Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther’

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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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)

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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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Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little work entitled Life Together wrote about the Reformed perspective of “alien righteousness” (“fremde Gerechtigkeit”) which in Luther’s doctrine of justification was extra nos.[1] He explained the need, based upon this doctrine of “alien righteousness,” for community and the spoken Word of Christ.

If they are asked ‘Where is your salvation, your blessedness, your righteousness?,’ they can never point to themselves. Instead, they point to the Word of God in Jesus Christ that grants salvation, blessedness, and righteousness. They watch for this Word wherever they can. Because they daily hunger and thirst for righteousness, they long for the redeeming Word again and again. It can only come from the outside. In themselves they are only destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing us redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But God put this Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others. When people are deeply affected by the Word, they tell it to other people. God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians….They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened….They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation.[2]

While I’ve been reading and reflecting on a recent book (Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption and the Triune God; Eerdmans 2010) by Frank Macchia I was struck by the utterly non-pneumatic presence of Bonhoeffer’s statements.  So close and yet so far away.  What Bonhoeffer has to say rings true, but it should be added that we speak as the Church by the will and word of the very Spirit of Christ.  It is not simply a speaking words from the book which is the Bible.  That would not be “God’s living Word.”

The extra nos righteousness of Luther seems to fail to do justice (pun intended?) to the inward justifying of the Spirit within the believer in the very midst of the believing and confessing community.  I believe Bonhoeffer has in some ways redeemed Luther in this (though I haven’t read Luther so thoroughly that he may in fact do so himself) by reminding the Church that we speak the Word of God as righteousness…one to another.  We confess the forgiveness of sins as fully granted.  A community that is redeemed and redeeming by the Spirit which cries aloud “Abba, Father!” that others may believe and take heart.  That we may believe and take heart…together having been justified we may also be glorified with our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al., Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 31fn10.

[2] Ibid., 32.

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