Archive for August, 2015

Robert McAffee Brown, in Unexpected News, writes:
“There is a primary naïveté that accepts everything in Scripture at face value and digs in its heels when portions of the Bible threaten to be eroded by the acids of modernity.”  I work at a critical reading but “After all that critical scrutiny, however, we have returned to the text itself, looking at it with a secondary  naïveté, for we still have to ask the pesky question of the text as it stands, ‘What does the passage say to us?’”

Bonhoeffer, like Evangelical Christians the world over, knew that first level of naive Bible reading. He meditated daily on Scripture, seeking not to study it but to listen for the voice of the Spirit in the words of the Bible. He also knew and appreciated the critical level but had one great complaint about it: The critics tended to deconstruct the text and leave it in shambles without ever reaching a third level in which they again heard the Bible as a whole. It was Brown’s “secondary naïveté which Bonhoeffer sought, that level at which we deal seriously with Scripture as God’s self-revelation.

In their book Reading in Communion, Fowl and Jones say the goal of our work in Scripture is the “performance of Scripture.” that is, we do not want merely to know the Book but to live it. And Bonhoeffer, they say, “was an exemplary performer of Scripture.”

There are three fundamental levels of Bible study, I believe. In the first we observe carefully to ascertain what the Bible actually says. Second, we let the text and the Spirit lead us to insight and understanding by interpreting the text. Third, we live the text or, as Fowl and Jones put it, we perform the text. Having led many hundreds of small group Bible studies over the years, I can say that the biggest weakness of Christian students of the Bible is that they have no patience with the first level, observation, and therefore lay no foundation for interpreting it, leaving them with no clear understanding of what it looks like when the text is lived.

I agree with Fowl and Jones: Bonhoeffer was transformed by Scripture; he lived it. It is not the woman or man who quotes the most Bible who is the most biblical. Rather, it is the one who embodies the heart of Scripture who is truly biblical.


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In our day, when divisiveness is coming to be considered a virtue, we face a difficult challenge. Some people relate to others by emphasizing the differences between them while other people relate by emphasizing the commonalities.

I suppose there is a time for each but of this I am sure: Those who live exclusively by the rule that our differences matter more than our commonalities will never receive the blessing Jesus pronounced on the peacemakers. He certainly had his times of clashing with the religious leaders who had so much to lose if they agreed with Jesus, but with the vast majority of people Jesus was amazingly inclusive.

I am convinced — from watching Jesus and history and current events — that our first instincts must always be toward inclusiveness, toward cherishing our commonalities. We must at times be exclusive, of course, but let’s let the other person decide to be our enemy before we consider him to be an enemy.

One of the current areas of great tension is the relation between Jews, Christians and Muslims. There are some very real differences between the three but we dare not neglect the deep commonalities. We who are Christian will never relinquish our center in Jesus Christ. Ours is a lifetime, unconditional commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior. But we must be very careful to avoid defending our borders, our edges as fervently as we do our center.

We have a history, especially in America, of breaking fellowship with anyone who doesn’t share in the whole of our thinking. Conservatives, for instance, often seem convinced that those nasty Liberals aren’t even Christian at all. And those who baptize only adults sometimes look with scorn on those who practice infant baptism. Those who baptize by dunking tend to have little respect for those who drip a bit of water on the head. On and on we go, criticizing and separating from one another to form countless denominations and independent congregations. We seem to think the form of baptism, which distinguishes one group from another, is more important than our common commitment to Christ, which unites us.

No wonder we have trouble getting along with Jews and especially Muslims! If we cannot value our common center with one another, how can we find any commonalities with Jews and Muslims? The fault is ours, not theirs (except for those who want to focus on the differences.)

A Christian who traveled often to Egypt was asked once, “Is Allah the same as God or is Allah a false god?” The answer was emphatic: “Allah is not God.” What a profound misunderstanding! In the first place, the word “Allah” is simply the normal Arabic word for God. And the word “God” is simply the Saxon word for supernatural beings. In the second place, by “Allah” Islam means the Creator and the Lord of Abraham as portrayed in Genesis. Whether we agree with the Islamic interpretation of the story of God and his people, we cannot honestly deny that Christian and Muslim each intend to worship and serve the one Creator.

To see a perfect example of what it looks like when we emphasize commonalities rather than differences, take the time to become acquainted with a group called the Abrahamic Alliance International.    < abrahamicalliance.org  >

Or, to think about the matter from a different perspective, read the story told about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7. Jesus has a fascinating exchange with an unclean, Gentile woman, someone about as low as one could get in the eyes of some people. They have a lively exchange in which she shows she is in perfect tune with Jesus. He grants her prayer and sends her on her way. He never once suggested that she should convert to become a Jew or even become his follower. He simply blesses and commends her. If Jesus did not insist that she become like him, who are we to insist that everyone else become like us???

It was very difficult for the Confessing Church in Germany to come to grips with the anti-Semitism fomented by the Nazis. The prejudice was so deeply rooted in the German mentality that even for the Confessing Church, opposed as it was to Hitler, to realize what a clear stand was needed against anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer, who certainly was one of the first to grasp the full reality of the situation, spoke out but cautiously at first. By 1935, he was clear: “Only he who cries out for the Jews can sing Gregorian chants.” We cannot be true to Jesus Christ without affirming our unity in devotion to the Creator.

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Here’s an essay I wrote several years ago. It fits well with Bonhoeffer’s repeated insistence that we are followers of the living, present Jesus Christ.

– – – – – – – – – – –

In theological debate, it is almost inevitable that every contribution will muddy the waters worse than the one before it. This, methinks, is usually because the questions have been worded wrongly. Questions define the playing field so, no matter how good the players may be, the questions remain more powerful than those players. Theologians who seek to answer inept questions are doomed.
I well remember as a young Christian in seminary discovering that pair of articles by John Stott and Everett Harrison. I was immediately drawn to it, not because I thought it a good question to be exploring but because Stott had mattered so much to me at Urbana and because Harrison was my New Testament professor at the time. I studied their articles carefully and came to the conclusion that the question they sought to answer wasn’t a very important question because it was not one asked or directly answered in the Bible.
I tend to approach things in a non-theological way. In this case, for instance, my first thought is: Wouldn’t Jesus be horrified if two of his disciples, walking with him every day, got into such a debate?
After all, he didn’t call them to “believe the right doctrines about me and I will make you fishers of men.” Nor did he call them to “pick the right parts of my being and I will make you fishers of men.” What he said was fundamentally different: “Follow me. . .”
Scripture never grants us the privilege of choosing Jesus in one particular way or another. We do not get to choose between Jesus as Savior and Jesus as Lord. We simply choose to trust Jesus or not. Once that basic, personal trust is established, then we have much to learn about the various dimensions of the reality of Jesus.
So I would say the way the question is usually worded – Jesus as Lord or Savior – is itself not a biblical question and is therefore not really worthy of debate. There cannot be a good answer to a bad question.
More than that, I think the broader question is also not biblical: At what point in the development of faith is a person saved? Salvation is actually not one of the prominent themes of the Bible so not enough information is given to us to know just when a person crosses the line from “unsaved” to “saved.” It simply isn’t that important.
We are called to be followers of Jesus Christ, called to be ever more faithful to him, called to be increasingly shaped in his image. Somewhere along that process, we are delivered from darkness to light, from death to life, from an existence that is essentially sinful to an existence that is essentially forgiven, clean, and pure.
The Gospel is the Good News, not about our salvation but about Jesus Christ. We always seem to forget this and think that the Good News is about us. Far from it, the Gospel delivers us from such self-centeredness. Any evangelism which appeals to our self-interest (as in, “Accept Jesus and you’ll be much happier” or “Accept Jesus and you’ll go to heaven”) is a serious distortion of the Gospel.
When we accept the call to become followers of Jesus, we are entrusting ourselves to him. Remember that the NT has only one word for faith, trust, and belief. We in English like to distinguish the three but that has no biblical foundation. To have faith is to trust is to believe. To have faith is to entrust ourselves to Jesus, to place ourselves into his care and under his leadership. While for must of us, there is a clear beginning to this process, it actually takes more than a lifetime to learn fullness of trust.
To summarize, then: I believe the question “When is a person saved?” is unimportant. What matters is “Are you following Jesus?” Some would say that view makes me like those who argue we must accept Jesus as Lord. Perhaps so but I refuse to let human theological constructs pigeonhole and categorize my attempts to be faithful to Jesus and in harmony with Scripture. We don’t trust Jesus as this or that – we simply trust Jesus.

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The longer I dwell with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the less I am able to distinguish any substantial difference between his ideas as a young man and his radical-sounding ideas in Letters and Papers from Prison.

For example, in LPP he speaks of a non-religious or religionless Christianity. While not using either specific phrase in 1928, while an intern in Barcelona, he did write

“Christianity contains a seed of animosity to the church since we wish to base a demand on God on our devotion to Christ and church. . . .Ethics and religion lie in the direction of human beings toward God. Christ, however, speaks alone, entirely alone, of the direction of God to people; not of the human way to God but of the way of God to human beings.”

Religion (and ethical systems!), Bonhoeffer is already noting, leave us in control. We determine which liturgy and religious language to use. And, just as likely, we determine just how God is supposed to respond to our religiosity. That is what the old Greeks would call hubris. And we recall that hubris makes us fly too close to the sun, which melts our wings and we plunge to our death. (That’s the old Greek myth of Icarus.)

Religion, it seems to me, is often little more than our way of appeasing God, giving him enough attention that we think he’ll not ask anything more of us. Bonhoeffer was rejecting such religion in 1928 and most emphatically in 1944.

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