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Emmanuel, the name of Jesus which means “God with us.” Growing up, I thought this was a very comforting thing: God has become a human being, tabernacled with us, become one of us so that we could be one with him. All of this is true.

Then I learned the context of the name. It comes from Isaiah, and prophecies the judgment of Israel. The “sign of Emmanuel” was the birth of a child, which heralded judgment and death. The birth of Christ is the sign of the coming judgment of God. Yet at the same time it is still salvation for his followers.

I tried to rationalize this, and in human terms it made some sense: he spares his own followers, right? He’s here for us, not for them. Models of penal substitution affirmed this approach: Jesus was killed in my place, so that I don’t have to die. The Passover also captures it: the judgment will pass over my house, the angel of death will not see me. All of this is also true, in a sense.

Bonhoeffer’s approach in Discipleship is new to me, but I love it. He reminds me that I still die along with the rest of humanity. The coming of Emmanuel still means judgment and death, and nobody is exempt. We all are judged, and die. But the type of death that we die matters.

In baptism, we die with Christ. In Christ, God became a human being in order to identify with human beings; in baptism, we die with Christ in order to identify with Christ. Everyone dies, at least in a figurative sense, when confronted with Christ: this is judgment. And yet Christ rises again. If we die with Christ, we are identified with Christ, and thus we rise with Christ. Far from being exempt from judgment, we experience it in death, but because we experience that judgment with Christ, we also experience forgiveness and resurrection with Christ.

Simple, sinful humanity – what Paul called “the old man” – will die. By virtue of being human, in that sense, everyone will die. When God became human in Christ, he created a new type of humanity. The way to this type of humanity is death with Christ, death away from sin: as our old humanity dies under the judgment of God in Christ, our identification with Christ in this makes us a new human being.

In this sense, salvation is available for everyone: Christ took on the humanity of all the world, and in identifying with humanity took on all of its weakness and brokenness and sin. Christ identifies with absolutely everyone. But not everyone identifies with Christ, and takes on that new humanity on the other side of this spiritual death. Most people just die in this judgment, without identifying with Christ, and thus they continue to physically live as dead people.

I love this approach because it underlines that Christ is for everyone, that he identifies with everyone, that some people aren’t his secret favourites who are somehow exempt from judgment. We’re all judged equally, and all die. It also doesn’t blame God for the fact that not everyone receives the spiritual resurrection and life that follows after this judgment, yet at the same time it doesn’t make this out to be a human work that I can accomplish. Yes, I am responsible for following Christ to death, but in so doing I am not achieving my own salvation – that has already been achieved. Resurrection is the result of being made into a new type of humanity, and this is something that Christ has accomplished; I only choose to die with him rather than on my own. I choose to live with him, following after [nachfolge] him, but this is only possible because I have identified with him in death (through baptism), and this itself is only possible because he has identified with me. Christ initiates it all, and accomplishes it all, but I still need to follow after him.

May Emmanuel, the One who saves through judgment, lead you on to new life.

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It’s one thing to say “you’re asking the wrong question.” Bonhoeffer does this all the time. The first bit of Bonhoeffer I ever read began by saying that ethicists are asking the wrong question. To get good answers, you have to ask good questions!

This is very different from saying “two questions are prohibited” as he does in his Christology lectures (DBWE 12, 304). Imagine your teacher telling you that you cannot ask certain questions! This immediately rubbed me the wrong way, but he pulls it out in the end. Let’s take a look.

Continuing with his discussion of the question of Christology (which must be “who” and not “how,” and can only be truly asked in the context of the church), he says:

Two questions are prohibited:

(1) Whether the answer that is given is the right answer. This question has no right to be asked, because there can be no authority for our human logos to cast doubt on the truth of this Logos. Jesus’s own witness to himself, then and now, stands on its own and substantiates itself. The “that” in “that God was revealed in Christ” cannot be theologically questioned.

(2) The second prohibited question is how the “that” of the revelation can be conceived. This question leads in the direction of trying again to get behind Christ’s claim, and to ground it on our own. In doing so, our own logos is presuming on the role of the Father of Jesus Christ himself, when all we actually know is the fact of God’s revelation. – 304.

I’ve heard arguments that sound like this before, and I don’t like them. They generally have to do with the authority of Scripture and reading the Bible critically. The argument is generally some form of “God inspired the Bible, therefore we can never criticize it, because even if it seems incorrect on some point it is only because we cannot understand the mysteries of God.” Such arguments miss entirely the nature of a critical reading, whose purpose is to help us to read a text carefully and accurately; rather, they see critical readings as somehow undermining the authority of the text. In effect, they say “there are certain questions about the Bible that you can never ask.” This stops us from studying the Bible carefully, and makes us rely on the authority of someone else, who has already interpreted the Bible (and maybe not so carefully); it often relies on an appeal to the Spirit, who can make the text understandable for us in a plain reading (except of course on those occasions when something in the text, or more precisely in the way we’re reading it, seems wrong; then it’s the authority of the mystery of God).

Bonhoeffer isn’t talking about the Bible here, but he is still talking about the Word of God – Jesus Christ. In a sense, then, he is still talking about the Bible, as it is in the Bible that we find God’s self-revelation, right? Yes, and no. For Bonhoeffer, we encounter Christ in the other, in other human beings. We certainly see God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ by reading the Bible, and if we limit Bonhoeffer’s intended meaning to this sense, he’d be just another biblicist. But to Bonhoeffer, when we ask “who are you?” of Christ, we’re not just reading the gospels to find a description of Jesus. We are asking an ontological question that forms the foundation of all knowledge.  Questioning this question just might be the most important questioning!

Perhaps the word “prohibited” is not the best term, here. Perhaps it was lost in translation; after all, Bonhoeffer spoke these words in German to a student who took them down in shorthand and expanded that shorthand 28 years later, in German that was later translated to English. I think what Bonhoeffer is trying to say here is not that we are prohibited from asking these questions in the sense that we ought not (as in the argument of the biblicist, who believes that asking questions of Scripture offends God’s honour), but rather because we have no basis for any other answer.

We lack the perspective to challenge God’s self-revelation. This is different from the biblicist’s argument that we cannot know the mysteries of God and therefore should not challenge the Bible. Bonhoeffer is not appealing to some sort of higher wisdom that God has; rather, he has just explained (see my last post) that all human questioning is ultimately self-referential, and that we can only really ask God who he is because he has made himself known to us, and it is only in this intrusion of outside information (i.e., God’s self-revelation) that allows us to see beyond our self-centred paradigms at all. If we question God’s self-revelation, then we’re still bound in our self-centred paradigms, as we haven’t allowed God to reveal himself. This is the second question that is prohibited, the first being whether or not God has actually revealed himself, and the second being whether we can know that God has revealed himself. I think that Bonhoeffer is saying here that we shouldn’t bother getting caught up in the cyclical subjectivity of epistemology (the “that” question), as the real question is ontological (the “who” question). Epistemological questions don’t allow us to get outside of ourselves, so we have no authority on things outside of ourselves so long as we remain trapped there. Put another way, rather than quoting “his ways are higher than our ways,” Bonhoeffer is actually saying that it’s impossible to question something on such a completely different level with any hope of our answers being anything more than a reflection of ourselves.

Finally, let’s return to the object of Bonhoeffer’s questioning, which is not actually an object such as the Bible, but is actually a subject, Jesus Christ. The weakness of the biblicist arguments against reading the Bible critically is that it does not provide any actual method of reading the Bible; it allows us to read ourselves into the Bible as we read it “at face value.” While we can certainly read ourselves into the person of Jesus Christ just as well as we can into the text of the Bible, we must not forget that Bonhoeffer has just given us a context in which these questions occur: the context of Christ’s self-revelation. We can’t ask any questions seriously until we are confronted by God’s self-revelation in Christ. In such a context, the question “who are you?” is actually a response. We are not impertinently casting doubt upon God’s self-revelation by questioning, but rather in questioning it we reject it and remain bound within ourselves; we fail to respond intelligently. Imagine having a person strike up a conversation with you, and then responding with “what’s that sound? Is there really someone there?” No meaningful interaction can occur.

All that to say that once I dwelt on Bonhoeffer’s apparent censorship, I calmed down. Perhaps he should have used a better term than “prohibited” to describe these questions; I know I would have. There is such a thing as the wrong question, and there is such a thing as a stupid question.

Perhaps his way of saying it really was better.

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I’m finally back to work on my homework from January. Hallelujah, it’s been a long haul!

My current assignment is an analysis of a short Bonhoeffer text, for which I’ve chosen an excerpt from his Christology lectures. This is a fascinating text, not least because it is reconstructed from the notes of his students. Bonhoeffer introduces Christology by examining the act of questioning:

All scholarly questions can be reduced to two fundamental questions: First, what is the cause of X? Second, what is the meaning of X? The first question covers the realm of the natural sciences; the second, that of the arts and humanities. – DBWE 12, p. 301

All of our answers to these questions, he says, come down to a system of categorization based on the relationship of the object in question to other things, and ultimately, to ourselves as a human logos. This leaves us with only one real question that we’re capable of asking: “how?”

The question of “how” cannot be applied to something beyond our human logos, our frame of reference (namely, ourselves). When we realize that we are the ultimate reference for the “how” question, and our own validity as the centre of this question is challenged by our limited nature, we’re faced with a somewhat existential challenge:

The logos sees that its autonomy is being threatened from outside. It meets the demand made upon it by negating itself. This is the last thing it has the power to do. It is what Hegel did in his philosophy. Thus what the logos does under attack from the other Logos represents not philistine self-defense but rather a great insight into its power of self-negation, for self-negation signifies the self-affirmation of the logos. So it appears that the attack on the final prerequisite [the human logos, the human frame of reference] has failed, for the logos has assimilated the counter Logos into itself. – 302

If you know what this means, please tell me. As far as I can make out without reading Hegel, what Bonhoeffer is saying here is that human-centered or immanent knowledge is challenged by transcendent or God-centered knowledge; we are finite, mortal, sinful, and perhaps not the measuring stick by which all other knowledge ought to be categorized. But upon realizing this, rather than meeting the question of our own finite nature head on, we find ways to philosophically negate the question, inverting the whole enterprise and thus undercutting the question itself, allowing us to keep ourselves at the centre of the universe. But God is not so easily satisfied:

But what happens if the counter Logos suddenly presents its demand in a wholly new form, so that it is no longer an idea or word that is turned against the autonomy of the [human] logos, but rather the counter Logos appears, somewhere and some time in history, as a human being, and as a human being sets itself up as judge over the human logos and says “I am the truth,” I am the death of the human logos, I am the life of God’s Logos, I am the Alpha and the Omega? Human beings are those who must die and fall, with their logos, into my hands. Here it is no longer possible to fit the Word made flesh into the logos classification system. Here all that remains is the question: Who are you? – 302.

Our self-investigation is confronted by God, but we negate him; but God confronts us directly, interrupting our self-centered investigation, causing us to stumble over his self-revelation in Christ. Our “how” questions require our human framework of classification; the “who” question destroys that framework.

This is the question asked by horrified, dethroned human wisdom, and also the question of faith: Who are you? Are you God’s very self? This is the question with which Christology alone is concerned. Every possibility of classification must fall short, because the existence of this Logos means the end of my logos. He is the Logos. He is the counter Word. We are now talking about “Being”! – 302.

“The question of “who” expresses the otherness of the other.” “How” is the question that puts us at the centre of the universe, so that all things can be categorized in relation to us. This somewhat objectifies all other things, and is a profoundly immanent question. Christ is transcendent and personal, so we must ask “who?” instead. In so doing, we can no longer objectify the universe with ourselves at the centre, but must instead recognize the other-ness of Christ, and in so doing recognize the end of our self. If there is an other, then I am not all in all. The moment we ask “Who are you?” of Christ, we are faced with an existential question that cannot be avoided. “To sum up: the question of one’s existence is the question of transcendence” (303).

We ask the “who” question all the time, but we’re still asking “how”, just veiled in other language. When we ask “who” of others, we’re really just asking them for details about themselves so that we can still fit them into our self-centered categories. We need to ask the “who” question, but we’re not actually capable of doing so until the other reveals herself.

The ultimate question for critical thinking is that it must ask who but it can not. That means the one can legitimately ask who only after the self revelation of the other to whom one puts the question has already taken place, after the imminent logos has already been superseded [that is, after our self-referential classification framework has already been demolished by a realization of the otherness of the other]. That is, the question of who can only be asked on condition that the answer has already been given. And this in turn means that the christological question can only be asked, as a scholarly question, within the sphere of the church, and the prerequisite for it is the fact that Christ’s claim to be the Word of God is a just claim. – 303

So, when we ask “who” on our own, we’re really only asking “how” and categorizing people in our self-centered framework, until we are actually confronted by the self-revelation of an other. When someone else reveals themselves to us, only then can we really ask the “who” question of them. I’m not sure if he means that there is an experiential element to our knowledge here, but certainly he’s saying that one cannot ask Christ who he is unless one is met and challenged by Christ in that existential, transcendent way – and more than that, one can only ask who Christ is if they have first taken seriously God’s self-revelation in Christ (probably implied or assumed in this is our knowledge of Christ through scripture, which requires that we first accept scripture as a valid authority).

SO, because of all of this, Christology can only really be studied in the context of the church, among those to whom Christ has revealed himself and those who accept the challenge and validity of that self-revelation, seeing Christ truly as a self-revealing other whose very existence challenges our own and transcends all of our frameworks for classification – namely, he transcends our very selves. It is only in this relationship which is dominated by the other-ness of Christ that we can truly ask “Who are you?” and get an answer that similarly transcends our very selves.

I think to do otherwise would give us a picture of Christ that is a picture of our selves; religion would be a human creation, and God a human projection, and the sociologists of religion would be right. But by his interrupting self-revelation, which challenges us at precisely this point, God in Christ has upset this human-centered, self-centered view of the universe in which our hearts turn in upon themselves. By transcending our selves, he allows us to transcend ourselves, to see beyond ourselves, and perhaps for the first time, to really see ourselves – and each other. By transcending our selves, he allows us to see him as more than just a projection of our selves. At last, we can move beyond “how” to “who.”

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