Archive for November, 2013

My last blog ended with this paragraph:

“There was a fad a few years ago to ask a similar, though disturbingly shallow, question: “What would Jesus do?” Dietrich is simply asking the same thing but at a far deeper and more personal level. We don’t know when he first asked it but we do know that he never ceased. And neither should we.”

I’ve been asked to expand a bit on the idea that the question, “What would Jesus do?”, is disturbingly shallow. Most simply put, the problem with WWJD is that it assumes the living Lord is not present and that his Spirit is not active in and through faithful believers today. The more important question is, “What is Jesus doing in and through us/me right now?” That’s the question Bonhoeffer asks in prison: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

When we assume Jesus is just an example to follow, we end up extracting principles from his life, then following those principles. Sounds noble until you recognize that the Pharisees, with whom Jesus had many verbal battles, lived by the “principles” of Torah. We may have in mind slightly different principles but that is a minor detail. The basic reality is that “living by principles” leaves us in charge of our own lives: We choose the principles, we interpret them, and at times we dispense with them. We live by our own understanding and power.

I have observed time and again — including in Bonhoeffer — three common stages of Christian maturing. First there is the strong desire to do everything right for God. People at this level are drawn to fads such as WWJD. There comes a point where deep spiritual fatigue sets in and we realize we simply cannot be perfect for God, no matter how hard we might try. Then some despair of faith altogether while others take their fatigue and discouragement to the Lord and discover that He has been waiting all along for us to entrust ourselves to Him at the very deepest levels. We learn to live by grace, to be carried by the wisdom and power of the Spirit. It is exhiliarating!

The transition to the third level, the level of maturity which Bonhoeffer often called simply “responsible” Christian living, is more subtle and seldom comes through a time of crisis or rapid change. It is the level in which we learn not only to live life for God, not only to receive life from God, but to live responsibly with God. Christian maturity is not simply a matter of me giving my life to God, or letting God give life to me, but of sharing in the very character of God by faith.

The New Testament word for such sharing is koinonia, and it means (in this case) having in common the very Spirit of Jesus Christ. One of the ways Jesus expressed this idea is found in Matthew 11:28-29, where Jesus invites us to take his yoke. We do not pull Christ along and Christ does not pull us along. We are yoked together, by his choice and by his grace. What a joy!


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From time to time I hear questions raised about discontinuity between the “early” writings of Bonhoeffer and the later works. Some say we ought not to bother with the earlier works because only Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison represent his mature thinking. Others say these two books (both written by Bethge with materials from Bonhoeffer) express ideas developed under duress and were not well thought through. The biography by Metaxas, for example, dismisses the LPP as being “inchoate” thoughts that Bonhoeffer wouldn’t want us to be taking seriously.

The truth (as Metaxas himself notes in different parts of his book) is that all the ideas which came to fruition in Ethics and LPP can be found in Bonhoeffer’s earliest works, including his student papers and dissertations. Reading the sometimes difficult ideas in the latter books is greatly enhanced by a careful reading of the foundational work Bonhoeffer had been doing since he was 20 years old.

It’s true that when reading his prison letters to Bethge, we often find ourselves wishing Bonhoeffer had better developed this idea or that, but the development of those ideas can actually be traced in advance by a broad reading in the full scope of Bonhoeffer’s writing.

For example, perhaps the central question Dietrich asked in prison was, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Taken out of context, it may sound as if he is suggesting we have to keep inventing a new Jesus to suit us in each generation. When that question is paired with a lecture he gave in 1928, at age 22 (“Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity, DBWE 10:342), we realize that Bonhoeffer is always talking about Jesus Christ as a person, not as a doctrine.

To know and follow a person over a period of years and in a rapidly changing blur of historical situations means we must always attend carefully to the character and to the active leadership of that person. We cannot “know” him once, capture him in a timeless doctrine, and then blindly follow the doctrine forever. We have to listen again and again to our living Lord. What is he saying to us today? What part of his eternal character is emerging in this situation? How are we to be in harmony with him on this very day?

There was a fad a few years ago to ask a similar, though disturbingly shallow, question: “What would Jesus do?” Dietrich is simply asking the same thing but at a far deeper and more personal level. We don’t know when he first asked it but we do know that he never ceased. And neither should we.

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I’m delighted that at last Volume 14 of Bonhoeffer’s Works in English has arrived. The publication of all 16 volumes has been a major, multi-year, and very successful venture. The standard of editorial and translation excellence has been sustained throughout the project and the result is simply outstanding.

This volume covers the Finkenwalde years of 1935-37, a critical period in Bonhoeffer’s life. With great happiness he had found a role that allowed him to be all he had ever dreamed: pastor, educator, friend. Yet the Nazi machine took away the school and from that point on Bonhoeffer’s work was increasing centered on resisting the demonic evil of Hitler.

Every seminarian, every seminary professor, and every seminary administrator ought to consider this book necessary reading as they consider the way in which the modern Western church prepares its pastors. As always, Bonhoeffer was ahead of his time and therefore speaks to our day as if he were our contemporary.

Just dipping here and there to get acquainted with the book, I easily found numerous ideas to underline and contemplate. Some are minor in appearance yet important in implications. This evening, for example, I looked through Dietrich’s note to his seminarians in the school newsletter of May 15, 1937 (p. 303).

He wrote, “‘You will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8) — that is the Lord’s promise to us.” Such a simple sentence that we might well overlook something very profound about it. In all my 53 years of experience in the Evangelical churches of America, I have heard hundreds of references to Acts 1:8, always with the idea that it is a command. Bonhoeffer hears it as a promise. What a difference!

Conservative Christians in the West hear lots of commands in the Bible and end up being barely distinguishable from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They stood firmly on Torah, conceived as law and command, much like religious and political conservatives today boast of “standing on principles.”

Much of what we tend to hear as command, however, is really promise. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul wrote to the Colossians. If that is a command, what are we to do with it? Shall we instruct Christ to send his peace into our hearts and our fellowships? Of course not. We merely stop trying to make ourselves and our communities into what we think they should be and let our peaceful Lord have his way with us.

“You will be my witnesses” is simply a promise of how our Lord will use us, not a command we must train ourselves to obey. We’ve turned “witnessing” into a verb, into something we are to do, rather than recognizing it is a noun with simply tells us who we are. We are who we are in Christ Jesus and that is our testimony. Yes, of course, there are times for words to be spoken ass we tell others who Jesus is, but these words come after our friends have seen who we are in Christ. The words are not the testimony; we are!

Thanks, Dietrich, for reminding me. . .

(By the way, the Pharisees in the next few centuries after Jesus became much like him in many way and proved essential to sustaining and shaping Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.)

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The new volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (vol. 14, the final publication of the full set of 16 volumes) is devoted to the three years in which Bonhoeffer founded and led an underground seminary at Finkenwalde in northern Germany.  We Evangelicals think of these years (1935-1937) as of great importance because our two favorite Bonhoeffer books (Discipleship and Life Together) come from this time and specifically from the Finkenwalde experience. We applaud Bonhoeffer because he sounds in these books more boldly evangelical than most of us dare to be.

To understand Bonhoeffer, however, we very much need to take into account that his battle against “cheap grace” was only one of three great struggles in which he was engaged in the middle 30s.

Since at least as early as February 1, 1933, when Dietrich spoke on the radio to warn the German people that their desperate hunger for somebody, anybody to fix the economic mess in Germany, his opposition to Hitler was clear, strong, and well known. Bonhoeffer’s resistance to to evil Hitler brought to the world came to dominate his life not many years later and in time cost him his life.

Just as importantly in the Finkenwalde years, Bonhoeffer was struggling with the church, both the Confessing Church (which was having difficulty becoming a coherent force against Nazi domination) and the ecumenical church with which he had been deeply involved during the early 30s. The very extensive correspondence now published in Volume 14 shows us how deeply disappointed Bonhoeffer was in the churches outside Germany, nearly almost all of whom followed the common western tack of appeasement to the bellicose Hitler.

Even in 1935, when Hitler was being quite open about violating the Versailles Treaty by building a major military force, Western politicians and church leaders chose a willful ignorance of Hitler’s aims and downplayed any suggestions that he had any aggressive ideas against other nations or against non-Aryans. Western cowardice is finely, though inadvertently, expressed in a long letter to Bonhoeffer from Leonard Hodgson, a British ecumenical leader and Oxford professor of theology. It is a response to Bonhoeffer’s stand against attending a particular ecumenical meeting if German (i.e., Nazi) Church officials were also welcomed.

Hodgson argues that “it is necessary for us to guarantee to every church, when we invite it to send representatives, that it will not find itself in any way compromised by action taken by the conference at which it is represented” (DBWE 14:77). In other words, all churches were invited and were promised no action would be taken against them. . . no matter what they might deserve. That sounds graciously ecumenical but Bonhoeffer was not shaken in his conviction that Hitler’s evil — including the German Church which he now dominated — could only be opposed, not appeased.

How ironic and sad that we Evangelicals celebrate the inward Christianity of Discipleship and Life Together without realizing that for Bonhoeffer these were meant to be foundational in the much broader task of challenging the cultural and political environment. He was not inviting Christians to escapism but to strengthening their walk with Jesus Christ so that they could stand before God, the German people, and all the world with a clear testimony to the Lordship of Christ.

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