Monday, July 25, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (11)

The eleventh Ethics manuscript (and fear not, we are near the end!) is entitled On the Possibility of the Church's Message to the World.  As with the previous manuscript, it is brief, and almost certainly is not in the form which Bonhoeffer would have envisaged for publication (it consist of brief, numbered points, each of which could perhaps do with expansion), but it concisely expresses an answer to a hugely important question: can the church address the problems of the world, and if so, what should it say?

"We ask: is it really the task of the church today to offer the world solutions for its problems?  Are there even Christian solutions to worldly problems?" (353).  Bonhoeffer points out that "Jesus is hardly ever involved in solving worldly problems; whenever he is requested to do so, he is strangely evasive (Matt 22:15; Luke 12:13)...  He stands beyond the human problematic" (354).  Indeed, it may be that not all worldly problems can be solved.  "Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human fall and God's redemption" (354-5).  Everything here depends on recognising that starting with human problems is unbiblical.  "The way of Jesus Christ, and thus the way of all Christian thought, is not the way from the world to God, but from God to the world" (356).  Solving worldly problems "cannot be the essential task of the church" (356).

What, then, can the church say in response to the world's acknowledged problems?  "The message of the church to the world can be none other than the word of God to the world.  This word is: Jesus Christ, and salvation in this name" (356).  The church "has no relationship to the world other than through Jesus Christ" (356), and therefore must only approach the problems of the world with the message of this name.  This message will be a call to repentance; it will put the church in a position of responsibility for the world; it will consist of both law and gospel ("There is no proclamation of the law without the gospel, and no proclamation of the gospel without the law" [357]).  It is not as is the law applied to the church and the gospel to the world, or vice versa: both law and gospel speak to both church and world, because both law and gospel speak Jesus Christ.  There is no double standard, as if the church were expected to live out the gospel, whilst the world was only expected to uphold the law.  "Rather, there is only the one word of God, demanding faith and obedience, which is valid for all people" (359).

The task of the church in response to the problems of the world is to proclaim Christ.  But alongside this, the church must recognise that there are certain (penultimate) conditions which are an obstruction and an offence to faith, Where the church encounters economic or social conditions which constitute such an offence, it must pronounce against them for the sake of Jesus Christ and faith in his name.  "The church has a twofold approach here: on the one hand, it must declare as reprehensible, on the authority of the word of God, such economic attitudes or systems which clearly hinder faith in Christ...  On the other hand, it will not be able to make its positive contribution to a new order on the authority of the word of God, but merely on the authority of responsible counsel..." (361). The church does not have, and ought not to pretend to have, exhaustive solutions to worldly problems, but she is equipped on the one hand with the ability to discern what is contrary to faith in Christ and to pronounce judgement on it in the name of God, and on the other hand to offer constructive advice on what might constitute a way forward.  This is an asymmetrical task simply because the church recognises that she does not have all the answers, nor is it her role to have them or to offer them.

I think this framework would be very usefully adopted by the church of the present day.  I see on the one hand Christians who feel that their faith has nothing to say to the big problems of the world, and withdraw into a pietistic disengagement - or at least, engage only with the world in order to rescue individual souls; and on the other hand, Christians who are confident that their faith entails a whole political and social programme which all Christians should be able to recognise and get on board with.  Bonhoeffer helps us, I think, to see beyond this, and could help the church to speak with a more united voice.  For example, all those of us who follow Christ can recognise the injustice and sin of pursuing an economic policy which hurts the most vulnerable, and we could unite to protest this with the authority of God, without needing to agree on what the actual solution was.

Might we speak a better word to the world by recognising our limitations and the limitation of our God-given task?  And we could surely all benefit from the reminder that what we need to speak ultimately is not public policy but Jesus Christ!

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