Bonhoeffer and the externum verbum

Posted by in Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer defines Christianity as “community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ” (pg 21, Life Together). By this he means that Christians are bound together through what Christ has done on their behalf and that they receive what Christ offers through one another.  He draws upon the Reformational notion that God’s word of salvation comes to us extra nos. Christians cannot look in themselves for salvation, but must look outside to God’s externum verbum. God has chosen to use created means, namely people, to communicate this word. Thus the Christian necessarily needs others in order to find assurance that he is in Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s argument can be understood by looking at two claims. First, he contends that the Christian finds his identity only in God’s word. By this word he learns that he is a guilty and wretched sinner. Further, the Christian cannot look in himself for justification, but must trust in Christ alone. However he can only trust Christ and thus be pronounced righteous by God by having God’s word proclaimed to him. Thus the Christian is utterly dependent upon God’s word and must look outside of himself (extra nos) for his salvation.

Secondly, God has chosen to use the “mouth of men” to communicate His word to other men. The Spirit works through the created means of the spoken word of another. God does not confer grace immediately to the human soul. Instead, he uses the written Scriptures and the voices of other people to communicate his forgiveness. The Christian needs other people. His very identity is bound up in the word that is in his brothers’ mouth. His very existence as a Christian is the result having first heard the message of salvation from another. Therefore, the goal of Christian community for Bonhoeffer is bringing God’s word of forgiveness to one another.

Bonhoeffer’s notion of God using external and created means is not only a Reformational concept, but also has biblical precedent. Paul stresses that faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Likewise the work of the Spirit is primarily identified as specific acts done between people in the community (Acts 4, 8:17-19; Eph 5:18-21). Even the gifts of the Spirit are given through people to the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12).  Or in the case of Christ’s gifts to the Church, the gifts are themselves people (Eph. 4).  Also, God uses physical bread and wine to make the Church one body (1 Cor. 10:17). In the same way Christ has ordained physical water in the sacrament of Baptism to mark the Triune name on God’s children and unite them to himself (Mt. 28:19, Rom. 6, Gal. 3:27, Col. 2). Ordinarily, God’s grace is not conferred upon believers immediately, but through concrete means that He has established.

This teaching is in desperate need of emphasis in the American context. Jeffrey Myers laments, “The problem with American Christianity is that the possibility and enjoyment of a relationship with Christ has been severed from His Body, the Church, and from the ministry and sacraments of the Church”.[1]  Many believers reckon the Christian life as something spiritual between “Jesus and me” and that it is first and foremost an isolated relationship. In this view, the Church and her ministry are something merely added to the Christian walk for support and encouragement. It is not necessary for others to be involved in this “spiritual” relationship.

Another aberration American Christians have adopted is the notion that one can look inside one’s heart to find Jesus. Looking to “means” is seen as unspiritual, even sometimes idolatrous. This idea teaches that God communicates his grace and love immediately to the soul of the believer. One can find spiritual strength in the comfort of one’s home in isolation from others. There is no need to go to church to meet with Jesus for one can find Him in his heart.

Surely the problem with these notions is that they misunderstand where Jesus is to be found. The New Testament teaches Jesus’ Body on earth is the Church. It is there that He speaks to His people, nourishes their souls, and forgives them their sins. One cannot even know about Jesus apart from the word, which was written by human beings and passed down along with a tradition through human beings. Even someone thinking about Christ in isolation necessarily presupposes other people introducing “Christ” to that person. It is futile to try to escape external means. God’s modus operandi is to work through His ordained means. One cannot find salvation without knowing Jesus. One cannot know Jesus without finding His Church.

[1] Meyers, Jeffrey J. The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship. Canon Press, 2003. 285