Bonhoeffer on Scripture: God’s True and Sufficient Word for Christians

BonhoefferA few weeks ago I started what I hope will be a series of posts developing a robust theology of Scripture. The first two articles looked at the writing of John Calvin: firstly challenging those who set their opinions about God above what he has revealed about himself; and, secondly, correcting the common error of separating the Spirit’s ministry from biblical truth. In this post I am going to do little more than quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer at length and append a few comments. But if the name Bonhoeffer is unknown to you then I encourage you to put this article aside until you have read a little about his life and writing. Below I have arranged four quotations from Bonhoeffer under three headings, two attributes of Scripture and our approach to it.

The Bible is true

Bonhoeffoer wrote, ”We have become accustomed to seeing religion as something that corresponds to a need of the human psyche, something that then satisfies this need. Something that is supposed to lead from the restlessness of our existence to calm, from the mad rush of our lives to tranquility. Something in which, quite removed from our jobs, professions and everyday lives, we can come to our true selves. Then we say religion is something beautiful, something valuable, something necessary for a good life. It is supposed to be the only thing that can make one truly happy in the depths of one’s being. Meanwhile we tend to forget the one decisive question, whether religion is also something true, whether it is the truth. For it could be, of course, that while religion is a beautiful thing, it is not true, that it is all a nice, pious illusion—but still an allusion. And the most furious attacks on religion have been sparked by the fact that people in the church itself have often talked as though the question of truth were only  a secondary question. But whoever so speaks only sees religion from the perspective of human beings and their needs, not from that of God and his claims.”

The Bible is sufficient

“We want to keep this firmly in mind: the word of God, as found in the Bible and as it sounds forth to us in the proclamation of the gospel, needs no decoration. It is its own decoration, its own glory, its own beauty. This is certainly true. But as is especially true of human beauty, the word of God cannot withdraw itself from the decoration of those who love it. As is true of decorating that which is truly beautiful, the decoration of the word of God can only consist of making its own inner beauty shine forth all the more gloriously—nothing alien to it, nothing false, nothing artificial, no kitschy trinkets and no cosmetics, nothing that covers up its own beauty but only what reveals and brings it to light.” Throughout the ages churches have been tempted to update the gospel message (you can read what Paul says about that). Christians have also sought innovative methods to reach people. But I have to agree with Bonhoeffer: Bible teaching has and always will be God’s means of growing his church, numerically and spiritually. The word of God needs no decoration, just faithful proclamation and a commitment to and confidence in the truth.

The Bible nourishes Christians

DevotionalIn an exposition on parts of Psalm 119, Bonhoeffer said, ”There is no standing still. Every gift, every increment of knowledge and insight I receive only drives me deeper into the word of God. For God’s word I need time. To rightly understand the commands of God, I must often ponder their meaning for a long time. Nothing could be more wrong than the kind of intense activity or emotional high that denies the value of hard thinking and reflection. Such engagement with the Bible is also not just the business of those who are especially called to this vocation but the business of anyone who wants to walk in God’s ways. Admittedly, it is often the case that God calls us to act quickly with no delay; but God also calls us to quietness and meditation. So I am often both permitted and required to halt for hours or days over one and the same word until I am enlightened with the right insight. No one is so advanced that he or she no longer needs to do this. No one may believe that he or she has been excused from this because of too many other active responsibilities. God’s word claims my time. God himself has entered into time and now wills that I give him my time. To be Christian is not something that can be handled in a moment, but demands time. God has given us the Scripture, from which we are to discern God’s will. The Scripture wants to be read and thought about, every day afresh.”

Conclusion 

The Bible is true and sufficient, able to make us wise for salvation and also shape us for service (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is God’s means for maturing believers, strengthening faith and correcting error. If we have understood this then it will show in our treatment of the Bible, for we will search and meditate on what God says. An unread Bible is not a sign of being too busy but a statement that hearing from God registers low, if at all, on your list of priorities. It is no wonder that our spiritual growth is stunted. The woman who refuses to refuel her car is not surprised when she has to stop on the side of the freeway. Listen to Bonhoeffer once more, “And those who love this word of God that has sounded forth for two thousand years have not let themselves be talked out of contributing the most beautiful thing they could make as its decoration. And their most beautiful work could be nothing else than something invisible, namely, an obedient heart, but from this obedient heart there springs forth the visible work, the audible song in praise of God and Jesus Christ.”

Four God Given Uses for the Bible

DevotionalI recently taught 2 Timothy 3:10-17, on two separate occasions, and found myself stirred by this familiar passage. While studying at college it was a favourite to cite among both students and lecturers concerning the doctrine of Scripture. Without going into any of that I want to unpack the four ‘uses’ of Scripture mentioned by Paul in 3:16, and how we might employ them in our own Bible reading. Paul writes “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable [or useful] for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. Below I will make brief comment on each of those and then suggest how they might inform your response to God’s Word, whatever passage you are reading.

Teaching truth

Firstly, the Bible is given to teach us, to inform our thinking and positively shape our doctrine. Since Scripture is given to us by God – which is at least one of the important implications of it being breathed out by him – we should allow it to build our theology. Too often we treat our Bible reading the same way we do motivational quotes; or, worse, the sum total of our Bible reading is cherry-picked and inspiring verses suited to fridge magnets but unable to inform our beliefs. God gave us the Bible to shape our minds and reveal himself to us. So the next time you are meditating on a passage of Scripture, one of the questions to ask is this: what can I learn from God and about him, what is he teaching me?

Challenging error

Correcting errorSecondly, and with a little more difficulty, we are told that the Bible reproves. The Greek word used here, along with the next, is a hapax legomenon, which simply means this is the only place it occurs in the New Testament. After you have finished impressing your friends with your newfound linguistic jargon, note that this is significant because it makes the specific sense of the word elusive. Technical discussions aside, commentators and translators seem to agree that it carries the idea of challenging false doctrine or beliefs. This would make it the negative side of our first use. While the Bible is profitable for building up true theology it also tears down wrong beliefs. So, applying this use to our reading of Scripture, we should ask: does this portion of the Bible challenge or correct erroneous ideas I hold?

Correcting sin

Thirdly, with the discussion above in mind, this word most likely refers to behaviour, making it the negative of the fourth use (below). The Bible is given to us by God not only to shape our minds and beliefs but also how we live, speak, work, rest and treat others. This is often done through teaching us truth. But since it is included in a list where that idea is already present we can assume Paul is speaking about morality or ethics—more simply, how a Christian honours Christ in all of life. God instructs us how to behave. When we listen to God’s Word it will result in repentance, putting off what God calls sin. For example, in James 2 we read, ‘Do not be partial’ (2:1). God calls out discrimination, on whatever grounds, and exhorts Christians to repent of racism and classicism, among other things. Thus, the next time you are reading your Bible, reflect on how God is challenging your behaviour, and allow his definition of sin to shape your life.

Training in righteousness

Finally, we are told that Scripture positively shapes our behaviour, training us in righteousness, creating people that please God. If the previous point moved us to ask what we should stop, then this word makes us ask: what should I start? Where is my Christian life, obedience, and love deficient? God does not only desire that we refrain from sin, hearing and accepting his correction, but calls us to practical and positive expression of our faith. I know for myself this is often the hardest application to make, not because we struggle to understand what God demands but because we do. God calls us to express our faith through righteous action.

Four questions to ask in your Bible reading

  1. How is my theology positively informed by this truth?
  2. What errors in my theology are corrected by this passage?
  3. What sins in my life does is God challenging?
  4. How can I positively respond in obedience to God as a result of this text?

Can I be Friends with Girls?

Let me start this post with two short anecdotes. Firstly, a couple of years ago I was rebuked by an older Christian man in my church after he saw me sharing a plate of eats with a female friend. His wife also chastised my friend, at another time. Why? Sharing a plate of food was something only a husband and wife could do and who knows how people might have perceived our breaking of bread. Secondly, two years ago I heard the testimony of a visiting pastor. Discussing his conversion he repeatedly mentioned a close friend who the Lord used extensively in bringing him to faith. They would meet up, go for coffees, and chat regularly over the phone. But after becoming a Christian, this pastor called his faithful friend up and said they could no longer be friends. Why? Because this friend was a woman and their close relationship posed a threat to his marriage.

Man and womanThis post is titled with a question: ‘Can I be friends with girls?’ But the more general question or issue I hope to begin answering is this: can we share an intimate friendship with someone that we might grow romantically attracted to? In my case, that is women. Returning to my two anecdotes, the first is little more than laughable legalism and I treated it as such. However the second is more in touch with reality and genuine Christian concerns about adultery or sexual sin. While that pastor shared this aspect of his testimony I felt that his decision was commendable but nothing to celebrate. For example, I struggle with anger on the soccer field and because of it I have periodically refrained from playing. But that is never where I want to stay, on the sidelines, for I desire to glorify God on the soccer field and not simply by avoiding it.

This brings us back to the question of this post, which I am writing as an extension of its predecessor: Six Obstacles to Friendship. After preaching on friendship recently (you can read a summary that here) I was asked about mixed-sex friendships. And that was not the first time I have been asked the question. I also recently learnt that the question is not unique to our time and has tended towards legalism in the church. In Reading with the Reformers Timothy George paraphrases Martin Luther, “There are legalists who have so tightened the meaning of Jesus’ words against lustful gazing that they forbid all companionship between men and women…But Jesus did not call for such sequestration. He distinguished looking and lusting.” Luther went on: Jesus allowed “talking, laughing, and having a good time” with women. To George and Luther’s points I would add the fact that Jesus certainly had close female friends (John 11:5; Luke 8:1-3). Personally, I am with Jesus and – on most points – Luther.

Freudian mythI do understand the caution against intimate and vulnerable friendships between men and women, where one or both are married or even in the case that neither are. It is possible to become sexually attracted to a friend, but then it is also possible I will lust while walking through the local shopping mall. Yet I still go. Gerald Bray notes in God is Love that because Western culture is obsessed with sex there is a suspicion towards close relationships, “It is now much harder than it used to be to maintain friendships, not only between members of the opposite sex (which has always been difficult) but among those of the same sex as well.” In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill goes further and challenges Christians who adopt what we might call the Freudian Myth, “The belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships.” Sex is not the ultimate destination, or trajectory, of love-filled and close relationships, intimate friendships or affectionate companionship. In other words, sexual intimacy is not the aim or outcome of all intimacy.

There is much more I hope to write on this question, because it seems to be one many people are unsure about. In conclusion, let me say again that avoiding deep and vulnerable friendship is a wisdom issue, not a matter of law. When pressed to the extent that I have encountered it among conservative Christians it becomes legalism. The idea that sexual attraction is the inevitable end of intimate friendship between a man and a woman is not a biblical one. Likewise, the desire for close relationships with women who are not my wife is not born from sexual desire. In the church God has created a wonderfully diverse community whereby the differences of its members are a blessing to one another. We should embrace that, with both delight and discernment.

Six Obstacles to Friendship

Friendship is a wonderful gift from God. Over the years I have gratefully enjoyed its fruits, though not without effort and commitment. On occasion I have been asked to teach on the topic, and I have tried to make that material available at Rekindle: defining friendship and its purposes as well as appreciating it as an eternal gift. Recently I was handed the privilege of preaching on the topic, so I took the chance to rework my material and supplement it.

FriendsReflecting on the many obstacles to friendship I realised that friendships must survive in a hostile environment, fraught with threats and challenges. So here are some of the obstacles to friendship that I have experienced in my own life and culture. The list is far from comprehensive and you will very likely think of more, which I hope you will add in the comments. But my intention in listing them here is to make you aware of the obstacles to friendship and encourage you to strive harder for this glorious, satisfying and sanctifying gift.

Friendship is undervalued

Like a sunroof or cupholders, we tend to think of friendship as a ‘nice to have’. We do not consider it essential but an added extra. The result of this thinking is that we have a low estimation of friendship. If you believe something is not necessary you are unlikely to think it is important. But as I argued in a previous post defining friendship biblically, “Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God.” This should not be undervalued but undertaken with concerted devotion.

Marriage has supplanted friendship

WeddingWhile I affirm that marriage is also a tremendous gift from God I fear that an unhealthy emphasis on it means friendship is overshadowed, and friends are forgotten. We make the mistake of believing that one person (our spouse) will be able to meet all of our relational and emotional needs, as if one single relationship (marriage) removes the need for all others.

Increased mobility

We move around, relocate for work and chase our ambitions into new neighbourhoods and countries. This impermanence is relationally disorienting and probably one of the reasons marriages turn inward and become isolated. Anyone who has relocated will know that finding community and creating new friendships is challenging, and often ends in loneliness. As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “If you are going to put down spiritual roots…you need to stay in one place long enough for them to go deep.”

Technology

Following from the previous point, perpetually moving around we convince ourselves that we can remain ‘connected’. I will admit that I am indebted to platforms such as Skype and FaceTime but mediated communication (and friendship) falls short of the true glory of friendship. Despite all the benefits of these tools, which we ought to also praise God for, they are simply no substitute. 1000 friends on Facebook cannot stave my loneliness; nor can a video call provide the physical comfort and presence of a friend when it is desperately needed.

We are suspicious of intimacy

FriendshipIn his book titled Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill develops what he calls the “Freudian myth”, the idea that the terminus of intimacy between two people is always romantic or sexual. On once occasion, after speaking to teenagers about friendship some of the guys came up to me and said words like vulnerability, affection and intimacy cannot exist between guys for fear of being perceived as homosexuals. We might easily laugh that off, but most adults probably limit those adjectives to romantic relationships. But when we see two friends visibly loving delighting in each other we assume they desire something more than friendship.

Unbiblical idea of masculinity

Admittedly a generalisation and perhaps this is linked with the previous point, many men I know stick to the shallows in their friendships, revelling in the superficial and bonding over the inane. A lot of people have the strange notion that being a man means independence, strength, apathy and the complete childish avoidance of anything deemed effeminate. This has not resulted in generations of impressive men but boys with serious emotional and social limitations.

So there you have it, a far from comprehensive list of obstacles to friendship in our world today. Please interact with anything I have raised or add your own below. Returning to the first point, until we are convinced that God has given us friendship and imbued it with significant potential we will settle for cheap imitations and shadows.

How’s It Going? Part 6: Build your own

Idea generation pageThis is the last in a series of posts on church metrics. We’re going to close off this series with some how-to tips.

We’ve seen that a metric is any quantifiable measure, any piece of data, which is linked to a goal. The closer a set of measures identifies how we are doing in relation to the goal, the more effective it is as a metric. For example, if you play cricket and want to be a great batsman, you would measure your strike rate and batting average.

It’s a bit tricky to nail down what this would look like in any given situation, because life is incredibly colourful. That said, below is a set of questions to ask yourself. These will hopefully take you some of the way toward developing your own set of metrics that help you get to where you believe God wants you to be.

How would our ideal situation look and feel? Paint a vivid picture of where you want to be, in your mind or on paper.

What are some key ideals? From your vision of the future, list some key concrete aspects which can be measured (e.g. amounts, quality, characteristics, purchases, etc). Measure those.

How does our current situation look and feel? Like the above, consider the current status quo. Pay special attention to the differences between the future and the present.

What are the key differences to overcome to get to our future state? Your answer to this question may help you identify further important concrete aspects of the future which you can measure.

What impacts my list of concrete measures? Identify, with your team, as much of the funnel of inputs and outputs which have a bearing on your metrics above as possible. From that funnel, select the aspects which have the most significant impact, and track those.

How could people potentially manipulate these measures? If you can see a way to ‘game the system’, include measures to help avoid that.

What actions can I take to move towards that future state? Identify the actions you can take to influence the key changes that need to take place. Put these in your diary and stick them on your wall. Bear in mind that these may change, so use your metrics as your conversation partner, and constantly adjust.

And that’s that. Our series on metrics has come to an end. My hope is that it will contribute in some way toward us being more faithful in our service to the Lord who has commissioned us.

How’s It Going? Part 5: Pitfalls

Man stepping in gum on the street If you are gung-ho and ready to go, I want to help you avoid some landmines. Below are two common pitfalls. Avoiding them will save you much frustration.

Unintended side-effects

One of the major problems with setting anything up are the unintended side-effects that sneak up on us. That is just as true when considering how and what you measure. Why? Because people can’t help but play to the numbers. So, make sure your numbers have balances in place, and explain the rationale of each metric to those engaging with it.

For example, if we decide that maturity is best developed through one-on-one discipleship meetings, we may set the goal of getting all our people into meetings like this. We assign this to our ministry staff team, and decide that the way we will measure their performance in this area is by asking, “How many one-on-one discipleship meetings have you had in the last month?” One possible side-effect of this is that the team will drastically lower the quality of their meetings so they can churn out more meetings. And according to your scorecard, they’re doing great.

Measuring the wrong point of the process

Another problem is measuring at the wrong point. It is possible to assess an outcome when you are really wanting to figure out the impact of your actions on factors which influence the outcome. So, make sure you identify which stage of a multi-stage process you are wanting to measure.

For example, let’s say giving is currently down in your local church and your leaders have decided that, if the situation hasn’t changed by a given date, specified actions will have to be taken. They’ve appointed someone to attempt to get things back on track by then. When that person jumps in, they take a shotgun approach to seeing the needle lift on the total income graph – perhaps even throwing in a few unethical approaches for good measure. Now, if they are successful (or unsuccessful), how do you critique what they did and if they created the kind of change you wanted? Because of what we failed to measure – whatever impacts the end result [1] – we have to assume they did everything right (or wrong).

What other pitfalls have you noticed?

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[1] Perhaps the percentage of members who are giving and the percentage of new members who have received teaching about finances. Knowing the answers to those questions will give you far more insightful and actionable information than if you limited your attention to the bottom line.