Posts tagged with: dietrich bonhoeffer

In preparing for the paper I’m giving this week on Bonhoeffer’s views of church and state, I ran across the following quotes, which nicely illustrate his view of the gospel and its relation to alleviation of social oppression and suffering. In his essay, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” he writes,

It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace.

But even more important than feeding the hungry is the spiritual bread of the gospel. The physical bread derives its importance, in fact, from its value in “preparing the way” for the reception of the gospel. Giving mere bread is a penultimate thing.

Thus he writes, “Preparing the way is indeed a matter of concrete intervention in the visible world, as concrete and visible as hunger and nourishment. Nevertheless, everything depends on this action being a spiritual reality, since what is finally at stake is not the reform of worldly conditions but the coming of Christ.”

This coheres pretty well with a traditional view of the social responsibility of the Church as an important, albeit secondary, aspect of gospel proclamation. Richard Baxter once wrote,

Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies in order to the greater good of Souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men: God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily senses to the Soul.

It seems to me that Bonhoeffer and Baxter are in close agreement on these issues, in contradistinction to the so-called “social gospel,” which confuses the penultimate with the ultimate.

On this eve of the mid-term elections in the United States, it’s worthwhile to reflect a bit on the impetus in North American evangelical Christianity to emphasize the importance of politics. Indeed, it is apparent that the term “evangelical” is quickly coming to have primarily political significance, rather than theological or ecclesiastical, such that Time magazine could include two Roman Catholics (Richard John Neuhaus and Rick Santorum) among its list of the 25 most influential “evangelicals” in America.

When the accusations came to light about Ted Haggard, which led to his resignation from the National Association of Evangelicals and eventual dismissal from New Life Church, the first instinct by many was to see this as primarily a political event. Late last week James Dobson said of Haggard, “It appears someone is trying to damage his reputation as a way of influencing the outcome of Tuesday’s election.” Perhaps the timing of the charges did indeed have political motivations, but Haggard’s admission of guilt carries with it implications that reach far beyond mere politics, into the realm of the spiritual.

It should be noted that after Haggard’s guilt came to light, Dobson did say that the scandal had “grave implications for the cause of Christ,” and Pastor Larry Stockstill, head of the oversight board in charge of Haggard’s investigation, said “that politics played ‘zero’ role in the haste of the process that led to Haggard’s removal, and that the oversight board received no political pressure from anyone.” But even so, the fact that Haggard has been portrayed as a political heavyweight (with access to the President) and the National Association of Evangelicals has been called “a powerful lobbying group,” rather than an ecumenical and ecclesiastical organization, speaks volumes. (more…)

I ran across the following quote from Søren Kierkegaard recently (HT: the evangelical outpost):

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

On the surface, Kierkegaard’s critique of so-called “Christian scholarship” is quite powerful. The depiction amounts to a view of rationalizing Christianity that uses the wiles of reason, which Martin Luther in some of his more polemical moments said was “the Devil’s greatest whore,” to escape the implications of the gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely had Kierkegaard’s complaint, or something very much like it, explicitly in mind when he wrote in Discipleship that “we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks.” He goes on to say, “If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment’.” The point is that “all along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience.”

Herman Bavinck, on the other hand, writes,

There are also many words put down in Scripture which God spoke to a definite person in peculiar circumstances, but which are not directed to us, and therefore need not be followed by us. Thus He commanded Abraham to offer his son, Phinehas to kill the adulterous man and woman, Saul to bring Agag, and, so as not to mention more, thus Jesus commanded the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Human society would be in a sad state if Christians had to follow this example literally and had to apply this in their surroundings. Yet a few have indeed tried this and have displayed by this their wrong interpretation of Scripture.

At this point he might have in mind the sort of radical pacifism practiced by certain kinds of Anabaptist groups, highlighted most recently in the case of the Amish and their reaction to the recent schoolhouse shootings. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession in its original form denounced the Anabaptists as anarchists, in part because they denied the power of retributive justice to the civil government: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

Part of the difficulty comes in properly understanding what is a particular command or duty in an individual circumstance and what is a general and universally binding divine law. In agreement with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, I don’t think we should simply be able to move facilely and simply from the explicit and clear teaching of Scripture to something completely opposite. The interpretation of difficult passages in light of the whole of Scripture’s testimony, which may ultimately result in a doctrine like just war, should be as genuinely and equally principled as the Amish interpretation of commands to peace and non-violence.

I conclude with a final note I gleaned from my reading of Timothy Wengert’s study of the the debate between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola over contrition and repentance, Law and Gospel:

As important as it may be to notice the commentaries on an exegete’s writing desk, it is equally crucial to pay attention to the controversies raging outside the study door. In the days before it became stylish to pretend that exegesis was pure science or simple description of a long-dead world, the interpreter of Scripture, especially evangelical theologians like Melanchthon and Agricola, thought their task incomplete until they brought the word of God to bear on the issues that confronted them on every side.

With regard to the relevance of God’s Word to our times, I am in complete agreement. And as Bonhoeffer also said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

Earlier this month Forum 18 published an article that examined whether the establishment of a law regarding religion at a national level would be a positive step toward ending the sometimes arbitrary and uneven treatment of religious freedom issues throughout the country.

In “Would a religion law help promote religious freedom?” Magda Hornemann writes, “For many years, some religious believers and experts both inside and outside China have advocated the creation of a comprehensive religion law through the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature.” The argument in favor of the establishment of such a law is that “the rights of religious believers would be better protected by being clearly stipulated and codified in an objective law of the land.”

The consensus at Forum 18 is that a law by itself would be no real positive step. After all, “Despite the words contained in China’s laws and regulations, what is even more important is how those words are interpreted – which in turn is affected by one’s view on the roles played by laws and regulations in society.”

Here’s Forum 18’s conclusion:

Without an independent judiciary, even a well-crafted law is likely to fail on its first try. Yet, it is clear that an independent judiciary is not possible within the existing political-legal context. As long as the state remains authoritarian, and while the political and legal culture remain unchanged, it also seems likely that a comprehensive religion law will not in itself end arbitrary state moves that inhibit the religious freedom of China’s citizens.

Even so, the implications of a new human rights group in China may mean that the establishment of a uniform religious law is a positive first step.

The current issue of Christianity Today features a profile on the Human Rights Protection Movement (HRPM). The HRPM is an association of “lawyers, pastors, journalists, and human rights leaders across China,” who “are trying out the strategies of the historic American civil rights movement, using litigation, media publicity, and nonviolent protests.”

In “China’s New Legal Eagles,” Tony Carnes examines in particular the legal aspects of the HRPM. That is, the HRPM provides legal defense for those who cannot afford it and challenges the Chinese government on the basis of its own written and established laws. Thus, oftentimes “the Chinese government is caught between its rhetoric proclaiming the rule of law and its practice of ignoring or abusing the law when it suits its purposes.”

This method of appealing to the current set of laws to defend freedom is one that is also used by International Justice Mission (IJM), for example, in fighting the international slave trade. IJM works “to rescue victims and to bring accountability to perpetrators through the enforcement of a country’s domestic laws.”

The basis for the work of many of the evangelical lawyers and activists in the HRPM is their Christian faith. Fan Yafeng, an influential constitutional scholar in Beijing, makes an compelling observation regarding Christianity in China: “We are seeing the intersection of law and religion in China. More and more Chinese public intellectuals say that only Christianity can provide a solid foundation for the rule of law in China.”

What Yafeng is claiming about the relationship between Christianity and China today has often been repeated about the relationship between Christianity and the West.

In a 2004 essay, “A Time of Transition,” German philosopher and secularist Jürgen Habermas wrote, “Christianity, and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

Over sixty years earlier German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of his historical context in an essay from his Ethics, “Church and World”:

Reason, culture, humanity, tolerance, autonomy—all these concepts, which until recently had served as battle cries against the church, against Christianity, even against Jesus Christ, now surprisingly find themselves in very close proximity, to the Christian domain. This happened at a point in time when everything Christian had been driven into a tight corner as never before, when the central Christian tenets were being emphasized in their sternest, most uncompromising, and most offensive form to reason, culture, humanity, and tolerance. Indeed, in exactly the reverse proportion that everything Christian was attacked and driven into a corner, it gained these concepts as allies, and thereby a scope of unimagined breadth

Later on Bonhoeffer reiterates the point quite stunningly:

It is not Christ who has to justify himself before the world by acknowledging the values of justice, truth, and freedom. Instead, it is these values that find themselves in need of justification, and their justification is in Jesus Christ alone. It is not a “Christian culture” that still has to make the name of Jesus Christ acceptable to the world; instead, the crucified Christ has become the refuge, justification, protection, and claim for these higher values and their defenders who have been made to suffer.

Sadly, abuses of the rule of law in China are commonplace and Forum 18’s concerns about the independence and consistency of the judiciary are certainly relevant. Such concerns become even more pressing in the light of recent moves by the Chinese government to restrict the flow of information about court cases.

But these issues notwithstanding, the efforts of groups like HRPM show that appeals to the existing laws, within the context of the normative rule of law, can be an effective way to work for the protection of religious freedom. It may well be that a uniform, comprehensive, and objective national religion law would help rather than hinder the work of these evangelical “legal eagles.”

As Daniel Pulliam writes at GetReligion, “Those of us who have heard from Christian Chinese missionaries, perhaps at a church function, know that Christianity could change China.” The HRPM is an example of one way in which such positive changes can be accomplished.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Two pieces on Christianity Today’s website this week are worthy of comment. The first, “Despair Not,” reminds us that “there is something worse than misery and death.” The author Stephen L. Carter interacts with C.S. Lewis’ famous book, The Screwtape Letters, to show that “the terrible tragedies that befall the world work to Satan’s benefit only if we despair. Suffering, as Screwtape reminds his nephew, often strengthens faith. Better to keep people alive, he says, long enough for faith to be worn away. The death of a believer is the last thing the Devil wants.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized the impetus to deny the value of suffering in this life. In his Ethics he wrote of modern nihilism and Western godlessness:

The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking. Every inner development, every process of slow maturing in personal and vocational life, is abruptly broken off. There is no personal destiny and therefore no personal dignity. Serious tensions, inwardly necessary times of waiting, are not endured. This is evident in the domain of work as well as in erotic life. Lasting pain is more feared than death. The value of suffering as the forming of life through the threat of death is disregarded, even ridiculed. The alternatives are health or death. What is quiet, lasting, and essential is discarded as worthless.

The other CT piece is a book review by David Fisher of Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine. The book’s authors argue that “modern medicine… emphasizes the autonomy of the individual and holds up the supreme end of bodily perfection. These goals are not only unattainable, but more importantly, are inconsistent with the Christian faith. The book points out the dangers of society’s worship of and allegiance to medicine for its perceived ability to defeat or forestall death. While our Christian beliefs should protect us from this deification of medicine, the authors remind us that we often fall into the same trap.”

Indeed, the authority and influence of medicine on our lives and behavior can be seen as a kind of scientism, in which science, in this case in the form of medicine, takes on “a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.” Authors Joel Shuman and Brian Volck issue “a call to transformed Christian living, one that emphasizes the importance of viewing medicine through the lens of the larger community of the body of Christ.”

With respect to the worship of health and life in and of itself, or “vitalism,” Bonhoeffer says,

Vitalism ends inevitably in nihilism, in the destruction of all that is natural. In the strict sense, life as such is a nothing, an abyss, a ruin. It is movement without end, without goal, movement into nothingness. It does not rest until it has everything into this annihilating movement. This vitalism is found in both individual and communal life. It arises from the false absolutizing of an insight that is essentially correct, that life, both individual and communal, is not only a means to an end but also and end in itself.

One important and indeed hopeful way to talk about death as an end, in addition to death as a means to an end, or “our entrance into eternal life,” is in this way: as “an end to our sinning.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

I saw a post on the Web somewhere in the last few days (I can’t recall where), about the trend toward worshiping human life itself as the highest principle…detached from recognition of any higher theological realities. Then I ran across this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that struck me as especially relevant, and so I wanted to pass it along:

Vitalism ends inevitably in nihilism, in the destruction of all that is natural. In the strict sense, life as such is a nothing, an abyss, a ruin. It is movement without end, without goal, movement into nothingness. It does not rest until it has drawn everything into this annihilating movement. This vitalism is found in both individual and communal life. It arises from the false absolutizing of an insight that is essentially correct, that life, both individual and communal, is not only a means to an end but also and end in itself. God wills life and gives life a form in which it can live, because left to its own resources it can only destoy itself.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Natural Life,” Ethics, p. 178.

The latest issue of the Scottish Journal of Theology is out, and includes my article, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935.”

Here’s the abstract:

In this article I argue that the essential relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth stands in need of reassessment. This argument is based on a survey of literature dealing with Bonhoeffer and Barth in three basic areas between the critically important years of 1933 and 1935. These three areas come into sharp relief given the political background of the German Christian victory in the church elections of 1933. Their respective positions, both theological and political, on the Aryan clause differ greatly. For Bonhoeffer, the imposition of the Aryan clause on the German churches represented a clear status confessionis, and Bonhoeffer favoured a very public schism. For Barth, while the Aryan clause was certainly troublesome, it was deemed better to wait for a ‘more central’ point, namely, that of the question of natural theology. Barth’s emphasis on the importance of the question of natural theology carries over in his position regarding the significance and role of both the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement. We see that Bonhoeffer explicitly questions the validity of Barth’s emphasis on natural theology with respect to the Confessing Church and to the ecumenical movement. While many scholars have argued for the basic agreement between Barth and Bonhoeffer, especially on the question of natural theology, a closer examination of the two in the period 1933–35 calls such conclusions into question.

Full reference: Jordan J. Ballor, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59, no 3. (August 2006): 263-80.

For more on Bonhoeffer, see also: Jordan J. Ballor, “Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffer’s Orders of Preservation and Natural Theology,” Journal of Religion 86, no. 1 (January 2006): 1-22.

For those of you who are going through World Cup withdrawal after the defeat of the French by the Azzurri have a little comfort. I give you the World Cups of Philosophy and Theology.

‘Nobby’ Hegel leads the Germans onto the pitch.

The first is a two-part video of the Monty Python skit featuring German philosophers against the Greeks (text here). The German side touts Leibniz in goal with strikers Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Greeks have Plato in net, with Aristotle as sweeper and Socrates at forward. The two assistant referees are, by the way, Augustine and Aquinas, while Martin Luther manages the German side.

I find it fitting that theological figures have primacy in this way over the philosophers, since this reflects the proper relationship between the two, with philosophy as the ancilla, or handmaiden, to theology. Karl Marx is a late second-half substition for the Germans.

Heraclitus captains the Ancients to victory.

You’ll need to have Google Video installed to view Part 1 here and Part 2 here (HT: The Sports Economist and Disorganizational Behavior).

Speaking of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, they give me a good segue to the Theology World Cup, hosted by Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman, which was searching for the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century. Amazingly, Karl Barth did not make the field, and Pannenberg, the odds-on favorite, was knocked out rather early, losing to eventual finalist Hans Urs von Balthasar. The final featured Jürgen Moltmann against Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Moltmann being declared the victor. This proves rather convincingly that 20th century theology is much more about style than substance.

Karl Rahner was victorious in the consolation match. You can view the championship bracket here, and see how Karl Barth might have fared in the competition here (Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did not make the finals, while such dark horse candidates as T. F. Torrance did).