Essay / Theology

A Personal Relationship with Jesus (Theremin)

“Where in the Bible does it say we should have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

This seems to be an increasingly common question. My knee-jerk reaction to the question used to be, “It’s presupposed everywhere in Scripture!” Meanwhile I would be thinking in the back of my mind, “Here is somebody who doesn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

But I’ve come to recognize that when we use language like “a personal relationship,” we’re translating the Bible’s own categories into our own. We’re seeing something real, something the New Testament describes in a number of ways (life, knowledge, lordship, covenant, indwelling, election, etc.), and we’re putting it into words that connect with our modern, personalist, psychological way of talking about our inner lives and our outward connections. It sounds concrete to us, but step out of conventionality for a moment and notice how astonishingly abstract the thing really is: A state of relatedness in which one is, personally. You have to be conditioned a certain way to hear it as concrete rather than abstract. Since we’re conditioned that way, it does work. For a long time, when evangelicals have said “have a personal relationship with Jesus,” it has been a successful translation.

But it’s still a conceptual translation. Read a lot of Paul’s letters, and then try to imagine him saying “personal relationship” to anybody about anything. It just wouldn’t work for his personality or his culture. Or picture Jesus saying “For this reason have I come, that they may have a personal relationship with me.”

When did we begin making this particular translation? I used to assume it was something for which we could blame the baby boomers. Or maybe it sprang from Victorian sensibilities. It would be interesting to know who first used the phrase, and in what culture it was felt to be a deeply satisfying way of describing the essence of Christianity.

Lacking that, however, I do think I have found an old author who describes the thing itself (without using the word “relationship”), and the way he talks suggests that he is aware of working out some of these ideas in a new way. The author is Franz Theremin (1780-1846) who was a German theologian of the Romantic school. You can call him conservative if by that you mean that he did not line up with either Schleiermacher’s liberalism or the rationalist critical movement. Theremin’s book The Confession of Adalbert (1828) is an epistolary novel, tracing the conversion and spiritual growth of a young man (Adalbert). One of the key scenes occurs in Letter #35 (pp. 191- 204), where he corresponds with his spiritual adviser (Steindorf) about the nature of the Christian’s encounter with Jesus. The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” is not used; the preferred language has more to do with “holding converse with Christ.”

The key passage is about two thousand words long, and I append it here. For those of you who don’t want to read (somewhat purple) devotional stuff from 1828 Germany, you can settle for taking my word for it: Theremin describes the actual personal presence of Jesus in the heart of the believer, and he does so in a manner that would only be possible within the movement of Romanticism. The section includes a worthwhile digression about the term “mystic.”

Is this the source, or at least one of the earliest examples, of the particular modern inflection that led us to describe the essence of Christianity as a personal relationship with Jesus? I’m not sure. But it’s a good clue to the trail, and it also happens to be powerful and true spiritual writing from the wise, unjustly forgotten Theremin.

We pick up at the point where Steindorf begins to suspect that Adalbert doesn’t quite grasp what is going on in Christian faith:

“We shall always continue connected,” said he, with deep emotion; “yes, we shall be near each other in the Lord, to whom we both belong.”

“I will stedfastly retain his image before the eyes of my spirit,” rejoined I; “and with his, yours, as one of his true disciples, will be ever present to me.”

“You spoke of the Lord’s image,” said he, as if he had not entirely understood me.

“Certainly,” said I, “I will so habituate my heart and imagination to it, that it shall be ever present to them, so that it may be to me a consolation in affliction, and a defence in temptation.”

“Why,” asked he, “would you content yourself with his image, since you may possess him in reality; and why do you seek him for any particular purpose, who ought always to be loved and sought for his own sake?”

“I do not understand you,” said I.

“When you love him,” replied he, “you will soon understand me. Supposing your father and mother were still alive, and you could resort to them whenever you pleased, would you content yourself, instead of doing so, with only contemplating their portraits; and would it be right to do so, even in moments when you required comfort and encouragement?”

“How shall I apply this simile?” inquired I; “I could find my parents as long as they were here below, but how can I find the Lord?”

“And do you still put such a question as this?” asked he with astonishment. “You have found him, and have only now the trouble to comprehend the greatness of the gift bestowed upon you. You have more than his image; you possess him himself.”

“Taking it for granted that I have found him,” rejoined I, “what is further to be done? for you seemed to reprove me on some other account?”

“After having found him,” answered he, “you must for his own sake, and from pure and disinterested love to him, maintain a continual and affectionate intercourse with him. He will then be your consolation in suffering, and your protection in seasons of temptation. But if, instead of love to him, any one of these intentions is predominant in you, when applying to him, you will receive the expected aid, at least not immediately, nor in full measure.”

“The inward life of the Christian,” said I after some reflection, “ought therefore, if I rightly understand you not to be a contemplation of the image of Christ, but a converse with Christ himself?”

He rose up paced the room a few times with hasty steps, then placed himself before me and said, “Who preserved me from being overwhelmed here when my dear wife drew her last breath? Was it the Lord’s image, or he himself? Who accompanied me, when I wandered about here during the first horrible nights after my heavy loss? Was it the Lord’s image, or he himself? Who is now with me, when I am quite alone, and strengthens me to bear my solitude? Is it the Lord’s image, or he himself?”

“I cannot refrain,” said I, “from honouring your profound and pious feelings, and from entering into them to a certain extent. I have also read many things in good books which sounded very similar to what you have now said. But–”

“But what?” asked he, a little excited.

“But I have resolved, once for all, to be led and guided solely by the Scriptures, which are the word of God, and to derive from thence the features of the model of a Christian life; and this word of God–”

“Do you perhaps intend to say,” interrupted he, “that they say nothing of such an intercourse with Christ? Has not Christ promised to be with us, even till the end of the world; and to be in the midst of us when two or three are assembled in his name? And after such promises, shall we consider him as at a distance, or as near and present? Has not Christ promised that he will come with the Father and take up his abode with those that love him; and may I not speak of holding converse with him, when he has spoken of a dwelling in us, which implies something infinitely more and a connection much more close and intimate? Did not the Apostle hold such a converse with him, when he besought him to take away the thorn in the flesh, under which he was suffering, and was immediately enjoined by the Lord to let his grace suffice him? Did he not necessarily hold such a converse with him, in order to be able to say, ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me?’ Does he not enjoin the maintenance of this fellowship with Christ upon those to whom he wrote, when he says, “Your life is hid with Christ in God?” And does the beloved disciple, who lay upon the bosom of Jesus, not only whilst the latter sojourned here upon earth, but also after he had departed hence — does John intend anything else when he represents the Lord as knocking at the door, ready, if any one open it, to enter in and sup with him?”

“You intend therefore,” rejoined I, “by this fellowship with Christ, to maintain within you a sublime and continual ecstacy, and to secure a superior degree of enlightening?”

“Who speaks of ecstacy and enlightening?” replied he; “I do not even allude to any transport of feeling. This intercourse with Christ would not be what it is –I mean something real– if it were to transpose my mind from its wonted frame into one which was entirely uncommon. It is only the play of the imagination that deceives us; reality always brings with it something of a tranquillizing nature. I maintain that those who hold such converse with Christ are perfectly sober-minded individuals and possess no other enlightening, nor pretend to it, than such as every Christian may enjoy.”

“But what benefit do you derive,” inquired I, “from your intercourse with Christ?”

“You have Christ himself,” answered he; “and this is certainly all that you can desire. You possess him and may speak to him in the obscurity of faith, even as those speak to him who see him face to face in heaven. Often you will feel profoundly grieved, when he manifests his nearness to you and his care over you, only by a more severe and immediate chastisement for the sins you commit; when he withdraws from you the consciousness of this presence –although he never removes far, since you can no longer live without it– in order to punish you or put you to the test, and thus leaves you only to your own wretchedness. But still you possess him, and with him are content and satisfied.”

“But these people,” said I, “have a name from which I shrink.”

“What name is that?” inquired he.

“Mystics,” answered I.

[Footnote by English translator: This term is much more frequently used in Germany than in this country heing in many parts applied to all who profess anything more than the outward form of religion.]

“In this sense,” rejoined he, “the Apostles Paul and John, and even Luther himself, were mystics. If there is any disgrace in the appellation, we will not fear to share it with such men as these. But in earlier times the term had no such opprobrious meaning. The word mysticism was not then used, but ‘mystic divinity;’ the value of which was acknowledged, and it quietly pursued its course along with scholastic divinity. Amongst its admirers are numbered such men as Taulerus, Thomas a Kempis, Francis de Sales, and Fenelon, whose names are justly honoured by posterity. It pleases people in the present day to indicate by this term, whilst mistaking its former signification, all that is confused and absurd that has ever attached itself to religion; and thus a bugbear has arisen, which is employed at one time against those to whom it properly applies, and at another against such as are falsely so called.

“But are there in reality any of the former?” asked I.

“Certainly,” replied he.

“And how are they distinguished from the latter?” inquired I further.

“Those to whom the term mystic is improperly applied, seek, in their intercourse with Christ, himself alone, and that sanctification which is a necessary consequence of fellowship with him. Far from favouring a revelling in pious feelings, they describe those who are always desiring excitement and spiritual refreshment, as only novices in the career of spiritual life. They abhor the pretending to a superior illumination, and cleave firmly to the Scriptures as the only standard of faith and life.”

“And the real mystics?”

“Are distinguished by this, that they pretend to possess a superior knowledge of Divine things than Scripture affords; that they make exceptions for themselves, with reference to the precepts of the Divine law, to which all men are subjected; and that despising inward and outward activity, they seek to // elevate themselves by a mere passive feeling, to a degree of perfection and blessedness unattainable in this life.”

“Let us therefore pass by the term,” said I, “which is of little importance. The individuals of whom we will now speak make the essence of the Christian life to consist in intercourse with the Saviour; but to this I cannot yet agree: for there are certainly many good Christians who are unacquainted with such an intercourse, and do not maintain it; and he who stands, or supposes he stands, in such a fellowship with Christ, must, from his superior station, look with contempt upon them.”

“He will never do so,” answered he, “for he well knows that there are various degrees of spiritual life: and he distinguishes those who possess it, not so much according to the degree at which they have arrived, as the fidelity with which they employ the grace granted them. He that does so will arrive at the hidden life of Christ in God; and perhaps even lead such a life without being himself clearly conscious of it. He will often possess the thing, and yet be terrified at the name which is falsely applied to it, when he first hears it; perhaps this is also the case with you.”

“Of the inward life,” replied I, “I know in reality nothing but repentance.”

“You are therefore acquainted,” said he, “with what is meant by holding converse with Christ.”

“Is that one and the same thing?” inquired I.

“Certainly,” answered he, “for do we not die to ourselves in repentance?”

“I really think,” said I, “that repentance is what is properly called spiritual death.”

“It is therefore,” continued he, “an approach to the life of Christ. For Scripture, which in this is your only teacher as well as mine, says, ‘Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.'”

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