Reading the Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship

Derek Taylor
Intervarsity Press Academic, 304 pages

In the summer of 2020, a subset of the Christian population of the United States reached vastly different conclusions than I did about how our common faith applied to public life. As I watched in horror as a version of Christianity blessed a version of America, I found downright blasphemous, the thought often crossed my mind: “what Bible are they reading?” I’m sure they’d ask the same question of me, a female Lutheran Pastor.

“How should the church read scripture?” is the underlying question in Derek Taylor’s “Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship.” Taylor asserts that the task of interpreting Scripture belongs most properly to the church, but he acknowledges that this doesn’t settle the question. Taylor diagnoses many churches with “ecclesiocentrism,” explaining that we learn to “read scripture in church,” but often believe that we can’t use Scripture to “critique the church.” We end up in Biblical echo-chambers instead of confronted afresh by the living presence of God.

Enter Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Taylor uses the German Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to provide a model for engaging Scripture as church. Drawing on an impressive facility with Bonhoeffer’s works, Taylor develops what he names Bonhoeffer’s “hermeneutic of discipleship” whereby “the text seeks to draw us along into the path Jesus walks.” In Bonhoeffer, we see that the church reads Scripture to encounter and be changed by the living presence of Christ.

Placing Bonhoeffer in conversation with theologians John Webster, Robert Jenson, and Stanley Hawuerwas, Taylor pulls apart four strands of ecclesiology: church as a) response to the risen Christ, b) institution, c) congregation, and d) missional community. He creatively demonstrates how Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutic applies to each of those aspects of church. These are fascinating chapters on their own, with insights on every page that will make a reader think differently about church, Scripture, and discipleship.

In this impressive work, Taylor sheds new light on Bonhoeffer, demonstrating that though he was not a biblical theologian per se, the question that guided Bonhoeffer’s life – “who is Christ actually for us today?” – is one he answered with intense, communal and faithful reading of Scripture. This is a tremendous contribution to Bonhoeffer studies, as well as to the fields of hermeneutics and ecclesiology.

I note with some frustration that Taylor’s primary conversation partners are all white, male, protestant theologians (Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran). As secondary sources, he includes few voices outside these traditions and demographics, and almost no one writing from a perspective outside of European or American contexts. This is one of the limits of this work, and I think he misses an opportunity to develop an even thicker ecclesiology, and more convincing argument.

Finally, a word about audience. As a theological text, this book includes highly technical language, and is densely, albeit lucidly, written. Taylor packs a lot of complex thought into these pages. Therefore, it is not, somewhat ironically, accessible for the church-at-large. This is not a critique, but a hope that these insights might be appreciated in academic settings as well as distilled for use by congregations and laypeople, especially as Bonhoeffer’s popularity is on the rise.

As churches across the world grapple with the fundamental question: “how do we read Scripture?” Taylor has done a great service in writing this book. Bonhoeffer’s insight that Scripture is best read in a community of discipleship, trusting Christ to be present in time and through the church, and with people open to being changed and sent into the world, is certainly of great value, perhaps now more than ever.

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Sarah S. Scherschligt is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Alexandria, Virginia