A Review of Christ the Center by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
It is always an interesting task to look at the foundational thought of an historical figure. Although in many cases all we know about them is the fantastic or courageous actions which cemented their name in our lore, very occasionally we are given something more, the insight into what drove them, what spurred them on, what gave them the courage and motivation to live the extraordinary, to face that which is horrendous, and to show themselves to be of noble character. Great deeds and lives do not simply appear, but rather are formed by the development of character and thought throughout their life. In our case, the book before us lays out the foundational thought of a modern martyr, a man who recognized evil for what it was, but rather than flee, faced it head on, and was killed in the process. Yet, his death has given many courage, many insight, many a yearning for what it is he possessed. For, as Tertullian stated so many years ago, “Martyrs are the seed of the church.” For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this foundational thought is expressed in the title to this collection of lectures on the topic of Christology, compiled from the notes of his students. For Christ the Center is not just a philosophical consideration for him, it was how he lived his life. In this brief paper I hope to consider this foundational thinking of Bonhoeffer and interact with the thoughts and ideas which brought him courage and honor to his very end.
From beginning to end, Christ the Center is filled with extremely powerful thought. He begins his discussion by first laying the foundations of the study. The topic before us is the divine Logos, the Word of God, which is not an idea, but a person. This fact is a presupposition which cannot be proved, but is either accepted or rejected. With this Bonhoeffer begins to establish what is the central thrust of his thought, namely that while the tendency of humanity is to immediately ask the question, “how this is possible?”, or “how this works out?”, the only real question which can be asked is in fact “who?”. For by asking how, humanity is seeking to place the Logos within a sphere of understanding, to explain him by analogy or classification. Yet, the divine Word, transcends our categories, is outside of our analogies, and is himself the measure of us. So, in asking “how?”, we seek to place our authority over him, but the fact of the matter is that his authority is by nature assumed over us, so that our human reason reaches its limits of understanding and can only seek to find out who this is who transcends our being. We do not have access to the “how?” because we do not have the capability to understand a level which is outside of and beyond our own being. So the divine Logos presents himself to us (each of us), and we are all forced to answer for ourselves who he is. Our answer is such that we all either die to ourselves or we kill Christ anew. We are each faced with the same decisions the Jews were when they saw him face to face. He leaves himself vague and ambiguous, however, so that our answer is one of faith not resignation.
Bonhoeffer continues by seeking to explain who Christ is in the present. His answer is that Christ is Christ pro me. That is Jesus came and lived, and still lives, for the sake of my salvation, to restore me to the place he originally intended, for me. He is not an impersonal deity, who has an indifferent attitude to his creation, rather he is seeking, ever-seeking my wholeness, my restoral, my good. And this is who he is in his essence. He also is not passive, requiring that people come to terms with him on their own time and level. He in fact is a proclamation, a calling out to all humanity forcing them towards response and responsibility. That we may not respond and be responsible is itself our response. He calls at a specific time and place and we must in some way heed this call. In his time on earth, his physical body embodied this proclamation. In our time the Word comes through preaching, the church, and through sacrament. He is our center, not in where we are at now, but in where we should be. He is the definition of history and humanity, and it is he who we must go to for renewal and life.
Bonhoeffer’s second consideration is the Christ of history, the one who lived in the past, and whose life on earth has resonated throughout time. Bonhoeffer’s method for this discussion is to lay out the boundaries for this discussion, to show what we can and cannot think about Jesus, the God-Man. He begins by laying out the historicity of Jesus, and the fact that history itself is not absolutely certifiable. History is not the source of our faith, but it is still an aspect of great worth and major importance. Having stated this, he proceeds to lay out the historical formulation of the person/divinity of Christ, utilizing the Chalcedonian creed as the ultimate statement on the person of Jesus. By both examining the ancient heresies, and their modern counterparts, Bonhoeffer lays out the boundaries, showing the lines we cannot cross in our discussion, and how the historic, orthodox understanding came about. Yet, he returns at the end with the thought that what is affirmed is that we cannot know the “how?”, “why?”, or “what?”, but we have been only given the “who?” and our attempts to answer the other questions are dodges to answering the only question which has been asked of us, “who do you say that I am?”
It is understood that my attempt to convey Bonhoeffer’s thought on Christ is by no means sufficient. Christ the Center is a book in which a proper review and treatment would end up being longer than the original itself, for each sentence contains a wealth of thought, and each paragraph a powerful meaning. The depth of his thinking, and the manner in which his thoughts are laid out in such a full manner, is in fact breathtaking. Each of the three sections (Introduction, The Present Christ, and The Historical Christ) present the reader with an almost overwhelming amount of thought in a short amount of space. Yet, within the depth of this thought is the simplistic. Bonhoeffer is telling us that in the midst of our centuries of philosophical wranglings, our attempts to tame or explain Jesus, the message of Jesus is still confronting us in the same way as it did two thousand years ago. We are confronted with a man who is also God, not in a way which changes or adjusts either, but fully both. We cannot explain how this is, or figure out what to do with him. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ? This is a question which has, in a sense, a frantically comic side. For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us?” He is the one who transcends us, who indeed has the authority to ask us the questions. And so he does, he asks us, tells us, to respond to him. With this idea, however, comes the delightful understanding that he will do whatever he can for our own benefit. He seeks us out to ask us his question, he draws us close, and enables us to respond, he yearns for our good and is indeed “for us” in every way.
Bonhoeffer realized the bankruptcy which was inherent in the prevailing thought of his own culture and era. He realized that the theological quests leading up to his time had asked the wrong questions, had of course given the wrong answers, and that there was an urgency to proclaiming that which was true. Bonhoeffer’s thought becomes especially powerful knowing his end. He did not simply proclaim a message, he lived the message. He was not a pastor who simply called and yearned for the good of his brethren, rather he gave himself up for his people, being Christ-like not only in his message proclaiming the Word faithfully, not only in his life lived in a manner truly Christian, but being Christ-like even in his death, sacrificing himself for a people who rejected him, but who later realized their own folly. He was a messenger of the Word in every way.
Bonhoeffer develops, maintains, and lived what Clark Pinnock would call a strong Logos Christology. But it is interesting to have looked at this book earlier, read Pinnock’s Flame of the Spirit, and then to have read this book again. What was seemingly lacking, though undefined, in my first reading was exactly what Pinnock pointed out. Bonhoeffer tends toward being a Trinitarian in name (and apparently also in practice) but not necessarily in thought. His discussion focused a great deal on the work of the Logos, yet left out that source which Jesus himself claimed as his basis, namely the Spirit. In doing this, Bonhoeffer must make the connection between the Jesus of history, and our current church. His method seems to be rather forced, and stretched, especially since Jesus himself told the church what the connection would be. We share the Spirit, and it is this connection of Spirit which makes his body our body, and his mission our mission. There is another boundary which should be laid out, and that is in dealing with the role and mission of the Spirit in Christ and the Church. It is only when this is done effectively that a truly well-rounded Christology can be established. Yet, one cannot leave or forget the basic thrust of Bonhoeffer, and it would do us well to keep this in mind as we consider Christ, and as we hear others consider him as well. It is not what we make him out to be, or what our conceptions about him include. We are asked a simple question of accepting that which is beyond us because salvation can come only through the one who transcends us. The question we all must face and answer is “who do we think he is?” and in this answer our eternal life is decided.