Posts Tagged ‘Christ’

English: The title for Being Human.

English: The title for Being Human. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here I was preparing to blog some trite thoughts about “being human” and Joel goes and blogs his whole Master’s thesis. 🙂 Nice.

So, despite my inadequacy to speak to this subject (I’m hoping Joel will correct me if I’m whacked out), I was meditating further on the topic of “being human” because of my congregation’s adult Sunday school class this week.

The discussion of holiness was brought up. Someone mentioned that “we know we will sin, because we are all humans after all”. This struck me in light of Bonhoeffer’s statement that popped into my mind at that moment (which Joel helpfully saved me from having to look up because he opens his thesis with it): “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings” (Ethics p.84, emphasis added).

We blame our humanity for our sinfulness. It struck me that Paul never does this, John never does this, and Peter never does this. The Scriptures blame our sinful or “fleshly” nature. And, perhaps surprisingly, this should not be confused with being human, truly human. The reason being that Jesus is True Man and all else is but a pale image of the true, being marred by sin. Our sinfulness deprives us of our humanity, because it is only in obedience to the Father that one is truly human in the fullest sense. And this can only come about by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit (the spirit of adoption crying “Abba, Father!”) conforming us into the image of the Son, who Himself is the true image of God.

So what are some potential outcomes of this change of perspective:

(1) To be human is to be taken up into Christ. It is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God which are acceptable and pleasing. It is the humanity of God in Christ taking up our sinful humanity and glorifying God through the obedience of redemption. To be truly human is to be counted as those who are in Christ: the righteousness of God and the First Adam.

(2) To be human is to set aside excuses for sinning. We can no longer say that we will continue to sin because “we are just human after all”. NO! We have been delivered from death to life. The Spirit of Christ Jesus now lives in us. We have been baptized with Christ and our sins have been once for all dealt with. We are not the children of the devil, but the children of God who no longer are slaves to sin and death. We are slaves of Christ Jesus our Lord and have been delivered from death to life! Therefore, to be “real human beings” is to live by the power of the Spirit! To live free! Free of the bonds of sin.

(3) To be human is to live free for the other and free for God. There is no constraint, but the one to love. This is the greatest commandment and all it entails: humanity unleashed from the bonds of self-serving, self-loving rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. The true human is the one who lives for the other because of being made in God’s image. Therefore, the other who is made in God’s image becomes the one by which we grow into the image of God in communion as those created and purchased by God.  As those bearing God’s image, by God’s Spirit we reflect ineffable God in Christ. Unbounded love for God and for the other: this is being truly human.

So I would charge you fully to embrace your humanity; God did!

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Cover of "Les Misérables (Signet Classics...

Cover of Les Misérables (Signet Classics)

“To love another person is to see the face of God” (Victor Hugo, Les Misérables)

These words echo out at the conclusion of Les Misérables (2012; film). While I am unfamiliar with Victor Hugo’s own understanding of this phrase it rings true when understood aright. This is the testimony of Scripture: to love your neighbor as yourself.  To know God’s love for this world (even in its rebellion) and to live in kind. The way in which one defines “love” must not be left to abstractions or simply any concrete application.  It belongs ONLY properly to Christ as the love of God. Christ Jesus is the definition of “love” and there is no other which may rightly be called such.  He is God for us and for one another.

In the words of Bonhoeffer, Jesus is the one “for others” (DBWE  8: 501). Thus, a term that carries tremendous weight in the writings of Bonhoeffer is the German Stellvertretung meaning something like “responsible action toward the other.”  He is preceded by Luther who wrote “For human beings do not live for themselves in this, their mortal body, to operate in it, but for all people on earth; indeed they live only for others and not for themselves” (DBWE 8:501fn11, citing LW 31:364 “Tractatus de libertate Christiana“, translated in DBWE with emphasis). Clifford Green (“Human sociality and Christian community” in CCDB p.130) writes, “relation to the transcendent God is not a relation to an imagined most powerful Supreme Being — ‘ that is not authentic transcendence…The transcendent is…the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation'” (citing Letters and Papers from Prison: Enlarged Edition [New York: Macmillan, 1972], 381).

In our neighbor we encounter God in Christ…we encounter our neighbor always through the mediation of Christ if we truly encounter our neighbor with and through love. “Spiritual love [in contrast to “self-centered love” for Bonhoeffer]…comes from Jesus Christ; it serves him alone. It knows that it has no direct access to other persons. Christ stands between me and others. I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my emotional desires. All this may instead be hatred and the worst kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ. Only Christ in his Word tells me what love is. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for my brothers and sisters really looks like” (DBWE 5:43).

This is how I would understand the statement made by Victor Hugo to ring true…though I doubt his intentions (or more particularly those of the film adaptation) to speak in this manner. My guess is they speak as those who would self-define “love” and therefore not understand what they speak. It is in Christ we love our neighbor and behold the face of God.


CCDB = The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

DBWE 5 = Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, “Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996)

DBWE 8 = Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, “Letters and Papers from Prison” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009)

LW = “Luther’s Works” English edition (complete works on CD-rom; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)

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“How does the church know the commandment of God for this hour? Neither biblical law nor any other established orders of creation are sources of such knowledge. Both would be legalism. Only from Christ, from whom the gospel comes, do we even know the commandment. From Christ we must recognize that the entire world is a fallen world, that we no longer know its original orders. The only still-existing ones are the orders of preservation directed toward Christ, and whenever we have to judged and an order is no longer open for Christ, then this order must be broken. There are no orders that are holy in and of themselves. An order is ‘good’ only when it is open to Christ and for the new creation. The decision of the church for or against such an order must be dared in faith. Nothing else protects the church.” (DBWE 11:371)

Here Bonhoeffer speaks to the “orders” by which many presuppose the world to be established by God (and he speaks as one in the tradition of Luther’s “orders of creation”: family, church, and state). Particularly, he was speaking to the “order” of “state” and the manner in which the state might be perceived to be inherently “good” simply by its existence.  Bonhoeffer calls such a notion to yield to Christ and Christ’s Lordship over all orders by which they receive their call and accountability.  He spoke these words in Czechoslovakia in 1932 at an ecumenical conference just months before the Nazi take-over of Germany.

But how does this speak to our situation today? While it can be heard in relation to our political situation, I would suggest it should also be heard in relation to our view the creation order of “family”.  The pressing issues related to defining “family” and its concomitant benefits/responsibilities can not be simply something of the order of “universal law”…some timeless truth. It must always be an order under the obedience of Christ and God’s word today. “The church…can proclaim not principles that are always true but rather only commandments that are true today. For that which is ‘always’ true is precisely not true ‘today’: God is for us ‘always’ God precisely ‘today’.” (DBWE 11:359-60 original emphasis) It is imperative that the North American Church recover this. We can not (indeed must not) appeal simply to creation as a universal rule, but must hear the word of Christ spoken today to a sin-fallen world whose “order” of the family must be regenerated and sanctified for the glory of God. This is the practice of always “hear[ing] what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

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Okay, I’m frantically trying to finish by thesis. I’m writing on the relationship between theological anthropology and ethics in Bonhoeffer’s theology, and I’m pretty much done with all the grunt work. All I need now is to finish my intro and write a conclusion. I had always hoped to conclude with a pastoral reflection on how Bonhoeffer’s theology might be appropriated in the church, and there’s one particular line of thought that I’ve been following for a few weeks now. I thought I would enlist the help of my fellow (ex-)seminarians or anyone else who might happen upon this blog. I’ve tried to summarize my thoughts in the form of some basic theses. The first point is essentially where my research leaves off. My goal is to follow Bonhoeffer’s line of thought and consider about how we might hear his message for the church today. I do hope these make some kind of sense. I fear they are even more disorganized than I think they are. I’ll try to clarify if there are questions.

  • Christian life is participation in the reality of Jesus Christ in the world today. The world has no reality apart from Jesus Christ, the Real One. All attempts to speak of the world apart from Christ are abstractions. There can be no retreat from the world if we would be in Christ, because the world has been accepted, included, and borne in the person of Jesus. Furthermore, there can be no speech about Jesus Christ that does not ultimately include the world. We cannot speak about the person of Christ in himself, because he has revealed himself as one who is for the world. We cannot step behind this self revelation and inquire about who he might be apart from the world. This is merely metaphysical speculation, grounded in something other than God’s self-revelation. The transcendence of God is to be sought in God’s immanence: “God is the beyond in the midst of our lives” (LPP, 367). We therefore speak about the person of Christ, the being of Christ, as being-for-others. Jesus only “is there for others.”
  • Participation in the reality of Christ is “a new life in being there for others” (LPP, 501). Through faith, the human person participates in the person of Jesus, and so the human being is transformed into being-for-others. The Christian life is therefore characterized by a profound worldliness. Our new being in Christ is a “being there for others,” a being that is directed outward for the sake of the world.
  • The church, therefore, is church only when it is there for others. It is only as the church lives out its mission for the sake of the world that it is the church. Church-in-itself is not true church; there is only church-for-others.
  • The mission of the church is to proclaim the reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ, in word and deed. It requires no more space in the world than is necessary to make this proclamation. This message contains a Yes and a No. The Yes, which comes first, is the message that all humanity has been accepted, included, and borne in Jesus Christ, that God has reconciled the world to himself through the cross of Christ. Where this Yes is heard and believed, it becomes immediately apparent that the world does not look like it has been reconciled. This is the No, which arises alongside but not prior to the Yes. The church cannot reverse the order of this proclamation. The No in itself is a dead message; the church’s proclamation has life only in the Yes.
  • Regarding the message of the church to the world: Following the church-for-others model, we can say that the Yes is the outward proclamation of the church, while the No is its inward confession. The Yes goes out from the church to reach all people; the No is gathered up in the church and brought before God. The latter cannot happen without the regular practice of confession. Confession—the concrete acceptance of guilt—is how human beings bear the No spoken over their lives, without which the Yes can never be heard or answered. Not only must the church confess its own sins, it must also vicariously confess the sins of the world. Through this act of vicarious representation, the church manifests its new being in Christ for the sake of the world, namely, being-for-others. Where the church reverses this, speaking a definitive No over the world while affirming itself with an ultimate divine Yes, it ceases to be the church. The world will never hear a Yes to itself; it will only hear the church’s Yes to itself.

I hope this is enough to generate some discussion. This is still very roughly sketched. I do think this at least begins in Bonhoeffer’s thought; whether I’ve followed his trajectory accurately I cannot say, nor can I easily delineate exactly where Bonhoeffer leaves off and I take over. Either way, any feedback would be greatly appreciated. I’m most interested in finding out if there’s a major gap or flaw in the argumentation (which might be Bonhoeffer’s, but is more likely my own) or if there are ways you could see this being a valuable message for the contemporary church to hear. Where would you take this? Or is this just a dead end?

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N.T. Wright just has a way with words.  Regarding the “work of salvation, in its full sense,” he summarizes that it is

“(1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply about the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, NY: HarperOne, 2008, p.200, original emphasis)

Salvation is not simply about any notion of saved “souls”, but about saved “wholes” (p.199) [make sure that one is read and not simply heard…or its homophone might make for a humorous aside].  God is working out the redemption of creation…not simply disembodied “souls” nor even simply of some chosen, but removed few.  The whole world (cosmos) shall be renewed, even as it is already underway through the reconciling work of Christ by His indwelling, empowering, life-giving Spirit.

In relation to this, he discusses the “kingdom” and thus God’s reign over all which is being carried out in the present (though awaits final consummation and revelation).  He writes,

“God longed…to re-establish his wise sovereignty over the whole creation, which would mean a great act of healing and rescue.  He did not want to rescue humans from creation any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles.  He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards of creation.  That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God.” (p.202, original emphasis)

This is salvation…the work of the kingdom now as foretaste of the kingdom come.  The salvation of all we are…the salvation of creation groaning for redemption and the “revealing of the sons of God” (Rom.8:19).

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Jesus resurrected and Mary Magdalene

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I have had several conversations over the last few days with different individuals about the notions of faith and historicity.  In one of those conversations the issue of Bonhoeffer was brought up.  This individual stated that they had heard Bonhoeffer denied the resurrection.  This, of course, took me aback and I quickly rebutted that I had never heard (nor read) such a thing either about or by Bonhoeffer.  So they directed me to his Christology lectures (DBWE12-Berlin: 1932-1933, pp.299-360).  So I looked up the references and discovered where this reading came in.  Bonhoeffer refutes the notion of Christian faith resting in the historicity of the resurrection.  This is considered under the rubric of the “stumbling block” to our believing.  His approach (from my reading) suggests that there can be no naked knowledge of the historicity of the resurrection.  One must still come to confess the Risen Lord because they have in fact encountered the Risen Lord.  An empty tomb is not a matter of historicity leading to salvation…it is a matter of faith that is testified to by the historicity of the events.  At no point does the historicity (one way or the other) actually determine our faith since it is the living and present Risen One who is determinative for faith.

I had come to similar sorts of conclusions as I was preaching on the final chapters of John this last year.  In my reading, there is no way to get behind faith in the living Christ and somehow found our trust on the historicity of the empty tomb.  While I take it as a matter of historical trustworthiness that indeed the tomb was empty, this does not in itself constitute faith in Christ (e.g., the soldiers who were bribed to not speak of it and instead spread lies about the removal of the body).  What really did it for me was recognizing that the there were no witnesses to the resurrection event itself…only witnesses to the resurrected Lord.  The moment of resurrection was hidden (as it were) from historical inquiry and belongs to the work of God incognito.  As such, even the resurrected Jesus belongs to such, but of a different nature than the moment and act of resurrection itself.  There is no verification process by which we may be “certain” of the testimony of the resurrection apart from the experience of the Resurrected One in our midst (and all of this in the testimony of the Spirit through the Scripture).  While I believe that the evidence for the resurrection passes historical testing, my faith does not rest on such at its foundation.  It is simply affirmed as true.

The question I was asked was how does this not devolve into a Bultmannian conception of faith apart from historicity?  An interesting question to say the least.  What are your thoughts?  Have I gone too far towards a form of existentialism akin to Bultmann?  Does the resurrection necessarily need historicity on its side to be believed?  Or does historicity become a false foundation for faith in Christ (even accepting the historical nature of the events recorded)?

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In reading Barth…one cannot help but be confronted by his notion that only God can reveal God.  For instance,

Who can reveal God except God Himself? Neither a man that has been raised up nor an idea that has come down can do it.  These are both creatures. (CD I.1 p.406)

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach. The Protestant...

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Barth moves from this “creatureliness” of the “idea” and “man” to the “creatureliness” of Christ who yet must be also fully God in order to actually reveal God Himself.   This is certainly not the only place where Barth argues for the necessity of God revealing God (and he follows Calvin and Luther in this).  But my question is simply what one is to make of all of this in our modern world that believes God is revealed all about us and is to be found in every culture and religion?  Certainly things have not changed so much since Barth’s day…

Luther actually postulated what he termed “deus absconditus“, that is, “the Hidden God” (altering the term from how Aquinas before him had used it) who is not open to philosophical perceptions and vague religious inclinations, but remains hidden apart from special revelation provided by God Himself.  This is what Barth speaks of.

I guess what I’m really wondering is…if we’ve perhaps lost a sense of the deus absconditus in our contemporary Church setting and if so how do we recapture this in order to recapture the glory that belongs rightly only to the One who is THE Glory and Image of the Father…He who alone makes God known?  Is our “god” too accessible by creaturely perceptions and intuitions or does our God remain yet hidden and require the revelation of Himself apart from which we can know nothing truly of Him (though we are still counted guilty of our transgressions against Him)?

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CBD Academic has a blog well worth reading where there was a guest review of Eric Metaxas’ “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Bonhoeffer scholar Joe McGarry (Aberdeen University).  In it, he gives credit to Metaxas for his ability to craft a book that has become a NYTimes best seller about a dead German theologian (something I am truly happy about and is a masterful feat for anyone).    The issues that McGarry raises against Metaxas presentation of Bonhoeffer essentially come down to whom Metaxas has written his book for: the general public.  I will give a brief summary of my own in what follows (since it was a rather lengthy critique).

The problem isn’t that he wrote it for the general public (I for one am delighted to have more people interested in Bonhoeffer), but that he presents a Bonhoeffer who does not seem to quite match the Bonhoeffer of Bonhoeffer’s own writings.  Two things that I will mention in particular that McGarry notes in his review (and they are ‘small’ but not unimportant matters in the wider scheme of Bonhoeffer studies): the influences upon Bonhoeffer’s theology and the language of Bonhoeffer.

Concerning the former, Metaxas has seemed to over-emphasize the place of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem as influencing Bonhoeffer (while neglecting the possible…even likely influence of Neibuhr and Bonhoeffer’s fellow students while he was at Union).  He also plays up the influence of Karl Barth on the theology of Bonhoeffer…something I’m not altogether unconvinced of and think may be an area that has perhaps been neglected in Bonhoeffer studies in the past.  But McGarry in his critique is right to note that while Barth played a part in shaping Bonhoeffer, yet Luther was ALWAYS paramount to the thinking of Bonhoeffer (whether explicitly or implicitly).  Bonhoeffer seemed to continuously think in Lutheran categories and was thoroughly engaged in an internal Lutheran theological dialogue.  Metaxas’ book seems to miss all of this (or at least to diminish it).  This is something that the general reader who has no familiarity with Bonhoeffer would simply not know, but should.

The other issue that McGarry notes is Metaxas’ use of “God” in place of “Christ” in the thinking of Bonhoeffer.  While this may seem a nit-picky thing to a non-theologian…it is a major issue when one spends time with Bonhoeffer who was radically Christo-centric in all of his writings.  Bonhoeffer, does not often speak generically of the relation to “God”, but always to “Christ”.  For Bonhoeffer, Christ was the very center and essence of all that gives meaning to God (not as fully expressive of all that is God, but that we only encounter God through Jesus Christ our Lord).  This, again, might easily escape the general reader of this otherwise wonderfully written biography (not that there aren’t other things to take some issue with, but they are all minor).

I would still say that if you haven’t yet read “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy”…you need to…whether you have read any of Bonhoeffer’s other works or not.  He simply is one of those saints of the Church that we would do well to know better…and Eric Metaxas has done the Church a favor by making Bonhoeffer accessible and interesting to a wider audience.

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