Preaching to the Strong

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge these famous, much-abused words on 30 April 1944:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience — and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form — perhaps the true form — of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless — and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?) — what does that mean for “Christianity?” It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as “religious.” Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity — and even this garment has looked very different at different times — then what is a religionless Christianity?

… What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God — without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even “speak” as we used to) in a “secular” way about “God?” In what way are we “religionless-secular” Christians, in what way are we the εκ-κλησία, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favoθred, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer ina religionless situation? Does the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between the penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?

The Pauline question whether περιτομή is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from περιτομή is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” of the problem of death. God’s “beyond” is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. That is how it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we still read the New Testament far too little in the light of the Old. How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I’m thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility. (Letters and Papers from Prison [London: SCM, 1971, 279–282)

The letter is famous, because it opens up several enormous questions, each of which could be (and has been) turned into many books.

One very important theme here that has particular currency in that part of the church that today wants to remain faithful to the Reformation understanding of the Gospel: the preaching of the Gospel to people when they are strong, not only when they are weak (a theme that must have had particular resonance in National Socialist society).

At various times, Augustine, Luther and others have been blamed for the inward turn of the Christian faith, to what Krister Stendahl styled the “introspective conscience”. While I’m not convinced that the charge sticks to Augustine or to Luther, it certainly is a central feature of modern Protestantism in a great number of different disguises: charismatic experiantialism, do-gooding moralism, Arminian conversionism and its sub-heresy, revivalism.

But there’s also a conservative variant, which is currently all the rage in English-speaking Lutheranism (among both professing Lutherans and Lutheranising others, such as Tullian Tchvidjian). This particular variant quotes a lot of Luther, but also has existentialism in its family tree. Its watchword is the sharp disjuncture of Law and Gospel, and it is introspective in its own, unique way.

In this particular view, the relationship between Law and Gospel is both contrastive and basically linear: the Law (because it always accuses) crushes, while the Gospel (because it always only gives), brings to life.

Which is true. As far as it goes.

This particular hermeneutic has its very important place in caring for ‘terrified consciences’, in bringing consolation to those who mourn and building up those who are broken.

But it’s not the whole truth, and it’s not the whole story. It is tremendously important and powerful in lifting up the weak. But it has less to say to those who are not weak.

The spiritual malaise of our day is not weakness and fear but strength and boldness. And if the only narrative we have is that the Gospel takes those who are broken or weak, and heals them and gives them strength, then we have very little to say to those who feel on top of the world, those whose lives are full of meaning, those who are contented and confident.

Moreover, as Antony Sacramone has pointed out very powerfully and, to my mind, persuasively, this hermeneutic risks infantilising (my word, not his) the Christian, with nothing to give other than a broken record of a Christian life lived in a steady circle of condemnation and redemption. It’s not very difficult to demonstrate that this is not how the New Testament authors speak, and it is not how Luther himself speaks.

But if this is our narrative, then the only entry into this narrative is through weakness. It appeals to the weak; those who are not weak must be made so. And if they’re not game for weakening, we have nothing to say. That is to say, the only sermon we have is the final flourish of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and the only evangelistic strategy we have is Paul in the Philippian gaol.

And if this is so, the surely Nietzsche was right (and Freud not far from the truth) in identifying Christianity as the religion of the weak, of the infantile. Psychologically, that is.

But the Gospel is for all the world. It’s for the weak, but it’s also for those who think they are strong. What message does the Church have for those who are not weak? What does Jesus have to say to the St. Pauls of this world, as well as to the St. Peters?

Of course, theologically speaking those who think they are strong are in fact dead in their trespasses—weaker than the weak, without a living leg to stand on. But we mustn’t confuse that theological truth with psychology.

Nor should we reduce those who have been strong in the Lord repeatedly to a state of psychological weakness by “the Law”, to which a psychologically motivated “Gospel” then provides the answer. That’s to turn Law/Gospel preaching into yet another “religion”, where the forgiveness of sins functions as nothing but a deus ex machina in formulaic preaching.

It’s lazy preaching, it’s monochrome exegesis (if that), and it is utterly alien to the biblical proclamation, which is never without the cross of Christ in its centre but which brings the fulness of life in Jesus Christ. You won’t find it in the pages of Scripture (how many times does Paul address 1st century Christians as sinners, as opposed to saints?), and you won’t find it in the sermons of Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther or Gerhard. Not unless it’s in the actual text which they are expounding, that is!

Since the Scripture is the Word of God, we can have confidence that it can do what it does with people when they are exposed to it. If we only have one ordo salutis into which to squeeze all of humanity in order to speak God’s Word meaningfully to all creation, perhaps there’s a problem with our religion, and we need to recover the living voice of the Gospel.

Prayer: Learning by imitation

So prayer is something we have to learn. A child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns his father’s own language. That is how we learn to speak to God, for God has spoken and still speaks to us. His children learn to speak to him in the language of their Father in heaven. We begin to pray by repeating to God his own words.We are to speak to him not in the false and confused language of our own hearts but in the clear, pure language in which God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, and in that language he will hear us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (Oxford: SLG Press, 1982), 2

Revelation, knowledge and the Church

The concept of a contingent revelation of God in Christ denies in principle the possibility of the self-understanding of the I apart from the reference to revelation (Christian transcendentalism). The concept of revelation must, therefore, yield an epistemology of its own. But inasmuch as an interpretation of revelation in terms of act or in terms of being yields concepts of understanding that are incapable of bearing the whole weight of revelation, the concept of revelation has to be thought about within the concreteness of the conception of the church, that is to say, in terms of a sociological category in which the interpretation of act and of  being meet and are drawn together into one. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being [DBW 2; Fortress, 1996], 31)

(Which raises interesting critical questions about the new theme of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Martyria, Diakonia, Koinonia, which itself has been one of the slogans of the World Council of Churches for decades. Act or being?)