Bonhoeffer On the Christian Life: A Review

I recently found out about (and read) Stephen Nichols’ book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theology called Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013).  At just over 200 pages, it is quite a bit shorter and more accessible than Metaxas’ similar book.  In fact, there is a lot of overlap between the two books, although Nichols focuses a bit more on theology than Bonhoeffer’s life.

The book is structured well.  There are five main parts: 1) Intro, 2) Foundations (Christ and community), 3) Disciplines (word, prayer, confession), 4) Life (worldliness, freedom, love), and 5) Literature (suggestions for further reading).  Nichols writes in a clear and readable way; the book wasn’t too difficult to read or understand.  There was some repetition in the book, but overall it was well written.

However, I hesitate to recommend this book.  Why?  Well, to put it simply, because Nichols intentionally reads and interprets Bonhoeffer as a conservative, orthodox evangelical with a high view of Scripture (see chapter 4).  In his reading, Nichols sees Bonhoeffer as a conservative who believed in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and who held to an orthodox Christology.  Nichols also worked hard to distance Bonhoeffer from Barth (see footnote 15 in chapter 4).  These issues have been debated for quite a few years; many good scholars have showed that Bonhoeffer was not a conservative evangelical in today’s sense of the term.  In my own reading, I have found places where Bonhoeffer questioned the historicity of Genesis 1-3, where he seemed to have a higher-critical view of the OT, and where he echoed Barth in Christology.  I believe Nichols did not accurately summarize Bonhoeffer’s theology.

In fact, when I was about halfway through this book I could easily guess where it was going: in the direction of evangelical theology (evangelical views on preaching, prayer, devotions, church, love, etc.).  By the end of the book I didn’t feel like I was learning Bonhoeffer’s views, but reviewing evangelical theology.  I was hoping that there would be some constructive criticism of Bonhoeffer’s views, that there would be explanations of how Bonhoeffer developed and/or changed in his theological views, and how we should view Bonhoeffer’s language and theological constructions (in a Barthian way?  In a Lutheran way? etc.).  There was no significant critique of Bonhoeffer in this book.

In summary, I was disappointed with Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life because it paints too evangelical a picture of Bonhoeffer.  I love reading Bonhoeffer, I’ve learned much from him, I’ll keep reading him, but I also see several serious problems with his views and writings.  Nichols’ account flattened Bonhoeffer’s views and took the excitement and “strangeness” out of them.  I like to run across a passage in Bonhoeffer that makes me upset, challenges me, and forces me to read it again (and put an exclamation point or question mark by it!).

If you want a book that wrestles with Bonhoeffer’s theology in a critically constructive and accurate way, you’ll want to pass on this one.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Bonhoeffer and Barth

Bonhoeffer_Ethics_Cover Sections like this in Bonhoeffer’s writings always make me wonder how much Barth influenced him; they also make me hesitate to think of and speak of Bonhoeffer as an evangelical in the present day sense of the term.  Here’s the section found on pages 194 & 197 of his Ethics:

“The Christian ethic speaks in a quite different sense of the reality which is the origin of good, for it speaks of the reality of God as the ultimate reality without and within everything that is.  It speaks of the reality of the world as it is, which possesses reality solely through the reality of God.”

“Christian belief deduces that the reality of God is not in itself merely an idea from the fact that this reality of God has manifested and revealed itself in the midst of the real world.  In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of the world.  The place where the answer is given, both to the question concerning the reality of God and to the question concerning the reality of the world, is designated solely and alone by the name Jesus Christ.  God and the world are comprised in his name.  In Him all things consist (Col. 1:17).  Henceforward one can speak neither of God nor of the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.”

“…The reality of Christ comprises the reality of the world within itself.  The world has no reality of its own, independently of the revelation of God in Christ.”

There is more to this discussion, of course; there are further nuances and developments to trace.  However, it is a discussion worth having.  In fact, John Baillie (a professor at Union Theological Seminary in the 1930’s when Barth’s influence was starting to grow) said, “Bonhoeffer was my student in this Seminary in 1930-1931 and was then the most convinced disciple of Dr. Barth that had appeared among us up to that time, and withal as stout an opponent of liberalism as had ever come my way” (quoted in Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 158).  Comments are welcome, of course.  I’ll be looking into this a bit more in the next few months, Lord willing.

shane lems

Barth’s High Altitude Bombing Runs

I’ve finished I.1 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and I’m well into I.2.  So far, my favorite parts have been when Barth aims his guns at the modernists and theological liberals.  It sort of reminds me of the high altitude bombing runs in WWII.  Barth goes over the modernist positions and drops a salvo; some pages later he returns to that position and drops another salvo.  He repeats this process over and over.  By the end of I.1, he hits the target more than once!  And his bombs are so powerful he also hits cults like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as modern deism and pantheism.

I also have to add that I’m completely annoyed by his doctrine(s) of the Word and revelation.  He writes about three different “forms” of the Word: revelation, Bible, and proclamation.  I think he’s wrong when he distinguishes between these, but I’ll have to save an extended critique until I’ve read more.  He’s tough to pin down because he sort of circles around a topic; he seems to say everything about it which leaves me sometimes thinking he said nothing!

Anyway, here’s one great quote regarding the aforementioned bombing runs (makes me wonder what Barth would say about all the cheesy church choruses that are popular today):

“The ‘fairest Lord Jesus’ of mysticism, the ‘Savior’ of Pietism, Jesus the teacher of wisdom and friend of man in the Enlightenment, Jesus the quintessence of enhanced humanity in Schleiermacher…all this looks at least very dubiously like a profane and sacrilegious intrusion in the Old Testament sense in which it is thought possible to come to terms, as it were, with the presence of God in Christ and to take control of it with the help of certain conceptions deriving from the humanity [of Christ].”

When discussing the Nicene Creed, Barth says that it “is for us the most important record of the dogma of the deity of Christ on the following grounds.”  After naming a few, he turns to liberal Protestantism:

“It [the Nicene Creed] says unequivocally what Liberal Protestantism refuses to listen to, and for that very reason its validity must be recognised absolutely in an Evangelical dogmatics.”

And, of course, Barth says other good things from time to time, like this.

“The Church should fear God and not fear the world.  But only if and as it fears God need it cease to fear the world.”

Stay tuned for another Barth bombing run in the future.

shane lems

Models of the Church

Since one of my reading hobbies is ecclesiology I recently picked up and read the newest edition of Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002).  In this book, Dulles summarizes and explains what he thinks are the five major models of ecclesiology in contemporary Christianity: Church as institution, church as mystical communion, church as sacrament, church as herald, and church as servant.  The updated book has a chapter on the church as community of disciples as well.

The book is very informative and well written.  Being a Reformation Christian, I knew from the get-go that I wouldn’t agree with everything in the book, as Dulles is a Roman Catholic theologian.  For example, he thinks that though all of the models have some benefits, his choice is the church as sacrament, which goes hard against my Protestant ecclesiology. 

Furthermore, I was disappointed that Dulles never interacted with any Reformation ecclesiology, aside from mentioning Lutheranism a few times.  He did mention Calvin in the beginning, but never came around to Reformed ecclesiology.  He used Barth and company to describe the church as herald, but I would have liked to see Dulles interact with Reformed/Presbyterian ecclesiology.  It seems to me that he made the mistake of lumping all Protestant ecclesiologies together, which is a pretty glaring error.  Certainly most mainline American Protestant ecclesiologies are far from confessional Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican ecclesiology (just for a few examples)!

As I said, however, the book is worth reading.  Here is one quote I appreciated.

“…the Church of Jesus Christ is not perfectly realized anywhere on earth, and…any existing ecclesiastical body will be only deficiency the Church of Jesus Christ.  At the end of time, the Church will be ‘without spot or wrinkle;’ it will be the Bride fully adorned to meet her Husband.  But as yet the bodies that go by the name of ‘church’ all have their shortcomings and are to some extent vitiated by foreign elements” (p. 129).

If you’re an “ecclesiologist” you’ll want to get this book.  Even though I really didn’t find myself convinced by all of Dulles’ arguments and explanations, it was a helpful and enjoyable book to read.  Dulles does make some excellent points, and this should be on the shelves of those of you who are interested in the doctrine of the church. 

shane lems

Chatty Theology (or Linguistic Idolatry)

A week ago, I ran across a sentence in Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.  I can’t stop thinking about it.  Here it is.

“We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and then they end up using us.”

Concerning words and theology, it is easy for us to overemphasize things, which shows up in our speech.  Some people in the Reformed tradition never stop talking about election, which leads down the road of hyper-calvinism (their terms start “using” them).  Some in the baptistic tradition talk about baptism so much it drives all their theology.  In still a different strain, Federal Vision teachers talk about covenant so much that “federal” swallows everything (like Aaron’s rod): federal husband/wife, federal headship, federal children, federal schooling, federal politics, and whatever federal else.  Peterson is right: we have to be super careful with our use of words.

This quote by Peterson also goes another direction: it chastens excessive theological chatter.  I was reading a book on Genesis 1-3 and creation – the thing was hundreds of pages long.  I couldn’t finish it because it seemed like a vacuum that just sucked the mystery and wonder out of the creation account.  The author was trying to explain everything, and in doing so, he explained everything away.  Diarrhea of the pen or mouth pretty much kills doxology in the heart!  Furthermore, sometimes we try to show off our theological or biblical knowledge by the sheer amount of words we use, which is a form of idolatry.  All these observations lead us to the scriptural emphasis.

“God is in heaven, you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecc. 5.2).

“Be silent and know that I am God!” (Ps 46.10).

“Be quick to listen and slow to speak” (Jas 1.19).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge” (Prov 17.27).

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Prov 10.19).

I think everyone who writes a commentary on a book of the Bible should follow these biblical principles.  Also, seminary students (in essay writing) and preachers (in preaching/teaching) should memorize these verses!   Side note: as I look forward to getting Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics this winter, I wrestle with his [over]use of words.   I’m not sure what to make of that.  Well, enough chatter….

shane lems

The Extreme (Barthian) Home Makeover

Still (as with a few days ago) reading Barth’s commentary on Philippians (specifically 3.7-9), I’ve had my furniture tossed around.  I don’t wholeheartedly yet accept this whole bit, but it is amazing.  And it makes those who say “justifying faith is obedient faith” look like school children fussing around on the playground. 

“The best way to understand the word faith, which bears the emphasis here (3.9b), is to notice that in the explanation of ‘righteousness by faith’ Paul presently sets parallel to it the expression ‘righteousness from God’ – that is, to make faith as little as possible a definition of human action by man himself and place the whole emphasis on the Object that is the ground of faith…

“If we operate too much here with trust, confidence, faithfulness, and so forth, on man’s part towards God, then we almost inevitably come imminently near to the very thing that Paul wanted his concept to abrogate and replace – man’s own ‘righteousness from the Law’ – and fail to understand the sharpness of the opposition he maintains towards it.”

“The decisive thing in the concept of faith is of all things, not the variously colored psychological capacities that the believer discovers in himself and whose subject he himself is, neither the animation nor the ardor of faith, neither its rapture nor its repose – although in fact faith will always have something of these and similar characteristics.”

“[In faith] …man knows himself for lost and can know himself for righteous only as lost – gives himself up, and can take comfort in the righteousness of God only in this his self-surrender.”  [Here Barth quotes Calvin – perieram, nisi periissem and fides offert nudum hominem deo – see translation below]”

“From man’s point of view, faith in its decisive act is the collapse of every effort of his own capacity and will, in the recognition of the absolute necessity of that collapse.  In it he is truly lost.  If man sees the other aspect: that as lost he is righteous, that in giving himself up he can take comfort in God’s righteousness, then he sees himself – but it is from God – that this vision comes from God’s point of view.  That happens in faith.”

[I’ve made the above easier to read by translating the Greek; the above Latin from Calvin reads like this: “I would have perished, if I had not ‘perished’ and “Man is completely naked when faith offers him to God”.]  Barth here is like a wrecking ball.  Barth does the damage, throws my furniture around, and Bavinck puts it back in place:

“If faith justified on account of itself, the object of that faith (that is, Christ), would totally lose its value.  But the faith that justifies is precisely the faith that has Christ as its object and content.  Therefore, if righteousness came through the law, and if faith were a work that had merit and value as such and made a person acceptable to God, then Christ died for nothing. …Faith is therefore not a work, but a relinquishment of all work” (Dogmatics, IV.211-212).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Natural Law and Two Kingdoms: Conclusion

Though I had hoped to finish doing a very brief run-down of VanDrunen’s new book last week, I’ll have to settle for briefly finishing it up today.  I’m picking up with chapter eight, where VanDrunen discusses Barth and the Reformed doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms. 

Essentially, says VanDrunen, Barth rejected the natural law and two kingdoms doctrines because he rejected “the theological foundation traditionally undergirding these doctrines” (p. 344).  Barth’s christology swallowed everything up, so that he hated to separate creation and redemption.  Barth rejected the covenant of works and the two-fold mediatorship of Christ (to name just two Reformed doctrines), and with them, natural law and two kingdoms.  Of course, there is much more to be said, and VanDrunen does so in this chapter.  I was glad to see that he wrestled with Barth’s writings, not just what people say about Barth.

Chapter nine is about Herman Dooyeweerd and Neo-Calvinism in North America.  In summary, VanDrunen shows that/how Dooyeweerd and the like “placed an eschatological burden upon the cultural task that was not present in earlier Reformed thought and that further distinguishes their thought from earlier ideas of natural law and the two kingdoms” (p. 349).  Earlier Reformed theology said that the Christian working in the “common realm” had a good and legitimate task, a God-glorifying one, but the task was not loaded with an eschatological end.  Instead, the earlier reformers more stressed the “temporal” aspect of the Christian’s vocation.  The Neo-Calvinists, however, mostly did away with the common and put an eschatological (redemptive) focus to the Christian’s common vocation.  This, VanDrunen shows, is at odds with earlier Reformers precisely because they held to natural law and the two kingdoms.  Neo-Calvinists rejected this and talked about one kingdom (and some of them put that hand in hand with one covenant instead of the classic Reformed teaching of two covenants [works and grace]).  I almost hate summarizing it because 1) there is much more to it, and 2) I don’t want people to take these few sentences and ignore the chapter.  I strongly suggest reading the chapter before coming to conclusions here. 

Chapter ten was also fascinating.  In it, VanDrunen dug into Cornelius Van Til’s thought.  This chapter was an eye-opener.  VanDrunen showed how Van Til differed from Kuyper on common grace, in that Kuyper noted that there are common areas of life grounded in creation that could have purposes independent of redemption (special grace).  Van Til, however, more stressed how common grace was a sort of earlier grace which will (he said) eliminate common grace until the end of history when commonness has expired (p. 403-4).  Van Til also rejected (though somewhat ambiguously) the standard two-fold mediatorship of Christ that Kuyper and the earlier Reformed tradition taught clearly.  In other words, Kuyper was more in line with earlier Reformers concerning common grace and Christ’s two-fold mediatorship than was Van Til.  Again, don’t just take these words, read the chapter before making conclusions!

VanDrunen comments about the benefits of maintaining the older Reformed teaching of natural law and the two kingdoms in the last chapter.  He does note some specific application of these teachings in our culture today, but he does not pretend it is easy or black and white.  Here’s his conclusion: “The task will not be easy, but those accepting the challenge to reappropriate the categories and wrestle with pressing objections may hope to provide a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation within the larger Christian community” (p. 434).

To summarize this book (and my very brief review), I consider it an essential addition to the discussion of Christ/culture and church/state relationships.  This is a good historical defense of what two kingdoms and natural law meant to older theologians and Reformers, and how they applied it to their particular situations.  The reading isn’t too difficult if you have some background in these areas, and VanDrunen writes clearly and explains terms well.  I do hope many will wrestle with the contents of this book – it should be on the shelf of Reformed/Presbyterian Christians who have read and pondered these issues.

shane lems

sunnyside wa