Book Review – Strange Glory by Charles Marsh

Pastor. Martyr. Prophet. Spy. Those are the four words that Eric Metaxas used to describe Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his magisterial biography of the famous German-Lutheran pastor/theologian. The Bonhoeffer that Charles Marsh offers in this new biography of Bonhoeffer could be aptly described by those four words as well, however he adds two new words to the description of Bonhoeffer – “Strange Glory.”

Marsh’s biography follows the same general contours of most Bonhoeffer biographies. Bonhoeffer is born into an academic-socially elite family. He lives a life of privilege even during a time of economic hardship through Germany. He goes to school where he studies theology among some of the most important theological minds of his century – Harnack, Holl, and Seeberg. He was exposed to the theology of Barth. He took up pastoral posts in Spain and London. He took a trip to America to study at Union, this trip would forever change his life. He came back to Germany as Hitler’s power began to rise. He helped lead the dissident churches and founded an underground seminary at Finkenwilde. He took part in the Abwehr’s plot to overthrow Hitler from power. Eventually he was arrested and killed for taking part in resisting the Nazi government. So what makes Marsh’s biography stand out above the other biographies that have already been written? It’s his notion of “strange glory.”

According to Marsh, Bonhoeffer’s life is fraught with contradictions. At once he is driven by earthly and worldly passions yet so much of him is dedicated to the transcendent Christ. This strangeness is especially evident in some of his letters – in many of his letters you catch a glimpse of two sides of Bonhoeffer, he writes about Christology, the resistance, and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Moments latter, within the same letter, he might go off into a rant about a relative sending him the wrong pair of clothes. He will describe in detail his fashion “needs,” days spent lounging at cafés drinking coffee or wine, visiting the opera and fantasizing about vacations taken to exotic parts of Europe. Another part of this “strange glory” is his relationship with Bethge – which many other reviews have already commented on.

Pros

There are several key things that make this biography stand out above many others.

Marsh’s ability to engage in complex theological discussions – Whether it’s a discussion of Church dogmatics, Hegel’s Philosophy, or the intricacies of Liberal Protestant Theology Marsh “gets it.” He is able to concretely summarize and engage with Bonhoeffer’s contemporaries. Also, Marsh takes the time to engage with Bonhoeffer’s theology, presenting discussions of Ethics, Life Together, Christ the Center, Sanctorum Communio, and Act and Being in depth.

It gives a different take on Bonhoeffer’s first Trip to America – It has been well noted that Bonhoeffer was extremely disappointed by the state of Christianity in America (except for African-American churches). Most biographies allow Bonhoeffer’s feelings during his time in America to color their interpretation of how important this trip was. While in America, Bonhoeffer was highly critical of American theology, which was essentially politics and humanitarianism. However, latter on in Bonhoeffer’s life we see how deeply this trip affected Bonhoeffer. Much of how he resisted the Nazi government and his defense of Jews in Germany was shaped by his time in America.

It paints a vivid picture of Bonhoeffer’s emotional needs – More than any other book on Bonhoeffer that I have read, it paints a picture of Bonhoeffer as a man who not only craves, but needs Bonhoeffer seems to be an emotionally needy person. Whether its his relationship with his sister Sabine, his close community at Finkenwilde, or his friendship with Bethge, Bonhoeffer seems to be a person who cannot do life alone. He consistently seems to move from person to person, seeking to find some sort of fulfillment. He seems absolutely depended upon reciprocal love and attention from others.

Bonhoeffer and his sister Sabine

He does a good job explaining the apparent contradiction between Bonhoeffer’s pacifism and his willingness to kill Hitler – this apparent contradiction is resolved by making use of Lutheran theology, essentially Bonhoeffer knew that whether he took the route of action or inaction he would be guilty of sin, so following the (apparently) Lutheran principle of “sin and sin boldly” Bonhoeffer was able to justify taking part in the plot to kill Hitler.

This is an excellent and highly entertaining biography. It is very well written; at times it felt as though I were reading a novel, not a historical biography. But more importantly than that it is comprehensive, it goes beyond merely reporting the standard story, but instead strives to get into Bonhoeffer’s mind. It does that very well. Marsh understands Bonhoeffer’s theology, and he seems to understand some of the things that really acted as driving forces in Bonhoeffer’s life. I recommended that you read this biography alongside of Eric Metaxas’ biography so that you will be able to form your own picture of who Bonhoeffer really was.

(Note: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.)

Missions – It’s All About Jesus

Why do we do missions? Why do we invest so much money into sending people to the other side of the world to plant churches, to share the gospel, and to tangibly exemplify the kingdom? Why do people sacrifice their lives, their families, their hopes and dreams and desires for this thing we call “missions?” The answer is actually not that complicated. In fact the answer is so simple that we can describe the entire purpose of missions in just one word, actually, in just one name: Jesus.

David Mathis, in an essay titled Remember, Jesus Never Lies reminds us of this simple but profound reason for missions…

At the end of the day, global missions is about the worship of this spectacular Jesus. The goal of missions is the worldwide worship of the God-man by his redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. The outcome of missions is al about delighting to praise Jesus. And the motivation for missions is the enjoyment that his people have in him.

Missions aims at, brings about, and is fueled by the worship of Jesus.

Another way to say it is that missions is about Jesus’s global glory. From beginning to end – in target, effect, and impetus – missions centers on the worldwide fame of the Messiah in the praises of his diverse peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation. What’s at stake in missions is the universal honor of the Father in the global glory of his Son in the joy of all the peoples.

May our entire lives always aim at, bring about, and be fueled by the worship of Jesus!

A Non-Christian Walks Into A Bar…

No its not the beginning of a joke. Its the beginning of a typical interaction. You and your buddies are hanging out having a beer, and your non-Christian friend asks you about this whole “God thing” that you are into. Why do you believe all this stuff? Who is Jesus, and why did this Jesus have to die?

“Why did Jesus have to die?”- How would you respond?

I would probably give an answer that is very relational, because I many non-Christians my age have post-modern sensibilities which lead them to have an averse reaction to any account of the gospel which revolves around breaking rules. I feel as though they would be suspicious of a rules based gospel since moral absolutes, especially from an “ancient” religion, can come across as a power grabbing move.

My Response…

I would say: “The Bible says that God created the world and humans, but don’t get hung up on how that exactly works out. The point is that God is creator, but he isn’t only a creator, he was a good creator. He gave humans the whole earth as a gift, he blessed them, loved them and asked them to cultivate the rest of creation and their relationships to each other. However, something happened and the relationship broke down. Humans decided to betray God, by loving themselves and their desires more that God and each other. By turning from God they took away from God the thing that he deserved, love and worship. But since God loved his creation so much he devised a plan to restore all of creation, especially humans to himself. That is essentially the story of Israel that you get in the OT. The OT story culminates with Jesus who dies on the cross for us. See Jesus was not like us, he never betrayed God, his relationship never broke. Jesus was perfect. Because Jesus honored, loved, and worshiped God even unto death, we can appropriate what he did, so when God sees humans who put their faith in Christ God sees Jesus. Thus we are reconciled to God back into that perfect relationship. Because of that we can now go back cultivating creation and our relationships with one another.”

Karl Barth on The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

In laying out Barth’s position on the Lord’s Supper we cannot properly speak of “Barth’s position” because Barth ended his Church Dogmatics (henceforth CD) before touching upon the Lord’s Supper (henceforth LS) extensively,[1] thus any reconstruction of Barth’s position is just that, a reconstruction and not an exposition. However what we can say with certainty that for Barth, Jesus Christ the Word, is the sacrament. For revelation means the giving of signs, thus “revelation means sacrament, i.e., the self-witness of God… in the form of creaturely objectivity and therefore in a form which is adapted to our creaturely knowledge.”[2] Keeping in mind that Jesus Christ is the true sacrament we shall look at several places in CD in which Barth talks about the LS.

Karl Barth enjoying a cigar.
Karl Barth enjoying a cigar.

In CD IV.4 Barth explains that baptism is not a sacrament, but its meaning is found in its character “as a true and genuine human action which responds to the divine act and word.”[3] In understanding Barth’s stance towards the sacrament of baptism we might come to understand his views about the LS. By examining Zwingli’s exegetical work regarding baptism, Barth points out that Zwingli was basically right, that the meaning of the ceremony is found in human action, in the performance of the ceremony. Thus Barth says that he does not object if someone calls his own views “Neo-Zwinglian.”[4] Barth goes on to explain the LS is also a human decision and an act whose value consists human decision to respond to divine work.[5]

In CD IV.4 Barth also talks about the Holy Spirit feeding the believer with the body and blood of Christ. He says that Christ’s body and blood nourishes the believer.[6] Although he seems to be using LS language it is not clear that this is referring to the LS, for the context of this passage is the ongoing process of sanctification, not any one particular act.

In CD IV.3 also makes several references to the LS. In one section he mentions that Christ calls the elect to himself, conjoining himself to them. Barth says that the Lord’s Supper is “instituted to represent this perfect fellowship between Him and them which He has established.”[7] Thus in the Lord’s Supper the Christian celebrates, adores, and proclaims what Christ has done for them, namely redemption.

Finally, another important passage on the Lord’s Supper is found in CD IV.3. In this section he talks about the Word and the Lord’s Supper. Barth says that human words can acquire a function and capability that they did not have in themselves as elements of general human speech; once they are about the Word, they are received and claimed by the Word of God.[8] God uses human words, even though they are limited due to their creatureliness, for the service of His Word, God gives them power to bear witness to His Word. Barth says that the Lord’s Supper is similar to how God uses human words to bear witness to God’s Word. The elements of the LS do not cease to be what they are, bread and wine, but they now serve the “function and capability” of indicating and confirming the fellowship of the community with its Lord.[9]

According to these passages, especially the previous passage, it seems as though Barth’s position is conditioned by his theology of revelation and the Word. Barth believes that humans cannot know God unless God reveals himself to them. He believes that God reveals himself in his Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word of God, is God himself revealing himself. Thus scripture does not truly reveal God, scripture serves as a witness to the Word, the revelation of God himself. Similarly the LS is not where we encounter God. The LS simply serves as a witness to the Word. The Lord’s Supper serves as a witness to the Jesus by indicating and confirming the reconciliation that Jesus has brought to the elect. So when the elect practice the LS, they bear witness to the Word and confirm to themselves and each other what Jesus has done for them and is doing for them, he has reconciled them to himself and he is sanctifying them.

—————————————

[1] James Buckley, “Christian Community, Baptism, and Lord’s Supper,” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 196.

[2] Buckley, “Christian Community, Baptism, and Lord’s Supper,” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, 201-2.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 30:126.

[4] Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 127.

[5] Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 128.

[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 37.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.3.2 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 28: 169.

[8]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.3.2 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 29: 55.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.3.2 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 29: 55.

Mornings With Bonhoeffer

During the “German Church Struggle” Bonhoeffer and some of the dissenting pastors decided to set up a new seminary in Finkenwalde in order to train pastors for the Confessing Church. These Pastors met, not only to receive academic training, but to receive spiritual nourishment as well (this was quite absent in most German pastoral training at the time since training was primarily an academic exercise). These pastors gathered for prayer, study, meditation upon the word, and of course the study of theology. As Bonhoeffer led these pastors (and soon to be pastors) he developed a way of life centered around discipline, prayer, and scripture. At times it seemed as though this new way of life was overly monastic, students were bored with how rigid the routines were even to the point where some dropped out of the seminary, but at other times it was exactly what the students desired, it was a burst of fresh air for students who were used to the deadened spirituality of German universities.

Bonhoeffer sitting with some younger students.

In Charles Marsh’s gargantuan biography of Bonhoeffer titled Strange Glory he outlines what life at this modern day monastery at Finkenwalde looked like…

Each day would begin and end in quiet meditation. The bretheren would rise and proceed in silence to the dining room for prayers; there, in the early morning light, they would sit until God had spoken some word for the day into their hearts – or until a half hour had passed. Then morning praises were sung. After hymns, the men read antiphonally from the Psalter. There followed a reading from the New Testament, and prayers, sometimes from the prayer book, otherwise extemporized. Morning worship concluded with another hymn…the men would return to their bunk room in silence to make their beds and “put their things in order.”

After breakfast, devotional exercises began, with two or three men sharing a room… for the first half of this period they were to meditate on scripture. Bonhoeffer instructed them to center their thoughts for an entire week on a single passage, not for some purpose of exegesis – as would have been expected in the universities – or even for homiletic inspiration, but “to discover what the verses had to say” in the quiet of the morning.” (Strange Glory 232)

(Note: Look for my review of Strange Glory on this blog in about a week or so.)

Book Review – A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 2 by Allen Ross

I have really grown to like the Kregel Exegetical Library commentaries on the Old Testament. A while back ago I reviewed a commentary on Judges from the same series, I really enjoyed it and found it useful, so I had pretty high expectations for this commentary on the Psalms from the same series.

Let me share with you a few things I found to be very helpful…

  1. Engagement With Current Scholarly Work – This commentary does a good job engaging other important works written on the Psalms. For instance in his commentary on Psalm 47 Ross interacts with Mowinckel’s enthronement theory and several more modern variations upon that theory.
  2. It Doesn’t Get Bogged Down on Source Criticism – Though Ross does attempt to (carefully) address the sitz im leben he doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to discern the various sources of the Psalms. Instead he opts for taking the canonical version of the Psalms and makes comments on that version instead.
  3. The Inclusion of Textual Variants and Comments on the Variants – This isn’t necessarily helpful to a preacher, nevertheless the quality and quantity of comments on these textual variants makes this commentary stand out among other Psalm commentaries.
  4. It Provides Clear Outlines of Each Psalm – This will be very helpful to preachers. Its almost as he has broken down each Psalm into 3 (or 4 or 5) point messages!
  5. Helpful & Concise “Message and Application” sections – I found it personally helpful that for each Psalm covered in this volume Ross provides an italicized “central expository idea.” This is a one or two sentence long phrase which captures the central theme of the Psalm. When preaching narrowing down one’s passage to one central idea is very helpful, not only for crafting the sermon but also for helping the congregation remember the central point. Now as they are, these “central expository ideas” probably won’t work as message points, but they are certainly a good start on making an accurate, deep, and memorable statement of your own.

One thing that would have been helpful, but wasn’t included would have been a brief recap of the introductory material. Ross often alluded to things he had written in the introduction, however the introduction is in volume one, not in volume two… all this to say, volume two certainly does not exist as a stand alone volume, you need volume one. However, the fact that volume two didn’t include any sort of introduction didn’t really change my opinion of this commentary. In fact this made me want to go and get the first volume!

As a preacher and bible college teacher I found this commentary to be useful, exegetically rigorous, as well as very practical. I highly recommend it to pastors and seminary students (some of the issues addressed in this commentary might be a bit too technical for a bible college/undergraduate student or a lay person). So if you are looking for a high quality commentary on Psalms 42-89 you should purchase this volume.

(Note: I received this book courtesy of Kregel in exchange for an impartial review.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 241 other followers