Book Review – Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Interest in the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains strong among evangelicals, and several recent books have explored his life, ministry, and theology. IVP Academic has made a notable contribution to these studies with their volume Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture. Each spring, IVP Academic co-sponsors the Wheaton Theology Conference at Wheaton College. This book originated from the conference held in 2012 under the same title. The focus of the conference was an examination of how Bonhoeffer’s theology, education, and life experiences influenced him to become a preacher and theologian whose faith in Christ directed him to the public square. Thus, this book helps us see how Bonhoeffer engaged with culture as a theologian of the cross. Abraham Kuyper famously wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Likewise, Bonhoeffer saw every aspect of culture and society to be a place where the resurrected Christ is to be exalted.

In this volume, ten evangelical scholars unfold the views, thoughts, and theology of Bonhoeffer in areas such as technology, politics, and the Christian academy, among others. Although all of the essays are insightful, some pique more interest than others. For example, in chapter 1, Philip G. Ziegler approaches Bonhoeffer as a “theologian of the Word of God” (p. 34). He argues that the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology stems from his theological conviction that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who is the Word incarnate. Hence, “Christian dogmatics must . . . cleave to the confession that Jesus Christ is God and admit that ‘the is may not be interpreted any further’” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer understood that “the work of the present Word is always world-making” (pp. 35-36). To find the relevance of theology in worldly affairs, one must acknowledge how the Word continues to work among us in order to restore what was fallen due to the sin of the first Adam.

In chapter 3, Reggie L. Williams examines how Bonhoeffer’s encounter with the Harlem Renaissance influenced his views on race and argues that “Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the race divide in Harlem was a vital piece of his later politically inflected Christian witness in Germany” (p. 62). Williams contends, “Christ entering into the suffering of the outcasts and marginalized is a theme that resonates with Bonhoeffer’s Christology as he would develop it in the years ahead. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer not only agreed with this christological theme as the mode of Christ’s existence in the world but also with the ethical imperative for real Christian discipleship” (p. 71). In my opinion, this chapter is the best in the book. In fact, Williams’s essay was received enthusiastically by the audience at the conference, and he received a standing ovation—a rare event at a theology conference!

In chapter 6, Joel D. Lawrence, in response to Bonhoeffer’s view of the church (“‘The church is church only when it is there for others’” [p. 113]), presents a question: “How does the church become the church for others?” (p. 114). Lawrence focuses on Bonhoeffer’s theology of confession in which Bonhoeffer argues for “the concrete discipline that is essential for the community who would move from the cor curvum in se [the heart turned in on itself] to being for others” (p. 121). In confession, there is life again because we die to sin through confession and, in this act, the church will conform to Christ. Lawrence concludes, “We must ask with Bonhoeffer: Is the lack of life in the church today connected to disregard for confession? Is there no life today because there is no death?” (p. 129). Lawrence thus calls for a true theology of confession in order for the church to exist in the form of Christ—to be there for others.

There is much to commend in this book. It serves not only those who are interested in Bonhoeffer, but also those who are interested in cultural engagement—how Christianity can bring human flourishing to society and culture. In this sense, the conference and book are an attempt to examine what we can learn from Bonhoeffer to make Christianity relevant to our contemporary society. As the church faces issues that arise within our society, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings inspire us to remain faithful to Christ, the Word incarnate, while we engage with culture in order to bring human flourishing to society.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Healing for a Broken World

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway Books
  • Amazon
  • DVD & Study Guide
  • Much is being written these days on the relationship between Christianity and politics, especially in the light of the decline of the religious right. The more enlightened of these articles and books avoid simply defending either the Republican or Democrat party line, but instead seek to apply biblical principles to public policy and civil society. One recent book that does this well is Steve Monsma’s Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy. Monsma is a former state senator, emeritus professor of political science at Pepperdine, and currently senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College.

    The book is divided into two parts. Part one sets out four principles from Scripture that Monsma believes are the most relevant for thinking about public policy. These principles are creation, sin, and redemption; justice; solidarity; and civil society. The first principle is drawn from the early chapters of Genesis and portrays the nature of our world and the human condition: God instructed human beings to multiply and subdue the earth (the cultural mandate). But man fell, and God is now in the process of redeeming humanity, as well as every aspect of His creation. (I appreciate this reformed approach to redemption, which includes all of creation, and doesn’t focus solely on human souls—important as that is.)

    The second principle (justice) indicates that “God has instituted governing authorities and their public policies to work against evil and to promote justice in society” (p. 49). The third principle is solidarity, which is the obligation God has given every person to love their neighbor as themselves (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8). The final principle draws on Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” which holds that God has established several domains of human society, each of which is authoritative in its own realm. Chief among these domains are the government, the family, and the church. Since each sphere possesses its own authority, it is wrong for any one sphere to usurp the authority of another—for example, for the government to usurp the authority of the family, or the church to usurp the authority of the government. These four principles, Monsma contends, are those that should guide a Christian approach to public policy.

    Part two seeks to apply these four principles to several pressing issues in our world today, including church and state, life, poverty, the environment, human rights, the needs of Africa, and war and terrorism. On the issue of abortion, for example, Monsma points out that justice requires that human life, which is made in God’s image, should be protected by law. At the same time, Christians and others in our society should stand in solidarity with pregnant women facing difficult circumstances and seek to help and support them. In terms of civil society/sphere sovereignty, private organizations are typically better equipped to offer emotional and spiritual support, while government agencies are often better placed to provide monetary assistance, housing, and job training (though there may be exceptions where organizations can also contribute to these).

    Yet challenges and gray areas remain. To what extent should a society attempt to restrict abortion? Should exceptions be made for the health of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, or when the fetus is severely deformed? Are conservatives willing to support assistance programs for low-income families that will discourage women from having abortions? Are liberals willing to extend their concern for children to the womb?

    Monsma frequently raises difficult issues such as these in each of the chapters in part two, which I appreciate about the book. I believe his four biblical principles are compelling and important, though others, no doubt, could be added. He does a good job of consistently applying these criteria to the problems he addresses, while also highlighting some of the ambiguities that arise in trying to construct a consistent Christian public policy.  At some points I felt that references to relevant political philosophy would have made for a richer discussion (for example, in defining terms like “justice”), but Monsma was keen to keep the discussion concrete and practical (p. 50).

    The relationship between Christianity and government is a difficult and complex topic, and there are no easy answers. But the principles Monsma suggests are indispensable to the discussion, and deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition.   Anyone interested in the intersection of Christianity and politics will find this book helpful, especially since the author has wrestled with many of these issues firsthand.

    — Reviewed by Chris Reese

    * Thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy.

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