Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century. His native Lutheran church was under the influence of Nazi politics, which required conscientious objectors to gather into a separate body, the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer's theology was shaped in the historical context of resistance to an overly fundamentalist and literal application of Darwinist ideas. His Christology underwrote a practical system of ethics which called not for retreat from the world but for active participation and transformation of people and structures. Bonhoeffer gave up the peace and security of the United States to return to Germany where he helped with the resistance. He was executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1945.
Although he was formed in the liberal tradition, Bonhoeffer ventured into neo-Orthodoxy, claiming that liberalism “had failed because it allowed the world to assign Christ his place in the world.”1 The classical question in Christology regarding the two natures of Christ was seen by Bonhoeffer to be misguided. The “what” had led to the inevitable “how”, but that was not the proper framework to do Christology; rather, the essential question was “who?” - who is this person who is encountered in the church, in the word, in the sacrament?2
Bonhoeffer's Christology is bothpersonalistand existential. Christ exists “for me” and “for others”. Salvation is not a matter of emulation but rather of encounter. Like Luther, Bonhoeffer believed that even the devil may appear as an angel of light, hence rendering true evaluation of the person from his works impossible.3 It is rather in God's self-revelation that Christ is recognized and known. To discern the person of Christ from the New Testament alone is an ambiguous procedure.
Christ for Bonhoeffer is an ethical Christ, with an unwavering stance of committedness towards others, leaping forth into the promise of potential in us. Thus Christ is Jesus the man, present both in space and in time. This Christ is not an impersonal force but a person, crucified and risen, who may be sought after in the preaching and sacrament of the church.4
Unlike other historical persons like Socrates and Goethe, Christ is not dead, asserts Bonhoeffer. It is not that we discern the dissipation of his energy in historical events, but rather that we meet him in the progress of events as the Risen One. In this light, Christ is immanent, ever-accessible and aligned in my favour. But because Jesus is also God, he is transcendent, present everywhen and everywhere. Bonhoeffer's thought deals with the questions of how Christ the man can be present everywhere and how Christ the Lord can be restricted to time and space by animating the Chalcedonian response that Christ is both fully human and fully divine. For Bonhoeffer it is not “how” but “who” that requires attention. This leads to the scandal of the cross, where God who was “concealed in the likeness of human flesh”5 is humiliated before his own creation.
Ontologically, it is not Christ-in-himself so much as Christ-for-me that matters. This attitude of being-for-others resolves the soteriological question: “He is the community. Not only does he act for it, he is it, by going to the cross, bearing sin, and dying.”6 Bonhoeffer follows Luther in his emphasis on substitutionary atonement and grace, which may be traced back to the Pauline tradition. It is not emulation of a religious figure so much as conversion, something which Bonhoeffer himself experienced while studying the Beatitudes and Psalm 119 in 1931.7
In Bonhoeffer's theology, Christ may be encountered as Word, as Sacrament and as Community. As Word, Christ acts in power, creating and destroying truth.8 This divine Logos manifests itself concretely in time in particular contexts, to particular people. Christ is known in his personal address to us by which he both forgives and commands. The Word is not a possession of Christ, coming to the man from heaven, rather Christ is the Word, that which is spoken in church as preaching, which is part of the humiliation of the divine Logos.9
In the sacrament, the Word is embodied but not limited. The attempt to contain Christ in ideas and doctrines is like saying this Eucharist is all of Christ. Rather, Christ is present in the unlimited guise of nature and history. For Bonhoeffer, this does not mean that all of nature is sacramental, but that Christ in his humiliation condescends to be present in a special way to the church in the Eucharist. In characteristic dialectic fashion, Bonhoeffer addresses the paradox of Christ-in-heaven and Christ-in-sacrament in Luther's idea of ubivoluntarianism, that Christ is present where he wills. Again, the question of how is misguided for Bonhoeffer, it is more appropriate to ask who? Christ's presence in the sacrament is not an accidental feature, it is integral to his being.10
For Bonhoeffer, Christ is the community of believers: “The community is therefore not only the receiver of the Word of revelation; it is itself revelation and Word of God.”11 Bonhoeffer goes on to assert that the separation of head (Christ) and body (church) in Ephesians is not originally Pauline. He stresses that Christ is “every member”, continuing the themes of Christ's humiliation and attitude of being “pro me”.
This stance is expressed in three ways: Christ-for-humanity, Christ-for-history and Christ-for-nature. In being the centre of humans, Christ is the ontological reference point for a fallen race. Thus, even when our awareness of Christ only takes place in the periphery of our consciousness, Christ is the point of focus which draws us towards God. As the centre of history, Christ is the fulfillment of promise. Bonhoeffer maintains that this is not amenable to philosophical proofs, for the liberal approach is couched in absolutist terms, which betray the specificity of God's manifestation as Messiah-in-Israel.12 After the resurrection the church is the place of God's revelation. Bonhoeffer's struggle with the politicization of religion is revealed here: “(The church) does not prove its relationship to the state by its visible position in the sphere of the state... (rather) it judges and justifies the state in its nature”13 As with the individual, where Christ is the centre calling even from the periphery, Christ as the church is the centre calling the state back from the brink of genocide. Christ is also the centre of nature, serving to bring to fulfillment the promise of a new creation, which is proclaimed in the transformation of the elements at the Lord's table.
Bonhoeffer clearly states that the Christ who is present pro meis the same as the historical Jesus. Faith is key in his reasoning, the church essential and its existence proof. Since the earliest sources we have for a study of the historical Jesus are the synoptic gospels, a faith community must be assumed, which supports the idea of Jesus being the Christ. But the only witness to Christ is Christ's presence, since history is not demonstrable with absolute certainty. This presence is discerned in the Scriptures: “The Risen One encounters us right through the Bible with all its flaws.”14
With respect to conciliar attempts at Christology, Bonhoeffer notes that these were usually negative in character, as they dealt with putting down various heresies. His own ideal may be viewed as largely Chalcedonian, as he affirms two natures in one hypostasis. He comments in some detail on the heresies which confronted the ancient councils. On the docetic heresy, which downplayed the importance of Christ's humanity, Bonhoeffer says it is a fallacy based on a Greek dualism of idea and phenomenon, which resulted in the speculation that Jesus' nature as a man is merely accidental.15 In response to the monophysite heresy that Jesus merely slipped on his humanity as a garment, Bonhoeffer objects that Jesus had the real limitations of a man (e.g. He was not omniscient). Of the Nestorian heresy (no mixing of natures), he asks how humanity could be redeemed by God if these two natures were forever to remain separate.16
In Lutheran thought Chalcedon was developed in two ways, by the Kenoticists and by the Cryptics. The first group believed that Christ limited his power by renunciation, while the second believed that his power remained, only it was concealed. Bonhoeffer found that neither of these made either the humanity or the divinity of Christ comprehensible.17
Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer died before many new ideas in theology began to flourish, one might find his ideas sympathetic to several. He was appalled by the massive suffering and genocide of the Jews under Hitler and made it his ambition to put his ethics into practice by assisting with the resistance. His theology was formed in part as a response to the German Church's idea that God reigned in the spiritual realm but that the physical realm was ordered by survival of the fittest. For Bonhoeffer, any order which was not open to revelation was irrelevant. Thus historicity was essential to understanding his thought.
As he died a champion of the oppressed, one might project Bonhoeffer's spirit into various subjective theologies, including feminist, liberation and post-colonial. Christ is understood to be the Risen One who reveals himself in particular contexts “for me” thus transcending arcane dogmas which limit the fulfillment of human capacity. For Bonhoeffer, Christ is eminently practical in his alignment towards people. His Christology informs an ethics which aims to transform the world through action. Suffering is integral, but it is always Christ who suffers - not for vanity, but for change in people and in institutions.
We have briefly considered some of Bonhoeffer's thoughts on Christology. His work on the subject is personalist-existential,characterized by temporalityand concreteness. His is a Christ immanent in the word, in the sacrament and in the community. Yet Christ is transcendent, too, calling people and structures to respond to God from a centre that is paradoxically found at the periphery of experience. For Bonhoeffer, the question of two natures in one hypostatic union is not amenable to how but rather to who, presupposing faith. He draws sustenance from Chalcedon as a milestone in a long process of refutation of heresy. His soteriology rests on the Pauline idea of gift, central to Protestant theology, which he develops in the theme of encounter.
Bonhoeffer's Christology leaves room for growth in theology by shying away from religion and dogma to context-specific action mediated by revelation. It agrees with modern personalist theories and points to practical solutions derived not from stagnant ideologies but from Christ the Risen One who is ever present with us and for us.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Christology. Translated by JohnBowden. London: Collins, 1966.
Seban, Jean-Loup. “Bonhoeffer, Dietrich” in E. Craig (Ed.),RoutledgeEncyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/K006. Accessed 11 March, 2005.
Roark, Dallas. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1972. http://www.religion-online.org/. Accessed 11 March, 2005.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology, translated by John Bowden (London: Collins, 1966), 16.
2 Ibid, p. 21.
3 Ibid, p. 38.
4 Ibid, p. 43.
5 Ibid, p. 46.
6 Ibid, p. 49.
7 Jean-Loup Seban,“Bonhoeffer, Dietrich” in E. Craig (Ed.),Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (London: Routledge).http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/K006. Accessed March 11, 2005
8 Bonhoeffer, Christology, 49.
9 Ibid, p. 52.
10 Ibid, p. 58.
11 Ibid, p. 60.
12 Ibid, p. 64.
13 Ibid, p. 65.
14 Ibid, p. 76.
15 Ibid, p. 81.
16 Ibid, p. 89.
17 Dallas Roark, Dietrich Bonhoeffer(Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1972). http://www.religion-online.org/. Accessed 11 March, 2005.