Christology and Sociality in Bonhoeffer (Part 2/2)

Bonhoeffer never conducted theology merely as an academic exercise. He insisted that acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired. Theology is an expression of belief since “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes�? (CD 69). For Bonhoeffer, there can be no abstract Christology.

Christology and Sociality in Bonhoeffer

II. Participation in Christ: An individual response

Bonhoeffer never conducted theology merely as an academic exercise. He insisted that acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired. Theology is an expression of belief since “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes” (CD 69). For Bonhoeffer, there can be no abstract Christology.

“An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system… renders discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ… Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ” (CD 64).

The question of how Christ takes form among the disciples here and now becomes decisive. Bonhoeffer answers that it is not a pursuit of any program, ideal or a set of worthwhile laws; it is the calling of the imitation of Christ. The disciple if to be conformed to the image of Christ, and even then it is not so much a goal of self-transformation as to be assimilated to the form of Christ:

“To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as well as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal. 4:19), and to be manifested in us” (CD 341, cf. E 82).

Again, it is not a question of a man being transformed into a form alien to him, for in Christ we recover our true humanity.

To partake in the form of Christ also means to live the life of the historical Jesus. It would be characterized by sharing in the Lord’s suffering and humiliation. “Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion” (CD 96). Bonhoeffer repeated the calling of discipleship as being caught up in the messianic suffering of God in a strong challenge:

“(The Christian) is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world… To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way… but to be a man… the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious acts that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the world” (LPP 361).

We should point out here that Bonhoeffer was not advocating a new doctrine. He could claim an honorable tradition going back to Luther’s theologia crucis with its rejection of speculative philosophy, the stress on the hidden God taking the form of weakness and known only through the sufferings of the cross (in the double sense of both Christ’s and the disciples’).

III. Christ and the church: a corporate life

If we can meet Christ in the church then we can sustain discipleship only within the community. Bonhoeffer goes so far as to say that no man can become a new man except by entering the church and becoming a member of the Body of Christ (CD 270). Bonhoeffer is particularly sensitive to the problem of the human ego. He had earlier defined sin as “the will which principally affirms itself as a value and not the other, and which acknowledges the other only in this perspective” (CS254f). So he characterized the new man, i.e., the church, as the fellowship and communion with the Lord wherein we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. Bonhoeffer certainly goes beyond the sanctification of an isolated believer. Sanctification is the church taking on the form of Christ.

“‘Formation’ consequently means in the first place Jesus’ taking form in His Church. So the Church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ Himself who has taken form among men” (E 83).

IV. Christ’s church and the world: not exclusive

We must protest then against those who seize Bonhoeffer’s phrase ‘religionless Christianity’ as a premise for the blurring of the boundaries between the church and the ‘world come of age’. Such a step would amount to nothing less than a disaster in pastoral life. For Bonhoeffer, the ‘world come of age’ is still a godless world. He sees that the form of Christ certainly implies “the visible line of demarcation between the Church and the world” (CD 314), and that “the separation of Church and world become visible only in their continuous conflict” (CD 321). Such an antithesis must be maintained clearly if the church as the social reality created by Christ is to function effectively as a paradigm of promise, a challenge confronting mankind in all its life.

We should also recall that Bonhoeffer maintains the necessity of ‘the secret discipline’ in the life of the believer – cult, prayer, dogmas, the life of Christ (LPP 300). On such is faith nurtured even though the ‘world come of age’ is unable to understand them in their traditional forms. In the final analysis, there can be no righteous action without prayer (LPP 299f).

We can be sure that Bonhoeffer would fully agree that Christians must learn how to nourish each other in the Spirit and in the Word, and organize themselves in the face of the temptations and conflicts. In other words, the internal growth of the body of reconciled believers is an indispensable pre-requisite witness of reconciliation in the world.

In insisting on the above, we do not wish to deny Bonhoeffer’s missionary intention as he makes clear in his later work, Ethics.

“The church does indeed occupy a definite space in the world, a space which is delimited by her public worship, her organization, and her parish life… It is essential to the revelation of God in Jesus that it occupies space in the world… It is the place where testimony is given to the foundation of all reality in Jesus Christ… The space of the church is not there in order to deprive the world of a piece of its territory, but precisely to prove to the world that it is still the world, the world which is loved by God and reconciled to him… She asks for no more space than she needs for the purpose of serving the world by bearing witness to Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of the world with God through him” (E 202).

Bonhoeffer protests against the error of holding a dichotomy between the church and the world. Instead of abandoning the world to the devil, he advocates that it must be claimed for Christ who had won it back by his incarnation, his death and resurrection (E 204). The church as the form of Christ is actualized in the midst of this world. Its detachment is not from the world of things but from the world of sin (E 320). In fact, Bonhoeffer could only exult in the fact that:

“The cross of atonement is the setting free for life before God in the midst of the godless world; it is the setting free for life in its genuine worldliness” (E 297).

The church by its life summons individuals and peoples to faith and obedience towards the revelation in Jesus Christ. Even as it maintains its identity it must remember that –

“What is intended here is not separation from the world but the summoning of the world into the fellowship of this body of Christ… The Church is divided from the world solely by the fact that she affirms in faith the reality of God’s acceptance of man, a reality which is the property of the world. By allowing this reality to take effect within herself, she testifies that it is effectual for the whole world” (E 206).

Thus the church exists not for its sake but for the sake of the world. As Christ was ‘the man for others’, likewise the Lord’s intention is a ‘church for the world’.

V. Conclusion

In reading Bonhoeffer’s works, we cannot but feel their immense attraction. Oftentimes Protestant theology, despite their neatly harmonized systems, cannot help but give the picture of a sterile God who is too perfect and holy to be actually involved with the world of men. It cannot but give cold comfort to millions of Christians trying to maintain a precariously-held faith in a world filled with immense suffering and political injustice. Such theological systems are nothing more than plants producing beautiful blossoms but maturing into inedible fruit. The church, too, is often guilty of abandoning the world and retreating to its holy ghetto. The challenge laid by Camus must not be ignored, “Christians should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and play up personally” (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, p. 71).

Bonhoeffer’s answer is that God has indeed made himself accessible to man within the circumstances of the human life situation. God is found in human relations. In particular, God is revealed in Christ as a person in relationship with man, and as one whose power is in his very helplessness and suffering. Bonhoeffer, too, has vindicated his theological integrity by being involved in the crisis of his war-torn country and by paying for it with his own life.

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s ‘Christ for us’ is achieved at the expense of serious weaknesses. In opting for a Christology that is existential-personal Bonhoeffer has failed to provide the ontological foundations that is necessary to protect the integrity of Christ as a person. Of course, he exists in the word, as sacrament and as community. But how do these revelatory forms precisely relate to the person of Christ and his personal presence? Certainly it is not enough merely to state the humanity and divinity of Christ without explaining how they both indwell Christ as a hypostatic union or how both these aspects are communicated in Christ’s revealed presence. Bonhoeffer is unable also to justify why Christ could be present only in these three forms. For that matter, could they not be presenting many Christs rather than one? It is not without foundation that Charles Hegarty (p. 368) has charged Bonhoeffer of a certain type of ‘crypto-modalism’ in his Christology. Similarly, Clifford J. Green (p. 198) notes the unresolved tension between an overpowering, authoritarian Christ in The Cost of Discipleship and the weak, humiliated Christ of Letters from Prison.

Bonhoeffer, too, has failed to do justice to the incarnation. It is granted that he insisted correctly on the humanity of Christ as being the concretization of Revelation, but its role is in practice dissolved by the ‘sociality of Christ’. G. B. Kelly (1974, p. 70) has rightly pointed out that the Incarnation of the Word is not just the means of making possible that the inter-relationship between God and man. It is itself the highest expression of this union of God and man.

We can most heartily agree with Bonhoeffer that there remains in unresolved mystery in the Incarnation, but surely he must have crossed over the threshold to fideism when he writes that Christ must remain incognito, that faith is upheld “even when this seems against all sense” (CC 110). One cannot but hear the echo of Tertullian’s “I believe because it is absurd.” Surely there must be room for “faith seeking understanding” even if the mystery of the Incarnation is to be respected.

Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s abdication is premature. The venture toward a Christology that is both existential and ontological may yet prove to be more vital and more fruitful than he expected, that both the How and the Who questions demand equal attention. In any case, we owe to Bonhoeffer the insight that these questions can only be answered in a church that is faithfully manifesting the form of Christ in the world. Only such a church-centred Christology could convince the unbeliever today that the slogan “hostile to the church but friendly to Jesus” is both mistaken and unnecessary.


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).

2 thoughts on “Christology and Sociality in Bonhoeffer (Part 2/2)”

  1. Here’s my questions:
    1. Is NOT “explaining how they both indwell Christ as a hypostatic union or how both these aspects are communicated in Christ’s revealed presence.” a weakness or a difference in theological approach?

    2. “Similarly, Clifford J. Green (p. 198) notes the unresolved tension between an overpowering, authoritarian Christ in The Cost of Discipleship and the weak, humiliated Christ of Letters from Prison.”Is there a place for unresolved tension in theology?

  2. From a more pastoral perspective,

    “Only such a church-centred Christology could convince the unbeliever today that the slogan “hostile to the church but friendly to Jesusâ€? is both mistaken and unnecessary.” may be true as Christ and the Church shoudn’t be divided by one’s whims and fancy or mere discomfort.

    But practically, our inability as a church to seriously deal with “why people are hostile to the church?” with self-critical robust ecclesiology as well as ministry praxis seems me creating serious barriers towards genuine seekers and fellow pilgrims on this side of heaven.

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