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Archive for April, 2016

At an ecumenical conference on the island of Fanø, Denmark in the summer of 1934, Bonhoeffer challenged the participants with these strong words:

“How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war” (DBWE 13:308f; emphasis added).

Peace must be dared. Cowardice is never the path toward peace. Building walls of self-protection, excluding thousands of desperate people because maybe one or two of them might be bad. . .these are the plans of a coward. And the offensive stench of such ideas is already damaging the trust between the US and other nations.

Trump is not even the official Republican candidate for president, yet he is already heading us down a path from which it will take years to recover. He is shouting for short-term security at the expense of long-term peace. That is too great a price to pay.

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One of my favorite New Testament words is stoicheia, which refers to the fundamental elements of any social or intellectual system.In some ways we can see it as meaning simply common sense, those ideas which seem obvious to everyone and don’t need elaborate defense or explanation.

For Bonhoeffer, one of the stoicheia is the idea of responsibility. He refers to it often, obviously assumes it to be of fundamental importance in the Christian life, and leaves it undefined. He intends the word to convey the fact that we are held accountable to God for our responses to him. To live as Christians we must be responsive to Word and Spirit and we are accountable for being just that.

We sometimes slip into thinking God is satisfied with us if we simply live decent lives. that’s not true at all. We are accountable for being followers of Jesus Christ, our living and present Lord.

I remember a friend saying, “I don’t know why people try to make Christianity sound so complicated. It’s just a matter of learning some principles from the Bible and living by them.” Nope, that’s what the Pharisees tried to do and it blinded them to Jesus Christ.

For Bonhoeffer, it is crucial that we distinguish between being obedient to the Law and being responsive to Jesus Christ. If we merely live by law, we are loving God indirectly. Bonhoeffer sees that Jesus Christ is calling us to follow him directly, to hear him and to heed him directly.

Our Lord is worth nothing less.

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One of Bonhoeffer’s convictions was that theology can be done only from the inside out. An outsider cannot study theology as a mere object and get it right. Only the one who believes can see straightly. That’s quite an affront to the university setting in which theology was studied in Bonhoeffer’s Germany.

In the US, a seminary is a graduate school with a blended identity: It is both a pastoral training school and an academic theological school. How well this blending has worked is perhaps up for debate, as it certainly was when I was a student at Fuller Seminary years ago.

In Germany, theology was simply one of the subjects to be studied in the university and seminary was a sometimes optional 6 or 12 month add-on provided by the church for practical preparation of pastors.

Bonhoeffer looks back on his university experience with some skepticism. While he deeply respected some of his professors — especially his family’s friend and neighbor Adolph Harnack — he no longer believed that a university was the proper setting for the study of theology. One result of the change in him was that, following his second dissertation. Act and Being, he never again wrote in academic style.

When we ask what Bonhoeffer might have in mind when he speaks of theology from the inside out (my phrase, which I hope accurately reflects his thinking), I suspect a line in his Ethics exemplifies his central conviction:

“Formation occurs only by being drawn into the form of Jesus Christ, by being conformed to the unique form of the one who became human, was crucified, and is risen.This does not happen as we strive ‘to become like Jesus,’ as we customarily say, but as the form of Jesus Christ himself so works on us that it molds us, conforming or form to Christ’s own (Gal. 4:19)” (Ethics, p. 93, emphasis in original).

It is often remarked that Christology is the center of Bonhoeffer’s thought. I’ve never been comfortable with that. It is the way an outsider might express the matter. Bonhoeffer would say his work is not centered in the study of Christ but in our communion with Christ, our oneness with Christ. Or, the work of the theologian is done not merely by a “believer” but by one who walks with Jesus Christ, follows him, heeds his every wish and command.

This sense of the centrality of our personal relationship with God in Christ, while not yet articulated in such a direct way, shows up at least as early as the paper he wrote for Professor Seeburg in 1925, at age 19. It was called “Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” and argued that proper Bible study could only be done in response to the Holy Spirit speaking through the text.

And it shows up in the passage from Ethics, quoted above, where the real work of theology is the formation of Christlikeness of character, a work which in fact can be done only by God working in us, not by us working toward godliness.. We receive it, slowly and over time and usually quite unconsciously, but we can never create it.

Christlikeness is a gift, not an achievement

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