Archive for April, 2015

As I study I mark passages in the books/articles I read, then type the quotes into my computer. I’ve got more than 50 pages of notes, very small font, from Bonhoeffer. I decided this morning that, as part of my study of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I need to review my notes from all his earlier writings to draw connections between his early and his later thinking.

In part, I want to do this just to help relieve the irritation I’ve always felt toward the biography written by Metaxas. I’ve never read a biography which so badly mangles the thinking of its subject. Metaxas is a good story teller but he was incredibly inept in dealing with Bonhoeffer’s theology. I don’t believe Metaxas actually read very much of what Bonhoeffer wrote.

I will skip over the most obvious connection, that between his Ethics and his 1928 lecture in Barcelona: Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic. If you’ve read the essay, you’ve already dealt with half or more of Bonhoeffer’s thinking in Ethics.

Let me instead look for a moment at a less well known work, an article published in 1932 in the American publication called The Journal of Religion. It was first written as an essay for a class at Union Seminary in New York. Entitled “The Christian Idea of God,” the article distinguishes between philosophy and theology by pointing out that philosophy deals with ideas while theology deals with the person of God. While theologians may create intellectual constructs, they must always remain faithfully committed to the personal center of their work. It may have ideological dimensions but is essentially personal. (Therefore, among other things, their cannot be a true theologian who is not a person of faith!)

On page 452 of volume 10 of the DBWE, Bonhoeffer writes:

“Thinking does violence to reality, pulling it into the circle of the ego, taking away from it its original ‘objectivity.’ Thinking always means system and the system excludes the reality. Therefore, it has to call itself the ultimate reality, and in this system the thinking ego rules. It follows that not only the other man but also God is subordinated to the ego.”

When we create a system of thought [whether in theological or ethical matters] we are the creators and masters of that system. This, we observe, is a reflection of the original sin, supplanting “God by deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong, true and false, good and evil.

The important thing here is not that Bonhoeffer was thinking of ethics in the 1932 article — he wasn’t — but that his way of thinking was exactly like that which marks his Ethics. It is the thinking that is at the root of all Bonhoeffer’s work: we are called to be centered on God, honoring and heeding the living God and God alone in all we do and think. No system of thought or set of ethical rules must be allowed to supplant God as known in Jesus Christ.


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After the Gestapo had broken up the seminary at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer sought to continue nurturing the seminarians both by visits and by occasional circular letters of encouragement.

In the second of these letters, written in late January of 1938, he reminded them of the richness they had shared, not just in the seminary itself but throughout the Confessing Church, as they worked to establish in Germany a church that was true to our confession of Jesus Christ as our sole Lord. He knew that may were now discouraged because the Nazis were making life very difficult for members of the Confessing churches, including denying the state-paid salaries of the pastors.

Dietrich wanted the seminarians to remember that their suffering was not because they had been wrong and needed to make a change by rejoining the “official” German church but because they had been right and were therefore being opposed by the forces of evil.

He wrote, “So, then, the struggle for the true church of Christ erupted. Or do you possibly believe that the devil would take such trouble to annihilate a small band of idealists who were carried away? No, the storm arose because Christ was in the boat.”

Things are not yet as drastic for us as they were for the Confessing Christians in Germany 80 years ago but we are aware that our culture is becoming increasingly negative toward Christians and that harder times lie ahead. Yes, those hard times are occasion for re-examination and self-reflection. They push us to recognize, among other things, that we Christians have not yet figured out how to relate to the broader culture around us. We make fools of ourselves needlessly. We judge and condemn and reject those who do not meet our standards (even though we ourselves seldom live up to those standards). We earn much of the criticism leveled against us and must repent.

And yet, when a Dawkins or a Hitchens or a Hawking goes on the offensive against faith, they may use foolish Christians as the excuse but their fight really is with God. The storm in our culture is arising because Christ is in the boat. We need to recognize that and be careful never to take it personally. Dawkins is terrified of God; Hitchens was even more so. We don’t want to increase the danger of the storm by our own foolishness but we must recognize that ultimately it is Jesus Christ whom they reject, not us.

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An Interaction with a Chapter of Ethics, DBWE 6:146ff

We live in the twilight of early morning. The dawn is soon to come but is not here yet. Jesus Christ is near in Spirit but not directly present.
We can speak now, as Bonhoeffer often does, of living in perfect accord with Christ but that is not the same as it was for the twelve long ago or the same as it one day will be for all who believe. There was a sunset 2,000 years ago and there will be a rising sun very soon but for now we live in the dim light of memory and anticipation.
This is the penultimate age, says Bonhoeffer, the age when the promises of God are being but are not yet completely fulfilled. How shall we then live this penultimate life?
He tells us that “the life of a person who has encountered Christ’s presence is no longer lost, but has become justified, by grace alone. However, not only by grace alone, but also by faith alone.” (p. 147). Justification, as the Reformer’s learned after turning back from the church of the day to Scripture itself, is dependent entirely on God’s grace but it is received entirely on faith. We can only receive but cannot add to God’s grace. We receive that grace by opening our hearts in trust or, more fully, by entrusting our hearts and souls and lives to God’s love and grace.
By its very nature, faith encompasses both the present and the future. We cannot temporarily trust, cannot conditionally entrust ourselves to God. We trust now and forever or we do not trust at all.
There are many examples of faith in Scripture and each has a lesson for us but we cannot be content merely to emulate the faith of others. Paul’s call to “be imitators of me” is not the ultimate call of Scripture. Even he made it clear that the reason we are to be imitators of him is that he is an imitator of Christ (I Corinthians 11:1). We are ultimately, then, to become like Christ, not like Paul, like David or Moses or Abraham. Yet the path from who we are today to who we are becoming in Jesus Christ is neither easy nor quick.
That path, that penultimate stage in our journey, cannot be mastered by method. There is no spiritual technique by which we can mold ourselves into the image of Jesus Christ or fill ourselves with the Spirit of Christ.
Some struggle with the incompleteness of our spiritual formation by claiming to focus entirely on the ultimate things, leaving behind and scorning the things of this world. Yet, to their dismay, these radicals must eat and sleep and defecate. Like it or not, they must accept their penultimate position or die.
Others say the ultimate, being out of our reach, is not our concern. We live in perpetual compromise, accepting today’s reality without fighting it. Biblical passages such as the Sermon on the Mount deal with ultimate matters, which are just good ideals but are not realistic.
Both views have some truth to them but both are inadequate because neither describes the life Jesus lived. He lived always with the ultimate in view, shaping his life as he lived each day to its fullest.    The more evil the day in which we live, the greater the temptation to reject the world and seek to withdraw into spiritual ghettoes. But that is not where the path of Jesus Christ leads us. “The relationship between the ultimate and the penultimate is resolved only in Christ” (p. 157).
In practical terms, of course we are to be as good and healthy and wise as we can but this is not to prepare us for the ultimate reality. We are not making ourselves clean and worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We are simply pleasing Christ, who is pleased at signs of goodness in saint and sinner alike.
“Whatever in the fallen world is found to be human and good belongs on the side of Jesus Christ. We truncate the gospel when we proclaim that only the broken and the evil are near to Jesus Christ and when, proclaiming the love of the father for the prodigal, we belittle the father’s love for the son who stayed at home” (p. 169).

It seems almost as if Bonhoeffer is regaining a balance here. Having placed such emphasis over the years on confession, he is now saying we are not to tarnish real goodness wherever it is found. Human sin is not the whole story. Human sin and human goodness are alike to be entrusted to God.

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