Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theological Reflection

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theological Reflection

Given the Holy Father’s recent trip to Germany, I was particularly struck by an ecumenical visit that he made to a Lutheran Evangelical community on September 23, 2011. As with any papal trip, each place is carefully chosen for a specific purpose. For this meeting, a dialogue regarding unity and shared values unfolded at the very Augustinian convent where Martin Luther was ordained a Catholic priest a half millennium ago. Some years ago, during a course on Christology, I was asked to write on a non-Catholic theologian. For personal reasons, I chose Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian who had suffered and died at the hands of the Nazi regime. My mission: by using the two basic types of Christology as described by Karl Rahner, to discern whether Bonhoeffer was either “low Christology ascending” or “high Christology descending.” In the end, my speculation remains just that.


Born in Breslau, Germany, on 4 February 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer moved to Berlin in 1912 when his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, became professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin. His family was well educated, gifted, closely knit, and part of upper-middle class privileged society. Bethge, a later member of the family by marriage to Bonhoeffer’s niece, Renate, informs us that “Dietrich grew up in a family that derived its real education, not from school, but from a deeply rooted sense of being guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition.”[1]

At sixteen, Bonhoeffer began his study of theology at Tubingen and presented his doctoral thesis at the age of twenty-one. He spent one year on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he became acquainted with American Christianity. His popularity as a teacher and writer grew when he returned to Germany, but in 1933 he delivered a radio broadcast denouncing the German public for its blind obedience to Hitler, a leader whom he saw as dangerous. When Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer left for England and served as the pastor of two churches. In April 1943, he was arrested and sent to prison and later implicated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. On 8 April 1945, he was hanged in Flossenberg at the age of thirty-nine. Given his brief life, Bonhoeffer’s insight, experience, and contributions to modern theology remain monumental. His contributions were recognized on 8 July 1998 when then Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and Queen Elizabeth II dedicated a place of honor for him. Among the ten statues of modern Christian martyrs of the twentieth century now displayed within Westminster Abbey, which include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Maximilian Kolbe, stands a bust of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In attempting to characterize Bonhoeffer’s theology and Christological insights within the reality that was his short, remarkable life, we are forever challenged by the question: ‘Who is Christ for us today?’ In this light, my analysis of Bonhoeffer’s Christology is in light of the two basic types of Christology set forth by Karl Rahner.

Toward a Theology

According to De Gruchy, Bonhoeffer did not leave us a “carefully worked out systematic theology. Rather, his legacy is that of seminal ideas which arose out of his engagement with the realities of his historical context. What we discern in Bonhoeffer’s writings, confirmed in a remarkable way by his life and death, is an authentic witness to Jesus Christ in relation to the situations in which he found himself.”[2] According to Marsh, Bonhoeffer’s theology “shares the common concern of understanding the self-witness of the living God in Jesus of Nazareth and the relationship of humanity to that self-witness of thinking after the God who has given himself to humanity as an expression of a loving character.”[3]

In his writings, Bonhoeffer reflected upon a life question: who is Christ for us today? For Bonhoeffer, this question was based upon three presuppositions: a humble, critical, and hopeful one.[4] In humility, Bonhoeffer accepts that He is the Christ who is already given. Christ is there and we have to answer the challenge negatively or positively. He does not apologetically seek a God for ultimate human concern or in the private spheres of a religious meaning of life. In Bonhoeffer’s question, there is the humility and certainty of the man who knows whom he is going to meet. The same question also carries a certainty of criticism. It acknowledges that the old Christological answers may no longer carry the meaning they once expressed. Instead of mediating liberation in the Christ encounter, they have become obstacles or barriers to the discovery of Him. Finally, the question provides hope. Bonhoeffer knew that the challenge of Christ’s presence included the risk and promise of a new, relevant Christological language.[5]

His theological expansions included a theology of sociality, freedom, Word, and prison. In describing his theology of sociality, Bonhoeffer states that:

It is in relation to persons and community that the concept of God is formed. God does not desire a history of individual men, but the history of a community of men. Nor does he desire a community, which absorbs the individual into self, but a community of persons. The structures of the individual and the collective unit are the same. Upon these basic relations rest the concept of the religious community and the church. In Christ, God no longer confronts human kind with the claim of the divine Thou- in ‘demands and summons’- but God gives himself as an I, opening his heart. In turn the person in Christian community no longer sees the other members of the community essentially as a claim, but as a gift, as a revelation of his love, and of his heart, that is, of God’s heart, so that the Thou is to the I no longer law but gospel, and hence an object of love.[6]

For Barth, revelation as act means that God is beyond human knowledge, evading every human attempt to grasp God cognitively. Revelation is pure act contingent upon God’s freedom: it creates its own response, cannot be bound to anything, and God is free to suspend it at any moment.[7] In Act and Being, Bonhoeffer counters Barth and enters into his theology of freedom.

God is not free of man but for man. Christ is the Word of his freedom. God is there, which is to say: not in eternal non-objectivity but ‘have able,’ graspable in his Word within the Church.

In continuity with Luther’s ‘theology of the cross,’ another key element in Bonhoeffer’s theology, he affirms that the finite is capable of bearing the infinite- finitum capax infiniti.[8]

Although unimpressed by American theology, Bonhoeffer was deeply moved by the action-oriented theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and Eugene Lyman who confronted him with ethical challenges of this worldly activity, not allowing an easy retreat into the dichotomy between thought and life, between ideas and decisions. At the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem (where he taught Sunday school), he discovered the vibrant faith of black Christians and was impressed at how they related Christianity to their struggle for human rights.[9] Furthermore, a friendship with a fellow student, Jean Lasserre, a French pastor, would lead him to a deepened understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, Bonhoeffer would come to consider it as a charter for Christian discipleship. Bethge cited the Sermon on the Mount as shifting Bonhoeffer from being a theologian to becoming a Christian.

“For the first time I discovered the Bible. I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the Church, and talked and preached about it- but I had never become a Christian. I had never prayed, or prayed only very little. For all my abandonment, I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people about me. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the Church, and step by step it became plainer to me how far that must go.”[10]

Bonhoeffer’s theology of Word had taken root. His momentum and bias toward Christian action would be reflected in his 1939 decision to leave the United States and return to his native Germany. While this seemed a logical choice for Bonhoeffer, some friends at Union Theological Seminary in New York recommended he see a psychiatrist.[11]

His theology of prison would come at great personal pain. His refusal to submit to Hitler and his reign of terror would result in jail, and ultimately, death. A friend, Reinhold Niebuhr, stated that:

Bonhoeffer felt that his position in society, his personal safety, and, if need be, his very life were not to be defended at all costs, were not to be his bottom line, but were, in a sense, up for grabs. The cost of discipleship can be high, indeed- beyond the imagining, really, of some of us who are called normal.[12]

In a letter to Professor Niebuhr prior to what would be his final trip to Germany, Bonhoeffer wrote:

I have had the time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. My brothers in the Confessing Synod wanted me to go. They may have been right in urging me to do so; but I was wrong in going. Such a decision each man must make for himself. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.[13]

As such, Bonhoeffer noted that theology should be done in a spirit where:

  • One views members of the community as a gift of God’s love (sociality);
  • Christ is graspable (freedom);
  • In self-abandonment, one may enter into the thoughts of God (Word);
  • At great personal cost, we may experience pain (prison).

In his Letters and Papers from Prison that were written during his Nazi imprisonment from 1943 to 1945, Bonhoeffer contemplates Nietzsche’s battle cry- “the death of God.” He wrote:

The God of religion is dying. Hitherto man has felt the need for a God as a child feels the need for his father. God must be ‘there’ to be brought in, run to, or blamed. But now man is discovering that there is no necessity to bring God into his science, his morals, his politics and economics; only in the private world of the individual’s psychological needs is room apparently left for a God who has been elbowed out of every other sphere. And so the religious evangelist works on men to coerce them at their weakest point into feeling that they cannot get on without the tutelage of God.[14]

Continuing, he reflects upon the idea that man is ‘pushing’ God out of the world:

What God is teaching us is that we must live as men who can get along very well without him. And the death of this paternalistic figure in the skies is not the collapse of what Christianity means but the clue to it. For the God revealed by Jesus is precisely the God who refuses to be such a stop-gap. He allows himself to be edged out of the world- on to the Cross. The Cross was in the first place the death of God for Jesus himself: ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ In so far as Jesus believed in God as a power to intervene, this was the end. For that God had failed even his own Son. For Bonhoeffer, our God is a God who forsakes us- seeking to meet us again on the Emmaus road, if we are really prepared to find him, not at the boundaries of life where human powers fail, but at the center as the beyond in the midst.[15]

Recalling that the modern world seems to have concluded that it is proper for God to be relegated to the inner and private aspects of the individual, Bonhoeffer claims that the Bible does not recognize the distinction between the inward and the outward.

It is always concerned with the whole man, even where, as in the Sermon on the Mount, the Decalogue is pressed home to refer to ‘inward disposition.’ That a good ‘disposition’ can take the place of the total goodness is quite unbiblical. The discovery of the so-called inner life dates from the Renaissance, probably from Petrarch. The ‘heart’ in the biblical sense is not the inner life, but the whole man in relation to God. But as a man lives just as much from ‘outwards’ to ‘inwards’ as from ‘inwards’ to ‘outwards,’ the view that his essential nature can be understood only from his intimate spiritual background is wholly erroneous.[16]

Toward a Christology

For Bonhoeffer, four features would characterize his Christology. First, one must move away from the speculative descriptions of the natures of Christ. He was an admirer of the decision of Chalcedon, which stated the a priori impossibility of taking the divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ side by side or together or as a relationship of objectifiable entities.[17] Secondly, he believed that Christology is not soteriology; that the work does not interpret the person, but, as Luther says, the person the works. According to Bonhoeffer:

An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render 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.[18]

Third, Bonhoeffer claimed that all reality was universally Christ-centered.

It is from the real man, whose name is Jesus Christ, that all factual reality derives its ultimate foundation and its ultimate annulment, its justification and its ultimate contradiction, its ultimate affirmation and its ultimate negation.[19]

Finally, Christology is forever open and unfinished as we live in openness to challenges of encounters with Christ and the world.[20]

In Christology, Bonhoeffer opens a discussion regarding the ‘present’ and ‘historical’ Christ.[21] Bonhoeffer cites Luther as providing insight into the idea of a ‘present’ Christ: “So it is one thing if God is there, and another if he is there for you.” As such, a Christology that fails to state that God or Christ is ‘pro-me’ condemns itself. The ‘pro-me’ structure thereby recognizes Christ as “pioneer, head, and firstborn of the brethren who follow him; as the one who is for his brethren by standing in their place, standing for his new humanity before God; and because he acts as the new humanity, it is in him and he is in it.” In beginning with this understanding, “Jesus is understood from the start as the Risen One who has ascended into heaven.”

The ‘present’ Christ is described as Word, sacrament, community, mediator, and as occupying a place at the center of human existence.  As Word, as stated in the prologue of John’s gospel, all things were made through Him. God’s Word has the power to create and destroy.

“Christ is Word for man’s sake. As man has a Logos, God encounters him in the Logos who speaks and is himself the Word. Christ as the Logos of God remains distinct and divorced from the human Logos. He is the Word in the form of a living address to men, whereas the word of man is word in the form of idea.”[22]

Bonhoeffer points to an important reality when discussing the person of Jesus Christ. One can never see Jesus Christ as merely a prophet through whom God is speaking. He can never simply say the word without being the Word. In recalling John 14:6, Christ is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ The Word is not simply present in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the Word!

As sacrament, Bonhoeffer attests that the Word in the sacrament is not simply a representation, but rather the embodied Word. Man is reached in his nature through the sacrament.

“Thus the Eucharist is what it is by God addressing and hallowing the elements of bread and wine with his Word. This Word is called Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ the sacrament is interpreted and hallowed. God has bound himself to the sacrament of these elements through this Word, Jesus Christ. This Word Jesus Christ is wholly present in the sacrament, not only his Godhead, and not only his manhood.”[23]

As community, “Christ, the Word, is spiritually and physically present. The Logos of God has extension in space and time in and as the community.” According to Bonhoeffer, in speaking of community as the ‘body of Christ,’ body must not be understood metaphorically. In a correct understanding, “Christ is not only the head of the community but also the community itself. Christ is head and every member.”[24]

As mediator between God and nature,

“Christ is the new creature. All other creatures are old creatures. Nature stands under the curse, which God has laid on Adam’s ground. It was originally the created Word of God, proclaiming the Word freely. As fallen creature, however, it is now dumb, in thrall under the guilt of men. It longs for a new freedom. Nature is not reconciled, like man and history, but it is redeemed for a new freedom.”[25]

At the center of human existence,

Christ stands where man fails toward the law. Christ as the center means that he is the fulfillment of the law. So he is in turn the boundary and judgment of man but at the same time the beginning of his new existence, its center. Christ at the center of human existence means that he is man’s judgment and his justification.[26]

Likewise, in explaining that Jesus Christ is the center of human history, Bonhoeffer states:

History lives between promise and fulfillment. It bears within itself the promise, the divine promise, of becoming the womb of God’s birth. The promise of a Messiah is alive everywhere in history. Only in one place does the idea dawn that the Messiah cannot be the visible and demonstrable center of history, but must be the hidden center, appointed by God. Only in one place is there any progress against the stream of corrupt Messiahs. That is in Israel. With its prophetic hope, Israel stands alone among the peoples. And Israel becomes the place in which God fulfills his promise…Accordingly, Christ stands where history as a whole should stand before God.[27]

Regarding the ‘historical’ Christ, Bonhoeffer forcefully states that Jesus of Nazareth and Christ is the same person. He is not, as liberal theologians would claim, “Christ declared divine by the community in a burst of enthusiasm.”[28] He should also never be considered as one having an “effect” on others- separate from his nature and person. In rebuking such theological speculation, he does shed light upon the idea of historical certainty. He will claim that historical access to Jesus is no different than encountering another figure from the past. “We can have ‘hours with Christ’ as we can have hours with Goethe.”[29]

How, therefore, can we encounter Jesus of Nazareth in history? According to Bonhoeffer, we encounter him through faith.

The Risen One himself creates belief and so points the way to himself as the Historical One. From here, faith needs no confirmation from history. The confirmation of historical investigation is irrelevant before the self-attestation of Christ in the present. In faith, history is known in the light of eternity. That is the direct access of faith to history.[30]

From an historical perspective, therefore, we will most often encounter Jesus Christ through the transmission of faith that is handed down through Scripture. History and faith thus provide evidence of the historicity of Jesus. “The Jesus of history has humbled himself; the Jesus who cannot be grasped in history is the subject of faith in the resurrection.[31]


In contrasting Bonhoeffer’s Christology with the two basic types of Christology as set forth by Rahner[32], we once again note De Gruchy’s earlier caution regarding the attempt to classify Bonhoeffer into a set, specific theological framework. Nevertheless, in proceeding with such a classification, we must first clarify the two basic types. According to Rahner, the first Christological type is one that may be referred to as indicative of a ‘saving history,’ also referred to as ‘low Christology ascending.’ In this first type, we speak of Jesus of Nazareth in terms of his career as a human being.

“In this basic type of Christology, in which Jesus is from the outset seen within the context of the individual man’s quest for salvation in the concrete human conditions of his life, the cosmos as such does not enter into the question. As the creation of God and as the world which is in a fallen state, this is simply there beforehand as the stage on which the event of Jesus in saving history takes place. The point of departure for this Christology, therefore, is the simple experience of the man Jesus, and of the Resurrection in which his fate was brought to its conclusion.”[33]

The second basic type of Christology is metaphysically oriented, often referred to as ‘high Christology descending.’ As Rahner claims: “to the extent that a Christology clearly goes beyond the original experience of Jesus by the believer (whether or not justified), then it is metaphysical.”[34] Accordingly, Rahner claims that this Christology places tremendous focus upon the idea of a pre-existent Logos who will ultimately appear within the same history that he has already shaped. Thus, “the pre-existent Logos who is the Son of God descends from heaven and becomes man. The decisive factor in this Christology is that it is self-evident and does not need any further recourse to the experience of Jesus in saving history, from a doctrine of the Trinity, the Logos, and a pre-existing Son of God.”[35]

Given these two basic types, and Bonhoeffer’s theological and Christological summations, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer displays a metaphysical Christology that may clearly be depicted as ‘high Christology descending.’ As noted earlier, his admiration of the decision of the Council of Chalcedon, which refused to acknowledge the possibility that the humanity and divinity of Jesus could be separated, provides important evidence in this direction. He also claimed that “all reality is universally Christ-centered” when he stated that “all factual reality derives its ultimate foundation and annulment from the real man, whose name is Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ, according to Bonhoeffer, is the one who “acts as the new humanity; it is in Him and He is in it.” He provides further insight when he remarks that “Christ as the Logos of God remains distinct and divorced from the human Logos.” Finally, Bonhoeffer is clear to point toward the important reality of Jesus Christ. He is not “Christ declared divine by the community in a burst of enthusiasm.” Nor is he merely a prophet through whom God is speaking. Recalling John 14:6, he can never simply say the word without being the Word!


Notes: [1] De Gruchy, John W.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ. Minneapolis: Fortress  Press, 1991, p. 2.; [2] Ibid., p. 41.; [3]Marsh, Charles. The Modern Theologians, edited by David Ford. pp. 37-51. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997, p. 49 .; [4] Bethge, Eberhard; Godsey, John; Lehmann, Paul; Van Buren, Paul; Weller, Maria. Bonhoeffer in a World Come of Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968, p. 50.; [5] Ibid., pp. 51-52.; [6] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio. London: 1963; [7] De Gruchy, John W.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991, pp. 8-9.; [8] Ibid., p. 9.; [9] Ibid., p. 11.; [10] Bethge, Eberhard.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  Theologian, Christian, Contemporary. New York: Harper & Row, 1969, pp. 153-155.; [11] Coles, Robert. “Secular Days, Sacred Moments.” America (28 February 1998): p. 4.; [12] Ibid.; [13] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. No Rusty Swords, edited by Edwin H. Robertson. New York: Harper & Row, 1965, p. 18.; [14] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Macmillan, 1967, p. 10.; [15] Ibid.; [16] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Macmillan, 1967, p. 192.; [17] Bethge, Eberhard; Godsey, John; Lehmann, Paul; Van Buren, Paul; Weller, Maria. Bonhoeffer in a World Come of Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968, p. 51-52.; [18] Ibid., p. 62; [19] Ibid., p. 67.; [20] Bethge, Eberhard; Godsey, John; Lehmann, Paul; Van Buren, Paul; Weller, Maria. Bonhoeffer in a World Come of Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968, p. 62.; [21] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Christology, introduced by Edwin H. Robertson and translated by John Bowden. London: Collins, 1971, pp. 43-67.; [22] Ibid., p.50.; [23] Ibid., p. 54.; [24] Ibid., p. 60.; [25] Ibid., pp. 66-67.; [26] Ibid., pp. 62-63.; [27] Ibid., pp. 63-64.; [28] Ibid., p. 77.; [29] Ibid., p. 75.; [30] Ibid., p. 75.; [31] Ibid., p. 76.; [32] Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations, translated by David Bourke. New York: The Seabury Press, 1975.; [33] Ibid.,  pp. 216-217.; [34] Ibid., p. 217.; [35] Ibid., pp. 217-218.

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Deacon Kurt Godfryd