Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 10: Church and World

While I’m away Dan is guest blogging through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (part of the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer Series which I recently reviewed). Dan has served with Wycliffe in Papua New Guinea and is currently spending some time with us in The Crowded House.

Church and World I (339-351)

This manuscript explores how suffering results in the recognition of the origin of things.  Values like reason and humanity ‘come back home’ (to be recognised as originating in Christ), as do those people who Christ calls to himself.

Reason, culture, humanity, tolerance and autonomy used to be used against the church but now (in the Nazi era) these ‘children of the church who had become independent and had run away now returned to their mother.’  They ‘found new meaning and new strength in their origin [Jesus Christ]’. (341)

Bonhoeffer explores the two verses, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mk 9:40) and ‘Whoever is not for me is against me’ (Mt 12:30) and explains how he has experienced both to be true.  ‘When the exclusive demand for an unequivocal confession of Christ caused the band of confessing Christians to become smaller and smaller, then the saying, “whoever is not for me is against me,” became a concrete experience for the Christian community.’ (343) On the other hand, ‘Wounded justice, oppressed truth, humiliated humanity, violated freedom—all these now sought the Christian community, or rather its Lord, Jesus Christ.  And thus it came to know the other saying of Jesus as a living experience; “Whoever is not against us is with us.   Both sayings necessarily belong together, one as the exclusive claim, and the other as the all-encompassing claim of Jesus Christ. … The more exclusively we recognize and confess Christ as our Lord, the more will be disclosed to us the breadth of Christ’s lordship.” (343-344)

Going back to the origins of values awakened through suffering, ‘It is not Christ who has to justify himself before the world by acknowledging the values of justice, truth and freedom.  Instead, it is these values that find themselves in need of justification, and their justification is in Christ Jesus alone.  It is not a “Christian culture” that still has to make the name of Jesus Christ acceptable to the world; instead, the crucified Christ has become the refuge, justification, protection, and claim for these higher values and their defenders who have been made to suffer.’ (345-346)

On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World (352-362)

The German editors call this manuscript a rough draft.  The paragraphs are numbered, with sub points.  Bonhoeffer explores the issue of the Christian message to the world: What do Christians have to say to the world, to its problems, its questions?

Although it isn’t the task of the church to answer all social and political questions, Christianity does have something specific to say about worldly things (353-356).  Bonhoeffer has four points:

1)      Jesus was ‘strangely evasive’ when asked to solve worldly problems (Mt 22:15; Lk 12:13).  ‘His word is not an answer to human questions and problems, but the divine answer to the divine question addressed to human beings.’ (354)
2)      Maybe all worldly problems are not meant to be solved.  ‘Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human  fall and to God’s redemption.’ (354-355)
3)     Campaigns against a worldly evil, even if they result in the end to that specific evil often result in a different evil evolving.  Bonhoeffer mentions slavery, Prohibition and the League of Nations (355).
4)     It’s unbiblical to start with human problems and find solutions from that vantage point.  In addressing worldly problems it’s essential to find the correct ‘starting point’ (356).

Unsurprisingly, Bonhoeffer brings it back to Christ.  ‘The message of the church to the world can be none other than the word of God to the world.  This word is: Jesus Christ, and salvation in this name.’ (356)  The church is to speak the gospel to the world – this is our responsibility.  ‘Wherever this responsibility is denied, Christ is denied; for it is the responsibility that corresponds to God’s love of the world.’ (357)

It is not true that there are two sets of values, one for the world (law) and one for Christians (gospel).  The church should not attempt to apply the law to the world (e.g. the Decalogue) but ask Christians to live the life of the Sermon on the Mount; e.g. the world safeguarding the rule of law, property and honour, whereas Christians renounce those things.  The issue in the Bible is always God’s honour.  ‘The Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount are thus not two different ethical ideals, but the one call to concrete obedience to the God and Father of Jesus Christ.  Responsibly affirming property rights [Ordnung des Eigentums] is no different from giving up one’s property, when done out of faith in God. … when done in faith either stance amounts to a submission to the right of God alone.’ (359)

The church should define a space within which faith and obedience is possible.  Although the church cannot call for earthly orders that necessarily follow from faith in Christ, ‘it can and must oppose any concrete order that represents an offense to faith in Jesus Christ’ (360).  These boundaries are defined generally in the Decalogue but must be determined anew for every situation.  This, and all the church does has the effect of preparing the way for the coming of Christ.
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