Monday, December 05, 2016

Martin Luther’s Illnesses, with Andrew Pettegree

Anyone who has read DET for an extended period of time knows that I have a soft spot for the theology and theologians of the Protestant reformation. And very often it is the complicated humanity of these figures that most draws me. I wrote a post on John Calvin’s humanity back in 2010 in which I – among other things – briefly discussed some of his illnesses. It is time now to address this topic with reference to Martin Luther.

The passage below comes from Andrew Pettegree’s excellent and relatively recent book: Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2015). It is a fascinating study of the symbiosis between Luther’s reforming achievement and the printing industry that, in addition to being a real scholarly contribution, is well written (and printed) itself. I can’t say enough nice things about it. Go buy it.

Anyway, Pettegree properly situates his discussion within its broader context, including Luther’s biography. And a portion of that biographical discussion, rendered below, jumped out at me. It’s simultaneously the most concise and comprehensive description of Luther’s health issues that I’ve ever encountered, and it serves to further humanize an already very human historical figure. So here’s the passage to tide you over until you get your own copy of the book. Bold is mine as usual.

Luther had always suffered problems with his digestion. The letters from the Wartburg in 1521 offer an obsessive and at times all too detailed narrative of his battles with constipation. The pleasures of a settled home and Katharina’s market garden helped to some extent in this respect, but as Luther lost some of his physical vitality other problems intervened. In 1527 he collapsed in the pulpit while preaching, the first of many dizzy spells that troubled and disoriented him thereafter; these attacks could also leave a residue of ringing in the ears that persisted for months. Luther also began about this time to experience the first symptoms of angina; in December 1536 he would suffer a severe heart attack. From 1533 Luther also had to deal with the dreadful and debilitating pain of kidney stones. This was a common condition in the sixteenth century, particularly among those who ate a richer diet; Luther, who loved the pleasures of the table, was always a likely victim. The result was frequent, incapacitating pain, which only exacerbated Luther’s problems with his digestion. In 1537, while at an assembly of the Protestant League in Schmalkalden, Luther suffered a urinary blockage so severe that his friends feared for his life. An operation was considered, but without anesthetic the chances of survival were grim, and Luther was in any case too weak for this to be contemplated. The crisis passed, but recovery was slow. In 1538 his entire family was struck with dysentery; in 1541 he developed a painful abscess in the neck and suffered a perforated eardrum.

Luther was by this point an old man, in almost constant pain, dosed by doctors, tended by an anxious wife, but beset always by constant work, the press of problems humdrum or acute that would inevitably be referred to him so long as he drew breath. So if during these last years his judgment or his temper failed, we must bear in mind that like many in this era he lived his life in a constant state of low-level illness or debility, flaring up into acute episodes in which the agony was unbearable.


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Friday, December 02, 2016

Solus Christus: Once Again with Barth at Bremen

And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up on the mountain alone to pray. Now when evening came, he was alone there (Matt. 14:23).

Heinrich Himler, Hitler, and Victor Lutze perform
the Nazi salute at the Nuremberg rally, September 1934.
(From German federal archives, via Wikimedia Commons
What are the practical implications of proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus? In his Bremen sermon of 1934, Karl Barth depicts the church as the sphere of Christ's sovereignty and of the believer's obedience to him. As he probes the passage further he asks: Is this situation unique to the church or is it duplicated elsewhere -- that is to say, in the civic and secular world?

The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, trans. Chrisopher Asprey, ed. Kurt I. Johanson (Regent College, 2007). Fürchte Dich nicht! Predigten aus den Jahren 1934 bis 1948 (Munich, Germany: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1949), pp. 18-31)

Indeed, there are hierarchies in the outside world, there are powers that be, there are laws, and there is submission to them. Why is Christian discipleship different from all that? What -- or who -- guarantees that the way of obedience in the Christian life is a path of freedom rather than an oppressive and dehumanizing servitude? For Barth, it is a question of identity, of whose we are.
It is not because of the people in the church, or their state of mind, or the way they act, but because of the one who is sovereign (der Herr) in the church and sovereign over these people (p. 47).
The passage, for Barth, hinges upon the adverb "alone" (allein): Jesus was alone on the mountain.
In the gospels we often read about Jesus Christ being alone like this. And whenever we read about it, it is an indication of that Jesus is the one who is always utterly alone (der immer, der ganz und gar allein); and indeed, he is alone, alone in the way that God alone is.
The power and diginity of leaders points to something beyond them; it signifies. Not so with Christ: "Jesus doesn't signify (deutet). He is (ibid.)." For Barth, Jesus' power is neither primarily charismatic nor institutional. Rather, it is Christological -- it is grounded in his identity as the Son of God incarnate, fully divine and fully human. In this identity, he is alone -- sui generis. Moreover, his action of prayer is unique, not because of some potent religious quality that resides within him, but simply because of who he is.

This high Christology is vintage Barth, of course. No surprises here. But what is the import of this teaching in the context of pre-war Germany, just months after the National Socialists had come to power?
We talk of a sovereignty (Herrshaft), a command (Gefehl), an obedience (Gehorsam), a willingness and allegiance (Gefolgshaft) unlike any other. When Jesus rules God rules. When God rules Jesus rules. That is why this sovereignty is quite unlike any other sovereignty, and why there is no other obedience on earth like this one (p. 48, emphases mine)
These words naturally point the listener and reader back to the first article of the Barmen Declaration, adopted by the Confessing Church the previous year:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
It's little wonder that the one who spoke these words would soon be forced to vacate his position as a university professor and civil servant under the Third Reich.


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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Christian Responsibility to the New Creation: a sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25

Holocaust scholars and historians released a new study of concentration camps and ghettos in 2013. Contra the previous estimates of between 6 and 11 million deaths, the new study suggests that that number is actually much higher; likely between 15 and 20 million. Those numbers are absolutely staggering. Imagine the horror that these people had to face: being separated from their children, knowing they are going to their certain deaths; alone and scared; the torture and slavery these people were subject to for no other reason than their ethnic identity or religion or sexual orientation. Now imagine, yourselves, going through this as someone who believed in God. What kind of toll would this take on your faith? For some of us, our faith would be completely annihilated; obliterated by our horrific suffering which completely strips us of our freedom and agency. Some of us would, no doubt, maintain our faith to the very end, hopeful that God is still working.

And I think a few of us would still believe in God, but with anger and disdain. The Algerian philosopher, Albert Camus, called this “metaphysical rebellion”: someone who believes in, yet hates, God. Legend has it that on the walls of one of the cells in an Austrian concentration camp, a prisoner scribbled the words “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness.” I think, at this point in Israel’s history, this had to be what some people thought about God.

They’ve been the object of God’s wrath; they’ve suffered under the rule of so many bad kings; they’ve been enslaved in Babylon. There is no doubt that, at some point through all of this, the stories of God’s people passed down from generation to generation, slowly slipped away. By Isaiah's time, people stopped talking about the joy of YHWH's law, like the Psalmist loved to do. When the Israelites would tuck their kids in at night, they no longer told them the story about how the LORD brought them up out of the land of Egypt. Somewhere along the way, the Israelites were subjected to so much suffering, so much misfortune, that they forgot who YHWH really was.

Our passage this morning reminds us. In it we see the God who loves us and chose us. And just like the Israelites, we desperately need reminding. At the beginning of the text we read that God creates a new heaven and new earth; the new shall be rejoiced in and the old shall not even be remembered. Now this should sound pretty familiar to us. Paul uses this language; John uses this language. A LOT of the New Testament is one long commentary on Isaiah; Jesus even reads himself back into Isaiah. Though this does lend us a commentary on the importance of Isaiah for our interpretations of the New Testament, what’s even more important is what Jesus reads. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Christ proclaims himself to be the one who sides with the poor, the captive, and the oppressed. In other words, the God which brings the new creation and wipes away the old is the God of the powerless. Imagine how utterly powerless the Israelites were — the small, minority group which existed alongside sheer superpowers. God could have chosen to be the God of another mighty nation; a strong, fierce nation! But God didn’t choose the Israelites because they were numerous or strong or mighty — he chose them because he loved them! The God who created the universe loved, from eternity, this small group of the oppressed. It had nothing to do with their power, nothing to do with their abilities, nothing to do with anything they themselves could provide. But instead it had everything to do with what God could provide!

What a blessing, friends! What a blessing to know that we don’t have to manufacture our own hope! That our hope doesn’t rise or fall with the gross national product or the person sitting in the Oval Office! God alone brings peace and joy. God alone slakes our hunger and thirst for something more. God alone can deliver the oppressed. And God alone establishes the new creation where misfortune and suffering are not even remembered. God takes it out of the Israelites’ hands. No longer will they be forced to brace for the waves of misfortune that have crashed over them for so long.

The long description of the new creation is one long list of how God is striking misfortune from the lives of the Israelites. Children living long lives, building houses and living in them, planting vineyards and eating of them; these are all stipulations of covenants. These are the things at stake in waging a covenant with someone. And this is the reality Israel has been living with for generations. Consider the constant fear of breaking the covenant and losing your children and your home. Consider the sheer anxiety we would feel as people being subjected to a covenant made hundreds of years ago. It would be absolutely terrifying.

God creates the new heaven and the new earth because he doesn’t desire this fear and anxiety for his people. He desires a peaceful, loving existence. An existence where no one is poor and oppressed at the hands of another. An existence where the throne is occupied by YHWH's Messiah and him alone. And existence where relationships between all people are marked by love, not hate.

God alone can establish this new creation. We have no power to bring it about — not through human will or action. But we are the body of Christ. We participate in the divine life of the triune God. We are the instrument through which God works to ready the earth for the new creation. Christ is coming back but we have work to do before that can happen. And therefore we have responsibilities!

We have a responsibility to the poor and oppressed. If we want to be responsible Christians in the public realm, regardless of personal agendas or political convictions, we must have something to say about our brothers and sisters who live in fear. Fear for their bodies, fear for their families, for their dignity, for their next meal. The world is full of children, exactly like my beautiful, little baby boy, who are dying because they don’t have access to food and clean water. There are people all over the world being discriminated against because of their race and sexual orientation. We have a responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless, friends. The plight of the voiceless is, and always has been, the plight of the church.

And this responsibility isn’t always easy. It isn’t always comfortable. It can entrap us into very uncomfortable situations and conversations we often walk away from feeling vulnerable and unsure. But I encourage you, friends, to set aside those fears and allow yourselves to be led by the Spirit. This is a time for courageous dialogue and defense of the defenseless. This is a time to set aside our differences and come together in anticipation of the new creation God is working to establish and care for those on the margins.

It can be really difficult to acknowledge that these issues exist. And even when we do, it’s easy to feel like they are unconquerable because of how vastly they have penetrated our society and its systems. But we can take a stand against those parading the message which appeared on the front page of NewsWeek a few days ago: the message that says “Make America White Again.” A great theologian once said “Preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But interpret your newspaper from your Bible.” Well, this is our opportunity to interpret our newspaper from our Bible. This message and the people who perpetuate it are enemies of the gospel and the church of Jesus Christ. But we are not called to hate them. We are called to love them and that includes correcting. This is our opportunity to take a stand for the oppressed when that co-worker makes a racist remark at the water cooler or when we hear someone engaging in this kind of rhetoric. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.

The love of God has moved each of us. We are forever changed because we have been loved long enough and fiercely enough that we might offer ourselves to God. Upon offering ourselves to God, we become the instruments through which God loves the world and we are called to love this world, through word and act, deeply and heavily. We have a responsibility to the new creation, friends. Let us arise, and get to work. Amen.


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Monday, November 28, 2016

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.7: The Invisibility of the Church

Seventh Question: Is the true church rightly said to be invisible? We affirm against the Romanists.

Turretin seems a little put out in having to answer this question. He makes it clear that it is a question that arises in a primarily polemic context. Roman theologians of his time claim that Protestantism is false because it did not exist prior to Luther; Protestants retort that it existed, just not visibly. This is because “the true church [is] not to be measured by an external profession or subjection to the Roman pontiff, but by faith and internal piety alone” (18.7.2). He even has a nice quote from Bellarmine that seems to show agreement!

For Turretin, the church’s two-fold condition as both visible and invisible arises from the two-fold nature of God’s call: the external call made through visible instruments, and the internal call of the Holy Spirit (18.7.4). This is an interesting move because these are overlapping sets that are nevertheless unable to be reduced to either side. One might even go so far as to call this overlap between the visible and invisible church a paradoxical identity, but I digress from Turretin…

There are three ways in which we can think the church’s invisibility, according to Turretin’s schematic (18.7.5). First, there is the invisibility of form or essence; second, there is the invisibility “parts” (i.e., of the membership of the true church as opposed to the visible membership of the visible church structures); and third, there is the invisibility of the “signs” and “sacred rites” (i.e., the efficacy of the sacraments; Turretin readily admits that they are visible by their own nature). This allows Turretin to narrow the question at issue—it is the first mode of invisibility that is truly at issue. He restates the question: “Is the church, composing the mystical body of Christ, rightly said to be invisible, not by an invisibility of parts or of material or of signs, but by the invisibility of internal form and as such” (18.7.6)? In other words, Turretin focusses the question on the church’s very being (“form” or “essence” in his parlance).

It is at this point that Turretin starts giving arguments for his position, and he provides seven. Briefly: First, Turretin says that his point is proven by his discussion of what it means to belong to the church in question 4. Second, he does some quick and dirty exegesis to show that “the truth of Judaism” is also an internal, visible matter (18.7.8). Third, everything that “constitutes the church properly so called are internal and invisible: election and effectual calling, union with Christ, the Spirit, faith, regeneration and the writing of the law on the heart, the reasonable and spiritual worship” (18.7.9). The corollary is that people don’t belong to the church simply as physical beings, but they do so as spiritual beings who are “renewed by the Spirit.” Fourth, and this one is the kicker for me, “the head of the church is invisible; therefore its body also is invisible” (18.7.10). And lest anyone argue that Jesus was a physical being on earth, Turretin points out that while that is true, Jesus’s being the head of the church is not a function of his physical being. His headship is a spiritual reality, and so the church’s being as his body is also a spiritual reality. This is, in effect, the application of Chalcedonian logic to the being of the church: just as you can’t read Jesus’s divine nature off the appearance of his human nature, so also you cannot demonstrate the church’s true being by pointing to its external manifestation. This also made me think of how Barth speaks about Jesus Christ as himself the being of the church (in CD 1.1). Fifth, and this is a nice little rhetorical move, the creed asks us to confess belief in the church and, as Hebrews 11.1 says, faith deals with things unseen! Sixth, “the church is the kingdom of God” (18.7.12). We find in Turretin here the sort of realized eschatological for which the Reformed tradition is famous—namely, the idea that the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality experienced by the church as the body of Christ its head. One misses the sort or eschatological proviso that 20th century Protestant theology has been so keen to emphasize. Of course, we get citations of passages like Luke 17.21. Seventh, true worship of God is in spirit and truth (Jn. 4.23).

At this point Turretin, as is his wont, moves to explicate further sources or evidence for his position in general. Often this means that he is dealing with counter arguments. I want to briefly highlight five of these further points:

18.7.15 — Turretin brings up the “city on a hill” passage (Mt 5.14) and, in dealing with it, reveals a deep tension in the Reformed tradition: “Hence he wishes to show them how anxiously they ought to strive not to do anything which can offend men, but rather that they should diligently care that the light of their good works may shine before men that they may be influenced to glorify God.” It doesn’t seem to occur to Turretin that these good works might make folks uncomfortable, and perhaps should make folks uncomfortable.

18.7.17 — Here he uses the analogy from circumcision to baptism, saying that in each case it was not the external rite that mattered but an internal work of the Spirit. Given my work on infant baptism, I wanted to flag this.

18.7.19 — This point is interesting to me because Turretin builds of Calvin, without citing him. He’s speaking about the invisibility of faith, and argues that it isn’t important to be able to tell which people are true believers in order to identify the true church (which you can identify through the usual marks). Rather, one should exercise “a charitable judgment” with reference to those who claim to be Christians. Calvin uses this same phrase in Institutes, 4.1.8.

18.7.21 — The spectre of Mt. 16.18 rears its head, and Turretin argues that it is not Christ’s physical body that provides the foundation of the church, nor Peter’s physical existence, nor even Peter’s confession as a physical phenomenon, but rather the truth attested by this confession. Thus the foundation of the church is invisible. This ties in with point four above.

18.7.22 — This may be the best bit of the whole section, for here Turretin explains the difference between earthly kingdoms and the kingdom of God: “Hence it does not follow that if republics are always visible or consist in an external and visible government, that therefore the church must also.” Indeed, he has now argued at length that the church does not so consist. “Since its formal reason is in the mystical union of believers with Christ and with each other, the external union alone with him does not make anyone a member of the church; nay, without the latter union, true believers who dwell in separated places are members both of Christ and his church.” It is something of an extension of Turretin’s logic here, but one consequence of this – for my money – is that Reformed theology must have serious reservations about postliberalism and its turn to the culture or linguistic world of the Christian community. These are externals, and therefore not essential to the church. In theory, based on Turretin’s position, we can imagine the church taking any number of different physical / material / cultural shapes while remaining the one church because of its internal, invisible, being.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Eberhard Jüngel and Helmut Gollwitzer on Socialism and Solidarity: The Full Mon...I mean...Intro...

Something of a love-hate relationship exists between the liberation and “Barthian” theological movements. On the one hand, some proponents of the latter claim that Barth’s theology is not only contextual but liberationist, going so far as to argue that “it is indisputable that a direct line goes from [Barth] to the liberation movements and liberation theology.” On the other hand, some proponents of the former see Barth’s approach to theology as an impediment to contextual and liberationist theological approaches. James Cone is perhaps the most significant voice in this camp.

In his relatively recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone criticizes Barth for disconnecting theology from experience, and especially the experience of marginalized peoples: “Unless we look at the ‘facts of experience,’ . . . what we say about the cross remains at the level of theological abstraction, like Karl Barth’s Word of God, separated from the real crosses in our midst.” Cone’s criticism of Barth has stood for at least 30 years. In the preface to the 1986 edition of his A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone makes clear that he has moved beyond the “neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth.” Such theology is problematic because it appeals to an “‘abstract’ revelation” that is “independent of human experiences, [and] to which theologians can appeal for evidence.” Cone argues instead that “God meets us in the human situation, not as an idea or concept.”

A core aspect of Cone’s criticism concerns the relationship between theory and praxis. While Barth did not approach the issue in these, preferring more strictly dogmatic discourses, certain of those who have sought to do theology “after” Barth in constructive dialogue with his legacy have found it necessary to speak in these terms. Among the most prominent of these are Eberhard Jüngel and Helmut Gollwitzer, who typically represent opposing sides in the reception of Barth’s theology. Providing a comprehensive survey of Jüngel and Gollwitzer’s discussions of the relation between theory and praxis is too large a task to take up here. Instead, I will conduct a case study on the subject by focusing on an exchange of papers between them in the 1970s on the topic of political theology. First, I will explicate the essay from Jüngel that precipitated this exchange with Gollwitzer. Second, I will analyze the discussion that unfolds between the two theologians, highlighting the key themes of socialism and solidarity as they emerge. Third and finally, I will offer a concluding reflection on the distance between how Jüngel and Gollwitzer relate theory and praxis as seen in this exchange. We will see that Gollwitzer binds theory more tightly to praxis than does Jüngel.

[Ed. note: This is the full introduction from the paper that I'll be presenting later today at the Jüngel study group at the American Academy of Religion. Time restraints required that I only present a small portion of it.]


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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coda on the Kingdom: Beginning at the Ending with Weiss' Eschatology

Johannes Weiss is justly famous for his role in bringing and end to the naivete of 19th century historical Jesus research. He constructed a plausible and compelling portrait of Jesus as an uncanny apocalyptic prophet that contrasted sharply with the Jesus of the liberal Protestant Zeitgeist -- that is, the popular image of the Nazarene as a conveyor of timeless wisdom and an enlightened ethical ideal based on the fatherhood of God and the siblinghood of all people (so Harnack).

Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).

In his conclusion, Weiss conveniently sumarizes his findings (pp. 129-131).
Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
My interest here is not to analyze his historical argument in detail, but a brief summary will help sharpen the constructive theological challenge his short work poses: According to Weiss, Jesus believed that the messianic end-time was imminent, and the signs of the future-yet-inbreaking Kingdom were manifest in supernatural victories against the realm of Satan. Against many interpreters before him and after him, Weiss insists that kingdom is not present -- say, in the faith of believers -- but is yet to come (in NT jargon, this position is called "consistent eschatology"). Jesus cannot bring in the kingdom; only God can do so. After a great cosmic conflagration that brings history as we know it to an end, God will establish Jesus as the "Son of Man" predicted in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel. Jesus eschewed any speculations that would fix the date of the end, but he remained convinced it will occur within the lifetime of most of his hearers. The disciples will become the viceroys of the new kingdom, ruling even the angelic spirits. At the end will come a great and terrible day of judgment, in which the dead will be raised to new life and God will separate the righteous from the unrighteous (recall Matthew 25). A restored Palestine will be the seat of divine rule over the nations, divided under the restored 12 tribes. Peace and justice will trump all sin and sorrow, under the Lordship of God, through his exalted Messiah.

Weiss' conception of the apocalyptic kergyma of the historical Jesus was incongruous with the ruling paradigm of the liberal Protestant world. Forged in the interface between Scheleiermacher's pietism and Kant's ethical idealism, theologians in the school of Albrecht Ritschl (who happened to be Weiss' faither-in-law), conceived the Kingdom as a commonwealth of peace and justice ensuing from the inner personal transformatoin of believers. The Kingdom of the great liberal heritage was seen and an ideal and project that humans would realize in this world, whereas Weiss presented Jesus' original preaching as imbued with ineluctable mystery, cataclysmic supernatural and natural events and absolute divine transcendent sovereignty.

Curiously, although he broke from the regnant interpretation of Christian origins, Weiss maintained his liberal, Ritschlian credentials in the realm of constructive theology. The end result is fairly negative, at least in terms of the normativity of Jesus' messianic consciousness and guiding worldview: Jesus' Kingdom vision, in the setting of its ancient worldview, cannot be retrieved -- at least not directly. The modern believer inevitably must need part with the Savior over the meaning of the Kingdom. The modern Protestant worldview cannot accommodate the eschatology of primitive Christianity:

We no longer pray, "May grace come and the world pass away," but we pass our lives in the joyful confidence that this world will evermore become the showplace of the people of God" (p. 135).

Eschatology becomes personalized, for Weiss, and the apocalypse is transposed into an expectation (or hope) for unending life beyond this world.

The world will further endure, but we, as individuals, will soon leave it. Thereby, we will at least approximate Jesus' attitude in a different sense, is we make the basis of our life the precept spoken by a wise man or our day: "Live as if you were dying" (p. 136)
Thus, Weiss, argues, we may no longer hope for a kingdom that brings a literal and dramatic close to this present evil age, but we can hope to be united in love with the faithful throughout eternity.

Unsurprisingly, Weiss' conclusions did not prove satisfying for everyone. It became apparent (to some thinkers) that he had not gone far enough. Albert Schweitzer, himself also cut from the cloth of Kantian idealism, stressed the discontinuties between Jesus and the liberal theologians in even more striking terms. Some would offer an even more radical critique and retrieval of eschatology -- a view that perserved the alterity of divine transcendence while refusing to historicize eschatology in terms of concrete, literal, supernatural events. Thus the "theology of crisis was" born, and the dead end posited by Weiss became, for some, the occasion for a new beginning.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Christiane Tietz’s "Theologian of Resistance: The life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer" - A guest review by Lauren Larkin

Christiane Tietz’s book, Theologian of Resistance: The life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is a great addition to the current landscape of American Bonhoeffer scholarship. It’s also a much-needed correction to current misconceptions and misappropriations of Bonhoeffer in American evangelical Christianity. Tietz’s economical discussion of Bonhoeffer’s life makes writing this book review difficult. I very much just want to say, “It’s 121 pages, just go read it. Trust me, you’ll love it.” But that would be the “cheap” rather than “costly” path…

Tietz’s approach is to track Bonhoeffer from birth to death while documenting how his life and thought fit his historical context. She deftly pulls three threads with equal tightness to give the reader a complete picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the historical facts of Bonhoeffer’s life, the socio-political events of Germany from 1933-1945 (the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich), and Bonhoeffer’s intellectual / theological development. Bonhoeffer in Tietz’s hands does not float free from his particular place and time. As a scholar, she rightly refuses to twist Bonhoeffer to fit a certain agenda. Her concise historically sensitive treatment of Bonhoeffer is refreshing.

Apart from chapter one--which is a fly-by overview of the first 17 years of his life covering: his family of origin, relatively happy childhood, and education up to deciding to study theology--the bulk of the book is broken in to brief time periods that have significance for Bonhoeffer personal and intellectual development. Here are the chapter titles:
Chapter Two: The Return from Tübingen to Berlin, 1923-1927
Chapter Three: Wider Horizons, 1928-1931
Chapter Four: Beginnings, 1931-1932
Chapter Five: The Beginning Church Struggle, 1933
Chapter Six: Pastor in London, 1933-1935
Chapter Seven: Director of a Preacher’s Seminary, 1935-1937
Chapter Eight: The Path into Illegality, 1937-1940
Chapter Nine: The Conspiracy Period, 1940-1943
Chapter Ten: Prisoner in Tegel, 1943-1945
Chapters two through four describe Bonhoeffer’s coming of age as a theologian: he earns his doctorate and post doctorate degrees, travels abroad (to Barcelona and New York), and begins his professional career (in the pastorate and the university) in 1931/2. Concurrently, the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) also comes of age: “in the July and November 1932 elections it reached 37.4 and 33.1 percent becoming the strongest force in the parliament” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer’s early adulthood and career are formed against the backdrop of the burgeoning NSDAP. Thus, chapter five is the hinge chapter of the book. Covering just one year, 1933, we see Hitler named Reich Chancellor, the state begin to put pressure on the church, the church divide under tension, and Bonhoeffer start to speak out. Chapters six through ten tease out the rest of Bonhoeffer’s life, which he increasingly lives as a theologian of resistance in direct conflict with the NSDAP. Notably, it’s during this latter part of his life that he produces the works, Discipleship (1937), Life Together (1939), Ethics (published posthumously by Eberhard Bethge in conjunction with his letters from prison, in 1949), Resistance and Submission (or Letters and Papers from Prison, also published posthumously by Bethge, in 1951), and Love Letters from Cell 92 (1992 in Germany and 1995 in the US). Bonhoeffer died on April 9, 1945, “only one month before the end of the war” (p. 110).

Bonhoeffer’s time-line mirrors the NSDAP’s timeline so perfectly that it is hard to resist the suspicion that he intentionally constructed his life to that end. Was it Bonhoeffer’s purpose to come of age personally and intellectually in the crucible of the tension between the State (the NSDAP) and the church in order that he would be the theologian of the not so distant past who demands that we, theologians of the present, not be seduced by the warm water that is our theological and political contentment? Such thoughts are undoubtedly selfish, and I know that the answer is a substantial: No. His life and thought certainly did have a significant purpose for his place in history. However, I can’t shake the feeling that his life and his thought—his voice—was one that was intended to have a timeless quality so that he would forever have something to say to us in our present, whenever that present may be. As Tietz writes in the Epilogue:
Faith and theology, for [Bonhoeffer], were not private or academic mental games; they had existential significance and immediate effects on action. The reverse was also true: Bonhoeffer constantly allowed his own faith and theology to be challenged by the circumstances of his life. He reexamined his own ideas and convictions when they no longer seemed suited for new situations. It was more important to him that his thought corresponded to reality than that he maintain some theological system. (p. 118)
While, Bonhoeffer’s example primarily demands that we be better theologians, it also demands that we be better neighbors in community as the church together and also as the church that is “‘there for others,’” also in no small part by “[reminding] the state of its duty to care for justice, order (and peace)” (p. 119).
Because its primary task stand outside the political realities, the church is able to remind the state of its own task. The Church should “keep asking the government whether its actions can be justified as legitimate state actions, that is, actions that create law and order, not lack of rights and disorder…. This does not mean interfering in the state’s responsibility for its actions; on the contrary, it is thrusting the entire burden of responsibility upon the state itself for the actions proper to it.” (p. 119–20)
Bonhoeffer is not a weapon to be wielded in our contemporary political battles. His life and his thought affirm neither mainstream American liberal politics nor mainstream American conservative politics (and especially not evangelical conservative politics). Rather, his life and his thought is that splash in the face of very cold water that jerks us back into reality, causing us to look around and ask questions (of the state, of the church, of others, and of ourselves). According to the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theological and political contentment is no longer a viable option for us. It’s time to wake up.

Maybe now’s a good time to say, “Just go read this book. Trust me, you’ll love it.”

[Ed. note: Lauren R. E. Larkin is a doctoral candidate at Universität Zürich in Systematic Theology and Social Ethics. She regularly contributes to theological blogs: Mockingbird, Key Life, and She is one half of EzerUncaged.]


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