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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Christ the center

I have not read as much Dietrich Bonhoeffer as I would’ve liked to, therefore I recently purchased Christ the Center. I didn’t even need to get past the Translator’s Preface to be very glad for my purchase. In the Preface, Edwin H. Robertson gives an overview of Bonhoeffer’s christology as well as justification for English translation of the student notes which comprise the book. Before giving the lectures on which the notes were taken, Bonhoeffer himself said that his writings to that point had been critical; he had never written down the more positive side of his thought. But by studying Bonhoeffer’s earlier writings as well as the 1933 lectures reconstructed from students’ notes (Bonhoeffer’s own manuscript has not survived), we can “come close to the mind of Bonhoeffer.”

Bonhoeffer, says Robertson, may appear a radical theologian – an iconoclast – if quoted out of context. Yet he remained Lutheran and an orthodox churchman to the end. Regarding his well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. It was in this phase that I wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Today I can see the dangers of this book, though I am prepared to stand by what I wrote.’ He had learned that only by living in this world completely could he acquire faith. Bonhoeffer's words are illustration that he was not a capricious theologian but rather one whose thought developed and matured over time and in relation to events with which he dealt.

To understand Bonhoeffer, one must understand the christology which was key to his thought. In 1932, he “denounced the appeal to ‘orders of creation,’” replacing it with ‘orders of preservation.’ Since the world we know is post-fall, things are no longer good because they were made good (an appeal to Genesis 1), but each order of Creation is good only if preserved by God for the sake of Christ. In other words, ‘[t]he solution of general ethical problems...must be sought only in the revelation of God in Christ, and not from orders of creation.’ (from No Rusty Swords)

Important to Bonhoeffer was the concept of ‘Gemeinde’, but evidently this term proves difficult to translate. Robertson preferred the term ‘community’. To Bonhoeffer, community (the Church) is indispensable to an understanding of Christ. ‘It is the mystery of the community that Christ is in her and, only through her, reaches to men [and women, of course]...The Church is the hidden Christ among only through the community which brings him Christ, which incorporates him in itself, takes him into its life...But because at the same time as individual he is fully a member of the community, therefore here alone is the continuity of his existence preserved in Christ. Therefore man can no longer understand himself from himself, but only from Christ.’ (from No Rusty Swords, emphasis added)

In an age in which “born-again” Christianity equates with “personal salvation,” an emphasis on community is much needed. This is not to downplay the necessity of a personal decision, but such a decision cannot really be understood except within the context of community.

Bonhoeffer rejected the notion that morality be imposed from without, and sought to build a new morality based upon the “renewal of the mind from within” as written in Romans 12:1-2. We ought not acquiesce to “outward forces trying to impose an alien pattern on the mind,” nor seek to imitate Christ, but rather allow the power of Christ working within to make us “fully human.” Humanity depends upon Christ for its authenticity.

Bonhoeffer claims that since the Renaissance, ‘Man has learnt to cope with all questions of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis.’ The Church has countered by “trying to bring in God and Christ.” But in trying to prove to the world that it cannot live ‘without the tutelage of God’, and convince it that it is really miserable when it thinks itself quite happy, Christ is misunderstood. Liberal theology fails, says Bonhoeffer, because “it allow[s]the world to assign Christ his place in the world.” Reform may fail because of an emphasis on religion rather than Christ. Bonhoeffer commended Barth insofar as Barth “showed the Church how to make the distinction between ‘religion’ and Christ.” But Barth failed to “enable the Church to discover a non-religious interpretation for its theological concepts.” Bonhoeffer held that the ‘full content, including the mythological concepts, must be maintained.’ The problem lies with “structures of religion,” not with a proper understanding of Christ.

In regards to Christ, Bonhoeffer’s question is never, ‘How?’, or ‘What,’ but always ‘Who?’ There must not even be a disguised “How?” or “What?” in the asking of “Who?”, i.e., “Whom do you say that I am?”

Indeed, this is the question we all must answer.


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