Category Archives: Theology Quotes

Reinhold Niebuhr on moral motivation 

Preachers who are in danger of degenerating into common scolds might learn a great deal from H’s preaching style. I am not thinking now of the wealth of scholarship which enriches his utterances but of his technique in uniting religious emotion with aspiration rather than with duty. If he wants to convict Detroit of her sins he preaches a sermon on “the City of God,” and lets all the limitations of this get-rich-quick metropolis emerge by implication. If he wants to flay the denominationalism of the churches he speaks on some topic which gives him the chance to delineate the ideal and inclusive church.

On the whole, people do not achieve great moral heights out of a sense of duty. You may be able to compel them to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language.

from Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929), 92.

Joseph Sittler on preaching beyond personal experience

It is only honest to say that I have never known fully that kind of life within the full, warm power of that faith for whose declaration I am an ordained minister. The very term “Christian experience” as generally understood, has small meaning for me. I have not seen any burning bushes. I have not pounded at the door of God’s grace with the passion of a Martin Luther. John Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart at Aldersgate Street—this is not my street. I have not the possibility to say of the Christian faith what many honest persons have said about it. But I have come to see that to declare as a gift of God that which I do not fully possess is, nevertheless, a duty of obedience. Is the opulence of the grace of God to be measured by my inventory? Is the great catholic faith of nineteen centuries to be reduced to my interior dimensions? Are the arching lines of the gracious “possible” to be pulled down to the little spurts of my personal compass? Is the great heart of the reality of God to speak in only the broken accent that I can follow after? No. That ought not to be. Therefore, one is proper and right to sometimes talk of things one doesn’t know all about. In obedience to the bigness of the story which transcends personal apprehension, one may do this.

from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 50-51.

Rowan Williams on self-judgment

Bonhoeffer writes [in a poem on his imprisonment], “They often tell me / I would step from my cell’s confinement / calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / like a squire from his country-house.” … But the poem is about the great gulf between what “they” see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside: the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. “So which is me?” Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person they see, or the person I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am is in the hands of God. … It goes beyond the assumption that I am only what I see or know. It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill. It tells me to hope in “what is unseen”…, in the one who doesn’t need to be told about how human beings work because he knows the human heart.

From Being Disciples (Eerdmans, 2016), 29-30.

Michael J. Buckley on Weakness

For there is a different question, one proper to any form of Christian ministry: Is this person weak enough to be a servant of the gospel of Christ? [81]

What is meant by weakness? Not the experience of sin. Indeed, almost its opposite. Weakness is the experience of a peculiar liability for suffering; a profound sense of inability both to do and to protect; an inability, even after great effort, to author or to perform as we should want, to effect what we had determined; an inability to succeed with the completeness that we might have hoped for. Weakness is the openness to the humiliations and sufferings that issue in the inability to secure one’s own future, to protect ourselves from any adversity, to live with easy clarity and assurance, or to ward off shame, pain, and even interior anguish. [84]

Weakness is the context for the epiphany of the Lord; it is the night in which he appears — not always as felt reassurance, but more often as a hidden power to continue, faithful even when one does not feel the strength, even when fidelity means simply putting one foot in front of the other. [88]

from What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise (Eerdmans, 2016)

Heinrich Müller on Little Sins

You only combat the great sins and do not want to be called a murderer, thief, or adulterer, so that you have no shame before the world. Meanwhile, little sins, which you do not observe, put your flesh to the test. You love the company of people, follow the example of their elegant, costly clothing, share with them a friendly joke about this or that thing, thereby being wounded in your heart, though you are not aware of the wounds. Your former zeal for Christianity decays gradually, dies away within you, until finally it happens that you die an eternal death from the wounds. See then how many great calamities arise more from little sins than from great ones. You consider great sins to be sins and avoid them, but you do not consider little sins to be sins and do not give them proper attention. I advise you to consider no sin little. However little they may appear, they offend God, wound your conscience, and become a root for many great sins.

from Spiritual Hours of Refreshment (1664), in Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited by Eric Lund (Paulist Press, 2011), 214.

Heinrich Müller (1631-1675) on Bearing Crosses

Are you tested in the oven of misfortune? It is no achievement to be pious when all is going well. A Christian is known in the midst of crosses. Anyone can be a helmsman in good wind and still weather. It is especially in bad weather that you see what a sailor knows how to do. Good gold stands up to a fire. Tell me, then, how do you fare in the time of testing?

If you have lost your possessions, do you think that you have a better treasure in heaven that no one can take away? Can you say with Job: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

You are tormented by sickness. Do you complain about your pain? Do you also believe that the inner man is gaining much when the outer man is wasting away (2 Cor 4:16)?

You are put to flight. Is your mind still joyful? Do you realize that you are still on your way home to your home?

If death approaches, are you frightened or do you say with Paul: “Christ is my life, death is my gain” (Phil 1:21)?

In a word, whoever accepts crosses willingly is good, whoever bears them patiently is better, and whoever values crosses and thanks God for them is the best Christian.

from Spiritual Hours of Refreshment (1664), in Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited by Eric Lund (Paulist Press, 2011), 210-211.

Charles Wood on Acts of God

That there is a God who acts at all is not something a careful observer of the world’s occurrences is inescapably driven to conclude. [95] …

It is therefore from God that we first learn of the acts of God. That is, it is the word of God that identifies and interprets to us the acts of God, which are otherwise indiscernible in events. This priority of “word” over “event” in our coming to apprehend the acts of God must be respected in any adequate account of God’s self-revelation. God is not “revealed in history,” if history is understood as the course of events. God does indeed act in events…but the events as such do not betray that fact. We do not arrive at a knowledge of God by noticing the Godly features of certain events and following God’s footprints through history, so to speak. Even “God is revealed in acts” is an abbreviated and therefore potentially misleading statement of the order of knowing involved. The acts of God themselves must be disclosed as God’s acts. God is hidden in events and is revealed as acting only through the word that renders the acts as God’s acts to us. [96] …

Thus, to describe an occurrence as an act of God is not to indulge in pious overdescription of the events involved, justified perhaps by their impressiveness. It is instead to place the occurrence within a different context of description, on the basis of the agent’s own self-disclosure. It is to acknowledge a God who not only acts, but also speaks. [97]

from An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Pr Intl, 1994).