Bonhoeffer: Approaching Scripture

July 30, 2010

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German theologian and pastor who stood bravely against Hitler and the Nazis' attempts to co-opt the church for political purposes. He was imprisoned and then, shortly before the Allies took Berlin, executed by the Nazi regime. In light of last Sunday’s sermon on the Sixth Commandment, Bonhoeffer’s clear teaching on loyalty to Christ above loyalty to state, his leanings toward pacifism, and his eventual involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler are thought provoking. I highly recommend Eric Metaxas’ new biography, from which this quote is taken (p. 136-37). Bonhoeffer is writing in 1936 to his brother-in-law, who did not hold a high view of Scripture – Coty]

First of all I will confess quite simply – I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but by simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us alon[e] with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible . . . .

If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New but also in the Old Testament . . . .

And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way – and this has not been for so very long – it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.

The Law and the Heart

July 22, 2010

It is indeed a most lamentable consequence of the practice of regarding religion as a compilation of statutes, and not as an internal principle, that it soon comes to be considered as being conversant about external actions, rather than about habits of mind. This sentiment sometimes has even the hardiness to insinuate and maintain itself under the guise of extraordinary concern for practical religion; but it soon discovers the falsehood of this pretension, and betrays its real nature. The expedient indeed of attaining to superiority in practice, by not wasting any of the attention on the internal principles from which alone practice can flow, is about as reasonable, and will answer about as well, as the economy of the architect who should account it mere prodigality to expend any of his materials in laying foundations, from an idea that they might be more usefully applied to the raising of the superstructure. We know what would be the fate of such an edifice.

It is indeed true, and a truth never to be forgotten, that all pretensions to internal principles of holiness are vain, when they are contradicted by the conduct; but it is no less true, that the only effectual way of improving the latter, is by a vigilant attention to the former. It was therefore our blessed Savior’s injunction, “Make the tree good” as the necessary means of obtaining good fruit; and the holy Scriptures abound in admonitions, to let it be our chief business to cultivate our hearts with all diligence, to examine into their state with impartiality, and watch over them with continual care. Indeed it is the heart which constitutes the man; and external actions derive their whole character and meaning from the motives and dispositions of which they are the indications. . . .

Yet though this be a truth so obvious, so established, that to have insisted on it may seem almost needless; it is a truth of which we are apt to lose sight in the review of our religious character, and with which the habit of considering religion as consisting rather in external actions than internal principles, is at direct and open war

Another excerpt from William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity (1797). The book is available in its entirety at the link. Here is a three-page pdf file of this excerpt, plus last week’s excerpt plus surrounding text. Note that, as was common in his day, when Wilberforce uses the word “religion,” he most often is referring solely to Christianity.

Desire, Sin, and the Christian Life

July 22, 2010

Justin Taylor is posting fifteen questions and answers excerpted from an excellent article by David Powlison, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire” (published in Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lends of Scripture (P and R Publishing, 2003). The last three will be posted in the next couple of days. Here are the questions, with links for the first twelve. Highly recommended:

1. How does the New Testament commonly talk about what’s wrong with people?
2. Why do people do specific ungodly things?
3. But what’s wrong with wanting things that seem good?
4. Why don’t people see this as the problem?
5. Is the phrase “lusts of the flesh” useful in practical life and counseling?
6. Does each person have one “root sin”?
7. How can you tell if a desire is inordinate rather than natural?
8. Is it even right to talk about the heart, since the Bible teaches that the heart is unknowable to anyone but God? (1 Sam. 16:7; Jer. 17:9)
9. Doesn’t the word lusts properly apply only to bodily appetites: the pleasures and comforts of sex, food, drink, rest, exercise, health?
10. Can desires be habitual?
11. What about fears? They seem as important in human motivation as cravings.
12. Do people ever have conflicting motives?
13. How does thinking about lusts relate to other ways of talking about sin, such as “sin nature,” “self,” “pride,” “autonomy,” “unbelief,” and “self-centeredness”?
14. In counseling, do you just confront a person with his sinful cravings?
15. Can you change what you want?

God Requires to Set Up His Throne in Our Heart

July 17, 2010

God requires to set up his throne in the heart, and to reign in it without a rival: if he be kept out of his right, it matters not by what competitor. The revolt may be more avowed or more secret; it may be the treason of deliberate preference, or of inconsiderate levity; we may be the subjects of a more or of a less creditable master; we may be employed in services more gross or more refined; but whether the slaves of avarice, of sensuality, of dissipation, of sloth, or the votaries of ambition, of taste, or of fashion; whether supremely governed by vanity and self-love, by the desire of literary fame or of military glory, we are alike estranged from the dominion of our rightful Sovereign. Let not this seem a harsh position; it can appear so only from not adverting to what was shown to be the essential nature of true religion. He who bowed the knee to the god of medicine or of eloquence, was no less an idolater than the worshiper of the deified patrons of lewdness or of theft. In the several cases which have been specified, the external acts indeed are different, but in principle the disaffection is the same; and we must prepare to meet the punishment of rebels on that tremendous day, when all false colors shall be done away, and, there being no longer any room for the evasions of worldly sophistry, . . . “that which is often highly esteemed amongst men, shall appear to have been abomination in the sight of God.”

William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity (1797). The book is available in its entirety at the link. Here is a three-page pdf file of this excerpt plus surrounding text. Note that, as was common in his day, when Wilberforce uses the word “religion,” he most often is referring solely to Christianity.

Old Testament Elaborations on the Sixth Commandment

July 14, 2010

Here is a selection of verses in the Old Testament that elaborate on Exodus 20:13, “Do not murder.” I summarized these verses in Sunday’s sermon.

Manslaughter falls under this commandment, but leads to a different penalty: Exodus 21:12-14, Numbers 35:10-15. Numbers 35:22-25. Deuteronomy 19:4-6. The perpetrator must flee to and remain in a “city of refuge” and remain their until the death of the High Priest (Numbers 35:33-34). This serves as a picture of the need for atoning blood, even in the case of manslaughter.

The proper penalty corresponds to the harm done: Leviticus 24:19-20; see Exodus 21:18-19 and Exodus 21:26-27 for examples.

When a person kills a thief who has broken into his house at night, the killer is innocent. If this happens during the day, his is guilty (Exodus 22:2-3).

Kidnapping is treated similarly to murder (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7).

Negligence that leads to the harming or death of another leads to guilt and the need for compensation: An ox goring (Exodus 21:28-32), someone falling off an insecure roof (Deuteronomy 22:8), an animal being injured by an unsafe hole (Exodus 21:33-34), an animal grazing in another’s field (Exodus 22:5), a fire that spreads to another’s field (Exodus 22:6).

Concern for others extends particularly to those who are weak and defenseless, and thus easily oppressed:  the sojourner, the widow, the fatherless child (Exodus 22:21-23, Exodus 23:9), aliens (Leviticus 19:33-34 which include “love [the alien] as yourself”), the deaf and the blind (Leviticus 19:11). In the Exodus passage, with no person to protect them, God promises to be their protector: “I will kill [the oppressor] with the sword.”

Many cases refer specifically to the poor:

Do not lend at interest or hold on to their cloak overnight: Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:35-38

Pay their wages promptly; don’t delay just because you can get away with it: Deuteronomy 24:14-15

Lend to the needy poor, and cancel their debts at the end of seven years, Deuteronomy 15:1-11.

Leave part of harvest in fields for the poor to gather: Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:19-22

Jesus’ later commandment to love your enemies is hinted at in cases referring to your enemy’s animal straying or collapsing under a heavy load. You are to help in both cases: Exodus 23:4-5, Deuteronomy 22:1-4.

Man’s Nothing-Perfect and God’s All-Complete

July 8, 2010

[Robert Browning was a great 19th century British poet. His religious beliefs are not clear – in many of his poems, the voice belongs to someone other than the poet. The following is an excerpt from “Saul” (1845 and 1855). Browning imagines David playing the lyre and singing when “a harmful spirit from God was upon Saul” (1 Samuel 16:23). The voice throughout is David’s. In the first section, David, echoing Isaiah 6, is overwhelmed by seeing the majesty, wisdom and love of God laid bare, and submits himself willingly, lovingly to God. In the second section, David first addresses God, then, in the last four lines, Saul. He expresses confidence that God’s love is greater than his own, and that God will become incarnate in David’s own descendant for the salvation of the ungodly. While Scripture does not give us warrant for thinking that Saul is saved in the end, these lines beautifully express deep biblical truths. You can read the entire poem (more than 4000 words) at this link and a number of others. Thanks to Carla Stout for pointing me to this poem – Coty]

I spoke as I saw:
I report, as a man may of God`s work – all`s love, yet all`s law.
Now I lay down the judgeship he lent me. Each faculty tasked
To perceive him, has gained an abyss, where a dewdrop was asked.
Have I knowledge? confounded it shrivels at Wisdom laid bare.
Have I forethought? how purblind, how blank, to the Infinite Care!
Do I task any faculty highest, to image success?
I but open my eyes, – and perfection, no more and no less,
In the kind I imagined, full-fronts me, and God is seen God
In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod.
And thus looking within and around me, I ever renew
(With that stoop of the soul which in bending upraises it too)
The submission of man`s nothing-perfect to God`s all-complete,
As by each new obeisance in spirit, I climb to his feet. . . .

Would I suffer for him that I love? So wouldst thou – so wilt thou!
So shall crown thee the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown -
And thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up nor down
One spot for the creature to stand in! It is by no breath,
Turn of eye, wave of hand, that salvation joins issue with death!
As thy Love is discovered almighty, almighty be proved
Thy power, that exists with and for it, of being Beloved!
He who did most, shall bear most; the strongest shall stand the most weak.
`Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I seek
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me,
Thou shalt love and be loved by, for ever: a Hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!