Archive Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Reformed Irenicism

Proposing the #BonOp

True confession: I haven’t really been following all the dust-up and discussion surrounding the latest proposals for how Christians should relate to “the culture”–and this for a variety of reasons, many of which have little to do with the discussion itself and much more to do with the exigencies of circumstances.

As a case in point, I have not read The Benedict Option, and I do not plan to, having followed at some remove the ongoing online discussions for the last several years. Perhaps I am a crank, but I tend to have an allergic reaction to anything marketed (here is the key word) as the “most important book on [x] of the decade,” whether it is David Brooks who thinks so or someone else. Such claims tend to be symptomatic of the self-perpetuating ephemeralism of the publishing industry and our chattering classes more than of any intrinsic value in the book itself–a fact also witnessed to by the absurd proliferation of endorsements that seems to afflict every theological text aimed at “conservatives,” who apparently buy books based solely on the breathless support of a cortège of individuals whose names belong to someone other than the author. I say this not as a jab at The Benedict Option–as I said, I haven’t read it–or at any other book in particular, but as what seems to me an apt description of the entire scene. The chatterati will chat, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen.

Why my title, then? It sure sounds like it’s going to be an interaction with the so-called #BenOp. Well, that’s the point: it is a cynical marketing strategy to get you to click on the link and increase my readership. (There are dozens of us! DOZENS!!!) This post, despite all my throat-clearing, is not a review of anything, and it is not a critique of anything. It is a simple, straightforward presentation of the key points of a work that has some relevance as to how Protestants ought to think about the issues raised in books like those referred to above. What would it look like if Protestants devoted their attention to thinking about issues of the church and “the culture” based on Protestant principles, rather than being parasitic on other proposals whose principles may well be inimical to their own (and thus incidentally validating the critique that Protestantism is itself parasitic on a fictive “Great Tradition,” being only negative and destructive in se)?

The work I refer to is, happily, not a new book. I refer instead to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, which is at once more modest and more challenging than the general tenor of the ongoing discussion among the conservative Christian intelligentsia. How does he, a man who knew much better than most of us the hardships of living under a wicked and antichristian regime, envision the lives of Christians in the world?

In this post, I shall look at the first part of the first chapter of this short book, called simply “Community.”

Bonhoeffer’s Community

Bonhoeffer begins with a programmatic quotation from Psalm 133.1: “‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!'” This is not vapid ecumenism, however, as he immediately clarifies what he means: “In the following we shall consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word” (17).1

Two things are immediately evident: Bonhoeffer is not proposing a new monastic rule. In fact, quite the opposite: there is no rule except the Scriptures to tell Christians how they ought to live together. This fact is emphasized again by the assertion that life together is “under the Word.” Bonhoeffer’s opening paragraph, then, is irreducibly Protestant. Rather than a monastic community owing absolute obedience to a human superior according to a extra-Scriptural rule, one finds Christian life ordered by the Word under the authority and government of the Word.

This is not, of course, to deny the role of prudence and temporal order in human communities, which I have treated in this space several times (e.g. here). It is, however, to deny that any such order presents one with either a short-cut to God or an easier approach to him.2 Order is common to all human communities, but no extra-Scriptural order gives one special access to divine grace. In contrast, the Rule of Benedict seems to acknowledge the former point about the supremacy and perfection of the Word, even while making it inaccessible to the majority of Christians and thus requiring a muddying of the latter point about the salvific potency of man-made rules:

We have written this Rule, that by its observance in Monasteries we may show that we possess, in some measure, uprightness of manners, or the beginning of a good Religious life. But for such as hasten forward to the perfection of holy living, there are the precepts of the holy Fathers, the observance whereof leadeth a man to the height of perfection. For what page, or what passage is there in the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testament, that is not a most perfect rule of man’s life? Or what book is there of the holy Catholic Fathers that doth not proclaim this; that we may by a direct course reach our Creator? Moreover, what else are the Collations of the Fathers, their Institutes, their Lives, also the Rule of our Holy Father Basil, but examples of the good living and obedience of Monks, and so many instruments of virtue? But to us who are slothful and lead bad and negligent lives, they are matter for shame and confusion.

Therefore whosoever thou art that dost hasten to the heavenly country, first accomplish, by the help of Christ, this little Rule written for beginners: and then at length thou shalt come, under the guidance of God, to those loftier heights of doctrine and of virtue, which we have mentioned above. (Ibid.)

My reference to a monastic rule, and to this rule in particular, is not frivolous, I trust. For not only is the Benedictine rule one that is much in the news lately, but, more to the point, Bonhoeffer immediately proceeds to distinguish what he has in view from what he considers to be the monastic impulse.

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. (Ibid.)

He then goes on to quote Martin Luther in a way that will likely scandalize many modern believers, especially those of the leisure class who romanticize ascetic seclusion:

‘The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would have been spared?’ (17-18)3

The Kingdom, in other words, is scattered. Furthermore, the scattered nature of the Kingdom in the interadvental period is just the way things are, and the way they will be until the Parousia.

Misunderstanding is possible here, however, and so we should hasten to add that Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the cloister does not entail a denigration of the common life of Christians. Indeed, precisely because Christians are scattered throughout the world in the midst of this present evil age, they need one another. Thus visible fellowship is a blessing and a privilege (18); Christians long for the physical presence of other Christians (19) to sustain and encourage them, even if this sustaining and encouragement will not look the same in every situation: “The measure with which God bestows the gift of visible community is varied” (21). For some Christians, there may be times when there is only one other believer with whom he may have contact, or he may even have to make due with no more than a letter from a brother; others may be able to attend corporate worship; still others may be blessed enough to live in Christian families (21). When we remember that such variations are possible, we should give thanks to God for the situation in which most of us find ourselves, and we should continue to seek out life in common with other Christians as we are able.

Through and in Jesus Christ4

But such fellowship as Bonhoeffer delineates it is founded on exclusively Protestant principles. The communion we have with one another is only under the Word; and it is only ever through and in Jesus Christ. Our belonging to one another, in other words, is never immediate, but is always mediated through a third term: Christ himself. We “come to others only through Jesus Christ” (21).

Let us flesh this out a little more and see just why it is that I say Bonhoeffer’s proposal is thoroughly Protestant. On what is the Christian life predicated to begin with? What is its architectonic ordering principle?

First, the Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification, but by God’s claims and God’s justification. He lives wholly by God’s Word pronounced upon him, whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent. (21-2)

This principle of justification by faith alone may seem prima facie to run counter to what I said above. If Christians are justified immediately before God by the Word, what need do they have of one another? It certainly seems as though they do not need to organize themselves into corporations in which they might the more easily seek to gain heaven by their obedience, away from the temptations of the world.

And indeed, they do not need to organize themselves into corporations for that purpose. And yet justification by faith alone still underwrites communal life for Bonhoeffer. Why? Because it is through other men that the justifying Word of God comes to us. God speaks this “alien righteousness” to us through others:

But God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men….God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. (22-3)

Christians bring the Word to one another, then; we are too weak to be self-sufficient, and God has willed the Christian community as a remedy: “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure” (23). The “goal of all Christian community” is, quite simply, to “meet one another as bringers of salvation” (ibid.) Thus Bonhoeffer can conclude:

All we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another. (ibid.)

Not only do Christians encounter one another from this basis and for this purpose; we only encounter one another through the mediation of Jesus Christ: “Only in Jesus Christ are we one, only through him are we bound together” (24). It is Christ who makes peace not only between man and God, but also between man and man. Without Christ’s mediation, we ourselves stand in the way of communion with others.

Finally, we have communion with other brothers only in Jesus Christ. According to God’s eternal counsel, we are in Christ, so that “[w]here he is, there we are too…That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ” (ibid.). But if we belong to Christ for all eternity, we must also say we belong to him “with one another” (ibid., emph. his) for all eternity. “He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ” (ibid.). Thus it is never a question of whether we should have brothers and sisters, as though we could choose. God saves us as part of his people, to whom we are bound forever. Once again, justification by faith alone leads not to atomistic pseudo-Christianity, but to full and rich corporate life.

True Christian community is no more than this meeting with the Word and meeting one another with the Word; but it is also no less: “On this presupposition rests everything that the Scriptures provide in the way of directions and precepts for the communal life of Christians” (ibid.).

Let us pause for a moment and take stock of where we are, for the remark just quoted echoes the first one cited above. In Protestant perspective, communal life is absolutely necessary whenever the circumstances allow it. It is necessary because we need one another to speak the Word to one another. What is that Word? It is the message of Jesus Christ, or Scripture. It is therefore that Word, and that Word alone, that stands over our life together. And so we must encounter one another–meet with one another–but even that can only be done through the Incarnate Word, for otherwise there is enmity between men. Furthermore, as brothers meet and have communion with one another, they can do so only in Christ the Head, for they are his Body. Christian community, then, can only come fromthrough, and in Jesus Christ.

It is this kind of community that Christ offers us. It is what he graciously gives us. Bonhoeffer is clear that it is enough, and that it must be enough:

That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood. (26)

Linger over that sentence for a moment: “One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood.” This serves as a standing rebuke to our grumbling, complaining, and restless hearts. The question Bonhoeffer puts is, “Will you be content with what God has seen fit to give? Or will you take refuge in your own wishful ideas of what the fellowship ought to be like?” It is to the threat of such “wishful ideas” that we will turn our attention in the next post.

  1. Emph. mine. I cite Bonhoeffer from the HarperOne edition translated by John W. Doberstein (linked above).
  2. Cf. here.
  3. The Fortress edition notes that this is an abridgment of a longer section from Luther’s 1518 interpretation of Psalm 109 (110). The German original can be found here.
  4. I use the editor’s headings in the Doberstein edition.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

3 replies on “Proposing the #BonOp”

Great stuff here! I love this clean, simple, Protestant approach. And it makes a lot of sense. I certainly enjoyed “Life Together” by Bonhoeffer.

Yet something that haunts me is the nagging charge of theological liberalism at work in Bonhoeffer’s mind. I’ve heard it raised more than once by conservative Reformed scholars that there is sometimes a desire to paint Bonhoeffer as an evangelical champion when there’s a sort of German liberalism at work (much like Barth). I recently recall reading about this in Jeff Stivason’s five-part series “Will the Real Bonhoeffer Please Stand Up?” at where he paints a picture of Kantian Transcendentalism coloring Bonhoeffer’s meaning.

Do you have any thoughts or concerns about that? I can read “Life Together” in a non-Kantian light as far as I can tell. But it leaves me uneasy if Kantianism was a part of what formed Bonhoeffer’s view underlying “Life Together”.


Hi Aaron,

I don’t have many thoughts, I’m afraid, not being a Bonhoeffer expert–except to say that, yes, it’s entirely possible to read *Life Together* in an orthodox way, and I can’t see how it would be necessary or helpful to assume that Kantianism undergirds the book. I haven’t seen anything *in the text itself* that would lead me in that direction. I don’t think he needs to be an American evangelical to have useful things to say to us (same goes for, e.g., Emil Brunner). The *principles* at work in *Life Together*–and this is my main concern–are thoroughly (and classically) Protestant.

Does that help?

Best wishes,

Yes, that helps. It’s good to hear from someone else that there doesn’t seem to be anything more than hearty classical Protestantism in this book.

Thank you,

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