Of Heaven, salvation, and worldliness (Bonhoeffer and the Apostle Paul)

I am making good progress on my Colossians commentary – I am turning in 40,000 words to the editors by Dec 31  just on the introduction and chapter 1 of Colossians! It has been an exhausting delight!

Anyway, one of the central issues of Colossians is Paul’s concern that the troublesome philosophy is putting people’s heads in the clouds, whereas Paul was trying to “ground” them deeper in Christ.( At some point soon I will do a series of posts on my reading of Colossians.)

So, it has been interesting for me to be reading Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison (for a variety of reasons) while I work on the commentary. Did you know, while Bonhoeffer famously had an infatuation with the Sermon on the Mount, he also regularly turned to Colossians when he wrote and preached precisely for the same reason Paul was concerned: believers around Bonhoeffer spent too much time dwelling on “Salvation” and not enough time investing in dealing with “sin” all around them? In a prison letter to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote some reflections on Biblical interpretation and theology:

Aren’t we really under the impression that there are more important things than [the question of personal salvation]? I know it sounds pretty monstrous to say that. But, fundamentally, isn’t this in fact biblical? Does the question about saving one’s soul appear in the OT at all? Aren’t righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything…? It is not with the beyond that we [should be] most concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropological sense of liberal, mystic pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (May 4, 1944 from Tegel)

Later on Bonhoeffer suggests to Eberhard that perhaps there is a need for a “worldly” hermeneutic. Not one that is worldly in the sinful sense, but one that focuses theology on the life of the “here and now” world. If Bonhoeffer were alive today, I think he would say, “Ah, I think this is being done – they call it “missional theology.” What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “Of Heaven, salvation, and worldliness (Bonhoeffer and the Apostle Paul)

  1. Nijay,

    This is spot-on, as your Durham friends would say. We should talk about Colossians; I’m writing an article on the this-worldliness of NT spirituality 9in the sense you and Bonhoeffer are meaning), including a section on Colossians, especially chapter 3. And yes, this is missional!

  2. Bonhoeffer mentions ethical theology – you should read Bavinck’s discussions of Ritschl in Reformed Dogmatics. You’ll find a healthy this-worldliness without the aberrations of what Bonhoeffer is trying to disassociate himself with.

  3. More than likely Bonhoeffer was addressing the Lutheran perspective on the two kingdoms and was seeking to correct some of the extremes in that position, much like he did when he addressed the issue of cheap grace/costly grace. Looking forward to your work on Colossians.

  4. Thanks everyone. Bruce – thanks for the hat-tip to Bavinck. I will be sure to check it out.

    Raymond – I think you are right – Bonhoeffer is, of course, constantly in dialogue with Luther and Barth.

    Tim and Mike- don’t you just love Bonhoeffer?

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