Bonhoeffer: A Christology for today

The words of this young theologian are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote and spoke them in the twentieth century.

Denise Josephs, at the time of this writing, was a Master of Divinity student, Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, New York, United States.

When one thinks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, many images emerge: the intellectual who completed his doctorate in theology at the age of 21 from the University of Berlin; the caring and daring pastor whose life and ministry were cut down by the Nazis at the young age of 39; the creative theologian who left the Christian world a powerful vocabulary—“cheap grace,” “religionless Christianity,” and “cost of discipleship”—and many stimulating writings. Yet, Christology constitutes the entire framework of Bonhoeffer’s theology, and there’s much we can learn from this focus.

Teaching during the 1933 summer session of the University of Berlin,1Bonhoeffer began developing his Christology, which became for him the interpretive key to reading the Bible and to his understanding of church and society, contemporary ethics, and what he viewed as “the liberal reduction of dogmatics . . . to be merely a humanistic domestication of God himself.”2

Bonhoeffer’s Christology stands in bold relief against the cautious living and fuzzy speech that characterize today’s Christianity. He speaks forcefully and pointedly in words as relevant today as they were when he said and wrote them.

Christ alone

Bonhoeffer goes to the heart of who Christ is and what Christianity truly is about. He rejects the various distortions that have crept in and calls us back to the faith which was once delivered to the church and that the church in every age must make applicable to its own unique challenges.

Christianity for Bonhoeffer was not a religion, but a person, Jesus Christ, who made difficult demands of His followers.3 Bonhoeffer states, “He did not go to the cross to ornament and embellish our life. If we wish to have him, then he demands the right to say something decisive about our entire life.”4 “Let no one,” adds Bonhoeffer, “think that we are concerned with our own cause, with a particular view of the world, a definite theology or even with the honor of the church. We are concerned with Christ and nothing else.”5

Bonhoeffer asks, “What does it mean when poor workers say, in their world of distrust, ‘Jesus was a good man’?” He answers, “It means that nobody needs to mistrust him. The poor worker does not say, ‘Jesus is God.’ But when he says, ‘Jesus is a good man,’ he is saying more than the bourgeois say when they repeat ‘Jesus is God.’ ”6 Bonhoeffer continues, “God is for them something belonging to the church. But, Jesus can be present on the factory floor as the socialist; at a political meeting, as an idealist; [or] in the worker’s world, as a good man. He fights in their ranks against the enemy, capitalism.”7

Jesus is not a socialist, a capitalist, bourgeois, or poor. Or, perhaps, we should say, He is all of these. Here, in America, where we have come very close to equating the “American Dream,” democracy, and other such Western ideas with Christianity and believe it is our manifest destiny to export these ideals to the entire world, Bonhoeffer’s remarks stand in stark contrast.

Christology: Abstract versus concrete

Bonhoeffer shuns “that abstract Christology so characteristic of [the] church . . . [which] deaden[s] the impact of Jesus’ word by [hiding] him behind protective layers of dogmatic wordiness, clearly enunciated legalisms, and triumphalist slogans.”8 He argues that it is not God’s will that we should be in our time the adherents, exponents, and advocates of a definite doctrine, but that we should, instead, be men and women, real men and women before God. Relationship is the key.

Bonhoeffer writes that Christ, unlike the moralist who loves a theory of good, chose rather to love real human beings. In contrast to the philosopher whose interest is only in the “universally valid,” Christ cared for “that which [was] of help to the real and concrete human being.” He was not preoccupied, like Immanuel Kant, with “whether ‘the maxim of an action can become a principle of general legislation,’ but whether [a particular] action is at this moment helping my neighbour to become a man [or woman] before God.” Bonhoeffer notes, “For [nowhere] is [it] . . . written that God became an idea, a principle, a programme, a universally valid proposition or a law, but that God became man.”9Our Christology must become concretized through our actions as real men and women before God.

The offense of Christ The church exists to do the will of God, which at times places us in the good graces of the world and at other times at odds with it. Therefore, Bonhoeffer admonishes the church to keep its gaze always on and only on the humbled Christ, whether it itself is exalted or made low. He contends that it is not good when the church is anxious to praise itself too readily for its humble state, or, on the other hand, to boast of its power and influence too soon.

The church is only good insofar as when it “humbly confesses its sins, allows itself to be forgiven, and confesses its Lord. [It must] daily . . . receive the will of God from Christ anew. . . . Christ [daily] becomes a stumbling block to its own hopes and wishes. [It] daily . . .stumbles at the words afresh, ‘You will all be offended because of me’ (Matt. 26:31). And daily it holds anew to the promise, ‘Blessed is he who is not offended in me’ (Matt. 11:6).”10

Every generation must decide what they must do with Christ. As Bonhoeffer notes, “Christ goes through the ages, questioned anew, misunderstood anew, and again and again put to death.”11

The church on the earth

Bonhoeffer sees the church as having a major impact over quality of life issues. Where the church is true light and salt, its influence will spill over and permeate the culture for good. But, where the church is silent, a culture will be characterized by major corruption and darkness. Bonhoeffer says that “the Church is nothing but a section of humanity in which Christ has really taken form.”12 According to him, “It is a mystery, for which there is no explanation . . . only a part of [humanity] recognize[s] the form of their Redeemer. The longing of the Incarnate to take form in all men [and women has] yet [to be satisfied]. He bore the form of [humanity] as a whole, and yet He can take form only in a small [portion,] . . . His Church.”13 He asserts, “The church, then bears the form which is in truth the proper form of all humanity. The image in which she is formed is the image of man.”14

 Bonhoeffer points out that “Christ has fulfilled all the vicarious suffering necessary for our redemption, [although] His suffering on earth is not finished yet. He has, in His grace, left a residue of suffering for His Church to fulfill in the interval before His Second Coming.”15 Bonhoeffer contends, “The form of Christ incarnate makes the Church into the Body of Christ. All the sorrows of [humanity] fall upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne.”16 From Bonhoeffer’s standpoint, the church is truly the church only when it is willing to suffer for those who are bereft of strength before the exploitive machinations of the powerful.17

Christ’s unfathomable love

Bonhoeffer’s Christology clearly acknowledged “the unfathomable . . . love of [Christ] for the world. . . .God loves the world. It is not an ideal [humanity] that He loves, but [humanity] as [it] is; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find abominable in [humanity’s] opposition to God, what we [with pain and hostility] shrink back from . . . [humanity in all its realness] is for God the ground for unfathomable love. . . . [With this love God identifies] utterly [and] God becomes man, real man. While we are trying to grow out beyond our [humanity,] to leave [our humanity] behind us, God becomes man and we have to recognize that God wishes us . . . , too, to be real men [and women.]”18 Here, Bonhoeffer captures the love of Christ and brings into perspective the value of humanity in the eyes of God like few have.

Recovering Christ’s image

Bonhoeffer states that Christ entered the world “in such a way as to hide Himself in it in weakness and not to be recognized as God-man. He [did] not enter in kingly robes . . . [in the] ( . . .‘form of God’). His claim, which He as God-man raise[d] in this form, . . .

provoke[d] contradiction and hostility.” Bonhoeffer affirms, “He goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among outcasts, as despairing among the despairing, as dying among the dying. He also goes as sinner among sinners, yet how truly as the peccator pessimus ( . . . ‘the worst sinner’), as sinless among sinners.”19

Jesus coming as He did shows the worth He placed on humanity. Bonhoeffer believes that “in the Incarnation the whole human race recover[ed] the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least [individual] is an attack on Christ, who took the form of [humanity,] and in His own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.”20

Bonhoeffer’s relevance for the church today Today’s church suffers from a divided loyalty to Christ and the world, and it has diluted our effectiveness. And to this church and to us all, Bonhoeffer’s Christology issues some specific calls.

1. A call for the church to pledge complete allegiance to Jesus Christ, refusing to allow Christianity to be used in the service of exploitive and oppressive practices as some of our churches do when they support special interest legislation and politicians. Sadly, we have embraced much of our culture’s worldview, and we have even allowed ourselves to be used to perpetuate practices and systems that are often unjust and oppressive whether by silence or consent. Today’s church needs to reaffirm its loyalty to Christ alone.

2. A call to decide whether or not as a church we will be among the blessed who are not offended in Christ, even when God’s will causes us to be uncomfortable. We seem to care more about being comfortable, and will do almost anything not to offend the world, fearing possible reprisals. Meanwhile, we have lost our identity and have become like salt that has lost its savor. Today’s church must decide whether we want to be the church of Jesus Christ or not, and we need to consider the cost; otherwise, we run the risk of being rejected even by God.

3. A call for the church to be Christ’s ambassadors in the world whose influence spills over and impacts culture. As it stands, society has a great influence and even power over the church, especially in the West. Once again, the church must decide whether we will be the church.

4. A call for the church to be Christ-formed. We have allowed ourselves to be formed by everything and everyone, except by Christ. We have adopted the world’s strategies and have borrowed from a variety of its disciplines in our formation efforts. We, however, can no longer afford to allow ourselves to be formed by the world. For, how can we expect to speak to the world when we are just like it? The Word, in Scripture and Person, is all that is needed for the church’s formation.

5. A call for the church to understand how truly loved we are and how much God loves the world. The church today has been guilty of judging and condemning this world that Christ came to and died for. In many instances, we have been less than loving, especially towards the marginalized in our society. If we understood God’s unfathomable love, we could not help but go and share this love with the world rather than judging it. We need a fresh reading of God’s Word in order to once again capture God’s heart.

6. Finally, a call for the church to walk in the image of God that Christ recovered for us in the Incarnation; thereby, showing our solidarity with all of humanity. If we truly believed that every person we see reflects Christ’s image, the church would not stand by or side with those individuals who abuse and marginalize certain sectors of society. But, we would stand up and raise our collective voices in opposition.


 Just as Christology became the interpretive key to Bonhoeffer’s reading of the Bible and practice, so too will the church’s Christology be the determining factor in our reading of Scripture and practice. Does our Christology result in lives and actions that are different from the world? Does it cause us to lift up our voices against the injustices and oppression of the marginalized? Does it govern our life and conduct, our belief and mission? It’s time to take stock.

1 Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995), 110.

2 Ibid., 111.

3 Ibid., 50.

4 Ibid., 51.

5 Ibid., 103.

6 Ibid., 113, 114.

7 Ibid., 114

8 Ibid., 111.

9 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 86.

10 Kelly and Nelson, A Testament to Freedom, 123.

11 Ibid., 114.

12 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 85.

13 Ibid., 84.

14 Ibid.

15 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 244.

16 Ibid., 302.

17 John W. De Gruchy, ed. Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 311.

18 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 73.

19 Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 107.

20 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 301, 302.



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Denise Josephs, at the time of this writing, was a Master of Divinity student, Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, New York, United States.

November 2008

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