A Good Example of “Why Context Matters” – Learning from Bonhoeffer on the Psalms

One can talk about “cheap grace” and “costly grace” in relatively abstract terms and get a sense for what Bonhoeffer is getting at. When one reading his Cost of Discipleship in light of his circumstances (in the 1930’s), though, the matter becomes undoubtedly more “real” and “relevant.” Context matters. I teach New Testament, and I try to help students to get this – whether it is the Gospel of John or Colossians. These writings weren’t written by professional textbook writers for “general consumption.” They came from a context and once we engage some of that, it brings the text to life in new (i.e., fresh) and important ways. I will never read The Cost of Discipleship in a text-book-y kind of way now that I know the context in which Bonhoeffer wrote it.

Moreover, we have Bonhoeffer’s tome on the Psalms – Das Gebetbook der Bibel (1940). It is not that unusual for a theologian to write a book based on Scripture. What I did not think about before is that Bonhoeffer dared (!) to write this book on the Old Testament in light of the fact that the Nazis were hotly determined to devalue and destroy anything “Jewish” – “Old Testament” included. The Reich Church had a way of eliminating anything remotely related to the OT from pulpits and “Christian” literature. I learned from Eric Metaxas that Bonhoeffer got into a fight with the “Reich Bpard for the Regulation of Literature” over this book on the Psalms. He kind of played dumb by pretending it was just “scholar” stuff. Metaxas aptly divulges Bonhoeffer’s real thoughts:

He well knew that all true exegeses and scholarship pointed to the truth, which, for the Nazis, was far worse than a hail of bullets (368).

Eventually he was banned altogether from publishing (see Metaxas, p. 378). Even his great work, Ethics, had to finally be completed by his friend Eberhard Bethge.

I think about the apostle Paul and his letters. Some of his latter epistles were written while in prison (not unlike Bonhoeffer!). John Chrysostom points out that this makes the “captivity epistles” a special treasure for the people of God. How could he express such joy and thanksgiving? How dare he call this Jesus kyrios under Caesar’s own nose?

Context helps. It matters. (and, yes, I think Paul wrote Colossians.)


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