Bonhoeffer on the ministry of meekness

He writes that the confidence that comes through God’s gracious justification allows us to place others above ourselves.  He continues:

One who lives by justification by grace is willing and ready to accept even insults and injuries without protest, taking them from God’s punishing and gracious hand.  It is not a good sign when we can no longer bear to hear this said without immediately retorting that even Paul upon his rights as a Roman citizen, and that Jesus replied to the man who struck, “Why smitest thou me?”  In any case, none of us will really act as Jesus and Paul did if we have not first learned, like them, to keep silent under abuse.  The sin of resentment that flares up so quickly in the fellowship indicates again and again how much false desire for honor, how much unbelief, still smolders in the community.

Source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, translated by John W. Doberstein, p. 96.



  1. Conflating God’s punishing and gracious hand with those who insult or injure you seems like a bad idea to me. I think we can let go of insults and injuries without that construct, if that is Bonhoeffer’s point.

    He also seems a little vague with the whole “keep silent under abuse, except when you shouldn’t”. Does the context clarify this?

    Boy, I’m feeling like I always come across as critical. Blech. So let me just say that his final point about resentment seems apt. There. That makes up for all the rest, right? 🙂

  2. I actually like the conflation in the sense that it recognizes that God ultimately allows these things as part of his plan to shape us into more Christlike people; it also reminds that that we don’t ultimately deserve better. Ultimately, I think it follows Paul’s view of troubles as allowed and even orchestrated by God for His own purposes. So part of the reason that this resonated with me is my own Calvinist view of God’s ultimate authority in all things. I know that we have different views about how God acts in the world, so that may be part of the reason that we have different perspectives.

    No, he wasn’t too clear about how to know when to speak up. So that part was unsatisfying. What I do like about it is that he points out that a certain meek mindset of not putting ourselves first and even being willing to suffer injury is necessary before we point out our rights. The problem with this, as you point out, is that it doesn’t point a clear way forward. I like the starting point, though, because it challenges the human tendency (which I certainly display more often than I should) to put our own treatment and rights as the most important thing.

    I liked the point about resentment too. But, there’s no need to “make up” for good questions. As you said once, there isn’t as much to talk about when there’s agreement.

  3. So part of the reason that this resonated with me is my own Calvinist view of God’s ultimate authority in all things.

    Ah, fascinating! 🙂 So, in your view, is allowing evil tantamount to causing evil? How do you integrate free will into predestination?

    I guess the real problem I have with Bonhoeffer’s conflation is that it feeds into a dangerous (and I hope unnecessary) offshoot of predestination, namely that if God caused an evil act then He does not want you to oppose it.

    it also reminds [me] that we don’t ultimately deserve better.

    “Deserve” is strange. I guess with predestination, life is fair — you “deserve” whatever happens to you? But then how does morality and culpability work? How do you avoid moral passivity?


  4. I think that there’s a distinction between predestination and fatalism, which would make the idea of not opposing something because God caused it “unnecessary.”

    Fatalism would be giving up and saying that there is no point in acting because God has ordained it all.

    Reformed (Calvinist) theology says that God ordains the means as well as the ends. Why pray? God has commanded it, and ordained that He will be moved by prayer. Why send missionaries? God has commanded it, and has ordained that He will bring the gospel to unbelievers by preaching. Why hide Jews when under Nazi occupation? God has commanded it, and has ordained that He will save some by those actions. I know those explanations sound weird, and it took me almost 10 years after my first serious encounter with Reformed theology to settle on it, but I think that it’s the most logical way to think systematically about the Scripture in light of Scripture. But as you’ve pointed out, it doesn’t completely resolve the question of God’s sovereignty and free will. I’d argue that it does better than the alternatives.

    Also, as far as “deserving,” I also think, along with Reformed theologians, that God’s sovereignty doesn’t just mean we get what we deserve, but that there is grace that none of us deserve, whether it’s common grace (nature, friendship, etc.) or the redeeming grace that believers in Christ experience. So God doesn’t simply parcel out what we deserve, but in His sovereign will allows all of us to experience better than we, as sinners, deserve.

  5. Kevin,

    Here’s a brief consideration by John Piper of the issue of hating evil when one believes that God has ordained it:

    Like I said above, I don’t think that Calvinist theology answers every question that we can raise. Sometimes, I think that Reformed theologians can be too eager to prove their theology in every text of Scripture. But I do think that it’s the best systematic bringing together of the different trends of divine sovereignty, human moral responsibility, and the existence of evil that we see in the Bible.

  6. Scott,

    Piper’s “because God ordains it” is the circular answer to every question if predestination trumps all. But how about this one: does God have the power to grant us free will such that He cannot be absolutely certain what we will choose? Has God ever granted this? Was Abraham’s argument with God just a play?

    If I had absolute control over you (using that chip I implanted in your head :)), and I made you murder an innocent person, would you be responsible? No. We don’t blame a gun for a murder — it had no choice. We blame the chooser. Morality cannot exist without the free will to choose. Indeed, all of civilization is founded upon free will; so even if it doesn’t exist, we were meant to think it does.

    In fact, it seems to me that granting free will is the only meaningful thing that an omnipotent being could do — all other deterministic variations are known and completed for God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that God does not predestine certain outcomes or know the probabilities, it just means that the way they come about is not necessarily static or fixed. Similarly, God’s permission of evil (one interpretation of OT scripture) does not mean that God causes evil. Free will and the potential for evil are a package deal.

    Scott wrote: “Fatalism would be giving up and saying that there is no point in acting because God has ordained it all.

    You are defining fatalism by a person’s choice to be passive in response to belief in predestination. Bonhoeffer advocates such passivity for the same reason, at least limited to the case of our own injury. Unfortunately, logic premised on predestination is circular and cannot be argued out of.


  7. I don’t think that predestination trumps all. Rather, belief in predestination comes from the sovereignty of God found in Scripture. I think that sometimes people think that Calvinists just really like determinism, but that’s not the case. Even the idea of God’s choice of whom He will save combines the idea of God’s sovereignty and human depravity (our inability to choose God because we are spiritually dead), which Calvinists also believe comes from Scripture. Calvinism can certainly either lead to determinism or a pride in being “elect,” but those things aren’t faithful to the Reformed tradition. (You might argue that those are the outcomes of Reformed theology taken to its logical extent, which would be a different conversation, I suppose. I think that there are enough guardrails in the classic Reformed view to prevent those.) Here’s an example of placing the abstract idea of predestination in the biblical narrative:

    I really can’t argue with your contention that there is circular logic that goes with it, but I think that it’s ultimately the most faithful interpretation of Scripture. I do think that there is moral responsibility and God’s sovereignty in Scripture, which are somehow held together. The Bible is, among other things, a record of God’s intervention in human affairs, including his influence on people’s wills. As one recent post that I read asked, if will is truly free, why pray for God to intervene?

    One of the things that bothered me about Calvinism for a long time was the airtight package that some seemed to present: there are no tensions; every verse proves Calvinism; sometimes it seemed the purpose of Reformed theology was to prove Reformed theology. But the most interesting and helpful Calvinists do realize the tensions. They know that there are passages where God doesn’t seem to know what is going to happen (although these are few in comparison to the overall picture in Scripture of God as sovereign). They know that it’s not easy to reconcile human responsibility and divine sovereignty.

    Two closing points:
    1. I’m going to make an argument that I want to use very cautiously because it often presents itself as the trump card that resolves the argument. But I don’t view our conversation that way; instead we are trying to line up evidence in a tough debate that can’t really be resolved definitively. So here goes: I think that there is something to the idea that God’s ways are not our ways. As Polkinghorne (who agrees more with your view, I think) said, it would not be terribly surprising that if subatomic particles are as complex as we find that they are, that then God would be equally difficult to figure out. To me (although probably not for Polkinghorne), that leaves room for things like divine sovereignty over all things combined with human responsibility. Like I said, no trump card, and it may look like an evasion. But it’s also a recognition that in explaining God, we aren’t dealing with another person whose motives we can parse out by analogy to ourselves. Instead, our best tool for understanding God’s designs is the Bible.

    2. On free will. I would say (with theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Piper) that a different meaningful thing that an omnipotent God can do, instead of giving absolute free will to humans, is to work all things for His own glory. If I may say this, I think that your argument runs the risk of having free will trump everything. I think that the driving force of the history of the universe is rather God’s concern to bring glory to Himself in ways that are difficult to understand but ultimately right.

  8. One more point that I think is important. When Calvinists talk about God as sovereign in all things, we mean the God that revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, who became human, suffered, and died for us and to further display His own glory. Talk about predestination and sovereignty can seem very abstract and almost propose a God remote from us who intervenes in our lives to promote His obscure agenda. Christ and the Cross show that this couldn’t be further from the truth. His purposes for the universe involve us intimately.

  9. Regarding your links:

    I find Wright’s eloquence confusing if he is actually affirming predestination. If everything is predetermined, how is it even possible to have an “overly-deterministic mindset”, as Joel puts it? I agree with many of Wright’s statements, but I’m not sure the aggregate is coherent. Meanwhile, there are other interpretations of Romans that are consistent with Scripture. e.g. the prophecy regarding Jacob & Esau refer to their nations rather than the two individuals.

    I agree with Feinberg that there is a tension between God’s actions and our free will, but he erroneously inserts the notion that God must guarantee specific results in response to our prayers, which creates a false dilemma.

    Regarding your enumerated points:

    (1) In other words: even though it seems like a contradiction to us, it is not actually a contradiction (to God). That is always a possibility, but there are a few caveats to that argument:

    (a) It halts our attempts to logically reconcile Scripture, which is the primary objective process by which we judge the validity of our interpretation. You say that the Calvinist interpretation is the most faithful to Scripture but, at least on this point, you don’t actually require it to be coherent, instead concluding that it is beyond our understanding.

    (b) There’s a difference between God’s understanding encompassing ours, e.g. as relativity encompasses Newtonian mechanics, and God’s understanding contradicting ours. We might not understand everything, but that does not mean that our understanding is false. Our models may just apply to a more limited scope.

    (c) In a practical sense, leaving this contradiction unresolved is untenable. Whether we are intentional or not, we do reconcile free will and predestination in our every action. e.g. The predestination view dominates in Bonhoeffer’s urging above, while the free will view dominates if we hold someone accountable for their actions.

    To me, this practical application is more important than the theory, which is why I objected to Bonhoeffer’s conflation of God and an abuser.

    (2) IMHO, it is to the glory of God that He gives His creation the choice to love Him rather than making them love Him (or, more surprisingly, making them hate Him). In fact, I would argue that love is predicated upon free will.

    Could you elaborate on how I am having free will trump everything? I don’t think we have “absolute free will” insofar as our options are limited, free wills collide, God intercedes, and He has even assured us of certain outcomes. Foreordination can be compatible as long as it is not absolute. I do not doubt God’s sovereignty, I just think He has given us freedom so that things like love become possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s