A distinctive of neo-Calvinism, that movement associated with a late-nineteenth century Dutch revival of Reformational Christianity in the Netherlands, is its focus in emphasis if not also in substance not only on individuals but also on institutions. As Richard Mouw puts it, “At the heart of the neo-Calvinist perspective on cultural multiformity is an insistence that the redemption accomplished by Christ is not only about the salvation of individuals—it is the reclaiming of the whole creation.”
I’ve been working on Bonhoeffer’s thought for over a decade now, and I’m often struck by the depth of his conviction and insight in such troubled times. One of the things about him that I try to highlight in the Public Discourse piece is how Bonhoeffer’s courageous action for the world today was rooted in hopefulness for the world to come. As so many others have often pointed out, and rightly so, Bonhoeffer’s theology and biography are intimately related.
For example, in principle Bonhoeffer affirmed God’s institution of marriage: “Through marriage human beings are procreated for the glory and service of Jesus Christ and the enlarging of Christ’s kingdom.” But even when faced with the dangers of resistance to Hitler and the travails of war and social discord, he took the step of proposing to Maria von Wedemeyer. Planning to marry her was an act of courage, a concrete form of affirming and accepting God’s will for this world.
There is an apocryphal saying attributed to the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther, that “if I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” As Scott Hendrix writes, this saying (although it has precedent in a story attributed to Francis of Assisi) actually arises from the Nazi era in Germany: “Scholars believe it originated in the German Confessing Church, which used it to inspire hope and perseverance during its opposition to the Nazi dictatorship.”
“No, those who labor and are heavy-laden do not all look the way Rembrandt drew them in his ‘Hundred Guilder’ picture—poverty-stricken, miserable, sick, leprous, ragged, with worn, furrowed faces. They are also found concealed behind happy-looking, youthful faces and brilliantly successful lives. There are people who feel utterly forsaken in the midst of high society, to whom everything in their lives seems stale and empty to the point of nausea, because they can sense that underneath it all, their souls are decaying and rotting away. There is no loneliness like that of the fortunate.”
In the fall of 2014, business people, scholars, and theologians converged on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the Symposium on Common Grace in Business. The event was conceived and co-sponsored by the Calvin business department and the Acton Institute as a way of highlighting Abraham Kuyper’s theological work on common grace – the grace God extends to everyone that enables him or her to do good – to the business world. The gathering was also a celebration of Acton’s translation and publication in English of volume one of Kuyper’s seminal three-volume work on common grace (De Gemeene Gratie).
We’re leading this Winter 2015 issue of Religion & Liberty with a roundtable discussion by three prominent business people who discuss how common grace has a direct, and transformative, application in their workaday lives.
Also in this issue, Ray Nothstine reviews Thomas C. Oden’s autobiography A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir. The book chronicles how one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated liberals made a dramatic turn away from pacifism, ecumenism and psychotherapy toward the great minds of ancient Christianity.
Critics of the market economy often say it inevitably leads to Black Friday stampedes and gross materialism. We counter with an excerpt from Rev. Gregory Jensen’s forthcoming Acton monograph The Cure for Consumerism. (more…)
When I consider the state of the world, the total obscurity enshrouding our personal destiny, and my present imprisonment, our union—if it wasn’t frivolity, which it certainly wasn’t—can only be a token of God’s grace and goodness, which summon us to believe in him. We would have to be blind not to see that. When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that “houses and fields [and vineyards] shall again be bought in this land,” it was a token of confidence in the future. That requires faith, and may God grant it to us daily. I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. Our marriage must be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.
While imprisoned by the Nazis at Tegel military prison, and shortly after learning of the last failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a short poem for his friend, Eberhard Bethge, titled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”
I’ve come across the poem before, but in recently reading Eric Metaxas’ fine biography of the man, I was reminded of its power and potency in describing the essence of Christian freedom. It becomes all the more compelling given its context, serving as a “distillation of his theology at the time,” as Metaxas describes it.
Though we must be careful to appreciate the time and place from which it sprung, it brings with it plenty of implications for the ways in which we order our lives and allegiances. Indeed, in his prodding toward obedience, discipline, and submission to God — features many would find contradictory or in opposition to freedom — Bonhoeffer’s embrace of this profound paradox dovetails quite nicely with Lord Acton’s famous notion of “defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
I’ve heard it repeated in many times and in many places that for a gift to truly be a gift, there must be no responsibility of response on the part of the recipient. As I write in “Gift, Gratitude, and the Grace of Stewardship,” that view is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against in his excoriation of “cheap” grace.
One of the most striking illustrations to me of this dynamic came as I watched the TV series Friday Night Lights. One of the main characters is Tim Riggins, a fan favorite who begins the series as a student and ends it as a man. Over the last two seasons Tim’s maturation really comes through, as he has graduated from high school and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
Tim’s got a troubled background that doesn’t need to be explained here, but suffice it to say that the only family he’s got is his older brother Billy. Despite his better judgment and discomfort with the idea, Billy convinces Tim to help him with his new garage, which by night becomes a chop shop operation. The brothers are eventually busted, but Tim generously and lovingly takes the rap for his brother, who has a new wife and child that he’s trying to support.
After some time, Tim is paroled and comes back to Dillon, Texas. As you might imagine, Tim isn’t the happiest guy around after his stint in jail. But what really angers him is his sense that his brother Billy hasn’t done enough with the gift of freedom he’s been given by his brother’s sacrifice. After the brothers fight, Billy asks, “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?” Tim responds, “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”
Tim has given Billy a great gift, and it’s clear that Billy feels a sense of responsibility. Tim recognizes it, too, which is why they both know that there is something, some obligation, to be “held over” Billy. That doesn’t make what Tim did any less of a gift. But it does illustrate that there is a deep connection between gift and gratitude, or what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.”
Tim’s sacrifice, in this way, is an echo of the great sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who showed the greatest love there is in laying down his life for us (John 15:13). The reality of this gift of costly grace ought to inspire in us a sense of gratitude and responsibility, to do something good with the freedom we’ve been given in Christ.