Bonhoeffer’s Christology

This past September the 2016 Dubose lectures at Sewanee were given by Rowan Williams on the subject of Bonhoeffer’s Christology, with a view to his ethics and politics. I was thrilled to be able to attend in person since the venue was only a couple of hours from my home in northern Georgia. Thankfully, the School of Theology  released the videos of the lectures (Lecture 1, Lecture 2, Lecture 3) a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the question and answer segments are missing. I do have some of them recorded (I was running out of space on my phone) and will summarize them when I get a chance. I won’t forget, for example, his response to a direct question about Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist demagogues in the world. Rowan explained that his renewed interest in Bonhoeffer was partly due to this phenomenon. Sewanee is an absolutely beautiful and welcoming campus, by the way. If you are ever nearby, don’t miss the opportunity to visit. The following is a summary of the three lectures.


Rowan signing a book for the fanboy.


Rowan began the first lecture with a history of German Protestant Christological perspectives leading up to Bonhoeffer’s time. Most notably, some Lutheran Christology put a radical edge on a persistent Christological issue, that of assuming a false spatial problem and then attempting to solve it. The Lutheran Kryptics, and Thomasius, a Bavarian Lutheran in the 1800s, in particular, essentially looked at this problem in terms of how much divine stuff you can squeeze into the finite and then asked what might need to be trimmed. Interestingly, when I was a theology student, this was the very issue I chose for my graduating thesis. I was interacting with Hicks’ (et al) The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) and found an awful lot of Lutheran krypsis/kenotic ideas like this out there as late as the 1980s. My thesis followed this path, arguing about what is essential to Godhood and what is non-essential (can be trimmed). However, all this is really unnecessary. For Rowan, The persistent problem in the history of Christology of seeing the two natures as competing for space becomes acute [in this view]…It leads to the unpalatable conclusion that the Incarnation is simply a matter of divine agency operating directly in the world by being transformed into a worldly agent, rather than divine agency being embodied in the genuinely finite, created agency of a human subject.

Rowan briefly discusses Karl Barth’s appropriation of the Reformation tradition. He leaves it open as to what the Barth of CD IV would say, but thinks that there is a good chance that Bonhoeffer’s lectures and writings may have had an influence on him. In particular, Barth’s statement,“The omni-causality of God should not be understood as his sole causality”, represents a change from his previous emphasis. After this historical excursus, Rowan continues by explaining how Bonhoeffer combined the two great Reformation questions, Luther’s “Can I trust God?” and Calvin’s “Is God free from our anxiety?”, into “Is God a God we need to placate or, alternatively, a God we can manipulate?” This is the ultimate heritage of the Reformation that he received. What was new in Bonhoeffer was his starting point.

In the second lecture, Rowan shows how beginning with Christ “for us” forms Bonhoeffer’s unique contribution to Christology. What does this entail? First, it means an encounter with Christ is much like running into a brick wall. Humanity seeks the death of the divine logos because we cannot bear to be told we are limited, to come up against our limit. The encounter with Jesus means that we either must die or we must kill Jesus. Bonhoeffer’s “for us”, here, means something like “for our good”.

Bonhoeffer employs some Kierkegaardian tropes, particularly those from Fragments and Training. Sin/untruth is our state, yet there is a hunger in human reason to encounter what it cannot conquer. The only way we can recognize that God in Jesus is “for us” is for him to come to us in hiddenness and non-coercion, in abandonment of proof, force, or external confirmation. The definition of ‘sinlessness’ means a life lived in full transparency with no defended territory. Bonhoeffer connects this to Luther’s pro nobis and pro me. This is not an individualist idea, but a recognition of my own being as untruth. My logos cannot live. I must recognize my limit through recognizing that I live in relationship.
Second, as we grow spiritually, we find that we should be “for others” too as the central feature of Christ-like-ness. Bonhoeffer famously characterized the church as “Christ existing as community”. We must “be there” on behalf of humankind, history, and nature

Bonhoeffer declares in several places that Christ is the center of all reality. The existence of this center, however, isn’t a matter of theoretical demonstration–comparing Christ to a system among systems. The church, rather, is the condition of the legitimate state as an achievement of human self-organization, without the centrality of church requiring or desiring some visible position within the realm of the state. We point to the ultimate order of God, an order of sociality. A body of people living in and from the truthfulness and lawfulness of God is absolutely necessary for the health of any political order. This is one form of the affirmation of human limits; the state isn’t everything.

The final lecture moves into ethics and politics. Here Rowan focuses on Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the “mandates”, or overlapping spheres of earthly life, that ordinarily should point beyond themselves as they are grounded in God’s own Trinitarian life and order. Mandates provide a structure that will eventually appear as the structure of Christ’s own life, the first beginnings of Christ-like-ness. The Christological transformation of human agency is to allow it to move more freely toward its goal, but it has got to be human solidarity itself which points to it.



All Saint’s Chapel at The University of the South, Sewanee


In this third lecture, there is a discussion of the ultima ratio (extreme case, last resort).This preoccupied Bonhoeffer due to the break down of these structures so that they no longer moved toward their ultimate goal of the divine will. In Nazi Germany the state set itself above the mandates of family, culture, and economics. Most of our history is that of prosaically living under mandate. Ethics is ordinarily boring, says Rowan. Steady scrutiny of ordinary habits of the social order, watching for imbalances, such as state over family or economy over culture, as we live out a life of representation and responsibility for others is our ethical task. But what happens when one mandate (state, culture, family) claims the right to override the others? It leaves us stranded. It produces a life or death choice as we discover an unwelcome freedom. This freedom has a radical character. It involves (1) the possibility of breaking the law to save the law, (2) the fact that this breaking can never become a new law that tells you that you are right, (3) and the acceptance of guilt (of either passivity or activity) as inevitable. You must accept the risk (tragic element) in trust. This is not a form of “situation ethics” says Rowan. It isn’t a suspension of the rules. Each case is unique, and you must accept the consequences. Only faithfully living our lives in ordinary times can prepare us for this.

We are responsible to work, share, provide for others in our lives so that they can, in turn, be responsible. To return to Christology proper, for Bonhoeffer, Christ has no identity apart from his solidarity with us. Christ wins no merit (Calvin) except what he wins for others is the medieval way of putting this. Christology means the commitment to the world in its untruth without self-justification. “Watching with Christ in Gethsemane” is the link between Christology, ethics, and politics.

**For some of Williams’ previous reflections on Bonhoeffer, see his sermon in Berlin Feb. 5, 2006.


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