Bonhoeffer’s Double Standards

I’m finally working through Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, which has been a long time coming. It’s the last book I need to read for the course I took in January, Reading Bonhoeffer, but I feel like it should have been one of the first Bonhoeffer books I read. It’s certainly one of the more accessible of his writings, though that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult. Perhaps challenging is the better word.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, German Lutherans had (apparently) been enjoying Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone for a long time, to the point where grace had become an assumption, and thus had little power in people’s lives. Bonhoeffer starts his book by talking about “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He holds that costly grace, or real grace, comes as a result of obedience in faith. Faith cannot be separated from obedience. Faith and obedience are a sort of chicken-and-egg situation: do you obey because you believe, or do you believe because you obey? Ultimately, the answer is both, which can be hard to get your head around. In obeying, you show that you believe at the same time that you learn to believe.

This discussion of cheap and costly grace has helped me tremendously to understand Luther. Living hundreds of years later and never having actually read Luther, all I know of his thought comes through a massive game of Telephone, distorted by time and retelling. I know mostly about the abuse of the doctrine, but Bonhoeffer put Luther in perspective for me.

Luther was a penitent monk who had given up everything to follow Jesus (Monks aren’t exactly known for their wealth and worldly ways), had trained for years in spiritual disciplines, and then realized that he was saved by God’s gift to him, which he received in faith. None of his training or renunciation of the world, none of what he gave up to be a disciple, was what actually saved him. It was just Jesus, from the start. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is not a renunciation of works – he’d probably do it all again – but rather a strong recognition that works in themselves will not save anyone. Even the most pious works can be done with self-serving attitudes or purposes, but even right purposes and attitudes are evidence of Christ working in us and not something that we ourselves can be credited with.

Does this mean that works, even if good, are not necessary? Not at all; as has already been said, faith cannot be separated from obedience. It was only after Luther had gone through all of those acts of obedience in faith that he could properly recognize that faith was all that was required. His life of obedience had been the soil in which faith grew (a notion that still provides the foundation for the Catholic doctrine of grace, in which we grow in grace by works of obedience that make us into people capable of receiving more grace from God). Luther, as a veteran disciple of Christ, was able to say truly and with full force that salvation is by grace through faith, and that works themselves are of no value to salvation; the same phrase coming out of the mouth of a new or lukewarm disciple is not true in the same sense, if at all. Luther’s grace was costly, coming after toil and sacrifice; but assuming grace as a principle and eschewing works altogether is cheap grace, or not grace at all. I see this as somewhat of a double standard, but a good one.

In chapter 3 Bonhoeffer talks about “simple obedience,” and again I see a double standard here. He uses the example of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. By asking this question, Bonhoeffer points out, the young man is actually trying to avoid the question: he knows the law and has followed it all his life. He’s looking for something more. Bonhoeffer says he’s looking for a way to avoid the question, to turn a commandment into a philosophical question to be discussed rather than obeyed. I was always under the impression that he was just insecure and wanted guidance. In either case, Jesus turns him back to simple commands that should be obeyed just as simply. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.

We have a way of interpreting Jesus’ commands in an inward, spiritual way, that doesn’t actually require us to simply obey him. We don’t really need to sell everything we have and give it to the poor in order to follow him, we just need to hold our possessions so lightly that they have no hold over us, so that we could hypothetically sell them and give all our money away. Rather than actually doing so, it might actually seem better to hold on to our money and things so that we can remain in this state of hypothetical “obedience.” Our method of “obeying” can thus often mean doing the exact opposite because of our insistence on reinterpreting the command. Bonhoeffer points out that if we obeyed our parents this way, or obeyed the authorities this way, we’d be in serious trouble.

Again, there is a double standard here. We don’t all need to give our money away, and we don’t all need to take a vow of poverty. Doing so might even be a type of self-righteousness, or legalism, or some other negative thing. There are other commands in the New Testament that talk about holding our possessions lightly. But once again, it’s easy for some people to “obey” Jesus in this paradoxical sense, obeying spiritually but not actually. Bonhoeffer holds that this is cheap grace, claiming to obey but actually being disobedient. Those who have actually obeyed Jesus simply, though, and followed him, are capable of obeying spiritually. It’s one thing for a long time disciple who has been practising simple obedience for some time to talk about and practise obeying the spiritual intent of Jesus’ literal commands; it’s quite another for a less mature disciple to use it as an excuse to avoid Jesus’ straightforward commands.

The key to it all is formation: obeying Jesus in faith makes us into the type of people who have enough faith to obey.

W5 with Bonhoeffer

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures…very, very slowly. I can only do about two pages before I have to write a post. My assignment is an analysis of a 23 page chunk, and I thought “that’s pretty short – should be easy.” Right.

So, for the first six pages Bonhoeffer is introducing the topic of Christology by talking about the kinds of questions that we can ask. It’s not quite W5, but he goes through several different questions that humans ask to find the one that is appropriate for the task of Christology. I’ve already written a few posts about it over at iheartbarth, if you’re interested; here I’ll try to be a bit less meandering, but I’m still working through the concepts. Most of what I’ll say here is Bonhoeffer, but much of it is interpreted and expanded upon as I work it out.

1. How

This seems to be the only question that human beings are capable of asking on our own. Whether we’re examining the world through the lens of the sciences, the soft sciences, or the humanities, all of our questions are a type of the question “how?” Knowledge, in the sense of what we can learn about the world through studying it, involves cataloguing the world into different categories. These categories, though, occur within our own heads: we can really only understand anything else in its relation to other things, but ultimately we understand all things in relation to ourselves. This is a limitation we have, a result of our limited perspective. All questions boil down to “how” because ultimately we’re asking “how does this other thing relate to me?”

This is a useful question when dealing with objects, but when we are confronted by an other, another subject, it will no longer do. When we ask “how” of another person, we are in a sense objectifying them because we treat them as something whose primary feature is its relation to ourselves. We are at the centre of our own universe, a position from which we cannot respect the other as other; they instead become a mere projection of ourselves. I may have much in common with you, and so I have a sense that I know you or have knowledge about you; but in reality, I’m only projecting myself onto you because my knowledge of you is only in relation to myself.

2. Who

When we are faced with an other, the “how” questions no longer suffice. Not only does it objectify the other, but it does not obtain any actual knowledge of them, because it only allows us to project ourselves onto them, to co-opt them. No, the only sufficient question for an other is “who are you?”

The trick is, we cannot ask “who are you?” until the other has revealed themselves to us. As long as we are asking from within our self-centred universe, in which all knowledge is categorized by the relationship of objects to ourselves, “who” is actually just “how” in disguise. But when another reveals herself to us, we can suddenly transcend our self-defined paradigms: knowledge has come into our self-contained universe from outside! Only then is there any fruit in asking “who are you?” because now we have a basis for asking the question, and a new paradigm for the knowledge that the answer will bring.

Bonhoeffer hasn’t mentioned it in this lecture so far, but I don’t think it’s wise to read Bonhoeffer without keeping in mind his concept of the ethical encounter with the other. I think that is precisely what he’s talking about here. In short, to Bonhoeffer ethics cannot take place in our minds, as if we’re sitting around a table debating ethical questions and hypotheticals; rather, real ethics takes place in the ethical encounter with the other. We cannot act ethically all by ourselves, because the ethical question only arises when we meet an other. The other provides a boundary for ourselves, a place where me-ness ends and other-ness begins, and this boundary is where life takes place. It is at this boundary that ethical questions arise, but they arise here because it is at this boundary that the other can make claims upon me: I have responsibilities to the other. Bonhoeffer spends some time in his first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, developing this notion; here we can add that this boundary is also the place where I can gain genuine knowledge that is more than just a projection of myself, because this other not only provides a boundary for my me-ness, but they also provide a boundary for my self-centred paradigms and categories. In the encounter with the other there arises an ethical claim on me; when the other reveals herself, there arises an ontological challenge: there exists something outside of me!

But we can get around that. Bonhoeffer points out how clever we are at assimilating the other into ourselves, and says that we can even do so with God, or his self-revelation in the Bible. But the challenge that Christ poses to us is greater, and more insistent, than that of any other:

But what happens if the counter Logos [that is, Christ] suddenly presents its demand in a wholly new form, so that it is no longer an idea or a word that is turned against the autonomy of the [human] logos, but rather the counter Logos appears, somewhere and at some time in history, as a human being, and as a human being sets itself up as judge over the human logos and says “I am the truth.” I am the death of the human logos, I am the life of God’s Logos, I am the Alpha and Omega? Human beings are those who must die and must fall, with their logos, into my hands. Here it is no longer possible to fit the Word made flesh into the logos classification system. Here all that remains is the question: Who are you? – DBWE 12, 302

We can treat God as an idea, and categorize him in our self-centred paradigms; we can treat the Bible as an object, and do the same. But in Christ, God confronts us as a concrete other, a human being. Now, though other human beings can confront us with the end of ourselves and make ethical claims on us, Christ makes much greater claims! He is much more difficult to ignore. Faced with Christ as the self-revelation of God, “how” is completely insufficient, and we cannot help but ask “who are you?”

3. That

“That” isn’t to be questioned; he goes so far as to say that questioning it is “prohibited” in the Christological enterprise. Once we have asked “who are you?”…

Two questions are prohibited:

(1) Whether the answer that is given is the right answer. This question has no right to be asked, because there can be no authority for our human logos to cast doubt on the truth of this Logos. Jesus’ own witness to himself, then and now, stands on its own and substantiates itself. The “that” in “that God was revealed in Christ” cannot be theologically questioned.

(2) The second prohibited question is how the “that” of the revelation can be conceived. This question leads in the direction of trying again to get behind Christ’s claim, and to ground it in our own. In doing so, our own logos is presuming on the role of the Father of Jesus Christ himself, when all we actually know is the fact of God’s revelation. – 303

As I’ve already written about this, I’ll keep it short: we have no basis on which to question whether God has actually revealed himself in Christ. Aside from Christ’s self-revelation, we’re pretty much stuck inside our own heads. We can’t question Christ’s answer to our question of “who are you” because it actually comes from outside of ourselves; and we can’t question how we can know Christ’s answer to our asking of that question, because we have no epistemological basis for doing so, because it does come from outside ourselves. It transcends all of our categories and classifications, and we can only accept it or reject it. Anything else is just another attempt to return to the “how” and assimilate Christ into ourselves – or kill him. It doesn’t make for a good Christological endeavour, either way.

What happens again if the claim of the counter Logos is questioned. The human logos kills the Logos of God, the Word become human, which it has just questioned. Because the human logos does not want to die itself, the Logos of God, which is death to the human logos, must die instead. The Word become human must be hung on the cross by the human logos. The person who was causing the worry has been killed, and along with that person, the question.

But what happens when this counter Word, though it has been killed, raises itself from the dead as the living, eternal, ultimate, conquering Word of God, when it rises up to meet its murderers and rushes at them again, appearing as the Resurrected One who has overcome death? Here the question “Who are you?” becomes most poignant. Here it stands, alive forever, over and around and within humankind. The human being can still fight against the Word become human and kill him, but against the Resurrected One the human being has no power. We ourselves are now the ones who stand convicted. Now our question has been turned around. The question we have put to the person of Christ, “Who are you?” comes back at us: who are you, that you can ask this question? Do you live in the truth, so you can ask it? Who are you, you who can only ask about me because you have been justified and received grace through me? Only when this question has been heard has the christological question been definitively formulated. – 305

The claim that Christ makes on us when we encounter him is greater than the ethical claims of other humans: it is judgment and grace at the same time. Because of the judgment of that encounter, our question of “who are you?” springs back on us, as we become aware of ourselves before God as one judged. We can’t handle this, so we undermine the question, destroy it – we kill Christ so that the penetrating question “who are you?” will go away. But he returns, more glorious and more terrible than before, and his question “who are you?” remains. We can’t ask him, without the question returning to us. That is the judgment of encounter with Christ; the mercy and grace of the encounter with Christ is to hear his answer to the question. “Who are you?” is answered: the Son of God.

His answer, then, can only truly be heard in faith. To question his answer is to kill him, to reassert our own autonomy, to keep asking “how.” If we want to seriously ask “who are you?” we need to listen in faith to actually hear the answer (otherwise, we will only experience the question rebounding upon us in judgment). That is why Christology can only occur in the context of the church.

4. What

Finally, Bonhoeffer finishes up his introduction with the question of authority.

There are two contrasting types of authority in the world: the authority deriving from office, and the authority inherent in the person. When these two authorities confront each other, then the question posed to the authority of the person is “What” are you? The “what” means, what office do you hold? The question of the individual person to the person in authority is where do you as an individual get your authority? The answer is from myself, since I recognize your authority over me. Both questions about authority are derived from the “how question.” All people are holders of some office, of some community, of themselves. Even prophets are only bearers of the word; they are not the word itself.

What happens, then, when someone appears who claims not only to bring the divine office and Word but actually to be that very office and Word? That is, not only to have authority but to be authority itself? Here a new existence breaks into our existence. Here the highest authority in the world, that of the prophet, is superseded. This is no longer the saint, the reformer, the prophet, but rather the Son himself. Here we no longer ask, What are you, where do you come from? Here the question asked is that of the very revelation of God.

Once again, then, the only question we can ask of Christ is “Who are you?” We define ourselves and each other by our office, by our authority – authority that is, like our knowledge, derived from how things relate to ourselves. But Christ transcends all of that, because he is authority. “What” no longer has meaning, only “who?”

Christ transcends all of our categories and classifications, and therefore our knowledge and basis for knowledge; he also transcends our personal barriers, being an Other whose claim upon us judges us and gives us mercy and grace at the same time. In this way, Christ allows us to see ourselves, and our world, truly. The question “who are you?” is thus the question of transcendence and existence: we can only really know who we are in relation to Christ. Our classification system has become reversed, for now all things are known in relation to Christ rather than in relation to ourselves; and our sense of authority is reversed, for now authority is recognized to come from God rather than to be something that I give to others.

In this encounter with Christ we see the world as it truly is, and we see ourselves as we truly are, but only if we can ask in faith, “Who are you Lord?”