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Christoph Blumhardt

From a friend of a friend:



I have been exploring http://www.plough.com/topics/Blumhardts.html and have come across the person of Christoph Blumhardt. Anyone of you heard of him? He is tied up somehow with the Bruderhof. I am about to track down his book called “Action in Waiting” which I have found in the USQ library catalogue. Here’s some info from the website:



Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919) was an original. There is no one quite like him. He is not easy to characterize – theologically, politically, or otherwise. He was at home nowhere – he belonged neither to church circles nor to secular ones. He was an embarrassment to Christians and non-Christians alike. He seemed to challenge and disconcert everyone. And yet he possessed a strange confidence in God’s history; a confidence that inspired hope in many, and continues to do so even today.



Blumhardt possessed no theories and certainly no “theology.” Without founding a school or wanting to attract disciples, he pointed in a direction that had a striking influence on those who came after him. He was behind two movements that accepted him as one of their forerunners without having any direct contact with them: Religious Socialism (in Switzerland and Germany) and Dialectical (“Crisis”) Theology.



His ideas had seminal influence on Leonhard Ragaz, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Harvey Cox, Jacques Ellul, and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger.



There are movements today like the rapidly growing Vineyard Church that seize Blumhardt and his father as two of their most cherished witnesses – forerunners of today’s outbreak of signs and wonders. In Blumhardt we have a demonstration of kingdom power combined with repentance, a power that has become commonplace among many charismatic and Pentecostal movements.



Despite his legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown – especially in America. This is, for instance, his only book currently in print in English. True, efforts have been made in the past to make him better known. But without much effect. Unlike some of his contemporaries – Charles Finney or William Booth, for example – Blumhardt is known only to a very few.



In a piece written for The Christian Century in 1969, Vernard Eller suggests that part of the reason for Blumhardt’s obscurity is that his message was neither literary nor scholarly enough to quote from. In his book Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader (Eerdmans, 1980), Eller attempted to rectify this. Unfortunately, the book never received much attention.



But there is perhaps a more basic reason. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity. As Johannes Harder once wrote, “Anyone who wants to fit Blumhardt into the history of theology might place him into an appendix to Gottfried Arnold’s History of Heresy.”



It was Blumhardt’s conviction that the greatest of all dangers to human progress was “Christianity” – Sunday religion that separated material existence from the spiritual and that erected rituals and practices of self-seeking, self-satisfying, other-worldly piousness instead of practical works of righteousness.



Blumhardt didn’t care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.



To many people, Blumhardt’s message sounded dangerously worldly, even irreverent. In fact, the established church of his day retaliated by casting suspicion on him, and slandering and maligning him. His message touched a nerve that is still raw today.



Blumhardt’s aim, however, was never to attack. What ruled his whole thinking was the kingdom of God – the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. This kingdom is neither a formal constitution nor an ideal. It is a movement that belongs to the future but impinges upon the present. It is humankind’s truest history, and will be demonstrably victorious in the end. It confronts everything that has ever been thought, planned, or built; it opposes all institutions, monuments, and ideologies. It always seeks the different, the new, and encompasses the whole of life.



Such a broad view of God’s redemptive work pushes hard against the boundaries of traditional Christianity. And this could well be the real reason why Blumhardt’s thought, though seminally forceful among an important few, has never had broad appeal.



We will return to this theme of the kingdom. Before we do, however, we must understand how concrete, how living this reign of God was for Blumhardt. Blumhardt was no visionary. His thought grew from his experience, not from theology. God’s kingdom was something living for him, not an abstraction. It filled his being with the vividness of direct personal experience.



To appreciate this one must turn to Blumhardt’s father, Johann Christoph (1805-1880). Blumhardt’s father was the minister of Möttlingen, a small town at the edge of the Black Forest. His work followed the same course as that of any rural pastor until he came in touch with a girl by the name of Gottliebin Dittus. Gottliebin suffered from an illness perhaps similar to demonic possession as described in the New Testament. For months Father Blumhardt watched with distress the increasing suffering and torment of this young woman. Feeling something dark at work in her, he finally took up the fight with the power of darkness. In the year in which his son Christoph was born, in 1842, he exclaimed: “We have seen enough of what the devil can do. Let us now see the power of the Lord Jesus.” The fight against the demonic stronghold commenced and lasted two years. The dark power was finally broken and conquered, and the evil spirit driven out. Gottliebin was completely healed of all bodily and spiritual misery. The fight ended in victory with the words from her lips, “Jesus is victor! Jesus is victor!”



As a consequence of this victory a movement of repentance swelled, taking hold of Blumhardt’s whole parish and extending to the neighboring towns and villages. From all sides people streamed to Father Blumhardt. The inbreaking of kingdom power transformed the entire village of Möttlingen. There were healings, confessions, conversions. Marriages were saved, enemies reconciled. A strange new manifestation of God’s world took sway. From this time on, Father Blumhardt’s rallying cry was “Jesus is victor!” It was in this strangely moved world that his son Christoph grew up.



For a number of reasons, opposition to Blumhardt’s father gradually increased, particularly from other ministers and the state church authorities. Local clergy complained about the flight of their parishioners to Blumhardt. Soon the parsonage could not accommodate the numbers of people who were beginning to stream to him. He thus began to look for a place where there would be both more room and greater freedom. When Christoph was only ten, the family moved to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. This became a kind of retreat center, a place to which people could have recourse for periods of rest, meditation, study, and pastoral counsel – and a place where the father Blumhardt was free to operate according to God’s leading.



The father Blumhardt spent the rest of his life in Bad Boll, and his son spent most of his adult life there. Thousands came to his father to experience the healing and strengthening of Christ’s victory. This was Christoph’s experience and his foundation. It is no surprise that the amazing experiences of his father engraved themselves indelibly upon Christoph’s soul, compelling him forward along the same path.



In Bad Boll, the young Christoph found himself in the midst of a stream of people seeking help, coming from all classes, nationalities, and countries, and in the midst of the work of his father’s constant, fervent struggle for God’s kingdom. In time he felt called to the ministry himself, and after some years he was permitted to support his father as an assistant. When his father called him to Bad Boll as his helper, however, he only wanted to make himself useful around the house in the most menial ways; perhaps as a cook’s helper. For some reason he lacked his father’s certainty. He had yet to personally take up the fight that his father had undertaken. But the death of Gottliebin Dittus, in 1872, became a turning point for him and the entire household at Bad Boll. It drove everybody to a fresh experience of deep repentance, releasing in Christoph a renewed confidence in God’s call. His father’s last words, spoken on his deathbed in 1880, commissioned Christoph to carry on: “I give you a blessing for victory.”



Blumhardt undertook his father’s work in deep humility. Equipped with his father’s spirit, he too experienced great demonstrations of the Spirit and of power. But Blumhardt could not stop at these happenings. For him, the gospel proved to be full of life, and this bade him to go other ways than his father. It was not long before he was out of the church entirely. His exit was in part due to his own wish, and in part due to the wish of the church authorities. Eventually, and with much struggle, he broke with all the outward forms of church life, clerical robe and all. Theology, religious factions, and even the different confessions all meant the same thing to him: all were based on human symbols, arrangements, and pride – the flesh.



Blumhardt also became frustrated with the constant attention people placed on healing. As happened in the time of Jesus, “miracles” became the main thing for many people in Bad Boll. He consciously fought against this. He was determined to keep Bad Boll from becoming an institution for faith healing. “There is a lie that turns everything in the direction of exploiting the mercy and grace of God in such a way that the Savior then becomes our servant,” he once wrote in a letter to someone asking for his help. For Blumhardt, the conquest of sickness was subservient to God’s kingdom. “To be cleansed is more important than to be healed.”



It wasn’t until Blumhardt was causing a sensation on his mission journeys in Germany and Switzerland that he came to seriously question the whole direction of his work. After his return from Berlin in March of 1888, Blumhardt not only retired from his public preaching activity, but his healing of sickness also receded. He felt misunderstood by those who flocked to him: “I am terribly sorry that people say I am a famous preacher. I don’t want to be a speaker before you. I am no speaker at all, nor do I want to be one. I want to be a man of experience. I do not merely want these things to be spoken about. I want to stand before you as a witness!”



He believed that possessing a heart for God’s cause was the surest sign of God’s kingdom, not numbers or healings. For Blumhardt, God’s love carried not only the burdens of individuals, but also of those bound in the shackles of poverty. In time, Blumhardt’s whole heart was opened to the wretchedness and sin of the world. A burning desire arose within him for God’s justice, and this led him to a deeper awareness of the misery, the poverty, and the inequity around him in Germany and in the world. Because of this, he sensed God’s voice in the new movements of protest and revolt – against injustice, capitalism, against war. He saw longings of hope in the great social movements of his day. “The struggle of millions in our time is not a coincidence. It is related to the struggle of the apostles – these are signs of our Lord Jesus Christ.”



In the time of the prophets, even pagan peoples like the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, and heathen kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were in God’s service. Blumhardt began to wonder why a socialist movement that aimed to help humanity couldn’t also serve as an instrument in God’s hand. Despite socialism’s foibles and shortcomings, Blumhardt believed that Christ was surely hidden in it.



Still following in his father’s footsteps, Blumhardt concerned himself more and more with the reality of present-day society. He finally left the “conventicle” in Bad Boll and went into the streets to support the labor movement, which was making itself heard. Bad Boll would cease to be a “place of sermons,” in order to become a “place for true life.” Blumhardt stood virtually alone among people in the churches in this feeling for the need of the masses. When he joined the Social Democrats (and acted as their elected representative to the Württemberg parliament from 1900-1906) it was as though he was under banishment. He was asked to renounce his position as a pastor in the state of Württemberg. The organized churches marked him as an outcast. Blumhardt accepted this as a freeing: “State and church are no soil for the fire of God.”



However, Blumhardt’s outlook did not hang on the hopes of socialism alone in these years. All that moved in the masses, as well as in nature, came under the light of the kingdom. Blumhardt saw plenty of signs in science and the economy that could be received as messengers of a future epoch of tremendous change. He endeavored to read the signs of the times and was convinced that Christ wanted to break into the world situation to free those gripped by its degenerative powers.



Blumhardt’s spiritual radicalism meant a social commitment. If God’s kingdom penetrated all of creation, then so should our witness: “The kingdom of God is taking on colossal dimensions these days. We have to come out of our little rooms, out of our isolation. The kingdom comes into the streets, where the poorest live, the outcasts, the miserable. There the kingdom of God comes. It extends into the heavens and into hell, and to all peoples.”



This kingdom is anything but religion. It is certainly not Christianity. Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world; the rulership of God over all reality. In his view, heaven and personal salvation were not the aim of history. God is not concerned that we get into heaven; rather, heaven must come down to earth. “Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”



The idea that God is only in heaven and that the application of the gospel was only for the inner life was disastrous, according to Blumhardt. Not our blessedness first, but the kingdom of God. Not our profit (here or hereafter), but the honor of God. Or, as Leonhard Ragaz once put it in summarizing Blumhardt’s thought, “From religion to God’s kingdom, from the church to a redeemed world, from me to God.” This all-encompassing vision ultimately led Blumhardt back to Bad Boll.



Blumhardt was never really a politician. Only by circumstance was he forced into formally joining the Social Democratic party. Originally he did not even want to become a regular party member. Though received with open arms, in the long run he did not find the party to be ground in which a witness to the gospel could have full effect. He said: “The social movement as we see it today still belongs to the world that will pass. It does not contain the fellowship of men as it will one day come through God’s spirit.” Therefore, after his first term he was led back through a long, serious illness into the peace of Bad Boll. In 1917 Blumhardt suffered a stroke; he died peacefully two years later, on August 2, 1919.



Blumhardt was unrelenting in his fight against churchiness – against dogmatic, institutional, and pious Christianity – precisely because he was consumed with the coming reign of God. For him, this gospel of the kingdom opposes all religiousness. It demands a fundamental change, a revolution of life. Jesus was no teacher of doctrine, no divine example of heavenly virtue. He both taught and lived out God’s new world. He was the initiator of a new age; a new society where God’s justice and healing is established. His final coming is but a completion of what he has begun. His death sealed the fight against the powers of the old world, his resurrection was the victorious dawning of the new world – the beginning of a new epoch in history, a new morning of creation – and his return is its consummation.



Despite misunderstanding, despite much opposition, Blumhardt was a man of unwavering hope. For him the gospel was the good tidings of the future day of Christ. “The Savior is coming!” What mattered to him, in the end, was God’s coming kingdom; a reality not to be confused with any human philosophy of progress. This kingdom is not self-created human betterment. It is certainly for the world, but not from it. Neither political endeavors nor Christian piety will bring in the kingdom. “Not through our faith, through our prayer nor our piety, but through the deeds of God will the future city of God be revealed.”



This did not mean that those who await Christ’s future should just place their hands in their laps and do nothing. Far from it! The powers of the future are already here, and God’s people must live in these powers, responding to them, letting them grow. In this sense, according to Blumhardt, our deepest service is to wait for God’s action. We must both wait for and hurry toward the coming of Christ. In spite of all necessary activity on our part, we must trust that in our strivings God’s kingdom will overcome every obstacle.



From this expectation, Blumhardt believed that a people of Christ should gradually be gathered – gathered to wait, gathered to live together in the powers of the future. “God always wants to have a place, a community, which belongs genuinely to him, so that God’s being can dwell there. God needs such a place from where he can work for the rest of the world. There must be a place on the earth, a Zion, from where the sun of God’s kingdom shines forth.” In Christ, the old creation is to yield to the new as the night yields to the dawning day.



This “waiting” involves a kind of double movement. As Vernard Eller explains: “We are to give ourselves completely to the cause of the kingdom, do everything in our power to help the world toward that goal. At the same time, however, we are to remain calm and patient, unperturbed even if our efforts show no signs of success. Far from being inactivity, this sort of waiting is itself a tremendously strong and creative action in the very hastening of the kingdom.”



As one hears the message of Blumhardt, there is a sense that truth is being served in a timeless way. Perhaps this is because for Blumhardt, Jesus is rising now; Jesus is victorious now; the kingdom of God is breaking in now! The fabric of God’s kingdom-vision spans time and brings together unlikely witnesses who have been blessed to see the Real despite the illusions of their day.






Discussion

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  1. […] A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity. […]

    Posted by Heaven Touching Earth: Christoph Blumhardt and the Kingdom Rule of God | Making History Now | May 19, 2016, 2:13 am
  2. […] A post on the John Mark Ministries blogconsiders the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jrgen Moltmann theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger.Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown.To begin with, Blumhardts life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity. […]

    Posted by The Church and the Kingdom: the Blumhardts and the Victorious Christ | Making History Now | March 9, 2016, 9:26 pm
  3. […] A post on the John Mark Ministries blogconsiders the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Leonhard Ragaz, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Harvey Cox, Jacques Ellul, and Jrgen Moltmann theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger.Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown.To begin with, Blumhardts life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity. […]

    Posted by Heaven Touching Earth: Christoph Blumhardt and the Kingdom Rule of God | Making History Now | February 27, 2014, 10:34 pm