012 Contemporary Theologians


Dietrich Bonhoeffer occupies a distinctive niche in modern theology–a focus for both hagiography and theology; a rarity in church history, a martyred theologian. Due to his stature, as well as the profundity of his thought, various interpreters (including some advocates of the deservedly defunct “death of God” movement of the ancient ’60’s) have latched onto him, portraying Bonhoeffer as an advance advocate of their cause.

Consequently, it’s better to read Bonhoeffer himself rather than his interpreters. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and Burton Nelson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1990) provides a marvelous collection of his writings, supplementing widely-available books such as The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics.

In an illuminating introductory section, the editors chart some of the details of Bonhoeffer’s life and provide insights into his character. “His life,” they assert, “was a unity in that mysterious oneness where all contradictions are resolved in the experience of God’s abiding love and forgiveness. ‘Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine'” (p. 4). Consequently, in the opinion of Payne Best, a British Secret Service officer who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s final days in prison, he “‘always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. . . . He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him'” (p. 45).

Following the introduction, the book divides into seven parts, topics within which Bonhoeffer’s writings appear in chronological order. The topics include Bonhoeffer as a teacher, a pastor, a leader in the Confessing Church, and a letter writer. Most of the entries are brief, and, since they are somewhat independent of the rest, can be read and ruminated in small snippets of time.

Some themes, early and late, dominated Bonhoeffer’s thought. The cost of discipleship is one of them. In 1928, just beginning his ministry in a German-speaking church in Barcelona, he said: “. . . one thing is clear: we understand Christ only if we commit ourselves to him in a stark ‘Either-Or.’ He did not go to cross to ornament and embellish our life. If we wish to have him, then he demands the right to say something decisive about our entire life” (p. 53). Four years later, back in Germany, he declared: “The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word” (p. 91).

Though Bonhoeffer embraced his Lutheran tradition’s emphasis on salvation through grace alone, he insisted Christ’s grace must not be reduced to “cheap grace.” As he described it in The Cost of Discipleship in 1937, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (p. 325).

Too frequently, he insisted, Protestants had misconstrued “salvation by grace through faith” as an excuse for non-Christ-like behavior. But believers simply must obey the Word–that demonstrates authentic belief. In a sermon preached on Reformation Sunday in London in 1934, he asked: “What does it mean to believe in Christ who was love and still be full of hatred yourself? What does it mean to call Christ one’s Lord in faith and not to do his will? Such faith is not faith at all, but hypocrisy” (263).

On virtually every page, another theme, Bonhoeffer’s Christocentrism shines forth. Everything, for a Christian, must focus on Christ. In a 1932 lecture for an international youth conference, he said: “We are concerned with Christ and nothing else. Let Christ be Christ” (p. 109). Twelve years later, in a letter from prison, he declared: “In Jesus God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand” (p. 537). And it’s really a firm ground, for it’s Reality itself! All creation came into being through Christ, and in Him all creation holds together.

So, in ethics, all human decisions, all human standards, must focus on Christ, God’s decisive revelation of Himself to us. “To be conformed with the Incarnate–that is to be a real man. It is man’s right and duty that he should be man. The quest for the superman, the endeavor to outgrow the man within the man, the pursuit of the heroic, the cult of the demigod, all this is not the proper concern of man, for it is untrue” (p. 380). In short: “The real man is at liberty to be his Creator’s creature. To conformed with the Incarnate is to have the right to be the man one really is” (ibid).

Yet another theme which pervades Bonhoeffer’s writings is his love for the Bible. He reads it, reflects upon it, depends upon it. It’s water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, the never-failing source of spiritual life. In 1936, in a letter to a friend, he said: “. . . I will first of all quite simply make a confession: I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions and that we need only to ask insistently and with some humility for us to receive the answer from it. One cannot simply read the Bible like other books. We must be prepared really to question it. Only in this way is it revealed to us. Only if we await the final answer from it does it give that Word to us. The reason for this is that in the Bible God speaks to us. And we cannot simply reflect upon God from ourselves; rather, we must ask him. Only if we seek him does he answer. Naturally one can also read the Bible like any other book, as for example from the viewpoint of textual criticism, etc. There is certainly nothing to be said against this. Only that it is not the way that reveals the essence of the Bible, only its superficial surface. Just as we do not grasp the word of a person whom we love, in order to dissect it, but just as such a word is simply accepted and it then lingers with us all day long, simply as the word of this person whom we love, and just as the one who reveals himself to us as the one who has spoken to us in this word that moves us ever more deeply in our hearts like Mary, so should we treat the Word of God. Only if we dare for once to enter into relationship with the Bible as the place where the God who loves us really speaks to us and will not leave us alone with our questions will we be happy with the Bible. . . .” (pp. 448-449).

In the midst of war-time pressures, before going to prison, Bonhoeffer urged, in a circular letter to fellow ministers, constant meditation on Scripture. “Daily, quiet attention to the Word of God which is meant for me, even if it is only for a few minutes, will become for me the focal point of everything which brings inward and outward order into my life” (p. 481).

Bonheoffer’s concerns for community, private prayer and meditation, Christ’s Cross and the imperative that we be crucified with Him, peace, freedom and justice, all appear in this rich anthology. It’s not light reading! But it’s the kind of collection you’ll taste and want to feed some more.

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One of today’s foremost theologians, Jurgen Moltmann, adds another thoughtful treatise to his scholarly corpus in The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1990). Intending to “grasp” Christ “dynamically, in the forward movement of God’s history with the world” (p. xiv), he sets forth a “post-modern christology” which locates “human history ecologically in the framework of nature” (p. xvi).

That endeavor leads him to insist that Jesus understood himself, as did his early followers, in the light of Judaism’s messianic hopes. Moltmann thus anchors his christology in the Theology of Hope which he espoused 30 years ago. He also seeks to establish the eschatological themes he set forth 20 years ago in The Crucified God. And he further explores, as he did a decade ago in Spirit in the World, God’s constant action in creation, treated under the subject of “the cosmic Christ” in this work.

I was reminded, reading this book, of the second century apologist, St Justin Martyr, who portrayed Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes as well as the Logos of creation fulfilling Greek philosophical speculations. Like St Justin, Moltmann understands the Christ as far more than the “Jesus of history.”

Exploring messianic biblical passages, Moltmann finds two preeminent themes: “The messiah is a historical figure of hope belonging to nation, space and time. The son of man is a figure of expectation for all nations; he is above the world, because he overcomes the world. Both figures are transparent for the kingdom of God in its direct, unmediated glory. It is this which the two figures represent in history, and which they have to mediate to human beings who are estranged from God. That is why both figures are also provisional and passing. In them, and through their rule the coming God himself announces his coming (Isa. 35.4)” (p. 17).

The messiah comes to restore all creation, to bring all things to perfection in His lasting sabbath rest. Thus not only we humans “will be possessed by this divine glory, by virtue of participation and correspondence. The whole cosmos will be drawn into the glory with him. The Fathers of the church saw this all-embracing goal of salvation as ‘the deification of the human being’ and ‘the deification of creation'” (p. 47). All things will find their end in Him. With this emphasis Moltmann parts ways with those “modern,” Enlightenment-spawned thinkers who developed a purely anthropological christology, a “Jesuology,” shaped to suit their hunger for subjectively satisfying doctrines.

To elucidate his own, “post-modern,” christology, Moltmann devotes a significant section of the book to “the messianic mission of Christ,” emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in His life and ministry. Next, he considers “the apocalyptic sufferings of Christ,” sufferings both necessary and exemplary for us.

He then turns to “the eschatological resurrection of Christ,” wherein he expands the traditional treatment, “asking how Christ’s resurrection can be seen in the framework of nature, and what this means; and we shall then reverse the question and ask about the future of nature in the framework of Christ’s resurrection” (p. 215). Still more: human history, along with nature, must be interpreted in accord with the truth-giving light of Christ’s resurrection.

Ultimately, “What is said in the Old Testament about the Wisdom of God, which is the life of creation, is said in the Epistle to the Colossians about the cosmic Christ. Reconciled through his death and gathered up into his rebirth, all created being is drawn into the peace of the new community of creation” (p. 255). Moltmann devotes considerable attention to this theme, detailing his understanding of “the cosmic Christ,” binding together and redeeming all of creation. His concern for ecology, his awareness of the fragility and delicacy of a creation so endangered by human sin, enables him to make penetrating observations, however one may evaluate his Christological orthodoxy (which surely can, at points, be debated).

Moltmann’s a masterful theologian. He knows his sources, and he enters into dialogue with modern thinkers. I’ve always considered him one of the more readable contemporary theologians (which may or may not encourage you), and reading him enables one to stay in touch with significant trends as well as probe ancient truths.

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Whereas Moltmann at least gives us something christological to believe in, another recent theological treatise, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, by John Macquarie (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, c. 1990), details all the reasons assorted intellectuals have ceased to believe in much of anything other than their personal opinions regarding Jesus Christ.

Macquarie provides us a compendium of information about modern biblical criticism and theology, so this book certainly helps one understand what’s been going on of late. But so many modern theologians’ general disbelief in traditional teachings concerning the nature of Jesus Christ makes one wonder why they take the trouble to even think and write “Christian” theology.

“Modern” thought means, to Macquarie, the type of thinking which came to prominence in the Enlightenment. It’s succinctly identified by Immanuel Kant, who said: “Dare to know! Have the courage to make use of your own understanding–this is the motto of the Enlightenment.” Loosed from traditional authorities, enlightened thinkers subjected all ideas to “reason,” which generally meant their own personal judgment. For example, Macquarie favorably cites William Barclay’s comment to him “that he was an adoptionist in christology because it was the only christology he could understand! An excellent reason!” (p. 145). Which is hardly the way Athanasius or Augustine or Aquinas would have responded!

After explaining the sources and describing the development of “classical christology,” the doctrine of Christ which prevailed for 1500 years or more, Macquarie discusses the various critiques leveled against it. Rationalist, humanistic, idealist, positivist christologies all proliferated under the aegis of the Enlightenment, paving the way for the existentialist and liberation christologies of more recent decades. For folks like me, interested in the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of historical theology, Macquarie’s presentation provides careful and readable assessment of such assorted speculations.

The final section of the book, ‘Who Really Is Jesus Christ for Us Today?’ allows Macquarie to set forth his own position (which has been increasingly evident as he discusses other thinkers in previous pages). Little really remains of the Nicene Creed when he asserts: “If there is any truth in the idea of incarnation, then this must mean meeting people where they are, and in a secular age that means meeting them on the level of their everyday humanity” (p. 343).

What “incarnation” occurred in Jesus took place gradually, as he somehow became more godly. Sharing the skepticism of Bultmann regarding N.T. claims, he allows for a “minimal core of factuality” concerning a few incidents in Jesus’ life. He does believe Jesus was a historical man who died. In fact, he compares Him to Martin Luther King, Jr., going to Jerusalem much as King went to Memphis, willing to give of himself for others but hardly planning to die as he did. “The ascension of Jesus into heaven is . . . a piece of mythology, inconceivable as a historical happening because our modern cosmography is so different from that which prevailed in the first century” (p. 387).

Jesus differed from other humans, but simply to a degree, not in kind–he was, above all, a bit more fully human than the run-of-the-mill guy and thus “transcendent” in some ways. Fully human, he could not have been sinless, though he surely lived an exemplary life. As McLeod Campbell declares, “Christ’s atoning work ‘took the form of a perfect confession of our sins'” (p. 402). The “empty tomb” was a story the apostles circulated to justify belief in Jesus’ resurrection, which was not, Macquarie insists, a physical resurrection of any sort–after all Jesus appeared to his followers as a purely “spiritual body.”

All in all, Macquarie says, Jesus was much like other “saviour figures,” illuminating our minds and bringing us into contact with a “holy reality” (p. 418). To the litany of heroes listed in Hebrews 11, Macquarie would add Mohammed, the Buddha, Krishna and Confucius, pathfinders in the true faith! Jesus is one of the best–and for Macquarie-style Christians he is the most acceptable–but clearly not essentially superior to the rest.

Well . . . from the “Jesus Christ of Modern Thought” deliver us LORD JESUS!

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As if modern theologians and theologies weren’t sufficiently strange (i.e. strangers to the traditional Orthodoxy I consider normative), today’s theological seminaries add to one’s concern for the future of Christianity. Theological Education and Moral Formation, edited by Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, c. 1992), puts in print some lectures and wide-ranging discussions involving more than a score of professors from a variety of prestigious divinity schools.

Central to the discussion is the question of how seminaries might recover earlier commitments to spiritual formation and moral development (such things as obedying the Ten Commandments). The group discussions (somewhat more interesting than the formal papers) reveal much about what goes on in institutions preparing ministers for the future. George Marsden, for example, said: “What we need to do is to go back to Christianity. We should start talking about God and the authority of the Bible. We should pray and teach the liturgy. But in most Protestant seminaries, if we went back to that kind of Christianity and came out with it as authoritative, we’d get kicked out” (p. 212). Others agreed. By the time the feminists and relativists and gay caucus got through with you, you’d be gone!

James Burtchaell, of Notre Dame, encouraged four of his finest students to pursue doctoral degrees at Yale Divinity School. All of them left without getting the degree. “The reason they gave was that they couldn’t find any faculty member who would say in public that he believed in God” (p. 219).

Anyone wondering if there is a “crisis in the ministry” can rest assured, after reading this volume, that there surely is! If the older, “mainline” seminaries have slipped away from the basics of Christian faith, if they care little about their students’ spiritual development, it’s obvious they will have little to do with the Church of Jesus Christ as it develops in coming decades.

Neuhaus and participants (e.g. Stanley Haurwas) certainly come from the conservative side of things. Yet they occupy prestigious positions in ranking universities. And their discussion of theological education in America leaves one hoping the evangelical seminaries take note and refuse to follow their examples!