Archive for January, 2014

In preparing for a weekly Bible study with a few friends, I’ve been looking at the opening verses of I Timothy. Among other things, Paul tells us that a proper use of Law is good. What constitutes a proper use?

Two thoughts:

1. In verse 8, Paul uses some fascinating language. “Now we know that the law (nomos) is good, if one uses it lawfully (nomimos). That is, teaching, understanding, using the Law is good IF we do so in a way that is in harmony with the actual nature of the Law. That, of course, leads us to the question of the true nature of the Law. (The Hebrew Torah lies behind Paul’s discussion here.)

2. In verses 9-10 Paul tells us the right understanding of the nature and purpose of the Law. it has been given not for the sake of the good people but the bad. This is very like what he said to the Romans (3:19), that the purpose of the Law is to silence all our claims to being righteous and to hold us all accountable to God. Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. That seems to be bad news. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). But there is good news: We are made righteous apart from the Law, as a gift of God through the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24).

The rules and regulations would be unnecessary and wouldn’t even have been given had we not proven ourselves unrighteous. The Law holds us accountable to our Creator for not living in harmony with him, for not being persons of godly character.

If we do not try to be good people by obeying all the rules and regulations, how shall we then live?

Well, Paul has already told Timothy to help the teachers in Ephesus to teach right doctrine, the purpose of which is not to make us theologically correct (as Fundamentalists believe) but to lead us to love by offering us a clean heart, clear conscience, and genuine trust in God.

It never ceases to amaze me how Bible-believing Christians can think there is something radical about Bonhoeffer’s claim that there is no set of Christian rules and regulations to make us into good and righteous people. Bonhoeffer, as we shall see more clearly when we begin to examine his Ethics, is being deeply biblical, far more so than most of the Evangelical teaching I’ve heard in my 50+ years of following Jesus.


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It has been noted often that, more than any theologian since Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer’s biography and his writings must be studied as if they were merely different dimensions of a single whole. In studying his view of ethics, for example, we cannot read his great book Ethics without  taking into account the reality of his growing involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. The book and the plot were simultaneous!

It might also be noticed, but so far as I know has not been, that long before Luther there was another Christian thinker whose life and teaching were thoroughly intertwined. We have no writings from his hand but we do have four short books, which we call Gospels, that reveal his teaching by the literary means of telling the story of his life. We speculate that the early church may well have gathered collections of his wise sayings and even of stories about his life, but we have no actual evidence of such collections. What the first Christians did preserve with great care were those four gospels, the life and teaching of Jesus Christ as a seamless unity.

I’ve just been reading another of a great many books that devotes considerable attention to the question, What is a gospel? [Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Mark. Why is it so difficult for us to figure out the nature of that seemingly unique genre which the four gospels share? I believe that a significant part of the answer is that we are thrown slightly off balance by the impossibility of dividing the life story from the teaching of men like Jesus or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We want to think like the Greeks, with clear taxonomic categories in mind. We know how to read a poem or a biography or a theological essay but what do we do with a work that seems to be a bit of each? How can we classify a writing that is filled with suggestive allusions as if it were a poem, with stories as if it were a biography, and with theological lessons both overt and covert?

I’m no scholar but I have tried to stay at least somewhat current with Markan scholarship for more than 40 years. The exercise is much like spinning a kaleidoscope with it ever evolving patterns and textures. Trends and fads come and go rapidly and much of the struggle, it seems to me, derives from our inability to know how to apply our Greek minds to an essentially Hebrew kind of literature. the OT is a book of stories and poems yet clearly it is meant to be a nearly endless set of lessons about the character of God and about what it means for us that we are created imago dei.

If we learn theology from the OT, why do we struggle so hard with the four gospels? Perhaps it is because they are written in Greek and that nudges us toward the idea that they must be Greek writings. They are not.

Nor can there be a proper assessment of the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that neglects the historical context of each of his writings. His story is fascinating in itself and his theology is wonderfully insightful in itself but neither can be fully appreciated or even understood apart from the other.

May tomorrow’s generation same the same about you and me!

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Have you been pondering the Bonhoeffer quotes in the last blog? Does he make sense when he says that “there is no Christian ethic”?

Most American readers of Bonhoeffer have struggled with such an idea. In the 60s, a small handful of American scholars garnered a great deal of media attention by building a not-so-sturdy structure of ideas called “situational ethics” on Bonhoeffer’s foundation. The short lived movement listened only to half of what Bonhoeffer was saying and missed entirely the important second half. We no longer live by pharisaical rules and regulations but that is not because we are free of any external expectations or demands placed on us by God. Rather, we are to attend to our Lord all the more carefully, to be attentive to his will in each and every situation.

What Bonhoeffer is calling for is a focus on our personal relationship with our Lord, where we listen to and heed his voice. This requires of us a substantial spiritual maturity. The situational ethics of the 60s made no distinction between believers and non-believers or between mature and immature believers, simply pronouncing for all people the freedom to do whatever they liked in the name of love.

Ethics as a systematic taxonomy of rights and wrongs, says Bonhoeffer, “is a movement from us to God — an impossible path.” We cannot by any means make ourselves right with God or righteous before God by our own decisions. Rather, the connection between us and our Lord is a path from God to us, a path of grace and love on which we find ourselves to be the reached ones, not the reachers of God.

Much of Bonhoeffer’s thinking here comes from his reflections on the story of the Garden in Genesis. (See his later Genesis lectures entitled “Creation and Fall.”) How were Adam and Eve to live before the Fall, with only one rule to obey? Clearly, they were to live in responsive, responsible relationship with their Creator.

The New Testament reflects this same understanding. The purpose of the law, argues Paul, is not to make us righteous but to make us accountable for our sin. The righteousness of God comes apart from the law (Romans 3:20-21). We are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).

We Evangelicals, it seems, have pulled a sneaky trick. We preach salvation by grace but living by law. Isn’t that exactly what horrified Paul as he beheld the Christians of Galatia?

Galatians 2:19-21    “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Why do we struggle with Bonhoeffer’s view of ethics? Because we’ve not dwelt long and attentively in Romans and Galatians.


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Biographer Eric Metaxas portrays Bonhoeffer as being entirely orthodox as a young man, then losing track of his roots under the duress of the Nazi years in Germany. Not only has Metaxas done a poor job of reading Ethics (if he did so at all) and Letters and Papers from Prison, he has badly neglected some of the radical ideas of the young Bonhoeffer.

In 1929, shortly before his 23rd birthday, Dietrich delivered a startling lecture at the Barcelona church where he was serving as something like what we would call an intern.

Listen to these striking ideas from the definitive edition in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, vol. 10:

p 360 “. . .there are not and cannot be Christian norms and principles of a moral nature.”

p 360 “Ethics is a matter of blood and a matter of history. It did not simply descend to earth from heaven. Rather, it is a child of the earth, and for that reason its face changes with history as well as with the renewal of blood, with the transition between generations.”

p 362 “. . .Christianity is basically amoral. . .”

p 363 Ethics is a movement from us to God – an impossible path. Christianity speaks of God’s path to us in grace and love. “The Christian message stands beyond good and evil, and this is how it must be; for if God’s grace is made dependent on human beings according to the categories of good and evil, this would constitute a human claim on God. This, however, would challenge the power and honor due exclusively to God.”

p 363 “The primal – let us say, childlike – community between human beings and God stands beyond this knowledge of good and evil; it knows only one thing” God’s limitless love for human beings.”

p 363 “There is no Christian ethic.”

p 365 “There are no ethical principles enabling Christians, as it were, to make themselves moral.”

p 365 “This ongoing relationship to God’s will is the great moral renewal Jesus brought about, the dismissal of principles, of fundamental rules – in biblical terms, the law.”

p 367 “Ethical decisions lead us into the most profound solitude, the solitude in which a person stands before the living God. Here no one can help us, no one can bear part of the responsibility; here God imposes a burden on us that we must bear alone. Only in the realization that we have been addressed by God, that God is making a claim on us, does our self awaken.”

p 368 “. . .we find ourselves in position of having to choose not between good and evil but between evil and evil.”

I will leave you to ponder such things for a few days before commenting on them. I do hope the prior blog entries on “Bonhoeffer and Ethics” helped prepare you for the remarks of this 22 year old Bonhoeffer.

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One last thought before we turn to Bonhoeffer’s challenging views on ethics. . .

Imagine that I have become very angry with my neighbor over his unbearably irritating beh avior and have tried often to find ways to help him change. He’s very stubborn and refuses to change. My anger becomes so great that I want to smash his skull with a baseball bat. As I reach for the bat, I remember that one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not kill,” so I put the bat down and resist the temptation.

Have i pleased God?

Well, certainly the Lord prefers that I refrain from killing my neighbor but have I pleased God? I have obeyed the Law but have I pleased God? No, I think not. If I have refrained only because it is against one of God’s rules, I nonetheless have violated Jesus’ call to love my neighbor. This is a higher calling than merely not breaking the Law.

The Evangelical world in which I found myself when I became a believer at age 20 — and the Evangelical world even today — seems to offer two choices for living our lives: either break the rules or obey them. God calls us, however, to something higher, a life of godly love.

Any view of “Christian ethics” which is not centered in this higher calling simply falls short of the biblical portrait of a righteous life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the few Christian thinkers who has wrestled deeply with the challenge to heed the higher calling.

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Jesus spoke sometimes in ways so bold that, two thousand years later, we are still trying to grasp. He said, for instance, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 912-13).

He said these words during or shortly after a dinner he shared with “tax collectors and sinners.” And he was speaking to Pharisees, those zealous religious leaders who were most meticulous about heeding every commandment they could find in their Hebrew Bible. One of their fundamental convictions was that, when clean touches unclean, both are now unclean. And they were sure they were speaking for God in this conviction.

Jesus, then, was proving in two ways he was no man of God: First, he ate with sinners and, second, he said those were the people he preferred.

It seemed to the Pharisees that he simply didn’t care about righteousness. In reality, Jesus shared with the Pharisees an extremely deep concern for the righteousness of God’s people but he understood it very differently than did they. Righteousness in the eyes of the Pharisees was an achievement to be gained by rigid adherence to commandments. For Jesus, righteousness is a gift of God’s grace, bestowed through forgiveness. For the Pharisees, it is a goal toward which we strive. For Jesus, it is the beginning point of life.

As I look back through the centuries of church history and look back on my own half-century in ministry, I cannot escape the impression that we Christians have tended to be much more like the Pharisees than like Jesus. We have sought to control our own behavior and that of others by imposing various sets of rules. The content of the rules changes a bit over time (We no longer think the good life, the ethical life is merely a matter of affirming, I don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do)  but the principle remains the same. The righteous life is one lived by the rules.

Paul reflected on such an idea and spoke very firmly to the Galatian Christians: “For freedom Christ has set us free, Stand firm, therefore, and do no submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). But, like the Israelites wandering in the desert, we find ourselves longing for the security of being slaves. If we’re not slaves to the rules or to some master, then we are responsible beings and that is frightening for a great many people.

In the next several blog entries, we will see how Bonhoeffer dealt with ideas such as these and then we’ll face the biggest question of all: If we don’t live by rules or “principles,” how shall we then live?

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For the next several weeks (months?) I will be studying Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the ethical life of the believer. I want to approach his book Ethics by first examining his earlier, preparatory writings, especially the 1929 lecture called “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic.” As I’ve read read this essay with care and asking my favorite question (Is it biblical?), I’ve found myself thinking through once again my own understanding of ethics, comparing and sometimes contrasting my interpretation of Scripture with that of Bonhoeffer.

For this initial blog entry in the Ethics series, it might be helpful to me (and, I hope to you) to articulate my way of grappling with the biblical lessons about how to live as a good, a righteous person.

I begin in Genesis,* where I find the striking story of the creation of human persons in the image of the Creator. With only one rule to obey, how were Adam and Eve expected to know what to do or what not to do? God taught them no ethics. Instead, they were simply to be true to their creation in God’s image, true to themselves. In other words, rather than ethical principles they had integrity. Being true to themselves meant being true to their Creator.

When the serpent of temptation came along, Adam and Eve suckered for the lure of a false promise: to be not complements to God but competitors, knowing for themselves the difference between good and evil. That knowledge would enable them to be the lord’s of their own lives, though it meant denying the lordship of their Creator.

Because that story lies at the very core of our being, we are caught in a seemingly endless tragedy: While it is true that choosing good over evil is better than choosing evil over good, we really ought not to be making the choice at all. We stole from God the power to choose the good for ourselves. Sin lies not in choosing evil but in choosing for ourselves, even if we choose well.

In Jesus Christ we are being forgiven our sin, being reconciled to God, and being “renewed in knowledge according to the image of [our] Creator” (Colossians 3:10). As we come to know God, we are transformed ever more closely to being the person’s we were meant to be, imago dei.

How shall we then live? In the next blog entry, we’ll look at what the New Testament teaches us about the life of righteousness, the truly good life. Then we’ll return to Bonhoeffer to see how similar or different his ideas might be.


* I have little interest in the question of the literal, historical, scientific accuracy of the story of creation. There is no text on earth that is more deeply insightful into the essence of humanness than Genesis 1-3. That’s enough for me.

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