Bonhoeffer & the Lectionary

I have long believed that a church should read as much scripture as possible out loud, together, during worship. I know this in my mind and heart to be right. However, as a worship leader and pastor I’ve been woefully deficient in bringing this conviction to fruition in our congregation.

I first encountered the practice of the communal reading of scripture from my wife. While we were dating we would often attend Catholic Church together. As a devout evangelical, I was always mystified as to why they would simply read a segment from the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament and Gospel out loud and then not explain it to anyone. Often none of the readings had that much to do with what the Homily was about, though it was usually connected to the Gospel or one of the New Testament readings. But I was drawn to it anyway. I loved that the Psalm was always a responsive reading. I loved that everyone stood in reverence to the Gospel reading. Making a tiny sign of the cross over forehead, mouth and heart they would say, “Glory to you oh LORD.” Later when I began to learn more about the lectionary and how if you’ll read the lectionary texts in your church each week, you basically read most of the bible out loud every three years, I was hooked on the idea. Sadly, it’s not a part of our practice at my church. But I hope we can get closer to it, anyway.

I’m still reading Life Together, slowly; drinking it in. Here are a few of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the lectionary readings:

“There can be equally little doubt that brief verses cannot and should not take the place of reading the Scripture as a whole. The ‘verse for the day’ is still not the Holy Scripture which will remain throughout all time until the last day.” 50

“It will be objected that it is impossible to take in and retain such an abundance of ideas and associations, that it even shows disrespect for God’s Word to read more than one can seriously assimilate. These objections will cause us quite readily to content ourselves again with reading only verses.” 51

“In truth, however, there lurks in this attitude a grave error. If it is really true that it is hard for us, as adult Christians, to comprehend even a chapter of the Old Testament in sequence, then this can only fill us with profound shame; what kind of testimony is that to our knowledge of the Scriptures and all our previous reading of them?” 51

“Because the Scripture is a corpus, a living whole, the so-called lectio continua [our lectionary] or consecutive reading must be adopted for Scripture reading in the family fellowship.” 53

“Consecutive reading of Biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men. We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness.” 53

I’m with him.

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  • Hey Tim – I want your opinon on this: how much do you think the extreme conditions of Germany at the time of Bonhoeffer influenced his writing and how much of that do we need to take into consideration when reading him?

    I’ve often wondered this as I “filter” his stuff…

  • I think the extreme conditions are absolutely essential to his work. But one can’t forget that he displayed great erudition even before the tide turned toward national socialism. He was brilliant, he had his doctorate at age 21. I think one thing it is important to realize is that as ardently as Bonhoeffer, and Barth for that matter, protested the Nazi regime, they protested still more the liberal theology which had failed to oppose it. As much as he was disappointed by the turn of National Socialism, I think he was still more brokenhearted by the church’s inability to resist it. Bonhoeffer’s chief issue was with the theology and theologians which rendered the church totally unable to resist the state.

    So to your question, how much should we take into account the extreme conditions in Germany when we read him…I think the extreme conditions merely provided the impetus for he and Barth and others like them to turn their keen intellects toward deconstructing Herrmann, Schleiermacher and liberal theologies. I don’t think we need to alter the way we view Bonhoeffer any more than we might Karl Barth. It’s always good to know who a person is writing “against,” you know they almost always have some opposite point of view in mind which they are trying to oppose. For Bonhoeffer, I think it’s a mistake to say he was writing against the Nazi’s, though that is certainly part of it – mind you I’ve not read very much Bonhoeffer, I’ve read more about him than of him – but I think that’s my take.

    I think Bonhoeffer is actually extremely potent today because of the imperialistic tendencies of our own country. All empires are totalizing and I think that Bonhoeffer was trying to get the church to realize that faith is more than a rational abstraction, but comes to us as a way of living our life, and maybe as a way of dying? If our theology does not produce a church which is capable of martyrdom, then it is not possible to resist any regime which has at its heart and ontology of violence.

    That’s my take

  • Sounds good. Fits his doctrine of Cheap Grace.