Bonhoeffer and the Good News

Just got out of class, and I have half an hour to articulate the thought and concept of what we discussed.

Us protestants love to believe that salvation is by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ alone: nothing we do can earn us salvation.  We’ve fought wars over it, and go to great lengths to prove it and drill it into our heads: we are fallen humanity, evil steeped in evil, but out of grace God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer confirms this doctrine: he says that Jesus Christ is not a human, but the human, and that all things that happen to Christ (i.e. death, reconciliation to God, resurrection) happen to all, that is, to us.  But…where’d we get this idea that we somehow (in spite of all of our talk about God’s grace being a free gift and completely unilateral) need to take part in that salvation?

We talk all the time about how some people are saved and some aren’t.  With protestants (and particularly evangelicals – I can’t speak for you fine mainline folk) it’s an in-or-out world.  We love to secretly categorize our world into Christian and non-, saved and un-.  Sometimes this takes the form of judging people, sometimes it takes the form of “praying for them” because we recognize backsliding – but it very often comes with fearing for their salvation (or our own).  But if Christ has died once and for all, how can anyone ever fear for anyone’s salvation?

To fill that gap, we talk about how salvation has been freely given, but it must also be freely received.  I can’t think of a clear scripture reference to this, but if you can, please comment!  I’m suspicious that it doesn’t exist.  We place so much emphasis on realizing our guilt before we can be saved from our sin, that we forget that we have, unilaterally and undeservedly, already been saved.  Christ is not crucified anew every time someone says the “Sinner’s Prayer”, he died once and for all, before the very foundations of the world (Hebrews something:something).  This is the good news!  The good news is not good for some people (Christians) and not for others (non-Christians); it’s good for everyone!  We don’t have to say “If you join our club, you’ll get salvation”; the club is in response to salvation.  It’s not a club that offers salvation as incentive to join; it’s a club for the saved, i.e. for human beings! 

Imagine a social group who approaches you by pointing out all of your faults and telling you that you can be a better person if you hang out with them.  That doesn’t sound like good news to me, it sounds like high school.  The good news (gospel=”good news” in Greek) is a message that everyone actually wants to hear: “You are already reconciled to God through Jesus Christ – you just don’t know it yet, so we’re here to tell you!”  It’s pointing to the reality of what has already been accomplished, so that everyone can see it.  Sin blinds us to reality, and Christians are those who try to point to reality and allow ourselves to be formed by that true reality. 

Bonhoeffer isn’t a gnostic (it’s not the knowledge of salvation that is effective, but the reality of it) nor is he a universalist (you still must recognize reality in order to be affected by it), but he gets back to the goodness of the news in a way that we’ve lacked for way too long.

When Jesus says that the Gospel is offensive, he means in regards to pointing out the world’s subordinacy to God (a message people don’t usually like) – NOT that Christians should be rude jerks who tantalizingly wave salvation before people but require them to completely humiliate themselves to get it; Christ was already humiliated in our place!  Spread the news – we never need to be humiliated again!

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10 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer and the Good News

  1. The good thing about Christians doing things the wrong way (ie: approaching people with their own sin in order to try to win some sort of conversion) is that, in the very fact that it is wrong, it will not succeed and will eventually die out in the lives and practices of the church. The difficulty is for those who get burned by it in the meantime. But it does make me think that, as Augustine would say, the City of God is rather smaller than we think.

    “the club is in response to salvation. It’s not a club that offers salvation as incentive to join; it’s a club for the saved, i.e. for human beings!” Jeff, in three sentences or less convince me that you (and hopefully Bonhoeffer) are not universalists. 🙂

    • Ha! That’s pretty much what I asked in class.

      If Bonhoeffer’s a universalist, then he wouldn’t believe in hell – so I asked what he thought about hell. The answer: that sin blinds people from reality, even if that reality is eternal salvation. It’s like the Dwarves in the Last Battle.

      There: three sentences! I should point out that, while I argue for change and critique the Church based on Bonhoeffer’s point of view, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that point of view to its ultimate ends: this blog is me trying to figure out whether or not I understand Bonhoeffer (and other theologians) let alone advocate them. This point led me to realize how badly we suck at delivering good news, even if B.’s theology here is way off.

      About Christians doing things the wrong way: it still has a lot of effectiveness, as well. My prof pointed out to a girl in class that, in spite of her saying the “Sinner’s Prayer” eight times as a child, she’s here in Seminary. It’s still good, but it could be much, much better.

      • Exactly. I came to God as a young man mostly out of fear of not being with God/going to hell.

        The universalist strain pops up a lot in modern theology (Bonhoeffer in a small way. Barth in a bigger way.) I’m not convinced that they themselves believe in universalism, but it is definitely there as a potential road of thought, as opposed to like a Luther or Calvin. My fear is that all these postmodern theologians (or whatever they are) start going down that road.

  2. I’m with you Graeme: universalism is a troubling concept because then you must ask “what about the numerous references about Hell?” My recent studies of Hell (for a LR curric – look for it) served to shake up my dogmatic understanding of it, leaving me unsure of where I stand. I know that I’m not a universalist in that I know that Hell exists, and is/will be populated, but I know that my traditional instruction regarding Hell and damnation is less than sufficient to account for the once and for all nature of Christ’s sacrifice.

    As always in theology, we must walk the tense line between opposing views.

  3. Then I hope you haven’t read my blog yet! I’ve posted on universalism very recently (once in regard to B.) and much in the past. I’m not fully convinced of universalism, but I think it’s very compelling theology.

    You might be interested to know that universalism (well, Christian universalism) doesn’t necessarily rule out hell. You may want to check out Gregory McDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (like you have time!). He argues from a firmly evangelical point of view, with the except that he thinks that when all is said and done, hell will be empty. (Of course, he says it much more eloquently than I do.)

    I’ve only read the first half of the book so far. It’s basically the philosophical/theological argument–he tackles, for instance, Calvinism, arguing that its position of eternal conscious torment in hell is contradictory with the rest of its theology. (Again, he does it much more eloquently). The second half of the book is an exegetical argument for his view.

    I’ve read another blogger who went through the relevant hell texts (of which there are relatively few) and came to the conclusion that they were, for the most part, not directed at pagans but at the religious authorities (i.e. those whom we would consider safe from hell). Interesting.

    It’s interesting that Christians often disagree with a certain theological position based on a prior theological position. So we reject an idea like universalism because of the hell texts or perhaps because it seems to do away with the need to evangelize (I’ve done the same thing). But then it might just be that our understanding of the hell texts or what evangelism is about (i.e. Yoder would have a different take on evangelism than your run-of-the-mill evangelicals like us) is incorrect.. But what if the prior theological position we are holding against the theology in question is itself wrong?

    Anyway…sorry for the essay.

    Again, I’m not a universalist, but I find it compelling. I am certainly a hopeful universalist, which I think is an unquestionably biblical position to have.

    Look forward to more posts! (I haven’t read all the others yet).

    • I love your term “hopeful universalist”! Me too.

      What is Hell? If it’s a place, where is it? I’ve heard it said that Hell is the only place outside of God’s presence, but God is omnipresent: In Him we live and move and breathe, I think the song goes.

      If it’s a state of being, then what type of state would it be? The logical option (certainly in Bonhoeffer’s mind, it would seem) is that it is a state of spiritual blindness to reality that is God as revealed in Jesus Christ, which again makes me think of the Dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” – they are blind to the fact that they are in heaven, and continue to labour on. If this is the case, then Hell is on Earth right now – and most people are in it.

      If Hell is outside the Kingdom, or outside Heaven (are they the same thing?) then its presence would correspond to the presence of the Kingdom – if the Kingdom is both already and not yet, so too is Hell.

      All that to say that I think the view that Hell is a physical place is insufficient. God is omnipresent and gracious, and the only separation between us and Him is the broken relationship caused by sin. The only way to not relate to God is to ignore Him, or be blind to Him, because there is nowhere you can go that God is not already there.

  4. Those of you andconcerned that Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice contradicts the fact that Hell will be populated, look at it like this. Although his sacrifice was sufficient for the entire world, it becomes efficient only for the elect.
    If you do not understand who the elect is, get your concordance out and look up elect, predestined, etc. Salvation is from sin, death and Hell and is completely of God. Though He requires everyone to repent and believe, even that faith is from Him.

    • Thanks for your comment Charles, though I’m not sure how it addresses the content of this post. Further, I’m not sure it covers the entire witness of Scripture: a well-known Arminian scholar once told me that there were excellent arguments on both sides of the predestination/free-will divide, and that neither side could disprove the other if they both used the same texts. That last part is key: if we’re going to claim to use all of scripture to make our point, we need to actually use all of it. The hard part, of course, is getting it all straight within the bounds of logical consistency.

      I’m concerned not only that, as you said, Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice contradicts the fact that Hell will be populated, but perhaps more importantly, that it contradicts his all-sufficient grace. The distinction between sufficiency and efficiency is meaningless if we are predestined to our fate and have no free will; but if we do have free will, it makes perfect sense that we should be able to refuse God’s gift in Christ Jesus. That said, the question becomes one of whether or not failure to seek and grasp that good gift is the same as actively refusing it. I personally don’t think so.

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