The God of Empire Versus the God of Passion

There is something of an endless debate about God within the major branches of the Christian faith – What role for Greek conceptions of God? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son? How is the Father involved in the work of the Son and how do we conceive their difference, etc. etc.? East, West, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, are largely defined by the perceived differences (real and imagined) in regard to fundamental issues about how and what we know about God. These divisions though, may be shaped by more subtle sociological concerns. Sarah Coakley, following Ernst Troeltsch, divides the sociological contexts between church, sect, and mysticism and sees the sociological as throwing additional light on theological emphasis. She sees certain forms of trinitarianism as cohering with particular types of ecclesiastical organization. For example, focus on pneumatology is unlikely to accompany strong patriarchal social and political contexts – given the individualistic, mystical, and “feminine” role of the Spirit. [1] Throughout the history of the church, the more settled the institution (the church type), the more unmoved, settled, and distant, the conception and perceived experience of God. The focus on the Spirit and the experientialism of mysticism have tended to be segregated from the theology of the church type. The adaptation of the Aristotelian concept of God (the Unmoved Mover), came with adaptation to empire, hierarchy, and institutions meant to endure by dint of their alignment with worldly power.

Giorgio Agamben describes the rise of two orders of church, each consisting of its own conceptual and experiential reality. In the biblical mandate, the church is to dwell on the earth as an exile or sojourner captured in the Greek verb paroikein, as in the description of I Peter 1:17 – “the time of sojourning.” In this imagery truth is discovered along the way – or truth is the way (viatorum). The sojourner church stands in contrast to the settled church, which takes on the look of a city, state, kingdom, or empire – captured in the Greek verb katoikein. The katoikia church is built to last, and as opposed to the paroikein church, is not geared to the parousia or the coming of Christ, as it has put down roots in the world. The parousia, in Agamben’s conception, is not in the future or deferred but speaks of the immediate experience of time (fundamental human experience).  In the true church (Agamben counts the institution as we have it an imposter), every moment bears the possibility of the inbreaking of the Messiah, made impossible by the katoikia church.[2]

Agamben locates the point of departure from the biblical church within early debates about the Trinity. The distinction between the immanent (ad intra – or God’s self-relation) and economic (God’s relation to creation) Trinity accounts for the development of western politics and economics. However, according to Agamben, this secularizes theology even before there is a secular order: “from the beginning theology conceives divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia (economy), that is, that theology is itself ‘economic’ and did not simply become so at a later time through secularization.” Where the political order can lay claim to a first order power relation (an extension or reflection of God’s self-relation), Christian’s (through this theological maneuvering) only have to do with an economy (a second order of experience).[3] While one may not agree with the sweep of Agamben’s critique, his depiction parallels Coakley’s sociological contextualization of theology.  

In the 20th century there have been a variety of attempts to correct this theological failure precisely where it had the greatest impact. Where the church (at least the church type, with its institutions) failed in Germany with National Socialism, this gave rise to striking theological innovation. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer turn from the characteristic church type dogmatic speculation to a Christocentric point of departure.

 Bonhoeffer in his lectures on Christology locates the Logos, not in the realm of the transcendent. He claims “this will inevitably constitute that Logos as an object for human logos, locating it within the territory of things about which we can ask ‘how is it possible?’ or ‘how does it work?'” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “the question is no longer ‘how?’ but ‘who?’ Who is it that I confront when I look at Jesus? But also, and equally importantly, ‘Who am I?'”[4]

Bonhoeffer depicts the question of the person of Christ as challenging his self-understanding: “When a human being confronts Jesus, the human being must either die or kill Jesus.”[5] The reality of Jesus creates its own context and terms of engagement. Jesus is not Socrates, reminding us of what we already know, but he creates the conditions for knowing him as these conditions do not otherwise exist. He is what he teaches.

Picturing the Logos as on the order of the Aristotelian difference (the apathetic God) is simply to accommodate divine revelation to the human word. “The divine revealed as overwhelming power or unconstrained agency as we understand those things will not recreate us, re-beget us; it will not require the death of our logos.” This sort of God simply accommodates our instincts about the absolute Other, the humanly conceived difference of divinity. If we do not accept the death of the human logos, we will deploy it in defeat of the divine Logos.[6]

Of course Christ allows for his death. He is not a rival to my will or my word. It is precisely his kenotic humility – “taking the form of a slave” (not just being incarnate) that challenges the foundation (foundationalism) of my selfhood. Though it is not as if there is any actually existing foundation – this is simply the “poisonous fiction” that must die or the pride that must fail.[7]

 One of the sharpest German attempts at a revisionist understanding came from Jurgen Moltmann, who begins his book on the Trinity by recounting how Greek notions of God effectively corrupted the Christian faith. He suggests that where Greek philosophy has been deployed in conceiving of God, “then we have to exclude difference, diversity, movement and suffering from the divine nature.” He names the resultant heresy of nominalism (God cannot be known in his essence) as giving us a God that is so far from us (impassible and immovable in his remoteness), such that apathetic portrayal of God has trumped the importance of the person and work of Christ. He concludes that, “down to the present-day Christian theology has failed to develop a consistent Christian concept of God? And that instead . . . it has rather adopted the metaphysical tradition of Greek philosophy, which it understood as ‘natural theology’ and saw as its own foundation.” By allowing the “apathetic axiom” to prevail over the person and work of Christ, God became “the cold, silent and unloved heavenly power.”[8]

Moltmann poses the following choice: either the apathetic God prevails and the passion of Christ is seen as “the suffering of the good man from Nazareth,” or the passion of Christ prevails and divine apatheia is no longer determinative. Within this second alternative, Moltmann points out that his depiction of suffering entails a two-fold rejection: the Greek depiction of the divine incapacity for suffering, and suffering defined as incapacity or deficiency. “But there is a third form of suffering: active suffering – the voluntary laying oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of passionate love.”

Without passion God would be incapable of love. Moltmann develops the two-fold meaning of passion – inclusive of passionate desire and the suffering passion of Christ. If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of any form of passion or love. As Aristotle puts it, he would at most be capable of loving himself, but not of loving another as himself. But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings; yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. “God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is ‘apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is ‘pathetic’.” [9] God is love and his is not a cold love (as if there is such a thing), but the passionate love revealed in Christ.

Sarah Coakley cites Moltmann as an influence in her turn to desire, sex and gender in conceptualization of the Trinity.[10] However, what Coakley avoids and Moltmann spells out, is the historical and theological challenge to notions of divine apathy entailed in discussions of passion. Moltmann finds in Jewish theology and Origen precedent for his depiction of the suffering of the Father as a necessary part of the love of God.

Origen describes the suffering of God in his exposition of Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”  “In his mercy God suffers with us, for he is not heartless.” In his explanation, Origen equates the love of God with the necessity of suffering:

He (the Redeemer) descended to earth out of sympathy for the human race. He took our sufferings upon Himself before He endured the cross – indeed before He even deigned to take our flesh upon Himself; for if He had not felt these sufferings [beforehand] He would not have come to partake of our human life. First of all He suffered, then He descended and became visible to us. What is this passion which He suffered for us? It is the passion of love {Caritas est passio). And the Father Himself, the God of the universe, ‘slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy’ (Ps. 103.8), does He not also suffer in a certain way? Or know you not that He, when He condescends to men, suffers human suffering? For the Lord thy God has taken thy ways upon Him ‘as a man doth bear his son’ (Deut. 1.31). So God suffers our ways as the Son of God bears our sufferings. Even the Father is not incapable of suffering {Ipse pater non est itnpassibilis). When we call upon him, He is merciful and feels our pain with us. He suffers a suffering of love, becoming something which because of the greatness of his nature He cannot be, and endures human suffering for our sakes.[11]

As Moltmann explains, Origen’s talk of God’s suffering means the suffering of love; the compassion of mercy and pity. The merciful person taking pity on another participates in the suffering of the one he pities, “he takes the other’s sufferings on himself, he suffers for others.” For Origen this is the suffering of God, “the suffering of the Father who in giving up his ‘own Son’ (Rom. 8.32) suffers the pain of redemption.” The Father is not removed from the suffering of the Son, anymore than he can be said to be removed from the passion or desire of God. Origen depicts the divine passion of Christ as inclusive of the divine passion between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. “The suffering of love does not only affect the redeeming acts of God outwards; it also affects the trinitarian fellowship in God himself.”[12]

Origen predates the distinction and Moltmann and Coakley, in varying forms, would equate the economic and immanent Trinity. Moltmann notices in Origen what Coakley notices in Romans 8, that it is precisely in conjunction with suffering that the Trinitarian nature of God is most clearly delineated.  Like Coakley and Paul, Moltmann also locates the apprehension and participation in the suffering of God in prayer.

Moltmann though, references a Jewish mystical tradition in which praying the Shema is the uniting of God: “To acknowledge God’s unity – the Jew calls it uniting God. For this unity is, in that it becomes; it is a Becoming Unity. And this Becoming is laid on the soul of man and in his hands.”

Franz Rosenzweig takes up this notion to describe an Old Testament and Jewish conception of the suffering of God:

Mysticism builds its bridge between ‘the God of our fathers’ and ‘the remnant of Israel’ with the help of the doctrine of the Shekinah. The Shekinah, the descent of God to man and his dwelling among them, is thought of as a divorce which takes place in God himself. God himself cuts himself off from himself, he gives himself away to his people, he suffers with their sufferings, he goes with them into the misery of the foreign land, he wanders with their wanderings . . . God himself, by ‘selling himself to Israel – and what should be more natural for ‘the God of our Fathers’! – and by suffering her fate with her, makes himself in need of redemption. In this way, in this suffering, the relationship between God and the remnant points beyond itself.”[13]

Just as in Romans 8, so too in the Jewish conception, prayer inserts the one praying within the communion of God. The Jewish depiction is an estrangement or suffering into which God enters, and the estrangement is overcome through those reflecting the Shekinah to God through prayer. Moltmann explains, estrangement is also overcome “through the acts of the good, which are directed towards the overcoming of evil and the establishment of the future harmony of the one world. That is the meaning of the Hebrew word tikkun (world repair).”[14]

Theology proper (talk of God) cannot begin in the abstract, which inevitably depends upon the human logos, but in the fact that God has opened himself to human experience and human suffering, becoming human that humans might participate in the divine. But it is the primacy of God’s love and not human suffering that determines the course of God’s suffering love. The passion of Christ as point of departure suspends talk of an economic and immanent Trinity, with the first order (the ontological reality) of God removed from the contingencies of the second order (the economic). The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, though as Coakley notes, this does not mean that God is reduced to what is revealed, as “there must be that which God is which eternally ‘precedes’ God’s manifestation to us.”[15] However, speculation about what “precedes” Christ cannot be given precedent over the revealed truth given in Christ.


[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 156-157). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, trans. by Leland de la Durantaye (Seagull Books, 2012).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) (p. 3). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford]. Green and Michael P. Dejonge, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Cited in Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), 185.

[5] Reader, 268.

[6] Williams, 187-188.

[7] Williams, 190-191.

[8] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (First Fortress Press edition, 1993) 21-22.

[9] Moltmann, 22-23.

[10] Sarah Coakley, “The Trinity and gender reconsidered,” in God’s Life in Trinity (ed. Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[11] Homilia VI in Ezechielem (MPG XIII, 714 f). Cited in Moltmann, 24.

[12] Moltmann, 24.

[13] F. Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlösung, III, 3rd ed., Heidelberg 1954, pp. 192ff. Cited in Moltmann, 29.

[14] Moltmann, 29.

[15] Coakley

The Love of the Spirit as Fulfillment of the Erotic

What is up for question or doubt in believing (or not) in the teaching of the New Testament, does not primarily concern the existence of a deity but of immediate experience. What order of experience is true? What is the nature of the reality to which I should entrust myself? God as love, in John’s definition, translates into an immediate ethic and experience. The real question is whether I give priority to this experience. It is not that I do not otherwise have access to the experience but is this a reality which should shape the course of my life, my ambition, my sense of self, my desire?

To state it in these terms, the question is no longer simply an issue of belief in God, as the priority given to a particular experience factors into conception of God and vice versa. Even the picture of God in the Bible might be construed as focused on his righteous requirements, on his honor and respect, or on his omniscience and omnipotence. This focus may give rise to a very different set of ethical priorities and prioritize a very different sort of experiential reality. My “getting right with God” might be such that focus is upon being rightly aligned with the church, being a believer, being upstanding, etc. God might be perceived as beyond experience and experience itself (no matter what it might be) rendered secondary to belief, doctrine, or ethics.

However, if we are made for love, and it is in love that we come to know the ultimate reality of God and ourselves, this means if we miss this, we have been duped about our immediate experience. We are accorded the opportunity to enter into the presence of God, to experience the very depths of glory, to know the world as a paradise, and to fail in this is the human tragedy.

If we read the Gospels in this light, then the various episodes and characters can be read as opening the facets of the problem and cure. So, for example, in John the episode of Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman are set side by side, with the Samaritan woman at a marked advantage over Nicodemus, from which we can draw definitive conclusions.

Nicodemus, a “teacher of Israel” a “leading Jew,” seems incapable of understanding the language of desire, conception, and new birth. He is at the height of success and he seems to be an example of why those shaped by the norms of society are the most deceived. One must earn a living, find security, achieve fulfillment and success; this “immediate reality” does not lend itself to cultivating love or the traits and characteristics aligned with love. Jesus requires of Nicodemus a radical change (which he fails to make according to the end of John), where the Samaritan Woman is depicted as entering immediately into belief.

Her thirst/desire problem is not an obstacle per se, as it is her thirst which causes her to share a cup with Jesus and by which means he directs her to himself – the singular means of quenching her thirst/desire. In a sense, she is well prepared for hearing Jesus’ message as she has been looking to fulfill her desire. Maybe she has presumed sex or marriage are the ultimate means of satisfaction, when she needed to look further.

As Dionysius the Areopagite notes, there is no necessity to keep eros and agape separate: “let us not fear this title of ‘yearning’, nor be upset . .  . for, in my opinion, the sacred writers regard “yearning” (eros) and love (agape) as having one and the same meaning’.”[1] Physical love or eros, according to Dionysius, may be “partial” and “divided” or a “lapse” falling short of divine yearning but nonetheless it is a point of entry into agape love. “The fact is that men are [initially] unable to grasp the simplicity of the one divine yearning, and, hence, the term is quite offensive to most of them.”

In fact, doesn’t this describe the difference between the Samaritan Woman and Nicodemus? His is a repressed desire, such that he is totally cut off from the inherent reality – the divine reality contained in the erotic. Her open desire is easily directed to Christ. “The divine Wisdom” teaches what true yearning is through erotic love: “it is clear to us that many lowly men think there is something absurd in the lovely verse: “Love for you came on me like love for women.” Where discussion of sex and marriage lead naturally, in the woman’s discussion with Jesus, to having this desire of hers fulfilled, there is no such opening in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus.

Though her yearning may be misplaced or divided (between five men), Dionysius teaches that “touched thereby” with desire one no longer belongs to themselves but have come to belong to the object of their affection. The trick is locating the proper object and source of affection. Dionysius pictures Paul’s statement “I live, and yet not I but Christ liveth in me” as the end point of being constrained by the “Divine Yearning”: “true Sweetheart that he was and (as he says himself) being beside himself unto God, and not possessing his own life but possessing and loving the life of Him for Whom he yearned.”[2]

This sort of yearning is not simply human but has its origin in God:

we must dare to affirm (for ‘tis the truth) that the Creator of the Universe Himself, in His Beautiful and Good Yearning towards the Universe, is through the excessive yearning of His Goodness, transported outside of Himself in His providential activities towards all things that have being, and is touched by the sweet spell of Goodness, Love and Yearning, and so is drawn from His transcendent throne above all things, to dwell within the heart of all things, through a super-essential and ecstatic power whereby He yet stays within Himself.

The desire of love pertains to ultimate reality, to God himself, as source and substance. To love is to experience God. So, even divided and partial yearning is a primer to this undivided and complete reality. “In short, both the Yearning and its Object belong to the Beautiful and the Good, and have therein their pre-existent roots and because of it exist and come into being.”[3] In the one instance, “God is the Cause,” “Producer,” and “Begetter,” and in the other he is the thing itself: “He moves and leads onward Himself unto Himself.” He is the Object of Love and Yearning, as the Beautiful and Good, but he is also Yearning and Love – the “Motive-Power” leading all things to Himself. Dionysius pictures an endless circle “for the Good, from the Good, in the Good, and to the Good, with unerring revolution, never varying its centre or direction, perpetually advancing and remaining and returning to Itself.”[4]

It may be, as with the Samaritan Woman, desire needs to be redirected and reordered but hers was an experience upon which to enter into the “endless circle of love.” Certainly, her conception of the erotic is turned round – sex is no longer ultimate but is a pointer to God. Desire for unity, love, merging with others, is a more basic reality than sex and gender but the ontological reality toward which she/we are drawn is interwoven throughout the earthly and physical.

It is Christ that transforms and redirects the erotic to “spiritual worship,” summed up by John as love and made possible by the Spirit: “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:8). And “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13) – the Spirit of love.

(Join us for our class on the Holy Spirit starting October 18th by registering here https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/student-applications/new)


[1]Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, IV. 12..

[2] Ibid, IV, 13

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, IV, 14

The Primacy of the Spirit in Experiencing the Trinity

In certain portions of Scripture, such as the Prologue of John, and in the creeds spelling out the work of the Trinity (such as Nicaea), there is a linear description or an unfolding of the working of the Trinity which allows (indirectly) for subordination of the Spirit. John’s focus on the work of the Logos may seem to privilege the Father and Son, with the Spirit portrayed more as a consequence. So too, the Council of Nicaea was focused on the equality of the Son with the Father and creedal clarification of the Spirit was subsequent to this primary concern. [1] There may be several issues at work in muting a primary role for the Spirit: Paul, who will describe the primacy of the Spirit in Romans, records the difficulty incurred at Corinth when the immature are carried away by both the erotic and emotional excesses of an unbalanced view of the Spirit; the early heresy of Montanism records similar emphasis and excesses that the early church found peculiarly dangerous. Nonetheless, in Scripture and church history the Spirit is accorded full divinity as one of the persons of the Trinity, but in both instances this giving full place to the Spirit is developed in an unabashed conjoining with the erotic and experiential. That is, to understand the equality of the persons of the Trinity, what scriptural and historical precedent calls for is not esoteric abstractions about three in one, but a turn to human experience at its most personal. While the tendency may be to separate out the “high and mighty” things of God from what may be considered the base things of man, the biblical and historical precedent indicates that human sexuality, for example, is not an obstacle but a means of contemplating God. Implicit is the assumption that human experience – the experience of desire, the experience of prayer, the experience of the world, the experience of self, are all part and parcel of right understanding and experience of God. Stated in this way, it is hard to imagine that it could be otherwise. To imagine, as moderns have, that language transports beyond embodied experience and that right understanding can be based on what is not knowable in experience is precisely the fallacy refuted by giving primacy to the Spirit.[2] The Spirit is experience of life in God.

The Incorporating Work of the Spirit

Romans 8, one of the clearest depictions of the work of the Trinity, focuses on the incorporating work of the Spirit, drawing all creation into the life of the Son, bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of the Father (Romans 8:15-16). Using this passage as a guide, the work of the Spirit is given its immediacy, not just in an objective “bringing to mind” of revelation, but bringing about conformity to the substance of life in the Son. Paul’s continual refrain in the opening of chapter 8 is that the embodied realization of the work of the Spirit sets aside fractured experience. In chapter 7 he describes the impossibility of ipseity: his mind and will are disengaged from one another, with his mind, body and ego producing three levels of discordant experience. Chapter 8 resolves the discord depicted in chapter 7.

In place of three discrete realms of experience (the law of the mind, the law of the body, and the experience between these realms), Paul describes the Trinity as bringing about a unified experience. The Spirit unifies desire of the mind and the law of God (what pleases God), while the alienated experience pits one against God and his law (in a necessary hostility), creating the respective experiences of life and peace (in the Spirit experience) and death (in the flesh experience). Life in the Spirit is immediately life and peace and, by the same token, life in the flesh is immediately death (Romans 8:5-8). Just as death is the direct experience of being divided and alienated, so too life in the Spirit is immediate experience of (Abba) the presence of God. So, Paul’s is a prayer-based, embodied, and experiential logic, which is not to say it is experientialism, but it is the experiential realization of the incorporating power of the Spirit.

Sin as Exception to the Law

At the opening of chapter 7 (1-6) Paul uses sex and marriage to describe both alienated and unified experience. A woman who might desire to consort with another man experiences the split Paul describes as existing in himself (later in the chapter). On the one hand, if the woman’s husband is alive and she consorts with another man, this pits her union with her lover against the reality of her living husband. Perhaps Paul has in mind an experience in which “true love” or the “deepest” part of the self is felt to stand outside of the law. Isn’t normal society, with its laws, only an externally imposed norm? Am I supposed to recognize myself in this objectified norm? Isn’t my experience of myself more immediate and doesn’t the standard of the law threaten to interfere with who I am in this immediacy? As Woody Allen explained, after he married his adopted daughter, “The heart wants what it wants.” Being an exception is itself an authentication. The law or social norms cannot account for either true love or the deepest part of self. Aren’t these realms apart from who I am, so it is only in being outside of the law that I arrive at my true self?

This perverse notion of exception, the temptation to transgress to obtain what lies behind the obstacle of the law, is sin.  In the case of Adam and Eve, true knowledge is thought to lie in partaking of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the case of the woman who would consort with another man, true love is posited outside of the law. Throughout the chapter, Paul is playing off the experience of Adam and Eve in their temptation and fall. As displayed in this prototypical sin, sin is to go beyond the law in order to obtain what the obstacle of the law seems to create (true knowledge, true love, an authentic self). In the lie of the serpent, God seems to be tricking Adam and Eve by luring them away from true knowledge with the prohibition. Paul’s description of sin is this transgressive allure which constitutes fallen desire.

The Unity of the Spirit as Suspending the Exception

The point of Christianity is to break free from this notion of an obscene God or a perverse law, always holding out on us. This is not accomplished by thwarting desire but by reordering desire by suspending the perverting effect of the law. In Paul’s description, one must die to the law (7:4) and this is accomplished by a union which extends sexual like incorporation beyond gender and sex: “you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another” (v. 4). The sexual metaphor now depicts consummation of desire through union with Christ, giving rise to conception and birth. The fruit of this labor (in chapter 8 he explicitly appeals to childbirth) is the fruit for God of a new sort of offspring.

In chapter 8 Paul continues to deploy the language of desire (“those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” v. 5), conception (“we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit” v. 23), birth (“groaning as in the pains of childbirth” v. 22), and incorporation into the family of God (“the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” v. 15) to describe the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who incorporates into the family of the Father, who engenders life in the Son, who draws into the realization of life and peace. The Spirit is not a consequence but the experiential reality of God blended with our spirit (v. 16). The Spirit is simultaneous in our experience with the Son and the Father (“the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” v. 15), and this simultaneity is the basis for recognition of equality of the persons of the Trinity.

This unified experience stands in contrast to the split experience in the body (“this body of death”). In sin the “I think” (the law of the mind) is never joined with the one thinking (the law of the body). In chapter 8, the will of God is is in the immediate experience of the Spirit testifying with our spirit (there is no objectified mediating law). This Spirit draws together what was formerly held apart in the law of the mind, the law of the body, and the experience of death.

Paul’s description of contemplative prayer fills the formerly empty, discordant spaces of self with the persons of the Trinity. The law of the mind is now occupied by the will of the Father, and the alienated body is displaced by the body of Christ, and the cry of death (“who will rescue me from this body of death” (7:24) is displaced by the deep groanings of the Spirit and the cry, “Abba, Father” (8:15).

 The Spirit as God’s Self Bringing to Fulness the Human Self

By focusing on the Spirit and the role of the Spirit in the Trinity, Paul is describing divine ipseity in which God’s Trinitarian Self-hood enables human self-hood. This prayer based ipseity of the Spirit with the Son and the Father is the reflexive reality we enter in prayerful participation in the Trinity: “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (vv. 26-27).

(Registration will open October 11th for the PBI Class on the Holy Spirit. As the catalogue describes, “This module is an advanced theological study of the Holy Spirit as a practical outworking of lived salvation as it looks forward to the telos, or end goal, of the kingdom of God in Christ.” The course will begin October 18th and run through December 17th.)


[1] See Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 101). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] To imagine language is capable of taking us out of embodied experience is the fallacy refuted by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Do Not Give Way on Your Desire: Comprehending Sexuality Through the Trinity

The Church, in its various institutional forms, is in the midst of a sexual crisis in which both married and supposed celibate clerics are not keeping their vows. Could it be that the ordering of desire around a misconstrued image of ultimate reality (God and human) is playing into this crisis?

At the heart of what is considered the most theologically developed portion of the New Testament, Paul brings together sexuality, desire, and Trinity that depicts the deepest “groanings” of human longing as a direct communion with the Holy Spirit. Desire gone bad and then rightly channeled is the substance of Paul’s depiction of redemption. For a variety of reasons, this economy of desire once developed and appreciated in the early church, is often no longer accounted for in standard depictions of salvation, God, and what it means to be human.

The extra-biblical discourse on the Trinity, for example, is typically abstract and esoteric or it is presumed that God’s inner life is completely closed off to us (apophaticism). But in passages like Romans 8, which most clearly depicts God as Trinity, there is also a depiction of human entry into the divine life on the basis of this intra-triune relation. Here there is no clear demarcation between immanent (who God is in himself) and economic (and who God is for others) Trinity.  In fact, it is not clear that these categories are adequate, as what is being depicted is that who God is for himself opens his life to others.

 At the same time, the God who is become man incorporates humankind into his life on the basis of who he is but also on the basis of what it means to be human. That is, prayer “groanings” (Ro 8:26), inclusive of the depth of human desire and need are the point of communion with God through the Spirit. It is not the setting aside or thwarting of desire but the mediation of desire which opens into participation in the inner life of God. God’s desiring love, his incorporating communion, is the ontological ground and fulfillment of human desire.

In this use of the word desire, we have passed beyond gender, though human desire is always initiated in gender. It is engendered bodily, but to limit it to gender is on the order of explaining thought as a mere product of the brain. The embodied and enabling factor of thought and desire, for all but the crudest reductionist, is not its ultimate explanation. Paul accounts for this tendency to reduce desire to gender as the law of sin and death (a law of desire – Ro 7:7). A “married woman is bound by law to her husband” so that her husband, representative of the law, constricts her desire.

Paul is not advocating adultery or celibacy but he is describing how desire can be ordered and channeled, such that one becomes a slave to law/desire (“I did not know desire apart from the law” 7:7). That is, both things (desire and law) arise simultaneously as a form of bondage in which all that one is and does is defined by this dynamic. Those who channel their desire into gender alone are on the order of those who have made the law the ultimate point of mediating relationship to God. The law bound are also the gender bound, so that one is controlled by their relationship to the law/husband. To state it in different terms, one’s love is constricted by the marks of maleness or femaleness.

Becoming united with Christ amounts to a breaking free of this dynamic: “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another” (7:4). The love of God experienced in Christ is a release from the slavery to the law: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6). Gender and with it, desire, is not an end in itself but is the medium to a relationship which transcends gender and erotic love. In the words of Sarah Coakley, “desire is more fundamental than gender, and the desiring, trinitarian God ultimately ambushes all attempts to fix and constrain gender in worldly terms.”[1]

It is on this basis of a transcendent desire that Paul describes a communion with God through the direct intervention of the Spirit in prayer. Prayer, the expression of “eager longing,” is the occasion in which there is evoked and realized adoption into the family of God: “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (8:15). All three persons of the Trinity enable this communion. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (8:16-17). Prayer is both the entry point and defined by the communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

This realization of Trinitarian agape love is not on the basis of a sublimation or refusal of erotic or gendered desire but the realization that gender, desire, and marriage, are a human economy which is to be conjoined with the divine communion in which the Spirit engenders Sonship. The divine communion opened to humanity through the Son links all of creations groanings in a cosmic sort of childbirth in which human desire is drawn into the divine economy so as to bring about the full adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity (8:22-23).

Sex, gender, and desire, disconnected from this life in the Spirit, is on the order of a disembodied agape love or a prayer life that always seems to be speaking into the void. Prayer as a monologue to a distant patriarch is like an empty eroticism or a desire defined by gender and law.  The communication, the groaning, the desire is not answered by God but is left to itself – which describes life in the law; relationship, not to a person, but to an impersonal and mechanical-like symbolic order.

 In describing the Trinitarian communion Paul also describes a world participating in the purposes of God in which the deepest human “eager longing” is not closed in on itself. Primordial desire left to itself becomes the law of sin and death, but this same primordial desire opened to Christian hope is channeled beyond “life in the flesh” to hope of adoption as “children of God.”

A common theme of the church fathers is that the incorporation of the believer into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit is on the order of being incorporated into marriage through sex. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “For Origen, agape simply is Eros, by another name; whereas for his rather different successor in the Song-commentary tradition, Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape “stretched out in longing” toward the divine goal.” Just as the sexual bond makes of the two one flesh, so too the binding together in the Spirit is a fulfillment and ordering of desire. As Dionysius the Areopagite describes it, “’desire’ becomes an ontological force inherent to the divine life itself, an ecstatic capacity of God to go out and return, always ‘carried outside of himself’ whilst also “remaining within himself.”[2] Just as one is incorporated into the marriage relationship through the fulfillment of desire, so too the desire of God (the desire originating in God) describes this same self-transcendence or going outside of himself in an overflowing love.

Gregory of Nyssa, in Homilies on the Song of Songs describes the kinsman/Christ as drawing his lover/disciples through a reflected beauty in which desire is the power of the Spirit: “the Bride has dedicated herself to her kinsman and in her own form has taken on the beauty of her Beloved.” Andrew was led to the Lamb by the reflected attraction in the voice of John. Nathanael attracts Philip through the same allure that the maidens find in the kinsman’s lover – perfect in her comeliness. This reflected “’glory’ means the Holy Spirit, if account is taken of the Lord’s words; he says, after all, ‘The glory that you have given me, I have given to them.’” That is, the eroticism of sexual attraction in the Song translates directly into the attraction of Christ through the Spirit (Homily 15). “For it is obvious that where she is concerned the Word is pointing to this: that the soul, through the upward journey she has completed, has been exalted to the point where she is straining forward toward the wonders of the Lord and Master.”

There is a passage into desire in which “childishness” is left behind as the “disposition shaped by erotic love” is joined to God – “such were the souls of David and Paul.” David says, “But for me it is a good thing to cleave to God” and Paul says, “None shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, not life or death or what is present or what is future, or anything else.” Gregory calls those who stifle this desire through a misbegotten virtue, “concubines” (as they do not share in the divine Spirit of kingship) as it is out of fear, rather than by rightly directed desire, that they refuse evil: “by drawing near to the good through servile fear rather than through a bride’s love—she becomes a concubine rather than a queen because of her fear.”

Gregory, unlike Augustine, in no way denigrates marriage or sex. “We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). As Gregory describes it, however, one can either be a “Pleasure-lover” or a “God-lover.” The problem is not desire per se but whether desire is rightly ordered or given its proper telos (as a God-lover). It is not a matter of setting aside desire but of channeling it and even preserving it. That is, one should not spend desire solely on the earthly but channel it toward the heavenly.

Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind (so it seems to me), as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good; but once call it back and collect it upon itself, so that it may begin to move without scattering and wandering towards the activity which is congenital and natural to it, it will find no obstacle in mounting to higher things, and in grasping realities. Gregory of Nyssa (de virginitate, chapter VII)

He goes on to explain, desire rightly regulated and channeled will burst upward against the constraining force of gravity: “in the same way, the mind of man, enclosed in the compact channel of an habitual continence, and not having any side issues, will be raised by virtue of its natural powers of motion to an exalted love.” This is the way God ordained “that it should always move, and to stop it is impossible.” Thus, to spend desire on “trifles” is to introduce a leak into a stream which would otherwise speed one “toward the truth.” This does not entail setting aside sex and marriage. “That in the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock, there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honorable” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). It is a matter of arriving at “due proportion.”

Purity is not a matter of ridding oneself of desire but of not dissipating desire on trifling rivulets. Much as in a Lacanian frame, Gregory equates desire with the life force. Lacan’s singular ethical imperative (“Do not give way on your desire”), understood in this light is the empowerment to remain in the right channel of life. “If, as an inexperienced and easy-going steward, he opens too wide a channel, there will be danger of the whole stream quitting its direct bed and pouring itself sideways” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). So, the sexual passion, which he compares to a “trifling debt of nature” need not and should not consume one in “over-calculating.” Rather, through “the long hours of his prayers [he] will secure the purity which is the key-note of his life” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). This purity is a desire preserved and propelled by the Spirit, bent not on sexual union alone, but on the ultimate “blending” by “sharing in the place the Spirit holds between Father and Son.”[3]

William of St Thierry, reflecting Gregory of Nyssa, in his Exposition on the Song of Songs freely depicts an erotic spiritual love: “his left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me” (Song 2:6): “This embrace extends to man, but it surpasses man. For this embrace is the Holy Spirit. He is the Communion, the Charity, the Friendship, the Embrace of the Father and of the Son of God; and he himself is all things in the love of Bridegroom and Bride.” He describes the full consummation of this desire in union with God: “Then, I say, it will be the full kiss and the full embrace, the power of which is the wisdom of God; its sweetness the Holy Spirit; and its perfection, the full fruition of the Divinity, and God all in all.”[4]

This understanding of the Trinity leaves behind the apophatic and lifts up the human condition as preparation and mediation for participation in the inner life of God. God is known through an empirical order, rearranged and redirected by its inclusion in the love of God.


[1] Sarah Coakley, “Pleasure Principles” in Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Archive (AUTUMN 2005 (VOL. 33, NO. 2) https://bulletin-archive.hds.harvard.edu/articles/autumn2005/pleasure-principles

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted from Coakley, Ibid.

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.”)