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Did Bonhoeffer Get it Right?

Dikkon Eberhart

I have a question for you. Remember Christmas? This post’s question for you is prompted by a discussion that came up at our house just before Christmas and that is based on two considerations.

One consideration is related to the way that early Christians experienced the anniversary of Jesus’ birth during their own time. The second consideration is not about what you might suppose. It is NOT about how differently we today encounter the anniversary of Jesus’ birth.

Of course there’s a difference between then and now. After two millennia, how could there not be a difference? But my question today is not to explore that difference.

In order to tell you what the second consideration is, I need to describe how this discussion arose in the first place.

My wife Channa and I host a weekly dinner and Bible study at our house on Thursday evenings, dinner being provided on a rotational basis among our group. We are eleven Christian men and women of approximately the same age and family status.

Our evening’s discussion usually begins by reviewing the sermon of the previous Sunday. However, on the Thursday before Christmas we suggested each person—who cared to do so—might bring along a Christmas-related essay or poem or song, and we would focus our discussion around those.

Searching for my own contribution, I found a short passage from a book of Advent readings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. I’ll provide the gist of Bonhoeffer’s passage below and then articulate the second consideration that powered my question for the group and engendered our discussion.

Here’s Bonhoeffer’s quote--

When the old Christendom spoke of the coming again of the Lord Jesus, it always thought first of all of a great day of judgment. And as un-Christmas-like as this idea may appear to us, it comes from early Christianity and must be taken with utter seriousness. …. The coming of God is truly not only a joyous message, but is, first, frightful news for anyone with a conscience. …. God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil within us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us, he purifies us, he sanctifies us, he comes to us with his grace and love. He makes us happy as only children can be happy. (Emphasis mine.)

So here’s what I asked our group, related to the two considerations.

The first. Bonhoeffer articulates what I believe are correct cultural and theological conditions concerning believers and their encounter with the birth anniversary of Jesus during the early church—their encounter is one of fright and judgment. Not—in the modern sense—very Christmas-like.

The second. Note that Bonhoeffer is speaking to us, to his contemporary audience. He reminds us—again correctly—that God’s love for us purifies and sanctifies us despite the evil of the world. But my question arises from what Bonhoeffer says next, which is bolded above.

Is it possible that God’s sanctifying grace and love makes us happy…as only children can be happy?

I acknowledge that children have the capacity in their innocence to experience total and unalloyed happiness. However, I do not believe that we adults have such a capacity, due to our mature acquaintance with doubt, misery, and sin.

Further, I believe that our limitation may remain with us even after God’s loving gift to us of purification and sanctification.

Yes, we are saved—thank the Lord!—but we are still aware that once we were not saved, that we are guilty of past failings (though God has mercifully un-remembered them), and that we retain our inherent evil inclination.

Does God’s sanctifying grace make us happy? Yes. But at a level at which anyone who has children and grandchildren has seen them attain, and which Bonhoeffer states is only available to them?

I don’t think so.

On the whole, the rest of the group did think so. I’m glad that I was in the minority—that fact testifies happily for the happiness of the others!

What do you think?

Let me know, if you care to….

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