After a brief (although, in my mind, necessary) detour, I would now like to return to the series of posts I have been writing about my perspective on the current situation the the Churches of Christ find themselves in, and what I believe would be a biblical response.
In this entry I would like to discuss the relationship the Churches of Christ have had, and currently do have, with other churches in the Christian tradition.
To begin with, this subject has been a complicated one from the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. The two men most frequently named as “founders” or “leaders” of the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) both believed with no hesitation that there were Christians within every denomination that existed in the early 1800s. It would have been simply unfathomable to these men to try to defend the statement that the church had “disappeared” from the face of the earth. The very point of their “restoration” movement was to call Christians who were in the denominations to leave those institutions, not because there was no way they could be Christian, but because these institutions demanded that the person be something else in addition to being a Christian. In order to be a Presbyterian (as both Campbell and Stone were) you had to subscribe to the rules of the Presbyterian church. Likewise the Methodist church, the Lutheran church, the Anglican or Episcopal church, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1800s these denominations exercised far more “boundary discipline” than is exercised today, so it is hard for some people to understand the religious landscape to which Campbell and Stone were writing. The point that I want to make here is that neither Campbell nor Stone thought they were creating or re-creating anything. They believed in “restoring” the church, but that simply meant removing all the barnacles that had attached themselves to the hull of the great sailing ship “church.” In both of these gentlemen’s minds, if a person was to return to the teachings of the New Testament and New Testament alone, the resulting community, or “church” would be the pure New Testament church.
In my own very personal and, at least in my mind, educated opinion, the weaknesses of such ”pure” restorationist thinking has been adequately revealed. There were some historical and philosophical realities the Campbell and Stone either were unaware of or chose to ignore. Thus, the movement that they helped spawn has had more than its fair share of divisions and brutal intramural fights. We have certainly not lived up the the concept of uniting on the essentials and having charity in the matters of opinion. But this basic beginning point of Campbell and Stone must be understood for the Church of Christ to move forward.
Explained in the most simple way I know how, the Churches of Christ have moved through three stages in dealing with the denominational churches.
The first stage has been noted above. It is the stage of engagement. Both Campbell and Stone sought to engage the denominations with a simple plea – return to a point of time in history when there were no denominations. Hence the term “non-denominationalism” was born. Campbell and Stone saw that, for all the unity with the various denominations, what divided them was not the New Testament (nor, for that matter, the Old Testament), but the later creeds and, more specifically, the Confessions of Faith that each denomination held as a barrier between them and the rest of the Christian world. The original message of the earliest restorers was to simply remove those Confessions of Faith as tools of division. In order to communicate this message the early restorers engaged the leaders of the denominational world. They went congregation to congregation and house to house explaining their plea. And, by any reasonable measure, they succeeded wildly. Entire congregations severed their denominational ties and joined the “Stone/Campbell” movement to unite all Christians.
However, disciples of prophets very rarely follow closely in their leader’s footsteps. And so another
group of leaders emerged that believed if a person should leave a denomination, that meant he or she could not be a Christian if he or she was a member of that denomination. So, even during the lifetime of Stone and Campbell the second phase of the relationship between the Churches of Christ and the denominational world developed, and that was the phase of debate. Now, to be sure, Campbell was a master at the skill of debate. But his debates were never to destroy the enemy, they were designed to convince the doubting. This was not enough for this emerging set of firebrands. They believed the gains made by Campbell and Stone were impressive, but that they were not enough, and those gains had to be defended at all costs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the non-denominational plea espoused by Stone and Campbell was turned into call to enter into another denomination, the “Church of Christ.” A person could not be a Christian unless he or she adhered to each and every demand that a particular preacher, elder or editor saw was critical – whether it was baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” the use of titles for ministers, paying ministers, using an instrument of music in worship, not partaking of the Lord’s Supper each and every Lord’s Day, having separate Bible classes for children, using women to teach Bible classes, supporting non-congregational “institutions,” and the list could go on and on. Each and every one of these topics became the fodder for debates, and for several generations a preacher’s skill was measured not by his spirituality or ministerial ability, but by how well he did in “debating the denominations.” Being labeled “soft on the sects” was enough to destroy many a good preacher’s reputation.
This then led to the third phase of relations between the Churches of Christ and their Christian neighbors, and that is our current situation. Many, although by no means most, of the members of the Church of Christ want to continue this position of ridicule/demean/hate the denominations. They have moved from being “non-denominational” to being “anti-denominational” in the worst possible sense of the word. They use words that are clearly not appropriate for a disciple of Christ to use in dialogue with someone of another belief. Quite frankly, they demonstrate a very unChristian attitude. However, on the other end of the spectrum there is a group that still wants to be identified as members of the Church of Christ but they have begun to embrace the main beliefs of the denominational world in an absolutely uncritical way. They hate all right, but they hate the Church of Christ. They ridicule the founders of the Restoration Movement every chance they get. They refuse to accept that anything positive has come from the heritage of the Restoration movement over the past 200+ years. They apologize for every perceived fault, and cannot wait to make fun of those who still believe in the premise of non-denominational Christianity. But, they stoically remain as ministers, elders and editors of “Churches of Christ” so that they can obtain some kind of martyr status by being criticized for their adolescent rejection of their spiritual father’s beliefs.
I have elsewhere stated that I am a staunch believer in the American Restoration Movement. I am a child of this movement, and, while I have been made aware of some of the presuppositional faults in the thinking of Stone and Campbell, I am never-the-less in awe of their spiritual foresight. They truly were prophets who could see 200 years into the future. Much of what the modern world is experiencing in the “Emerging Church” movement was pre-saged by Stone and Campbell. It is astounding for me to read of modern authors calling for a return to “apostolic Christianity” as if it were a novel idea, and Campbell and Stone were promoting that idea back in the early 1800′s. Just goes to prove the author of Ecclesiastes was correct – there is truly nothing new under the sun. But I digress.
While I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, I would like for the Churches of Christ to return to the ideal promoted by Stone and Campbell, and that was the process of engagement. I want to see us be able to engage the denominational world, but at the same time be secure enough in our own convictions that we do not embrace the denominational world. I hope it goes without saying that I reject the ridicule/hate position uncategorically.
As I close I want to make two final comments – to which I will return in depth in my final post in this series. One, we cannot honestly engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who we are. This is where I have such a deep seated distrust of and dislike of certain “leading ministers” in the Churches of Christ today who have virtually thrown the Restoration Plea under the bus. We cannot sit down at the table to have a dialogue with other faith traditions if we pathologically hate our own. To have a conversation in which we agree wholeheartedly with everyone around is is not a dialogue, it is a multi-person monologue.
But conversely, we cannot engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who they are. Truth, I have come to understand, does not reside only in one church building. I have been deeply touched and formed by a Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian), an Anglican (C.S. Lewis, although I’m quite sure he would not be an Anglican today), several Roman Catholics (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, several others), a Baptist (Glen Stassen) and a number of others, some of which I know their traditions (Anabaptist, Mennonite, United Church of Christ) and some of which I do not. I can only come to the table to begin a dialogue with them if I first understand who they are and what they believe, and not to belittle or ridicule that faith, but to learn from it and grow from it. Just as I would hope they would come to hear me, and to learn from me and to grow from me.
So, my question is do we engage, debate, hate or embrace? In my most humble, but undeniably correct opinion (since, after all, this is MY blog), we have participated in the middle two for far too long and the last is just pure kissy face narcissism. Let us return to the process of engagement. And it is to that goal that I will direct my concluding thoughts.
“Chocolate Cake for Breakfast”
Anyone familiar with the comedian Bill Cosby has surely heard this story. His wife leaves him in charge of the children for a few days and the first crisis he meets is what to feed the kids for breakfast. They clamor for chocolate cake. He refuses. He is thinking in terms of healthy foods like eggs and milk. They beg, wheedle, demand and otherwise make it obvious they want chocolate cake. He still refuses, but something happens. He reviews the ingredients that comprise the chocolate cake. Eggs. Milk. Wheat. Healthy stuff. The kids get chocolate cake for breakfast.
The Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 200 years or so have been anything other than monolithic. The only thing that members of Churches of Christ universally agree on is that we cannot agree universally on anything. Well, almost anything. There is probably someone out there who even disagrees with what I just wrote. So, with that caveat clearly understood, what I have to share in this series of articles is purely my own observations and reflections. I speak for no one but myself unless a person so desires to publicly agree with me.
It might be argued that in its deepest psyche the Churches of Christ in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been bi-polar. I believe this position could be sustained by the careful examination of two of the brightest lights in the formation of the group that now bears the name, “Church of Christ” – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. While similar in certain respects, these men held vastly different views of human nature and the nature of the restoration to which they were committed.
Briefly summarized, Barton Stone was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in the early years of the 19th century to lead the church back to a pure form of worship. He was distrustful of human nature, and especially human government, and believed that while God would ultimately make things right, humans had very little or no power to do so. What humans could do was to follow the leading of the Spirit and submit completely to the will of God, particularly as revealed in the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was equally as spiritual as Barton Stone, but in many ways was the reverse image of Stone. Just as convinced in the power of the human being as Stone was distrustful, Campbell believed that humans could, and in fact were in the very process of, ushering in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. Where the two agreed was in the normative power of the New Testament to guide the “restoration” of the church to a pure, apostolic form. Thus the two agreed to merge their fledgling movements under one broad canopy, but philosophically the two were nowhere close to being united.
Barton Stone’s “DNA” was carried down through the middle and late years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries by men such as Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. In their writings we see this distrust, even blatant rejection, of human political structures and a greater reliance upon the Holy Spirit. While not exactly premillennial in outlook, their spirituality has been described as being “apocalyptic,” and that word accurately communicates what they believed and taught. As much as they looked back to the time of the apostolic church, they looked forward to the kingdom of God being made manifest on earth, and they knew that humans had no control over that event occurring. It would occur when, and how, God wanted it to.
It is extraordinarily difficult to remain apocalyptic in outlook when everything in the world seems to be proving that mankind does have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make things perfect on earth. So, little by little the influence of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb disappeared from the ethos of the Churches of Christ. The first World War almost eliminated this counter-culture viewpoint. By the time the Japanese had crippled the American navy at Pearl Harbor the thought of remaining critical of, and aloof from, the American flag and “the republic for which it stands” was simply unthinkable. Except in small and isolated situations the Churches of Christ made the leap to equating faithfulness with patriotism, and the twain have never since been sundered. So, today a pacifist would not only be viewed as being “unAmerican,” he or she would be viewed as “unchristian.” Pleas for responsible gun control efforts are most vehemently rejected by ministers of the Churches of Christ who point, not to Scripture, but to the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, for their support. Prayers for the members of American military forces are routinely offered during worship services, but any mention of the civilian victims of American military actions are never confessed, repented of, or even mentioned. The one area where church and state are most certainly NOT separated is in the auditoriums of many Churches of Christ, where God, church and country are fused into one uniform entity.
Which, after over 900 words, brings me to the main point of this first reflection – (and to admittedly sweep with too large a brush) I suggest that a large majority of members of the Churches of Christ are far too wedded to the prince of this world than they are the slaughtered Lamb of God. And, if I am correct, within the next three years this incestuous marriage will have profound and irreversible implications for the future of the church.
The presidency of Barak Obama has pushed the United States past a tipping point. Never before has a president been able to achieve the legislative and moral changes as has President Obama. From sweeping judicial changes, to the passage and implementation of a radical new health care mandate, to the unparalleled changes in the moral distinction of homosexual behavior, this president has indeed accomplished his goal of transforming America. If I am not mistaken, this surge past America’s previous conservative worldview will only accelerate after the presidential elections in 2016. As I view the political landscape the only thing that will prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first female president of the United States is if she declines to run, or if she should die before being elected. There are several solid reasons for my conclusion. The primary one is that President Obama has turned the citizens of the United States into wards of the state. Everyone is now dependent upon the government to a greater or lesser degree. Our national debt is exploding, but no one wants to surrender his or her entitlements. No true conservative, one who openly suggests that our government is out of control and must be scaled back, has much of a chance to defeat a progressive who will suggest that, far from being too intrusive, the government needs to take a greater role in directing the lives of its citizens. Simply stated, America’s narcissism virtually guarantees the victory of the nominee of the Democratic party in 2016, especially if that nominee is Hillary Clinton. I do not foresee any realistic chance of a conservative winning the election even if another Democrat should become the nominee.
Which, then, brings me back to my main point – because the majority of members of the Churches of Christ have not only been complacent as this political and moral metamorphosis has taken place, but have actually aided and abetted it with their defense of and subjection to the Constitution of the United States, a radical change is going to have to occur in the hearts and minds of these members of the Church if the Church is going to survive in any meaningful way deep into the 21st century.
In other words, we are going to have to reject the Campbellian (and utopian) view that mankind is smart enough and spiritual enough to direct its own footsteps. We are going to have to return to the Spirit led, overtly counter-cultural and biblically apocalyptic world view of Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb.
The New Testament begins with a radical sermon – one that calls upon its hearers to reject man-made philosophies and to accept whole-heartedly the vision and Spirit of the God who created this world. The New Testament ends with the most majestic description of this counter-cultural kingdom – a kingdom in which the godless powers of worldly governments are cast like large stones into the abyss. In between the sermon and the vision are the words of God revealed through the power of the Spirit, and not one single word teaches or even suggests that the way in which the final Kingdom of God will be revealed is through the power of a human government. While citizens of this kingdom must temporarily live in subjection to the laws of a human government, the worship of the citizens of the Kingdom of God must never be divided.
Either we worship God, or we worship the political powers of this world. There simply is no other choice.
In one respect I fear for the future of the Church of Christ. I fear because we are too American, too incestuously married to the spirit of this world. We depend more upon the Constitution of the United States than we do the inspired word of the eternal God. We allow politicians, comedians and common men and women to mock and despise the teachings of the Bible, and yet when our “rights” or “entitlements” are even remotely threatened we become apoplectic. Some members of the Churches of Christ have more of the Bill of Rights memorized than they do the Sermon on the Mount. And that, my friends, is truly pathetic.
On the other hand, my faith is not in the Church of Christ, but in the God who created this world and who established the church of Christ for a dwelling place for his faithful people. The church of Christ will survive, even if the Church of Christ should one day disappear.
I am an unabashed and proud member of the Restoration Movement in general and the Church of Christ in particular. I believe deeply in her goals and aspirations. I am firmly committed to the precepts and objectives of men such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. I am also well aware of their failings and short-sighted goals, even the well-intentioned ones. I am aware that they were human, lived and breathed the hubris of the time in which they lived, and that as any human being, they made mistakes in what they taught. I also believe they were brilliant men whose vision far exceeded the time in which they lived. Those of us today who love and respect their work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants – and I will never, not for one moment, surrender that heritage.
But as a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven I must also be aware of the fact that any human association can fall from its pure intentions. So, while I am deeply committed to the Church of Christ (capital letter C), I am first and foremost a member of and committed to the church of Christ (little letter c, meaning that assembly devoted to Christ whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life). Some say the two are identical. I cannot – for the very reasons that I have articulated. Far too many members of the Church of Christ have surrendered to the beast and proudly wear the number of its name. They want to walk, and talk, and do business with the beast while demonstrating the semblance of submission to the Lamb. While here on earth it is impossible to fully recognize those charlatans, but I rest in full assurance that God knows who is His and who is not. That will be made clear at the last judgment.
In other words, I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I do not want the additives that turn the Church into something that it never was intended to be. I certainly do not want to be a part of a religious institution that is simply a front for, and defender of, a godless and corrupt government. I want to be lead by the vision of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Revelation to John. While respecting my heritage and its respect for the past, I want to be pulled forward by the biblical vision of the Bride of Christ. As I have previously written, you cannot fly an airplane by looking in a rear-veiw mirror.
A juvenile world wants chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and supper. Our government says, “Look at all this wonderful cake – full of sweetness and covered with all this luscious icing.” The Church must recover its apocalyptic voice and renew its strength to be able to say, “No. We will not be fooled. Politics is the play toy of the damned. We are children of the King. We will serve our God and worship Him only.”
Church, it is time to grow up. And if that means we must leave the chocolate cake on the table and be viewed as unpatriotic traitors, then so be it.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1
Sources: I rely on many fine works related to the history of the Restoration Movement, and the Churches of Christ specifically. Of particular interest in regard to this subject are: David Edwin Harrell, Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900; Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of Churches of Christ; C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal; and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875. Beyond my love for Churches of Christ, I have been deeply touched and challenged by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, these writings are simply too immense to list individually. His complete works are published by Fortress Press and can be found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, 16 volumes which includes all of his major writings, letters, sermons and theological reflections. In addition to Bonhoeffer’s original works, there are numerous secondary works of significant value. Chief among them would be Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society; and Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture; and a book I am currently reading, Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.
If you listen to the pure theorists times could not be better for American education. Young people are learning more, are learning faster, and are entering the work place more prepared than at any other time in American history. They would point to the fact that many high school students are provided with the opportunity to earn college credit during high school. Many students enter college as second semester freshmen, or perhaps even at a sophomore level. Some states even allow high school graduates to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate degree from a nearby college. In the world of these theorists, everything has a distinctly rosy tint.
If you walk a mile in my moccasins, or talk to some of the fellow university instructors that I know, you would get the exact opposite reaction. College freshmen may come more highly credentialed than ever, but they also come with a corresponding inability to produce freshman level college work. Many cannot construct a coherent English sentence; do not even think about making them construct an entire coherent paragraph. Many do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and a participle. They cannot spell. These students have been propped up and puffed up their entire educational career, and they expect that college and university instructors will continue the pattern of praise and adulation. Sadly, many do. It is difficult to tell a young man or young woman who is academically in their second, third or even fourth year of college that they are not even writing at a 12th grade level.
And, believe me – with the advent of on-line “miseducation” and the proliferation of on-line college degrees the level of incompetence in high school and even college graduates is simply going to explode.
What does this have to do with a blog on theology? Much, and I’m glad you asked.
Once upon a time (and it really was not that long ago), sermons and Bible classes were exercises in serious exegesis and discovery. Texts were painstakingly worked through. Forty-five minute sermons or lessons were the norm, not the exception. It was expected, even demanded, that the audience was capable of following lengthy, carefully constructed arguments, including an occasions side-track or two.
But then the technology revolution hit – especially television. The medium of television itself is not evil, but television producers, writers, actors and cameramen all needed to be paid, so along with television shows came television commercials. That meant that an hour long show was broken up into a number of smaller segments, demarcated with a couple of minutes of commercials. The attention span of the average American dropped.
Then, almost imperceptibly, hour-long shows became 30 minute shows – still broken up into shorter and shorter segments. The American attention span grew even shorter.
Today there is not only TV, but a myriad of other electronic media that demands our attention – computers and tablets and phones and digital music storage devices. We as Americans get bored faster and in spite of more stimulation than any other culture before us. And that head-long rush into lethargy is carried right over into our worship experiences.
It is no surprise to me that the very same generation that invented the “X Games,” a collection of high risk, extreme sporting events, is now demanding the same type of experiential high from their worship services. Apparently it is no longer enough to raise your voice in song; now there has to be ear- splitting, roof-rattling music and mind-bending special effects. Even in the more “sedate” religious groups the simple projection of words on a screen is no longer considered acceptable. No – now there must be multiple images as well as the introduction of other sensory stimuli in order to raise the level of spirituality in the increasingly more passive and yet technologically demanding audience.
Parallel with this movement toward a more “experiential” worship service there is a marked decline in the acceptance of a rigorous hermeneutic that demands a careful and extended study of the text of Scripture. Sermons must be 20 minutes (or less) and should be directed to today’s “felt needs” or in some other way “relevant” to our immediate culture. Long gone are the days in which the church was expected to shape culture – now the church must bend and twist and morph itself in order to comply with the demands of an ever-changing culture that also happens to be diametrically opposed to the message and mission of the church of Christ.
And, as technology becomes a mainstay even with pre-schoolers, I do not see any change in this intellectual/spiritual collapse any time soon.
When he was just a teenager, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had virtually every option open to him in regards to his life’s work. He was intelligent enough, and had the connections, to become a scientist, a legal scholar, or follow in his father’s footsteps in the field of medicine. He was talented enough musically to have become a professional musician. Instead, he shocked (and disappointed) his family when he announced that he would become a theologian. According to his friend Eberhard Bethge, his family tried to tell him that the church was a “… poor, feeble, boring, petty and bourgeois institution.” Bonhoeffer was undeterred. “In that case I shall reform it” he smugly responded. (Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 36)
The amazing thing is, he did! With the exception of his friend and mentor Karl Barth, no early 20th century theologian has had as deep and as lasting effect on the church as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But he did not reform it by adding praise bands, or praise teams, or glorified visual presentations, or by adding bells or incense. Bonhoeffer reformed the church, and his writings continue to exert his influence, by a serious, deep and sustained return to the foundations of discipleship: prayer, Bible study, meditation, confession and Christian service.
Basic spiritual disciplines – what a concept!
May God raise up another Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this generation. Or, maybe 100.
The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer edited and introduced by Isabel Best (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 210 pages.
There are so many ways to introduce this review…
I have spent many years as a pulpit minister. I have preached hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sermons. I have three degrees in ministry/theology and am working on a fourth. Suffice it to say I love the church, theology, preaching and ministry. And when I come across books on preaching like this one I realize just how much of a failure I have been in serving in these various ministries. I have often said that I am just an apprentice in the field of ministry, but there are times I do not even feel qualified to say I am an apprentice. Sitting at the feet of Bonhoeffer is just one of those times.
I have 15 out of the 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (to the best of my knowledge, vol. 14 is still forthcoming at this date). I have both Eberhard Bethge’s and Eric Metaxas’ biographies of Bonhoeffer. I have numerous other volumes about Bonhoeffer. Needless to say I know his story, if not well, then at least better than most. I was genuinely excited to get word that this volume had been printed, and I bought it at the first chance that I had.
My review in a nutshell – if you love preaching, or if you are interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or both, then you need to buy this book!
Many writings by Bonhoeffer are difficult for the modern reader to understand. For one reason, Bonhoeffer was writing in a different historical, theological and philosophical realm than what we are living in today. Classic liberalism (which Bonhoeffer was writing to largely reject) was in the flower of its youth. Even though the world had just experienced World War I, there was still the idea lurking that it was the “war to end all wars.” The evils of Adolf Hitler were still to be unleashed as Bonhoeffer penned and delivered most of these sermons. Technologically the world was still a toddler compared to our current day. The atom had not yet been split (although physicists on both sides of the Atlantic were getting closer by the day) and so many things that we take for granted were not even on the drawing boards.
Two, unless you know how to read German (and theological German at that), you are forced to read Bonhoeffer in translation. That is where I am. That limits your understanding to the quality of the translator and the overall translation. Any literary work suffers in translation. Bonhoeffer’s complex and very intricate arguments are no exception.
However, (and getting back to the point of this review), Bonhoeffer’s sermons are very different. Whereas Bonhoeffer’s early theological writings can almost be opaque, his sermons shine with a clarity that is remarkable. You can see Bonhoeffer’s theology through and through his sermons, but he wrote and delivered them with the common person in mind. He wrote them to be challenging, to be sure. But he wrote and delivered them to be effective, and the spoken word cannot be effective if it is not understood. Bonhoeffer’s sermons in his collection are brilliant examples of how to make the complex understandable. Take the following as an example:
One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. (p. 34).
It is impossible for me to identify my “favorite” among these sermons, but if I absolutely had to pick one, it would be the sermon on Gideon, delivered on Feb. 26, 1933 (p. 67-74). Quite honestly, I do not think that I have read or heard a finer sermon in my whole life.
One word about style. Many people are so used to the “three points and a poem” type of preaching that nothing else fits the bill. That person would be terribly disappointed in this collection. Bonhoeffer did not preach topically, and he hated reducing the gospel to mere moralization. In these sermons Bonhoeffer simply took a single text (often based on the church calendar that the Lutheran church followed) and preached it – he made the text come alive. When you understand the political events that were taking place as Bonhoeffer delivered these sermons you realize just how courageous he was. As Isabel Best notes in her introduction, Bonhoeffer did not preach overtly political sermons, and yet he spoke to the political situation of his day in virtually every sermon that he preached. But he let the text do the convicting – he simply “explicated” the text so that the message of the text could come through. His technique was brilliant, and yet if you heard one of these sermons delivered in their original setting I doubt you would have notice “technique” at all. You simply would have heard the word of God.
Someone who knows me and my theology well might be surprised that I am able to write such glowing reviews about Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor educated in the thick of German Classical Liberalism. My response is this: the gospel is not denominational. When Bonhoeffer preached the text there is simply no finer explication and application of God’s word. I am not so naive as to suggest that every word in these sermons is absolute truth. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, and when he gets closer to Luther than he does Jesus it is obvious. He preached salvation by faith only – something that neither Jesus nor Paul preached, but something that Luther did. So be it – I am smart enough to sift the wheat from the chaff. It is just that (in my most humble and otherwise brilliant opinion) there is very, very little chaff in these sermons.
Another positive note about this collection in particular. There is a brief introduction to the entire collection, and each individual sermon receives a brief historical note. Isabel Best is highly qualified to be the one to introduce and edit this collection, and if you are unfamiliar, or just barely familiar, with Bonhoeffer’s life and work her historical notes will be invaluable in helping you “hear” these sermons.
And now the one huge burr under my saddle about this book. It received the title, “The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” and yet even in the introduction it is admitted that there are 71 extant sermons or homilies recorded in the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book only includes 31. Therefore, it should not have been labeled “The Collected Sermons” but something like “A Collection of Sermons” or even “The Collected Sermons, Vol. 1.” That is a small quibble, I grant you. But you cannot call something “The Collection” if you are only including less than 50% of the total of whatever it is you are collecting.
There is so much more I would like to say – but I am already over 1,300 words. But this book is a gem, and I love reading beautiful books.
This book is not just for preachers, but it is for serious Bible students. If you use books that include short devotional readings for your personal prayer time this would be a wonderful guide for your devotions. These sermons are not long – there are no 45 minute harangues in this collection. If you are a preacher and you want to be fed by one of the best, I highly recommend you obtain this book. It will push you in your interpretation and in your delivery of your sermons. I really, really, really wish I had the opportunity to read this book back when I was 22 and just getting out of college. It would have changed the course of my career significantly. As it is, I am thankful I had the opportunity to read it, and it will help me for as long as I have left to preach the gospel.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
I will say it up front and honestly – the remainder of this series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount will be based largely, if not exclusively, on Glen Stassen and David Gushee’s book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. When I step away from Stassen and Gushee I will probably land on John R.W. Stott’s The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Stott’s book was previously titled Christian Counter-Culture and I regret the change in name. Christian Counter-Culture tells you that what Stott wrote was intended to be challenging. That book was, and remains, a classic in the field of study on the Sermon on the Mount and I recommend it whole-heartedly.
But, I was recently introduced to Stassen and Gushee’s work and I have been working through it carefully. Dr. Stassen is one of the premier Christian ethicists today, and, I might add not unrelated, a premier scholar on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One of the questions arising from the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is how a Lutheran pastor, and a man who had accepted the basic tenets of pacifism, could ultimately be involved in an attempt to assassinate a national leader. Much of the problem revolves around the indisputable fact that Bonhoeffer built much of his theology upon the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-8 became for Bonhoeffer the key to unlocking not only the New Testament, but the entire Bible and his view of discipleship as well. One question then becomes, how could someone who built so much of his theology upon the Sermon on the Mount become involved in an attempt to overthrow Hitler? Beyond that question, there is the issue of how Bonhoeffer treats (or, to be more correct, omits) the Sermon on the Mount in his monumental work on Ethics. The Sermon on the Mount was the text for much of what Bonhoeffer wrote, yet it virtually disappears in the many essays he penned and hoped to complete on his theory of ethics. The questions is “why this omission?” The story is much too long and involved to fully relate here, and suffice it to say that volumes have been written to attempt to unravel this Gordian knot.
Personal aside here: as related in a personal conversation, Dr. Stassen’s suggestion is that what Bonhoeffer missed in this text is an understanding that Jesus was not presenting a dualistic way of looking at faith and the world, but rather that he was presenting a series of “transforming initiatives” that provide the disciple with an entirely new and, although the term is overused, “radical” way of addressing faith and the world. Perhaps, although it is purely speculation, if Bonhoeffer had seen this structure, he would have been able to use the Sermon in his work on Ethics. Bonhoeffer himself hints that he struggled with his explication of the Sermon on the Mount as presented in such works as Discipleship, but he never fully recanted that explication, and he never was granted the time and opportunity to fully explain what it was that gave him pause as he reviewed his earlier work. Bonhoeffer was incredibly consistent – far more consistent than most theologians who produce the amount of material that Bonhoeffer did, so we are left with a huge gap and a nagging question as to what exactly Bonhoeffer meant when he wrote to Eberhard Bethge that his study on Discipleship was under his own careful re-examination and critique.
[Additional note: Dr. Stassen's study on the Sermon on the Mount was also presented in the Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122/2 (2003) pages 267-308 in an article titled, "The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)". By way of contrast, Stott's work in The Message of the Sermon on the Mount follows the traditional understanding of a dualistic, or "dyadic" teaching from Jesus, "You have heard it said ... but I say to you..."]
For those of us who were raised with the traditional understanding of the Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Stassen’s suggestions are not only new, but also somewhat disorienting. However, and I want to stress this, his linguistic, grammatical and stylistic evidence is solid. Moreover, the theology that results is even more compelling, and I am growing more and more convinced that Dr. Stassen has given the church a great gift in the ongoing effort to understand and to live the Sermon on the Mount.
I will work through Dr. Stassen’s arguments in greater detail in the following installments of this series. Let me briefly summarize his main points so as to whet your appetite for the remainder of these reflections:
1. Dr. Stassen builds his case on a careful study of the Greek words, sentence structure, and also what I consider to be Matthew’s “Rabbinic” style of writing. (Note: that is my term, I do not remember Dr. Stassen making that connection. I believe Matthew to be very well educated, and where else would he have been educated in the Jewish literature of his day if not in a Rabbinic school? Just my two cents worth)
2. Building on the work of other Matthean scholarship, Dr. Stassen identified 14 “triads” within the main body of the Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, Jesus presents a traditional view of righteousness (“You have heard it said…”), then a description of a “vicious cycle and consequences” (“but I say unto you…”) and then Jesus gives a “transforming initiative” that is counter to the “traditional” yet misunderstood view of righteousness, and completely overturns the “cycle of viciousness” that he has identified.
3. What this understanding of the main body of the Sermon on the Mount accomplishes is that it prevents the Sermon from becoming a list of impossible commands and it allows the Sermon to be a liberating set of instructions for what Dr. Stassen has identified as “Kingdom Ethics.”
Obviously, if you are truly intrigued by the concepts that I will attempt to summarize here, the place for you to go is Dr. Stassen and Dr. Gushee’s book. The article in JBL summarizes the first part of the book, so if you simply want an understanding of the “14 Triads” and the “Transforming Initiatives” you can obtain that article.
I will attempt to do my best to present Dr. Stassen’s arguments and evidence in a brief, yet understandable, format. I truly believe that Dr. Stassen (and those to whom he gives credit) has presented a strong case for this interpretation of the Sermon. It deserves our fullest attention. He answers a lot of questions, and his arguments are persuasive and, to me at least, compelling. I will leave it to you to make up your mind for yourself.
Here is the text (more or less verbatim) of the sermon I preached on 12/30/12 at the Third and Kilgore congregation in Portales, NM. I do not have access to a a website that can upload sermon audio, so I had to go with a written text.
The year was 49 BC. The place – Gaul, just north of the country of Italy. The person was Julius “not quite yet” Caesar. The situation – by law if Julius, a general in the Roman army, wanted to enter into Italy he had to relinquish his military position and surrender the power of he “Imperium” he held in Gaul. As he camped at the river Rubicon he debated his options. If he crossed the Rubicon river with his army he would be declaring his rebellion from Pompey – an act of treason. He would be under a death sentence. Every man who followed him armed for battle would be under a death sentence.
After some deliberation Julius “not quite yet Caesar” did cross the Rubicon, and as he did so he is reported to have said, “The die is cast.” There would be no turning back.
Flash forward about 80 years. A wandering rabbi sits on a mountainside and calls his disciples to him. As his disciples and others listen to his teaching, they realize that there is something unique, powerful, about this particular rabbi. They also realize that if they follow this new teaching they will be “crossing the Rubicon” in relation to their world. There will be no turning back.
I want to use the imagery of “crossing the Rubicon” to illustrate two points this morning. If I am right in these two points then the third point will be a call to respond, a call to action as it were.
#1 – The United States has crossed a cultural Rubicon in a very profound way. It is my opinion that there is no way to alter its direction short of a major collapse or a major spiritual uprising. It has been headed in this direction for more than a generation, but has picked up speed tremendously in the past decade. The last election virtually “sealed the deal” in the mindset of the American people. Just notice, for example, the tremendous difference between John F. Kennedy and Barack Hussein Obama. Kennedy spoke those immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Obama has cemented in the American mind the idea that the only reason government exists is to bestow entitlements to its citizens. A majority of Americans are now dependent upon the government in some form or fashion. How will anyone convince them to relinquish any of these “entitlements?”
Two, There has also been a staggering shift in the moral understanding of Americans. This is clearly, but not exclusively, demonstrated in the acceptance and even advancement of homosexual behavior and same sex marriage.
#2 – This first point places those who would follow the rabbi from Nazareth in a very small and shrinking minority.
If it was ever true that the United States was a Christian nation it no longer is true.
If God was truly honored and worshipped, the Constitution could be a living and vibrant document that heralds justice and freedom for all.
But, if you remove God then the Constitution becomes a wicked and humanistic piece of paper, subject to the whims and fancies of those who interpret it.
Worse, it has become an idol. It is something that is visible and on a surface level points to a supreme being, but is simply a human construct full of human depravity.
And so – we return to that mountainside and we strain our ears to hear the words of that Nazarene rabbi, knowing that those words are a call to “cross the Rubicon” and declare our allegiance to God and to reject Satan and the rule of this world.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit.
- Blessed are those who mourn.
- Blessed are the gentle.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
- Blessed are the merciful.
- Blessed are the pure in heart.
- Blessed are the peacemakers.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for God’s sake.
- Disciples are salt and light in a bent and broken world.
- Avoid murder by avoiding hate.
- Avoid adultery by avoiding lust.
- Honor marriage.
- Tell the truth, first and always.
- Go the second mile.
- Love your enemies.
- Give without expecting return.
- Pray as a child to a parent.
- Fast fervently.
- Hold to God, not your possessions.
- Do not be anxious.
- Do not judge.
- Seek God’s kingdom, not your own nor that of the rule of Satan.
# 3 – So, we must decide where our loyalty lies – with God or this world.
I was truly shocked, dismayed and heartbroken when, almost within hours of the events of 12/14/12 my Facebook page was full of postings by Christians, some of them even gospel preachers, responding to the murders of 26 innocent people by declaring that the most important thing to them was the ownership of their guns. No reference to being ruled by the Prince of Peace. No thought to the fact that we are to be a people that rejects violence and turns the other cheek. No consideration to the Sermon on the Mount at all – just an endless repetition of quotations defending the Constitution and the 2nd amendment in particular.
Brothers and sisters, we must – it is imperative – we cannot overlook Christ’s demand for us to declare our loyalty. Are we going to be loyal to Christ and His kingdom or this world?
Second, we must commit. We must learn to view baptism as a “crossing of the Rubicon” in a spiritual sense. This is especially true of those who have already made this confession. When we confess that Jesus is the Lord we are saying something profoundly political. That was the most treasonous statement a person could make in the first century AD. The law was you had to confess “Caesar is Lord.” Christians could not do that. They had already confessed “Jesus is Lord.” There could not be two Lords in their life. And so, when they said “Jesus is Lord” and went under the waters of baptism they were crossing a spiritual and a political Rubicon. They were placing themselves under a death sentence. Many did pay with their lives, others paid by losing property or jobs or family connections. We must learn the significance of those three words again. We cannot have two Lords in our life!
For those who have not made that confession, please stop and consider what you will be doing when you make the good confession. You are not just doing something so you can take communion every Sunday. You are not doing something just to make your parents happy. You are not doing something just so you will not be the last one in the youth group to be baptized. You are making a profound statement. You are confessing that Jesus is the Lord of your life. Do not make that decision lightly.
Third, we must live like this world is no longer our home. Two passages in particular come to mind as I think of this truth. Philippians 3:20 states that “our citizenship is in heaven.” There it is – no having to parse out that thought. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God and that is where our allegiance lies. Second, Hebrews 13:14 says that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” That’s right, we do not have a lasting city on this earth, but there is a city that is to come that we are citizens of, and we await its arrival. We have to choose which city we want to be a part of. It will be an eternal decision.
I want to close by giving a quote from one of my favorite authors. This short passage sums up completely what this lesson has been about. If I am correct, and I certainly do believe that I am, the words I have spoken this morning are critical words for us to hear at this time in our history. And so, these words from an earlier generation come down to us with an urgency that I hope we can all learn to feel:
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious and happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship.
(Note: the Scripture notation was corrected to read Philippians 3:20. Sorry about the earlier slip of the finger.)
Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history - and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary - I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.
I’ve learned a lot about alignments over the past few years. Mostly because I have a bad back, and I can tell even before I get out of bed if the day is going to be good or one long exercise in getting straight. I know every part of our body is important, but if you have a bad back there ain’t nothing that works right.
So, I was thinking the other day about alignments – how if things are in a straight line things just work so much better. Cars work better if the tires are in alignment. Guitars depend on correct alignment to sound right. Archers know that if the bow is warped the arrow will fly past it’s target. If you let one tiny little mirror get bumped in a telescope the whole thing turns into an expensive kid’s toy. There are many, many areas of life in which alignment is everything.
Which then got me to thinking – do we have the church in alignment with God? That is such an elementary question, but one that I fear goes unasked let alone unanswered. It does not matter if we have one or two things about the church correct if we have half a dozen other things all wrong. If we are not in alignment with what God intends, we will never achieve what he wants us to achieve. Since the church is not growing (or is actually shrinking, depending on which metric you use) I am justified in asking the question – do we have our thoughts, our intentions, our goals, and our efforts in alignment with God?
Alignment number one – God wants mankind to be “in his image.” That is how he created us. That was not good enough for us, so we tried to make ourselves to be “like God.” I know I have railed against using foreign terms if English terms are just as good, but here is where Latin helps us out a little bit. I think most everyone can work through the terms here – God made us to be in the imago Dei. That is, he made us to be in his image. But we wanted to be sicut deus. That is, we wanted to be like God, knowing good and evil. So we traded the imago dei for the sicut deus and we have been out of alignment ever since. Jesus came to this earth to get us back into alignment – to show us how we can have the imago dei once again. That is, Jesus came to teach us how to be fully human. As long as we are trying to be like God we will fail to even be what God created us to be. We need to surrender our craving to be like God so that we can accept being made in the image of God. Once we get that alignment right, several others will fall into place. (I am indebted to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this insight. It clearly was above my pay grade to achieve this insight.)
Within the church are we teaching people how to be fully human? Are we stressing that Jesus, the very image of God himself (Col. 1:15) came to this earth to “redeem” us, that is to bring us back to our created relationship with God? Or are we, like those Pharisees that we love to beat up on, just trying to get people to see things the way we see things, that is, are we trying to be “like God” in the eyes of the world? There is a world of difference between living in the image of God and living like God. The one is a humble but glorious acceptance of what we have been given, the other is a rebellious declaration that we do not need God as long as we have our own intellect and strength.
I think that if the church (as a collective human being) simply tried to live as if it were made in the image of God instead of trying to be God it would be receive the blessings that God intended for it to have. Or, we can keep trying to “be like God” and we can go out and pick goat-head thorns for a living. Not much of a choice if you ask me.
Alignment number two – doctrine is important, but important only as it relates to proper behavior. In technical terms, orthodoxy is important, but only so far as it results in orthopraxy. In Jesus’ own day it was the Pharisees who were the guardians of orthodoxy. They had doctrine down to a fine point. They had all the “book, chapter and verse” citations they needed to accuse and condemn Jesus – especially in regard to ritualistic Sabbath keeping (see Ezekiel 20 especially). But they were utterly bereft in the proper application of that doctrine. Merely having the correct book, chapter and verse did not make their actions right. Jesus taught them what “sabbath keeping” was all about, and it was not what they had in mind. But Jesus’ teaching was in alignment with what God intended, and therefore we are to listen to Jesus and not the Pharisees.
I have written in other posts that I consider myself to be fairly conservative, and as such I must admit that this is one of my weaknesses. As a conservative I tend to look very suspiciously upon anything that looks, smells or feels like an aberration from the “tried and true.” I live by the motto, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The only problem is many times something is broken; but because I have figured out how to use a broken tool quite effectively, I do not realize it is broken. I have to force myself to reexamine my beliefs to determine whether I am holding onto something that is truly “in the image of God” or something that only resembles the truth and is in reality something that is “like God.”
I never want to give up on orthodoxy. I am firmly committed to the concept that God has revealed his will to us, and we must accept and obey that will. In that respect I reject the suggestions of many “moderates” or “progressives” who want to change the church to be more “postmodern” and more in tune with its surrounding culture. Once again, I believe those individuals are simply a modern day example of Adam and Eve in the garden. They want to be “like God,” making their own decisions and deciding what is good and evil instead of wanting to be in the “image of God” and letting God decide what is good and evil. But on the other hand I never want to be so “conservative” that I become “reactionary” and therefore reject the correctives of Jesus when it comes to straightening out my orthodoxy. I have to learn what the intent of the doctrine is so that I can correctly apply the correct doctrine. In terms of the gospel, I never want to become so fixated on proper sabbath keeping that I fail to offer healing and restitution to another human created “in the image of God.”
Whether the object is an automobile, a guitar or your own spine, it is critical for everything to be in proper alignment. Nowhere is that concept more true than in the Lord’s church. I think we need to go in for a check-up. We need to go in for the ultimate front-end alignment. Let us focus on becoming a people made in the image of God, and then we can focus on the proper application of doctrine.
If you were to take a long, serious look at your likes and dislikes, would you find any incongruence? I mean, would you discover that you are a hard-core Republican and yet you love listening to music made by hard-core Democrats? I think if we live long enough we all eventually discover some aspect of our life that makes us pause and say, “Wow! Where did that come from?” I must admit from my own perspective that I consider myself fairly conservative, if not mostly so, and yet I love the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and a couple of other similar groups. I am deeply moved by anti-war ballads, and I believe music is one way to speak to the masses in a way that the printed word (or the preached word) simply cannot accomplish.
So, a really long wind-up to this pitch. Two of my all time favorite people are Dietrich Bonhoeffer (you would never have guessed, if you have been reading this blog) and John Denver.
What in the world do John Denver and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have in common? I’m glad you asked.
In a very superficial way, both Denver and Bonhoeffer shared a common heritage. Denver’s birth name was Deutschendorf, a German name if there was one. But that is not the connection that I had in mind.
Both Denver and Bonhoeffer (or to be chronologically precise, Bonhoeffer and Denver), realized that simply to treat the results of an evil was not good enough. You had to attack the cause. Both men were deeply humanitarian. Bonhoeffer’s phrase was (paraphrased), “It’s not good enough to treat those who have been run over by the wheel. There comes a time when you must shove a spoke in the wheel.” Denver, borrowing a poem written in the last century, said that you should not attempt to get by with an ambulance down in the valley when it would make greater sense to put a fence around the cliff. (For the poem, see my meditation here.)
Conservatives, and I believe I can say this because I am one of them, tend to be of the “Ambulance Down In The Valley” type of people. We tend to be reactionary. We wait for something to happen, then we react to it. Attacking something at its main source is something that requires foresight and vision. Conservatives, by their very nature, do not care much for visionaries and prophets. That is why the Pharisees had such a problem with Jesus. Jesus was trying to get them to look past the results of some issue or problem to its source. Jesus had a vision – the Kingdom of God. He was trying to get people to put a fence around the cliff, to ram a spoke in the wheel, and all the Pharisees were concerned about was making sure the ambulance had plenty of bandages. Jesus saw the root sin, all the Pharisees (and their modern descendants) could (or can) see is the residual carnage.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer fell in love with Negro spirituals while he was in New York in 1931. They spoke to him in an earthy way, something that he had never experienced before, and something that he kept with him the rest of his life. It was during his time in New York, specifically the time he spent in Harlem, that allowed him to recognize the spiritual problems when he returned to Germany. In 1931-32 no one was willing to speak of the divide between Aryan and Jew as a spiritual problem that should be addressed by the church. Bonhoeffer knew instinctively that it was a spiritual problem – he had just lived in in the Black-White divide in the United States.
John Denver recognized in a deep and almost instinctual way that there are problems that this world is facing that should be considered spiritual, even though most of us would prefer to discuss them as political or not discuss them at all. Denver never used theological language, although many of his songs are deeply spiritual. We cannot just keep treating this world the way we have been treating it and expect it to just keep absorbing our abuse. Sooner or later we will recognize that we have pooped in our own nest to the point it is unlivable. At that point what will we do?
We can either start building a fence around the edge of the cliff or we can start building bigger and bigger ambulances. I like what Bonhoeffer and Denver had to say – even though they would probably be miles apart on other issues they were hand in hand on this one – we must attack the problem at the source. In Bonhoeffer’s world that source was sin – in Denver’s case it was our environmental mismanagement. In either case the choice is ours. Do we focus on prevention or cure?
Let’s give the greater attention to curing the cause!