Bonhoeffer on Meditating in Yourself; Meditating on Scripture

by on January 11, 2016

John Calvin famously opened up his Institutes with a profound set of lines about the close intimacy between knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves. He did not start with Scripture or hermeneutics, but anthropology. In the Protestant focus on the Bible, there is the belief that the Bible reveals to humans who they are, but in an objective humankind sense.

This is not the kind of self-knowledge Calvin is talking about. I recently heard a wise Christian mystic say that the greatest act of genius God ever did was burrowing himself and his image deep within humanity itself. We pursue this not through books, lectionaries, and even Scripture, but deep, contemplative, meditative prayer. We can so easily knock this as Eastern spirituality (while forgetting that both Judaism and Christianity are Eastern religions), but it is so essential to our human health and life with God.

So how do we do this, especially as seminarians, in balancing our life with Scripture with our lives in ourselves? Read this bit of profundity from pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from instructions he gave group of seminarians he was training at Finkenwalde, Germany in 1935-36:

“Why do I meditate?

Because I am a Christian. Therefore, every day in which I do not penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of God’s word in Holy Scripture is a lost day for me.   I can only move forward with certainty upon the firm ground of the Word of God. And, as a Christian, I learn to know the Holy Scripture in no other way than by hearing the Word preached and prayerful meditation.

Because I am a preacher of the Word. I cannot expound the Scripture for others if I do not let it speak daily to me. I will misuse the Word in my office as preacher, if I do not continue to meditate upon it in prayer. If the Word, has become empty for me in my daily administrations, if I no longer experience it, that proves I have not let the Word speak personally to me for a long time. I will offend against my calling if I do not seek each day in prayer the word that my Lord wants to say to me for that day.

Because I need a firm discipline of prayer.

Because I need help against the ungodly haste and unrest which threaten my work as a pastor. Only from the peace of God’s Word can there flow the proper, devoted service of each day.

This is how I read the Bible now. I ask of each passage: What is God saying to us here? And I ask God that he would help us hear what he wants to say…

And now let me tell you quite personally that since I learned to read the Bible in this way—and that is not so long ago—it has become daily more wonderful to me. I read it mornings and evenings, often also during the day. And each day I take up a text, which I have before me for the entire week, and I attempt to immerse myself in it completely, in order to really listen to it. I know that without this I could no longer rightly live, let alone believe. And every day more riddles are solved for me, even though I am still just moving on the surface.”

From Bonhoeffer’s Meditating on the Word (also excerpted here)

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About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.