Category Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A Message for the Churches From Kyle Strobel and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: God’s Power in the Lamb that was Slain

I just listened to a very convicting message by Brother Kyle Strobel. He is offering a compressed message from his co-authored book with Jamin Goggin titled  The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It to a conference being held by the Calvary Global Network (Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa — my former church from years past). He is referring people to a genuinely Gospel conditioned notion of power and wisdom; what Martin Luther might call a theology of the cross. It is this reality that gripped my heart many years ago—which I fall short of more than I want to admit—and why I wrote my master’s thesis on a key passage in this area I Corinthians 1.17-25. It’s a conception of power that flips the wisdom of the world on its head; it is power in weakness. Unfortunately just as in the cosmopolitan church of Corinth, so too in the cosmopolitan church of evangelical North America worldly wisdom, worldly power has entered into the gates of the church and subverted the genuine power that God has supplied for his church through the broken veins of his Son, Jesus Christ. Please watch Kyle’s message here.

As a dovetail and corollary with the message that Kyle has brought the churches I just finished a book where in the last chapter of that book a contributing author offered the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It fits very well with Kyle’s message; with the Apostle Paul’s message; with Jesus’s message about power, and what that ought to look like in his church. Note:

God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated…. Anxious souls will ask what room is left for God now; and as they know of no answer to the question, they condemn the whole development that has brought them to such straits. I wrote … before about the various emergency exits that have been contrived; and we ought to add to them the salto mortale (death-leap) back into the Middle Ages is heteronomy in the form of clericalism; a return to that can be a counsel of despair, and it would be at the cost of intellectually honesty. It’s a dream that reminds one of the Song O wüsst’ ich doch den Wegzurück, den wieten Weg ins Kinderland [commonly translated “Oh, I wish I knew the way back, the way into childhood”]. There is no such way—at any rate not if it means deliberately abandoning our mental integrity; the only way is that of Matt. 18.3, i.e. through repentance, through ultimate honesty. And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [commonly translated “as if God did not exist”]. And this is just what we do recognize—before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which He is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; God is the deux ex machine. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may that the development towards the world’s coming of age outline above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.[1]

If we look at the evangelical churches in North America, and beyond (into other movements and traditions in the churches), we don’t see ‘God’s weakness’ characterizing the type of ‘power’ that the churches seek to operate from; we see, as Strobel emphasizes for us, the demonic power that comes from below. There are plenty of good intentions operative in the churches, but it’s no mistake that the adage says ‘the path to hell is paved by good intentions.’ We ought to recognize that we are at God’s mercy in Jesus Christ in every step that we take. We ought to recognize as thinkers and leaders in the church of Jesus Christ, as everyday Christians, that we can operate with all the piety and speak with all the Christianese available; but absent the death and life of Christ in our lives, as the sustenance that serves as our ‘adequacy’ we will be injecting into the leaven of the Gospel a de-leavening agent that mitigates and pollutes the genuine transformative power of the Gospel that God intends for his church; that God desires that the world see in the guarantee of his Kingdom resident in the heart of his new creation.

Let’s be convicted.

 

[1] Bonhoeffer, “Letters & Papers From Prison,” (New York: Simon&Schuster, 1997) cited by Jospeh Minich, “Classical Theism In A World Come Of Age,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 4542, 4551, 4558, 4563 kindle version.

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The Apostle Paul’s Apocalyptic Vision of the World Constituted by the Living Christ: In Dialogue with Bonhoeffer

Pauline, and thus canonical apocalyptic theology fits where I am at to a T. Philip Ziegler continues to unpack for us what such theology looks like in its various iterations scattered throughout the theological past and present. Here he is engaging with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own style of apocalyptic theology, and in this instance how that gets fleshed out in the realm of ethics and the ‘moral life.’

As Bonhoeffer comes to argue in the Ethics, only trust that reality has in fact been decisively constituted by God’s apocalypse in Christ underwrites “serious” grappling with moral life in the world. Against abstract “sectarian” and “compromise” postures toward the world, he says this:

Neither the idea of a pure Christianity as such nor the idea of the human being as such is serious, but only God’s reality and human reality as they have become one in Jesus Christ. What is serious is not some kind of Christianity, but Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus Christ God’s reality and human reality take the place of radicalism and compromise. There is no Christianity as such; if there were, it would destroy the world. There is no human being as such; if there were, God would be excluded. Both are ideas. There is only the God-man Jesus Christ who is real, through whom the world will be preserved until it is ripe for its end. [Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 155]

The realism that Bonhoeffer sets over against all idealism in church and theology is thus apocalyptic. Since “revelation gives itself without precondition and is alone able to place one into reality,” he says, serious theological ethics, is no less than dogmatics, must struggle for forms of thinking appropriate to God’s apocalypse in Christ Jesus. The ages having turned, Christians are alert to the fact that they stand together with all others in a world who reality has been both taken apart and put back together with effect by God’s redemptive triumph through the cross: it has become Christ-reality.[1]

This is radical stuff; the stuff of what it means to think Christianly. As the Apostle Paul asserts: ‘we walk by faith not by sight.’ I would suggest that a Scripture reader, one who reads it consistently and often, will arrive at this conclusion about reality and the world.

Personally, when I apply this perspective to daily life it blows my mind; in a good way! As I look out at the heavens, at the trees and birds, at the sporadic coyote that comes across the rail every morning at work, as I look at the mass of humanity, I see it through this lens; the cruciform lens  offered by God’s life for the world in Jesus Christ. We cannot go back, the old order has been disrupted by the in-breaking of God’s life in Christ; the older order lived in proleptic service to the new that would eventually invade it, disrupt it, disorient it, and re-constitute it by the order always already present in the antecedent, the inner triune life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This calls the Christian to look at the world with fresh eyes, eyes full of anticipation and hope that all is not lost; that the perceptively crooked has already been made manifestly straight in the ruling life of the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. This fills me with great hope and assurance, not only for the present reality, but with the realization that this life now is contingent and in repose upon the life of God that sustains it moment by moment with his upholding Word. I don’t think I can articulate just how much of an upheaval this way of thinking is; at least for me. I like to think that I live in a world that is enchanted with a splendorous life, with an uncontainable pleroma that has been particularized immemorial in the Lamb of God, slain but risen. There is power here, like that found in the Lion from the tribe of Judah; a power, a perception that cannot be ameliorated by an unbelief of the old order, but that instead reigns supreme in the regnant belief of the Son in the Father for us. This is an all consuming reordering of things; not something simply inchoate, not just a seedling, but a full grown blossoming tree full of lively leaves and effervescent fruit with the power to heal the nations. We walk by faith, the faith of Christ, but in this Kingdom, faith is sight; it is not grasping, it is not jumping into a fantastical world of our own projecting, it is instead a world fully contingent upon the indestructible life of God. While the world continues to languish in despair and unbelief, the life of God’s belief for the world concretized in the eternal Logos will not be intimated or vanquished; no, God’s life cannot be stopped. There is hope. This is what I take apocalyptic theology to be offering.

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 180 kindle.

What Kind of Church Culture Can Produce a Declaration like the Nashville Statement? Bearing Witness to Ourselves Rather than to Jesus Christ

I have had a chance, as the day unfolded, to reflect further on the so called Nashville Statement; the statement that a hundred and fifty evangelical signatories signed their names to. It seems to be their attempt to draw a line in the sand in regard to what they see as a pressing problem for the church, and in particular, their evangelical church. The problem for them, of course, is the progression and in-roads of the LGBTQ, homosexual gay agenda, as they see it transforming not only the body politic of culture in general, but its pressing into the church itself.

But I have a problem with it. For me, the problem has more to do with these leaders’s conception of how the church ought to operate in regard to its witness to the Gospel in relation to the world at large. As I see it, they are presuming upon an us versus them dynamic that the Gospel itself does not presume; instead, the Gospel is an equalizing reality. The Gospel as the Word of God in Jesus Christ stands as judge not just over those guys and gals out there, but as judge of the church itself; as Peter notes: “17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”[1] In other words, the Nashville Statement places itself in the place of God’s Word, as if its signatories are the judges; it actually and ironically displaces the Word of God with its own word over against others. If these signatories were to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his admonition to the American churches, as he saw it back in the 30s, they may well not have penned such a statement. Bonhoeffer wrote:

American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of “criticism” by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s “criticism” touches every religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. . . . But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ, must for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.[2]

Do you see what Bonhoeffer is getting at, particularly when he references ‘natural theology?’ It is when churches displace her reality, founded in Jesus Christ alone, with a perception of herself as possessor of God’s absolute Word, and not just as possessor, but as dispenser, that she has presumed too much. She begins to elevate herself beyond the culture of which she is ensconced, and presumes that she has divined things, and thus has become able to pronounce things in absolute and damning ways, that in reality belongs to the Lord of the church alone; the living Word of God. Bonhoeffer’s point, is that when the church sees herself as coextensive with the Word of God itself, in an absolute way, that she actually loses her voice to bear witness to the living Word of God who not only stands in judgment of his church, but of the world at large.

Similarly, John Webster, as he comments on Barth’s critique of the liberal church in Germany is somewhat and ironically parallel with Bonhoeffer’s critique of the American church as he saw it. Here Webster, in line with Bonhoeffer points out how, in the thought of Barth, morality and ethics become too much aligned with the ‘moral and absolute self’ such that the Word of God loses its place for the Christian, and at the same time becomes coterminous with the Christian’s perception of the world at large and her pronouncements toward the world. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates. [3]

The Nashville Statement exudes this sense “of [the] absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness.” The Word of God has now been conflated with the Nashville Statement, as if a hundred and fifty signatories, backing fourteen theses on homosexuality are what God himself believes about the state of affairs in regard not just to homosexuality but other moral proclivities.

What concerns me most is the culture, in the evangelical church, that fosters the idea that such statements are healthy and good. In what way do such statements bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to the living Word of God? It ends up reducing the church to an organization of people who appear to be oriented around a cluster of ethical principles and mores instead of an organic reality who finds her sustenance in and from Christ. Whether or not homosexuality is contrariwise to the ethics of the Kingdom[4], the church herself should be more concerned with her own blights and inadequacies. The church should evidence humility before God wherein she is constantly crying out to him for his mercy and grace, such that this posture, before the world, bears witness to the reality of God in Christ. The church should avoid placing herself in positions where she appears to believe that she has become the absolute mouthpiece for God, in regard to perceived moral inequities, and instead submit to the personal reality of God herself. It is this repentant posture before God and the world wherein the power of God will be most on display. It is up to God in Christ to bring transformation into the lives of people; he alone justifies and sanctifies, the church does not!

Who do we think we are? Jesus is LORD, not the church!

 

[1] I Peter 4.17, NIV.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords, ed. Edwin H. Robertson (London: Fontana Library, 1970), 88-113 cited by George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 71-2.

[3] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

[4] Which personally I believe it is.

*Artwork of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Mark Summers.

Bonhoeffer on God’s Word, and “Protestantism without Reformation”: A Point of Unseemly Convergence Between evangelicals and mainliners

I just recently purchased George Hunsinger’s book, a book I’d read before (via library copy), Disruptive Grace: Studies in the theology of Karl Barth. In his chapter on the Barmen declaration he gets into some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings; in particular he engages with six theses Bonhoeffer offered on observations he made about Christianity in America and its lack of ‘Reformation’ and/or Confessional thinking—i.e. his essay: Protestantism without Reformation. In this post we will engage with Bonhoeffer’s sixth thesis as Hunsinger quotes it directly from Dietrich.

Before we get directly into the quote I wanted to preface things this way: I have grown up my whole life in the North American evangelical church. My background is Conservative Baptist (my dad being a retired CBA pastor and church planter), and then later (out of high school) I got into the Calvary Chapel movement (Costa Mesa, CA) for awhile. All of this to note that my upbringing was pretty normal evangelical fare, and attendant to that, what Bonhoeffer observed as an “outsider,” is more than spot on, more than fitting in regard to my own experience growing up in this American religion and tradition. Because of my exposure to Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and in reality, the broader and catholic tradition of the church, my eyes have been “opened,” so to speak to the realities that Bonhoeffer so presciently noticed upon his visits and stays in the United States.

With my own background noted, let’s hear directly from Bonhoeffer, and then I will offer some further reflections. Bonhoeffer writes:

American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of “criticism” by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s “criticism” touches every religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. . . . But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ, must for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.[1]

To be clear, Bonhoeffer’s reference was made in regard, not to Fundamentalist Christianity (which he thought of as an idiosyncratic aberration), but to what we might consider mainline Christianity of the sort we might find in the Niebuhr brothers and/or at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Nevertheless, insofar as Fundamentalist Christianity imbibes the same ‘spirit’ of this type of American religion, which I think it does in many ways, then his critique and observation equally applies across the board.

When Bonhoeffer refers to ‘natural theology’ we might think of any theological paradigm that lends credence to theological thinking that is overly concerned with the “self;” so any type of Christianity that is given to overly pietistic sensibilities, or theologies that rely on analogizing God’s being with human being (i.e. analogia entis); or more to the point (of Bonhoeffer’s observations): any type of theology that is funded by ‘turn to the subject’ thinking that we might most typically associate with Schleiermacher and “Liberal theology.”

I think Bonhoeffer’s critique is even more fitting than it was when he made these observations in the early 20th century. Indeed, we have grown up, as it were, as mainliners and evangelicals in such a way that the seeds that he was critiquing, back then, have had the chance to blossom and go to seed to the ruin of so many Christians across the board. We say we adhere to the Word of God, but I would contend that we have, instead, captured God’s Word in such a way that it reflects the projections of our own wants and desires; whether that be to maintain our cultural warrior identities, political identities, stations in society, or what have you. The Word of God, in all of its disruptive reality in Jesus Christ, has really lost its ability to contradict us, and put us in our place coram Deo (before God).

Indeed, we are all culturally located and conditioned; but that doesn’t mean God’s Word isn’t powerful enough to break in on “our cultures” and disorient them to the point that his heavenly Kingdom has the capacity to restructure things from his vantage point. I don’t believe as evangelical and mainline churches that we have really given God’s Word the place it should have in the body lives of our churches. And it never will have its rightful place if we don’t repent and cry out in mercy to him; if we don’t realize how dialogical the whole Christian relationship to God in Jesus Christ is.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords, ed. Edwin H. Robertson (London: Fontana Library, 1970), 88-113 cited by George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 71-2.

Sanctorum Communio, The Communion of the Saints and being catholic Thinkers

A week ago today I was in a funky mood, and wrote a blog post called Doubting the Theologians and Biblical Interpretation. I was lamenting what I see as undue license being given to theologians or biblical exegetes in our reading of the text of Holy Scripture; I still have this concern (the whole reader response hermeneutic). Someone I’ve known through blogging and Facebook over the communionsaintsyears, David Guretzki, professor of theology at Briercrest College in Canada, and Barth scholar, made a comment. He wrote:

Bobby, what if you instead thought of these authors as part (even if not the only) communion of the saints? We do not read scripture as individuals, but as the Church–of which these doctors of the Church are a gift (charism). The Protestant evangelical way of reading Scripture assumes perspecuity (clarity) available to all–that is its strength. But its weakness is that it too often has degenerated into a non-ecclesial way of reading scripture. It is precisely other voices that keeps us from hearing only the echoes of our own thoughts and subjectivities imposed upon scripture. The problem, of course, is that we are too often too selective of the voices we listen to. The danger is not that we read Barth or Aquinas or Augustine, but that we are too apt ONLY to read Barth, Aquinas, or Augustine (or Calvin or Luther, etc. etc.) and thus keep reconfirming too often our own subjectivities and biases.

At the moment I wrote that post I, frankly, wasn’t in the mood to hear much, I was just in a total venting mode. But what David wrote is something I whole-heartedly agree with and have pushed myself here at this blog and other blogs of mine over the last many years. What David wrote points up something that I think everyone needs to be cognizant of; we need to avail ourselves, as the body of Christ, to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the sanctorum communio, or what Guretzki called the communion of the saints (the English). If we don’t avail ourselves of these various voices we will fall into the trap that Guretzki rightly alerts us to; we might only hear “echoes of our own thoughts and subjectivities” and impose that “upon scripture.”

This actually dovetails with my last post. If we close the circle too tightly, we might only gather teachers around us who always and only reinforce our own subjectivities. The principle of what Gurtezki is getting at is that we need to be open to the whole tradition of the church, and remove ourselves from self-imposed echo-chambers. We need to read Holy Scripture with the communion of the saints. Clearly we are finite time and space bound creatures, and so that in and of itself is going to delimit how many voices we can open ourselves up to. And of course we don’t want to be so open that our brains fall out; we want to be open critically. But we do want to do catholic theology, and be participants in the whole tradition of the church.

We all have our favorite teachers, even teachers who are strewn throughout the history of the church; that’s natural, we are going to be drawn to certain teachers and theologians for one reason or the other. Obviously, I am drawn to Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, and John Calvin; but I have also learned from so many in the history of interpretation. We just want to be open enough that, indeed, we are actually participating in the communion of the saints that Christ himself has gifted us with in his body.

What I think this entails, though, and this gets back to my last post, is that as Christians we want to identify the reality that Christ has given teachers to his church in every century and period of his church; and he continues to (Ephesians 4). Truly, we need to be critical and discerning, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the idea that there are “holy centuries” in the communion of the saints, in the church. We should understand that God in Christ can, has and does break into every century of his church; we should understand that God can speak through modern metaphysics as clearly and perspicaciously as he can through medieval metaphysics. The reality is that all metaphysics used to help supply a grammar for theological discourse must be evangelized and reified in and by the concrete ground of God’s Triune life in Jesus Christ.

John Webster on Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Holy Scripture

John Webster is commenting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of our relation to Scripture. It’s not as if we give scripture its ground through imbuing it with our exegetical prowess; no, it’s that our ground is given footing as we find ourselves related to God in Christ through  Scripture’s story. This fits with the point that Webster is driving at, over-all, throughout his little book; that BPK 10.016.073Scripture should be seen as an aspect of soteriology — sanctification in particular. And that Scripture is a part of God’s triune communicative act, ‘for us’, caught up in His self-Revelation itself. In other words, for Webster, as for Bonhoeffer (per Webster), Scripture shouldn’t be framed as a component of our epistemological foundation (wherein we put Scripture in its place, in effect), but Scripture is a mode of God’s gracious speech that acts upon us by the Spirit. And it is through this divine speech, that is grace, that we find ourselves — outside ourselves — in Christ, and thus in the Story of Scripture. This should have the effect of placing us under Scripture (which Luther would call ministerial) versus over Scripture (magisterial) — to simplify. Here’s the quote (a little introduction by Webster, and then a full quote of Bonhoeffer [also, notice the idea of vicariousness that Bonhoeffer appeals to as well]):

[M]ore than anything else, it is listening or attention which is most important to Bonhoeffer, precisely because the self is not grounded in its own disposing of itself in the world, but grounded in the Word of Christ. Reading the Bible, as Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, is a matter of finding ourselves extra nos in the biblical history:

We are uprooted from our own existence and are taken back to the holy history of God on earth. There God has dealt with us, with our needs and our sins, by means of the divine wrath and grace. What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there.

Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves’ (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my own life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ . . . What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures. – John Webster, Holy Scripture, 83 citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” 62.

Outside Of Us: A Tale of Scripture For Us

Lately, I have been referring to being a Scripture reader on my Facebook wall, and how it has totally blessed me to be a participant this way in God’s life in Christ; Scripture being the ordained ‘place’ wherein God invites us into his banqueting table at the right hand of his throne; Scripture finding its locus in the Triune speech of the Father, brought through and with the Spirit anointed humanity of Christ for us (pro nobis). I think something that really excites me about Scripture is that it is contingent on something ‘outside of us’ (extra nos), just as salvation is; and the ‘outside of us’ that Scripture is contingent upon for its point, purpose and meaning is of course, Jesus Christ! So Scripture, and this is what has really gotten me excited, even more recently, is framed from within the dogmatic category of salvation (soteriology), and this is framed within the dogmatic category of Jesus Christ (christology), and this is framed in the dogmatic category of God’s Life (‘Theology Proper’, Doctrine of God, Trinity); and thus the implication is that when we read Scripture (as Scripture reads us, Hebrews 4:12), we are actively participating in the Divine speech of God, and in his sacred act of relating to the world in his beloved Son by the Spirit’s locution. John Webster, offers some insight on how Bonhoeffer thought of this, and then Webster quotes Bonhoeffer in the following:

. . . More than anything else, it is listening or attention which is most important to Bonhoeffer, precisely because the self is not grounded in its own disposing of itself in the world, but grounded in the Word of Christ. Reading the Bible, as Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, is a matter of finding ourselves extra nos in the biblical history:

We are uprooted from our own existence and are taken back to the holy history of God on earth. There God has dealt with us, with our needs and our sins, by means of the divine wrath and grace. What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there.

Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves’ (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my own life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ . . . What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures.(John Webster, “Holy Scripture,” 83 citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” 62.)

One of the more liberating realities about this whole construal is that if Scripture, like Bonhoeffer thought, and Webster thinks, is dogmatically placed in the category of ‘salvation’ (sanctification, more particularly) —and not in the philosophical category of epistemology, as classical Protestant Christianity has it placed [even today]— then the reality of Scripture cannot be contingent upon my defense of it and maintenance of it anymore than my salvation can. Both salvation and scripture then are contingent upon their reality and place in Christ’s life as the Self-revelation of God by the Spirit (scripture then is truly ‘outside of us’ in this way).

This takes a huge load off! For many years I was held captive by the idea that the historicity and truthfulness of Scripture was contingent upon Christians successfully defending its veracity, and insofar that the Christian (apologist) could not make a case (without a doubt) against its detractors; then my faith hang in those balances. What a relief to finally realize that if I am going to have Scripture, I have to have Jesus first (or he has me first, to be dogmatically correct). So Scripture does not come before Christ, but God in Christ comes before Scripture; as sure as God in Christ by the Spirit comes before creation. I hope this reassures you in your own engagement with Scripture, and maybe helps to provide you with some rest from the nagging sort of Christianity that you might have inherited from our Fundamentalist and classically Reformed parents.

Looking For God — A Blogspot!

I wanted to draw your attention to the full reflection that this post only mimics; by way of pilfering this image and quote of Bonhoeffer. Jason Goroncy is a dear brother in Christ of mine, and he writes things, like the article of his I am pointing you too, that ought to make us all (as Christians in America and the West, respectively) stop and feel guilty (feel burdened to point of action!). Admittedly, I don’t make looking at images, like this, my standard mode of operation throughout the day; in fact I probably avoid contemplating this issue by way of constant habituation (I don’t have to, I live in an upwardly mobile demographic—and I mean by neighborhood—in comfortable America).

This image is shocking, but is more representative of the reality in the world than are the representations we are surrounded with; daily. The important thing to draw from this is to remember that this is where Jesus resides the most; with the destitute and famished amongst us (in the world). Surely the West and America has its own impoverishment[s]; they aren’t always as open and clear as those that are found in places like this little child inhabited. But there is more to be said about Christ’s identification, more, infiltration of humanity by understanding the depth of the human predicament; that is, by seeing this in full force (like this image evokes). If you want to see Jesus in all of his humanity you should look no further than this little intrepid lifeless body for whom Jesus was crushed. Here is a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Jason shared in his post, and then here is the link to Jason’s full post (read it!).

The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!). The same God who makes us to live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God, and with God, we live without God. God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial distinction between Christianity and all religions. Human religiosity directs people in need to the power of God in the world, God as deus ex machina. The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God; only the suffering God can help. (pp. 478–79)

Scripture in the Salvation Frame

John Webster is commenting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of our relation to Scripture. It’s not as if we give scripture its ground through imbuing it with our exegetical prowess; no, it’s that our ground is given footing as we find ourselves related to God in Christ through the Scripture’s story. This fits with the point that Webster is driving at, over-all, throughout his little book; that Scripture should be seen as an aspect of soteriology — sanctification in particular. And that Scripture is a part of God’s triune communicative act, ‘for us’; caught up in His self-Revelation itself. In other words, for Webster, as for Bonhoeffer (per Webster); Scripture shouldn’t be framed as a component of our epistemological foundation (wherein we put Scripture in its place, in effect), but Scripture is a mode of God’s gracious speech that acts upon us by the Spirit. And it is through this divine speech, that is grace, that we find ourselves — outside ourselves — in Christ, and thus in the Story of Scripture. This should have the effect of placing us under Scripture (which Luther would call ministerial) versus over Scripture (magisterial) — to simplify. Here’s the quote (a little introduction by Webster, and then a full quote of Bonhoeffer [also, notice the idea of vicariousness that Bonhoeffer appeals to as well]):

. . . More than anything else, it is listening or attention which is most important to Bonhoeffer, precisely because the self is not grounded in its own disposing of itself in the world, but grounded in the Word of Christ. Reading the Bible, as Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, is a matter of finding ourselves extra nos in the biblical history:

We are uprooted from our own existence and are taken back to the holy history of God on earth. There God has dealt with us, with our needs and our sins, by means of the divine wrath and grace. What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there.

Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves’ (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my own life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ . . . What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures. (John Webster, “Holy Scripture,” 83 citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” 62.)

Bonhoeffer on Christian Death

[Before you inform me of how flawed Eric Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer is, I know; I’ve been so informed in the past when I first quoted something from his book. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to finally finish this book, since I started it, and it was a Christmas gift from my mom; I’m reading it with a critical eye, but I’m going to finish it!]

As I am closing in on the last bit of the Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer I’ve come across another quote of Bonhoeffer that I wanted to share. This quote is a circular letter that he sent to the ordinands of the Confessing church, of which he served as one of its central leaders. This letter was circulated in August 1941, just when Hitler started his gruesome march on the Soviet Union; in it, he reflects upon what Christian death means, and how each of us (as Christians must face it, some, for no apparent reason to us, earlier than others):

Today I must inform you that our brothers Konrad Bojack, F.A. Preuß, Ulrich Nitack, and Gerhard Schulze have been killed on the eastern front. . . . They have gone before us on the path that we shall all have to take at some point. In a particularly gracious way, God reminds those of you who are out on the front to remain prepared. . . . To be sure, God shall call you, and us, only at the hour that God has chosen. Until that hour, which lies in God’s hand alone, we shall all be protected even in greatest danger, and from our gratitude for such protection ever new readiness surely arises for the final call.

Who can comprehend how those whom God takes so early are chosen? Does not the early death of young Christians always appear to us as if God were plundering his own best instruments in a time in which they are most needed? Yet the Lord makes no mistakes. Might God need our brothers for some hidden service on our behalf in the heavenly world? We should put an end to our human thoughts, which always wish to know more than they can, and cling to that which is certain. Whomever God calls home is someone God has loved. “For their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness” (Wisdom of Solom 4).

We know of course, that God and the devil are enraged in battle in the world and that the devil also has a say in death. In the face of death we cannot simply speak in some fatalistic way, “God wills it”; but we must juxtapose it with the other reality, “God does not will it.” Death reveals that the world is not as it should be but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death. Here the sharp antithesis between “God wills it” and “God does not will it” comes to a head and also finds its resolution. God accedes to that which God does not will, and from now on death itself must therefore serve God. Fron now on, the “God wills it” encompasses even the “God does not will it.” God wills the conquering of death through the death of Jesus Christ. Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death been drawn into God’s power, and it must now serve God’s own aims. It is not some fatalistic surrender but rather a living faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose for us, that is able to cope profoundly with death.

In life with Jesus Christ, death as a general fate approaching us from without is confronted by death from within, one’s own death, the free death of daily dying with Jesus Christ. Those who live with Christ die daily to their own will. Christ in us gives us over to death so that he can live within us. Thus our inner dying grows to meet that death from without. Christians receive their own death in this way, and in this way our physical death very truly becomes not the end but rather the fulfillment of our life with Jesus Christ. Here we enter into community with the One who at his own death was able to say, “It is finished.” (Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “Circular Letter to the Confessing Churches August 1941,” cited by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 383-84)