When we don’t consider and assess whether a seminary student is actually called to a life of ministry, we do them, their fellow students, and local churches a disservice by lower expectations to cater to them.

Challenge and Give Grace

We should be reminded of our goal, House states, “Bonhoeffer’s goal in his life and writing was always to find and serve the church so he could serve Jesus” (79). I say this because, building from the last point, we will not persevere if we view seminary as mere academic training for our careers. We need to be reminded that seminary studies are ultimately about serving Christ by serving his church. If seminary professors align themselves with this understanding of what they and their students are doing, my guess is that the challenge of seminary work would rise. Why would that be a good thing? Consider the American crisis of public schools. American public schools are pretty bad (I speak from experience), there is a current political and academic debate over how to improve them—more programs, more tools, common core, etc. Yet there is something that is often talked about and quickly dismissed: a combination of harder education programs, higher wages for teachers, and encouraging our top high school students to study education rather than seek entrance into business or technology fields. Why would this help? Did you know that the average high school teacher scored below average on the SATs and held a 3.0 college GPA? Those stats according to a Freakonomics podcast I listened to last week, if your interested. This is a stark contrast to earlier generations when teaching was either the only vocational option for intelligent and independent women or when teaching was held as an honorable profession that built up the future of the nation. I wonder if seminary students aren’t the same today, a dime a dozen, many of which are below average. I don’t necessarily think higher pay for pastors is the answer, but rigorous training would help.

True dat.
True dat.

Consider that it is quite easy to obtain an M.Div from an evangelical seminary without reading Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Owen, Barth, etc. Instead, because those guys are hard, many read books that talk about those guys, which are helpful in their proper context, but run contrary to the entire purpose of seminary. Professors can and should give grace, but first they must offer challenging work so that the grace is costly.

Well written and well argued.
Well written and well argued.

And Yet…

I am in deep agreement with House on many fronts, both the points covered above and his response to the counter-arguments that are presented in the closing chapter of his book. Online education, specifically Christian education and more specifically seminary education, are suspect and should be approached first theologically seeking to understand more than the budget and the need for a increased student body. And yet, I am an adjunct professor of an online class at one of the top Christian universities in the country. Is this hypocrisy? Not really, I have taken House’s advice and thought deeply and theologically about this. There is something he neglects in his assessment: the shape of Bonhoeffer’s student body.

Bonhoeffer’s students were, generally speaking, dedicated and adventurous unmarried young men. They chose to align themselves with a new, struggling, and relatively undefined protestant church. (43)

This is where being a bit practical comes in. Being married did not exclude you from Bonhoeffer’s seminary, but I can say confidently that the needs of my wife would have excluded me from being one of his students, not to mention now that we have a son. I tend to refer to myself as an idealist when it comes to ministry and education. I believe their is a best way to do most things and that in many cases the resources are available to do it that way (at least in America), but we often get wrapped up in pragmatism and fail to follow the best way. The flip-side of this coin, however, is that the best way often assumes perfection. We must remember that it is the ideal, it is what we should strive for, but there are aspects that are just not realistic. The Bonhoeffer vision would basically require the average student to be single and to be supported (rather than having a full or part time job). Furthermore, Bonhoeffer’s students already had working fluency in theology and ministry, they were not novices, but had academic backgrounds in theology and had been through the equivalent of an internship. Bonhoeffer’s students are probably more comparable to Th.M students than M.Div students, which changes the playing field a bit. I still think the points above apply, but the changing landscape must be accounted for.

There is more to say, my concern for the tag “adventurous” coupled with the American attraction to popularized existential theology like that of John Eldridge, but this is the point where I must leave you. All-in-all I should say that I enjoyed House’s book and I highly recommend it to those considering seminary and especially those who work at a seminary (or Christian education in general). Read it and be challenged.

Thanks for reading,


If you want to read some Bonhoeffer,  check out the new reader’s editions of Bonhoeffer’s work put out by Fortress press.



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