Article Mar 17, 2015

Bonhoeffer, "Life Together" and the semester that changed me

Editor's Note: We asked several ERLC research fellows to weigh in on books and thinkers that have helped shape and solidify their convictions and worldview. Be sure to check out other posts in this series here

As a publisher, I make it my job to interrogate everyone I meet about their personal history with books. When did you become a reader? What books have most impacted your work? What is on your nightstand right now? I’ve found that when I ask students that graduated from Christian colleges and universities, the most common answers are two books: Mere Christianity and The Cost of Discipleship. That is my answer, too.

At Union University, where I received a bachelor's degree in Christian Ethics, they offered seminars on both C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both courses gave me the opportunity to read each theologian’s catalogue of books. It’s scandalous how fun it was to spend a semester with Lewis and a semester with Bonhoeffer—I still can’t believe such a thing exists.

When I arrived at Union as a transfer student from Belmont University, I had read very little of what might be considered theology proper. Mere Christianity and The Cost of Discipleship were my first attempts at what I considered at the time—and I still do—serious reading. I liked Lewis because he was clever. I liked Bonhoeffer because I was a teenager and had an inordinate appreciation of hyperbole. I’m not sure I read either writer very well.

It’s dangerous to read great books

Union professors are generous with encouragement, at least that was the case with theology students. Professors like Brad Green taught me to appreciate great books (perhaps it’s more accurate to say I “caught” a love of great books; it is extremely contagious). We read The Abolition of Man together, and my love of clear writing and thinking grew. Then Union president David Dockery succeeded in persuading the entire campus, both faculty and students, that everything we read and wrote was directed in worship toward God. I bought in.

But I wasn’t sure where my theological commitments lay. It’s dangerous to read great books because no single thinker can—no single thinker should, save Jesus Christ—account for all of your theology. My young mind was caught in the intellectual push-and-pull of Augustine, Niebuhr, Hauerwas, Packer, Erickson, Grudem, Schaeffer, Henry and Barth. I wasn't Baptist yet. I didn’t know what it really meant to be a Baptist. Sure, I believed core Baptist doctrines I learned growing up in church, but I didn’t recognize terms like ecclesiology, epistemology or hermeneutics when I read theology. There at Union, it was time to defend what I had always believed to alternative positions, held by men much smarter than I am.

That’s why it is so surprising that a neo-orthodox Lutheran theologian from Schleiermacher's school could propel me toward Baptist theology, with conviction.

How Bonhoeffer and Life Together saved college

Another professor was slated to teach the Bonhoeffer seminar when it came time for me to sign up for classes, but he left for another job. To fill the gap, Gregory Alan Thornbury, the dean of the school, agreed to take it on with the help of Taylor Worley, another former student who was finishing up his Ph.D. in the UK. Little did I know how providential this last minute substitution would be.

It wasn’t just that we read the entire Bonhoeffer corpus (we did), or that we read the mammoth magisterial biography by Eberhard Bethge (we did), or that the class was composed of twelve of the brightest students–myself excluded in that assessment–in Union’s history (it was), or that the professors expected our best work and treated us as peers contending for real ideas that mattered (which they did), rather than inferiors, checking off an academic to-do list.

It wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s theological arguments that set me on the trajectory of ministry on which I now find myself—though I know it has had some effect. I can’t point to one book and say, “If you read this book, you will get what I am talking about." It was that Thornbury and Worley matched the content of Bonhoeffer’s work with the experience of the class. Our Bonhoeffer seminar was Life Together, embodied.

Often, we read papers in Thornbury’s home, drinking coffee, laughing and chatting about church, rather than rote lecture dictation in a sterile classroom. In between heated debates on Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, we prayed for one another. Our learning objective was far more ambitious than satisfying accreditation standards. We all agreed that our work was a service to one another and to God. The result was changed lives.

I could have chosen to write this essay a few different ways. One of them would be to argue that Bonhoeffer changed my mind about theology and the public square. That’s true, actually; Bonhoeffer has persuaded me of many important ideas. I also could have shown you all of the compelling things Bonhoeffer has written that tend to go unnoticed in his catalogue of work. Maybe I will do that another time. But I don’t think those things are the most valuable things I’ve gained from Bonhoeffer or why I continue to study him to this day. It was the rare combination of reading Life Together while doing life together in the concrete, embodied way Bonhoeffer calls us to that changed my mind and my life, that saved college for me.

I’m not sure where I would have ended up after college without those professors, without those students, and without that class, but I mean it when I say that I think they saved college for me. I don’t think I would be a convictional Baptist without conversations started in that class about ecclesiology. I don’t think I would have ended up at the Southern Baptist Seminary without friendships that started in that class. So much was decided for me as we did Life Together on Union’s campus. I am so grateful to my friends, my professors, and to Bonhoeffer.