Christology and Sociality in Bonhoeffer (Part 1/2)

Christology and Sociality in Bonhoeffer

I. Concrete-relational Christology

In their protests against established religion, many youths today cry aloud the slogan, “Hostile to the church, but friendly to Jesus.” The question, however, is, which Jesus are they friendly with? Is it the Jesus of the liberal theologian, the liberationist, the Gnostic or even perhaps the Jesus of Hollywood? Bonhoeffer would certainly approve of their insistence on the centrality of Christ, unclouded by traditional religious trappings. We must, however, be fully aware of the great temptation to substitute the Christ of tradition with a Christ who is constructed out of some current concerns or personal fancies.

We must approach Christology as a divine given. Our integrity as faithful Christians stands or falls by the belief that in Christ we are given divine revelation that has become tangible and visible in history. It is understandable that modern man, burdened by pressing social problems, has reacted against irrelevant speculations on the alchemy of Christ’s natures. Bonhoeffer has rightly insisted that,

“The starting point is given: the man Jesus is the Christ, is God. This ‘is’ may no longer be derived. It is the presupposition of all thinking and must not be constructed as a conclusion. Since Chalcedon, it is no longer possible to ask how the natures can be thought of as different while the person remains one, but quite clearly who is this man, of whom it is declared, ‘He is God’?” (CC98).

We should note that for Bonhoeffer there can be no speculation about God outside this concreteness of Christ as the God incarnate. The incarnate God is the only God we know. More importantly, in this revelation we are not merely presented with an idea or with sets of interpreted events. Christ confronts us not only as power, but in his person, as the risen One. This means that the task of Christology is possible only through a personal experience of Christ. Underlying this assertion is Bonhoeffer’s concept of the inseparability between person and community. “There is no self-consciousness without community, or rather, self-consciousness arises together with the consciousness of being in community” (CS 46), or, “Man’s entire spirituality is interwoven with sociality, and rests upon the basic relation of I and Thou” (CS 48). For Bonhoeffer, it is not so much “cogito, ergo sum” but I relate socially to others, ergo sum.” I experience Christ as Person because he is the risen One (CC 44). Above all, he confronts me in the context of the church:

“Christ exists amidst us as community, as church in the hiddenness of history. The church is the hidden Christ among us. And therefore man is never alone, but he exists only through the community which brings him to Christ, which incorporates him in itself, takes him into its life. Man in Christ is man in community; where he is, there is community… Therefore man no longer understands himself from himself, but from Christ, who exists as community, from his word, which the community sustains and without which there would be no community.” (Charles M. Hegarty: “Christ in the Theology of Bonhoeffer.” Anglican Theological Review, 49 (1967: 345).

From the above premise, Bonhoeffer deduced the following conclusions:

1. The encounter of Christ as a person ensures the unity of Christ’s personality despite the manifold aspects of his presence.
2. The experience of the present, risen Christ requires the affirmation that ‘Jesus is God’ but because he is experienced in a social context in time and space, he is man. The identity of the risen Christ with the historical Jesus (M. Kahler) allows us to uphold the classical Christology that Jesus is God-Man.
3. Starting with the person of Christ, Bonhoeffer rejected the dictum of Melancthon that “to know Christ is to know his benefits.” He chose to follow Luther who taught that the person interprets the work:

“There is then no access to the work, except through the person… The attempt to understand the person from the work is doomed to failure because of the ambiguity of the work… Only by the Word freely revealing himself is the Person of Christ available and with that also his work” (CC 37-39).

There is no doubt that Bonhoeffer’s Christology is traditional and that for him, Chalcedon represents the limits beyond which theology may not trespass. He expressed regrets about “the terrible decline” of the authority of the councils and the loss of the concept of heresy in the pluralistic climate of contemporary theology (CC 75). On the other hand, he wished to eliminate all speculation into the ‘How?’ of Christ’s natures that scholars are often obsessed with. Such speculation is nothing less than a devious effort to avoid a confrontation of faith with Christ which demands a decision of conformity with and obedience to God’s Word. The proper question should be “Who is Jesus Christ?”, a question directed at his significance for me and his purpose in my life (CC 33).

Christ then is not a object of useless speculative probing, neither is he thought of as being for himself but only in relation to me (pro me), and that in the church context (CC 47). Bonhoeffer isolates three components of this pro me structure:

1. The pro me structure relates me to the historicity of Jesus. He is the first-fruits.
2. Jesus Christ is for his brethren, standing for them as their representative before God.
3. Because he is the representative, he is the new humanity in which God’s gracious dealings are effected (CC 48).

Bonhoeffer finds the pro me structure taking form in the church as Word, as sacrament and as community.

A. Christ as Sermon

If Christ is person, he encounters man in the Word of address, i.e., in the sermon. The form of address requires a hearer and a response and this again means an event in community. Thus Bonhoeffer writes, “The character of truth in this addressing is such that it seeks community, in order to face it with the truth. Truth is not something in itself, which rests for itself, but something that happens between two. Truth happens only in community (Gemeinschaft)” (CC 50). Christ as the Word of address is simultaneously to express revelation as contingent (extra nos) and revelation as bound to men (pro nobis). It is not a timeless truth but the truth spoken in the concrete moment. We see here Bonhoeffer’s polemic against idealism with its arrogant assumptions of man’s self-understanding and his inherent ability to master and classify even God’s truth. More significantly, the sermon represents Christ’s Word of judgment and grace. It is judgment in exposing the isolated egotism of the human heart as cor curvum in se (the heart turned in upon itself), and it is grace in liberating the egocentric self to a love of the neighbor, thus creating the mutuality of freedom and love for one another in the community.

B. Christ as sacrament

The sacrament is the Word in corporeal form. As the sermon reaches the logos of man, the sacrament is the means by which Christ reaches man in his nature. We must reject speculations on the mode of Christ’s presence, a fruitless controversy that has plagued Lutherans in trying to answer the Calvinists’ objections. We should rather concentrate on it as an act of grace and as the humiliation of Christ. It is also to proclaim a promise of forgiveness and new creation:

“In the sacrament, Christ is by our side as creature, among us, brother with brother. But, even as creature, he is also the new creation. In the sacrament he breaks through the fallen creation at a defined point. He is the new creature. He is the restored creation of our spiritual and bodily existence” (CC 57).

The eucharist in the early church, Bonhoeffer says, naturally assumed the character of a joyful meal of the community of brothers. Likewise, baptism is no mere ritual but a corporate act of joining believers into an indissoluble union in the Body of Christ.

C. Christ as congregation

Bonhoeffer describes the church as the real presence of Christ (CD 269). We must not, however, attribute to Bonhoeffer an understanding of autonomy between the three aspects of Christ’s presence. He is, rather, stressing the social character of the sacraments, their manifestation in time and space and the Lordship of Christ in the church. Perhaps the inter-relationship is best captured in his own words, “The social significance of Christ is decisive; he is only present in the church, i.e., where the Christian congregation is united in brotherly love through sermon and eucharist” (SCH 266).


CC Christ the Centre, trans. John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

CD The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R.H. Fuller, rev. by Irmgard Booth (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

CS The Communion of Saints, trans. Ronald G. Smith et al (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).

E Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

LPP Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald H. Fuller, 4th ed., trans. Of additional material by John Bowden (New York: Macmillan, 1972).

SCH Clifford J. Green, The Sociality of Christ and Humanity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Early Theology, 1927-1933 (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1975).

One Comment

  1. Sivin Kit says:

    Good to see Bonhoeffer get some airplay here. I’ll wait for part 2 before more comments -)