The Problem with Doctrines as Freestanding Assertions

Doctrine needs to be an answer to a question that arises and presses for an answer.1 Where it fails to do so, it begins to address freestanding problems and loses connection with its own life context.2

The Trouble with Doctrine as Freestanding Assertion

Belief is “inextricably embodied in patterns of habit, commitment, and action, which constitute endorsement, ‘backing,’ or ‘surroundings’” for that belief.3

So, the trouble with doctrine as an address to freestanding problems is that the doctrine disconnects from this larger life context.4

And in fact, losing connection with this life context runs the perilous risk of falsifying precisely this same belief.

In his Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives an excellent example of how this danger may play out.5

An Example: Pecca fortiter

From his own tradition, Bonhoeffer cites Martin Luther’s dictum Pecca fortiter, sed forties fide et gaude in Christo. That is, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still” (55). According to Bonhoeffer, in interpreting this maxim, “everything depends on applying the distinction between the data and the answer to the sum” (56).

Pecca fortiter as a Freestanding Maxim

As Bonhoeffer points out, the difficulties with this statement become obvious if we leave off Luther’s “backing” or “surroundings” for it and take it as a “premiss” or a freestanding maxim.

Doing so makes the statement mean something like

You are a sinner … and there is nothing you can do about it. Whether you are a monk or a man of the world, a religious man or a bad one, you can never escape the toils of the world or from sin. So put a bold face on it, and all the more because you can rely on the opus operatum of [or, “work performed by”] grace. (55–56)

Loosed from its moorings in Luther’s thought and piety pecca fortiter, therefore, “conjur[es] up the spectre of cheap grace” (56).

Thus Bonhoeffer comments,

Taken as a premiss, pecca fortiter acquires the character of an ethical principle, a principle of grace to which the principle of pecca fortiter must correspond. (56)

As a freestanding maxim, pecca fortiter advocates “cheap grace” because it makes itself out as an ethical statement. It does not respond to a question that has arisen. Instead it projects from itself the question “What should a follower of Jesus do?”

But, Bonhoeffer observes, this “means justification of sin, and it turns Luther’s formula into its very opposite” (56).

Pecca fortiter as a Response to a Question

On the other hand, pecca fortiter can be a response to a question that has already arisen and that demands an answer. It can and “is meant to be taken, not as the premiss, but as the conclusion, the answer to the sum, the coping-stone, his very last word on the subject” (56).

Pecca fortiter is not a premise but a conclusion. And as such, it is “backed,” “surrounded,” and contextualized by the life context that gives rise to pecca fortiter and demands it as an answer.

What is this life context? And how does it lead pecca fortiter away from being an ethical principle?

“For Luther,” Bonhoeffer comments,

“sin boldly” could only be his very last refuge, the consolation for one whose attempts to follow Christ had taught him that he can never become sinless …. Take courage and confess your sin, says Luther, do not try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. You are a sinner … and become a sinner … every day, but be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except to those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled by their daily faithlessness and sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ? (56–57)

Bonhoeffer asserts that this can happen only when pecca fortiter is backed up and surrounded by this commitment at the exhausted end of grace- and joy-filled striving in discipleship. Only then is pecca fortiter a statement not of license but of comfort, joy, and renewed summons in that same task.


Such dynamics are, of course, not unique to early 20th-century German Lutheranism. Our collective memory of why, how, and in what contexts particular doctrines matter can all too quickly become sadly amnesic.

But at the same time, simply being aware of the potential for problems along these lines can help us start looking for better ways to connect doctrines to their proper life contexts.

  1. Header image by the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute

  2. Anthony Thiselton, Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 38–39. 

  3. Thiselton, Hermeneutics of Doctrine, 20; see also 28–29. 

  4. Thiselton, Hermeneutics of Doctrine, 3–18, 38–39. 

  5. Here, I’m quoting and citing from the 1963 edition by Macmillan

What Is Essential?

There’s never a bad time to try to take stock of what lies ahead. But it can be particularly helpful as demands mount, as free time in your schedule wanes, or as it looks like either of these might be on the horizon..

How can you stay afloat? How can you avoid dropping balls as challenges ramp up?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. But, a helpful question to begin asking regularly is “What is essential?”

AltArrow on factory wall by Hello I’m Nik

The question “What is essential?” pushes in the direction of minimizing the excess in life. But it does so in a way that also asks us to keep hold of what has higher priority.

Rather than trying to fit more and more into a life with less and less margin, the question “What is essential?” asks us to reckon with the reality of limits—both as humans in general and as particular humans who each hold particular things to be important.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown reflects,

When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long, we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives. (16)

Of course, some of what we should choose deliberately is connecting with, enjoying relationships with, and serving our families, close friends, and others.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t do this. But for instance, the quite definite forces in the modern “attention economy” have very certain “agendas” that we can unwittingly “allow … to control our lives” in ways we wouldn’t choose if we were being deliberate.

And just by virtue of faithfulness to whatever calling we find on our lives or in a particular season, it behooves us to be mindful about the choices that we make and what we allow to become a priority such that it excludes or squeezes other important relationships, activities, and practices.

Whatever we’re called to do in any circumstance, it pretty safely isn’t, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, to be “always forced to decide between alternatives [we] have not chosen” because we’ve not exercised our responsibility to live intentionally (Prisoner for God, 175).

What questions or criteria do you find helpful in minimizing the non-essential?

Bates, “Salvation by allegiance alone” and some theological forebears

Bates, "Salvation by allegiance alone" coverOne of the new titles in the recent Baker catalog (due for release this month) is Matthew Bates’s Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. According to Michael Bird’s blurb,

Matthew Bates argues that faith or believing is not mere assent, not easy believism, but covenantal loyalty to the God who saves his people through the Lord Jesus Christ. Bates forces us to rethink the meaning of faith, the gospel, and works with a view to demonstrating their significance for true Christian discipleship. This will be a controversial book, but perhaps it is the controversy we need!

I haven’t read the volume yet, and the book’s apparent thesis will doubtless be controversial in some quarters as Bird suggests. But, this thesis is also something that definitely resembles prior thinking.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the formulation “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes”—because believing is a response to an announcement that has the nature of a command (Cost of Discipleship, 69–70). Or,  as Augustine suggested, the notion of faith may have two aspects:

We use the word in one sense when we say, “He had no faith in me,” and in another sense when we say, “He did not keep faith with me.” The one phrase means, “He did not believe what I said;” the other, “He did not do what he promised.” (On the Spirit and the Letter 31.54)

Or, indeed, in Romans, as sometimes is bypassed all too easily, part of Paul’s portrait of Abraham is precisely that his faith was also obedient: Abraham becomes the father not only of individuals within the scope of his biological descendants, but to all “those follow in the footsteps of the faith our father Abraham had while he was uncircumcised” (Rom 4:12; τοῖς στοιχοῦσιν τοῖς ἴχνεσιν τῆς ἐν ἀκροβυστίᾳ πίστεως τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἀβραάμ; cf. Rom 1:5, 3:31; Dunn, Romans, 211–12).

Nation on Bonhoeffer

The Baker YouTube Channel has a series of clips where Mark Thiessen Nation digest some of the main lines of the volume on Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Nation co-authored with Anthony Siegrist and Daniel Umbel. The individual clips are combined in the playlist below:

For more information about the volume (Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, 2013), please see the Baker website (HT: Mason Slater).

On the Web (July 22, 2012)

On the web:

  • Tokens makes available the final part of their interview with Walter Brueggemann.
  • Theological Studies has back issues from 5 years ago and beyond freely available online (HT: Charles Jones).
  • Michael Halcomb reflects on some of Albert Schweitzer’s comments on Christian scholars.
  • Tommy Keene highlights BibleArc.
  • has Gordon Fee’s PhD thesis available online (HT: Larry Hurtado).
  • Bavarian authorities are commissioning annotated editions of Mein Kampf in hopes of further defusing the work’s value for extremists’ use as it comes into the public domain.
  • Joel Willitts reflects on some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comments on “self forgiveness.”

The Christ of His Christ

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, "Anna Presenting Her Son Samuel to the Priest Eli"
Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, “Anna Presenting Her Son Samuel to the Priest Eli” (c. 1665; photo credit: Wikipedia)

In due order within The City of God’s longer discussion of Hannah’s prayer at Samuel’s dedication,1 Augustine arrives at the clause, “[a]nd [he] shall exalt the horn of His Christ” (1 Sam 2:10). Here, Augustine ponders:

How shall Christ exalt the horn of His Christ? For He of whom it was said above, “The Lord hath ascended into the heavens,” [1 Sam 2:10 LXX; 4QSama col. 2, line 33] meaning the Lord Christ, Himself, as it is said here, “shall exalt the horn of His Christ.” Who, therefore, is the Christ of His Christ? Does it mean that He shall exalt the horn of each one of His believing people, as [Hannah] says in the beginning of this hymn, “Mine horn is exalted in my God?” [1 Sam 2:1 LXX, Vg.] For we can rightly call all those christs who are anointed with His chrism, forasmuch as the whole body with its head is one Christ.2

Although Augustine does not appear to cite 1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17 in developing his interpretation of Hannah’s prayer, these texts may well be reading 1 Sam 2:10 [LXX; 4QSama col. 2, line 33] along a similar, Christological trajectory.3 Boasting is to be in Jesus alone, who has ascended into heaven and with whom the church is united as a “collective person[—as] ‘Christ existing as church-community.’”4

1. Augustine, Civ., 17.4 (NPNF1, 2:339–43).

2. Augustine, Civ., 17.4 (NPNF1, 2:343); cf., e.g., 1 Cor 6:14–17; 12:27; 1 John 2:20, 27; Justin, Dial., 86.

3. See J. David Stark, “Rewriting Prophets in the Corinthian Correspondence: A Window on Paul’s Hermeneutic,” BBR 22, no. 2 (2012): 236–38; J. Ross Wagner, “‘Not Beyond the Things Which Are Written’: A Call to Boast Only in the Lord (1 Cor 4.6),” NTS 44, no. 2 (1998): 283–86, for discussion.

4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (ed. Clifford J. Green and Joachim von Soosten; trans. Reinhard Kraus and Nancy Lukens; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 1; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 141; cf. Eph 1:15–23; 2:4–7; N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991), 41–55.