Volume 48 - Issue 1

Christ For Us: An Analysis of Bonhoeffer’s Christology and Its Implications for His Ethic

By Stephen Estes


This article analyzes the Christology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian who stood against evil in a day when his contemporaries failed. It traces the outline of Christology, including its dual emphasis on the transcendence and the immanence of God in Christ. Along the way, it also contrasts his theology with popular theologies of his day, including those who used the “Orders of Creation” as a theological defense of Nazism, and those within the Confessing Church who resisted but nonetheless did not recognize the importance of standing with the Jews in their persecution. This article concludes that Bonhoeffer’s exceptional ethic was the natural outworking of his robust Christology.

In September of 1933, German Church delegates gathered in Wittenberg, many of them dressed in the brown-shirted SA uniform. During what subsequently came to be called the Brown Synod, “Ludwig Muller, the ‘German Christian’ Reich Bishop threw down the gauntlet to his church opponents. ‘The old has come to an end,’ he proclaimed. ‘The new has begun. The political church struggle is over. The struggle for the soul of the people now begins.’”1 When in January of 1933 the National Socialists rose to power and ushered in the Third Reich, many Christians in Germany celebrated what they interpreted as a return to German significance and prosperity. Very few resisted any of the Nazi policies. Those who did resist the political encroachment into the affairs of the state church formed the “Confessing Church” in 1934, which would subsequently adopt the Barmen Declaration which embraced Christian orthodoxy and rejected the Nazi ecclesiological agenda. However, despite the pleas of a few voices, even the Barmen Declaration failed to stand against the racial purification of the German Church as ordered in the Aryan Clause of the “Law for the Re-establishment of the Professional Civil Service.” Hardly anyone saw sufficient reason to stand with their fellow Christians of Jewish descent against the rising political onslaught.2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one who did. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eberhard Bethge, understates the situation when he describes the summer of 1933 as “turbulent.”3 That year entailed the early persecution of the Jews in Germany, as a battle was waged for the nation and for the nation’s Evangelical church. The church was at the heart of this conflict in 1933, and Bonhoeffer played a key role in the struggle for Germany’s soul.

One key piece of Hitler’s domestic policy was to resolve the “Jewish Question” through a “Law for the Re-establishment of the Professional Civil Service” that included an “Aryan Clause” that disqualified people of Jewish descent, specifically ‘those of non-Aryan descent,’ from holding any state office. Because the Evangelical Church in Germany was a state church, Christian pastors of Jewish descent were excluded by this prohibition. “Bonhoeffer helped formulate tracts and statements opposing the intrusion of the Aryan legislation into the church.”4 Some others also opposed the new government’s intrusion into the church. “The leaders of the Pastors’ Emergency League, spearheaded by the dynamic Dahlem, Berlin preacher Martin Niemöller, rejected the established Protestant Church (Reichskirche) and formed the Confessing Church in 1934.”5 According to Bonhoeffer scholar Victoria Barnett, “Some Christians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, began to recognize that brutal treatment of Jews violated the Christian doctrine of love for one’s neighbor. Bonhoeffer’s early awareness of the deeper significance of the ‘Aryan’ laws prompted him to write a thorough analysis of the problem in 1933.”6 Barnett goes on to criticize Bonhoeffer’s theological understanding of Judaism as antisemitic. Despite the criticisms which some contemporary scholars express for portions of Bonhoeffer’s writings, even his critics agree that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s perceptive and passionate stance against Nazism was unique among his contemporaries. Another Bonhoeffer scholar, John de Gruchy observes that “Bonhoeffer was the first Evangelical theologian to attack the [anti-Jewish] legislation. In his essay on “The Church and the Jewish Question,” written on May 7, he stated clearly what positions were open to the Church in relating to the State.”7 What prompted Bonhoeffer’s ready response to the troubling questions of his day? The answer begins with a question.

“Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” This question famously emerges from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letter to Eberhard Bethge as Bonhoeffer described his struggles while in a Nazi prison. This question was programmatic in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought throughout his life and work. Andreas Pangritz calls this question the “cantus firmus of Bonhoeffer’s theological development from the beginning to the end,”8 and James Woelfel aptly calls Christology “the golden thread which ties together his works from the first to the last.”9 Nowhere in the Bonhoeffer corpus does his Christology shine through quite as clearly as in his “Christology lectures,” which he delivered as privatdozent to students at the University of Berlin in the summer of 1933. Within these lectures Bonhoeffer answers the question, “who is Christ?” saying that “Christ is pro nobis, for us.”10 Delivered mere months after Hitler’s installment as Chancellor, these lectures are a clear presentation of Bonhoeffer’s theology as well as a bold critique of radical nationalist ideals, when read in light of the ongoing German Church struggle and the political environment. It is ultimately Bonhoeffer’s Christology which led him to vehemently oppose the Nazi agenda and to thus distinguish himself from his German contemporaries. History is famously easy to evaluate in retrospect, and notoriously difficult to live. This paper will argue that Bonhoeffer’s Christology drove him to stand distinctively against Nazism and the suffering it caused.

1. Bonhoeffer’s Christology from Above

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological method begins with the assertion of Christ as the authoritative Logos of God. This Christology from above contradicted both the prevailing theological method of his contemporaries in Berlin and their theological justification of the Nazi movement via their doctrine of the orders of creation. Bonhoeffer’s high Christology enabled him to oppose Nazi policies that violated the command of Christ because his Christology begins with the authority of Christ as revealed from above.

1.1. The Divine Logos against the Human ‘Logos’

The introduction to Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures contrasts starkly with the contemporary theological method at the University of Berlin. Bonhoeffer begins, not with a quest for the “historical Jesus,” in fact he concludes that all such quests have failed,11 but rather he begins his Christology with the concept of Christ as the risen Word of God who reveals God to us today. Bonhoeffer contrasts the human logos with the divine Logos, who we can only approach through faithful attentiveness. “Christology, as the doctrine about Christ, is a rather peculiar area of scholarship, [to the extent that] Christ is the very Word of God. Christology is doctrine, speaking, the word about the Word of God. Christ is the Logos of God.”12 In keeping with Karl Barth’s dialectical theology, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the transcendence of God and God’s revelatory Word that enters our existence with authority. This revelation, he explains, defies human efforts to classify and to question.

Every possibility of classification must fall short, because the existence of this Logos means the end of my logos. He is the Logos. He is the counter Word. We are now talking about “Being”! The question of “who” is the question about transcendence. The question of “how” is the question about immanence. But because the One who is questioned is the Son himself, the immanent question of “how” can never comprehend him.13

Bonhoeffer denies the possibility of the “how” question, which resists the authority of God’s revelation in order to comprehend and evaluate it, and in doing so elevates human reason, or “logos,” above the divine Logos. Instead, the Logos must be approached on his own terms. “That means that one can legitimately ask who only after the self-revelation of the other to whom one puts the question has already taken place.”14 In other words, our logos is only possible in response to the divine Logos. Bonhoeffer not only denies the intellectual and ontological ability of the human logos to attain to the divine Logos; he also denies the moral ability of the human logos to abide the divine Logos when they meet. “Let us ask again what happens if the claim of the counter Logos is questioned. The human logos kills the Logos of God, the Word become human, which it has just questioned. Because the human logos does not want to die itself, the Logos of God, which is death to the human logos, must die instead.”15 Far from being compatible, Bonhoeffer argues that human reason is actually opposed to divine revelation. But, because the divine Logos is divine, it overcomes human efforts to forcefully silence it.

But what happens when this counter Word, though it has been killed, raises itself from the dead as the living, eternal, ultimate, conquering Word of God, when it rises up to meet its murderers and rushes at them again, appearing as the Resurrected One who has overcome death? Here the question, ‘Who are you?’ becomes poignant. Here it stands, alive forever, over and around and within humankind. The human being can still fight against the Word become human and kill him, but against the Resurrected One the human being has no power.16

The human being is the one who must give account for himself to the divine Word, not the other way around. It is crucial to realize that with this methodological statement, Bonhoeffer is decisively rejecting the theological method of the Berlin theologians and standing instead within the Barthian camp. Bonhoeffer arrived at this theological methodology over the time since he first encountered Barth’s writings in 1927.17 The key result being that his Christology stands firmly upon a conviction that the human logos must stand in silence before the authoritative Logos of God.

Bonhoeffer’s posture to the divine Logos is bound up in a rejection of the modernist belief in the capacity for humanity to discover the reality of God apart from God’s self-revelation. In this too, he shares Barth’s critique of Natural Theology. Against attempts to attain a true knowledge of God by historical and scientific investigation, Bonhoeffer argues that we can only know God by accepting God’s own self-revelation by faith. “There is only one possibility for me to be truly searching for God—that I already know who God is. There is no such thing as blindly setting out to search for God. I can only search for what has already been found.”18 Bonhoeffer recognizes that the locus of God’s revelation is Christ himself, thus the subject of Christology is foundational for all true knowledge of God, and all true knowledge of his creation. “With that the place where our work must begin is clearly indicated. In the Church, where Christ has revealed himself as the Word of God”19 Thus, at the outset of his Christology lectures, Bonhoeffer stands with Barth’s critique of liberalism and emphasizes a Christology from above along with the transcendence of God. Andreas Pangritz notes that Bonhoeffer’s high Christology might give the impression of being ordinary to some. But in his context, Bonhoeffer’s Christology was neither ordinary nor uncontroversial.

A superficial reading of the Christology lectures might give the impression that Bonhoeffer is simply defending the Christian tradition. In contrast to his liberal teacher Adolf von Harnack he even seems to find reason to applaud the doctrine of the early church on the “two natures” of Christ. At a time when the “German Christians” (the Deutsche Christen or the Nazi party of the church) attempted to construct an “Aryan” Christ, such a merely apologetic conception of Christology would have had political implications.20

Bonhoeffer’s Christology stands in stark contrast to the theological method and the prevailing political movement of his day as it preserves the place of the authoritative Word of God to speak today. Significantly, Christology is foundational to Bonhoeffer’s theological knowledge, including even the knowledge of Creation.

1.2. Orders of Creation

German theologians, including Paul Althaus and Emmanuel Hirsch, argued that Germans ought to follow Nazi policies, because both the government and the German race were created orders established by God. Hirsch argued that the institutional church must dutifully embrace the state’s actions on this basis. “Church leadership … has a relationship with and duty toward the state.”21 Their argument accepted historical reality as indicative of God’s will and consequently as morally authoritative. The theological concept of the Orders of Creation complemented their understanding of Luther’s Two Kingdoms paradigm. Bonhoeffer rejected this theological program by insisting that, as de Gruchy explains, “In Christ, God has overcome the division of the world into secular and sacred spheres, and brought all of reality under his authority.”22

Years later, Bonhoeffer would develop this theory further into his system of Divine Mandates, which he grounded in the command of Christ, in contrast to the concept of Divine Orders, which are grounded in historical fact. In his paper on the “Church and State,” Bonhoeffer would later write, “Only the grounding of government in Jesus Christ leads beyond groundings in natural law, which is where, finally, the groundings both in human nature and human sin end up.”23 In his posthumously published Ethics, Bonhoeffer defines the Divine Mandate as “the authorization and legitimization to declare a particular divine commandment, the conferring of divine authority on an earthly institution. A mandate is to be understood simultaneously as the laying claim to, commandeering of, and formation of a certain earthly domain by the divine command.”24 Bonhoeffer emphasizes Christ’s authoritative revelation over the ability of the human logos to discern truth about God and God’s will merely from the created order and human reason. Importantly, he denies any concept of the Orders of Creation that would attempt to detach Christ’s will from his revelatory Word and would instead locate the divine command in the natural order by human reason. Though Bonhoeffer continued to develop his concept of the Divine Mandates, his basic argument was already integral to his Christology lectures in 1933. As Joel Lawrence explains,

In these [Christology] lectures, Bonhoeffer is laying out the ground work of his resistance to Nazism by concentrating on the place of God’s revelation, Jesus Christ. In contrast to this, the Nazis are proclaiming the “orders of creation,” an ideology which proclaims that God reveals his will not simply in Scripture or through Jesus Christ, but through the means of Volk, race and the nation.25

When Bonhoeffer submits the human logos to the Divine Logos, he radically departs from the theological method which supported the theological argument for National Socialist ideology.

This must not be misunderstood as merely a polemical use of theology in support of Bonhoeffer’s political agenda. Rather it is the natural conclusion of his Christology from above. This Christology includes his neo-orthodox emphasis on the transcendence of God against all attempts to know God by means of human reason and the created order. This went part and parcel with his understanding of revelation which he shared with Barth. Rumscheidt summarizes,

In his first edition of his The Epistle to the Romans, and again in the wholly revised second edition of 1922, Karl Barth stated that the Bible was not about the cultivation of a religious existence enriched by tradition, but solely about listening to God’s voice…. This meant a decisive no! to all the forms of secular or sacral deification of the created that had spread like a corrosive poison in empirical Christianity and its theological eudaemonism of culture and experience.26

Deotis Roberts reaches the same conclusion about Bonhoeffer’s argument, when he compares Bonhoeffer’s theology to that of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Bonhoeffer was also concerned about false authorities. For example, theologians such as Althaus and Brunner saw the authority for the proclamation of the commandments in the “office” of the church or in the “orders of creation.” For a period, Bonhoeffer responded to this crucial issue through “a qualified silence.” He was later to assert, “The Barthian view of ethics as ‘demonstration’ rules out all concrete ethics and ethical principles. Proclaiming the concrete Christ always means proclaiming him in a concrete situation.”27

Through this concept of the concrete, present command of Christ for us today, Bonhoeffer affirms the divine mandates of Church and State, but only insofar as they are subservient to the authoritative Word which is their source.

Bonhoeffer’s Christology from above prompted him to criticize and reject the authority of the state, when and where it denied the concrete command of the Lord Jesus Christ from whom its authority is derived. In his 1933 essay, “On the Jewish Question,” Bonhoeffer argued that the German Church must reject the state’s attempts to divide it on a racial basis. Bonhoeffer does not reject state authority altogether—in fact, he upholds a position within the Lutheran Two-Kingdoms paradigm which allows the state its rightful jurisdiction. “Even on the Jewish question today, the church cannot contradict the state directly and demand that it takes any particular different course of action.”28 Yet, the Church must not stand by quietly when the state takes actions that are illegitimate. He goes on to clarify, “But that does not mean that the church stands aside, indifferent to what political action is taken. Instead, it can and must, precisely because it does not moralize about individual cases, keep asking the government whether its actions can be justified as legitimate state actions, that is, actions that create law and order, not lack of rights and disorder.”29 Bonhoeffer’s Christology from above prompts him to reject attempts by the human logos to assert itself over and against divine self-revelation, including attempts by German theologians to justify unethical policies on the basis of a natural theology which stands apart from the concrete command and revelation of the divine Word. Thus, Bonhoeffer answers his question, ‘Who is this Christ?’ by asserting that Christ is the divine Logos, the definitive and authoritative self-revelation of the transcendent God. This answer positions Bonhoeffer squarely against the popular German theology and politics of his day.

2. Bonhoeffer’s Christology from Below

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology from below complements his view of Christ’s transcendence by also highlighting Christ’s immanence, as the one who is free for us. This belief in God’s genuine presence in Christ, and therefore in Christ’s Church, led Bonhoeffer to emphasize the unity of the Church and the ontological value of humanity, even at the cost of suffering violence and humiliation.

2.1. Christ’s Humanity for Us

In his Christology, Bonhoeffer complements his assertion of Christ’s transcendence with an equal emphasis on Christ’s genuine reconciliation to creation through his condescension. In his embrace of Christ’s immanence, Bonhoeffer distinguishes himself from his mentor Karl Barth’s theological position during that period. In the early years of Bonhoeffer’s interaction with Barth, he took issue with this key aspect of Barth’s early theology. According to Bethge, “as he eagerly and gratefully absorbed Barth’s message during 1927 and 1929, Bonhoeffer directed a number of theological-epistemological questions towards Barth, under the principle of ‘finitum capax infiniti.’”30 In his second dissertation, Act and Being, “He wanted to persuade [Barth] of his own belief in the finitum capax infiniti that, despite everything, God was accessible.”31 In Act and Being, Bonhoeffer writes in response to Barth’s concept of God’s freedom.

In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God-eternally remaining within the divine self, aseity—on the other side of revelation, as it is of God’s coming out of God’s own self in revelation. It is a matter of God’s given Word, the covenant in which God is bound by God’s own action. It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings. God is not free from human beings but for them.32

This description of God’s freedom as being for humanity comes from Bonhoeffer’s early writing, but it continued to play a major role in his Christology lectures and beyond. Christ was the transcendent, authoritative revelation of God. But he was also God’s revelation made manifest within the Church. As he put it in Act and Being, “Christ is the word of God’s freedom. God is present, that is, not in eternal nonobjectivity but—to put it quite provisionally for now—‘haveable,’ graspable in the Word within the church.”33 Despite God’s transcendence, he can truly be said to be present within the church, and thereby also present in the real, historical world today.

In Act and Being, as well as his Christology lectures, Bonhoeffer tried to mediate between the traditional Lutheran and Reformed controversy over the “extra Calvinisticum.” He says in his Christology lectures concerning the person and work of Christ, “As the Crucified and Risen One, Jesus is at the same time the Christ who is present now…. Only because Christ is the Christ who is present are we still able to inquire of him. Only because proclamation and the sacraments are carried out in the church can we inquire about Christ.”34 In other words, in Christ God has become concretely accessible. Because Christ has reconciled God and humanity in himself through the miracle of the incarnation, redemption and genuine revelation are possible. “If true unity is lacking, redemption is called into question. Finitum capax infiniti non per se sed per infinitum.”35 By this, Bonhoeffer reconciled his Christology from above with his Christology from below and embraced Christ’s presence and knowability within the concrete situation today. In The Humanity of God, written later in Barth’s career and after Bonhoeffer’s death, Barth likewise acknowledges that it is in God’s humanity that we know him as divine. “It is precisely God’s deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity.”36 This is Bonhoeffer’s contention in Act and Being and his Lectures on Christology, that God’s transcendence is worked out in his freedom not from his creation but his freedom for his created people.37 As de Gruchy explains, “Breaking away from Barth, Bonhoeffer once again drew deeply on Luther in his understanding of the ‘humiliation of Christ,’ in insisting on the freedom of God for humankind [pro nobis], and in his affirmation of finitum capax infiniti.”38 The finite is capable of the infinite, but not because of its own qualities. This reconciliation with God is possible only by the condescension of the infinite God who truly enters into Creation by his great power and goodness.

2.2. Christ as Pro Nobis

Beyond saying that God has become truly accessible in Christ, Bonhoeffer contends that Christ is really present today “pro nobis.” This is his ultimate answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’: Christ is God and man reconciled “for us.” According to Bethge, “Bonhoeffer’s fundamental question received a very simple answer: Jesus Christ is ‘the person for others.’ … It provided the basis for the ethics of conspiracy and its implementation.”39 Bonhoeffer’s Christology therefore not only distinguished him from the German Christian and National Socialist movements, but also from many of his colleagues in the Confessing Church. In his book, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, Reggie Williams considers the influence of the black church in Harlem, New York on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology. Williams emphasizes the importance of Christ pro nobis in Bonhoeffer’s theology.

Christ as the new humanity as being-free-for-humanity, is developed further in Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures in the summer of 1933. He described Christ as the one who is pro nobis, “for us,” not in a sentimental way but ontologically as the person of Christ; Jesus cannot be understood in his being by himself, but only in relationship, in community. Pro nobis describes the being and the work of Christ in the development of God’s kingdom. In his actions and his being, he is humanity for us before God.40

In Christ, humanity is reconciled to God not merely externally, but ontologically. Christ has truly united himself to us irrevocably, and that changes everything about the way we understand our relationship to God.

Bonhoeffer unfolds the significance of this concept of Christ “for us” in his Christology lectures. In Christ, God and man are truly reconciled. In Christ, the church finds its new humanity. In Christ, the church is called to exist for others, especially for those who suffer. Having rejected the question of “how?” when directed to the God-man, he concludes,

The only question that makes sense is: who is present, who is with us here and now? The answer is: the human-God Jesus. I cannot know who the human Christ is if I do not simultaneously think of the God-Christ and vice versa. God in his timeless eternity is not God. Jesus Christ in his humanity, limited in time, is not Jesus Christ. Instead, in the human being Jesus Christ, God is God. Only in Jesus Christ is God present.41

God is truly present in Jesus Christ. And he is present “for us.”

The question must be, by virtue of what personal ontological structure is Christ present to the church? If one answers, by virtue of his God-humanity, that is correct but still needs explication. It is the “pro-me” structure. The being of Christ’s person is essentially relatedness to me. His being-Christ is his being-for-me. This pro-me is not to be understood as an effect that issues from Christ or as a form that he assumes incidentally, but is to be understood as the being of his very person. The very core of his person is pro-me. This is not a historical, factual or ontic statement, but rather an ontological one: that is, I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.42

Thus, Bonhoeffer’s Christology embraces the reality of a new humanity that ontologically exists in Christ. In this new humanity, God truly is knowable and is truly for us. In Him, God and mankind are reconciled forevermore, and so Bonhoeffer concludes that now we can only think of God and man in conjunction with one another.

In his first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer defined the church as “Christ existing as community,”43 and it is to this idea of Christ’s perfect union with his church that he now returns during his discussion of Christ pro-me. “I can think of Christ only in existential relationship to him and, at the same time, only within the church-community. Christ is not in-himself and also in the church-community, but the Christ who is the only Christ is the one present in the church-community pro-me.”44 Bonhoeffer goes on to draw three conclusions about Christ’s pro-me structure of existence for the new humanity. For the purposes of this paper, his second conclusion is of special interest. Specifically, he concludes,

He is there for his brothers and sisters in that he stands in their stead. Christ stands for his new humanity before God, that is, he takes their place and stands in their stead before God. If this is so, then he is the new humanity. There where the new humanity should stand, he himself stands, by virtue of his pro-me structure. That means he is the church-community. He is no longer acting for it, on its behalf, but rather as it, in his going to the cross, dying, and taking the sins of the church-community upon himself. Thus in him the new humanity is crucified and dies.45

Because of Bonhoeffer’s Christology, which follows Chalcedon in insisting on the perfect union of God and humanity in Christ, Bonhoeffer emphasizes that the church is Christ’s body. To tear apart the church is akin to rending Christ himself. Consequentially, when the Aryan Clause proposed dividing the church by the law of race, Bonhoeffer’s Christology prompted him to argue in his 1933 Memorandum on the Jewish Question that the church was in a status confessionis because the very unity of Christ was being divided. “The Aryan paragraph in the form contained in the first program of the ‘German Christians,’ is a ‘status confessionis’ for the Church. Nothing is more dangerous than for us to allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by statements as to its relative harmlessness.”46 Even among the Confessing Church leaders, Bonhoeffer’s was a radical position, though it was a natural one for Bonhoeffer to take because of his understanding of Christ’s humanity. His Christology gave him the ethical clarity to realize that “the exclusion of the Jewish Christians from our communion of worship would mean: The excluding Church is erecting a racial law as a prerequisite of Christian communion. But in doing so, it loses Christ himself, who is the goal of even this human, purely temporal law.”47 Because Bonhoeffer takes Christ’s union with humanity seriously, he is able to recognize the division of the German church as an insidious attempt to divide Christ himself.

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christ’s humanity also led him to embrace the church’s role of suffering with Christ, as it exists ‘for others’ as he exists ‘for us.’ In his Christology lectures, he argues that the church is Christ’s present form in the world. “Christ is the church-community by virtue of his being-pro-me. He takes action as the new humanity. The church-community, between his ascension and his second coming, is the form he takes.”48 A logical outworking of our union with Christ is that we are united to one another. Therefore, when one suffers, those who stand with Christ share in their suffering.

With exclusion of the Jewish Christians from the communion of worship, he who realizes the nature of the Church must feel himself to be excluded also. How can he who holds as church office administer that office if he knows that there are in the communion brethren of fewer rights to whom such office is not open because of their race?49

Indeed, Bonhoeffer would develop this theme further in his chapter on the image of Christ in his well-known work, Discipleship. There he writes, “The incarnate one transforms his disciples into brothers and sisters of all human beings. The ‘philanthropy’ (Titus 3:4) of God that became evident in the incarnation of Christ is the reason for Christians to love every human being on earth as a brother or sister.”50 Because of Bonhoeffer’s Christology from below, he recognized the new humanity’s shared identity with the incarnate and crucified One.

He became like human beings, so that we would be like him. In Christ’s incarnation all of humanity regains the dignity of bearing the image of God. Whoever from now on attacks the least of the people attacks Christ, who took on human form and who in himself has restored the image of God for all who bear a human countenance. In community with the incarnate one, we are once again given our true humanity.51

This identity of the new humanity is that Christ pro nobis has reconciled us to God, and he has done so through the stumbling block of his suffering and humility. “Christus pro nobis is the Christ who reconciles me with God, and that is only possible through this stumbling block and through faith.”52 His church shares in this identity as the suffering one, despised by the world, and so must stand with our brothers and sisters who are the least of these. “With the humiliated Christ, his church must also be humiliated.”53 This is not, Bonhoeffer writes, for the church to “look upon itself with vain self-satisfaction, as though being humiliated were the visible proof that Christ is with it. There is no law here, and the humiliation of Christ is not a principle for the church to follow but rather a fact.”54 That fact is that we are united to the suffering servant, who is in himself the reconciliation of God and man, and our consequential union to one another.

3. Conclusion

How was Bonhoeffer able to recognize the evil of the Nazi regime and its persecution of the Jews when the other German Christians and even many among the Confessing Church were blind to it? If we take Bonhoeffer at his word, it was his Christology. Many evangelicals today recognize Bonhoeffer’s historical significance for the way he resisted the Nazi regime, but his reasons for doing so are not so well apprehended. It was Bonhoeffer the theologian who became Bonhoeffer the resister.

This article has argued that it was specifically Bonhoeffer’s Christology which gave him such unique insight into the ethical questions of his day, when nearly everyone in his context was so afflicted with ethical blindness. Bonhoeffer’s high view of Christ enabled him to logically connect the delegated authority of institutions to its source: the authoritative Logos of God, and so to hold it accountable to the mandate of the King. While most in the Confessing Church did not appreciate the importance of opposing the persecution of the Jews, Bonhoeffer’s grasp of Christ’s immanence gave him clarity to understand the significance of both the church’s unity and the importance of standing with the afflicted in the name of Christ. Many observers have been compelled by Bonhoeffer’s example, but it is crucial to note that he was motivated by that of Christ.

The tragic reality of Germany in the 1930s is that very few German Christians viewed the Nazi movement negatively, much less understood the movement to be dangerous and contradictory to Christianity. Most affirmed the movement explicitly or tacitly. Some have rightly argued that many German Christians allowed the Jewish persecution because of their own feelings of nationalism and racial superiority. “Few Evangelical Church spokespersons, lay or clerical, departed from the conviction that a Jewish ‘problem’ or ‘question’ existed and that it required restrictions upon the ‘excessive’ influence of Jews.”55 Other Christians who did not openly support these policies remained tragically silent. “The word most often used to describe the Christian response to the Holocaust and to Nazism in general is ‘silence.’ In the vast theological, historical, and popular literature on churches and National Socialism, silence has become the most serious charge leveled against Christianity. Why did Christians not speak out?”56 It would be inaccurate to say that Bonhoeffer was the only Christian to do so, and it would be naïve to say that he did so perfectly. However, Bonhoeffer saw the situation with remarkable clarity, even from the early days of the Third Reich. His prophetic vision, which was so unique in his time, was simply the natural conclusion of his robust Christology, which neglected neither God’s transcendent Word nor the reality of God’s reconciliation to mankind in Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures have often been translated from the notes of his students under the title, “Christ the Center.” This is so, because “Christ the Center” is the way Bonhoeffer himself described the place of Christ among his church. He truly is present among us and for us, yet only by his own willing self-revelation. “This is the way in which Christ is present. He is everywhere, and yet we cannot get hold of him. He is not in the bread like straw in a sack; instead, this in must be thought of in a theological, spiritual way. He is there, but he is only there where he reveals himself through his Word.”57 Bonhoeffer writes of Christ as the Center, saying that “This is the Christ pro-me translated into the ‘where structure.’ Christ’s status as mediator must be proven in that he can [be] seen as the center of human existence of history, and of nature.”58 Though Christ is not accessible to mankind by means of our rational, historical, scientific efforts, he is present. Though we cannot reveal God by history, in Christ he has become present in history. Now, as a result of this Christological miracle, the church continues to exist as Christ in the present age, and it does so in a created order that can never justify itself, but which has been reconciled to God in Christ. Therefore, the created order and our ethical action in it does matter. Because the transcendent God has freely bound himself to his creation in Christ, Christ is truly God pro nobis.

[1] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 4.

[2] Shelley Baranowski, “The Confessing Church and Antisemitism: Protestant Identity, German Nationhood, and the Exclusion of Jews,” in Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, ed. Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 90–109.

[3] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, ed. Victoria J. Barnett, trans. Eric Mosbacher et al., revised ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 219.

[4] Ruth Zerner, “Church, State and the ‘Jewish Question,’” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 190–205.

[5] Zerner, “Church, State and the ‘Jewish Question,’” 192.

[6] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (New York: Oxford, 1992), 125.

[7] John W. de Gruchy, “The Development of Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, ed. John W. de Gruchy, The Making of Modern Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 1–42.

[8] Andreas Pangritz, “‘Who Is Jesus Christ, for Us, Today?,’” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 134–53.

[9] James W. Woelfel, Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 134.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” in Berlin: 1932–1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 358.

[11] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:328.

[12] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:301.

[13] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:302 (emphasis original).

[14] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:303 (emphasis original).

[15] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:305.

[16] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:305.

[17] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 178.

[18] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:303.

[19] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:304.

[20] Pangritz, “Who Is Jesus Christ, for Us, Today?,” 136.

[21] Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 149–50.

[22] De Gruchy, “The Development of Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” 33.

[23] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” in Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940–1945, Works 16:512.

[24] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Works 6:389.

[25] Joel Lawrence, Bonhoeffer: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 18–19.

[26] Martin Rumscheidt, “The Formation of Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 50–70.

[27] J. Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 35.

[28] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in Berlin: 1932–1933, Works 12:363.

[29] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Works 12:363–64.

[30] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 133.

[31] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 133.

[32] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, Works 2:90–91 (original emphasis).

[33] Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, Works 2:91 (original emphasis).

[34] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:310.

[35] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:346.

[36] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. John Newton Thomas and Thomas Wieser, reprint ed. (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 46 (original emphasis).

[37] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:316–17.

[38] de Gruchy, “The Development of Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” 19.

[39] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 40.

[40] Reggie L. Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 125.2014

[41] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:312–13 (original emphasis).

[42] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:314.

[43] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, Works 1:198.

[44] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:314.

[45] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works, 12:315 (original emphasis).

[46] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Jewish-Christian Question as Status Confessionis,” in Berlin: 1932–1933, Works 12:372.

[47] Bonhoeffer, “The Jewish-Christian Question as Status Confessionis,” Works 12:372.

[48] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:323.

[49] Bonhoeffer, “The Jewish-Christian Question as Status Confessionis,” Works 12:373.

[50] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Works 4:285.

[51] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Works 4:285.

[52] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:358.

[53] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:360.

[54] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:360.

[55] Baranowski, “The Confessing Church and Antisemitism,” 99.

[56] Doris L. Bergen, “Storm Troopers of Christ: The German Christian Movement and the Ecclesiastical Final Solution,” in Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, ed. Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 40–67.

[57] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:321 (original emphasis).

[58] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology,” Works 12:324.

Stephen Estes

Stephen Estes is a ThM student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as associate pastor at Dry Creek Baptist Church in Dry Creek, Louisiana.

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