Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Jesus Christ is the Truth – Part 1

Part 1 of 2.

Dr. Richard Burnetts keynote lecture (part 1) at TM 2020.
Dr. Richard Burnetts keynote lecture (part 2) at TM 2020.

We chose the theme of this conference, “Confessing Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life in a Pluralistic Culture,” not because we wanted to be provocative, but simply because we wanted to understand it better. Yet confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life is considered provocative in today’s culture, and there are many reasons why––many social, political, cultural, historical, and philosophical reasons––and all of them are worth discussing. But since some of us here claim that theology matters, we believe our first priority is to try and understand what is stake here theologically. Rather than assuming we already know all there is to know, we ask: Is there something we have missed? Is there something else we need to know? Or is there something we need to know better about confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life?

I need hardly tell you gathered here that confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life is considered provocative today. Many of you know it all too well. You’ve likely not shed blood over it, but you “bear the marks,” as it were. And I hope you will discover––if you have not already––that you are not alone. I hope you discover that there is a deep fellowship among those who hold fast to this confession that can nourish, strengthen, and encourage you. And I hope you know this fellowship extends beyond those of us gathered here today.

The fact is confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life has always been provocative. It’s always been contested. It’s always been eventually opposed. Sooner or later in every culture it has always caused conflict. And nowhere has it been confessed for long without a price. The reason is because confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life has implications. And this morning I want to discuss our theme in light of a document that sought to face some of these implications; and, it’s worth mentioning, the price for those who did was high and, in many cases, could not have been higher. 

The Barmen Declaration, as many of you know, emerged out of a dark time in the world and a serious time of testing for the church. It was written under Hitler and adopted on May 31, 1934, by 139 delegates––eighty-six clergy and fifty-three lay members, including several lawyers, teachers, businessmen, three engineers, a couple aristocrats, one physician, one farmer, and one housewife. They were from both Lutheran and Reformed churches, who met in a small industrial city in Northwest Germany called Barmen. The Nazis had planned to interrupt their meeting, but they figured it would dissolve of its own discord as had happened before. This time they were wrong.[1]

The Barmen Declaration is widely recognized as the most important theological document of the twentieth century. I suspect it is. But I also believe it is one of the most misunderstood.[2] I want to emphasize––and can hardly emphasize enough––that it was written in a very different context and under very different circumstances than our own. I believe there is a lot to learn from the Barmen Declaration, but I also believe one should be careful about connecting dots between then and there and here and now. So, I ask you to try and understand it on its own terms and beg you not to try and reduce it too quickly simply to current politics or to matters of “prevailing political and ideological convictions.” In its third thesis, Barmen warns explicitly against allowing “prevailing political and ideological convictions” to distort the church’s message. But it issues this warning in light of a much deeper, more basic crisis and temptation. Indeed, leaders of the Barmen Synod claimed they were seeking to overcome a theological temptation “which for more than two hundred years had slowly prepared for the devastation of the Church.”[3] But to understand this crisis and temptation takes some effort.

Each of Barmen’s six articles seeks to address a specific temptation facing the church. Each begins with Scripture, is followed by an affirmation and then a rejection or refutation of a false belief. Article one seeks to name the deeper crisis and temptation facing the church and was considered the most controversial.

Here’s how it begins: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. … I am the door, if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9).

Next comes the affirmation: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

Then comes the rejection or refutation: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures, and truths, as God’s revelation.”

Barmen’s first article raises a basic question: What is the source of the church’s proclamation? What is the standard or rule by which church’s preaching is to be measured? By what yardstick, norm, or criterion is the church’s speech to be assessed? Or, to put it bluntly: On what basis, by what right, on what grounds does the church say what she says about anything? Where, finally and definitively, does the church get her understanding of truth?

Barmen’s first thesis says: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” He is the source and norm, the basis, rule, and standard of the church’s proclamation. He is what counts, first and last, as God’s revelation. He is the ultimate source, criterion, and standard of truth. He is “the Truth” (John 14:6), just as Scripture says.

Yet notice a couple things. Note not just any Jesus is asserted here, but “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture.” Many through the centuries have confessed Jesus Christ, but not all “as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture.” Many through the centuries have created a Jesus in their own image, and modern people not least among them. In his Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer said scholars since the 18th century had sought Jesus in the well of history and had tended simply to see their own reflection, that is, a Jesus who looked like them, who shared the same values as the culture from which they came. Unfortunately, Schweitzer’s Jesus is hardly different in this respect.[4] And the Nazis had their Jesus too, a heroic, Aryan Jesus, as did many ordinary Germans in the 1930s.[5] And, of course, they are not the only people to create a Jesus in their own image. Since “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory,” as Calvin says (Institutes 1.11.8), we are all likely guilty in one way or another of creating a Jesus to suit ourselves, which is why the clause, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture,” is so important.

Yet note what else is affirmed here: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Note the phrase, “the one Word of God.” The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. The Bible also teaches that Scripture, the writings of the prophets and apostles, is the Word of God. The Bible also teaches, as the Second Helvetic Confession puts it, that “the preaching is the Word of God is the Word of God.” So, one might legitimately ask, “How many Words of God are there?” “Three?” No. The Bible does not teach nor has the church ever taught that there are three Words of God. Rather there is one Word of God in three forms: incarnate, written, and preached.

This three-fold form of the Word is implicit in the statement, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear,” and the upshot is that we can’t understand one form of the Word without the others. We don’t know Jesus Christ apart from the Scriptures, and we don’t know the Scriptures apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). In short, the three forms of the Word of God relate like the three persons of the Trinity. Just as we cannot know the Father apart from the Son and the Spirit, or the Son apart from the Father and the Spirit, or the Spirit apart from the Father and the Son, so we cannot know one form of the Word without the other two.[6]

But why do you think confessing “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” was so important for some in Germany in 1934 yet so problematic for others? It’s because of the implications set forth in the refutation or “we reject” part of article one, which says: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures, and truths, as God’s revelation.”

With respect to confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life in a pluralistic culture, let me add that not many care as much in a pluralistic culture about what you affirm as what you reject. In first century Rome, for example, not many cared if you affirmed ‘Jesus is Lord.’ You could yell it to the top of your lungs. Not many cared. But if you said, ‘Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t,’ that could get you in real trouble. Thus, it was in Nazi Germany. Few cared if you said, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ But if saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ meant rejecting “other events and powers, figures, and truths,” it was another story.

What were these “other events and powers, figures, and truths” that were vying for recognition as God’s revelation in Germany in 1934? They have to do, of course, with what gave rise to Hitler and National Socialism. I’m sure many of you know about the political and economic circumstances preceding Hitler’s rise to power. You may also know that most Germans thought Hitler to be a decent, kind, moral, and courageous man, who won an Iron Cross in the War, who proclaimed the virtues of hard work, courage, discipline, and family values, and who preached against the greed, self-indulgence, and moral decadence spread by Western democracies through “the Roaring 1920s,” which he claimed had infected German culture like a disease. And if you’ve read Mein Kampf you know that Hitler railed against the barbarous collectivism and atheistic materialism of Communism in the East and radical individualism and decadent materialism of Capitalism in the West, both of which he claimed destroyed community and especially the values of the German people who were naturally a deeply spiritual people. Yes, as is widely known, Hitler talked a lot about the German people being bound by blood and soil, but he also proclaimed with equal vigor that they were a profoundly spiritual people.

But that’s not all. Hitler sold himself as a great defender of the church. In speech after speech he promised to protect the church, pledging, “I never will tie myself to parties who want to destroy Christianity.” Rather, he said, “We want to fill our culture again the Christian spirit, not just theoretically. No, we want to burn out the rotten developments in literature, in the theater, in the press––in short, burn out this poison which has entered into our whole life and culture during these past fourteen years.”[7]

Citing the Twenty-Fourth Article of the Nazi Party Platform, Hitler proclaimed: “The National Socialist government thinks the two Christian churches [Protestant & Catholic] are most important elements for the preservation of our national individual[ity]. … Their rights shall not be touched.” Privately, Hitler loathed the church. But publicly he said and did many things to demonstrate his loyalty to the church. After being sworn in as Chancellor, he boasted in a speech in Stuttgart on Feb. 16, 1933: “Today Christians and no international atheists stand at the head of Germany.”[8] Did you know that you could not be a member of the SS, if you were an atheist?[9] Hitler repudiated atheism and rarely missed an opportunity to invoke the name of “God Almighty.”[10]

My wife, Martha, and I have spent much of our lives trying to understand how so many “good people” were seduced by Nazism, not least so many otherwise thoughtful, pious, and faithful Christians, the majority, in fact. There are many reasons for this and many very complex. And the more we have studied them the more we’ve wondered what we would have done and marvel that so many stood so faithfully.

The German people, as you know, had experienced suffering, death, and devastation on a scale that is difficult for us to imagine, and then an equally devastating economic collapse. Yet more devastating was the guilt and shame many felt or were made to feel for their role in the war. Even Bonhoeffer had a speech he delivered repeatedly in America in 1929 and 1930, denouncing the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.[11]

The Nazi Party gained power not because the country was polarized, but because it had fragmented and fell into chaos. Hitler promised order. He told the German people they were not really to blame for the war. They were the victims, their cause had been just, their motives pure. And laced throughout his speeches he told them something that spoke deep to their hearts. He told them they were a very special people for whom God had very special plans. He reminded them of the glories of their past and their potential for the future.

It was not a hard sell. Who could deny the German people were not special? Who could deny their extraordinary gifts, talents, and contributions to this world, the strengths of their culture, the power of their universities? And why, they asked, were so many of the world’s greatest physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians German? Why were the world’s greatest composers German: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Shubert, Schumann, Wagner? How does one account for this?

Many claimed it could only be accounted for by one thing: the blood! There is something in the blood. Many claimed it could be demonstrated on scientific grounds. The scientific community had long been influenced by all sorts of eugenic theories, especially the medical community, and not only in Germany. Looking back, some of the things not only a minority in the German medical community believed, but what the majority believed, seem amazing.[12] They were, of course, seriously misguided. But it is hard to argue that many who embraced these ideas were not serious people. Certainly, many were not. Many such as Alfred Rosenberg expressed these ideas in particularly virulent form. And we can sweep them all aside as simply more or less sophisticated forms of racism. But may I share something that I find very disturbing? If you would have told them they were motivated by hate, they would’ve denied it, emphatically. On the contrary, most would’ve said they were motivated by love and not simply love for themselves but for the world. The argument, you see, went like this: “If what makes us special is in our blood and we’re going to keep giving the world such brilliance, leadership, and talent, then don’t we owe it to God and to the world to keep our blood pure?”

May I add here, parenthetically, that if we’re going to get at the root of racism, we’ve got to do more than simply tell people not to hate. We’ve got to get at what they love or love inordinately. … A topic for another day. But I hope you see that for them it was perfectly rational. And if you investigate these ideas and consider the events that began to unfold in Hitler’s rise to power and first year in office, you can begin to grasp the significance of Barmen’s warning.

So, what were these “events and powers, figures, and truths” vying for recognition as God’s revelation? They had to do with history, nature, and experience. Many felt under National Socialism that they were experiencing a national revival. Their sense of pride was being renewed. Their place in the world was being restored. Marvelous events were unfolding before their eyes. Against all odds, all the injustice of the world, and all the humiliation they had endured, the German people were proving again how special they were. Hitler simply whispered into their ears the myths they had made up about themselves and the world until they believed them, again. And now, from out of the ashes, the German race was lifting herself up again. Was history not proving again you can’t keep the German race down? Who could deny it? Was it not clear they were standing “on the right side of history”? Were they not experiencing a unique “moment in history”? Such views were expressed not merely by politicians but endorsed and underwritten by many within the church.

How do I know this? Because ten days after the Barmen Synod, June 11, other ministers and professors––including two of Germany’s greatest Luther scholars, Paul Althaus and Werner Elert––gathered in a Bavarian town called Ansbach and drafted a response to the Barmen Declaration. It’s called the Ansbach Counsel (or “Ansbacher Ratschlag”) and it represents one of the more nuanced statements of Nazified Christianity of its day. And for those who think the temptation facing the church at the time can be reduced more or less to issues under the familiar categories of left or right, liberal or conservative, or between those who believe the Bible and those who don’t, the Ansbach Counsel poses a problem. It simply doesn’t fit neatly either side, left or right, liberal or conservative. Rather it reflects aspects of both camps. As far as the Bible is concerned, the Ansbach Counsel’s first article begins with a rather firm, clear, and unambiguous affirmation of its authority. It states: “The church of Jesus Christ, as the workshop of the Holy Spirit, is bound to God’s Word. Therefore, its members are obliged in obedience to the Word of God.” Moreover, it adds: “In the confessions of our Evangelical-Lutheran Church we recognize the pure presentation of the content of Holy Scripture.”[13]

But it’s the third article I’d like to call your attention to and ask that you try and make an effort to understand it because it could really help you someday and those entrusted to your care. It states:

The unchangeable will of God meets us in the total reality of our life as it is illumined by God’s revelation.  It binds each person to the situation in which he is called by God, and obligates us to the natural orders to which we are subjected, such as family, people (Volk), race, i.e., blood relation.  We are in fact assigned to a certain family, a certain people, and a certain race. As the will of God always continues to meet us in the here and now, it also binds us to the specific historic moment of the family, the people, the race, i.e. to a specific moment in history.[14]

There are some remarkable phrases here: “natural orders,” “blood relation,” “assigned to a certain family, a certain people, and a certain race,” “binds us to the specific historic moment of the family, the people, the race, i.e. to a specific moment in history.” But the line I want to draw your attention to is the first one: “The unchangeable will of God meets us in the total reality of our life as it is illumined by God’s revelation.” 

What do you make of this statement? It starts so strong and authoritative, in speaking about “the unchangeable will of God.” But what do you make of what follows: “the unchangeable will of God meets us in the total reality of our life as it is illumined by God’s revelation”? What a marvelously expansive phrase, so broad and inclusive: “God meets us in the total reality of our life as it is illumined by God’s revelation.” But what does it actually mean? It’s vague. It’s ambiguous precisely because it fails to define what “God’s revelation” is. This is no accident.

This statement was written in direct opposition to Barmen’s first article: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Drafters of the Ansbach Counsel thought Barmen’s first article was too narrow, too restrictive, too exclusive in its understanding of revelation. Of course, there’s irony here that it was the Nazified Christians who wanted a broader, more inclusive understanding of revelation. They were particularly offended by Barmen’s statement, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures, and truths, as God’s revelation.”

Their problem was that Barmen didn’t leave room for other sources of revelation. The Nazified, half- or part-Nazified Christians wanted to affirm “other events and powers, figures and truths” as God’s revelation. They wanted to affirm other sources of revelation such as nature, history, and experience, and if not “apart from,” then at least “besides this one Word of God.” They wanted multiple sources of revelation. They wanted, in other words, more than one standard, one rule, one yardstick, one norm by which to measure the church’s proclamation. And, of course, this goes for the church’s ethics too. Jesus Christ alone as attested by scripture alone by grace alone through faith alone, as the Protestant Reformers had said, was too exclusive, too narrow.[15]

“Now,” you may say, “wait a minute. Might you be getting carried away here? Doesn’t God meet us in history, in nature, in our experiences, in ‘the total reality of our life’?” Sure, he does! Why not? But how would you know it? How would you know it was him apart from and besides Jesus Christ as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture? Sure, God can speak to us through many means. Karl Barth wrote: “God may speak to us through Russian communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does.”[16] But how would we know it was him, the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost apart from Jesus Christ as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture?”

Do you see what is at stake here? How many of you have heard people say––perhaps in your own congregation––something like this: “Can we really know the mind of God? God is so mysterious. God is ineffable. God is beyond words”? Did you know Augustine had some of the same folk in his congregation? And do you know what he told them? He said: “Do not say that God is ineffable for that is to say something about God.”[17] In other words, Yes, God is mysterious! Sure, he is beyond words! But how do you know? How do you know God is beyond words except through words, that is, apart from God telling you with words? Or did you find out from a hummingbird whispering something in your ear? If so, what language did the hummingbird use?

“Okay,” perhaps you’re asking, “but is this really such a problem?” I’ll grant you it took me a while to understand this. You see, we had a professor in seminary who said that he had learned as much about God listening to Bruce Springsteen than from reading the Bible or from anything he’d heard in church. I was sort of surprised by this statement. I found it strange. Of course, I heard a lot of strange things in seminary. But I hadn’t really listened to Bruce Springsteen. Was I missing something? What did I know? I was from North Carolina. This was New Jersey. They think a lot of Bruce Springsteen up there. I didn’t go out buy any of his music and didn’t think much more about this professor’s claim. But later, when I was a pastor, I soon began to hear folk say things such as: “Well, Preacher, I’ll be honest with you, I can worship God as well standing on a seashore or watching a sunset or sitting in a deer stand as I can in any church” or “Preacher, I’ve learned more about God from my mother or grandmother, than anything I’ve read in the Bible or heard in church.” And then it dawned on me. Maybe so! Maybe they have learned more about God from nature, their mother, or Bruce Springsteen (I don’t know what they were doing when they were reading the Bible or in church). But the real issue, you see, is not where we learn more or less about God, but where we learn the one thing necessary, the Truth! The truth about God. This is not a more or less question.

You and I may learn all sorts of things about God by many different means but how would we know they are true––and what difference would it make––unless we know the truth about God, namely, that he loves us and sent his Son to die for us in order that we might live with him forever? And to be sure, you and I did not learn this ––and we would never have learned this––merely sitting on a deer stand, standing on a seashore, or watching a sunset, as inspiring as these experiences may be.

Paul proclaims: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (1 Cor. 2:9). You and I may learn all sorts of things about God by different lights, including “the light of nature,” but how would we know they are true apart from him who Scripture calls “the true Light” of this world? How would we know their true significance until we knew “all things were created through and for him” and “and in him all things hold together” (Col.1:16–17)? “He is the source of your life” (1 Cor. 1:30), Paul says. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col.3:3).

Do you understand what is at stake here? I can learn all sorts things about you and you can learn all sorts of things about me––all sorts facts, all sorts of truths––and yet I still won’t know you and you still won’t know me. I can watch you. I can look you up on the internet, and even talk with you, and still not know you. I will not know you until you reveal yourself, your true essence. And the same goes for the Bible. You and I can know all sorts of things about the Bible and still not know what the Bible is about. We can know all sorts of facts, all sorts of truths about the Bible, and still not know the truth of the Bible, Jesus Christ, its Living Center, of whom the Old Testament speaks in expectation and the New Testament in fulfillment. And you and I can know all sorts of things about God––his “power and divinity” (Rom. 1:20), for example––and still not know God.

The point I’m trying to make is that Jesus Christ is not just one truth among others. He is the Truth, the standard by which all others are measured. “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

Why is this important? Why should you and I care? There are many reasons, not least of which have to do with who you and I are. You see, there are “still other events and powers, figures, and truths” in this world vying for recognition and acknowledgementthat claim powerful authority in defining my being and yours.

They arevying for recognition and acknowledgement even in the church and among Christians today “apart from and besides this one Word of God.”They have to do with interpretationsof our nature, experience, and moment in history, which are being canonized today as ultimately decisive, definitive, and incontrovertible truths of my being and yours. They function in effect as sources of revelation and thereby compete with, if not challenge and undermine, the claim that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

Please don’t misunderstand me: nature, history, and experience can teach us a lot. And, of course, we can learn a lot from our mothers and grandmothers. My mother is here today, and may I tell you one thing she taught me? She taught me, “Son, life is too short to have to learn everything by experience.” In other words, “Better figure out what you believe.” A pretty good lesson, I’d say, and I’m very grateful to her for it.

So, to be sure, I don’t deny that nature, history, and experience can teach us a lot. I don’t deny or wish to underestimate the power of nature or nurture. I don’t dispute or wish to minimize the influence of our genes or experiences. Nor do I deny there are certain immutable aspects of our being that we may refer as truths of our being. I don’t deny that there are many truths about your life and mine.

Some truths may be difficult to reconcile with others, especially as some of us––no, all of us––have been broken in one way or another and in various ways. But the question I’m asking is: What is the truth of your life?

Ultimately, one cannot live from many truths. One can live truly from only one truth. Certainly, there’s a relationship between the truth and the truths of our lives, and I want to talk more about that next time. But today I simply ask you to consider one thing: What is the truth of your life?

John Calvin teaches we will never know the truth about ourselves until we know the truth about God. The truth about God is that He is our Redeemer, that Jesus Christ is our Savior.

What is the truth of my life? Calvin and his contemporaries confessed it is the same as “our only comfort in life and in death,” namely,

That I belong––body and soul, in life and in death–– not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.  Heidelberg Catechism, Q.1.A.1

This is one implication of confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, the life, and that’s enough for today.

Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett
The Reverend Richard E. Burnett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Managing Editor of Theology Matters.


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