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Archive for February, 2016

Fools rush in, they say, where angels fear to tread. ‘Tis true, true of many individuals (think of the deadly “extreme sports” in our day) and true of humanity as a whole. How many times have we let our minds wander into that “time” before time began? How many times have we asked about what moved God to create the universe, as if we could know the mind of God before the beginning of everything we know as reality?

Bonhoeffer, in his 1932-33 lectures on Genesis known as “Creation and Fall,” writes:

“The place where the Bible begins is one where our own most impassioned waves of thinking break, are thrown back upon themselves, and lose their strength in spray and foam.”  “Where the beginning begins, there our thinking stops; there it comes to an end.”  (DBWE 3:25)

That is a picturesque way of insisting that our imaginations cannot penetrate back beyond the barrier of the beginning. If there is any meaning at all to the phrase “before the beginning,” it is a meaning totally beyond our perception, understanding, imagination. Only hubris would try to push further back than the beginning.

While delivering these Berlin lectures on Genesis, Bonhoeffer was deeply disturbed by Hindenburg’s appointment of a new Chancellor for Germany: Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer knew that Germany, already in dire straits economically, was now being plunged into a level of chaos more disastrous than the extreme political and economic disorder of the day. Yet none of this made a direct appearance in the Genesis lectures.

The christology lectures in the summer of 1933, delivered while Bonhoeffer and others were composing the Bethel Confession in opposition to the nazification of the church, are also without direct reference to the German crisis.

What we do find in these lectures is the same beginning point in Bonhoeffer’s thinking: The deepest, most fundamental realities are beyond the reach of human words. [That, it seems to me, is the raison d’être of poetry, our attempt to use words to point beyond the mere meaning of the words themselves. That’s a topic for some other day.]

Bonhoeffer writes:

The silence of the church is silence before the Word. In proclaiming Christ, the church falls on its knees in silence before the inexpressible, the arreton [unspeakable, cf. II Corinthians 12:4]. To speak of Christ is to be silent, and to be silent about Christ is to speak (DBWE 12:300). The logos became flesh and therefore cannot be restricted to the realm of mere words (DBWE 12:301).

When we stand before the incomprehensible, the inexpressible, we can only be silent in humility, not letting hubris drive us to speak which which are hopelessly inadequate.

When I think about this silence, my mind always goes to Peter and two stories which tell us a great deal abut his heart. . .and mind . . . and yours. In the first, Peter, James and John are with Jesus, Moses and Elijah in some sort of spiritual uber-reality. Mark 9:5 say, “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

Poor Peter! He had no idea what to say yet somehow thought he had to say something.

Later, after he has denied Jesus just as Jesus has predicted, Peter at last realizes that there are no words. He simply breaks down in tears. That was the only option left for him. A step in any other direction would have been a step away from Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer notes that Christ is called by John the logos, a Greek term indicating the meaning behind and beyond words. In Athenian thinking, this logos was the rational structure of all reality. For John, the logos is not rationality but personal reality.”I am the truth,” said Jesus. The logos cannot be captured by mere words both because it is deeper and broader than words and because it is not an idea but a person, Jesus Christ himself.

So we stand in silent awe before the opening scene of all reality and we stand in silent praise before the unspeakable, indescribable beauty and majesty and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!!!

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Not long after returning from his year of study at Union Seminary in New York, Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend, expressing some of his observations about the American churches. We know from many other things he wrote that these remarks do not apply to his experiences in Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which he enjoyed immensely. Instead, here Bonhoeffer is commenting on the so-called “mainline” churches.

On October 18, 1931, Dietrich wrote to Helmut Rossler:

The huge project of American mission is hollow on the inside. The mother church itself is dying. And yet it is certain that our current understanding of the gospel simply cannot be heard over there. (DBWE 11:54)

When he refers to “our current understanding of the gospel” he means that understanding shared by just a handful of young men in Germany, those who would just a few years later become the core of the Confessing Church. It was a sense of the gospel as centered in “the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life” of Jesus Christ (DBWE 10:313, formal report on his year in America).

In Bonhoeffer’s view, a church without this gospel is “hollow on the inside.” That was his view of mainline American churches 85 years ago. Today we see those churches rapidly and drastically in decline and no one seems able to identify the reason. I think Bonhoeffer gave the reason long ago.

Evangelical churches, of which I am a part, have done much better at staying centered in the gospel. Many, if not most, of them are growing. Does that mean all is well in Evangelical circles? Not at all. In the first place, the term “evangelical” is being badly abused by the American press to refer to people who are essentially political in nature, with one or two key ethical issues by which they measure all else. The
Evangelical world is far richer than American journalists seem to know and that is skewing the picture badly.

In the second place, the Evangelical churches which are growing most rapidly are placing themselves in grave danger of following the same path as the mainline churches, trying so hard to fit into American culture that the message gets obscured. Now the problem is such reliance upon shallow entertainment that the serious claim of Jesus Christ as Lord  is simply drowned out by the amplified volume of the “worship” music and the view of the Cross is blurred by ten thousand videos.

Bonhoeffer would be quite uncomfortable in an American Evangelical church today. Simply not enough substance, not enough gospel.

 

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Eric Metaxas, in his very readable but poorly informed biography of Bonhoeffer, says that Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to find us today taking his letters and papers from prison seriously. They contain too many wild fantasies, too many ideas not yet thought through, to suit Metaxas.

Metaxas is a good writer but a very poor reader and a worse theologian. Oddly, he seems not even to have read his own material. In the first half of the book, he points out that some of Bonhoeffer’s early ideas will show up again later but when Metaxas finally gets to a discussion of those later writings, he has forgotten his earlier observation. He calls Bonhoeffer’s prison writings “inchoate,” which means premature, immature, undeveloped.

As I have continued to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that, like many men of genius, Bonhoeffer knew his mind very early and then spent the rest of his lifetime exploring and expanding his insights.

I will mention just three of his early convictions which stayed with him throughout his days. First, his view of the Bible.Though he never articulated a formal “doctrine of inspiration,” Bonhoeffer knew even while still a university student that the Bible is the Word of God which gains its power from the Holy Spirit. This did not mean for Bonhoeffer that the Bible was always to be taken literally or that it was infallible. It did mean that to hear the Word of God spoken into our hearts, we must listen first to the Spirit speaking in and through Scripture. We learn Bonhoeffer’s view first in his 1925 (age 19) paper for Professor Seeburg entitled “The Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” (Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 9, pp. 285ff.).

Second, the living and present Jesus Christ is the center and circumference of all life. Bonhoeffer never let the doctrine of the Bible or even the doctrine of Christ become the center. It was always and only the living person of Jesus Christ that commanded his utmost loyalty and devotion. This was first articulated (so far as we have record) in a lecture the 22 year old Bonhoeffer delivered in Barcelona, Spain, in the fall of 1928. It was entitled “Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity.” That letter is as radical as anything he wrote from prison 16 years later. It is found in Works, 10:342.

Third, in another Barcelona lecture delivered a few days after his 23rd birthday in 1929, Bonhoeffer insisted that Christian ethics consists solely in being responsive to the living Christ, never in rules and regulations. There is, therefore, no such thing as a “Christian ethic” which can prescribe the rules of right living. If you grapple with this lecture, you’ll then find no surprises in his later book Ethics. This lecture is also in volume 10, page 359.

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