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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Evangelicals

In the Evangelical world where I dwell, we have made almost no progress in separating ourselves from the Pharisees who argued with and opposed Jesus.

The Pharisees agreed with Jesus that personal righteousness was extremely important in God’s kingdom but differed with him on how to be righteous. For Jesus, righteousness was a gift bestowed in forgiveness and grace. For the Pharisees it was an achievement gained by adherence to the law. (Historical note: We should never forget that in the years after Jesus, the Pharisees became the legitimate heroes of Judaism, leading the people in adapting to faith-without-the-Temple.)

Jesus spoke of love while the Pharisees spoke in terms familiar to all fundamentalists: Right Answers in Theology and Right Rules in Ethics. Two of the many problems with such an approach to life, however, are that it is almost impossible for those who have all the Right Answers and Rules…

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by Dr. Darrell Bock

I’ve been hearing a lot in the public square about trajectories. In these conversations God’s Word is used to argue that the church needs to change its view on same-sex marriage, even though Scripture seems uniformly against it. This comes not only from newspaper columnists, such as Steve Blow in the Dallas Morning News, but also from evangelical commentators who claim the direction of the Bible takes them there. I understand this desire to love well, taken from the great commandment (Matt. 22:39), and I also see that one can ask such questions not out of a desire to rebel, clear a new path, or conform to culture, but out of sincerity.

Sincere questions deserve sincere responses. This article is designed to engage those who say the real thrust of the Bible is to joyously enter our brave new world with open arms and hearts. I’ll discuss various claims arguing that Scripture either doesn’t clearly address our specific contemporary situation or that Scripture is open and inconsistent enough to allow room for a category previously rejected.

Claim 1: Jesus didn’t speak about same-sex marriage, so he’s at least neutral if not open to it. What Jesus doesn’t condemn, we shouldn’t condemn.

This is an argument from silence, but the silence doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Jesus addresses and defines marriage in Matthew 19:4–6 and Mark 10:6–9 using both Genesis 1:26–27 and Genesis 2:24 to parse it out. Here Jesus defines and affirms marriage as between a man and a woman, a reflection of the fact that God made us male and female to care for creation together. With this definition, same-sex marriage is excluded. Had Jesus wished to extend the right of marriage beyond this definition, here was his opportunity. But he didn’t take it.

Jesus never discussed same-sex marriage because the way he defined marriage already excluded it. He was not as silent on the topic as some claim.

Claim 2: The Old Testament (OT) allows all sorts of “prohibited” marriage, including polygamy and what would today qualify as incest. If those were permitted, surely monogamous same-sex relationships should be allowed.

Here’s where a look at trajectory helps us. If we observe what Scripture actually teaches, we see that (1) such past marriages are consistently portrayed as resulting in social chaos and aren’t so much prescribed as described; and that (2) Scripture’s expansion into the New Testament (NT) narrows down the scope of options to the standard of one monogamous union between a man and woman in which the marriage bed is to be honored but porneia—sexual infidelity in all its manifestations—is to be avoided (Heb. 13:4). Additionally, elders are to show the community what it looks like to be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2, 12).

So opening up marriage to a new category actually works against Scripture’s trajectory on marriage.

Claim 3: The move to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriage is like the church’s past blindness on slavery, women’s rights, and a geocentric universe—where what was “clearly” taught in Scripture is now seen as wrong.

It’s fair to point out that some views that used to be considered clear in Scripture have actually turned out to not be so clear—and even wrong. Hermeneutical humility for all is not a bad thing. But it cuts both ways. Whereas with creation/slavery/women one can point to passages where counter-tensions existed with what was clear (such as the way Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus, or how Mary sat as Jesus’s disciple, or how the Spirit is said to indwell all women), no OT or NT text is even neutral on same-sex issues. Every single text that mentions the topic does so negatively.

So here also trajectory helps us, since with same-sex passages there is no trajectory. The reading is consistent. That should count for something.

Claim 4: We don’t follow all sorts of OT laws today (try laws on having sex while a woman is menstruating, or eating certain types of food), so why should we accept what the OT says about same-sex relationships?

We already set the trajectory for this answer when we noted that all the biblical texts on homosexuality, both in the OT and NT, are negative. Yet one other observation needs to be made. Some OT laws deal with the issue of uncleanness tied to the temple and worship, which aren’t categories of sin but of appropriateness tied to worship. These aren’t moral laws, but restrictions that distinguished Israel from the surrounding polytheistic nations who were morally loose and sacrificed certain types of animals (and in some cases, children) as part of their worship. This claim shows no sensitivity to these biblical distinctions. In some cases, it ends up comparing apples to oranges since issues of uncleanness were set aside in the NT when Gentiles came into the fold (Acts 10:9–29; Eph. 2:11–22; Col. 2:13–15).

We don’t read the Bible as a flat text. It progresses, even along certain trajectories, so that with the arrival of the promise certain parts of the law are set aside (Gal. 3; Heb. 8–10).

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Proverbs 24:10 says: “If you are slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited.”  This Proverb teaches us a very practical principle: if you have not conditioned or prepared yourself for times of difficulty, you are going to have a very difficult time managing it through your trial. You need to prepare yourself in advance. This is especially true regarding our practice of the spiritual disciplines, and the trials that we all eventually face.

A good example of this may be found in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Eric Metaxas, in his biography of the German pastor & theologian writes of how the practice of the spiritual disciplines played a significant role in his ability to deal with his imprisonment and eventual martyrdom:

From the beginning of his time (in prison) until the end, Bonhoeffer maintained the daily discipline of scriptural meditation and prayer he had been practicing for more than a decade.  Each morning he meditated for at least half an hour on a verse of scripture.  And he interceded for his friends and relatives, and for his brothers in the Confessing Church who were on the front lines or in concentration camps.  Once he got his Bible back he read it for hours each day.  By November he had read through the Old Testament two and a half times.  He also drew strength from praying the Psalms, just as they had done at Zingst, Finkewalde, Schlawe, Sigurdshof, and else where.  Bonhoeffer once told Bethge, who was about to embark on a trip, that it was all the more important to practice the daily disciplines when away, to give oneself a sense of grounding and continuity and clarity.  And now, rudely thrust into an atmosphere intensely different from his parents’ home, he practiced these same disciplines. (Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas, p. 438)

Bonhoeffer practiced in prison, the disciplines which he had already learned and practiced in advance. It is highly doubtful that he would have fared so well during his time of trial had he not built these spiritual practices into his life beforehand.

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July 24, 2015 

Is there any lonelier occupation than that of the Christian intellectual? This species sits between two different bodies, both of which struggle to trust one another: (1) the church, anchored in the Word, and (2) the academy, anchored in credentialed expertise.

The existential loneliness of the Christian intellectual shouldn’t obscure the fact that this strange species does yet endure, even thrive. In the postwar era, numerous figures attained eminence for their public work. One of the best of this brave band was Richard John Neuhaus, the famed editor of the journal First Things, long the gold standard of religious engagement with the American polis.

Incisive New Biography 

Neuhaus (1936–2009) is the subject of a readable and incisive new biography by Randy Boyagoda titled Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. Boyagoda, who serves as professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, traces Neuhaus’s life chronologically, ranging over his childhood as a conservative Lutheran pastor’s son, his iconoclastic seminary experience as a social justice proponent, his early career as a New York City pastor to a humble congregation, and his eventual ascendance as one of the leading public intellectuals in America.

Neuhaus had a knack for ending up in the center of things, whether that be a Martin Luther King, Jr. march, a colloquy with Cardinal Ratzinger, or the presidential administration of George W. Bush. Bush famously said Neuhaus helped him “articulate these things,” meaning religious truths bearing on political life (357–58). Neuhaus surely emboldened Bush’s pro-life convictions: “Every child welcomed to life and protected by law” was the elegant language Neuhaus helped craft for the president. Their interaction led to many salutary effects, though in other areas the president’s folksy ways persisted.

Boyagoda’s rich and well-researched study left me with three main reflections.

1. Neuhaus’s career reminds us that institutions are people.

In other words, institutions are only as vibrant and consequential as the people who lead them. Everywhere Neuhaus served, he enlivened the place and expanded its reach. This was as true at St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn as it was at First Things. Neuhaus had that quality unique to a certain few that allowed him to see unprioritized needs and then magnetically draw others to the cause. This ability was not unrelated to the power of the pen, a gift Neuhaus possessed to the full (398–99).

In our time, if we are to build lasting institutions that serve and perhaps renew aspects of the body politic, we must have leaders who can animate those institutions. It’s easy to snipe at the Religious Right, but it’s harder to put skin in the game and actually lead something. Neuhaus was part of a generation who knew this truth at a perhaps subconscious level and acted on it with alacrity. His was the era, after all, of born-again Chuck Colson, swashbuckling William Buckley, and evangelist-statesman Billy Graham.

2. Neuhaus’s program calls us not to hide our light.

There’s a discomfiting pattern that sometimes plays out with Christian leaders: they start solidly, then become famous, then disown much of their earlier platform. The endpoint seems to suggest the doctrine was nothing more than an escalator to fame.

Neuhaus enjoyed his celebrity, to be sure. He could be unctuous in his dealings with White House officials, for example (350). Neuhaus loved the light, but he also loved the spotlight. He did not, however, shrink back from broadcasting stubbornly countercultural convictions. His statements on the pro-life cause never wavered in their intensity. He doggedly defended religious freedom. In The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984) he presented a brilliant case for religion as a public good, a case we still need today (see 231–47).

Of course, Neuhaus’s intellectual framework had splinters. It was sturdy, impressive in construction, but it invited regular controversy. Boyagoda gives little attention to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), Neuhaus’s joint venture with Colson, but it drew criticism from all sides. Neuhaus, raised a Lutheran but a late convert to Catholicism, persisted in his belief that the two traditions could collaborate. In 2015, the great theological questions remain, but evangelicals and Catholics have found a lot of common cause in recent days in the public square. Neuhaus’s legacy with ECT may not be full communion, but neither is it any less than friendly cobelligerence.

3. Neuhaus shows us that serious intellectual investment can pay off handsomely.

We need Neuhaus, just as we need Carl F. H. Henry, and just as we need the Inklings. The church too easily loses sight of the power of the intellect. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps because Scripture is true and good and because the gospel is simple in formulation, we can be tricked into embracing an intellectually malnourished Christianity. Honey, I shrunk the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Even readers who don’t hold Neuhaus’s full doctrinal convictions will come away from this biography freshly impressed by the man’s example. Christians hungry for models of the the activist-thinker discover one in its pages. We need to remember how influential First Things became, for example; it helped fund the policies of the nucleus of global power, the American presidency (360–62). Though we know from the history of ideas such intellectual investment can pay off immensely, we sometimes forget how high the stakes are. Neuhaus calls us back to the fray, back to intellectual engagement, back to confessional activism.

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by Study of the Word

“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

“The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.”

“It is only because he became like us that we can become like him.”

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by Brian Jones

Grow old togetherThis week I read the story of Adele Gaboury, a woman not unlike many of our neighbors.

“It can never be said that Adele Gaboury’s neighbors were less than responsible. When her front lawn grew hip-high, they had a local boy mow it down. When her pipes froze and burst, they had the water turned off. When the mail spilled out the front door, they called the police.

The only thing they didn’t do was check to see if she was alive. She wasn’t.

Police finally climbed her crumbling brick stoop, broke in the side door of her little blue house, and found what they believed to be the 73-year-old woman’s skeletal remains, where they had lain, perhaps for as long as four years. ‘It’s not really a friendly neighborhood,’ said Eileen Dugan, 70, once a close friend of Gaboury’s, whose house sits 20 feet from the dead woman’s house. ‘I’m as much to blame as anyone.

She was alone and needed someone to talk to, but I was working two jobs and was sick of her coming over at all hours. Eventually I stopped answering the door.’” (Sally Jacobs, “Years After Neighbors Last Saw Her, Worcester Woman Found Dead,” Boston Globe)

How to Grow Old Together…

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What Bonhoeffer knew

After I’d given a talk to mark the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution, I got a letter complaining that Bonhoeffer had been drained dry of meaning and was of no more use to the church. Here’s what I replied.

Bonhoeffer was theological. We don’t all have to write two doctoral theses by the age of 24. But we do have to approach every challenge as fundamentally a question about God. The German Christians were seduced into treating the führer as God. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church saw that the problem with the Nazis was first a theological problem.

Bonhoeffer was about Jesus. The Bonhoeffer of popular theology is the one who talks from prison about the “world come of age” and “religionless Christianity.” But what put him in prison was Jesus. The church fears that when it says the word Jesus it’s assuming an imperialistic oppressive voice that dominates, excludes, or devalues other voices. The church has too often assumed such a voice. But Jesus doesn’t assume such a voice. Bonhoeffer knew that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say. And when it assumes dominance, it’s not talking about Jesus.

Bonhoeffer was ecumenical. The vital conversation that convinced Bonhoeffer to return to Germany in 1939 was with George Bell, Anglican bishop of Chichester. They became friends in the 1920s ecumenical movement, when denominations really mattered. They matter less now. The days when we could forget about the world and concentrate on our arguments with other Christians are passing. Ecumenical discord is a luxury of the complacent church. We need each other. If we feel the church is weak, it’s because we’ve limited what we’re looking at when we use the word church.

Bonhoeffer was international. He understood that Germany and the church weren’t the same thing. Western Christians are slowly realizing that they aren’t the majority of the church or the part that matters most. Christianity doesn’t fundamentally belong to them. Bonhoeffer may be a dead white Western male, but his legacy points us in global directions. When people say Christianity is in decline, you have to ask which map they’re looking at.

Bonhoeffer was politically engaged. There were Christians in 1930s Germany who thought salvation was about saving souls and it wasn’t their business to get involved in politics. That reasoning left 6 million Jews dead and ten times that number dead globally. Politics is the name we give to resolving differences short of violence. If you don’t do politics, you end up doing violence.

Bonhoeffer was rooted in an accountable community. He saw that for his Confessing Church to have any backbone, it needed to be led by pastors who took for granted the simple, straightforward practices of daily prayer, the confession of sin, the studying of scripture, and the sharing of communion. His book Life Together describes that uncompromising, uncluttered set of priorities. Community is easier to theorize about than to practice, but it’s still the center of the church’s renewal.

Bonhoeffer was prepared to face danger. One of the assumptions I find bewildering yet widespread in the church is that if one is a good Christian, one’s days will be long and one shall multiply and one’s valleys will grow rich with corn. Most of the people in the Bible face danger, hardship, crisis, tragedy, and fear. Those are the places God most often shows up. God is close to the poor, not because there’s anything holy about poverty, but because those in poverty face such things all the time, and that’s what brings them face to face with God. Bonhoeffer wrestled with this in 1939. He could do so much good from the safe distance of America, but he was called to be in the place of danger. We face the same choices.

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by Dermot Roantree

One would not expect a steadfast German Lutheran intellectual in the 1920s to take kindly to the sights and sounds of Catholicism in Italy, but for Dietrich Bonhoeffer these concrete manifestations of lived faith were enthralling. One church that impressed him deeply was the Gesù, the Jesuit mother-church in Rome.

According to his biographer Charles Marsh, “Bonhoeffer marveled at the multitude of ‘white-robed Jesuits,’ swaying like a ‘sea of flowers’ who read passages from Lamentations, while large families waited their turn at the confessionals, ‘illuminated by slowly darkening altar candles’.” He was also deeply impressed by the presence of enrobed clerics from many nationalities “united under the church”. It was these, and similar experiences in other Roman churches, that opened Bonhoeffer’s eyes to “the universality of faith”. In his Italian Diary (1924), he wrote: “It has been a magnificent day; the first in which I gained some real understanding of Catholicism; no romanticism or anything of the sort, but I believe I am beginning to understand the concept of the Church.”

The concept of ‘church’, and in particular the sense of its universality, stayed with Bonhoeffer through the many turns his theology took in the following two decades. While in Rome it even prompted him to entertain – only momentarily – the thought of conversion to Catholicism. Arguably, Catholicism would never have sat well with him. He never really lost his Lutheran objections to the Catholic understanding of rationality in the praeambula fidei, nor to what he saw as a quid-pro-quo attitude to the reception of God’s grace – in other words, a diminution of its gratuitousness.

Still, however, he clung to his discovery of the meaning of Church. Years later, he urged his fellow-Lutherans to recover their sense of belonging to a universal Church – not easy, he thought, on account of their provincialism and excessive German nationalism.

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“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting for costly grace.” That’s how Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his classic work The Cost Of Discipleship. It could also in some ways sum up Jesus’s parable of the Wedding Banquet recorded in Matthew 22.

Jesus in the last week of his life. The triumphal entry has happened. The tables in the Temple have been overturned. Jesus has cursed the fig tree because it isn’t bearing fruit as a sign to the Jewish leaders that they are in danger because they are also not bearing fruit. He then begins to tell this parable about a king who has prepared a wedding banquet for his son. However, when he begins to send out the invitations, the invited guests reject the invite. Some come up with excuses of why they can not make it, but many just refuse. This can only be interpreted as an insult to both the son and the King. To refuse an invitation was almost unheard of, unless one was trying to shame the host. These villagers are rejecting the gifts of the king and want nothing to do with the son.

The message of the parable at this point is clear. The Jewish leaders have rejected the Son and in so doing have rejected the Father. Just as the King in the story goes and destroys the cities where the invited guests live, the Jewish leaders will be punished for rejecting the Son.

Yet all is not lost. The King still has a party to throw and so he sends his servants into the cities and towns to invite everyone they see to the banquet. The king welcomes in both the good and the bad, he simply wants the banquet hall to be full. There are no requirements for entry. There is no test that needs to be completed or a mission to be accomplished. The invitation is out of grace, and must be received as such.

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July 2015


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