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?

John Calvin on Scripture: “The Letter Killeth”

KJVOft quoted, and always from the KJV for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” It is then claimed that ‘Bible heavy sermons’ or ministries overcommitted to teaching from Scripture are unhealthy, even deadly. Instead, the inane logic continues, our ministries and preaching should be ‘Spirit led’ and lively, happily free from the dull old book.

Ignoring the laughable irony of quoting a Bible verse to prove that the Bible need not be prioritised, a careful reading of the verse in its context will show what Paul is and is not saying. For starters, the next verse refers to letters carved in stone and Moses (3:7), while a few verses earlier Paul mentions tablets of stone (3:3). Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of death with the apostolic ministry of a new covenant in the Spirit. Interestingly, this ministry involved the writing of epistles (like 2 Corinthians) not ‘Spirit soaking’ and ‘fire circles.’ To conclude that the “letter that killeth” is the Bible, rather than the Old Testament law, is to horribly misinterpret the passage.

It seems Christians in the 16th century were making a similar mistake by mangling 2 Corinthians 3:6. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy” (1.9.1). Calvin says we should ask those claiming that the “Spirit giveth life” which spirit they mean since the apostles and early church did not despise God’s written Word. “Rather, each was imbued with greater reverence as their writings most splendidly attest.” Listen to Paul, a few verses on from that verse ignorantly cited, “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Thus Calvin asks, “What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?”

Perhaps the gravest and most damaging mistake of those who misuse 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the wedge that they drive between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Calvin cites John 16:13 to show that the Spirit’s ministry was not the forging of  some new doctrine but the restatement and filling out of the gospel of grace. He goes on, “From this we readily understand that we ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (1.9.2). As I argued in my previous post, God has given us his Word in order for us to know him and to keep us from creating gods in our own image. Those who refer to the Bible as a letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking with one hand what they give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not from the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself. Hear Calvin, “[The Spirit] is the Author of Scripture: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Thence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there.” Preachers, ministries and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to reading and teaching the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst.

Coming back to 2 Corinthians, Calvin points out that Paul refers to his preaching of the truth as the ministry of the Spirit (3:8). He argues that this undoubtedly means “the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (1.9.3). Baying like an animal, falling on the floor or prophesying in an unintelligible tongue is not the power of God’s Spirit; it is nothing more than frenzy and hype. The seemingly unexciting and dreary practise of opening the Bible is where we will see and experience the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Authenticity in Strange Places

Upper Room DiscourseI recently moved office and in the process uncovered my copy A. N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. In this imaginative biography, replete with dogmatic scepticism, Wilson plies the tired view that without Paul’s theology, or more specifically his Christology, Jesus was little more than a ‘moderately pale Galilean.’ That is just one incarnation of historical incredulity towards the four Gospel accounts. Popularly it is presented, most often ignorantly, like this: “The Gospels are documents written much later than when Jesus lived and are undoubtedly loaded with the faith of the church, later traditions, and developed doctrine.” In this post I hope to challenge that myth by turning to the Gospel accounts themselves, something most sceptics fail to do. As the title suggests, my arguments will come from peculiar features in the Gospels that indicate authenticity.

The Gospel of Luke’s underdeveloped Christology
In his brilliant but concise work, Jesus and the Logic of History, Paul Barnett shows that the Gospel writers had a different focus to the letter-writers. Anyone who has read both the Gospel accounts and the epistles will notice how the Gospels reflect an ethos of ‘Jesus back there’ whereas the epistles address issues specific to life in the early church, as a believer. Barnett speaks of the noticeable contrast between proclamation and tradition. Jesus’ teachings clearly relate to the circumstances of people in Galilee and Judea in the 30s. They are unconcerned with the issues that the epistles address. The Jesus that we meet in the Gospels is not recast in order to settle the many apparent issues that developed in the life of the apostolic church; he is surely Jesus in his own historical setting, ‘then and there’. Picking up on a point made by C. F. D. Moule, Barnett suggests that this is perhaps most pronounced when we look at Luke’s two volumes. It is hard to ignore the difference between pre-Easter Jesus (in Luke) and the resurrected Lord (in Acts). Barnett, following Moule, argues that in his Gospel account Luke refused to inject Jesus with the high Christology of Acts, because the former is a historical work dealing with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Sketchy details surrounding the Upper Room Discourse
Our small groups have worked slowly through John’s Gospel this year and almost came to a standstill in John 14-16. The conversation is often terse, at other times convoluted, and is evenly enigmatic. Interestingly, D. A. Carson, in his invaluable work Jesus and his Friends, believes that the vague and ambiguous discourse is one of the strongest arguments for the authenticity of John. While Carson thinks the theological freight in these three chapters is direct and clear, he writes, “In referring to historical events placed ahead of the Discourse, they are amazingly sketchy. Someone who was out to manufacture a Farewell Discourse after the events would in all likelihood have succumbed to the temptation to be far more precise than Jesus in the days of his flesh often chose to be.”

Women witnessing to Jesus’ resurrection
In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright remarks that the presence of women as principle witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is arresting and strange. For women were simply not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world, whether we like it or not. They are, significantly, dropped from Paul’s account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, because they were “apologetically embarrassing.” Yet, in each of the Gospel accounts, they are front and centre; Wright goes as far as calling them “the first apostles.” This is quite a convincing argument for an extant oral tradition of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection before Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Wright finds these features compel any serious reader or historian to take the four Gospel accounts seriously, as early accounts and not later inventions.

The Single Story Behind Numerous Sources
Four EvangelistsIn a work I frequently find myself returning to, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd notes that even though the authors of the Synoptic Gospels drew on different traditions a single narrative thread can be traced through them. Dodd argues that this proves a story about Jesus from the earliest days of the church existed, when memories of his ministry were fresh. The Evangelists are committed to that story, with its strange details yet without embellishment, “The tone is one of sober, unemotional realism, allowing the events to make their own impression by their inherent weight.” Consider Luke’s stated purpose for writing, unless he set out to grossly mislead his readers and at the same time open himself up to serious criticism, he was offering an account of what had recently taken place. And despite his varied sources, one of which was undoubtedly the Gospel of Mark, the same credible story of a historical man called Jesus is told.

The Silence of God

Silent Statue

Introductory Note: This is longer than I intend blog posts to be. The purpose of this article is to respond to a question from one of my Bible Education students at Grace College who asked how God speaks to us.

On opening the pages of Scripture we find angelic messengers, voices from heaven, dreams, visions and a whole lot of confidence about what God expected of His people. Many characters in the Bible seem to have had a direct line of communication to God, a kind of speed dial by which any moral dilemma may be quickly addressed. Today, however, God is silent.

His silence is particularly worrying to those of us who are trying to obey, know or understand him. Yet in spite of our desperate questions about the evil that surrounds us, in spite of our personal cries about the future and his will, in spite of sincere longing simply to hear his voice, God remains silent.

LatteSome have responded to this problem by finding messages in their alphabet soup that God left for them, images of Jesus in latte foam or dreams and visions in which God or one of his angels appears. Many of the rest of us try to listen to God and so close our eyes and empty our minds and wait for a still small voice. Sometimes it comes to us in the form of a butterfly or a flock of birds or an inner peace, sometimes it is in the form of a chill down the back of our spines. Sometimes someone else comes and speaks on God’s behalf to tell us what God wants us to know because still, God himself is silent. Or is He?

MegaphoneIt is difficult to argue against experiences. The previous paragraph of spine-tingling, butterfly flapping events, however, do not constitute the voice of God. The first thing to realise about God speaking is that when God speaks, He is communicating. If God speaks in a way that is not clear and certain, he has failed to communicate. A teacher fails to communicate if s/he gives unclear instruction and leaves students uncertain as to what is required, likewise God fails to communicate if you are left uncertain. Considering God is not given to failure, it seems probable that God is not instructing you to do something if you are left unsure that it was Him to begin with (and so I am reluctant to call butterflies and spine-chills “God’s voice”). This leads us to the obvious question: How does God communicate with us? How can we hear the voice of God?

As has been said, Scripture is filled with angels, voices, dreams and visions. It is useful to begin by disabusing us of such an expectation. It’s worth realising that the vast majority of people were not the king of Israel or priests or prophets; they were ordinary and they listened to what prophets, priests and kings told them. It was surprising for Samuel to hear God’s voice, not even Eli the high priest expected it (1 Sam. 3:1-21) and in fact we read at the start of that story that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (v1). Encounters with angels are rare enough that they are commonly associated with fear (1 Chron. 21:30, Luke 1:13, Luke 1:30, Matt. 28:5). The burning bush type experiences of God are not the norm for His communication.

The Heavens Declare

Rather, we find first that God reveals himself to all people in creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork … Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world,” David writes in the Psalms (Ps. 19:1,4). It by looking at creation that any human being can learn something about God. In Psalm 19, David speaks of how the language of creation is wordless and understood irrespective of language of culture. It is on the basis of creation that Paul says people who have never read the Bible can be held accountable for their actions, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” (Rom. 1:19-20). So we can know something about God through the world around us. Still, it is an imperfect knowledge and the world is distorted by sin. Rather than knowing about God, how do we know and hear Him?

Immanuel - God With UsThe best answer to that question is the one every Sunday School child knows: Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him,” (John 14:6-7). So speaking to Jesus is speaking to God and if we know Jesus, we know God. The writer of Hebrews explains, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1‑2). Far from being silent, God became man so that his voice may clearly be heard and still, that voice echoes down through history.

Perhaps you are dismayed then that we do not have Jesus walking around explaining things to us today. Remember this though, before Jesus came God’s people were living in captivity and oppression wondering whether God existed or had forgotten them. They had little certainty about their interpretation of the Old Testament. It was only during Jesus’ short life, that the Old Testament began to be ultimately fulfilled and only after Jesus’ death that anyone realised. That’s why in the New Testament – which was written after Jesus was raised from the dead – we read the authors’ realisation, “This happened to fulfil what was written …” (e.g. John 18:9, 19:24, 19:36) or “as it is written …” (e.g. John 6:31, 12:14).

The people who lived in Old Testament times looked forward to something they could not imagine and could only hope against hope would turn out to be true. The people who knew Jesus didn’t understand him much of the time and didn’t realise who he was until after his resurrection – some of the men trying to be the most godly tried to kill him because they could not understand who he was or what he had come to do. In New Testament times, we have the benefit of the writings of people who knew Jesus and realised how his life fit into God’s plan, we have the evidence that God fulfils his promises and we look back on an event in history in which we can place our confidence rather than looking forward in hope. Even so, with Jesus at the right hand of God since his Ascension, the question of how God speaks to us remains.

The Bible Speaks TodayJesus, after his resurrection, comes alongside a couple of men who are leaving Jerusalem having given up hope in him because they believe that he is dead. They don’t recognise him to begin with and explain what they understand about his death but his response is, “beginning with the Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them, in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” (Luke 24:27). In its essence, the Bible is about Jesus: the Old Testament looks forward to Him, the New Testament looks back on Him. At the heart of the Bible, Jesus stands as God’s Word to us. The way God speaks to us today is through his word. For this reason, Paul explains that “All Scripture … is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). In fact, the writer of Hebrews says that the Bible, “is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” (Heb. 4:12).

Sometimes we may wonder why God chose to speak to us through a book written long ago and over thousands of years that can be hard to understand. That does not change the fact that He did though and it means that if we want to hear the voice of God, the only way to do that is in the words of Scripture. As the Christian writer Francis Schaeffer famously wrote of God, “He is there, and He is not silent”.