A Review of
Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2020
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Derek Taylor appears not to like to do things the easy way. In Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship, he engages a few demanding conversations and synthesizes them for valuable new insights. The foundational conversation revolves around the theological interpretation of scripture. The concept, even as it’s been around long enough to warrant codification, remains slippery in detail but generally establishes the priority of reading the Bible as a theological text (as opposed to a historical document, a literary work, etc.). Taylor enters that conversation through some of its weak spots, bringing along Bonhoeffer and a wealth of his reflections in order to develop a ecclesiological hermeneutic (or perhaps a hermeneutical ecclesiology).
Even if we accept the idea that we should read scripture in the church or as the church, we haven’t advanced very far. What is a church? How do we read in a church? If we read in the church, how does that move us outside the church? Taylor considers these questions, and realizes that understanding how to read must include an understanding of what we mean by “the church.” “I ask an ecclesiological question as a means of answering a hermeneutical one,” he writes (9). He then finds he needs to bring one more element of theology into his framework: discipleship. With hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and discipleship at the base of his work, Taylor can move forward.
To do so, he envisions four relationships, an approach that “allows us to achieve a level of breadth and coherence” typically not available through single images or metaphors (14). Those relationships are: with Christ, with the institutional history, with “a concrete communal location,” and with the world (14). Taylor then engages with scholars who focus on each of these relationships, exploring both strengths and weaknesses in their approaches, and ultimately brings in the writings of Bonhoeffer to construct a more helpful vision.
Following Taylor through each of these discussions makes for a worthy endeavor (though space prevents it here, we’re glad he was given a few hundred pages to do so). His argument works both as separate units but, more effectively, as a cumulative work. His view of reading scripture as a church in relationship with Christ will ultimately enable him to explain the role of interpreting as a body on mission. As the argument develops, Taylor’s writing gains momentum; watching the pieces fall into place makes for its own pleasure.
It also reminds us of how stunning a theologian Bonhoeffer was, and takes us back to the joy of reading him directly (anecdotally, Taylor’s book may cause some readers to pick up Bonhoeffer volumes they’d never read before). We’ve seen a cultural struggle over how to use and apply Bonhoeffer (as both the scholar and the idea of the man) over the past few decades. Taylor neatly avoids those sorts of politicized debates, staying focused on this work’s primary topics. In doing so, he draws out key Bonhoeffer concepts in sometimes surprisingly relevant ways for his text (his use of Ethics is particularly instructive).
Not so surprisingly, Bonhoeffer’s Christology and ideas on discipleship provide throughlines throughout the book. Bonhoeffer’s question from prison, asking, “Who is Christ actually for us today?” remains central. The work of reading scripture isn’t the same as reading other texts, largely because our understanding comes through Christ. Taylor writes that, to Bonhoeffer, “revelation takes the form of a person” (36). Knowledge “remains always a gift, and as such can never be abstracted from Christ himself” (51). The person of Jesus stays center in all these relationships.
But the church can never rely simply on knowledge. Our hermeneutics serve our discipleship as we seek to follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer saw the need for the “interpretive community to embody a particular form of life,” which Taylor refers to as “a hermeneutical posture” (51). That idea is “especially relevant” in that “we must relocate specifically text-based practices within a more holistic frame of reference determined by the risen One himself” (52). Reading scripture in community isn’t so much about getting it right, but about focusing our discipleship on becoming more Christlike, or as Taylor puts it, “we read the text as a means of faithfully walking behind our Lord” (80).
By the end of the book, Taylor connects this approach to mission, in a variety of ways, addressing questions about the church’s relationship to the rest of the world, the anxiety of evangelism, and the existential implementation of understanding into a discipleship that leads us to mission. External mission and internal liturgy intersect in a way that keeps Christ prioritized above specific church practices. We realize that “God’s relentless nearness in Christ prevents the church from achieving hermeneutical finality and therefore preserves divine mystery” (257). That mystery necessitates ongoing interpretation in community, while respecting the Word, tradition, localized groupings, and mission.
Taylor makes a strong theological case that’s also edifying and encouraging. As is often the case with academic texts, the trick will be in bringing Taylor’s insights into the local community, a question that’s particularly important here in that he writes specifically on how we interpret and embody scripture as not only the church broadly conceived, but on a local level. The question that naturally arises while reading Taylor’s book is: “How do we implement these ideas?” It’s not a book to hand out at a small group in order to enact a new methodology, yet its points have immediate relevance to local churches.
Fortunately, while there’s no “Five Steps to Easy Hermeneutical Postures for Discipleship,” the text does create the space to think through the topic. Taylor’s framework seems likely to resist universal methodology, but does suggest key elements that pastors and other leaders can bring to their communities. First among these would be the persistent priority of Christ. Checking to see if methods and traditions have become senselessly entrenched ahead of actually following Jesus always remains essential. Having humility and embracing that divine mystery to regularly ask who Christ is for us today remains valuable. As Taylor says at one point, “Coming to the text with ready-made commitments, the community had no need to attend freshly to God’s address to the church through it” (219). Then we need to embody what we learn; the church that studies every Wednesday night but never lives its beliefs becomes a staid classroom and not a community of disciples. It returns to that hermeneutical posture that seeks Christ always.
The implementation isn’t easy (if it were, reading Life Together would be the lark that people pretend it is), but Taylor manages to spark some excitement with his work. Taylor – through not only Bonhoeffer but also through his conversations with Stanley Hauerwas, John Webster, and others – reminds us that God speaks to us anew, and that with a reasonable approach we can listen and live out his word. And we can do so not alone in our studies, but in community. Taylor poses a challenge to us, but it’s an invigorating one.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.