Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Church-the City of the Living God

Country Church [1]
Richard Conway, who is writing about his journey to find a church home, the first I posted last Saturday evening, has had some delays in providing more postings. I will continue when he is ready.

Since my church is in discernment, and many other churches in the midst of similar journeys I have been thinking about the Church in general and God’s care for his people. On this side of all the distress, yet with care to be in the right place, I think about how God sees us. The biblical picture is almost a J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Charles Williams’ fantasy. With great encouragement the writer of Hebrews writes:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.”

But this is no fantasy rather God’s truth and promise. Charles Williams wrote his surreal novels from this point of view. God places humanity in cities (or communities) and works with, through and among them by use of the lens of the city of the Living God. Just as Lewis’ saw humanity becoming everlasting splendors or monsters, so Williams pictures the city of God mingling with earthly cities and communities changing the inhabitants—but it is always the incarnate One working through the Holy Spirit in the midst of our common life.

Ah, the general assembly of heaven and the church of the firstborn. John Calvin in his commentary on Hebrews sees the first born as the Old Testament Saints, but Donald Guthrie clarifies that Jesus Christ is the true first born and thus all the saints of God, reborn in Christ, those in the O.T. and those in the church age fit into this  category. They are among the angels in festal gathering.

God is still here the Judge of all. And Calvin reminds the reader that in the midst of this holy place that belongs to God there should be no pollution. He writes:

“This seems to be said to inspire fear, as if he were saying that grace is offered to us in such a way as to remind us that we have to do with our judge to whom we must render account if we have invaded His sanctuary with pollution or profanity.”

And Guthrie understanding that God’s judgment conforms to his nature writes, “It should be noted that God is not to be regarded here exclusively as a judge who condemns but rather as one who examines and discriminates.”

And then, in this city, we turn to redemption—“the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.”

In actuality the righteous are righteous because of Jesus and his death. They are perfect because of his perfection, (completeness.) (Hebrews 5:7-10) His blood is sprinkled on his people and they dwell now with him in his city. The blood washed sinners made saints are the Church. “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”

This is the Church—it cannot exist minus this quality of God’s holiness, care, and redemption. His people, sinners bearing the righteousness of Jesus, are on a journey being made perfect. They are surrounded by suffering and angels, or as Karl Barth put it in the middle of his list of the good God has done in the Church, “He allows righteousness to experience all anxieties.” The Church is in the world yet destined to dance with angels, fellowship with all saints, and look, forever, upon perfect beauty.
[1] The picture is of the country church I attended as a child living on a farm in Northern Missouri. We just called it country church.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Finding a new home: "The Journey" by Richard Conway

A friend, Richard Conway, who was, until recently, a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the process of finding a church home. He is writing about each visit he makes to various churches. Under the premise that the church universal is, at the moment, made up of many different branches or should I say parts of Christ’s body, and just because it is interesting I will post Richard’s descriptions and experiences on my blog. I hope to do this late each Saturday night so they can be read on Sundays. I find it ridiculous that while the PC (U.S.A.) has a relationship with the more progressive churches such as the Episcopal Church they refuse to acknowledge such conservative churches as the Presbyterian Church of America, the Southern Baptist Church and the Assemblies of God.  I loved that part of Richard Mouw’s sermon at the first meeting of the Fellowship of Presbyterians when he spoke about how those denominations could learn something from us and we could learn something from them.

 The Journey

By Richard Conway

 When I made the decision to leave PCUSA, I had no plans to go to any specific church. Over the decades and being active in this community, I had met and befriended many pastors in the area. This gave me an awareness of a number of churches to visit, both in the community and outside.

But, it wasn’t going to be as simple as visiting another church. At 92 years of age, my mother isn’t driving anymore, so yours truly is in charge of getting her to and from her Sunday School and Church every Sunday, and afterwards to her regular Sunday dinner with her longtime friends, a two + decade long running engagement.

One of the churches on my list to visit is Non-Denominational, Burke Community Bible Church, my friend David Doster, Pastor. Their Sunday Service is at 10 AM, a conflict with taking Mom to her Sunday School and church service. The other is PCA, Faith Presbyterian Church on Bost Rd, Mike Thompson, Pastor. Their  Sunday School and Service schedule coincided with First Pres. All it took was to get Mom to First Pres a few minutes early and I could make it to Faith Presbyterian for Sunday School and Sunday Service. Mom could then ride with one of her friends to their lunch engagement and I pick her up when she is finished. That worked

So, last Sunday was my first visit to Faith Pres. The first thing I notice, their Sunday School is in depth teaching, straight from the Bible, no curriculum, everyone uses their Bible. Held in the sanctuary, with class members scattered throughout, not the intimate setting I am accustomed to.

The service began. First thing that became apparent, there is no real music such as I had been accustomed to with Robert Smith, our music director. No organ, no choir, just a piano, one young man on guitar and a young girl singing. Solid prayers, no social activities, no greetings, no joking around, just serious church. Everyone follows in their Bible.  We began with the Westminster Larger Catechism # 89 & # 90, the pastor read the question and the congregation read the response, completely. Terrific. Scripture was read, not a verse or two but entire chapters and everyone in church has their Bibles open and follows along. Several hymns were sung, the offering was taken and then the sermon. Here is a major and very positive difference. The preaching/teaching is EXPOSITORY Teaching. Outstanding! Expository (see below) 

Moving through the Bible. This Sunday the sermon was 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 12. Preached/taught word for word, verse by verse. And everyone has their Bible open and follows along and taking notes. Very powerful.

Closing hymn and blessing. Roughly 70 minute service. A lot of younger families, very few older people (above 80). This was a breath of fresh air as the service, no jokes, no passing the peace, no time for children, no musical anthems,  just pure Bible teaching, word for word and everyone has their Bible open and follows along. Very powerful.

 Every component of the service is a focus on scriptural purity. I love it. But I miss the music, and that’s OK, this is really good solid church.

All the people I met were extraordinarily friendly and welcoming, and I knew more than a few of them.

2nd Sunday (today):           went to my Men’s SS Bible Class at First Pres, left a few minutes early and returned to Faith Pres. The service began with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Congregational Bible reading, songs (great traditional songs) Lord’s Prayer,   tithes and offerings, Sermon moving on in 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 – 16 The Great Apostasy!! (Hooray) no nonsense preaching/teaching, Expository Teaching, pure Bible, final hymn & blessing.

Real refreshing service and church with no fluff, just pure expository teaching.

As soon as someone can take Mom to church and back, I want to visit Christ Community Church, previously known as Montreat Presbyterian Church, an hour away. They left pcusa and still have their church right in the middle of Montreat, they are no longer pcusa. Good for them.

 Bless you all,


Question: "What is expository preaching?"  (Also by Richard Conway)

Answer: Expository preaching involves the exposition, or comprehensive explanation, of the Scripture; that is, expository preaching presents the meaning and intent of a biblical text, providing commentary and examples to make the passage clear and understandable. The word expositionis related to the word expose— the expository preacher’s goal is simply to expose the meaning of the Bible, verse by verse.

While exposition is not the only valid mode of preaching, it is the best for teaching the plain sense of the Bible. Expositors usually approach Scripture with these assumptions:

 1) The Bible is God’s Word. If every word of God is pure and true (Psalm 12:6;19:9;119:140), then every word deserves to be examined and understood.

2) Men need divine wisdom in order to understand the Word (1 Corinthians 2:12-16).

3) The preacher is subject to the text, not the other way around. Scripture is the authority, and its message must be presented honestly, apart from personal bias.

4) The preacher’s job is to clarify the text and call for a corresponding response from his hearers.

 [The picture at the top is a Methodist Church I attended as a young teenager. It is in old Pattonsburg, Missouri and was almost destroyed in a flood. There is now a new one in new Pattonsburg.]

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

University Presbyterian, in Sacramento: learning the difference between EPC and PC (U.S.A.)?

Rev. Bob Azzarito is the new pastor at University Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a group nested in Fremont Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Sacramento. Azzarito is battling a caricature of his own making. He has been attempting to aid the people of his church by using his sermons to show them the difference between the EPC, and the PC (U.S.A.). His sermon series on the church site is “Another Way of Seeing,” but the advertisement for it in the Inside Publications has the headline, “Is Evangelicalism the only way to view God?” And in a neighborhood local list service UPC member, Judy Kerri, wrote an invitation to the River Park Community:                                                                                                                                    

University Presbyterian Church, a new church within the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), would like to extend an invitation for you to join us on Sunday mornings for our continuing series of sermons on "Another Way of Seeing."  If you have wondered whether or not there are other ways to understand God and the Bible other than Conservative Evangelicalism, then this study might be a help to you.  Over the past several decades, Evangelical thinking has dominated the airwaves, and as a result many think this is the only way to understand theology.  This Sunday, our new pastor, Bob Azzarito, who was himself raised in an Evangelical denomination before becoming a Presbyterian, continues to outline some of the main differences between Evangelicalism and the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). 

 This week he will be discussing the topic of salvation.  Did you know that the concept of being "born again," a common term and concept in Evangelical thinking, is not a standard Biblical definition of salvation?  It might also be surprising to learn that the idea of salvation in the Bible has little to do with what happens after death.  Join us at 11:15 am. Sunday, in the Chapel on the property of Fremont Church, 5770 Carlson Drive. 

Azzarito, isn’t just talking about evangelicalism in general because he is addressing members who did not want to follow Fremont out of the PC (U.S.A.) into the EPC. They rather chose and were given the privilege of staying PC (U.S.A.) while being nested on Fremont’s campus for ten years. That was part of the package that allowed Fremont to leave with their property. So with each sermon Azzarito in some way addresses the members’ experience of having chosen to not go with the other members of Fremont. And with that he attempts to show the differences between EPC and the PC (U.S.A.). For instance in the first sermon, after commiserating with the people and what has happened to them, Azzarito states, “… I’ve decided to spend some time articulating what it means to be PC (U.S.A.) and not EPC,” and “I want you to understand the distinctives.”

There are several problems. One is that The EPC is not just evangelical, they are also reformed and Azzarito doesn’t seem to understand the distinctives of the reformed faith. Another problem is that too many times he doesn’t understand the distinctives of evangelicalism. A third problem is Azzarito’s universalism. He believes that the Church is simply representatives of all of humanity who are already accepted by God.

In his sermon series, Azzarito first attacks the penal theory of atonement, that is, that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfies the justice of God. The understanding that Jesus is a substitute for the sinner who is under the wrath of God. Azzarito does this without ever talking about any of the other atonement theories. And he fails to acknowledge that the theories are ways of explaining the biblical text and they work together.  He wants to push one idea. That the EPC and evangelicals in general teach that God is mean and has a big hammer ready to smash the sinner, while the PC (U.S.A.) sees God as loving and inclusive.

This leaves out the Trinity—God is one—and God’s wrath is satisfied by God. It is the begotten God in the bosom of the Father who willingly receives the wrath and becomes the propitiation for our sins. (John 1:18 & 1 John 1:1)
God's wrath does not cancel God's love. According to biblical and reformed faith, God has chosen us before the foundation of the world. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him." (Eph. 1: 3-4)

And then there is that idea about being born again that Kerri writes about. That is, that being born again is not a standard biblical definition of salvation. And Azzarito has problems with salvation being a onetime event, a conversion that the Christian remembers with gladness.   But the biblical text describes salvation in many ways. It is being born again as Jesus explains in the third chapter of John. And Peter puts it this way, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven …”

It is Jesus knocking Paul off of his horse with a blinding light and Paul going back to the story over and over as he testifies to the gentiles. It is the first sermon preached on Pentecost when men from many faraway places ask Peter what they should do. And he says, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

But there is also that conversion that is a growth as one is raised in a Christian family with Christian teachers and pastors to guide. Paul speaks of this when writing to Timothy. “You however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

Azzarito’s idea that everyone is saved and that it is a lifetime process and the good news is to tell them so doesn’t fit the biblical text. While there are multiple pictures of God’s work in the life of a sinner, born again, born of the Spirit, being saved, Jesus as propitiation, it is always and ever Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that brings the sinner home. And it is the righteousness of Jesus that the Father sees, not our own broken sinful self. The contradiction, and yet the truth, is that although it is always God’s work, some will reject this great salvation.  Some will not come home to the Father.

I pray that those at University Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, while dwelling in the midst of Fremont, will find the truth that is the center of Christianity, Jesus Christ who is able to deliver completely and forever.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Turning toward home

Most of my family at a reunion this summer
I’ve been thinking about how to write this for several weeks now. Almost everything I am going to say is not absolute because only God knows the future. But now and then He hands me a little outline. The outlines mostly come by way of circumstances but once in a great while I hear Him speaking to my heart. A lot of my thoughts and future plans lie in devastation, at the moment, with a great sense of loss, yet underneath are God’s great arms.

Several things are converging in my life. I will try to explain:

First there is church. At the moment I am a member of Journey Presbyterian Church in Folsom California. A wonderful church with many loving and devout Christians. I am on session—this is my first year—and we have just begun to enter into discernment with Sacramento Presbytery. I am uncertain of where that will lead. But anyway, because of the rest of my story, eventually, in a couple of years, I will need to pull back and return to a church closer to my home, my old church, Fremont Presbyterian in Sacramento, which is now a member of the  Evangelical Presbyterian Church. (It is where my husband attends.)

There is now no other orthodox/evangelical Presbyterian church close to my home. They are all progressive.

And my husband, Brad, a gifted piano tuner and Bible teacher, is the other part of my story. Several weeks ago we went together to several doctors, including a neurologist for testing. Several days ago he had an MRI. In October, after all of the tests have been studied, we will find out a little more about why my husband is suffering with some sort of dementia. Oh yes, he still tunes (a little) and teaches the Bible at ‘fire camp,’ a minimum security facility for young inmates who help fight California’s wildfires.  But the problem seems to be progressing. (And just to let you know in the midst of this trial he is sweeter every day. His faith is very strong.)

And so in the midst of all of this I will only be blogging a little—undoubtedly a good thing—because I often feel I blog too much—it is the nature of blogging to do that. And when I eventually am no longer PC (USA) and find myself outside the gates so to speak, I envision that this very full blog, with well over a thousand postings, will end or turn to different subjects or morph into a different blog. But God for many months has put these words in my heart- Turn your face toward home. And so-slowly and carefully, I will turn.

There are those who continue to stand, like God’s faithful prophets of old, in the PC (U.S.A.). I had hoped to stand there beside them but I will not be standing there but for a little while longer. There are many who continue to leave—may God put them in just the right places proclaiming the good news of Jesus', life, death and resurrection.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on obeying a heretical church

Johan Christian Dahl: Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway, 1832
I have been writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s seminary, Finkenwalde, versus the Underground Seminary connected to the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis.[1] While reading old material and new, I discovered a lecture Bonhoeffer gave and then turned into a letter to his past seminary students. It is a letter worthy of our own times although there are, of course, some important differences. But the questions being answered are similar. So are the denunciations by enemies. And I must call them enemies because of their total intolerance.

The lecture and letter is about whether the Finkenwalde students should seek ordination through the consistories of the official German Christians, or go by way of the Council of the Brethren formed by the Confessing Church. To go by way of the Council of the Brethren make the students illegal pastors and their future was at stake. But as Bonhoeffer saw it, if they did become pastors through the consistories, their faith and the faith of those they would shepherd were endangered.

Bonhoeffer using both the Theological Declaration of Barmen and the Message of Dahlem,[2] and more importantly Scripture, admonished his past students to faithfulness. He considered the church under the direction of the German Christians heretical and its pastors self-called.

Some of the differences between our own church struggle in the mainline denominations and the German church struggle is that the German Christians were aligned with the German government. Although liberal in their Christology and biblical understanding, they were willing to embrace racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism as a means of pulling more Germans into the churches. They were also eager for power. But within these differences is the shadow of similarity in the American church struggle, particularly in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The mainline denominations are not controlled by the government of the United States, however, they are willing to let go of biblical morality in order to conform to the culture and laws of progressive states that affirm same gender marriage and they fight to uphold laws that allow the killing of live aborted children. It must also be said that some of them embrace organizations who are anti-Semitic at their core. The shadow may be morphing into a solid reality.

One other similarity is that both the mainline denominations, in particular PC (U.S.A.), and the German Christians had and have confessions and creeds that affirm biblical truth. Both can and did say, “See in our confessions we affirm that Jesus is Lord,” or “Christ Jesus died for our sins,” or “Scripture is the written word of God,” while allowing [3]pastors and elders to deny the most basic of Christian truths.

So the answers for Bonhoeffer had to do with the connection between what he considered the true church and the heretical church. Bonhoeffer named some of the questions but refused to acknowledge them as legitimate and yet he is answering some of them. Here are some of the questions and his answers.

Can the order and proclamation of the church  be changed?

The German Christians attempted to change both the order and the proclamation of the church. Bonhoeffer turns to Scripture. “Eph. 4: 15 ‘But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined and knit together.’  Bonhoeffer acknowledges that the church is gathered around proclamation and sacraments but he goes on to insist that the church is more, it is the whole Christian life lived by the whole body with Christ as head. Bonhoeffer writes:

When the proclamation becomes false, the church’s concern must be true proclamation; when the church’s order is destroyed, then the church’s concern must be true order; when the practice of Christian life or love is hindered, then the church must nonetheless follow God’s commandments alone.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that the Synod of Dahlem called for the use of the word to correct church order and proclamation. This was why the Councils of Brethren were formed so that pastors would no longer be ruled by consistories whose members were elected through a political system that had nothing to do with Scripture or calling.

The next question has to do with the ‘one church’ and church unity.

Bonhoeffer was clearly against schism and understood that the church was one. But his answer to the young theologians and others was that the German Christians were causing the division. He writes:

The entire church was threatened, so action was required for its sake. Let us remember that we stood up for the sake of church unity, in order to avoid schism and division. But who is causing the division; those who dissolve and destroy the teaching and order of the church or those who affirm and uphold it. … ‘One body and one spirit,’ this was the question, but how is this possible other than that there be also ‘one Lord, one faith’ (Eph. 4:5)?

Bonhoeffer then goes on to speak of how the body has joy together and suffers together.  But he reminds the young theologians that this is a natural part of being members of the body of Christ. And then he writes of the church’s need for leaders who will teach truth rather then falsehood. Here Bonhoeffer is pleading with his former students to stay with the Confessing Church for the sake of the congregations which leads to the next question.

Who should be leading the church? “The proclamation is bound to the church’s commission.”

This section has everything to do with God’s call or sending rather than human intentions. Bonhoeffer uses Jesus’ call to pray for workers in the field. He writes:

When Jesus sees the people [Volk], he has compassion for them because they are parched with thirst and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. But he does not awaken his disciples’ own offer to proclaim the gospel, nor does he appeal to their love for the people [Volk] and the church-community, but he says: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38) In a situation that is very similar to ours, Jesus calls not for self-empowerment action but to prayer, asking God to send preachers.

God builds his kingdom, not we. Nowhere in Scripture does someone come to his ministry without being called, since this is not a matter of pious behavior but God’s own work.

With these thoughts of it being all God’s call and his work, Bonhoeffer points out that this would not be true if one accepted a call from the enemies of God’s church.  And this leads to probably the main focus of the lecture and letter.

Is it disobedience to Christ to obey a heretical church regime [government]?

Bonhoeffer is very clear here, “A church regime is bound to become heretical when it acknowledges other bonds for its ministries … than that to the gospel alone.” In addition, and I believe this is being proven true in the American mainline denominations, “It[the church government] thereby necessarily becomes the oppressor of those who act only out of this bond, and it becomes the promoter of false teaching and lies.”

The German Christians acknowledged such bonds as Aryan ethnicity, new revelation such as, God was revealing himself through the Führer and Jesus as the noble hero rather than the crucified Savior.  These German bonds at first simply existed alongside the good news of Jesus life, death and resurrection, but they became the means of a systematic elimination of the good news.

The post-modern denominations have also began ministries that have evolved from other bonds. The ministries based on nothing but equality or justice, minus the redeeming Lordship of Christ and the authority of his word, have shaped denominational ideologies which not only leave out the good news they ignore  their own values and create victims who suffer without mercy. For instance the millions of babies killed in the womb and the babies aborted alive who are also killed. The weakest in society are given no justice. This too eliminates the good news.

Bonhoeffer warns his past students to remember how the sin of Israel evolved from the sin of Jeroboam, who sat up a false worship system allowing whoever desired to become priests, to Ahab who allowed the worship of the Baals and the office of priest to be filled by the immoral priests of Baal. He also reminds his readers of how King Saul went from disobedience to consulting a witch.  

Bonhoeffer writes:

A congregation that no longer takes seriously its separation from false teaching    no longer takes truth seriously, that is, it does not take salvation seriously, and ultimately that means it does not take itself seriously, regardless of how pious or how well organized it is.  Those who obey false teachers, and promote and encourage them, are no longer obedient to Christ. Here it is said: “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matt 6:24).

Here a footnote states, “The NRSV here has ‘God and wealth,’ but Bonhoeffer’s German text is ‘Mammon”: he is referring here to the German Christian—controlled finance departments that were putting pressure on Confessing congregations.”

Bonhoeffer ends this pleading, and it is a pleading, with remembrance of God’s care and comfort. Like one of the first martyrs of the Confessing Church, Paul Schneider, he refers to the troubles as waves of the ocean, but reminds the pastors that Christ is stronger:

“We will become free of worry only when we abide firmly in the truth that we know and let ourselves be guided by it alone. But if we stare at the waves rather than looking to the Lord, then we will be lost. For many of us it is a huge temptation—we need to say this—when again and again brothers are urgently telling us to look at the waves; see the storm; there can be no happy-end. This is the temptation toward unbelief. We do not wish and cannot deny that there are waves, but we want not to look at them but at Christ who is stronger than them. If only this could finally be understood! In the world it is different, but in the church it can only be this way.”

[2] From the online Encyclopedia Britannica, “At the end of 1934, at the second synod of the Confessing Church at Dahlem, the church proclaimed its emergency law: the true church in Germany was that which accepted the Barmen Declaration, and, where church leadership was no longer faithful to the true confession, ministers and parishes were to follow the orders of the Confessing Church. Thus, in practice, two Protestant churches developed in Germany: the one under state control and the Confessing Church, which the state did not recognize. The Confessing Church, together with the churches of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Hanover (which had remained independent of Nazi rule), formed the provisional government of the German Evangelical Church.
[3] “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on thee Path of the Young Illegal Theologians,” Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, vol. 15, German Editor Dirk Schulz, English Editor, Victoria J. Barnett, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2012) 422.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bonhoeffer's Finkenwalde: the Christian needs others because of Christ

I am following up my blog about the Underground Seminary with thoughts on Bonhoeffer’s views about community and theological education. While the Underground Seminary founded by teaching elder Jin S. Kim, John Nelson, and Laura Newby, of the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, is supposedly modeled after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde seminary during the Nazi years, it is instead, evidently, influenced by progressive ideologies and sees community as a counter movement against western colonialism, consumerism and individualism.  It is meant to develop disciples by rooting out the ‘logic and impulses of empire.’

But Finkenwalde was created in order to train pastors who would be faithful to the word of God. Bonhoeffer clung to a realism that was grounded in the incarnation—Jesus Christ was truly human and truly God. Finkenwalde was not about un-doing fascism, (a worthy cause), Finkenwalde was about raising up pastors who loved the Lord of the Church and loved each other.

I am using Bonhoeffer’s Life together, written during the founding of Finkenwalde, to explore his views. I will write another posting, looking at a lecture which was sent as a letter to those seminarians who emerged from the illegal seminary and were struggling with faithfulness because of the German church struggle. The lecture is “Lecture on the Path of the Young Illegal Theologians of the Confessing Church, October 26, 1938.”

Almost immediately Bonhoeffer, in his book, Life Together, lays out the only real reasons for Christian unity and fellowship. This he hoped the seminarians would grasp. Bonhoeffer gives three reasons and then enlarges on each one. The first is that a Christian needs “others because of Christ.” Because humanity is sinful and can only live from the righteousness of Christ and can only live from the word of God they need to hear that word coming from the lips of others, “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.” Bonhoeffer puts it strongly and clearly:

All we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another.

The second reason for Christian community is “A Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “without Christ we would not know God, we could not call upon Him, nor come to Him. But without Christ we also would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our ego. Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother” And Bonhoeffer goes on to explain that this bonding with our Christian brothers and sisters is an eternal bonding. That is found in the third reason.

The third reason for the fellowship of Christians is “that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.” And this is where Bonhoeffer’s faith affirms the goodness of God’s creation and takes seriously the world in which we live. It is because Jesus has taken on human flesh and as a human he both lived, died and experienced a fleshly resurrection. And in our unity with Christ we are forever with brothers and sisters.

Pulling us all together in our unity with Jesus, Bonhoeffer writes:

We who live here in fellowship with him will one day be with him in eternal fellowship. He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Christian community through and in Jesus Christ. On this presupposition rests everything that the Scriptures provide in the way of directions and precepts for the communal life of Christians.

Here is a unity and fellowship that can only boast in Jesus Christ. A community without the center, Christ Jesus and his righteousness alone, is not a Christian community whether it is called church, is a simple gathering of friends or is a seminary. Its whole purpose comes naturally and grows naturally because of its unity with Christ. Outside of Jesus as center there is no real Christian purpose, since there is no real Christian unity.

The rest of Life Together covers the day’s activities from morning devotional with biblical reading in community to singing, eating, ministry and confession, etc. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about biblical reading in the context of thinking about theological education is important. He speaks of families and seminarians or even those alone, reading the biblical books in sequence. And of how this places us into the actual events:

Consecutive reading of Biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men. We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jorden into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s faithfulness. All of this is not mere reverie but holy, godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace. It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life, however important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.

Bonhoeffer could have changed theological training into political denunciation and re-education using all of the various ideologies of his day. He chose to emphasize training in the Scripture and proclamation. That was enough to make him an enemy, it is still enough to make enemies. Edwin Robertson in his biography of Bonhoeffer, The Shame and the Sacrifice, writes of the academic part of the seminary:

Bonhoeffer himself did the teaching—homilectics, [sic] catechetics, pastoralia, exegesis – and his lectures were given from very carefully prepared notes. His method of sermon instruction was peculiarly his own. He would set the students a very difficult text – often highly theoretical or remote – and require them to draft a sermon on it. These would be read out and then he would show by example how that remote text could be preached.

 After the seminary closed Bonhoeffer had his students, who were in ministry, send him their sermons and he sent out his own commentary on texts.

All of this is not to say that Bonhoeffer’s seminary neglected the social and communal life of his students. The church and its ministries are rooted in the incarnation. God both created and loved the world. A letter from one of Bonhoeffer’s students confirms the joy and meaning that Finkenwalde gave to the students. The student mentions “music, literature, sports, and the beauty of the earth; a generous style of life that favorably combined the culture of old homes with the uninhibited forms of community of young men.”[1] Nothing in any of the information given about Finkenwalde suggests that the students were pushed beyond their calling to do ministry and proclaim the gospel. Their subject was Christ and the word of God.

Finkenwalde was true to Barmen, the Confessing Church’s confession:

“The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, puposes, and plans.” (8.26-8.27)

Picture by Ethan McHenry

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, Vol. 15, Dirk Schulz, editor, Victoria J. Barnett, editor, English edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press  2012) 6.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The "Underground Seminary," Bonhoeffer, community and truth

Recently ChurchandWorld linked to a Presbyterian Today article about the beginnings of a seminary called ‘Underground Seminary.’ The school, formed under the leadership of teaching elder Jin S. Kim, John Nelson, and Laura Newby, of the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, is supposedly modeled after the Confessing Church’s Finkenwalde seminary, led by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the Nazi years. Kim, head of a large multi-cultural church, states that rather than just being an academic school the students will be preparing for an “alternative way of life that is a counter-imperial witness to our faith in Jesus.”

But looking at the school’s site and information I found, with a few good exceptions, little connection to Bonhoeffer’s Christian views. Rather the influences are heavily loaded toward Marxism and anarchism in general.  I believe the coming ‘Underground Seminary’ is a sign of the many ways the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is and will be fragmenting in their attempt to attract members from our decadent culture.

With this posting I want to explore some of what the school site calls their influences and how they are both a contradiction to Christianity in general and Bonhoeffer’s desires for Finkenwalde community life and teaching. I will follow this posting with another one that looks at some of Bonhoeffer’s seminary goals which will include the letters he sent to the pastors who emerged from Finkenwalde after it was closed by the Nazis. I will add to that Bonhoeffer’s views which he articulated about how those same theology students and the Confessing Churches they were involved with should view the prevailing ‘church’ at the time, that is, the German Christians. That information can be found in “Lecture on the Path of the Young Illegal Theologians of the Confessing Church, October 26, 1938.”[1]

On the Underground Seminary web site, under ‘About’, there is this as part of the explanation, “Our focus is on intensive character formation, a rigorous post-colonial critique of our present systems, and nurturing intimate and sustainable forms of community life - basically, equipping our students to follow Jesus uncompromisingly.” And under the ‘Rationale’ it states:

The modern American way of life has proven to be bankrupt. The ideals of individualism, production and consumption that have now been exported globally are destroying the environment, fragmenting local communities, and giving rise to alienated and anxious individuals who function as mere cogs in the global market.

We believe that future Christian leaders must be equipped to swim upstream and call to account the powers and principalities, the multinational corporations and their political lackeys, that are polluting the waters of our commonwealth. Our graduates will be expected to understand the way Wall Street, global economics and geo-politics actually work. And by decolonizing our very minds and bodies, we hope to truly equip our students to live differently, rooting ourselves in history, the land, and an intimate community that gives birth to new and sustainable forms of community life.

There are a lot of truths in that statement as one begins reading, however immediately one notices that the bankrupt society is totally tied to political and economic issues.  Individual immorality and soul sickness is missing. Scrolling down, the statement focuses on a final project for students. It would be about an individual who the student might use as a life model. And the names are good examples:   Gandhi, MLK, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day.

However clicking on the home page and scrolling down to the “Our Curriculum,” there are three tracks of study that follow in consecutive order. The first track is “Unveiling: Exploring the workings of empire.” Beneath that is a list of the names of those who have influenced the curriculum. Many of those influences are secular Marxist and/or liberation theologians in outlook.

One professor has taught Karl Marx’s Das Capital for forty years.  The most troubling name is the environmentalist Derrick Jensen.  Jensen is on the steering committee of Deep Green Resistance, an environmental and radical feminist group that advocates for the destruction of civilization by way of its infrastructure.  And this even when it leads to the death of innocent people. Their plans, including alternative versions, are published on their site.

Deep Green Resistance advocates for above ground groups who will ready humanity for the revolution by way of community, and underground groups who will attack, in many ways, the infrastructure of civilization. One of the jobs of the above ground groups is to cover for the underground and use the destructive event to push for solutions advanced by radical environmental groups. Those ideas are seen in the paper Four Phases of Decisive Ecological Warfare:

In this alternate future, aboveground activists in particular take on several important tasks. They push for acceptance and normalization of more militant and radical tactics where appropriate. They vocally support sabotage when it occurs. More moderate advocacy groups use the occurrence of sabotage to criticize those in power for failing to take action on critical issues like climate change (rather than criticizing the saboteurs). They argue that sabotage would not be necessary if civil society would make a reasonable response to social and ecological problems, and use the opportunity and publicity to push solutions to the problems. They do not side with those in power against the saboteurs, but argue that the situation is serious enough to make such action legitimate, even though they have personally chosen a different course.

The next curriculum track is “Reimagining: Reading the Bible as a Counter Imperial Witness.” Here some of the influences listed are Norman Gottwald who has been called a “pioneer biblical Marxist Scholar, and Laurel Dykstra who refers to herself as an out dyke and was a speaker at the 2014 Wild Goose Festival. In other words, while the first track influences are mainly secular and Marxists, the second track influences are religious with a progressive political focus.

The third track is “Birthing: Nurturing Sustainable Community Life.” The influences listed in this track are more in keeping with the original listing of models for Christian life and community. That is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. However there are also progressive theologians and activists such as Dorothee Sölle and Bell Hooks. There are no orthodox and/or reformed theologians in any of the lists except for Bonhoeffer. There are certainly no evangelicals despite the fact that Kim has, in the past, referred to himself as an evangelical. So to return to Bonhoeffer who in some ways stands alone in this list, why is his name and the seminary he led being used in such a manner?

Bonhoeffer, who was an opponent of a political régime, nonetheless focused the training of the students at Finkenwalde on biblical passages and the student’s relationships as that which is mediated through Jesus Christ. Reading the Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, both written during and after the time of Finkenwalde, gives one a clear understanding of Bonhoeffer’s views. He was no Marxist and he had a consistent biblical faith. In fact in one of Bonhoeffer’s first letters to his scattered students, after the school was declared illegal and many graduates were already in prison, mentions that he would have liked to have given them his new book, the Cost of Discipleship, as a Christmas present but was unable to. He then finishes out the letter with commentary on several biblical texts for advent. Here is one of those commentaries. May it bless the church today:

Ps. 25:10 “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” Are you, who have experienced hardship in this year, able to speak today with all your heart that the paths of the Lord are pure goodness and truth? Did you know that God was good to you when he sent you misery and imprisonment? Has God made himself known to you as the true and faithful one when he took so much from you? No one who says No to God’s promises and commandments is able to say Yes to his paths. Agreement with God’s will occurs in daily submission to his word. Something may appear to us as minor disobedience, and it will take from our hearts the gratefulness and praise for God’s paths. It is painful and difficult to walk under Christ’s yoke when we do it against our will. It is easy and gentle when God at Christmas has overcome and won our hearts for it.”

picture by Penny Juncker
[1] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education: 1937-1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 15.