Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian Martyr, Pacifist, Assassin?

“We must not be surprised if once again times return for our church when the blood of martyrs will be required. But even if we have the courage and faith to spill it this blood will not be as innocent or as clear as that of the first martyrs. Much of our own guilt will lie in our blood. The guilt of the useless servant who is thrown into the darkness.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a sermon in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial church in Berlin on June 15, 1932.[1]

The question of whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be regarded as a martyr for Christ is not one simply of semantics but pertains to the very nature of Christian witness, to the specifics of his pacifism and the meaning of Christian faith. Though he is officially accorded the title at Westminster Abbey (his statue is among ten others designated as 20th century martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr., which stand above the west entrance) he fails to make the Roman Catholic list and also misses the attribute in the “Lutheran Book of Worship” and “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (he is called “teacher” and “theologian” respectively). As a Lutheran pastor explains, “A martyr is one who is killed for his faith but Bonhoeffer was killed for his participation in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.” Instead of not killing, he is accused of attempting to kill. Is the popular attribution of martyr, given to him across ecumenical lines and by biographers such as Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, simply the product of sloppy thinking?

Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, suggests that he is a martyr, but as Bonhoeffer indicates in the epigraph, the term takes on a different meaning in the modern context. Where the church and the world were at one time clear and opposed entities, this distinction has been made impossible in the Nazi (or perhaps just the modern) context. Bonhoeffer, had a premonition that the situation would call for the spilling of martyr’s blood, but he understood that the church and Christians were complicit in the evil which they faced. He had come to feel that he must take extreme measures. But the question is, how far would he be willing to go in this emergency situation?

There is almost no part of a possible answer to this question that is not under contention. Michael DeJong argues he was an orthodox Lutheran, and that Stanley Hauerwas (and friends) are guilty of reshaping him to look like an anabaptist on the order of John Howard Yoder. His understated denial that he is reducing him to a traditional Lutheran makes the point he denies: “I do not mean to suggest that seeing his peace statements in the Lutheran tradition tells us everything we need to know about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on peace, violence and war.” This underwhelming statement stands against the fact, Bonhoeffer was clearly a pacifist. But what sort of pacifist was he?

Was he a pacifist, perhaps of a Lutheran type as opposed to an Anabaptist sort, who might feel justified in taking action where the normal functions of the two kingdoms had fallen apart? Or was he a once committed pacifist, who by the writing of Ethics, has changed his mind? Or is he a completely committed pacifist who goes against his own good conscience and theological understanding? Or is he, in fact, a pacifist who never abandoned his commitment to nonviolence and was never involved in the plot to kill Hitler? Each of these are proposed possibilities.

What seems beyond reasonable question, is his commitment to the ethic of peace as part of his understanding of following Christ (who is an ethic). His commitment to nonviolence, in this context, is clear in Cost of Discipleship:

Does [Jesus] refuse to face up to realities – or shall we say, to the sin of the world? . . . Jesus tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of nonresistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! Why, the whole of his life was one long conflict with the devil. He calls evil evil, and that is the very reason why he speaks to his followers in this way.[2]

In the same book he writes,

That is why Christians cannot conform to the world, because their concern is the ‘perisson’. What does the ‘perisson’, the extraordinary, consist of? It is the existence of those blessed in the Beatitudes, the life of the disciples. It is the shining light, the city on the hill. It is the way of self-denial, perfect love, perfect purity, perfect truthfulness, perfect nonviolence. Here is undivided love for one’s enemies, loving those who love no one and whom no one loves … It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who goes to the cross in suffering and obedience.

The Bonhoeffer of Ethics, it is argued, is more thoroughly Lutheran in his understanding of God’s two kingdoms, and so, in this latter book, his early call for simple obedience now takes into account a more complicated notion of the human predicament of guilt, “the duty to heed God’s creational ‘mandates’, and the distinction between ‘last things’ and ‘things before the last.’”[3] In this understanding, Bonhoeffer was never a pacifist (and certainly not an Anabaptist sort of pacifist) but was always true to his Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms.

The argument of Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Thiessen Nation is that his pacifism was evident and unadulterated by his Lutheran frame of reference.[4] They point out that in a letter to his friend Elizabeth Zinn on 27 January 1936, he says that “Christian pacifism” is “self-evident.” As they argue, “from the beginning he did not think “pacifism” was a position one assumed that required further theological justification.” Just the opposite, he was a pacifist because of Jesus: “his pacifism and his Christological convictions were inseparable.” They argue, contrary to DeJonge, that he was indeed a pacifist on the order of John Howard Yoder, especially when one considers that Bonhoeffer and Barth shape Yoder’s pacifism. Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, they argue,  “is as far as we know, more like Discipleship than any other book written between 1937 and 1972 (not least because of Yoder’s own deep appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s book).”  

Though DeJonge and others have attempted to locate Bonhoeffer in a Lutheran context which would override his commitment to nonviolence, it is precisely in that context that he spells out his pacifism. In his lecture at the ecumenical Youth Peace Conference in Czechoslovakia on 26 July 1932, “On the Theological Foundation of the Work of the World Alliance” he says:

Because there is no way for us to understand war as God’s order of preservation and therefore as God’s commandment, and because war needs to be idealized and idolatrized in order to live, today’s war, the next war, must be condemned by the church … We must face the next war with all the power of resistance, rejection, condemnation … We should not balk here at using the word ‘pacifism’. Just as certainly we submit the ultimate ‘pacem facere’ to God, we too must ‘pacem facere’ to overcome war.

Hauerwas and Nation offer details of a long and seemingly irrefutable documentation of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. They point (a few of their many examples must suffice) to a sermon on 2 Corinthians in which Bonhoeffer makes the extraordinary claim that, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence.” They reference Lawrence Whitburn, one of his congregants in London, who said that Bonhoeffer’s opinion in favor of pacifism “was so marked and clear in his mind” that their discussion of the subject “soon developed into an argument.” From among his inner circle of students at the Finkenwalde seminary, Joachim Kanitz, comments that “it became clear to us on the basis of this Bible study [an exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, given by Bonhoeffer] that it is not possible for Christians to justify killing or to justify war.”

In a counter to this understanding, it is argued that the dire situation he faces during the writing of Ethics causes a break, in which he would consider employing violent means in this situation of church failure. Hauerwas and Nation counter this with documentation from the writing of Ethics and after. For example, from Ethics:

The Sermon on the Mount as the proclamation of the incarnate love of God calls people to love one another, and thus to reject everything that hinders fulfilling this task – in short, it calls them to self-denial. In renouncing one’s own happiness, one’s own rights, one’s own righteousness, one’s own dignity, in renouncing violence and success, in renouncing one’s own life, a person is prepared to love the neighbour.

Hauerwas and Nation argue in their book, Bonhoeffer the Assasin? that he remained true to his pacifism and was never directly involved in violence or the enactment of violence. They assemble an impressive array of arguments which offer a counter weight to any simplistic or one-sided argument as to Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to kill Hitler.

The argument that he did not, in fact, ever abandon his pacifism and did not take part in the plot to kill Hitler seems to be directly contradicted by Bethge, who indicates that he told him he would kill Hitler, given the opportunity. On the other hand, Bethge indicates he knew he was not involved in these plots. As late as 1942 he also tells Bethge he stands behind what he wrote Cost of Discipleship, where he had espoused pacifism. Hauerwas and Nation reference Peter Hoffman, an expert on the conspiracies against Hitler, who describes Bonhoeffer’s role as limited to putting out peace feelers: Bonhoeffer “urged his friends … to use their influence to ensure that the Allies would call a halt to military operations during the anticipated coup in Germany.”

Interestingly Hauerwas and Nation sight the authority of Karl Barth, whom Bethge indicates, knew everything of Bonhoeffer. But his testimony is a mixed bag. Barth had no question, “He was really a pacifist on the basis of his understanding of the Gospel.” On the other hand, Bonhoeffer “belonged to these circles of those willing to kill Hitler.”

From Bonhoeffer’s own description we understand that there is a tension in his thought. The pure martyrs of the first century and beyond, who gave up their lives in a clear witness to the gospel and against the state and the emperor (who claimed to be a god) were not to be found in a Germany and in a German church where Hitler had been embraced as God’s own messenger, on the order of Christ himself. The distinction between church and world had come undone. Humanity itself is threatened and the church, in Bonhoeffer’s conception, has always been for the salvation of the world, but now there is no true church in Germany.

As he indicates in his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” there are three modes of action that one might take as a part of the church in regard to the state:

first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Let us work for the good of all.” These are both ways in which the church, in its freedom, conducts itself in the interest of a free state. In times when the laws are changing, the church may under no circumstances neglect either of these duties. The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself.

In this third category he potentially allows for the sort of action he might have been involved in against Hitler as part of a legitimate Christian response to a government that has overstepped its responsibilities. He expands upon the point, by indicating that with the rise of the Führer we no longer have to do with a political but a religious figure:  

This Führer, arising from the collective power of the people, now appears in the light as the one awaited by the people, the longed-for fulfilment of the meaning and power of the life of the Volk. Thus the originally prosaic idea of political authority is transformed into the political-messianic idea of Führer that we see today. All the religious thinking of its supporters flows into it as well.

The Christian/religious thought of the German people is so misdirected by the role of the Führer, that other modes of resistance (DeJonge finds six modes of resistance in Bonhoeffer)[5] would seem to no longer be effective. As Bonhoeffer puts it in Cost of Discipleship: “It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.”

DeJonge, Hauerwas, and Nation, make their argument on the basis that Bonhoeffer was self-consistent. If this is true, I think Nation and Hauerwas make the stronger case that what he was consistent with his focus on the person of Christ in his ethics of nonviolence. But even here there is a tension, as in Bonhoeffer’s conception, “Jesus Christ came to initiate us not into a new religion but into life” and to be engaged in life. As a result, he has a profound concern for the world, for the suffering (Jews, in this case) and by extension for politics. It is not inconceivable that he went against his own conscience and beliefs, willing to give up his own soul (as he indicates in an early sermon, comparing himself to Paul, in his willingness to be counted anathema) so that he might take part in an act to kill the one he is purported to have referred to as the Anti-Christ.

On the other hand, what is clear and irrefutable are the books and written word he has left us, pointing to the need for sole trust in the ethics of Christ. In recognizing him as a martyr, as I think we should, the term will now have to account for “the world come of age” and the possibility of a failed church and the need for a singular trust in the conquering power of the Lamb that was slain.


[1]Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer: Exile and Martyr, (London: Collins St. James Place, 1975) 155.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone, 1995), 143–144.

[3] Charles Moore, “Was Bonhoeffer Willing to Kill?” in Plough Quarterly Magazine, September 10, 2014. https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/nonviolence/was-bonhoeffer-willing-to-kill

[4] The following is from their article, “’A pacifist and enemy of the state’”: Bonhoeffer’s journey to nonviolence” in ABC Religion and Ethics, Thursday 19 April 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/a-pacifist-and-enemy-of-the-state-bonhoeffers-journey-to-nonviol/10094798

[5] 1. Individual and humanitarian resistance to state injustice, 2. The church’s diaconal service to victims of state injustice 3. The church’s indirectly political word to the state 4. The church’s directly political word against an unjust state 5. Resistance through discipleship 6. Resistance through the responsible action of the individual. See his article, “How does the church resist an unjust state? Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of resistance” https://www.abc.net.au/religion/dietrich-bonhoeffers-theology-of-resistance/10766546

The Cosmic Christ

Vitruvian Man

 A fundamental teaching of the New Testament, largely lost to the Western tradition but preserved (if left undeveloped) in the East, is that the incarnate Christ is the goal, the structuring order, or the inner ground of creation. Partially recovered by St. Francis and Karl Barth is this deep grammar of Scripture that makes of the Bible a “strange new world,” in Barth’s phrase.  It is only in recognizing that incarnation is not the fall back plan (utilized due to the accident of sin) but creation’s purpose, which provides coherence to key biblical doctrines such as salvation, predestination, and redemption. It is not creation and Fall which give rise to the necessity of incarnation; rather creation, in Athanasius’ explanation, is an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation, failed humanity and its potential recovery become the ground of meaning feeding into every key theological concept.  For example, the doctrine of predestination becomes an abstract doctrine about who is in and who is out, rather than about God’s purpose in creation found in Christ. For Barth this decision of God before all time, to be who he is for humanity, is the basic truth on which all other Christian truths are built. In his reformulation of the doctrine it becomes central to who God is as the electing God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together make a choice that the Son of God will become the elected man, Jesus of Nazareth.

But maybe Barth has still not fully recovered the original sense of there being no time before this predestined purpose. That is, among the earliest Church fathers it is not simply the disincarnate Word but Jesus, the incarnate Christ, around which creation’s meaning flows. As John Behr notes, Athanasius “barely even mentions the birth of Jesus” as incarnation is already the principle behind creation.[1] Creations purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man) and this is the meaning of predestination (he is the predestined One), redemption (as cosmic completion), and the Church’s part in a continued incarnation.

Jesus Christ as the unfolding singular purpose of all things is what makes sense of such passages as Romans 9-11, which is not a depiction of arbitrary cruelty and reward, as if some pots are made for destruction and that’s all she wrote. Israel’s election or predestined purpose had always involved being narrowed down to the preeminent purpose of the Messiah, who would be “cast away” not simply for Israel or a few lucky souls but for the redemption of the world. Paul notes first, that “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32), and then ends on a note of universality (found also in both Colossians and Ephesians): “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This is what and who has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). There is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9).

Salvation is not simply deliverance from sin but fulfillment of who God is in Christ for creation. Where Jesus is reduced to helping us get rid of sin, what gets lost are the purposes for all of creation fulfilled in Christ but also in the Church as a continuation of incarnation. Certainly, salvation is the overcoming of sin but the fullness of redemption is the completion of creation’s purpose. Paul has moved our understanding of God’s plan beyond the earth and the human race to its cosmic impact as part of the outworking of the love (the very essence) of God. The whole point of who God is and what God was doing is summed up in the incarnate Christ (1:10). 

The completion of creation in Christ accounts for all the movements of history. The incompleteness of creation in the incompleteness of the first Adam points to the unfolding nature of creation’s purpose in history. The completion of man by the creation of woman means creation is an open-ended process (it has not ended with Genesis 1) in which the whole inner basis of humankind (contained in the name Adam) is an ongoing realization. The Second Adam completes the emergence of the human capacity for image bearing and the second Adam and his bride conjoin the human and divine for eternity. Paul pictures it both as an accomplished fact (“through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Ro 5:18, NASB)) and an unfolding process (“through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Ro 5:19)). The Church as the bride of Christ certainly indicates cosmic predestination was always the unfolding telos summing up all things. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Here is the revealing of “the mystery of his will” (1:9).

While we might argue about what caused the division between the sensibility of East and West (was it Augustine’s notion that no physician would have been sent apart from the disease of sin, or Anselm’s singular focus on satisfying God’s honor in light of the dishonor of sin?), what is certain is Eastern thought and small remnants of Western sensibility were not focused on the forensic accomplishments of Christ but the fulfillment of cosmological purposes. What was preserved in the focus on the “primacy of Christ” or “Christocentrism” is the Pauline notion that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature” (Colossians 1:15) or the Johannine notion of Christ’s recommencement of creation. What might be considered the fundamental doctrine of the New Testament, or the glue which holds it all together, is operative in Franciscan theology (as pointed out at the popular level by Richard Rohr), recovered in part by Karl Barth, but maintained as a key part of Eastern Orthodoxy. For example, Maximus the Confessor (among several Eastern theologians), held that the incarnation would have taken place without a Fall. In Duns Scotus’s terms (a Scottish Franciscan Friar), the Incarnation takes place in light of God’s glory and not due to any sin committed prior to the Incarnation. As Ilia Delio describes Scotus’s understanding, “The Incarnation represents not a divine response to a human need for salvation but instead the divine intention from all eternity to raise human nature to the highest point of glory by uniting it with divine nature.”[2] God is perfect love and wills according to the perfection of that love. Since perfect love cannot will anything less than the perfection of love, Christ would have come in the highest glory in creation even if there was no sin and thus no need for redemption

 In this understanding, the constitution and meaning of the cosmos is summed up by the incarnate Christ, who redeems fallen humanity but who is primarily the completion of the cosmos. This pertains not only to the integration of things in heaven and earth but there is a clearer integration of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ if we see in Christ the completion of creation and not the means of escape. The Western focus on the forensics of the Cross tends to split not only heaven and earth but the person and work of Christ. We might speak of the primacy of Paul and the Cross in the West and a downgrading of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Christ, and the resurrection, but of course, this is a misconstrual of Paul, in which key terms are abstracted from the person and work of Christ.

Among the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus insisted on the primacy of the incarnate Word, with salvation not restricted to redemption from sin but inclusive of a process by which all are led from “infancy” to a state of maturity and which, in his doctrine of recapitulation, includes the summing up of the entire cosmos in Christ as its head. With this understanding as background, key terms such as “justification” or “rectification” are cosmic in proportion – making things right for the cosmos in the apocalyptic act of God in Jesus Christ. Such terms as “faith” pertain to Christ not as object but as the ground of faith. Through the death and resurrection of this faithful one the powers which hold people in bondage are defeated as they take up the Cross. This pertains not so much to reduplication of faith but participation in faith’s origin. As Barth describes it we have a part in the faithfulness of God, established in us when we meet the Christ in Jesus. As John Paul II put it, “He (Christ) satisfied the Father’s eternal love, that fatherhood that from the beginning found expression in creating the world, giving man all the riches of Creation, and making him “little less than God,” in that he was created ‘in the image and after the likeness of God.’” Here our image takes on its proper likeness to the divine image, not because Christ satisfies the wrath of God but because he satisfies his love.

A stark illustration of the centrality of Christ is found in the mysterious history surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Ancient thinkers had long considered the circle as representative of the divine and the square as representative of the earthly.  Leonardo, with the spirit of his age assumed the divine proportion was contained within the dimensions of the human body (some think he is his own model for the picture). Christ as Vitruvian Man accomplishes the squaring of the circle (the principle Leonardo presumed was present in the perfect man). The ordering principle of the circle is fit to the square of the world in the notion that Christ is the center of meaning of the cosmos. In this reinterpretation of the renaissance ideal (seemingly already a secularized version of a Christian notion), creation is not anthropocentric it is Christocentric. Christ is redeemer but redemption is not simply being “saved from” but rather being made “whole for” God’s creation purposes found in Christ.



[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), vii.

[2] Delio, “Revisiting the Franciscan Doctrine of Christ,” 9.

Judas versus Jesus: Salvation’s Confrontation with Sin

The judgment in the “trial” of Jesus is not a pronouncement by Pilate concerning Jesus (Pilate refuses to pronounce judgment and refuses to actually have a formal trial)[1] but Jesus pronouncement that “he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19:11, NASB). The significance of this “he” and of his sin of “delivering” Jesus is that it encompasses the ultimate sin or the culminating point of sin.  Pilate, Rome (the world of Gentiles), Judas, the Jewish priests, the Jews, and Satan are all involved in the “delivering up of Jesus unto death.”  John equates this delivering up with darkness, with Satan entering into Judas, with the uncleanness that clings to the Apostles in the form of the betrayer. Jesus is delivered over to the Gentiles or Romans through the Jews by means of an Apostle, such that every class of human is involved in this deliverance. Darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, are encompassed in the movement which delivers Jesus unto death. Judas starts the chain reaction of “delivering” or “handing over” (παραδίδωμι) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Math. 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified. Judas though is the “betrayer” (ho paradidous) or the one whose entire identity is marked by this “handing over” (Mark 3: 19, “Judas Iscariot, who handed him over (hos kai paredōken auton),” and in Matthew 10: 14, “Judas Iscariot, the one who handed him over (ho kai paradous auton).” Once Jesus is delivered into “the hands of men,” into the hands of the high priests, into the hands of the Gentiles, the momentum toward the crucifixion is a foregone conclusion.

Isn’t the decision of Pilate, the role of Herod and the High Priests, the work of Rome, the important element of the handing over? The death drive which would consume Jesus would seem to concentrate itself at the end of the process.  Something as insignificant as a kiss, as inconsequential as 30 pieces of silver, as trifling as a little greed, sets the more important forces of Israel and Rome into motion. But this kiss, as Karl Bath says, “attests and seals again the fellowship of the perpetrator with Jesus.”[2] That is the darkness to be penetrated, the orientation toward death which needs overcoming, the evil to be defeated, cuts through the Apostles and is represented by Judas.  Judas is not only of Judah and Israel but is of Jesus and the Apostles and it precisely this proximity to Jesus that serves to identify the gravest depth of sin: “he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

Judas is participating in the last supper with the other Apostles when Jesus makes it clear that the worst form of guilt is that of the betrayer: “But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”[3]It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”[4] It is odd that this great sinner, this one who sums up the worst sort of sin as the betrayer, is so much a part of the apostolic band that they cannot distinguish him. When Jesus notes that the betrayer is among those with whom he is breaking bread, the Apostles “began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking.”[5] Mathew pictures each of the disciples as vocally questioning if they personally will betray him: “Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’”[6] They seem to each see within themselves the possibility which resides in Judas.

It is in conjunction with this disclosure that Jesus washes the disciple’s feet. When Peter protests, “Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.’”[7] When Peter insists upon a complete bath, Jesus explains, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.[8] The wholly clean still need to have their feet washed and what they are washed of, the uncleanness which still resides among them, is represented by Judas. Jesus cleanses their feet – they are wholly clean – yet they will have to continue in this service which Jesus renders to remain clean. That is, this service and what it represents directly addresses the Judas’ orientation of which they all need cleansing. The uncleanness of Judas, as it exists among all the Apostles, is particularly represented in the story by Peter.

Peter’s denial of Christ indicates a failure, not only morally like that of Judas, but a similar failure of comprehension.  All of the apostles are included in the foot-washing and Peter’s and Judas’ failure both unfold from this point in the story. The specific element which both Peter and Judas fail to recognize, maybe from different ends of the same spectrum, is that Jesus intends the foot-washing to symbolize or foreshadow his self-giving in death. The threat of death has been hanging over the disciples from the time they all went up to Bethany and Jesus raised Lazarus. Death is on all of their minds, following the fatalistic lead of Thomas, who determined for all of them to “go, so that we may die with Him.”[9]  He has already explained that the foot-washing is a model of humble service, but this is something Jesus explains to the disciples immediately (13:12-17). The foot washing is incomprehensible to them because they have yet to link sacrificial service to death. It must be death as part of this self-giving to which Jesus refers when he tells Peter he will only comprehend the action later (13:7). Peter would block Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die and Judas would bargain his way out of being counted among those who would die. They are consistently uncomprehending or unwilling to grasp what it might mean for Jesus, let alone themselves, to take up the cross.

After the foot-washing, Peter seems eager to press the point and to show that he has made the connection: “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.”[10] We know from Peter’s actions at the arrest of Jesus that he would lay down his life in battle – taking as many ears as he can in the process. He would die the death of any good zealot – perhaps in the sort of final battle Judas and all the apostles imagine for Jesus. Peter’s words parallel those Jesus has used earlier, not once but twice, when describing his own role as the good shepherd (“the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” – Jn 10:11,15). Jesus answers Peter by repeating Peter’s words as a question: “Will you lay down your life for Me?” (13:38). Peter’s claim reflects a reversal of the shepherd-sheep relationship Jesus has outlined earlier in the Gospel. Peter will fall into the hired hand category despite his best efforts: “He who is a hired hand . . . sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”[11] The note of irony in Jesus’ voice must have been obvious as he repeats Peter’s words: “Will you lay down your life for Me?”

Judas, meanwhile, is fulfilling the treachery depicted in Zechariah 11, in which the sheep of Israel are pictured as standing in solidarity against the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd, God himself, is sold for thirty pieces of silver and the people of Israel and Judah are handed over to the shepherds which would bring on their slaughter.

Judas is consistently depicted as devil possessed or as the devil himself and his work is associated with the darkness.  After the morsel of the last supper is handed to him, “Satan then entered into him”[12] and “after receiving the morsel he went out immediately into the night.”[13] Paul too will connect his deed to darkness: “in the night in which He was betrayed.”[14] Jesus calls him “the son of perdition”[15] and “a devil.”[16] On the other hand, Jesus identifies Peter with Satan – precisely when Peter would obstruct Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die (Math. 16:23).

So, the sin of handing over Jesus is focused on Judas, but Peter and the Apostles, Israel, Judah, and the Jews, have all played their part in this handing over. Judas seems to represent what Israel has always done: the Israelites would hand Joseph over to death, they would, like Esau, sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. In the midst of the trial they would not only buy and sell the Messiah but proclaim their true king is Caesar. As Jesus says, the tradition (παράδοσιν – that which is handed down) has nullified their religion. Theirs is Yahweh religion in which Yahweh is nullified; it is messianic religion which would kill the messiah. But this sin of the Jews distilled in Judas is precisely that addressed and undone in the economy of salvation.

The very point and substance of salvation is found in God’s handing over of Jesus, not as an extension of darkness and evil, but to dispel the darkness, to overcome death, to free the captives who Paul describes as being themselves “handed over” to their own lusts. “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”[17] The lie and lust of the first couple is repeated in their progeny and this seems to have culminated in the “son of perdition” who would sell Jesus for 30 coins. It is precisely in the midst of this handing over that God also “delivered Him over for us all.”[18] That is the confrontation between Jesus and Judas is precisely the point where the light confronts the darkness, where the devil would do his worst, where evil would kill the Son of Glory, and where God would absorb this handing over, defeat it and reverse it. As Barth describes it, the situation between Jesus and Judas is only a heightened form of the situation between Jesus and all men. This is illustrated in the one who would continue the apostleship of Judas.

The place of Judas is taken by one who was handing over (παρεδίδου) Christians to be imprisoned and killed (Acts 8:3). This one who takes Judas place begins where Judas left off.  He counts himself “the chief of sinners” due to his persecution of the Church. Though the fate of Judas is not spelled out, the one who considers himself as guilty or guiltier than Judas also counts himself a worthy Apostle. The one who is rejected, the one who is handed over to sin, through Christ’s being handed over becomes the one who would deliver Christ to the Gentiles: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”[19] How one is oriented to this deliverance is determinative of whether he stands with Jesus or Judas.

The difference between the sin of deliverance and the salvation accomplished through deliverance is found in the subject and object of the deliverance. Where Christ is the object separated out and delivered to be killed, this is the work of the betrayer. This one separates himself out from the death of Christ and refuses to take up the Cross. A theology founded on this sort of betrayal would say “Christ died so that I do not have to.” The one who delivers Christ in the Gospel identifies with what is delivered. This one would “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”[20] Paul pictures himself as dying daily, as completing the death of Jesus in his own body, that he might deliver Christ to the Gentiles. The “I” that stood with Judas so as to deliver Jesus to death has itself been delivered up to death: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”[21]  

[1] See http://forgingploughshares.org/2018/05/03/only-one-king-can-judge-jesus-trial-as-the-suspension-of-sovereign-judgment/

[2] See volume II 2, 35.4 of the Dogmatics for Barth’s treatment of Judas and “handed over.”

[3] Lk 22:21–22

[4] Mk 14:21

[5] Jn 13:22

[6] Mt 26:22

[7] Jn 13:8

[8] Jn 13:10

[9] Jn 11:16

[10] Jn 13:37

[11] Jn 10:12

[12] Jn 13:27

[13] Jn 13:30

[14] 1 Co 11:23

[15] Jn 17:12

[16] John 6:70

[17] Ro 1:24–25

[18] Ro 8:32

[19] 1 Co 15:4–5

[20] Jud 3

[21]Ga 2:20

A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word

In his meditation on a beam of light in a tool shed, C.S. Lewis noted, one can either look at the beam of light and see dust particles and not much else or one can look along the beam of light and see the world the light illumines. The meditation concerned different ways of reading the Bible and of doing Christianity. Looking at may be the peculiar modern temptation to reduce everything to our field of vision while simultaneously constricting our vision to what is right in front of us. We imagine we can reduce Scripture to a theory so as to “know it all.”  Whether this reductionist understanding is fostered by or fosters pride, either way, it is characterized by a willingness to deconstruct and not to be deconstructed by the Word. Scripture is made to fit a modernist foundation and “reality” which precedes and is apprehended apart from Christ and Scripture. Truth, in this understanding, is objective and timeless and, as a result, the historical specifics of the narrative of Scripture are presumed to be secondary. That which is timeless and universally true must be sifted out from the particular, culturally specific, and narrative bound. Ironically, the primary trues of the incarnation are presumed, due to the necessary trues guiding reason, to be disincarnate. As a result, the life of Christ and the Gospels are consigned a secondary role to the doctrinal statements and theological development of the epistles. This disincarnate truth reduces to rules to follow, doctrines to be organized, or simply primary events witnessing to timeless truth (in the fundamentalist, conservative, or liberal, application of the foundational paradigm). Narrative cannot be authoritative in this understanding, as authority is pictured as vertical or top down (as in a monarchy or hierarchy) rather than a horizontal sort of road map which introduces previously uncharted territory. Scripture is thought to inform with rules and propositions rather than guide with example, and Christ is the object of faith (we have faith in him) rather than the subject of a faithfulness we are to enter into and imitate. Continue reading “A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word”