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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

Renewing the Mediating Power of Christ with Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard

While I am often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people—because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it is particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)— to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1]

As soon as Christ’s kingdom makes a compromise with this world and becomes a kingdom of this world, Christianity is abolished. But if Christianity is in the truth, it is certainly a kingdom in this world, but not of this world, that is, it is militant. Søren Kierkegaard [2]

We are living through a period in which Christian belief is proving implausible if not impossible. This cultural/political moment seems, for many, to have exhausted the possibility of keeping the faith, perhaps because of personal injustices suffered or because of the exposure of the underbelly of religion gone bad.  As I see it unfold all around, I completely understand the particular circumstance of friends, acquaintances and former students in their turn from the faith, and by “understand” I mean I feel what they are feeling. The Christian complicity in racism, in religious nationalism, in deadly stupidity, combined with a loss of trust in church institutions and the personal wounds inflicted by the same, is crisis invoking. At a more basic level, there is a huge question mark in front of God’s love, control and providence, and a feeling that the Christian message is implausible, irrelevant and inconsequential.

If ever there were someone who understood and dealt with a similar crisis of faith, it must have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, partly due to his work with German counter-intelligence, was aware he was living through the complete failure of the church during what would come to be called the Holocaust or Shoah. It was a period in which the church and Christians had not only failed but had, in part, enabled the “final solution” – thus he calls for a new form of the faith called “religionless Christianity.” Christian anti-Semitism was the basis of German and National Socialist anti-Semitism – which is one reason why Bonhoeffer felt that he could no longer speak the name of God and presume to be communicating. Bonhoeffer would propose his religionless form of the faith in the face of what he considered the end of Western Christianity. In his religionless Christianity, along with his notions of “cheap” and “costly” grace, worldliness, obedient faith, the need for personal choice, the rejection of institutionalism and German idealism, he is following Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard too had faced a complete collapse of trust in the institutions of the church and had turned, not to reform so much as an abandonment of Christianity as he knew it. Both Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard speak of a costly grace that bids one come and suffer and die with Christ, as opposed to a triumphalist Christianity that presumes personal safety, comfort, and security as part of the faith. The idea, however, that may best sum up both thinkers, both in their relationship to others and in their understanding of how the Christian, in spite of the failure and complete absence of the church and authentic Christianity, is the notion of Christ’s mediating power in the life of the Christian. Both turn to the existential experience of the individual and the need for Christ to stand in immediate relationship to the “I” so as to mediate God, self, and the world.

My claim here is not without controversy at any level: some see no connection between the two thinkers, some would not make the connection between Bonhoeffer’s relgionless Christianity and Kierkegaard’s anti-Christendom, some see a contrast between Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual and Bonhoeffer’s focus on the community of the church, but more importantly what is contested is that these two thinkers are conjoined in an effort toward the emergence of a new form of the faith as seen in the mediating role of Christ. Afterall, Kierkegaard eschews any role as a reformer and Bonhoeffer is true to his Lutheran context, never envisioning anything more than the church in which he was raised – or so the argument goes.[3] What I would argue (following Mathew Kirkpatrick, among others) is, not only are Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard conjoined in their major categories and focus but they both envision a reform of the definition of faith, beginning with an abandonment of the established church and a reworking of what it means to be human as this is mediated by Christ.  

First there is a turn from the mediating role of the established church. In the article, “This Must Be Said, So Let It Be Said,” Kierkegaard encourages a boycott of the church “Whoever you are, whatever your life is otherwise, my friend—by ceasing to participate . . . in the public divine service as it now is . . . you always have one and a great guilt less—you are not participating in making a fool of God by calling something New Testament Christianity that is not New Testament Christianity.” Kierkegaard calls for the destruction of the established church, “Yes, let it happen. What Christianity needs is not the suffocating protection of the state; no, it needs fresh air, persecution, and—God’s protection.” He compares the clergy to stockholders in a company where the best dividends will be paid out to those who avoid the harsh truth of the gospel. In The Moment Kierkegaard not only denounces the clergy for having discarded authentic Christianity but declares that the state church has made Christianity’s existence impossible. For by employing the clergy the state gives these professional stockholders a vested interest in maintaining the situation. As Kirkpatrick notes, throughout The Moment, Kierkegaard describes the clergy as “parasites,” “wolves,” “swindlers,” “criminals,” “forgers,” “soul-sellers,” “oath-bound liars,” “perjurers,” “hypocrites,” “cannibals,” “thieves,” “huckstering knaves,” etc.[4] He pleads with his readers:

But one thing I beseech you for God in heaven’s sake and by all that is holy: avoid the pastors, avoid them, those abominations whose job it is to hinder you in even becoming aware of what true Christianity is and thereby to turn you, muddled by gibberish and illusion, into what they understand by a true Christian, a contributing member of the state Church, the national Church, and the like. Avoid them . . .

Kierkegaard, by the time he writes this, no longer believes that Christianity exists in Christendom, and that Christendom actively inhibits Christianity. There is no longer any Christianity to reform, Kierkegaard argues in his own voice.  

This whole junk heap of a state Church, where from time immemorial there has been, in the spiritual sense, no airing out—the air confined in this old junk heap has become toxic. Therefore the religious life is sick or has expired, because, alas, precisely what worldliness regards as health is, Christianity, sickness, just as, inversely, Christian health is regarded by worldliness as sickness. Let this junk heap tumble down, get rid of it; close all these boutiques and booths, the only ones that the strict Sunday Observance Act exempted . . . and let us once again worship God in simplicity instead of making a fool of him in magnificent buildings. Let it again become earnestness and cease to be play . . .

While this harsh conclusion might be tempered by Kierkegaard’s earlier statements, it remains that he sees only one way forward – and that is through the “single-individual” immediately dependent upon Christ.

In my previous blog (here) I demonstrated Bonhoeffer’s acknowledgement of the failure of the church. In Letters and Papers from Prison he indicates the Christian religion has for 1,900 years rested on the false belief of some sort of instinctive “religious a priori,” in which humankind is naturally endowed with an innate perception of God. Religion has been a garment in which authentic Christianity has sometimes been cloaked and the concern has been with its portrayal of God as a strong, transcendent figure, standing beyond the world. The cloak must be shed, according to Bonhoeffer, because the trappings have displaced the substance. Bonhoeffer calls for the church to sell its land, to cease paying the clergy – who should seek support in free-will offerings or through secular jobs. In Christology, Bonhoeffer attacks the church for its elitist message, such that “for the working-class world, Christ seems to be settled with the church and bourgeois society.” By 1940 with the essay “Guilt, Justification, Renewal,” Bonhoeffer’s understanding is even more severe: “The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven.” The guilt of the church is such that it has misused the name of Christ, attempting to secure itself rather than take a dangerous stance alongside the suffering. He concludes, the church is only the church when it is there for others, so the church has failed to be the church.

Both Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer turn to a more immediate understanding of Christ’s mediation. It is not through the institutional church or the clergy, but it is Christ within the individual and their perception of the self and world where Christ mediates. As early as Act and Being (his second dissertation), Bonhoeffer reflects Kierkegaard in the notion that transcending the limits of a world “enclosed in the I” is the beginning of a true experience of God. “A ‘genuine ontology’ requires an object of knowledge—a genuine Other—that ‘challenges and limits the I. The ‘being of revelation’ is just such an object of knowledge. It does not depend on the I, whose being and existing it precedes in every respect.” In this “being of revelation” human knowledge is suspended in “a being-already-known.”[5]

Kirkpatrick claims, “For both Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, everything concerns the ability to say “I,” and that before God.”[6] Kierkegaard’s psychological writing is forged around the idea that the individual only becomes an authentic (spiritual) self when “grounded transparently in the power that established it.” Both Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard describe individual participation in the Trinity; the Son, mediating relation to the Father through the Spirit. This becomes a possibility and reality through the guidance and imitation of Christ, a Kierkegaardian understanding deployed by Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer’s copy of the book, Sickness Unto Death, bore the marks of his heavy underlining, according to Kirkpatrick).

As Kierkegaard describes it, “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal or failure to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what he calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease.  The primary importance does not pertain to any one element of the relation (soul or body or the ego) but to the dynamics of the relation or to the negative unity (death drive) or to what Paul calls “the body of sin” or “the body of death.”

 The conflict between the law of the mind and the “I” (the ego) is constituted in the third term: “the body of death” or “the body of sin.” The body of death is an orientation of the “I” to itself with “itself” objectified through the law. The relation can be constituted in a negative unity (the body of sin or the body of death) but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self, namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”

Kierkegaard’s psychological portrayal (as in Sickness Unto Death), of the immanent and immediate role of Christ’s mediating role pervades the thought and theology of Bonhoeffer. Kirkpatrick’s dissertation and book argue that Kierkegaard’s notion of the individual, including his understanding of love and the concept of mediation, are behind Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the individual in community and his notions of obedience and discipleship. Bonhoeffer, according to Kirkpatrick, fulfills Kierkegaard’s notion of a reformer as here is the single individual leading people in obedience through the mediation of Christ.

Despite his profound thoughts concerning the nature of community and the authority of the church, the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s theology is that of the single individual, drawn away from direct relationship with others into the mediation of Christ, bound to undivided relationship with God. [7]

The failure of the Church and the failure of Christianity in Christendom might be seen as something on the order of Paul’s thorn in the flesh realized corporately and universally. The church triumphant and the religious version of the faith (focused on defending God’s transcendent might), turn out to be the great weakness and failure of the Western form of the faith. In the midst of this failure Bonhoeffer envisions the emergence of a new form of the faith, largely based on his reading of Kierkegaard. While he never has the opportunity to spell this out (the Nazis kill him before he can even begin his projected work), what it most clearly revolves around is the understanding that Christ bids me come and die so that “I” can be overcome.

 In Christ, God’s self-revelation, we are brought to “the boundary of the being that has been given to [us]” and it is only here through “the God who became human” that we become human. Divine and human are not “two isolated realities” as God’s “vertical Word from above” neither adds nor subtracts “but rather qualifies this entire human being as God.” Jesus Christ becomes God for us and we become fully human in faith alone. In his Lectures on Christology Bonhoeffer says, “I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.” At the same time, Christ is my limit – the boundary of my being and my true center. As the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6), he is the mediator of every relationship with the Creator.[8]

The way forward in this time of crisis – or the way this time of crisis points – is to the realization that Christ only wants us to become “the human beings that we really are.” As Bonhoeffer says, “Pretension, hypocrisy, compulsion, forcing oneself to be something different, better, more ideal than one is—all are abolished.”[9] The realization is that we can only become truly “human before God” through the mediation of Christ in apprehending all things.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967), 141–42.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 211.

[3] Both though attack the notion of a state church, with Bonhoeffer hinting to Barth, “Several of us are now very drawn to the idea of a free church.”

[4] I am utilizing Matthew D Kirkpatrick, Attacks on Christendom in a World Come of Age: Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and the Question of “Religionless Christianity” (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 166) (Kindle Locations 6296-6302). Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[5] This is Peter Hooton’s summation from Act and Being, in the unpublished version of his dissertation.

[6] Kirkpatrick 7568

[7] Kirkpatrick 7530-7536

[8] “Lectures on Christology,” DBWE (Collected works in English) 12: 305, 353, Quoted from Hooton, 192 in Beyond, in the Midst of Life: An Exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in its Christological Context, Dissertation submitted to St Mark’s National Theological Centre, School of Theology, CSU in 2018.

[9] Ethics, DBWE 6: 94. Ibid 193.

Religionless Christianity

Part of the contested legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer pertains to what he might have meant by a religionless Christianity. Both the “death of God theologians” and those who presume that, with this phrase, he was referring only to his particular and immediate context in Nazi Germany, seem to miss that Bonhoeffer is making a theological and biblical argument and not simply a cultural observation. Bonhoeffer presumes to find this religionless understanding, not simply in Germany or in a secular age, but in the Old and New Testament and particularly in the theology of Paul. My argument, made through his own statements in Letters and Papers from Prison, is that Bonhoeffer may well be working from within a German Lutheran framework, but he is picturing the emergence of a mature world Christianity which will abandon the religious sensibility, inclusive of various forms of Christianity (including those of his own immediate context), which has made impossible a true sharing in God’s suffering in Christ and thus a true experience of God. As early as 1934 he was convinced that “in the West Christianity is approaching its end – at least in its present form and its present interpretation.”[1] His development of a religionless Christianity is not a departure from his earlier vision nor is it necessarily a relinquishing of his Lutheranism, but it entails the emergence of something new in terms of fulfillment and maturity.

His first resource for speaking of this religionless conception is the Old Testament and the fact that “the Israelites never uttered the name of God.”[2] In prison he has undertaken a re-reading of the Old Testament and has read it two times. He recognizes that there is no discussion of the saving of souls or deliverance from out of this world, but the focus is this-worldly – the establishment of God’s kingdom and righteousness on earth.

Then, he finds in Paul’s depiction of passage beyond circumcision the modern-day equivalent of a passage beyond religion. Religion is no more a condition for salvation than circumcision, thus he can conclude, “Freedom from circumcision is also freedom from religion.” A right understanding of Paul would entail a moving beyond the defining characteristics and delimiting factors of religion.

Religion, he explains, “means to speak on the one hand metaphysically, and on the other hand individualistically.” Where religion is concerned with ontology and the saving of souls, Bonhoeffer claims, “Neither of these is relevant to the biblical message or to the man of today.” He characterizes religion as man’s attempt to find God and contrasts this with biblical revelation. The human word is pitted against the divine Word or the Logos of God.

His is an argument not simply about cultural interpretation but biblical interpretation. He asks, “fundamentally, isn’t this in fact biblical? Does the question about saving one’s soul appear in the Old Testament at all?” And his point is that the New Testament must be read against this Old Testament background. “Aren’t righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and isn’t it true that Rom. 3.24ff. is not an individualistic doctrine of salvation, but the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous?”

So, a religionless Christianity is not an embrace, as an end in itself, of secularism and atheism, but these eventualities afford a correct reading of the Bible. With the rise of secularism Christianity can take its proper place, not at the boundaries of society but in the center of earthly and human concerns. The world come of age leads “to a true recognition of our situation before God.” This was always where Christ pointed. “God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34).”

God wants us to live in the world without the religious hypothesis of God. This is why God let himself be pushed out of the world on the cross, so that we would stand before him in full authenticity. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” He is not with us as a stop-gap or as the Big Other, present in oppressive strength. “Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” It is not religiosity Christ calls for but shared suffering. “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.” This is true conversion: “not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53.”

This is no system of belief in abstract doctrine or in comprehending God in his omnipotence, as all this accomplishes is an extension of religion. Genuine experience of God begins with an encounter with Jesus Christ. The encounter with the one who “is there only for others” transforms the world and every aspect of belief as this is a true encounter with God. This means attaining to the transcendent is not a striving after the infinite or attempting “unattainable tasks,” as the transcendence of the neighbor encounters us in any given situation. The “man for others” turns us to the neighbor to find the immediate manifestation of the transcendence of God. God in human form is the true encounter with the divine, not the remote and terrifying. “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus.”

Bonhoeffer does not hesitate to challenge what he calls the misdirection of the Apostles’ Creed (proving once again he is not thinking only about his context but the church universal). The problem with the Apostles creed is that it begins with the wrong question. “‘What must I believe?’ is the wrong question.” This does not pertain to the true faith of Christianity and we should not, he warns, entrench ourselves as Barth and the Confessing Church would have it, behind questions of doctrine and belief. We should not, “like the Roman Catholics,” let the church do our believing for us by simply identifying with the church. “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” Just as the Christian is only a follower of Christ when he exists for others, so too with the church. To make a start the church “should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.” The church and its people “must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.” It must show and tell what it means to live in Christ by witnessing to this existence for others. “It must not under-estimate the importance of human example; it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” Here is the way belief works – not through abstract doctrine but in deed and power. This is how we “believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it.” This God who bids us come and die is only disclosed in this narrow way.

This marks the difference between the God of religion and the God of Christianity, as man in his distress imagines a God who can fill in the gaps in his weakness, while Christianity directs us to a God of suffering love. As long as humankind only experiences God as a security blanket he cannot know the God of the Bible. The false conception of God is exposed in man recognizing his own strength, and to fully acknowledge the godless world and by so doing share in God’s sufferings. The non-religious God is only revealed with a full acknowledgement of the godless world, and it is in this way that one comes nearer to God. So the strange paradox develops: “The world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.” This godlessness affords the opportunity to know God as he is revealed in weakness and shared suffering in Christ. In forsakenness there is a turn, in Charles Taylor’s language to the immanent frame, but this is where Bonhoeffer imagines Christianity always directed us. “It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored.”

Bonhoeffer makes it clear he is not speaking of provisional measures or from the perspective of theological liberalism but from a new theological understanding. His claim is that theological liberalism, in its demythologizing tendencies has still not gone far enough, in that it is simply attempting an abridgement of the Bible. What is called for is a “theological” re-conception of the Bible. Not a demythologization so much as a holistic re-enchantment, in which what is above this world is made immanent – the very intent of creation, incarnation, crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now there is an unfolding of the Gospel, not in Hegelian terms in which the world come of age is a historical achievement, but in biblical terms in which the Gospel is bearing universal fruit for all of the world. This fruit is the possibility of a religionless Christianity.

He describes the origins of this possibility, much as Taylor does secularism, as originating in the thirteenth century with the rise of human autonomy, the development of science, social and political developments (including art, ethics and religion), such that there is a “completion” in which man has learnt to deal with himself “without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God’.” So “it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’ – and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.” This God confined to religion, though, needs to be pushed out so at to arrive at a more mature understanding.

Religion limits the role of God to a stop-gap, a resource “when human knowledge has come to an end, or when human resources fail” so that the God of religion is “always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.” The world come of age is one in which human limitations are narrowed so that a place for God is simultaneously restricted. With scientific, sociological, and psychological progress there seems to be no end to human self-sufficiency, but for Bonhoeffer this is not bad news for Christianity as it affords a severing of Christianity from religion.

Rather than continually trying to preserve space for God and attempting through apologetics and metaphysics to keep human-kind attached to its adolescence, the world come of age calls for a mature faith. “The attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian.” It is pointless as there is no returning to a previous age or the possibility of creating dependence in place of an achieved independence or to create a problem where there is no problem. It is ignoble because it amounts to an attempt to exploit a weakness which secular man knows nothing about. He maintains it is “Unchristian, because it confused Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness, i.e. with a human law.”

Rather than exploit a non-existent weakness or attempt to smuggle God into a “last secret place,” in a world come of age humankind needs to be confronted at its place of strength. Bonhoeffer explains, “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.” Rather than setting God at the boundaries and utilizing him for a stop-gap for human weakness now the faith of the Bible can be reconceived with God at the center of the world. While there will always be the delimitations of human finitude, and those things which prove insoluble, it is better to let the religious inclination to fill in these silences cease. It is better, Bonhoeffer maintains, “to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved.”

To live with God at the center is to give up “any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.” To live in this world with God will mean “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.” Only in this way can we “throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.” Here is true metanoia – a conversion from out of religion in which one becomes a mature Christian. “How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”

So, for example, rather than conceive of resurrection as the “solution” to the problem of death, and rather than conceiving of God’s transcendence in epistemological terms, these categories need to be read into the world. Resurrection and God are not simply future and beyond our cognitive faculties, but God’s transcendence and resurrection need to be the ordering principles of society – set not on the periphery but “in the middle of the village.” This, Bonhoeffer explains, is how to read the New Testament in light of the Old and this is the initial shape of this religionless Christianity.

This new religionless faith will disempower former ways of speaking and a new vocabulary will arise, centered on prayer and righteous human action. Bonhoeffer projects a time in the life of the next generation (the life of Bethge’s son whom Bonhoeffer would have baptized if not imprisoned and is the occasion for which he lays this out) in which “All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.”

Is he speaking here of simply provisional change or is he in fact thinking of this time as a complete reformation of the church? He says, “By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification.” I suppose one could read this as a focus on Germany and the German church, but Bonhoeffer seems to be describing a worldwide emergence of something new. “It is not for us to prophesy the day (although the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it.”

He does not claim to have worked out the details of this reordered world and this new humanity with its new way of speaking, but he most certainly sees it as a deep grammatical shift. “It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom.”

It would seem to be an unnecessary narrowness that refuses to see this as the culmination of Bonhoeffer’s earliest, Barthian, refusal of religion, his long reimagining of God and community, and the beginnings of an enacted eschatological formation of a new sort of humanity. He says as much with his quotation of Jeremiah, “They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it” (Jer. 33.9). He concedes, “Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.” His prayer for young Dietrich Bethge would seem to be his prayer for every Christian and for the church universal: “May you be one of them, and may it be said of you one day, ‘The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter till full day’ (Prov. 4.18).”

He speaks in his description of this religionless Christianity of something new emerging, something of which he only has a rough conception, but it involves a new experience of God, a new type of humanity, and a new form for the church universal. I believe his vision is one that we need to build upon as we resist the return to religion.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London, 1933–1935, ed. Keith Clements (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 81.

[2] All quotes hereafter are from, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; New York: Touchstone, 1997).

Color Me Purple

If my early childhood was marked by a natural tendency toward discovering meaning (see my previous blog), the second phase of my life was marked by a strange loss of curiosity in things transcendent. My turn to the immanent frame was captured in a book published the year of my birth. Just as the Brothers Karamazov, would be the book that I would choose to characterize a later period of belief, there was one book that captured my early childhood cessation of a quest for meaning.

The first book which I checked out of the library and read as a child was Harold and the Purple Crayon. In the story Harold uses the purple crayon to create his own world and reality. He wants to go for a walk in the moonlight but in the absence of a sidewalk and moon, he uses the purple crayon to draw a walkway and a moon to walk by. (The editor to whom the author first sent the book, was confused as to where he drew the moon and walkway.) It was my first encounter with a first-person creation ex nihilo, in which the imagination is the blank canvas. There are no given parameters in Harold’s reality, other than the ones he fabricates. For example, at one point Harold needs directions so as to find home, so he draws a policeman who points him in the direction he should go (all determined by Harold).

 In the beginning of the story, the sidewalk is straight and featureless and seemingly infinite, and so Harold cuts across a field and comes to a place where one should find a forest. Not wanting to get lost he draws only one tree – an apple tree. Realizing that the apples are unprotected and can easily be picked he draws a frightening dragon to scare people away. The problem is, the dragon frightens Harold so much that he falls backward, scraping the crayon as he goes, and he inadvertently draws an ocean into which he falls and starts to drown, but Harold saves himself by drawing a boat. The scenario repeats itself when he falls into a blank space on the other side of a mountain he failed to completely draw, but he rescues himself by drawing a balloon to float down on. His was a world of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, down to creating the boots, straps, and the abyss from which one needs to be pulled.

The author, Crockett Johnson (whose birth name was David Johnson Leisk), would strangely play out the Harold worldview in his own life. As he lay dying of lung cancer, two long-time friends came to visit – Andy Rooney (the journalist and television commentator) and psychiatrist Gil Rose. Johnson was afraid and in great pain, and in an attempt to relieve his anxiety and fear, Dr. Rose began to talk about his creations. He asked, “Well, what would Harold do?” As Crockett thought about what Harold would do, he calmed down. Literally, his creation came to provide him his dying comfort.

Johnson had served as art editor of the communist periodical, New Masses, and was a life-long labor union activist. His idea for the New Masses, to promote left-wing causes in a more subtle and attractive way, may not have been the explicit idea behind the Purple Crayon, but his book captures Johnson’s world. I am not saying Harold and his purple crayon sold me on this world, but it characterized a world I inhabited, one of my own limited fabrication. I did not recognize it as atheistic or existential or as anything, it was simply the blank-page-world that seemed to present itself, and I was content to dwell within the lines as they were being drawn.

Johnson drives the point home that one inhabits a world of their own making, when Harold becomes lost and cannot find his own home or his own window. He goes wild drawing a city of windows, none of which allow him entry into his own home. Then he remembers that he has to see his own home and window, framing the moon and world he has created, from the inside. He cannot find home by looking for it from the outside, but he has to view it from within. Thus, he is able to cross over and make his own bed so as to lie in it. Harold must literally draw the covers up under his chin so as to find their comfort.

The little bald-headed boy, alone in a room he has created, finally falls asleep and the crayon drops out of his hand. Through his own creation he has found home and a place to lay his head, in the same way his creator would find comfort in his own final sleep.

The Beginning of My Religious Pilgrimage

Like most children I was fascinated by Santa Claus, but I found his abilities and many appearances confusing. I concluded from the worship songs about him, “He sees you when you are naughty and he knows when you are nice,” that he is both omniscient and ethical judge. His legal standard was not entirely clear, but posed an impenetrable aseity (being “good for goodness sake”) that did not clarify what exactly he expected. Belief or faith in his existence, I understood, was the main thing. Receiving grace or presents entails believing and he who doubts stands condemned to be without presents – thus there is an inherent agonistic bind in which doubt is its own condemnation.

After sighting many incarnations of the Rotund One, I remember a deep confusion and the beginning flickers of a question. There was only the vaguest consistency in size, shape and tenor of his multiple department store and street corner incarnations. I drew Hindu like conclusions: Santa must be localized in what I assumed were temporary avatars, expressions of his True North Self. And this was the conclusion which led me to the idea of a northward pilgrimage.

Seeing Santa in his ontological essence I realized required an upward journey. Only his permanent/transcendent mode, his permanent home (I may have mixed in some heavenly metaphor) would enfold all of the lesser avatars into the singular Noumenal Jolly One. Just as the Earth is round but has a singular pole from which it unwinds, I assumed Santa emanated from his solid (to my mind, cold and solid were the same) North Pole Real Presence.

Yes, I was a bit vague on the metaphysics, yet wanting to believe and in believing to receive grace, I instinctively hit upon the idea of setting out across the desert. Aren’t all great pilgrimages a means of striving for the fullness of faith and perhaps in the process of obtaining the beatific vision?

I explained all of this to my good friend Danny, in brief, “You wanna find Santa,” I said. I convinced him that if we headed due north, we could run Santa to ground. He agreed, so we headed across the desert outside of Page, Arizona to the North Pole – two five-year-olds on a quest to find the meaning of life.

We may have both been a bit vague on geography, but if you have seen the high desert around Page, you could follow the logic: there is nothing due north and the North Pole is in the midst of nothing. Cross into this empty expanse and we would be knocking on Santa’s door in no time.

Of course, we understood we would need to provision ourselves for the journey, thus we carried a large cardboard box with us as we headed out. We were not too far into the desert when the Sun began to set. We figured we had better set up camp. One of us had to go to the bathroom, and luckily, we had brought our cardboard box, as we thought of it as a complete shelter with facilities. This allowed us to preserve what we had made with a pride which only two five-year-old boys could share.

What we were not clear about was how we would cross the Grand Canyon – and apparently this had occurred to the entire town of Page when we came up missing.

As the Sun set and darkness closed in, it occurred to me that I had forgotten one key provision. We were cold and I told Danny we would need to build a campfire. I told him to wait at the box, while I went into town to get some matches.

The neighbors and friends of Page had gathered and were making a northward sweep in a long single file line at the edge of town when I walked out of the desert.

10 Contrasts Between Romans 7 & 8 Proving 7:14-25 Cannot Be Describing the Redeemed

Part of the value in rehearsing failed theories of atonement is that the failure will follow a universal pattern, the same pattern that Paul is demonstrating in Romans 7 as it contrasts with chapter 8. I would argue, Paul is setting up a contrast between the non-Christian and the Christian Subject, with chapter 7 from verse 7 focused on the experience of Adam, or every man. The fact that Anselm, Augustine, John Calvin, John Piper and company read 7:14-25 as part of the normal Christian life is not an insight into Paul but an insight into a theology which could mistake non-Christian experience (that of the “wretched man” of v. 24) for Christian experience. I do not mean this as a dig against the spirituality of these men, but simply to say that their mistake (spelled out in my previous blog here) is the universal mistake which Paul is explicating.

To miss Paul’s point about the nature of sin is not simply an Augustinian or Anselmian error, it is the human error. It points not only to the blunder of Augustine in his reading of Romans 5:12 (described here), but the universal repression of the way in which sin is propagated. To miss that sin reigns through death is not simply a theological error but the human error (the work of the deception) that Paul is tracing throughout Romans. From 7:7-24 he is describing life under the lie (inclusive of vv. 14ff) at which point he introduces the deliverance of Christ, which he will explain in chapter 8.

As I put it in the above blog, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout chapter 5 is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters. But there is a sense that human experience mitigates against a correct reading of Paul, as sin’s deception in the law of sin and death reigns.

If we have missed Paul’s point in chapter 5, we are likely to miss his point in the contrast between the orientation to death and the law (the “law of sin and death”) described in chapter 7 and how this contrasts with life in the Spirit in chapter 8. If we have understood 5 correctly (sin reigns through death), then we can see that he is drawing out his point about two forms of human life – in the first Adam (7:7ff) and in the 2nd Adam (chapter 8).

1. The Cosmic and Corporate versus the Alienated “I”

Chapter 8 marks the transition in Paul’s argument to the description of an alternative understanding of the human Subject. Where 7:7ff is focused primarily on the isolated individual before the law (with its repeated reference to “I” with its clear reference to Genesis 3:10 and Adam’s self-description), ch. 8 speaks of a corporate identity in the Holy Spirit which has cosmic implications (“those in Christ Jesus” (8:1); “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (8.19)). Paul is still working in the universal categories he set out in chapter 5 in contrasting the two Adams, but now the cosmic implications are spelled out.

2. Living Death Versus Life in the Spirit

The Holy Spirit does not appear in ch. 7 but is the theme of ch. 8 (mentioned nineteen times explicitly and the main subject of each section of the chapter). Where ch. 7 focused on describing the dynamics of the body of death (7:24) and agonistic struggle, ch. 8 counters each of the Pauline categories constituting the Subject addressed in ch. 7 with the work of the Spirit, which constitutes a life characterized by peace (8:6). This is perhaps the key contrast; that between the living death of chapter 7 and new life in the Spirit. The Spirit can be equated with life (8:2, 10-11), and with the introduction of the Spirit in 8:2, Paul’s question of 7:24 is definitively answered: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law,” but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations.

3. The Ego of Desire or What is Seen Versus a Life of Hope

Paul’s depiction of desire, as with the first couple, is focused on the register of sight. In chapter 7 Paul describes a law of sight (βλέπω v. 23), which as with Adam is connected to the rise of shame and the repeated “I” (I heard, I was afraid, I was naked, I hid, 3:10). Paul’s “I” (ἐgὼ) is exchanged for a life of hope, focused not on the seen but on the unseen (v. 24), which brings about a conformity to the image of the Son (v. 29) (who is not an image or object for the eyes but occupies the Subject position in place of the ego) and a reconstitution of the Subject. As a result, the “I” does not appear in chapter 8 but as in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me.”

4. Suffering Under the Law Versus Suffering as a Co-Heir with Christ

Paul describes two forms of suffering in chapters 7 & 8. The work of the law (the law of sin and death) is displaced by the law of the Spirit of life (v. 2) which results in freedom from slavery to fear due to relationship to God as “Abba, Father” (v. 15), reconstituting the Subject a child of God. Paul ties this new relationship to God directly to a different experience of suffering. An implicit element of Paul’s agonistic struggle (in ch. 7) is a depth of suffering which he cannot endure. “Who will rescue me,” he cries, as this suffering is deadly, arising as it does from within. In contrast, the suffering of chapter 8 (the source of which is outside the self), is a sharing in the suffering of Christ which marks one out as a co-heir with Christ of glory (8:17).

5. The Body of Sin and Death Versus Resurrection Life Now

The “body of sin” (6:6) or “body of death” (7.24) is displaced in the resurrection life of the Spirit (8:10-11) which is not a departure from the material body or material reality but the beginning of cosmic redemption (“the redemption of our bodies” (8:23) and the redemption of the cosmos (8:21)). The only resolution to life in the flesh, in the brand of Christianity that reads chapter 7 as the normal Christian life, is future. But in chapter 8, Paul is describing an enacted resurrection life which has defeated this sinful flesh principle in the follower of Christ.

6. Through the Work of Christ People are Made Righteous Versus a Failed Righteousness

There is no work of Christ in Paul’s description of his sinful predicament but only the work of sin and the law (in chapter 7:7ff), but chapter 8 describes how the work of Christ changes up this damnable sort of existence. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death can no longer condemn, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8:1-3) ushering in the law of life in the Spirit. Where 7:7ff described the characteristics of this living death (marked by incapacity), ch. 8 describes life in the Spirit, which sums up the difference God’s righteousness makes. The body is dead due to unrighteousness but the Spirit is life and this is God’s righteousness imparted (8:10). This then results in the capacity to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). This walk is characterized in all of its phases by the power of life which enables the mindset and hope of the Subject in Christ.

7. Living in the Lie Versus the Truth of Christ which Exposes the Lie

Paul is describing sin in terms of a deception on the order of the deception foisted on the first couple by the serpent in the Garden. In the opening verses of chapter 8 (countering the opening of 7:7-11), Paul explains how Christ defeats and exposes the lie of sin in the particular death he died. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death (the condemnation he has described in chapter 7) are finished so that there is no condemnation in Christ (8:1). God has “condemned sin in the flesh of Christ” (8:3) so that it can no longer deal out death (an active taking up of death) by deception.

Paul adds to his description in 8:3 by saying “and as a sin-offering.” The sin offering was for the ignorant or unwilling sin, which answers the problem of sin of the “I” (7:15) who does not “know” and does not “will” what he does.[1] Christ does not die for a general wrongdoing but to address the particular work of sin as it appears in ch. 7. This sin which works through deception and ignorance brings about disobedience unto death, and the one who was obedient even unto death makes obedience possible (5:18-20). The disobedience unto death describes an orientation founded in deception (it cannot obey God – it is hostile to God, 8:7) and obedience unto death recognizes death but obeys in light of the resurrection life by which it is empowered (8:11-12). Living according to the lie is to actively die (in death resistance) while to live, in spite of death, is the death acceptance of living in the truth.

8. Life in the Flesh Versus New Life in the Body of Christ

In ch. 7 Paul locates the law of sin “in my members” (7:23), in the flesh (7:25), or as “sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). The place from which sin works death is the flesh. As N. T.  Wright explains, the reason there is now no condemnation is “because God has dealt with sin in the flesh, and provided new life for the body.”[2] Those in Christ experience the death to sin and the new life which he provides. The sentence of death is passed on sin in the one who was in the true “likeness of sinful flesh” (8.3), so those who are found in his likeness through baptism (6:5) will also experience this death to sin rather than death by sin.

9. Life in the Split “I” Versus Participation in the Unity of the Trinity

The key difference between the living death of 7:7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates, while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8:3) who leads by his Spirit (8:14). The Father is the primary agent who subjected creation in hope (8:20), who makes all things work to the good for those who love him (8:28), who has foreknown and predestined those he called (8:29) and these he has justified and glorified (8:31). This communion is “in Christ Jesus” who was sent to free from the law of sin and death (8:2, 3) by condemning sin in the flesh (8:3), who gives his Spirit of life (8:9) so that those who suffer with him will be glorified together with him (8:17) and who died and was raised and intercedes so that nothing can separate from the love of God (8:34-35). The Spirit is the source of life (8:2) who empowers the walk and mindset of those in whom the He dwells (8:9). The Spirit is God’s righteousness (8:10) whose resurrection power will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as by his life “you put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13). Through the Spirit adoption as sons enables his sons to cry “Abba” (8:15) and He helps the saints in their weakness and through prayer by interceding for them (8:26-27). The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8:4), has their mindset (8:5-8), sonship (8:15), endurance of suffering (8:17) and saving hope (8:20, 24).

10. Shame Versus Glory and Love

Paul, from 7:7ff, is providing a commentary on Genesis 3 which describes the shame of the first couple. He is giving us an interior view of that shame, which is marked by an incapacity for being present for the other (love). Shame marks not only the loss of God’s presence but the possibility of interpersonal love – being there for the other. The anatomy of jealousy, anger, and violence are to be traced in this genealogy of shame. Those who are hiding cannot be present for others or even for themselves but are set in an antagonistic relation with God, self, and others. Paul, in chapter 8, is describing a love that is indestructible and indivisible – nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ (8:28).

To miss this contrast between Romans 7:7ff and chapter 8, (which I have only partially filled out) would seem to be on the order of missing the reality of Christianity. There is no prayer, no hope, no Spirit, no Abba, no love, no work of Christ, and no other but only law, desire, deception, unendurable suffering, alienation, and death, in 7:7ff. Compounded with this, to mistake Paul’s description of the damnable (κατάκριμα) life of sin as if it is salvation, would seem to leave one stranded in a punishing life from which there is no deliverance.


[1] Wright, Romans , 579.

[2] Wright, Romans, 575.

(Recent critiques of my blogs on John Calvin, Augustine, and penal substitution have mainly focused on what was not said in a particular blog, when I have usually covered the topic in an accompanying blog. To answer some of these critiques here is a guide to what I have written:

Critique One: “Axton does not reference Calvin directly.” My article on his development of penal substitution is an engagement with the Institutes, “Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?” to be found here and my depiction of his purported confusion of sin and salvation is an engagement with his commentary on Romans, “Has John Calvin Confused the Lie of Sin with Salvation?” is to be found here. My depiction of his work on predestination also deals with the Institutes, “The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s ‘Incomprehensible’ Anti-Gospel” is here. I reference the Institutes in this article dealing with Calvinist assurance of salvation, “Are Calvinists Saved?” which is here . In this piece on Calvin’s view of the necessity of evil, “Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity” here I deal with his depiction of evil in the Institutes.

Critique Two: “Axton does no history,” (or something on this order). I have dealt with the Constantinian shift and its impact, “The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills” here and “The Gospel Versus Constantinian Commonsense” here and here “A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift” deals with the history and references a series of primary works. I have dealt with the Augustinian misreading of Romans 5 here in “The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin.”

Critique Three: “Axton does not recognize Calvin is following Anselm.” Some have objected to my notion that Calvin “invented” Penal Substitution, with reference to Anselm, suggesting he is the true culprit. I have probably written more on Anselm than any other figure and what is not to be missed is that he does set the context in which Calvin is working (along with a host of other factors), nonetheless Calvin is also innovating. I discuss the relationship between the two theories here in “Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement” here in “Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath,” here in “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction” and touch upon it here in “Deconstructing ‘Absolute Truth’ to Arrive at the Truth of Christ.”)

Has John Calvin Confused the Lie of Sin with Salvation?

John Calvin may be typical of, or his view comes to typify, those who read Romans 7 as primarily a description of the regenerate, so that Paul’s description of his struggle with sin, his incapacity to carry out what he knows to be right, his alienation within himself, and his existence and identity in the body of death or the body of sin, this “wretched man that I am” (7:24), is as good as it gets on earth. As Calvin explains, “this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God.” The Christian is one who is made aware of his sin condition, and he mainly hopes for a future rescue (when the flesh is gotten rid of) but meanwhile he is made to agonize over his sin and to feel, precisely in his redemption, the acuteness of sin’s effect. Final rescue is focused on deliverance from the wrath of God, provoked by the breaking of the law which contains his righteous decree. In this understanding, Christ died to meet the requirements of the law, and his death is not directly connected to explanation or necessity of an immediate reconstituting of the human Subject, such that he is rid of the sin principle. My argument is that (as depicted in Romans and elsewhere in the New Testament) Christ did not die, primarily, to meet a requirement of the law but to displace a deception which involved the law and in exposing this deception, the Subject described in Romans 8 is born: a Subject no longer controlled by sin and its deception. This means that it is not the law which explains Christ’s death, but sin as it is oriented to the law, and the point of his death is not to save from a future wrath (working according to the law) but from the present tense sin problem (which will certainly pertain to the future).

Is Sin’s Deception Resolved Through the Law or is it Confounded with the Law?

The two readings revolve around the concept of deception in Romans 7:11. I believe Paul depicts sin’s deception in regard to the law as key to understanding the human predicament. Calvin, in his Commentary on Romans, passes over sin’s deception in regard to the law and presumes that the law exposes the deception. It is, according to Calvin, “through the light which the law throws on the turpitude of sin” that sin is revealed. This does not explain why there is the possibility, as Paul presents it, of confusing sin and the law or why or how the law is the means of death and deception. Paul says explicitly (vs. 10), “The very commandment that promised life proved death to me.” Paul is describing how sin distorts the law in its relation to the sinful self. The “command which promised life” serves as an explanation for the content of the deception connected with sin.

James Dunn maintains that life is not to be had in the law (due to sin), while Günther Bornkamm thinks this positing of life directly in the law is the deception which sin always works.[1] Calvin maintains a separation between the deception and the law, and seems to miss what commentators like Dunn and Bornkamm are pointing to – sin distorts the law, such that we imagine that it contains life and righteousness in itself. As Calvin puts it (without reference to the deception), “the commandment shows to us a way of life in the righteousness of God.”

 The obstacle contained within sin, according to Calvin, is “corruption.” But Calvin presumes this corruption pertains to the breaking of the law (which results in death) and not to an attempt to gain life through the law (where avoiding death is the motivating factor). He says, “it is incidental that the law inflicts on us a deadly wound, as when an incurable disease is more exasperated by a healing remedy.” The law then, in Calvin’s explanation, is part of the cure and not intertwined with sin and death in the human imagination. This leaves corruption something of a mystery, while Paul’s point seems to be to explain how sin works through the law by means of a deception.

Calvin renders deception as that which “led me out of the way” of the law. Rather than the law being the occasion for sin, which is Paul’s point, Calvin explains the verse as saying, “as we begin then only to perceive our erroneous course, when the Lord loudly reproves us . . .” That is, he is separating the “erroneous course” and the law, preserving the law from its entanglement with the deception. He renders the verse as making precisely the opposite of Paul’s point: “Paul says rightly, that we are led out of the way, when sin is made evident by the law.” Paul is not saying sin is made evident by the law, he is saying sin uses the law to obscure its sinfulness (holding out the promise of life in the face of death). Calvin’s explanation makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation, as why would sin being made evident by the law be the occasion for sin? Calvin seems to mean that sin was already present prior to the law but the giving of the law exposed what was already present. This is a perfectly logical thing to say, but it is not Paul’s point and does not accord with Paul’s overall argument. Paul is not explaining an easy thing or a thing that comes naturally, but the opposite; he is explaining how sin’s deception works through the law.

Set in the context of Genesis, the majority consensus as to understanding what law Paul is referencing and who the “I” is, there is not a time prior to the prohibition. The logical sequence of vv. 10-11 is that of Genesis 3: the prohibition posed the possibility of life; sin or the serpent deceived me; and “I” died. The prohibition or law is itself the indicator (the opportunity – ἀφορμὴν– the base of operations) that something more (life beyond God) is available – it points out the opportunity for life and knowledge. “You shall not die” (Gen. 3.4) indicates God is the liar and the prohibition a cover warding man away from enjoying the privileges of God. The serpent’s lie (3.4) negates death but then the negation is negated under a supposed truth (3.5) of life in the broken law (what Paul calls “the law of sin and death”). The serpent, which Paul simply calls sin, deceives in regard to the prohibition (“You won’t die, you will be like God”).  Breaking the law or manipulating the law or making the law one’s own, in the depiction of the serpent/sin, will provide access to life without resort to God or to the tree of life.

The prohibition was only life-giving in the sense that it kept open access to God’s life, but the law per se is not life giving. The perception that ἐντολὴ ὴ εἰς ζωήν is the promise of life in the law is skewed by sin so as to remove the necessity of God as the giver of life. According to Dunn, to still imagine, after sin, that life is in the law, reflects a common Jewish misconception (is it also Calvin’s misconception?). Dunn raises the possibility that the law contains life: “Does Paul mean that the commandment was intended to bring about life, to lead to life (NEB, NJB), that is, a life not yet possessed?” Such a reading, he maintains, does not fit with Paul’s understanding of the law as stated elsewhere but reflects a misreading which Paul is repudiating. What is not to be missed, he concludes, “is the implied sharp reverse to and rebuttal of the traditional Jewish assumption that the law/commandment promoted life.” The correct nuance is to understand that the law keeps one in a life-giving relationship with God, but it is this relationship to God (and not with the law or the negative prohibition of Genesis) that is the true source of life.[2]

 Calvin concludes that “we do nothing but wander from the right course, until the law shows to us the way of living rightly.” Paul’s depiction of how the law is distorted through sin, seeming to hold out life and in its deception producing death, is passed over by Calvin. He works with a blunt notion of sin that simply contrasts flesh and spirit, and equates being in the flesh or body as an incapacity to keep the law. In his explanation, all of human life stands outside of the spirit in its transgressive relationship to the law. In Paul’s version, according to Ernst Käsemann, the lie is embraced under the presumption that life is to be had in the law (7.10) through spiritual achievement – yet it is not clear how Calvin’s depiction of spiritual achievement (through Christ) is a departure from this lie.[3]

At a minimum, Calvin misses Paul’s explanation of the specific function of sin through the law and how this gives rise to a world of deception. The lie of sin is not simply a problem of the heart (though it is that); it poses itself as an alternative epistemology or means of gaining life and truth through knowing (the knowledge of good and evil). The lie of sin undermines truth: even God’s truth as given in the oracles of the law (Rom. 3.3) is subject to the deceit of sin. What truth can stand the distortion of the lie? This distortion is inclusive of the truth of the “I” or ἐγὼ; the most intimate truth, that of human identity. The human project is set upon saving the self, but the deception obscures access even to what a self might be. The notion that I have immediate access to myself or the law cannot stand in light of Paul’s picture of the delusion.

Does Christ Save from Sin and Death or from God?

If I am correct in my understanding of Paul, this also means that Calvin sets aside the work of Christ in defeating the lie of sin. By imagining a transparent access to God through the law and picturing the wretched man of chapter 7 as regenerate man, Calvin seems to be conflating Paul’s depiction of the problem with the solution. If the majority of commentators are correct, in seeing chapter 7 in connection to the portrayal of Adam, then Calvin is confusing the self-torturing sinful mind with a depiction of salvation. This fits with his notion of penal substitution, which reduces the work of the cross to a function within the economy of the law, which goes all the way with the lie that there is life in the law. This seems to miss that the biblical focus is upon salvation from sin and death, not deliverance from the wrath of the Father.

Taking into account that the original lie of the serpent was that the law could be manipulated so as to produce life and that God was perceived to be the obstacle to life, Calvin, in passing over the deception, seems to have reproduced it. By confusing the problem with the solution, is it possible that Calvinism is (at least at this point of confusion) a manifestation of the problem from which Christ saves?  


[1] Dunn, Romans, 383. Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience, 90. Thanks to Matt Welch for editing and discussing this article.

[2] Dunn, Romans, 384.

[3] Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 198

A Genealogy of the Lonely Modern

In the typical scenario, which comes loaded with the modern view of history, the question is posed, “Would you smother baby Hitler in the crib, given the opportunity?” What if we discover, perhaps with the deed complete, it was actually Hitler’s reading of Nietzsche, and that in fact there were many German boys of a peculiar intellect and disposition who, given bad philosophy, could fill the role of Hitler candidates. Smothering baby Nietzsche will not really help, as he too arises with the secular age whose end he envisions.[1] The problem with the scenario is contained in the presumption that Hitler is an isolated, unique individual, and not a product of his time and circumstance.

John Milbank though, has the perfect candidate for smothering. According to Milbank, Duns Scotus is the culprit who created the theological vision that ultimately disenchanted the world which has given rise to both modern experience and modern political structure, with all of its attendant disasters. Milbank would explain the modern and secular, whether modern American evangelicalism or modern global Christianity as a “thinned out version of the Catholic faith” – all the result of the theology of Scotus.[2] In turn, Milbank imagines that if we could recover medieval ecclesial and political structures the root problem would be addressed. He puts on display both a failed understanding of the nature and depth of the human predicament and its solution.

My point here is not simply to indicate the weakness in attaching blame for all of modern thought to one medieval scholar. Milbank, after all, is simply following a long line of modern scholarship (the very thing he is critiquing) which would attach supreme importance to one individual or a particular stream of history. While it is not exactly “the great man theory of history” (in which history is biography), it is something of a “disastrous idea theory of history” which attaches a near sui generis notion to particular ideas, periods and persons. For example, Leslie Newbigin, typical of the previous generation, wrote of Rene Descartes having caused the second Fall of humanity. He presumed that if Descartes had not gone into that warm room on a cold day and composed his meditations (beginning with “I think, therefore I am”) the modern period would not have commenced or would not have been so disastrous. The tendency is to think, “That darn Descartes, he ruined it for all of us.” This, “If it weren’t for that darn Descartes-that darn Scotus-that darn Hitler-view of history,” is faulty, not simply in its simplistic view of history but is attached, I would claim, to a peculiarly thin (modernist) theology which does not presume, as I think the New Testament does, something like a negative unified field theory of sin (addressed in the work of Christ).

It is not that we cannot or should not trace the genealogy of ideas, as we really do live in a world impacted by the thought of particular individuals and there really are streams of thought or historical circumstances that shape our horizons. It is true, that basic human experience is changed up in this secular age and that our world has been disenchanted, no matter our personal (religious or nonreligious) frame of reference. There is no passing over the depth of details to be found in Scotus or William of Ockham and their part in bringing about the secular. The mistake is not in tracing the genealogy of ideas, but it is in imagining that any one individual or any one age or epoch is a realm apart and thus does not share in a common root failure. Milbank’s intense focus on Scotus could and has been argued on the details but the larger error, whatever the merit or lack in the details, is to imagine this failure is a one-off event which can then be corrected by returning the world to something like its pre-Scotus state.[3]

Conceptually modernity, for example, with its turn to nominalism and the focus on divine sovereignty (divine power) in philosophy and theology (something like a pure formalism or legalism), with its juridical-constitutional model of autonomous state authority (the government is secular and the ecclesial powers are now subservient), with its presumption of bio-political control of the human body through the body politic (the biological body is written over with secular law), seems to simply be an aggravated reconstitution of Paul’s depiction of sin as a misorientation to law. The voluntarist conception of God (focus on the will or causal power of God) was secularized in the conception of the state and in the focus on the individual, and this raw power is codified in law and by legal (state) institutions.

The steps that lead to exclusive focus on divine sovereignty (as opposed to divine love or beauty) follows the course Paul traces as the universal predicament, in which the unmediated presence of God is traded for the force of the law. For Paul, the reality of every individual is understood in light of the experience or identity of corporate humanity (unregenerate humanity) in Adam and in Israel. In Eden, the law of the knowledge of good and evil literally displaces God and is made the means to life, and the law of Sinai is made to serve the same end. Part of the point of Christianity, perhaps the main point, is to separate out this obscene orientation to the law (psychologically and religiously) so as to be able to arrive at the law of love. Sin, in Paul’s definition, fuses itself with the law so that one who becomes a servant of the law (as Paul did, and as Adam did, and as, in Paul’s explanation, everyone does) becomes a servant of sin and incapacitates agape love.

The irony is that Christianity has done its work in extracting this condition (orientation to the law of sin and death) from religious enchantment. Now the law is not presumed to have any religious (ontological) ground but is a secular establishment, a bare and open law built upon raw power, that nonetheless reigns in the psychic and social orientation. In this nominalist universe no appeal can be made to an actually existing goodness, as the best we have – all we have – is the mediating power of law and legal institutions. “Might makes right” may have always been the case, but in the medieval period kings presumed they were the channel of a divinely bestowed power (and there was a check on this power), but in the secular realm power is its own legitimating force (there is no ecclesial legitimating power) so that war is the constituting power of the state to which it will need continual recourse. Making war makes the state. In the same way money, in the early stages of capitalism, was a sign of God’s blessing and depended upon this theological construct, now money need not appeal to any outside legitimation. Money is its own legitimating power. Human life is literally and metaphorically put on the market, so that life and time become a commodity to be bought and sold.  

As Charles Taylor has described it, the immanent frame now prevails, or as Carl Schmitt (the famous Nazi jurist) has put it, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state but also because of their systematic structure.” As Schmitt describes it, “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver” and with secularization we are left with omnipotent law.[4] It is no surprise then that miracles (due to natural law), become an impossibility, and by the same token, according to Mike Pompeo, there should not even be the possibility of questioning the constitution. The modern constitutional state reigns supreme (in place of the divine). The constitution replaces commandments, the nation replaces the community of faith, and at an individual level human decision and will is the final arbiter of ethics.

Among the many consequences of modern secularism is the rise of an intense and peculiar individualism, in which the organic and communal sense of the subject is displaced by the notion that the individual is a monad – an isolated entity.  It is only with the secular that there needs to be a reaffirmation of a basic biblical understanding and an integral part of medieval culture: humans are constituted as part of a family or group. Hegel hits upon this truth as if it is a discovery. As he explains in the very beginning of “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” self-consciousness could be achieved only through being acknowledged by others. As the philosopher Immanuel Levinas has described it, at the most fundamental level, “self-consciousness is not one-sided action as people assume, but; it necessitates an other to reach it.” Facing with an “other” is not only necessary for the recognition of the self but it is also a must to have a self-consciousness.

The necessity to describe this mutuality would not likely have arisen in a traditional culture. As Taylor describes it, “One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are ‘buffered’ selves.” The traditional porous sense of self came with certain deficits in that the emotional and moral life did not exist in an inner, mental space and was thus subject to a variety of malevolent influences such as spirits, demons, or cosmic forces.[5] But the buffered individual has been removed from this world of fear at the price of a profound sense of isolation. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this as an epidemic of loneliness responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose, which is chalked up to the root cause of loneliness. An annual mortality of 162 000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[6]  

Is not the destructive nature of modern loneliness an indication this is simply an aggravated condition of the objectified “I” which Paul depicts as arising in conjunction with the alienating law? In Paul’s depiction, this ἐγὼ or “I” is not subject to growth and change as it is an object fixed as part of a formal structure under the law, characterized by fear and struggle. The antagonistic dialectic between the law of the mind and the law of the body is, according to Paul, the very thing that produces this isolated ego desperately grasping after life and power through the law. Freud could be quoting Paul in calling the ego “the seat of anxiety” due to its fear of annihilation under the cathected law (the superego).[7] As Lacan will describe the ego (renaming it the imaginary), “Alienation is the imaginary as such.”[8] This fully interior or self-conscious ego, or this “I” which is one’s own is, in Paul’s description (and Paul is commenting on Genesis 3) the Subject of sin.  

This is not an attempt to simply lump together all forms of sin, but it is to suggest that a true genealogy of the modern begins with a biblical diagnosis, which also promises more than a return to the medieval or artificial attempts to reenchant the world.


[1] Enough smothered babies equal a holocaust type strategy – Hitler was, after all, attempting to correct history. It is the strategy of the powers from Pharaoh to Herod to the late modern Democratic Party.

[2] See John Milbank, Beyond the Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of People, (Wiley Blackwell).

[3] If modernity is a turn to the individual, and society is pictured simultaneously as made up of individual monad’s, this is not an error corrected by imagining one individual has reconstituted the whole.

[4] Carl Schmitt,  1928 (2008), Constitutional Theory, transl. J. Seitzer, (Duke University Press, London), p. 36.

[5] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves” https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[6] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6) https://escholarship.org/content/qt47n6790s/qt47n6790s.pdf?t=q7c0kj

[7] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (Standard Edition), 59-60.

[8] Jacques Lacan, Seminar III, 146

I Am Not Me!

My children bought me a birthday present in which each week I am given a writing prompt and then at the end of the year my responses will be put together in a book. I have written about my favorite dog (Mr. Magee, who could open his own cans of dog food, politely wiped his feet when entering the house, and who stole our Thanksgiving Turkey), memories of my grandmother (Grandma was a drag racer), my first job (a circus), etc. but this week the question, “Are you the same person you were as an adolescent?” seems to strike at the very notion of subjectivity, and yet it was an issue that occurred to me very early. Everything is changing so what of me endures? I presumed, instinctively, that memory must be the singular enduring thing about us, so I performed memory experiments. As the car was speeding down the road, I would look at a particular rock or telephone pole or tree and try to retain the object in my memory. “There’s a rock, a rock, a pole, a tree.”  The high rate of speed made it difficult to pick out any particular object, but I presumed this accelerated condition reduplicated, in brief, everyday experience. I ran the experiment repeatedly, trying to remember any particular object. The unwritten rule I had formulated is that the ordinariness of the rock was part of the issue. A spectacular rock, by definition, would not qualify because if memory is to have any continuity it cannot be one spectacular thing after another (an inherent contradiction). If our own being depends upon the continuity of our memory, it must be in the continuity of ordinary memory. The issue of speed also, I presumed, should not in any way be an obstacle – whether fast or slow, memory should not be affected. Things happening quickly should not obstruct our being. Yet, no particular rock or pole proved to have an enduring image, so it seemed the details of memory are continually lost.  

Around this time, I hit upon a formula which proved quite satisfying, and it seemed to resolve the issue: “I am me.” I don’t know if I literally pounded my chest at the discovery, but that is the spirit of the sentence. The existential realization, at least upon initial discovery, was a sort of alignment which proved very satisfying. I had only to repeat the formula to feel once again a profound feeling of coinciding with myself (I did not yet know the term “ipseity” though I had discovered the desire for achieving it). The pronouncement itself, at least initially, seemed to accomplish this coincidence and affirmed my being. That is, I did not experience it as an abiding reality which I had discovered, but the feeling came only as I made the pronouncement.

This very soon brought a moment of despair, as I realized that the “I am” and “me” were only held together in the sentence, and by repeating the sentence. I recognized that even in the sentence there was not complete coincidence or convergence between the two major terms. I tried saying the sentence with force – “I am, me.” Then I tried thinking it rapidly, as if I could close the gap between the “I” and “me” through force of thought or speed. What had initially appeared as a discovery or capacity proved to be the opposite. On the heels of feeling great satisfaction with my new formula I realized the formula (the need for it and the need to repeat it) was itself an indicator of a third term between I and me which disrupted my unity with myself.

I presumed that this third element between “I” and “me” was simply there, but I could not say it. I could pronounce “I am me,” but the discord or gap between the two could not be closed. To say that I literally attempted to access or posit this third element is not exactly correct but I turned, perhaps instinctively, to the unconscious. As I have described it elsewhere:

Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off.

The ordinary family into which I was born had their abilities – special even – among mortals. I did not question their earth boundness, nor could I articulate the equation of flight with immortality, but this is how it functioned.   I was not grounded by the contingencies of bipedalism. Flight was incomparable with the local means of achieving immortality – throwing a fastball or running bases – it constituted an ontological difference. My apparent incapacities as the youngest and smallest were simply a foil. The three-foot frame housed an ego temporarily fallen from the heavens. Though the slightest talent at anything might have tempered the necessity, but as it was, flying was my Kant and Plato – the equivalent of a philosophical proof of being – of innate immortality.

I assume that my slow development must explain my memory of what must be a universal passage – the passage through a growing awareness of self-identity and yet the unease and dissatisfaction inherent in the incompleteness of the process, and then some compensatory move in which we posit a third element. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” must describe a universal passage to a presumed absolute knowledge – a foundation, and Kant’s notion that the thought (“I think”) and thinking thing (“I am”) actually constitute a disjunction, a felt noncoincidence, within the self. Isn’t this simply a description of the passage through adolescence and the dissonance this creates  

As Søren Kierkegaard (or SK) describes it, there is a passage into despair in the self’s relationship to the self. “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal (there is no continuity) or failure (there is incomplete continuity) to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what SK calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease and SK assigns primary importance, not to any one element of the relation (soul or body) but to the dynamics of the relation which might be a kind of negative incapacity to cohere.

SK suggests that this absence can be accounted for. “If this relation which relates itself to its own self is constituted by another, the relation doubtless is the third term, but this relation (the third term) is in turn a relation relating itself to that which constituted the whole relation.” He acknowledges that the relation can be constituted in a negative unity but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”

The unease or disease of not being fully a self, an I that cannot arrive at its me, turns out to be the fundamental problem, the ultimate prompt which, if we do not take flight, points to the constituting Power of “I am.”

Saved From a Perverse God

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Bob Dylan[1]

Bob Dylan’s, “With God on Our Side,” describes how one’s name or age or distinctive characteristics may not be a primary mode of identity, but having God on your side is an identity that overrides individual details. The song recounts the various wars of the United States, beginning with the slaughter of native Americans and ending with the necessity of launching weapons of mass destruction, with each verse describing a particular war and each refrain of the song assuring “God is on our side.” The conclusion, “And you never ask questions When God’s on your side,” certainly raises questions about the nature of this God and his subjects.

 Dylan has captured in an uncanny manner the pervasive identity in which one’s life is defined by service rendered to an ineffable Other. Service to God and country describes a regional ethos, but it also fits exactly how identity can be had through being an object-instrument of this Other (God, country, the law). Dylan’s lyrics sum up what psychoanalysis describes as perversion and it depicts a predominant form of human subjectivity and the reigning view of deity throughout history. In technical terms, the pervert locates himself as object of the drive rather than being himself the subject (the subject who directly enjoys). The degree to which one is caught up in perversion may or may not be put on display in perverse acts, as psychoanalytic perversion refers not to acts but to a structure in which, as Dylan describes it, questions are rendered impossible. This structure may lead to evil acts, though this is not what qualifies it as perverse, but these acts, as with the perverse structure, cannot be questioned.

One may not buy the psychoanalytic explanation of how this structure evolves (a denial of the mother’s missing phallus or a denial of sexual difference and the attempt to cover over this difference or to fill in what is perceived as lacking) but there is no question that the perverse structure of serving and establishing the law (or the reigning symbolic order) is the predominant form of human subjectivity.

As Julian Jaynes has described it, we can mark the point at which a new sort of subject appeared in which the law began to be questioned. Historically, prior to this questioning, it was as if the left side of the brain existed as an unquestioned authority through which the various cultural authorities spoke. The burial of the important dead, as if they still lived and spoke, is common to almost all ancient cultures. The Egyptian pharaohs, preserved in their pyramids, the kings of Ur entombed with their entire retinues buried (sometimes alive) for continued service, along with food and drink and even yoked draft animals, point to a static (unquestioning) entombed culture.[2] The undead, and the authority they represented, continued to speak through hallucinated voices or through the gods (often the dead are simply deified). In Assyria, Mesoamerica, and Japan, the dead are directly called gods and the various mystics or priests might be possessed by the dead so as to give them voice. Hesiod speaks of a golden race of men who became the “holy demons upon the earth, beneficent, averters of ills, guardians of mortal men.” Four centuries later, Plato refers to heroes who after death become the demons that tell people what to do and he has Socrates mention that in his own time “God-possessed men speak much truth, but know nothing of what they say.”[3] Socrates marks the point before which the human condition is to listen and obey but not to question or discern.

 Jaynes is tracing a time when, in the bicameral period with its bicameral brain, everyone heard the voice of authority, but as the brain shifted only the possessed, idols, oracles, or mediums give voice to the gods. Cuneiform literature often refers to god-statues speaking, and the Old Testament refers to speaking idols (Terap) and depicts the king of Babylon consulting with several idols (Ezekiel, 21). Aztec history began, according to their reports to Spanish conquistadors (following their own perverse God), when a statue from a ruined temple belonging to a previous culture spoke to their leaders and commanded them to set out across the lake so as to come to a new land. They were sent zigzagging here and there, following their own Moses, into a new land. In Peru the conquering Spaniards presumed the voice ordering the culture was the Devil. The first report back to Europe said, “in the temple [of Pachacamac] was a Devil who used to speak to the Indians in a very dark room which was as dirty as he himself.”[4] It did not occur to the Spaniards to question their own genocidal authority.

Whether or not Jaynes is correct in his description of brain development, there is no question that the world has gone and is going through a shift in notions of subjectivity and personhood in which the old voices of authority, the authority of the law in Paul’s description, once unquestioned and absolute have now grown silent. In psychoanalytic terms we might say that human history has been predominantly perverse in its service of God and the law, and perverse unquestioning personalities have certainly been in the majority. The individual who protests, who questions, who challenges, is usually in a small minority. In fact, in most cultures the notion of questioning the order of the culture is a near impossibility. It is hard to imagine someone from a traditional culture, say an Apache brave in the old American Southwest, objecting to the whole “macho-warrior image.” I supposed it never occurred to any brave to say, “Chief, I am going to hang back at the teepee today to play my flute and think about life. I am just not feeling the whole raiding and pillaging thing today.”   

Perversion functions at both a corporate and individual level, but what is obvious is that corporate perversion, while more socially acceptable and even socially commendable, is also likely to be more profoundly evil as one is incapable of challenging authority and presumes the law, the father, or God, justifies one’s actions, no matter how evil. Corporate perversion is the most compelling and predominant, as the oxymoronic nature of “individualistic Nazis” gets at the point, murderous perversion is most easily mass produced. But whether corporate or individual, to challenge the evil deeds would be on the order of questioning the authority of God, whether it is participating in genocide in an unjust war or publicly exposing oneself in a theatre, the act is rendered in unquestioning service of the structure (the Other).

If this predominance of perversion is the case, then could it also be true that Christianity and Christ are primarily aimed at defeating a perverse notion of God and a perverse subjectivity? Isn’t it precisely the leading Jews’ notion of God which would result in the death of Christ and isn’t it this notion that he defeats? He defeats it, first of all in the incarnation and the fleshing out of what God is really like, and then defeats death and the perverse orientation in his death and resurrection. Perversion depends upon being able to project upon God whatever human structure, personal or corporate, needs support in the symbolic order. God as the ambiguous Other who justifies the worst forms of human perversion is defeated by God in the flesh. Flesh itself is changed up in Christ, no longer written over with a perverse orientation to the law.

The Apostle Paul describes himself as one who excelled in the law and law-keeping and this excellence was precisely what made him the chief of sinners. He only had access to God and himself on the basis of this perverse orientation to the law. The problem is not, of course, with God or the law but with the orientation to both, produced by the deceit of sin. Christ’s defeat of sin in the flesh is precisely aimed at the overcoming of this universal perversion. As Paul argues, the Jewish problem of doing identity in accordance with the law is universal. All people suffer from some form of the prototypical sin of the Jews and of Paul himself, at least that is the thrust of Paul’s argument.

The tragedy we are living through at the moment is that Christianity, through penal substitution, Christian nationalism, and a fusion of right-wing politics and religion has become the main support of a perverse form of the faith. In this understanding, Christ died to meet the demands of the law, and God’s righteousness is equated with the law. This translates, in response to such issues as white supremacy and critical race theory, into a literal unwillingness to question the constitution and the laws of the land.

According to Mike Pompeo, “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That’s really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country.” To question the construct of race or whiteness or to question the law, is anathema in this religion. Yet, the recognition that this country’s law and legal institutions not only privilege one race but served to establish that race is simply another manifestation of the biblical depiction of the function and malfunction of the law. Jewish privilege and Gentile exclusion constitute the hostility built into the law (the wall in the temple was a concrete representation of the law as a dividing wall of hostility). White privilege (or receiving unwarranted advantage) and black and brown exclusion from privilege, it should not be a surprise, is structural and legal. It is not those who receive the privilege but those who are denied it (Gentiles, slaves, and women, in Paul’s description) or those made to suffer under the law which notice its disparities. As long as the Jews insisted on law keeping, entailing their privileged position, and as long as they insisted on the primacy of the law, this excluded them from Christian salvation (freedom from the law).

Where the religion is reduced to the law, the constitution is not to be questioned, the powers that are ascendant are not to be questioned, lest the foundation of the country be undone. The sexual perversions of this religion, on continual display in the failings of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr., Ted Haggard, Ravi Zacharias (etc. etc.), the perversions of evangelical political leaders in their devotion to the most obscene of presidents, and their devoted unquestioning followers, are simply a pointer to this perverse structure. In other words, rather than Christianity doing the work of saving from perversion, the faith is made the primary support of a perverse religion on the order of that which killed Christ.

Christians should be the most sensitive to the hostile divisions incorporated into law, undone only in Christ, and the fact that it is evangelicals protesting the loudest, seems to indicate the perverse structure of their religion. The notion that justice and righteousness (life) are enshrined in law, the very definition of sin in Paul’s depiction, is a case in point of the universal deception and perversion. Christians are those who are no longer deceived by this sin in regard to the law (Romans 7:8), but where Christianity is made the support of deception and perversion there is a doubling down on perversion in making the problem the supposed Christian solution.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the suggestion of this song, several other suggestions, and the editing of this blog. Also, thanks to our Tuesday night class for the inspiration behind the blog.

[2]Even the ordinary dead were often treated as if they still needed feeding.  In Mesopotamia it is recorded a dead person was buried with 7 jars of beer, 420 flat loaves of bread, 2 measures of grain, 1 garment, 1 head support, and 1 bed.  

[3] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (p. 161-341). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[4] Jaynes, 174-175.