Zinzendorf’s lecture #7–On the Essential Character and Circumstances of the Life of a Christian

Here is a brief summary and commentary on the seventh lecture of Nicolaus Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf, Bishop of the Church of the Moravian Brethren, from Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects in Religion, preached in Fetter Lane Chapel in London in the Year 1746.  Translated and Edited by George W. Forell, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1973.

Again, this was from early in my graduate experience, 1994-1995, in Dr. Richard Lovelace’s class on the Pietist Renewal at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Lecture VII—On the Essential Character and Circumstances of the Life of a Christian

‘The seventh gives the essentials of a Christian inwardly and outwardly.’ (xxxii)

Text:  John 21:16.  “Do you love me?”

From the bit ‘Not of Paul, Cephas, Apollos, Christ’ (I Cor 1:12) Zinzendorf comes to the conclusion that a true Christian is ‘neither Lutheran nor Calvinist, neither this nor the other religious denomination, not even Christian.’ (He adds, ‘Paul excludes Christ himself . . . ‘) (Erb 311) [Note: it looks like the edition I was using for all of these lectures is found in the Paulist Press Classics of Spirituality series, the Pietist volume edited by Peter Erb]

[This is too difficult.  I don’t believe it is fruitful to insist that we not call ourselves Christians (with the connotation ‘of the family of Christ.’)  It doesn’t even seem consistent with Zinzendorf’s own Christocentric mysticism!  I don’t know what he’s getting at here, other than to say that the denominations may differ in Tropo Paedias [form of doctrines], but are not fundamentally opposed.  And those distinctions are ‘divine wisdom,’ he goes on to add.  They are not fundamentally due to sin.]

Only the German has ‘Christian’ right, says Z, when it says that one is ‘ein Christ,’ that is, ‘In Christ . . . .’ ‘Bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.’ (313)  Here is that mystical underpinning again.

He parallels this with marriage, that as a wife takes the husband’s name, so we take Christ’s at our ‘marriage’ to him.  And what is that marriage?  It is to be ‘christened in his heart . . . made a Christian . . . of the bone and spirit of Christ . . . [taking pride in saying] ‘My Maker is my husband’ (Isa 54:5)’ (314); ‘he is the husband of my soul, who has betrothed himself to me forever and has betrothed himself to me in grace and mercy, yet, has betrothed himself to me in faith’ (Has 2:19). (314)  In other words, a Christian is characterized by his or her deep, personal knowledge of his or her ‘husband,’ Christ.

The special factor which distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is a sort of ‘secret heart wisdom,’ as in Ps 51:6b-10, ‘Teach me wisdom in my secret heart, You purge me, you wash me, you make my bones rejoice, which before were broken and you give me a ready spirit.’  Zinzendorf continues, ‘you give me ideas quite different from those I had before, and you do this, your wisdom in my secret heart does this.  This is the wisdom in I Cor 1, which none of the wise people of this world were able to reach or obtain.’ (315).  This essence of Christianity is NOT, says Zinzendorf, common sense.  It is not attainable by the human mind.  (Obviously Pauline and orthodox).

The fact of becoming a Christian is established by a ‘moment [in which] the savior becomes present to him in person . . . .a person must know as certainly that his spirit has seen, that his heart has seen and felt, as when in ordinary human life one can be certain that he has seen or touched something.’  Not only a mystical, personal experience, but one carrying with it absolute assurance of reality—assurance stronger than that of sense knowledge.  And not requiring any concomitant sense knowledge (audible voice, etc), although Z says ‘this cannot be excluded with any certainty,’ but it is certain nonetheless.  In fact the entire work of the gospel, says he, ‘is to portray Jesus, to paint him before the eyes, to take the spirit’s stylus and etch—yes, engrave—the image of Jesus in the fleshly tablets of the heart, so that it can never be removed again.’ (317)

[This statement, I think, might be ranked among the strongest identifiers of Zinzendorf’s thought and preaching.  He is not preaching doctrine with the aim of acquiring assent.  He is preaching an image with the aim of mystical apprehension of that image.  His extensive use of ‘wound language,’ which is sometimes so graphic as to be jarring, is indeed intended to jar.  You see in his descriptive language almost the artifice of the magician—the sleight of hand by which you bring about that moment of illusion . . . where you ‘make’ the audience see what you want them to see.  I think Z is trying by these powerful bits of image-language to ‘throw the soul of the listener’ into a kind of mystical recognition, where he says, ‘Oh, Jesus!  NOW I see you!  NOW I understand!’  In the words of the modern charismatic, ‘I know that I know that I know,’ or ‘I know in my knower.’  It is foolishness to the world, but it is life itself to the person who has had the experience.  (above quote from Erb, 317)

[That Z sees this ‘engraving of the image of Christ into the heart of the believer’ as the ‘entire work of the gospel’ throws a brilliant light on everything else Z laboured to do, from missions to ecumenism.  We can be brothers across denominational barriers if the essence of our religion is intimate experience with one and the same Christ.  And (as surfaces in other of his discourses) there is no reason any heathen, no matter what the depravity of their cultural background, cannot in the twinkling of an eye capture the same experience we have had—that direct experience of ‘seeing Jesus,’ and running to him to ‘throw ourselves upon his knees,’ so to speak.  So the very nature of the gospel becomes immediate, personal, and not subject to barriers of philosophy, doctrine, culture, or even language.  The Holy Spirit prepares the heart.  And the heart meets Jesus in the Spirit, despite not being the heart of a rich, educated, white, European person.  No wonder this exploded into missions!  This is religion without walls—without barriers.

[I find in Zinzendorf a refreshing willingness to ‘rush in where angels fear to tread,’ perhaps due to his lack of theological training.  He was not afraid to describe what he experienced in his Christian walk, and to assume that it was powerful and would be efficacious for others beside himself.  For example, this bit about being ‘in the Spirit’:]

‘One person attains to it more incontestably and powerfully, the other more gently and mildly; but in one moment both attain to this, that in reality and truth one has the Creator of all things . . . standing in his suffering form . . . —this individual object stands before the vision of one’s heart, before the eyes of one’s spirit, before one’s inward man . . . this Deliverer reaches out his hand to him and plucks him immediately out of all corruption’ (319) [here is that high, almost all-inclusive view of justification that so ticked off Wesley] And Z continues in his usual graphic, bloody mode, to a crashing finish.

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