Review of Taylor’s “Reading Scripture as the Church”

The following is a review of Derek W. Taylor’s Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship that I contributed to Studies in Christian Ethics 35(2) (May 2022): 418-421.

As the title of Derek Taylor’s book Reading Scripture as the Church suggests, this study seeks to contribute to the burgeoning field of inquiry referred to as theological interpretation of Scripture. As the subtitle makes clear, it attempts to do so by leveraging the hermeneutical insights of the German pastor-theologian’s theology of discipleship. Taylor rightly sees Bonhoeffer as a progenitor of the contemporary theological interpretation movement, however he believes the full significance of Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutical and ecclesiological vision has not, as of yet, been fully appropriated by proponents of theological interpretation. As a result, Taylor insists that while theological interpretation places much emphasis upon reading the Bible ‘in the church’, the nature of this ‘church’ remains abstract and ill-defined. Developing what Taylor calls Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutic of discipleship allows for the development of a more robust understanding of the church as a reading community that ‘exists at the intersection of four identity-defining relationships’ (p. 14). These include the church’s relationship to: 1.) the risen Christ; 2.) its historical-institutional past; 3.) a concrete communal location; and 4.) to the world. Reflective of these relationships, the book is divided into four major parts in which Taylor brings Bonhoeffer into conversation with some of the major voices and schools in the English-speaking theological world as he seeks to make his own distinctive constructive contribution to the discourse of theological interpretation. In the process, Taylor also makes a significant contribution to the field of Bonhoeffer studies in recovering the centrality of reading Scripture to Bonhoeffer’s theological imagination and by demonstrating how his commitment and approach to Scripture is inseparable from his understanding of discipleship.

The first and second parts of the book consider the church as a creature of the Word and the church as an institution, with John Webster and Robert Jenson, respectively, serving as interlocutors and exemplars of these two types of ecclesiologies. For Taylor, these two ecclesiological models stand as mirror opposites to one another. At their most extreme, they represent ‘Christ without a church’, on the one hand, and ‘a church without Christ’ on the other. However, both ‘lose the fundamental logic of the discipleship motif’ (p. 120). In speaking of the church, Taylor insists that theological interpreters must ‘relearn the importance of the fundamental asymmetry and ordered unity of divine and human grounded in Christ and his church’ (p. 42).

Beginning with Webster, Taylor affirms the Protestant instinct to understand the church as creatura verbi. He shares with Webster the concern for the way that the church often fills the void left by the eclipse of Jesus’ presence in modern theology. Webster salutarily reminds us that the church is fundamentally a hearing community that is constituted by a voice beyond its own. While Webster earns strong marks from Taylor for his emphasis on the fundamental asymmetry between divinity and humanity, like the early Barth, Webster is unable to account for the connection between the historical-spatial dimensions of the church and divine activity. The result is that Webster ends up trading in a form of ‘hermeneutical spiritualism’ (p. 60) that neglects the material dimensions of the church’s interpretive encounter with Scripture. Bodies are conspicuously absent from Webster’s account with the distinct danger that revelation could be reduced to the ideational. In his Habilitationsschrift, Act and Being – an intimidating work that is nonetheless increasingly recognised as significant for interpreting Bonhoeffer more broadly – we find a personal understanding of revelation.  Taylor discerns here a way to uphold a robust emphasis on the church as a creatura verbi that does not compromise its historical dimensions. Because revelation, for Bonhoeffer, is a person―’Christ existing as church-community’―it includes within it both ‘existential encounter (i.e., act) and historical continuity (ie., being)’ (p. 36). Bonhoeffer helps us to see that ‘the point of a robust doctrine of revelation is not to devalue human action but to give it distinct shape’ (p. 48). This distinct shape could be called the activity of faith or the journey of discipleship and is characterized by practices of un-mastery which serve to cultivate a radical receptivity to the voice of the Good Shepherd who goes ahead of his sheep.

While Scripture functions primarily in a sacramental role in Webster’s ecclesiology, Taylor maintains that it functions largely in a regulative manner in the work of Robert Jenson. Here the text functions something like a ‘documentary relic’ within the project of cultural production which is, for Jenson, the church. While Jenson rightly recognises the church as an institution with a history, his equating of the community spirit of the church with the Holy Spirit ends up overburdening those very institutions and risks domesticating the voice of the risen One. Taylor suggests that Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Confessing Church and its concern for self-preservation in the face of the increasing encroachment of the Third Reich would leave him troubled by attempts like Jenson’s to buttress the church’s institutional identity. According to Taylor, Bonhoeffer himself provides resources for faithfully navigating the relationship between the church’s institutional and christological dimensions in one of his earliest forays into academic theology―his dissertation Sanctorum Communio. Here Bonhoeffer sketches an ecclesiology in which Christ is both the founder of the church and through the Holy Spirit continuously present to it. In this way, ‘Bonhoeffer upholds an asymmetrical unity, valuing the institution without sliding into institutionalism’ (p. 126). So, while both Jenson and Bonhoeffer can emphasise the importance of the inherited disciplines of the church (eg., baptism, Eucharist, the Lord’s Prayer, etc.), Taylor argues that they operate for each according to a different postural logic. For Jenson, these institutional practices function as a mean of producing and preserving diachronic identity, whereas for Bonhoeffer they serve as ‘structures of reception, the means by which the community situates itself to receive its identity from the risen One ever anew’ (p. 131).

One could query whether the prolific pens and dexterous minds of Webster and Jenson have been reduced to types in these chapters. For example, Taylor’s equating Webster’s emphasis on clarity with a logic of control grates awkwardly with Webster’s description of reading Scripture as ‘an aspect of mortification and vivification’ (John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Cambridge, 2003, p. 88). Similarly, the description of Jenson’s theology as one that makes the Risen One captive to the church sits uneasily with the Lutheran theologian’s recurring emphasis on the capacity of the living God to surprise.  That being said, the question is not whether Taylor has exhaustively presented their work, but whether he has correctly identified significant tendencies in their thought that continue to resonate and inform contemporary thinking about theological interpretation. On this score, Taylor’s readings are incisive and stimulating.

‘Hermeneutical grace arrives through the avenue of togetherness’ (p. 148). It is this insistence that leads Taylor into dialogue with the work of Stanley Hauerwas. Riffing on a famous Hauerwasian refrain, Taylor notes that for Hauerwas, ‘the church does not merely have a hermeneutical theory―it is one’ (p. 156). Hauerwas challenges us to attend to the concrete creaturely dimensions of the church’s institutional life through considering the Christian congregation’s practices of togetherness, or politics. In a similar manner to Jenson, Hauerwas’s over-realized eschatology runs the risk of reducing discipleship to inhabiting a tradition. However, Taylor also discerns another way of speaking in Hauerwas’s corpus, characterised by the motif of journey, that prevents eschatological foreclosure. When speaking in this register, Hauerwas’s emphasis on patience and the non-violent character of congregational hermeneutics allows space for the type of imaginative encounter with the text and the risen One who speaks through the text that Taylor is attempting to develop. In this way, Hauerwas’s vision reinforces Bonhoeffer’s attempt to form hermeneutical faithfulness through the disciplined, communal life of the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. Because Bonhoeffer’s efforts are directed towards the formation of an ‘addressable community’ there is no place for talk of an infallible method or technique for proper biblical interpretation, but there is space for sketching ‘the [social] posture from which truthfulness might emerge’ (p. 191).

In the final part of the book, Taylor turns to addressing the hermeneutical significance of the church’s relationship to the world. Drawing on an ecclesiological schema that Bonhoeffer introduces in the early 1930s and returns to during the war years, Taylor presents two prominent tensions the church faces as it relates to the world: the culturalist and secularist options. The culturalist option emphasises retaining the purity of the church’s unique culture by circling the wagons in the face of a threatening world. The secularist option abandons the distinctiveness of the church for the sake of worldly engagement and impact. Both, Taylor observes, are caught in a pattern of thinking that bifurcates church and mission. In Taylor’s judgment, ‘the contemporary practice of theological interpretation commonly presupposes a culturalist ecclesiology’ (p. 208) and, hence, is missionally deficient. For both the culturalist and the secularist, the Gospel becomes ideology―a warning the contemporary North American church would do well to heed. Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the presence of Christ, however, overcomes this ideologizing tendency and properly locates the logic of mission within the logic of discipleship. ‘The key to mission’, Taylor writes, ‘lies in the community’s ability to discern anew the form of engagement with the world that corresponds to Christ’s presence in a given time and place’ (p. 245). As a result, a truly missional hermeneutic must be ongoing, patient, intercultural, and liturgical. Although Bonhoeffer rarely uses ‘mission’ language, Taylor correctly identifies the missional thrust of Bonhoeffer’s thought.1  However, the argument of these chapters is not always presented in the clearest manner. Part of the difficulty is attributable to the ambiguity surrounding the language of mission, an ambiguity inherent to the missional theology conversation itself. When mission is understood in Christological and Trinitarian terms the dichotomy between cultural formation and worldly engagement is overcome, as is evident in Taylor’s following of Bonhoeffer and locating mission in participation in Christ. However, when mission is spoken of as simply another activity of the church, as Taylor seems to do at other points, it ends up reinscribing the dichotomies that must be overcome, staging the church’s communal formation and encounter with the world in competitive terms. To this end, it is noteworthy that one of the rare places where Bonhoeffer employs the word mission is in speaking of the Finkenwalde experiment in theological formation, writing, “We are not dealing with a concern of some private circles but with a mission entrusted to the church” (Life Together, Fortress, 2005, 25).

Reading Scripture as the Church is a stimulating contribution to the discourse of theological interpretation that succeeds in its effort to foreground the liveliness of the church’s Lord while acknowledging the importance of the penultimate relationships that define the church’s identity. It convincingly argues for the necessity of holding together in an asymmetrically ordered relationship the sacramental and regulative functions of Scripture, or the performative and informative approaches to Scripture. In doing so, it offers a gift to Bonhoeffer studies by redirecting the field to the animating concerns that stood at the heart of the young German theologian’s life and ministry. In the twilight of post-Christendom, Taylor offers an often confused and beleaguered church wise counsel, rich with dominical promise, for when disciples on the road together turn to Scripture asking, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’, the risen One has demonstrated a propensity for drawing near and addressing them anew.

  1. On this front, see my own, “A Matter of Mission: Bonhoeffer the Bible and Ecclesial Formation,” in Didaskalia 28 (2017-2018): 49-74.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *