Bonhoeffer on Preaching

Here are just a few quotes gleaned from Metaxas’ biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer on the nature and practice of preaching:

Metaxas’ explanation of Bonhoeffer’s take on preaching – “Anything good must come from God, so even in a sermon that was poorly written and delivered, God might manifest himself and touch the congregation. Conversely in a sermon wonderfully written and delivered, God might refuse to manifest himself. The ‘success’ of the sermon is utterly dependent on the God who breaks through and ‘grasps’ us, or we cannot be ‘grasped'” (81).

In a letter from Bonhoeffer describing his experience in America – “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation…. In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life” (106).

“Bonhoeffer took preaching seriously. For him a sermon was nothing less than the very word of God, a place where God would speak to his people. Bonhoeffer wanted to impress this idea on his ordinands, to help them see that preaching was not merely an intellectual exercise. Like prayer or meditation on a scriptural text, it was an opportunity to hear from heaven, and for the preacher, it was a holy privilege to be the vessel through whom God would speak. Like the incarnation, it was a place of revelation, where Christ came into this world from outside it” (272).

Recollections of Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, on Bonhoeffer’s instruction to his seminary students on preaching – “Write you sermon in daylight; do not write it all at once; ‘in Christ’ there is no room for conditional clauses; the first minutes on the pulpit are the most favorable, so do not waste them with generalities but confront the congregation straight off with the core of the matter; extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really knows the Bible” (272).

To his friend Franz Hildebrandt – “A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a fine red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and then saying: Do you want it?” (272).

Other advice he gave his seminarians – “We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them…. 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!” (272).

“He had once told a student that every sermon must contain ‘a shot of heresy,’ meaning that to express the truth, we must sometimes overstate something or say something in a way that will sound heretical – though it must certainly not be heretical” (364).

In a letter to his parents from Tegel prison – “The occasional appearances of you and Maria, for a brief hour as though from a great distance, are really the thing for which and from which I principally live. If, besides that, I could sometimes hear a good sermon on Sundays… it would still be better” (459; emphasis mine).


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