Search This Blog

Monday, September 6, 2010

Life Together -- The Church and The Psalms

This weekend, I have been reading Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5) originally published by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939 as a way to get a handle on koinōnía. The Greek word koinōnía usually is translated as "fellowship" in English or Gemeinschaft in German. Dr. Norman Nagel used to say in his lectures on church fellowship, "The Gemeinde (the congregation) got schaft-ed." The words church and fellowship can be slippery or etherial unless it is grounded in Christ ("wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church," Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 8.)

Each age brings certain doctrinal issues to the forefront. One issue confronted by Bonhoeffer, Sasse, Elert, et al. was the doctrine of the church. Under Nazism, the church in Germany appeared to be on the verge of vanishing. The Prussian Union provided the seedbed for the creation of Nazi Germany. Pockets of resistance sprouted -- some more or less Lutheran. Karl Barth's dialectical theology influenced both Bonhoeffer and Sasse -- Bonhoeffer more and Sasse less. Both read Luther. For a time, Bonhoeffer and Sasse partnered (were co-authors) of the Bethel Confession. Karl Barth felt the Bethel Confession was too Lutheran and not Protestant enough. In the editing process, Bonhoeffer and Sasse parted company, with Bonhoeffer becoming closer to Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer accused Sasse of having a "confessional formalism," while Sasse accused Bonhoeffer of being a "fanatic." It is important to recognize the circumstances that prompted these writings.

Overall, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5) is a edifying book, but there are places where Sasse's accusation that Bonhoeffer is a "fanatic" is evidenced. Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, "The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their bothers and sisters are sure. At the same time, this also clarifies that the goal of all Christian community is to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation." In this passage, Bonhoeffer mixes truth and error in a "fanatical" way (as stated by Sasse). It is true that "Christ in their own hearts is weaker" than Christ given in the Word of God. It also is true the "message of salvation" is delivered through the means of the church -- preaching, etc. Where Bonhoeffer errs is in his connection of the Gospel comes extra nos (outside of ourselves) as found in the community of believers. Once again I reminded of Dr. Norman Nagel stating, "The church is a pretty wobbly foundation on which to build salvation." Statements like this and others are what led Sasse to call Bonhoeffer a fanatic. Life Together cannot be read uncritically.

On the positive side of "community," in an age questioning the need for residential seminary education due to cost, practicality, family, etc. and the promotion of alternative routes and distance education (of which as an exception is needed so long as the exception does not become the norm), Bonhoeffer has some insight. "Before their ordination young seminarians receive the gift of a common life with their brothers for a certain length of time." Bonhoeffer gets it here. I suppose unless you have experienced a "seminary community" in study, you will not be able to value it or see it as necessary to the formation process. The community formed at a residential seminary program certainly contributes to future harmony within a church body.

Bonhoeffer also hits the mark when he says, "Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this... We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ." This is a variation on the Ignatius quotation given above, "Where Christ is, there is the church." 

Bonhoeffer goes on to speak how some who enter the Christian community have an idealistic view of how Christians live together. When evil manifests itself in the community or the rapturous dreamlike euphoria of the community comes to an end -- Bonhoeffer believes these moments are gifts of God for the community, not necessary for its existence but little gifts -- some become disillusioned with the community. He says that these "blissful experiences and exalted moods" by God's grace do not last long so we can learn genuine Christian community. Then he notes, "For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth." It seems that Bonhoeffer himself recognized some of his comments could lead to "fanaticism." 

The greatest impact this book had on me as a young seminarian was Bonhoeffer's connecting the Psalms to Jesus. He writes, "The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. He prayed the Psalter, and now it has become his prayer for all time." Jesus prays the Psalms. Luther had this notion but it did not come clear for me until I read Bonhoeffer in my 2nd year of seminary. Bonhoeffer actually deals with the Psalms as the prayer of Christ in more detail in The Prayerbook of the Bible (a book I never learned about at seminary).

Bonhoeffer goes on to suggest the congregation is the mouthpiece through which Jesus prays the Psalms. He writes, "Jesus Christ prays the Psalter in his congregation. His congregation prays too, and even the individual prays." The imprecatory Psalms frequently are a challenge for Christians today. How do you pray Psalm 58? "The wicked are estranged from the womb ... O God, break the teeth in their mouths... Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime ... The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, 'Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.'" 

Bonhoeffer seems to have difficulty applying this to the Nazis. But he does offer a way that these are prayed today. "This prayer belongs not to the individual member, but to the whole body of Christ. All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth."

Bonhoeffer has a good insight in that Christ continues to pray the Psalms through his church. He sees the church, the communion of saints, praying the Psalms together. While you might not be able to pray Psalm 59 because your circumstances are not such, someone else in the body of Christ is under such circumstances. When you pray Psalm 59, you then pray it not for yourself, but Christ prays using you as his mouth piece for someone else. Bonhoeffer certainly captures a portrait great cloud of witnesses where the church on heaven and earth prays. While Bonhoeffer does not deny that a Christian can pray an imprecatory Psalm, he cautions against it as we are "sinners and associate evil thoughts with the prayer of vengeance." True enough. Part of praying boldly is to pray these Words of Christ -- this is something we do not do often enough. Overall, Bonhoeffer's insights on the Psalter being the Prayer of Christ is helpful.

This particular edition is a translation of the critical edition of Bonhoeffer's works from the German. Coming from Augsburg Fortress Publishing house, the translation is annoying for its use of the NRSV and gender neutral language -- I seriously doubt "gender neutral" considerations were on Bonhoeffer's mind in Nazi Germany.

Some thoughts on Life Together on Labor Day.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting information. We recently watched a video on Bonhoeffer and questioned some of his statements. However, his courage in the face of Nazi terror is to be admired.