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The Road Goes On

Friday, May 13, 2005 at 2:40 PM

Timeless Truths?

"Kierkegaard said that today Luther would say the opposite of what he said then. I think he was right -- with some reservations."
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

Yes, this this a dangerous sentiment if pressed very far and turned into a foundational principle:

(Please don't try to discover my biases from these examples. I tried to cover the spectrum . . . .)

I love this quote because it speaks to the deep tension that results from attempting to honor the wisdom of your heritage while keeping eyes and ears open to present realities that will inevitably call for new forms of faithfulness.

By calling this a "tension" I don't mean to imply that it's a matter of deciding which authoritative voices from the past are relevant or obsolete at particular points. I simply mean that living in faithful dialogue with these voices is a much more complex task than restating and/or applying certain phrases or "timeless" principles.

It would take a book to reflect fully on what Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard were and weren't saying (and to discuss B.'s possible "reservations"). Clearly the President would never consider either as judicial nominess.

Because Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer refer to Luther, I'm immediately reminded of N.T. Wright and the other biblical scholars who in recent years have come under scathing criticism for daring to question key aspects of Luther's interpretation of Paul (and thus seeming to shake the foundations of traditional reformed/evangelical Bible reading, theology, and piety). "How can you call yourself Protestant, and say that Romans isn't primarily about "justification by faith alone?" This is a large and fascinating debate I won't engage here, but it's a very important one for the years to come. It will be interesting to see the impact of this perspective on church life as it continues to move from being simply an academic trend and is absorbed into the lives of individual churches and Christians.

Thinking about this theme has spurred me on to two other subjects I'll address in subsequent posts: 1) How this quote sheds light on what I see as the struggle for younger baptists to be faithful to their heritage when they identify with neither agressive, narrow fundamentalism or an excessively individualistic notion of "freedom" that has no means or desire for conceiving "orthodoxy" in a positive sense; and 2) How this quote helps me understand and explain the significance and thrust of "virtue" and/or "narrative" ethics -- at least I think I'm beginning to grasp this better.

Here's some other great thoughts on being faithful to the major voices of our Christian past, from Karl Barth in the introduction to his "Lectures on Calvin":

. . . [W]e do not have teaching by repeating Calvin's words as our own or making his views ours. . . . those who simply echo Calvin are not good Calvinists, that is, they are not really taught by Calvin. Being taught by Calvin means entering into dialogue with him, with Calvin as the teacher and ourselves as the students, he speaking, we doing our best to follow him and then -- this is the
crux of the matter -- making our own response to what he says. If that does not happen we might just as well be listening to Chinese; the historical Calvin is not present. For that [historical] Calvin wants to teach and not just to say something that we will repeat.

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