Thursday, 16 June 2011

Sri Lankan Killing Fields

Anyone interested in the nation of Sri Lanka and in the work of the gospel there should watch the Channel 4 'Dispatches' programme 'Sri Lankan Killing Fields' broadcast on Tuesday night. It is on iplayer at

It is not easy viewing as some of the scenes are among the most harrowing I have seen on television. It shows the last weeks of the civil war, in 2009, and in particular the very strong video evidence of war crimes and human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government. Not that the Tamil Tigers were guiltless - they were responsible for their fair share of atrocities during the 25 year war. But the way in which the government appears to have systematically herded civilians into so called 'no fire zones' only to bomb and shell them repeatedly, and attack hospitals, as well as the summary execution of prisoners, was horrific.

Why is there no public outcry? Why are we bending over backwards to dislodge Gaddafi but do nothing about Mugabe in Zimbabwe or even make an audible protest about the Sri Lankan regime? Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and nothing has been said as far as I am aware by our government or at least in such a small whisper that it was easily missed.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bonhoeffer: has Metaxas whitewashed him?

I shall make no bones about it - it is a long time since I was as engrossed by a book, even a biography, as I was by Eric Metaxas's 'Bonhoeffer: pastor, martyr, prophet, spy' recently. It is racily written and with a keen ear for the catchy phrase and snappy put-down of baddies (Nazis mainly). But it is a challenging book as well as a good read and highly recommended. It has got me into re-reading some Bonhoeffer classics I first read many years ago, and also into reading one or two new things.

One of the questions that arises is: has Metaxas painted Bonhoeffer as rather more evangelical than he was? The evidence of what he writes is irrefutable and eminently quotable by an evangelical. The man seems to have had a very real love for and relationship with the Lord, and a real devotional life. But this is all from the period before he went into prison. One can read 'Life Together', 'The Cost of Discipleship' and even 'Ethics' and get much real help. For us who have lived in relatively tranquil times, it is mind-numbing to think about how one would have coped with the kind of pressures facing men in Bonhoeffer's position, with the Lutheran church capitulating to Hitler, and Bonhoeffer even losing faith eventually in the Confessing Church which promised far more than it delivered. But who will cast the first stone at anyone trying to find a way through the ethical maze of those dark days?

The theological climate is different when reading his theological letters from prison written from 1943-45. This is when his ideas of 'man come of age' and 'religionless Christianity' began to be explored although never fully developed. In subsequent years many sought to develop them and he was largely drawn on for example along with Tillich, Bultmann and Barth in the 'Honest to God' debate, though they were by no means saying the same things. Perhaps Bonhoeffer was taken to false conclusions by those professing to follow him. But he certainly said things which would lead to a radical secularising of Christianity and of Christian language and concepts.

In his 'The Abolition of Religion' (1964) Leon Morris helpfully analyses the debate and comes down fairly forcefully against Bonhoeffer.

It is fair to say that Metaxas does not really deal adequately with the 'Letters and Papers from Prison'. The theological debate is skirted in favour of perhaps one too many love letters from or to Bonhoeffer's fiancee Maria. It would have been good to have more rigorous debate about Bonhoeffer's ideas in this book.

A good complement is the helpful shorter biography by Edwin Robertson, 'The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer'. He too borders on hagiography (is this an inherent danger with a relatively young man who died under a tyranny?) but in the other direction, far more sympathetic to the 'Letters and Papers' but with less attention to certain 'evangelical' aspects of the early Bonhoeffer.

Still, we hope to debate the book at the John Owen Centre Theology Study Group on Monday 20th. Should be good! (See Gary Brady at 'Heavenly Worldliness' on this theme too).

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Bonhoeffer's 'Life Together' (4)

'Confession' is a word that makes most Protestants grimace and twitch, but it is worthwhile hearing what Bonhoeffer has to say on the subject in the context of a Christian community. It helps to recall his strong Lutheran background and the nominal condition generally in the churches, quite apart from the issue of the state church's complicity with Hitler.

'He that is alone with his sins is utterly alone...The pious fellowship permits no-one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone in our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is, we are sinners!

'But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. "My son, give me thine heart" (Prov 23:26).

This is where the Christian brother can help. 'Therefore [Christ] gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in is name. "Whose soever sin ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:23)... So in the Christian community when the call to brotherly confession and forgiveness goes forth it is a call to the great grace of God in the Church. It is:

'...a breakthrough to community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him...In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart...He confesses his sin and in the very act finds fellowship for the first time.

'...a breakthrough to the cross. Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation....we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

'...a breakthrough to new life. Where sin is hated, admitted and forgiven, there the break with the past is made.

'... a breakthrough to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, he is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. Why should we
not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution...Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person...But since the sin must come to the light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of final judgement. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother.

'Does all this mean that confession to a brother is a divine law? No,confession is not a law, it is an offer of divine help for the sinner. It is possible that a person may by God's grace break through to certainty, new life, the Cross and fellowship without the benefit of confession to a brother...We have spoken here for those who cannot make this assertion. Luther was one of those for whom the Christian life was unthinkable without mutual, brotherly confession. Confession is within the liberty of the Christian. Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death; confession in reliance upon the promise is life'

Friday, 10 June 2011

Bonhoeffer's 'Life Together' (3)

Community not an Ideal but a Divine reality (continued).

'Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients...A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first and see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God.'

Community a Spiritual and not a Psychic (Human) Reality

'Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ; it is a spiritual and not a psychic reality, created only by the Holy Spirit not by natural urges, powers and capacities of the human spirit.
'The basis of all spiritual reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ...In the spiritual realm the Spirit governs; in human community, psychological techniques and methods. In the former naive, unpsychological, unmethodical, helping love is extended towards one's brother; in the latter, psychological analysis and construction.

'...we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Spiritual love proves itself in that everything it says and does commends Christ. It will not seek to move others by all too direct personal direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another....Thus this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.'

On the Psalter:

Discussing the difficulty we feel in uttering as our own the psalms of imprecation, of claimed innocence and the psalms of passion: 'A psalm we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One protesting his innocence, who is invoking God's judgement, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter. The Man Christ Jesus, to whom no affliction, no ill, no suffering is alien and who yet was the wholly innocent and righteous one, is praying in the Psalter through the mouth of his Church. The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the true sense of the word...Now we understand how the Psalter can be prayer to God and yet God's own Word...The individual prays, in so far as Christ prays within him, not in his own name but in the Name of Jesus Christ; he prays out of the Manhood put on by Christ; he prays on the basis of the prayer of the Man Christ Jesus.
' The Psalter is [also] the vicarious prayer of Christ for His Church.'

On ministry:

The greatest ministry to one another is the ministry of the Word of God, but for this to be real other ministries must be exercised too:
the ministry of holding one's tongue(Ps 50:20-21; James 4:11-12; Eph 4:29);
the ministry of meekness(Rom 12:3,16): 'One who lives by justification by grace is willing and ready to accept even insults and injuries without protest, taking them from God's punishing and gracious hand';
the ministry of listening: 'Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God's love for us that he not only gives us his Word but lends us his ear';
the ministry of helpfulness; ' trifling, external matters; nobody is too good for the meanest service'.
the ministry of bearing (Gal 6:2)'The Bible speaks with remarkable frequency of 'bearing'. It is capable of expressing the whole work of Jesus Christ (Isa 53:4,5)'.
And then- the ministry of proclaiming - one to one, warning, encouragement, rebuke. 'Nothing can be more loving than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the paths of sin'.
Finally, the ministry of authority:'Whoever will be great among you, shall be your servant / minister' (Mark 10:43).

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

'We have only done our duty'

In Luke 17:10 Jesus commends to his disciples the attitude of bondservants, or slaves, who confess after completing all their work, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ (or ‘what we owed’).
This does not sound very much; we would like to think we do far more than our duty to God. Surely it is more honouring to do all we do for God from the freedom of love, from Spirit-inspired delight in him? ‘Duty’ sounds rather a meagre offering.
Yet it is ‘what we owe’. If we owe it to God to love him with all our heart and mind and strength, as well as our neighbour as ourselves, perhaps duty is not such a small thing after all. Maybe it is our concept of duty which needs to be revised. It is a bigger thing than we may think.

From Creation onwards

To begin with, duty is what we owe to God as his creatures. By virtue of being alive in his world we owe him lifelong perfect obedience and worship. We owe it to him as Creator. Our chief end is to glorify him and enjoy him forever.
Our duty was augmented when God made a covenant with Adam. On Adam’s continued obedience he would, it is implied, attain eternal life that could not be lost. God was not bound to do that. Such reward is by covenant, not by the relationship between Creator and creature. The prohibition (not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil , Gen. 2:16,17) is also over and above Adam’s duty as a creature; covenant augmented the basic creaturely duty and added the promise of reward; but it was still duty, albeit now a further covenantal duty, that Adam owed to God.

It is duty that is contradicted by sin, by which man does what is the opposite of his duty. As a result he became a bondservant to Satan and is now a slave of sin. The sin that he now cannot help doing is the payment of a false debt to a false master, a service without rewards though with all sorts of empty promises attached.
It is duty that was re-presented, expressed and itemised in the law given at Sinai.

Servanthood and Sonship

Duty, offered to God, is the expression of servanthood.
Duty is reinforced, not cancelled out, by adoption as a son. The idea that a son does not owe duty is a strange one. Sonship changes the relationship and the motivation of service but strengthens the bond of duty. Love becomes the motive and gives power to obey but does not remove the obligation nor alter the terms of the duty.

Grace and Duty

It is the antinomian error to believe that grace and duty are not compatible. Grace is God’s undeserved goodness to his creatures and in particular to his sinful creatures. Why should such grace dissolve the obligation the creature owes? In the sphere of redemption why should reinstatement to the life of the Spirit that was lost by sin, remove the saved sinner from the realm of obligation to God? Why should God’s law no longer apply? Why should its terms be changed? The relationship within which the sinner obeys the law – the covenant of grace rather than the covenant of works – has changed, but not the law itself nor the fact of owing obedience to God. The inner attitude to the law becomes one of love and delight (Pss. 19:10; 119:97) rather than of hatred and fear; but this does not mean that law is any the less binding on him. Antinomianism is sub-Biblical and sub-Christian in this regard. Its hidden presupposition is that law, obligation and duty are un-Spiritual things. But redemption is in fact liberation from the bondage of law-breaking to the liberty of law-keeping.

The place of blessing

Duty is the basis of human dignity. It means I have a responsibility to God. It is where God addresses me not as a recipient of blessing or as a victim of wrong or suffering, but as a responsible creature.
Duty is where I have a choice – to obey or not. At this point I am a moral creature.
Duty is where I exercise power. This sounds paradoxical but it is true. If I see my life through the lens of ‘rights’ I am a claimant but not an actor. In the exercise of duty I act – I do. Doing the will of God is the place of only real power because it is where God blesses. When I am weak then I am strong.
Duty is the place of blessing – it is in my doing of the law that God blesses me (Jas. 1:25).

In the public sphere

In the public sphere, duty is the basis of civil obedience. It is my duty to God that is the basis of my obedience to the state.
Duty is the basis of human rights. For it is my performance of my duty to God that a government should protect, and it is my duty to God that it is my right to perform without hindrance from the state. No government has a right to prevent a human being performing his duty to God and this creates human rights in me. At the point where a government fails in its duty here, I must obey God rather than man.
And so, duty is also the basis of civil disobedience, as well as of civil obedience. It is at the point of duty to God conflicting with my duty to the state that I must disobey the state.

Duty is the basis of Christian freedom – only God can bind the conscience.
Duty is the guiding principle for Christian behaviour in society. We may exercise, and do all we can do protect, such rights as we enjoy in a democratic society. But ultimately they are vulnerable and frail things. They are a poor and unreliable guide to what I should do and what I should insist on. They change with the cultures and mores of a given age. They reflect the culture and the more influenced by Christianity a culture is, the more rights a Christian will have. But if we keep our eye on ‘rights’ we shall be led astray. We shall reflect our culture rather than reflecting God. My duty to God, however, does not change. Difficult decisions will be made as to how to exercise it in a given situation but duty, not rights, remains the surest guide to ethical living.

The spirituality of duty

Duty is summed up in love to God and my neighbour.
Duty is the source of pure motivation – that God commands it. To do something because it is commanded is the purest love to God. Never dream that to do something other than our duty, to act from something called ‘freedom’ as if we could by so doing offer God more than he requires, is ever more than a vain conceit.
Failure in duty (and only failure in duty) requires forgiveness.
Duty is what Christ came to do. He delighted in doing his Father’s will (Jn. 4:34; Heb. 10:7 [Ps. 40:8]). That was why he came (Jn. 17:4). The psalmist (who ultimately is Christ) delighted in doing the will of God (Ps. 119:14-16). Shall we do more than Christ? He was the most free of men – no-one could even take his life from him (Jn. 10:17,18) – yet how did he use his authority and his freedom? In obeying his Father – in doing his duty.

To be able to say ‘ we have only done our duty’ is no little thing. It is what the only Son, and the humblest and greatest of all Servants, did. We can never do more than our duty. We cannot even do our duty. All that we do is our duty, but we never do all that is our duty. Only Christ has done that; it is his righteousness, his freely accepted duty done for us, that is ours by grace and is our hope in the judgement. We are unworthy servants; he alone was worthy.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Bonhoeffer's 'Life Together' (2)

Christian community is in and through Jesus Christ.

'1. First, a Christian needs others because of Christ.The Christian seeks salvation and justification not in himself but in Christ alone. He lives by the Word of Christ that pronounces him not guilty but righteous. His righteousness is an 'alien' righteousness. But God has put this Word that brings us redemption into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. Therefore a Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's Word to him. And that clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they need one another as bringers of the message of salvation.

'2. Secondly, a Christian comes to others only through Christ. Among men there is strife. He is our peace (Eph 2:14). Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother. To eternity he remains the one Mediator.

'3. Third,in Jesus Christ we have been chosen for eternity, accepted in time and united for eternity. When God's Son took on flesh, he truly and bodily took on, out of pure grace, our being, our nature, ourselves. Now we are in him. We belong to him because we are in him. So we also belong to him in eternity with one another. We who live here in fellowship with him will one day be with him in eternal fellowship.'

Christian community is not an Ideal but a Divine Reality.

'Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realise it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely we must be overwhelmed by a great general disillusionment with others, with Christians in general and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

'By sheer grace God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. God is not a God of the emotions but a God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself, becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest. God hates visionary dreaming...'

Monday, 6 June 2011

Bonhoeffer's 'Life Together' (1)

On 'Community':

'It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians...[B]etween the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God's Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone.

'The physical presence of other Christians is a source of joy and strength to the believer. Longingly the imprisoned apostle Paul calls his 'dearly beloved son in the faith'., Timothy, to come to him again and have him near.

'It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trampled under foot by those who have the gift every day. ...It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.'

Of course, Bonhoeffer was speaking in the particular context of the 'live-in seminary' of the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, Germany, before the Second World War. But his thoughts in this book are applicable with little difficulty to the life of the church generally.