Promise or Command?

I’m delighted that at last Volume 14 of Bonhoeffer’s Works in English has arrived. The publication of all 16 volumes has been a major, multi-year, and very successful venture. The standard of editorial and translation excellence has been sustained throughout the project and the result is simply outstanding.

This volume covers the Finkenwalde years of 1935-37, a critical period in Bonhoeffer’s life. With great happiness he had found a role that allowed him to be all he had ever dreamed: pastor, educator, friend. Yet the Nazi machine took away the school and from that point on Bonhoeffer’s work was increasing centered on resisting the demonic evil of Hitler.

Every seminarian, every seminary professor, and every seminary administrator ought to consider this book necessary reading as they consider the way in which the modern Western church prepares its pastors. As always, Bonhoeffer was ahead of his time and therefore speaks to our day as if he were our contemporary.

Just dipping here and there to get acquainted with the book, I easily found numerous ideas to underline and contemplate. Some are minor in appearance yet important in implications. This evening, for example, I looked through Dietrich’s note to his seminarians in the school newsletter of May 15, 1937 (p. 303).

He wrote, “‘You will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8) — that is the Lord’s promise to us.” Such a simple sentence that we might well overlook something very profound about it. In all my 53 years of experience in the Evangelical churches of America, I have heard hundreds of references to Acts 1:8, always with the idea that it is a command. Bonhoeffer hears it as a promise. What a difference!

Conservative Christians in the West hear lots of commands in the Bible and end up being barely distinguishable from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They stood firmly on Torah, conceived as law and command, much like religious and political conservatives today boast of “standing on principles.”

Much of what we tend to hear as command, however, is really promise. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul wrote to the Colossians. If that is a command, what are we to do with it? Shall we instruct Christ to send his peace into our hearts and our fellowships? Of course not. We merely stop trying to make ourselves and our communities into what we think they should be and let our peaceful Lord have his way with us.

“You will be my witnesses” is simply a promise of how our Lord will use us, not a command we must train ourselves to obey. We’ve turned “witnessing” into a verb, into something we are to do, rather than recognizing it is a noun with simply tells us who we are. We are who we are in Christ Jesus and that is our testimony. Yes, of course, there are times for words to be spoken ass we tell others who Jesus is, but these words come after our friends have seen who we are in Christ. The words are not the testimony; we are!

Thanks, Dietrich, for reminding me. . .

(By the way, the Pharisees in the next few centuries after Jesus became much like him in many way and proved essential to sustaining and shaping Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.)


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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