Lesson 6: Letters and Papers from Prison (Part 3): The Real Meaning of Christian Faith

Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from PrisonThe second chapter in Bonhoeffer’s proposed book on religionless Christianity in our world come of age examines the real meaning of faith. He repeatedly claims this demands the absolute honesty of repentance that admits our failures and accepts divine guidance as well as an accurate reading of the Biblical message. The latter acknowledges that the Old Testament has no concern for personal salvation after death and the New Testament primarily calls for participation in the divine being or kingdom of God among us right now.

Bonhoeffer argues that genuine faith begins in an encounter with Jesus at the center of our existence. We find the Christ participating in the being of God there by living totally for others, even to the point of death. Our faith is participation in the being of Christ so our lives also are given for others. Faith, then, involves the complete reorientation of a human being. The Christian life is not self-preservation but service to humanity. This is the vocation of the church in our world come of age.

The dominant characteristic of the religionless Christianity that results is its worldliness. We meet Jesus at the center of life, not the edges, or as Bonhoeffer sometimes writes, at the center of the village not the outskirts. Transcendence does not consist in tackling tasks beyond our scope and power, but confronting those near at hand. God is found in what we do know, not what we don’t. Following Jesus then involves steadfastly serving people in everyday situations, not practicing rituals that supposedly control a supernatural deity monitoring us from another world.

In this understanding of faith, God is manifest in weakness not power as the world knows it. God’s incarnation is always in the form of the crucifixion taking place in the midst of real human life. However, faith always participates mindful of Christ’s resurrection.

Bonhoeffer claims Christian self-denial and suffering for others is a genuine sharing of Christ’s atonement. It continues Christ’s work in our time. His words have a special authenticity coming from a martyr.

I think it is important to see religionless Christianity, as Bonhoeffer understands it, defines faith as Jesus did in the Gospels. Loving God with your whole heart, mind, and soul is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is impossible to claim you love God if you hate, abuse, strike, or kill your sister.

It is also helpful to understand Bonhoeffer does not believe religionless Christianity calls for dropping traditional Christian terminology, practices, or worship. He just believes we have to reinterpret their meaning in our modern world. When he claims Bultmann did not go far enough in his demythologizing, he also remarks the biblical scholar went too far in dropping traditions. The task is to understand what repentance, fall, faith, atonement, justification, rebirth, and sanctification mean in a world come of age.

Lest this seems somehow a compromise, wait until you hear next week what he regards as the practical consequences would be for the church

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. KERRY WALTERS says:

    Such an excellent, excellent, excellent read of Bonhoeffer in these past three lessons!! Thank you1

  2. John Myers says:

    Bonhoeffer demands that we confront the cross in our lives. It is the beacon for our path. Serving others. All others. I agree – it is impossible to claim you love God if you hate, abuse, strike, or kill others. What does this mean today? We are bombarded daily with evil division. I am so tired of it. I will not be used this way.

    We are also confronted with cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer so eloquently put it. Prosperity gospel mis-directs the well-intentioned. Where is the cross and suffering for others in this? Evil has so many faces. I am certain if he were with us today, Bonhoeffer would not be silent. Neither should we be.

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