Who Is Christ for Us Today?


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

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Eberhard Bethge, 30 April 1944

* * *

The famous passage above, from Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, has led to more than a half century of discussion on the question of “religionless Christianity.” Richard Beck has argued that this striking phrase and concept, which has caught the imagination of so many, was actually Bonhoeffer’s penultimate concern. The chief matter for Dietrich Bonhoeffer was: Who is Christ for us today? His central theological question was about Christology. The context was the “religionless” age in which we live.

Beck summarizes it like this:

Bonhoeffer was trying to understand how Christ could be “Lord of the world” in a world that didn’t recognize Christ’s existence or seem to need him. In that kind of world, who is Christ for us?

This was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s question in 1944. The world was at war, with madness at every hand, and Christianity seemed impotent to do anything about it. It caused him to question whether history might be witnessing the end of the Christian era itself.

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form — perhaps the true form — of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless — and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?) — what does that mean for “Christianity?”

In his June 8 letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer further discussed how the historical movement toward “the autonomy of man” had in his time “reached an undoubted completion.” To him, it had become evident that “everything gets along without ‘God’–and, in fact, just as well as before.”

Richard Beck observes that this “world come of age,” this world that had arrived at “adulthood,” was not viewed as a bad thing by Bonhoeffer. He seems to have recognized it as a natural development from childhood to adolescence to maturity. It was something God’s people should accept and not fear. With that in mind, he critiqued as pointless, ignoble, and unchristian any Christian apologetic approach that attacked the world’s adulthood.

Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up man back into adolescence, i.e. to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, on longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems for him. Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man’s weakness for purposes that are alien to him and to which he has not freely assented. Unchristian, because it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness, i.e. with a human law.

Furthermore, in using these apologetics the Church is advancing a heretical view of God. By complaining that in coming to adulthood the world has evicted God, the church denies the exaltation of Christ as Lord over all things. As if humans could rise up and cast out the Creator and Redeemer of all from his universe! The Church, according to Bonhoeffer, too often presents God as a frustrated parent who doesn’t want human beings to grow up and achieve independence. As if God’s aim is to turn us all back into children.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Tegel prison
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Tegel prison

But if this is not a good approach, how then should Christians live? How should they witness to the Lordship of Christ in a world that has achieved independence from God? We come back to Bonhoeffer’s controlling question: “Who is Christ for us today?”

In the end Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his letters and via his martyrdom, pointed to the Cross as the answer to that question. He writes, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”

In other words, God acts in the world through the very act of letting himself be evicted from the world. Christ’s resurrection power and Lordship in the world is exercised not by his powerful, commanding presence and domination over the world, but by letting himself be crucified and cast out again and again. Through his weakness, impotence, and even his absence, Christ reigns.

If the Church is to truly witness to Christ then, it will not be through apologetics or any type of “ministry” that attempts to put the world back under the guardianship of a celestial nanny. Rather, it will be through taking our place alongside our fellow humans as people without God in a world without God in order that we might truly know God. As Richard Beck puts it, “By pushing the false ‘Powerful God’ out of the world the way becomes clear for the God revealed in the cross of Jesus.”

In this light, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed his desire to live:

…unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.

The world’s “adulthood” is not something to be feared and fought, rather it becomes a “midwife” to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ: that in his absence Christ is Lord of all.

And perhaps, when we embrace life in a world without God, we shall become Christians.

* * *

Recommended Reading: Richard Beck’s series: “Letters from Cell 92” at Experimental Theology.

Here is a link to Part 1.

83 thoughts on “Who Is Christ for Us Today?

  1. Odd. The first thing I thought of with Ahriman and Lucifer was the Vorlons and the Shadows from Babylon 5. One limited the child races by their adherence to order, the other limited them by their adherence to chaos…


  2. “The only way the power of the resurrection can be visible is through dying.”

    Conversely, the only way to die in Christ is through the power of his resurrection.


  3. With a caveat: Zoroastrians believe in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and are clear about distinctions between good and evil.

    I suspect that Barfield’s use of the name “Ahriman” has much more to do with Rudolf Steiner (see comments just upthread) and Theosophy than it does with actual Zoroastrian/Parsi beliefs.


  4. And so we’re back to Capon;

    It is, I admit, all bizarre. And when it is not bizarre, outrageous — and if not outrageous, then vulgar. Not, mind you, what I have written; rather, what I have written about: the Gospel of the grace of God that reconciles all by the resurrection of the dead. Any outlandishness I contributed to the exposition was minor compared to the strangeness of the subject itself; any shock to your sensibilities, a mere nudge compared to the positively rude and bohemian assault launched upon them by God’s word of free and unmerited salvation.

    For (I hope you see the point at last) the Gospel of grace is the end of religion, the final posting of the CLOSED sign on the sweatshop of the human race’s perpetual struggle to think well of itself. For that, at bottom, is what religion is: the human species’ well-meant but dim-witted attempt to gain approval of its un-approvable condition by doing odd jobs it thinks some important Something will thank it for. If we can’t offer God a nice Adam or Eve, we offer him a nice goat instead — an activity which, as God has frequently pointed out, is an exercise in futility, since it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away the entail of a fundamentally worm-eaten self-image.

    Religion, therefore, is a loser, a strictly fallen activity It has a failed past and a bankrupt future. There was no religion in Eden, and there won’t be any in the New Jerusalem; and in the meantime, Jesus has died and risen to persuade us to knock it off right now. He has said that as far as God is concerned, we’re all home free already, and there’s not a single religious thing you or I have to do about it. We are, as I said a long while ago, simply invited to believe it, and to cry a little or giggle a lot (or vice versa) as seems appropriate…

    I want you to set aside the notion of the Christian Religion, because it’s a contradiction in terms. You won’t learn anything positive about religion from Christianity; and if you look for Christianity in religion, you’ll never find it. To be sure, Christianity uses the forms of religion — and, to be dismally honest, too many of its adherents act as if it were a religion. But it isn’t one, and that’s that. The church is not in the religion business; it’s in the Gospel-proclaiming business. And the Gospel is the Good News that all our fuss and feathers over our relationship with God are unnecessary because God, in the Mystery of the Word who is Jesus, has gone and fixed it up himself. So let that pass…

    It is all foolishness. Religion begins after relationship has broken down. The minute anyone re-establishes relationship by grace, religion simply ends. It lives only in foul air. When grace cuts off its supply of bus fumes and sewer gas, it coughs itself to death. Paul’s joy in love will be in direct proportion to the quickness and thoroughness with which he learns to breathe the fresh air of acceptance. And our joy in the love of God will be the same. Our best example will be that other Paul, the Apostle himself, who was the champion bus-fume inhaler of all time and still managed to kick the habit. He did successfully with the religion of the Law what my Paul was only beginning to do with the religion of Romance: Paul the ex-Pharisee stopped putting himself to the test, and he stopped putting the deity to the test. He finally saw that in the divine love affair, nobody needs to earn his or her way.

    Admittedly, he had help. The Law he tried to keep was a manifest impossibility; and the God he tried to tempt just wasn’t having any. The only sign he got was to be blinded by Jesus until he stopped asking for signs altogether and concentrated on grace.
    But when he did! . . .

    The Epistle to the Romans has sat around in the church ever since like a bomb ticking away the death of religion; and every time it’s been picked up, the ear-splitting freedom in it has gone off with a roar. The only sad thing is that the church as an institution has spent most of its time playing bomb squad and trying to defuse it. For your comfort, though, it can’t be done. Your freedom remains as close to your life as Jesus and as available to your understanding as the nearest copy of Saint Paul. Like Augustine, therefore, tolle, lege, take and read: tolle the one, lege the other — and then hold on to your hat. Compared to that explosion, the clap of doom sounds like a cap pistol.

    I think DB’s goal, though he never finished his thoughts on this, was that “maturity” means we cease from attempting to “transact business with God” and instead exercise a mature trust in what God has said He is doing.

    “The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself.”

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer


  5. Another – to me, more likely – possibility is that Barfield had serious psychological problems and that this voice in his head was a delusion. (He might even have had a then -undiagnosable physical problem that was a contributing factor.)

    I am deeply uneasy whenever theosophy, spiritualism and other esoteric practices are such a strong influence and/or motivating factor in a person’s life.

    Fwiw, the name Ahriman comes from Zoroastrianism. It is the great evil that is opposed to the great good, Ahura Mazda.


  6. Robert, you are right of course. I’m just trying to explain what Bonhoeffer was saying. He said he lived in a world where it seemed unnecessary anymore to be religious. The explanations in his letters point to the fact that he is speaking of modernity and the advancements it represents.


  7. CM,
    True. Adulthood does not automatically come equipped with wisdom, or goodness. Greater liberty is not automatically used for good purposes.

    “The question is, how is God revealed in a world that doesn’t need him in all the old ways?”

    But, there are many worlds existing on this planet where the felt need for God is no different than it was among our forbears 200 years ago. Some, or much, of the religious reaction against “a world come of age” is probably the result of resentful rebellion and reflects a refusal to “grow up,” but there are others for whom “growing up” is impossible, and for whom the “old ways” are not old.


  8. That got me to but perhaps it’s a contrast as Gods strength is made known in our weakness. Since the lamb was slain before the foundation of the World. It’s quite likely He knew the results especially considering in revelation the verse that says the enemy was given power to make war with the saints. I haven’t read this in a long time it came to mind and I had to look it up. Again perhaps He is contrasting a religion of Christianity verse the biblical reality of what God expects. I think this man said it well.
    The Old Cross and the New

    ALL UNANNOUNCED AND MOSTLY UNDETECTED there has come in modern times a new cross into popular evangelical circles. It is like the old cross, but different: the likenesses are superficial; the differences, fundamental.

    From this new cross has sprung a new philosophy of the Christian life, and from that new philosophy has come a new evangelical technique-a new type of meeting and a new kind of preaching. This new evangelism employs the same language as the old, but its content is not the same and its emphasis not as before.

    The old cross would have no truck with the world. For Adam’s proud flesh it meant the end of the journey. It carried into effect the sentence imposed by the law of Sinai. The new cross is not opposed to the human race; rather, it is a friendly pal and, if understood aright, it is the source of oceans of good clean fun and innocent enjoyment. It lets Adam live without interference. His life motivation is unchanged; he still lives for his own pleasure, only now he takes delight in singing choruses and watching religious movies instead of singing bawdy songs and drinking hard liquor. The accent is still on enjoyment, though the fun is now on a higher plane morally if not intellectually.

    The new cross encourages a new and entirely different evangelistic approach. The evangelist does not demand abnegation of the old life before a new life can be received. He preaches not contrasts but similarities. He seeks to key into public interest by showing that Christianity makes no unpleasant demands; rather, it offers the same thing the world does, only on a higher level. Whatever the sin-mad world happens to be clamoring after at the moment is cleverly shown to be the very thing the gospel offers, only the religious product is better.

    The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, “Come and assert yourself for Christ.” To the egotist it says, “Come and do your boasting in the Lord.” To the thrill seeker it says, “Come and enjoy the thrill of Christian fellowship.” The Christian message is slanted in the direction of the current vogue in order to make it acceptable to the public.

    The philosophy back of this kind of thing may be sincere but its sincerity does not save it from being false. It is false because it is blind. It misses completely the whole meaning of the cross.

    The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-by to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.

    The race of Adam is under death sentence. There is no commutation and no escape. God cannot approve any of the fruits of sin, however innocent they may appear or beautiful to the eyes of men. God salvages the individual by liquidating him and then raising him again to newness of life.

    That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of men is false to the Bible and cruel to the souls of its hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world, it intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our old life up onto a higher plane; we leave it at the cross. The corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die.

    We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum.

    God offers life, but not an improved old life. The life He offers is life out of death. It stands always on the far side of the cross. Whoever would possess it must pass under the rod. He must repudiate himself and concur in God’s just sentence against him.

    What does this mean to the individual, the condemned man who would find life in Christ Jesus? How can this theology be translated into life? Simply, he must repent and believe. He must forsake his sins and then go on to forsake himself. Let him cover nothing, defend nothing, excuse nothing. Let him not seek to make terms with God, but let him bow his head before the stroke of God’s stern displeasure and acknowledge himself worthy to die.

    Having done this let him gaze with simple trust upon the risen Saviour, and from Him will come life and rebirth and cleansing and power. The cross that ended the earthly life of Jesus now puts an end to the sinner; and the power that raised Christ from the dead now raises him to a new life along with Christ.

    To any who may object to this or count it merely a narrow and private view of truth, let me say God has set His hallmark of approval upon this message from Paul’s day to the present. Whether stated in these exact words or not, this has been the content of all preaching that has brought life and power to the world through the centuries. The mystics, the reformers, the revivalists have put their emphasis here, and signs and wonders and mighty operations of the Holy Ghost gave witness to God’s approval.

    Dare we, the heirs of such a legacy of power, tamper with the truth? Dare we with our stubby pencils erase the lines of the blueprint or alter the pattern shown us in the Mount? May God forbid. Let us preach the old cross and we will know the old power. (A. W. Tozer, Man, the Dwelling Place of God, 1966)


  9. “I think a lot of the energy of 21st century Islam comes from its inevitable clash with modernity, so Bonhoeffer may be more relevant here than Robert and Adam allow.”

    I think that is a very insightful perception. When I was a better student of Nietzsche than I am now, I would have known this. The power beneath the religious (not just Islam) rebellion against secularism and modernism in the 20th and 21st centuries is resentment, and indeed the resentment, and the rebellion, of wounded adolescence.

    Yes, perhaps Bonhoeffer was righter than I was giving him credit for. No surprise there!

    Thanks, Mule; glad to see you contributing comments again, especially insightful ones as that above.


  10. Bonhoffer tried to kill Hitler. So who is Hitler for today? Presumably anti-gay activists have a number of figures in mind. While the assassination of say, some liberal Episcopal prelate would shock the general public, the attempt on Hitler’s life must have seemed wicked to the Nazis, and probably even ordinary Germans.


  11. Even if humanity “grows up”–in the sense that some of us (perhaps disproportionately educated Europeans) are conscious of our origins, and the problematic nature of religion–we may still carry within us the values (the “DNA,” so to speak, to continue with the God-as-parent metaphor) of our religions. To resort to religious phraseology, we may become gods, who resemble Christ (or Buddha, Muhammad, etc.) even as we become independent of Christ. The teenager rejects everything; the adult finds himself unconsciously becoming like that which he rejected.


  12. “Allied with a thug, thoroughly reactionary.”

    Great line–I’ll have to remember that. (Still true.)


  13. Dana,
    I wasn’t commenting on Bonhoffer personally, just on the content of this post and Mike’s question to my comment. But I’m willing to admit I may have read it wrongly. So I’ll go back and read it again.


  14. Umi,

    DB came from an upper-class family (not all of them “religious” but all very moral and loving people) and took a very standard early 20th Century German academic career path. It almost seems like he decided to study Theology on a whim. Somewhere along the way, he became converted… There is a progression of depth from his early work to his later work – earliest is very much in the must-publish-as-an-academic-in-my-specialty vein, then with a real concern about how one lives one’s theology, which developed finally into how does one die – not just “die to self,” but just plain die – while living from love and into this life full of suffering. He was very much aware of his pools, and was able to look at them critically and gratefully.



  15. I agree with Adam that it was well structured. That’s about all I can say positively about it. Metaxas is enthusiastic and deferential, and sometimes tries too hard to be sardonic. If you want the viewpoint of a US Evangelical written for a US Evangelical audience, then go for it – but check it out from the library, don’t buy it.

    Eberhard Bethge’s book is still the definitive bio; Bethge was his closest friend, and then a family member. It’s very detailed and written from a European POV, so it takes some time and thought to get through it.



  16. I don’t disagree, Dana. Though theologians as radical as the Death of God folks appealed to DB, I find that the more I read, the more I see consistencies and common themes, even when he uses startlingly different language.


  17. CC, there is some discussion among DB scholars (new book out, as I recall) about how much exactly he “participated” in the plot, considering that he spent so much of his time out of the country while the plot was coming together.

    I don’t think he radically changed his thinking. It was refined outside of academic considerations, in the crucible of suffering.



  18. Jon, he was witnessing to Jesus’ resurrection in a way that goes far beyond words – it depended not one whit on his physical survival in this world. He was a martyr – witness – in the truest sense of the word.



  19. Indeed, and Randy says it well.

    I think pomo-ism is a subset of Modernism, can’t really stand on its own except in reaction to it.

    There is much in Beck’s quote of the letter from May 5 that strains toward the East, and may even put a toe over the threshold: can’t separate God and miracle, speaking metaphysically and to unique persons, view of the OT that is not about “personal salvation”, the KOG on earth as the focus of everything, what righteousness means in context, the reality of creation and the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ being above all and for the world, and more.

    If in the original DB used “über” (above) that would be interesting. It can mean above spatially, and it can also mean “superior to” (as in Nietzsche’s Übermensch), something to which obedience is owed, or “beyond,” as in an entirely different category. I think the latter definitions would be what DB would be indicating.

    I hope people go read Fr Stephen’s blog. In this Modernism series, DBs questions and concerns are echoed and, I think, taken farther and deeper. The series really starts with “The demons of our time,” and the post on “Baptism and the final destruction of demons” continues with an understanding of what being baptized into Christ’s death means. Very germane.

    I haven’t read DB in German (yet), but I have read Bethge’s biography (and Metaxas’ – which did not add anything and fell very short in pandering to the Evangelical audience, imo), and CoD, “Life Together” and LPP in depth. In contrast to CalvinCuban, I believe DB’s magnum opus was LPP; it was his most mature work, written with great theological understanding from his heart that was born of suffering and loss (death all around, and on every level). Ch Mike, I think LPP is far above and beyond an appeal to “liberals” – DB is talking about things that would never come up in conversation among “liberals” except to perhaps be written off. The book’s subtitle in German is “Letters and Notes from Detention” – its title is the intriguing “Resistance and Surrender.”



  20. > state will become the next Hellmouth when gay marriage or
    > recreational marijuana is legalized.

    Apt. Sunnydale seemed like a very pleasant place to live – provided you stayed in doors at night. 🙂 That metaphor can apply to may things.

    > Fair enough; that “we” was far too generalized. By “we”…

    I concur with much of what you say. But falling into the same rhetorical traps that debilitate conversation in the greater culture will not guide us in the `right direction`.


  21. I couldn’t help but think of Johnny Cash after reading Christiane’s comment:

    Well, you wonder why I always dress in black
    Why you never see bright colors on my back
    And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone
    Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on

    I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
    Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
    I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime
    But is there because he’s a victim of the times

    I wear the black for those who’ve never read
    Or listened to the words that Jesus said
    About the road to happiness through love and charity
    Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me

    Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose
    In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes
    But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back
    Up front there ought to be a Man In Black

    I wear it for the sick and lonely old
    For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
    I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been
    Each week we lose a hundred fine young men

    And I wear it for the thousands who have died
    Believin’ that the Lord was on their side
    I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died
    Believin’ that we all were on their side

    Well, there’s things that never will be right I know
    And things need changin’ everywhere you go
    But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right
    You’ll never see me wear a suit of white

    Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day
    And tell the world that everything’s okay
    But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back
    Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black


  22. > I have a question CM and others. Have you read Eric Metaxas’s
    > “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”?


    > Any thoughts on the book?

    It was well-structured. The coverage of the political chronology was well done. I’m probably not qualified to comment on much else specifically. It, like all biographies, needs to be read with some salt.

    When reading a biography on anyone of note it is always a good idea to read two biographies. 🙂

    > Would you recomend it?

    I lack any reason not too.

    > Any issues with Metaxas’s look at Bonhoeffer

    Nothing jumped out as extreme bias. Again, I’m not qualified to evaluate it rigorously.
    I do not have any specific reservations about it.


  23. Rather than speaking of the German Lutheran Church as such, it should be the German Evangelical Church which was mostly comprised of Lutheran, Reformed, and United through regional configurations.


  24. It could mean doing something that perhaps a lot of American Christianity isn’t willing to do. Die to self.


  25. Chaplain Mike, above you write: “It appears we can live and prosper without appealing to him. How does God reveal himself in such a world?”

    Do you think Ecclesiastes speaks to this question?


  26. No Adam, it is exactly like that. Modern man doesn’t realize that it is God who gave men the mental capcity to do those things, who gives him every good and perfect gift, and that it could all be taken away with a word. He is like the Laodiceans who say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.


  27. Mike,
    We exercise the power of Jesus’ resurrection in the world by living as witnesses to it. My problem with what was quoted from Bonhoffer is that it was all cross and no resurrection. That’s no gospel. That’s no help. It has to be both cross and resurrection. We suffer with Him, we die with Him, that we might live with Him.


  28. Yes, I have noticed that about Lutherans. 🙂

    I greatly admire Bonhoeffer; his life and writings have been of great inspiration to me. His exposition of the Sermon of the Mount in Discipleship was an eye opener for me as it was distinct from I had learned either as a Catholic or as an Evangelical.

    I’m not sure how radically he changed in his thinking, though as I don’t see a significant difference in his theology between Discipleship and the Letters and Papers from Prison, but perhaps I’m missing something. And I don’t recall him repudiating anything he had written earlier.

    The most enigmatic thing I find in him is how a pacifist could have participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Not making a judgement on his decision, mind you, just that I find it paradoxical.


  29. I may try another go at it. I didn’t much like it when I tried to read it first time through. Metaxas may be too much of a contemporary US evangelical to understand certain 20th century European and Lutheran perspectives.


  30. Fair enough; that “we” was far too generalized. By “we,” I refer to the kind of mainstream evangelicalism by which the Church has allowed itself to become identified. It’s the kind that gets very unsettled when the Pope opens his mouth to criticize capitalism, or assumes that a state will become the next Hellmouth when gay marriage or recreational marijuana is legalized.

    Perhaps there is a problem with semantics here, but by “we,” I don’t intend to include you personally, or many of the other commenters on this forum. I do, though, intend to include myself, as it makes me more aware of the kind of privilege I enjoy, to the marginalization of the gospel. I also intend to include the systems of power and religious institutions that perpetuate the kind of reactionary, superficial Christianity that non-Christians have come to resent (them + me = we). It certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t have nice things, or great worship services, but when the concentration centers on the superficial rather than the transcendent–a trap into which I believe the Church as a whole has fallen–then we headed (and I hate this term) “in the wrong direction.”


  31. Mule got it right.
    The only way the power of the resurrection can be visible is through dying. For the Christian, the road to life goes through death, the road to power goes through weakness, and the road to glory goes through shame. In short, everything goes through the cross.


  32. A distinction is often made between early and late Bonhoeffer. Conservatives tend to like Cost of Discipleship, progressives his Letters and Papers from Prison. Like all of us, and maybe more so because of his extraordinary times, DB’s thought developed and changed over the years. Like any Lutheran worth his/her salt, he can be notoriously difficult to pin down. (wink)


  33. Before I comment in detail on all this I want to re-read and chew on this for a while. But since we are discussing Bonhoeffer…I have a question CM and others. Have you read Eric Metaxas’s “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”? Any thoughts on the book? Would you recomend it? Any issues with Metaxas’s look at Bonhoeffer?


  34. > We’re fighting the culture wars, but Jesus isn’t going there

    We seem to be able to say where Jesus is not going with much more confidence then where He *is* going.

    > We’re making our worship services rock like a U2 concert, but Jesus isn’t going there.

    I have no idea about that. He might be at some of those. And this use of “we” is far to general. A portion of churches is going their, not all, maybe not even most.

    > We’re fighting for cultural and political dominance over liberals, over Democrats, anti-capitalists

    We? Certainly not. I am “anti-capitalists” [certainly by the measure of many]

    > over gays, over abortionists, evolutionists, etc.,

    Pope Francis does not sound that way.

    > and we’re so frustrated by our failure to dominate, because Jesus was and is
    > never leading the Church in that direction.

    So what is the direction?


  35. Elements of fundagelicalism…bedroom evangelism (outbreed the heathen and grow the membership roles) and bullhorn evangelism. (scream them into The Gospel) 😛


  36. > it is a sign of foolishness. It is like our modern day category of teenagers
    > who think they don’t need their parents and know better than there parents,

    No, it is nothing like that. The teenage who believes he has not need for parents ends up, quite reliably, addicted to drugs, exploited sexually, and living in poverty – if not in imprisoned by the state.

    The Modern Man says I do not need God, and he lives in comfort [albeit behind high but cleverly concealed walls], which doctors who can regularly cure his ailments, and devices to correct his deteriorating vision, and more devices to bring information and entertainment to him at his whim, and more devices to ease the preparation of his food, and more devices to keep him warm in the winter and cool in the summer,….

    He is nothing like the smug teen. It is the smug teen who believes he or she is like the Modern Man, he or she is mistaken. But the not so smug teen has a reasonable change of achieving Modern Man status … provided his father has already so ascended.


  37. Bonhoeffer believed that the problem was with the church and that the biggest problem in the church was “cheap grace.” The solution (for lack of a better word) is “costly grace,” which he defines as the gospel.

    The following, copied & pasted from http://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2010/06/dietrich-bonhoeffer-cheap-grace-vs-costly-grace/ for the sake of convenience (I also have it on my Kindle) is from his magnum opus, “Discipleship:”

    “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or
    fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

    Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

    Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

    Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

    Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

    Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

    Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

    On two separate occasions Peter received the call, “Follow me.” It was the first and last word Jesus spoke to his disciple (Mark 1.17; John 21.22). A whole life lies between these two calls. The first occasion was by the lake of Gennesareth, when Peter left his nets and his craft and followed Jesus at his word. The second occasion is when the Risen Lord finds him back again at his old trade. Once again it is by the lake of Gennesareth, and once again the call is: “Follow me.” Between the two calls lay a whole life of discipleship in the following of Christ. Half-way between them comes Peter’s confession, when he acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God….

    This grace was certainly not self-bestowed. It was the grace of Christ himself, now prevailing upon the disciple to leave all and follow him, now working in him that confession which to the world must sound like the ultimate blasphemy, now inviting Peter to the supreme fellowship of martyrdom for the Lord he had denied, and thereby forgiving him all his sins. In the life of Peter grace and discipleship are inseparable. He had received the grace which costs.”

    He certainly says it better than I ever could.


  38. +1
    I had a moment yesterday where I fell into a fantasy that maybe Pope Francis will heal the East-West rift, but that’ll probably never happen…


  39. +1

    Not just to come to Him, but to follow Him. We’re fighting the culture wars, but Jesus isn’t going there. We’re making our worship services rock like a U2 concert, but Jesus isn’t going there. We’re fighting for cultural and political dominance over liberals, over Democrats, over gays, over abortionists, evolutionists, anti-capitalists, etc., and we’re so frustrated by our failure to dominate, because Jesus was and is never leading the Church in that direction.


  40. I think a lot of these peculiarities seen in Bonhoeffer might be a product of the age he lived in — he strikes me as very modernist from this article (I admit, I have not read him in any depth). It’s hard for even the most thoughtful of us not to be influenced by the pools of thought we were formed in.


  41. Your are correct as to the complexity of his thinking. Sometimes it can be difficult to follow. I was thinking mostly of this statement: “In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”

    I was not speaking of the Church in general, but the German Lutheran Church. I’m glad you think it is generous, because I meant it as anything but generous. Yes it was a “pet,” a lapdog. As to the remainder of the Church of that era, the picture is a mixed one.


  42. “age of the Spirit”
    That is the opinion of Harvey Cox, and the spiritual but not religious. Diana Butler Bass in her book “Christianity After Religion” would seem to be in the same stream as the Bonhoeffer quotes in this post. But I think we shouldn’t go to those conclusions so quickly. When the question is asked, “Who is Christ for us today”, I think we might all be surprised by the answers of many liberals/progressives/ spiritual but not religious, just as the answer going back all the way to the root of their position in Schleiermacher(“I cannot believe that he who called himself the Son of Man, was the true, eternal God”). Bonhoeffer, and many of the neo-orthodox of the 1930’s were shocked by the answer to fascism of their churches in Germany and Switzerland. You can see he was shocked by the quotes used in this post. All the members of the Confessing church, that was established to resist, were people who reacted against the liberalism of their teachers.
    Much of the Christianity after religion of today is not like Bonhoeffer. Today it is not a resistance approach, but consternation in that the mainlines are losing numbers I do believe that Christianity is facing challenges never before faced. Technological, secular, statism . I am arguing here, that when Bonhoeffer said we are moving beyond authority structures, beyond a time of conscience, moving beyond a religion time, he was like the other Confessing church of his time. They were kerygmatic, in the sense church goers today know that the Word preached to them is meant as a challenge to go from that place and be doers of it.
    My opinion about “Who is Christ for Us Today” is that we all need a history course in Christology. Some Catholicism has been on the edge of Docetism, many a Protestant has been on the edge of Apollinarianism, and the Ebionite position is in many a modern’s true belief even if not socinian or unitarian. This man is God; this God is man is orthodox, but difficult to hold onto.


  43. “So where is Christ? ”
    in the prisons, in the nursing homes, in the places no one wants to live . . . He is still saying ‘I thirst’ . . . He is with us in our suffering world still . . . maybe the question should be ‘where are WE’? He’s waiting for us to come to Him.


  44. > In the simplicity of people like Bonhoeffer who

    The “simplicity” of Bonhoeffer…. that is something I have never heard before. He was a powerful mind with complex and nuanced interpretations of scripture and the world around him. Simple – not.

    > when Hitler effectively silenced the Church

    That is a generous interpretation; I would read history as the church [at least the German Lutheran church] being his submissive pet. Outside of Germany the Church was more generally a persistent irritant to Hitler.


  45. I don’t expect post-modernism to save us. I see pomo-ism as the Spirit of You’re Not The Boss Of Me Now turned onto science and reason in addition to Traditional Christianity and inherited privilege.

    According to Barfield, the real spiritual work of the species was being conducted where the apparent conflict between Ahriman and Lucifer was the fiercest. That is where Jesus, being the First Grownup, is, and where the demonic activity is the strongest. I think it is telling that both the traditional and the progressive wing of the Roman Church are growing impatient with Pope Francis. I am waiting to see if he goes East like his two predecessors.


  46. “Who is Christ for us today?”

    Without engaging in a long answer, I think the life and death of Bonhoeffer points us in the right direction. Christ will seldom be found in places of power, either in his day or in ours. The world corrupts true religion and co-opts it for its own uses. This is illustrated clearly in Bonhoeffer’s own day when Hitler effectively silenced the Church. It happens in our day when the Church is unable to speak to the power structures of capitalism, militarism, and government, because it is in bed with said structures.

    So where is Christ? In the simplicity of people like Bonhoeffer who in their heart of hearts cannot be compromised and are willing to give everything for Christ, including life itself. And in the simple faith of many others who live out the Word day in and day out.

    And even though Hitler thought he silenced Christ, it did not happen.

    To me, this is the short answer.


  47. Eeyore, please understand, Bonhoeffer is not offering a critique of the world’s spiritual autonomy or corruption. He is speaking of the facts on the ground about how the Western world has developed: with our increased knowledge, freedom, ability to solve problems, etc., the world is a different place than it was when we looked to the sky and feared the power of God. We think and act differently in such a world. It appears we can live and prosper without appealing to him. How does God reveal himself in such a world?

    As for your second question, I think he would say it will be up to those in that generation to ask the same kinds of difficult questions as to how to speak of God and live for God in those times.


  48. By picking up the broken pieces of world grown mad.

    ‘…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’


  49. I have to wonder whether or not the world’s “growing beyond God” is simply a manifestation of the world growing *rich*. These questions have arisen and reached their sharpest in the nations that have lived in relative material and medical comfort the longest.

    If my theory is correct, that raises two questions…

    1) how does this phenomenon dovetail with the Bible’s teachings on wealth and its corruptive influence on human spirituality?

    2) what happens if – or as I believe, WHEN – the material and medical cocoon in which the developed industrialized world has wrapped itself falls apart?


  50. Yes, DB was certainly focusing on the end of Western Christendom specifically. He was advocating a “post-modern” approach to faith before post-modernism became in vogue. As the world outside of the West’s historical influence now becomes more secularized (i.e. “come of age”), how will the Church in that world respond? Someone like Pope Francis might just be showing us all the way.

    The insufficient alternatives seem to me either to be a reactionary fundamentalism that seeks to put the world back in its crib (your comments on Islam were insightful, and we see the same impulse in fundamentalist Christianity – though usually without the same level of church/state confusion or reliance upon violent solutions), or a vague drifting of the Church into an unhappy compromise in which we use religious words but our lives are as thoroughly secular as the world around us (which we critique regularly here in terms of U.S. evangelicalism and Protestant churches in general).


  51. It was Owen Barfield in Unancestral Voice who made the observation that mankind, as a species, somewhere between the 1880s and the 1910s, moved from the confident integration of late childhood to the turbulence and uncertainty of early adolescence. When I read this, I thought immediately of Bonhoeffer’s ‘mankind come of age’ . Barfield’s concept of the human adolescence was far more convincing to me than Bonhoeffer’s dreams of autonomous adulthood.

    The Enlightenment dream of Freedom, that idol to which we all have to offer our pinch of incense these days, appears to me in its rough outlines more like the adolescent ideal of autonomy and self-creation than the nuanced view of an adult who appreciates that true human freedom arises out of the tangled web of obligation and hierarchy which is a given of primate, if not mammalian, existence.

    There is a lot of Rudolf Steiner in Barfield, and Steiner is not everyone’s cup of tea. In Unancestral Voice there is a lot of discussion of the “development of new spiritual organs” and lot of outright mediumism. I am still uncertain whether Barfield’s ‘Meggid’ is a source of spiritual insight or a malicious, misleading demon. A lot of what Barfield (actually the ‘Meggid’ lecturing Barfield) says makes eminent sense, and it makes sense in the same way that Bonhoeffer’s declaration of ‘man coming of age’ into a ‘religionless Christianity’ does. Somewhere, historically, in space and time, a line was crossed and the toothpaste cannot be pushed back into the tube.

    Of course, those who are wedded to the abusive spouse of the Enlightenment project would see Bonhoeffer’s last two theological letters as a ringing endorsement of the “progressive agenda”. How could it be otherwise? What is the progressive agenda if not the extension of freedom and self-creation into areas where it hitherto had not been welcome? I think a lot of the energy of 21st century Islam comes from its inevitable clash with modernity, so Bonhoeffer may be more relevant here than Robert and Adam allow.

    Barfield is more nuanced. One of the interesting points in Unancestral Voice was the idea, borrowed from Steiner, that there are two daemonic forces abroad in the world today (readers of CS Lewis The Pilgrim’s Regress will recognize the Northern and Southern Dragons immediately). There is Ahriman, who attempts to keep humans entrapped in forms and modes of life which they have outgrown, and his appeal is to continuity and security, and his besetting temptation is sloth. Then there is Lucifer, who attempts to impel humans into forms and modes of life that are emerging but for which humans are not yet ready. His appeal is to transformation and autonomy, and his besetting temptation is pride. Steiner’s exposition of these two forces are full of the detritus of late 19th century occultism which I don’t have the protection or the patience to safely sift through. There is a lot of seeming rubbish in Steiner about breath, blood, lymphatic fluids and post Atlantean epochs, but I think Barfield may have been able to extract the gold from Steiner’s ore. It would certainly explain the Manichaean nature of our politics these days.

    To an Orthodox believer, both Bonhoeffer and Barfield are problematic. Both make the West (specifically Austrasia, Neustria and Wessex) the spiritual crucible of humanity. It is here, amidst the children of Rome, that Science-with-a-capital-S, self-perpetuating Capital, and religionlessness arose, all three of which are necessary components of the Modern Algorithm. The children of Byzantium are characterized as “allied with a thug, thoroughly reactionary.”


  52. The end of “happy clappy” Christianity? A more reflective and celebratory worship? I, for one, would welcome such a change. I am tired of the triumphalist mindset.


  53. Autonomy is not being equated with wisdom or perfection — merely the ability to stand on ones own, to not have to rely on “Daddy” for everything, to be able to think for oneself and devise solutions to problems. I.e. The Enlightenment project.

    I think DB thought the world desperately needed God. The question is, how is God revealed in a world that doesn’t need him in all the old ways?


  54. Perhaps the historical unfolding of Joachim of Fiore’s ” 12th century prophetic intuitions concerning the coming “age of the Spirit” wherein the structures collapse. A grown upness where props are removed.


  55. For a 21st century, moderately affluent [let us name it “Middle Class”] citizen, in any given US city – what does this mean?


  56. A world that thinks it doesn’t need God is not a sign of maturity, it is a sign of foolishness. It is like our modern day category of teenagers who think they don’t need their parents and know better than there parents, and yet are still quite dependent upon their parents. Jesus is not only to be found in the weakness of the cross, but also in the power of his resurrection.


  57. > I find myself in agreement with much of what Bonhoeffer had to say. There seems to be
    > something prophetic in his words,

    Ditto. His biography and letters are often startlingly prescient. He seemed to be able to smell things coming to which all those around him were stubbornly blind.

    >Is the world we see before us really a world of mature adulthood, or wise autonomy?

    Ditto, again. That has always been what tweaked me about Bonhoeffer. He believed [by my interpretation] that something was radically changed, that we had in some sense passed from one life-age to another. This, I don’t know, I don’t see it. He was a brilliant and terribly insightful and well-read guy…. but was this his philosophical and theological education leaking though [I wonder if a Historian would see what he saw, or someone studied in Political Science].

    As a crude metaphor it is much like the innumerable times on any given Apocalyptic TV series the characters [always Anerican white suburban survivors] insist “the world has changed”. Only, no, not really, it hasn’t; now through calamity theysurvivors are living the lives billions of those trapped in the third world have lived for generations. A world where lights at night and clean water are eminent concerns.

    Bonhoeffer’s time was also simply so unique – the convergence of factors of the political power vacuum from Europe’s disastrous policies, Hitler’s political genius, England’s and American’s isolationist mood, the tight relationship between the Lutheran church and the German state, the intellectual mood of the academy,… so many things. It was a time that looks very different from today.

    > Was Bonhoeffer really only speaking about Europe and its progeny?

    Yes, I think so. It was also an era quite possibly more secular than now. Islam was contained by economic and political forced which no longer constrain it. And with the collapse of the previous economic order … and some *abysmal* state-craft … there were big new -isms afoot – *actual* Marxism in all its flavors, Socialism, Fascism (if that was ever a gelled concept). Ghandi and various movements were stirring up the East. While all these movements and -ism made a deep mark on history they have all faded. While secularism is triumphant – at least in the west – it is not unchallenged nor does it seem to be terribly self-confident.

    > Perhaps Bonhoeffer was speaking only about European Christianity, from a Eurocentric
    > perspective, which is understandable given his historical location, but nevertheless inadequate
    > for our contemporary world.

    I agree. But we still live in the shadow of that world, western Europe is probably the most secular region on Earth, it is a notable economic, technological, and intellectual power center. What Bonhoeffer wrote is relevant at least to what is the Church within that shadow – and may be informative within the odd in-between twilight that is the secular-and-not-secular United States. There is also a lack of names since that time who have both the prescience and legitimacy of “Bonhoeffer”.


  58. How did this topic come into it?

    Aside: I suggest better phrasing than “do not believe in gay marriage”. Obviously gay marriage happens, it is sanctioned by numerous principalities. Rather “do not accept the moral legitimacy of gay marriage” or something like that?


  59. I find myself in agreement with much of what Bonhoeffer had to say. There seems to be something prophetic in his words, as well as his actions. He seemed to see what was really in front of his eyes, and know what was coming.

    My problem, though, is that I can’t figure out how these two observations,

    “The world was at war, with madness at every hand….”


    ” Bonhoeffer further discussed how the historical movement toward “the autonomy of man” had in his time “reached an undoubted completion……A world come of age”

    can be reconciled.

    Is the world we see before us really a world of mature adulthood, or wise autonomy? And what does any of this have to do with the immense growth of “religion” throughout most of the world, especially Christianity and Islam? Was Bonhoeffer really only speaking about Europe and its progeny? Which is indeed post-Christian, but also increasingly a demographically disappearing portion of a diverse world.

    Perhaps Bonhoeffer was speaking only about European Christianity, from a Eurocentric perspective, which is understandable given his historical location, but nevertheless inadequate for our contemporary world.


  60. Yesterday, looking at spiritual formation, one has to consider ideas about identity, and events such as moving on down the road being more formative than static approaches. Today, one has to consider ideas about power, and I think giving up the idea of reconciling coerciveness with love and goodness. If you think about it, the idea about being persuasive trumps being coercive in reality. It is liberating and empowering. If one can grasp giving up the traditional idea of power one can grasp empathizing with suffering. Rather than seeing one’s time as a test of morality, I’m persuaded to give up a coercive position daily, and look to be a fellow helper.


  61. from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

    ” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The Incarnate Lord makes His followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3.4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love toward all one earth that bear the name of human.
    The form of Christ incarnate makes the Church into the body of Christ. All the sorrows of humanity fall upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne. The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross. The image of God is the image of Christ crucified. It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed: in other words, they must be conformed to his death (Phil. 3.10; Rom. 6.4f). The Christian life is a life of crucifixion.”


  62. “… by letting himself be crucified and cast out again and again.”
    How would you square this with Heb. 6:4-6?


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