Posts Tagged ‘letters and papers from prison’

As Rick’s last post indicated, Jeff and I graduated last weekend. The weekend gave me a sense of finality, even though I still have some course work to finish up. It might be appropriate to offer some post-graduation reflections here, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of any. So instead, I thought I would post my (finally) completed thesis, in case anyone felt the need to slog their way through it. It’s about the relationship between theological anthropology (theological account of what it means to be human) and Christian ethics in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The full title is: Life in the Humanity of Christ: Theological Anthropology in the Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I realize that it’s much longer than anything I would expect anyone to read in their spare time. If you’re pressed for time, but you still want to look it over, I think you could easily skip the second half of the introduction (pp. 14–24, the lit review) and most of chs. 2–3 (pp. 25–61; pp. 66–68 briefly summarizes the crucial parts of both chapters). Chapters 4–5 are more central, and the final chapter tries to draw out some practical implications. As usual, I would gladly welcome any comments, questions, or criticisms—assuming anyone reads far enough to have any!

All of my fellow bloggers here deserve thanks for helping me get through this. Each one has sustained lengthy and probably taxing conversations with me about my topic—both in person and online; and Jeff even took the time to read through it (!) and offer his insights. Thanks guys!

Life in the Humanity of Christ

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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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