Bonhoeffer on the Sermon on the Mount

This is the fundamental presupposition of the whole Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus manifests his perfect union with the will of God as revealed in the Old Testament law and prophets.  He has in fact nothing to add to the commandments of God, except this, that he keeps them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 122.

God is [the law’s] giver and its Lord, and only in personal communion with God is the law fulfilled.  There is no fulfillment of the law apart from communion with God, and no communion with God apart from fulfillment of the law.  To forget the first condition was the mistake of the Jews, and to forget the second, the temptation of the disciples.

Ibid., 122-123

In(habit) – What?

The story of the Exodus serves as the formative narrative or shaping story of God’s people. The story reminds us that God rescued us from slavery in order that we might live differently. He did not reach out His strong right hand, strike our task masters with plagues, and lift us out of bondage in order that we might continue to make mud bricks!

When the lives of Christians appear no different from those of the world—when we follow the American Way instead of the Jesus Way—we are freedmen working as slaves. It is no wonder we feel dissatisfied, discouraged, depressed, listless, lost, hopeless, and purposeless! God’s plan for us is that having been delivered from the darkness of the world’s way, we might be a city set on a hill, a light that cannot be hidden, a colony of heaven—that we might form neighborhoods of hope in the midst of a culture of despair.

The unfortunate reality in the twenty-first century United States of America is that God’s hope for His people has not been realized. Indeed, the most notable difference between most Christians and their unbelieving neighbors is how we spend our Sunday mornings. Regrettably, for an increasing number of us, even this slight distinction is quickly disappearing.

A host of ills beset our society and the prevalence of these problems among believers is not statistically different than among secular society (and is sometimes worse). The Church must forsake its lethargy. Alarm bells are sounding, but it remains to be seen whether we will rise in response.

In(habit) exists to enable and equip those who heed the call of the Gospel message: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As a Body, we have a greater purpose, a cosmic calling, and only as we act on our responsibility to partner with God in the healing of the world will we find our own individual lives resonating with purpose.

In(habit) is a non-denominational, mentoring organization dedicated to the education and formation of Christian disciples in order that they might recover, create, and practice Christian traditions in the context of community; traditions that enable the living out, or the inhabiting, of the Gospel.

Appropriate traditions will enable us to live out God’s commands in this time and place. Tradition often gets a bad rap in today’s world, but without it we could not function. What’s more, without a collection of consistent practices we will be unable to successfully reflect God’s image to the watching world, because we don’t reflect as individuals so much as we reflect as a Body.

Everywhere and always, wherever there have been believers, tradition has been a part of the three-legged stool that supports the lives, decisions, and practices of God-followers.

The three legs of that stool are Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. All three are used under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit to form the basis of our decision-making. The Scriptures are the words of God, written by the pens of men as they were carried along by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Throughout time the community of the faithful has continually recognized and affirmed the inspired nature of these words, and they came to be known to us as Scripture—the inerrant and reliable words of God to us His children.

These words, however, were written to different cultures than our own, they were written between 2000 and 3000 years ago, to people who spoke different languages, and lived in a different part of the world under very different conditions than our own. As a result, in the process of wrestling with the meaning and significance of these very words of God, we consult the way that believers who went before us understood and applied them. The practices of those who have passed on are known as Tradition.

Tradition, by its very nature, is a flexible, changing collection of practices. They exist to aid in the honoring and observing of God’s way, and they vary from location to location, from time to time, and from society to society.  Consequently, we must use our Reason to contemplate the words of Scripture and the history of Tradition in seeking to ensure that our practices continue to serve the same purpose for which they were created.

It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle that is obedience to our Father, God. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results—a new law is created.

The vision of In(habit) is to transcend denominational differences and find common ground among believers as it relates to the practice of the Gospel message. We seek to provide a formative educational experience that will yield a common vision of God’s design for His people in the world.

It is our hope that with a shared vision Christians will be able to join together with common intention to both recover and create common methods for using the zeal we so often encounter among faithful disciples. In other words, if we agree on the goal, perhaps we can develop common traditions. Common traditions will make Christ’s prophecy, “they will know you by your love” a reality. (Click here, if you would like to explore the concept of Tradition further.)

We have hundreds of organizations offering opportunities to reach out to the poor, the widows and the orphans but our question is why are these organizations on the margins of church life and Christian society? In(habit) will be an organization dedicated to teaching/spreading the theological necessity of practicing “pure and undefiled religion”, and to spreading the patterns of living that will enable this to transcend organizations or programs and become a persistent lifestyle.

In other words, we have many great opportunities for reaching out to the margins, but how do we convince believers of the necessity of living in community? Communities that are colonies of heaven here on earth; foretastes of all that creation groans in expectation of. How do we ensure that those believing communities modify their very lifestyles in such a way that reaching out to the poor, widow and the orphan becomes embedded in the fabric of their life?

Perhaps even more importantly, how do we ensure that these believing communities practice a model that makes reaching out to the margins as a pattern of life viable? Because our current model of doing church,

  1. is not a community,
  2. does not have common patterns of life, and
  3. cannot sustain a thorough, prolonged support of the poor, widow and orphan.

The brilliance of God’s cultural model for Israel, as found in the first five books of the Bible, is that it accomplished all of these goals in a sustainable fashion. But if our theology considers the Torah “done away with” and no longer pertinent, we ignore God’s design for His people, and fail to wrestle with how we appropriate His model for this time and place.

Our truncated theology must be repaired. We must learn to say:

We believe the Bible is a revelation of the righteousness of God, and a description of the lifestyle of the redeemed community throughout history. While God’s commandments are to be considered prescriptive, we acknowledge that they require adaptation from generation to generation.

In(habit) exists to teach the necessity and the meaning of this creedal statement, and to assist in the process of adaptation; the process of recovering, creating, and practicing Christian traditions.

It is not In(habit)’s goal to urge believers toward switching churches, nor toward starting new ones. Rather we exist to urge believers to engage more deeply in their existing congregation. It is our hope that people connected with In(habit) will be their pastor’s hopes and prayers come true; that we will see a higher percentage of believers well-equipped to be teachers, elders, mentors and disciplers as a result of In(habit)’s efforts.

Stay tuned for In(habit) – How?

Exploring Tradition

All understanding, whether of history, art, or the Bible, is attainable only within a tradition.”

Regardless of denomination, all Christians, conscious of it or not, adhere to certain traditions. These can take the form of more formal, well-known traditions such as reciting the Lord’s Payer during service, or they can be less obvious traditions such as attending a Sunday morning service at 11:00 a.m. Some congregations use a particular translation of the Bible, host a pot-luck meal the second Sunday of each month, or even conduct small-groups on Tuesday evenings.

It may not be customary to consider these “traditions,” but they are. Consider them from the angle of a question addressed to your child: “What was your upbringing like?” These common practices are created to fulfill a certain congregation’s mission. For example, if the church wants to reach a younger crowd, they may construct a more contemporary service for Sunday mornings, or start a service on Saturday evening. Similarly, if a church wants its congregants to become more familiar with the creeds of the early church, they may begin reciting them together during their service and establish a new class on church history.

As it relates to the Scriptures, how, for example, is a believer to minister to the orphan and widow (cf. James 1:27)? There is very little practical direction to this command. This is where Tradition plays its role. A congregation may create a ministry of some kind specially geared to house orphans. Within this ministry, certain things will be put in place in order to facilitate the fulfilling of this commandment. Over time, these practical applications of God’s instructions may need to be adjusted in order to continue to meet the needs of the orphans and the ultimate purpose of the ministry. The adjustment of the original tradition is needed, while at the same time the principle to take care of the orphans and widows continues to be maintained.

Even those who maintain anti-tradition stances are in reality only establishing new traditions to replace those they have discarded.

It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle to maintain obedience to our Father, God. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results—a new law is created.  This is how Tradition has acquired negative connotations.  Tradition is good; Tradition is needed.  But, when Tradition becomes Law, danger is close at hand—discernment, community, and the Spirit of God keep the balance—which is another way of expressing the application of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.

“Nobody can claim to be detached from traditions. In fact, one sure way to be swallowed up by traditionalism is to think that one is immune to it. . . . The question, then, is not whether we have traditions, but whether our traditions conflict with the only absolute standard in these matters: Holy Scripture.”

–       J.I. Packer, “The Comfort of Conservatism” in Power Religion, ed. Michael Horton (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), p.p. 286-87

* hat-tip to Joel Usina for his work on this post.

Joshua A. Berman, “Introduction,” The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, Umberto Cassuto (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2006), XX.

The Background of Public Education

Many Americans are likely unaware that the public schools in this country were founded on a similar vision. This is especially true in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth. Public school advocates preached a message of cultural disaster if children were not raised in a common culture. Concern over the assimilation of immigrant children fueled the sense of crisis, but more was at stake. John Dewey, one of the most influential figures in the development of the public school ideal, explicitly argued that children should be educated in public schools so that the schools could help them break with the traditions and perspectives of their parents.


The Importance of Hospitality

Mishnah Avot 5:10   

There are four sorts of people.:

(1) He who says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” —this is the average sort.

(2) “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine”—this is a boor.

(3) “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours”—this is a truly pious man.

(4) “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine”—this is a truly wicked man.1

Sounds pretty straightforward, eh? Until you realize that I left a small parenthetical statement out of line 1. The redactor of the Mishnah adds regarding the one who says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”:

(And some say, “This is the sort of Sodom.”).

Now that throws one back on your heels a bit! It would be one thing if the wicked man was described as the sort of Sodom, but for someone who simply claims what’s mine is mine to be described this way, is another thing entirely!

Where did the rabbis get this idea? We are accustomed to thinking of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as being sexual, but Ezekiel tells us:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. (Eze 16:49)

So it sounds like the sin that brought judgement on Sodom was inhospitality. This seems to agree with Jesus’ comment in the Gospel of Matthew:

And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. (Matt. 10:14-16)

Perhaps we need to rethink how much importance we give to the description of the primitive church in Acts 4.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (Acts 4:32)

[1]Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 687.