Monday, June 18, 2012

Bonhoeffer on the "Relevance" of the Bible

Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic . . .
Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it . . . Trust to the Word.
It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I was reminded of this little nugget of wisdom this morning by Joel Willetts over at EuangelionAs I learned long ago when I first read The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer has much to teach those of us who come from differing theological and ecclesial traditions.  This particular quote is a classic, expressing a truth I have long embraced over against the shallow evangelical homiletics I was taught three decades ago.

The rallying cry for much of the evangelical world is "relevance."  People are turned off from church, so I have often been told, because they don't see it.  All those old, "boring" rituals and creeds, all the old hymns and strains of Bach emanating from the pipe organ, all the "incomprehensible" theological jargon from the pulpit leave people cold.  Or so I have been told ad nauseum.  I have much I could say about all these charges, but I would like to focus especially on the one issue I am most qualified to address, namely, the content of what is preached from the pulpit (or, as is unfortunately now most often the case, the stage).

I was taught — even at a seminary famous for its rigorous emphasis on biblical exegesis from the original languages — that the focus of sermons must relentlessly be on application, and that the congregants (again, unfortunately, they are increasingly being viewed as the "audience") must recognize the "relevance" of the message from the very beginning of the sermon.  Now, I realize that sermons differ from the academic lectures I enjoy delivering and attending, and that they are certainly not meant to be showcases for the preacher's historical-critical and theological expertise.  As the Second Helvetic Confession and many theologians (including Bonhoeffer) have realized, sermons are, in a very real sense, God's word directed to his people.

What I have long contested is the notion that the preacher has to "make the Bible" relevant to people in the 21st century Western world.  On the contrary, as Bonhoeffer noted, such a notion severely undercuts the inherent power of Scripture itself which, as the author of Hebrews stated, is "living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb 4:12).

The problem is simply this: by attempting to make the Bible relevant, the preacher leaves uncontested the inherited understandings and assumptions that shape the lives of the people who are meant to be confronted by the word of God.  As a result, there are endless sermon series on the family, business, sex, and countless other "practical concerns."  Of course, I am not saying that the Bible doesn't have much to say that impacts our understanding of such matters.  What I am saying is that trying to "make the Bible relevant" too often leaves the congregants' foundational worldviews unaffected.  Consequently, as I have often noted, "evangelical Christianity" too often is presented as a sanctified "Americanism" that has little, if anything, prophetic to say to the culture at large.  No wonder we evangelicals have, despite our numbers, been derelict in our calling to work for God's kingdom by implementing the victory won by Jesus in his cross and resurrection.

It is better, as Bonhoeffer understood, to recognize that the Bible is inherently relevant to our lives.  This indeed is the importance of the "indicative" strains that dominate the Bible's story line.  For it is the "indicative" content of Scripture that gives rise to the "imperatives" and is capable of shaping the worldviews of Christians who have, despite their (at least at the lip-service level) adoption of Judeo-Christian sexual mores and boundary-marker avoidance of culturally-specific "worldly" activities, by and large bought into "worldly" system that defines American life.  Recognizing the Bible's inherent relevance is the first step toward the preacher's renewed confidence in Scripture as God's Word.  There is no need to treat the Bible as a Procrustean Bed and force alien "applications" onto "indicative" texts not designed for that purpose.  Let the Bible be the Bible.  That means trusting God to work through Scripture to change people in the most fundamental way, viz., by progressively working on the minds and hearts of his people to bring their view of the world into conformity with his.

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