Christ the Center

Christ the Center

by Dietrich Bonhoeffer


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The New York Times Book Review states, “It would be impossible to overrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s importance as a disciple, a great Christian and moral leader.” Christ the Center cogently presents the basis of Bonhoeffer’s thinking about Jesus Christ and offers the key to his entire theology. A classic work of Christological thought, both edifying and uplifting, Christ the Center is an enlightening guide to faith and action in uncertain times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060608118
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Harper's Ministers Paperback Library
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 306,442
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.29(d)

About the Author

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) was a renowned and beloved Christian minister, seminary professor, and theologian who was imprisoned and later executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Hitler. He was the author of the bestselling classic The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Letters and Papers from Prison.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Present Christ — The Pro Me

Jesus is the Christ present as the Crucified and as the risen one. That is the first christological statement. His presence can be understood in space and time, here and now. It belongs to the definition of the person. Both come together in the concept of the Church.

Christ, as person, is present in the Church. That is the second christological definition. Only because Christ is present can we question him. This presence is the necessary presupposition for the unfolding of the christological question. Only when preaching and sacrament take place in the Church can Christ be questioned. The understanding of the Presence opens up the way for the understanding of the Person.

This understanding is open to two serious misunderstandings:

a) The presence of Christ can be understood as the influence that emanates from him, reaching into the Church. This is not the presence of Christ himself, but the effect of his historical influence. Christ is here thought of in dynamic terms. His energy is not dissipated in a series of historical events, but progresses undiminished through history. The presence of Christ is thus accounted for in the category of cause and effect.

b) Attempts are made to pass beyond the limits of the historical to make the image of Christ visible. These images are painted again and again, whether by the Enlightenment or the Rationalists — each with his different picture of the inner life of Jesus, as with Wilhelm Herrmann.

Very often both these misunderstandingsoccur together, as with Schleiermacher. Ritschl may be taken as representing the first, his pupil Herrmann, the second. Both have in common an error in christology. If Christ is understood from his historical influence, he is essentially power, dynamis, but not a person. The dynamis can be thought of in different ways. It can be the echo of his historical influence or the newly emerging image of an ideal of the man Jesus. In this the historical force corresponds more with the temporal, the nunc; the ideal power, more with the spatial, the hic. The former is thought of in the category of cause, the latter in the category of effect.

Christ is then thought of basically, not as Person, but as non-personal power. That is still true when one talks of the 'personality of Jesus'. In this context, 'personality' is the opposite of what is meant here by Person. Personality is the fullness and harmony of those values that were brought together in the phenomenon of Jesus Christ. Personality is basically a non-personal concept. It disappears among the neutral concepts of power and value. And in this way the christological question is lost. Person is beyond the concepts of influence and image, power and value. When one asks about personality, it is 'How?' and 'What?'; but about a person, it is 'Who?' Jesus as personality, power, value is fully explained by his work, and his person by what he does. Then the only possible way is to infer the person from the work.

What is concealed behind this idea of the presence of Christ is the decision not to consider the resurrection, but to stop with the Jesus of the cross, with the historical Jesus. This is the dead Jesus Christ who can be thought of like Socrates and Goethe. Only the risen one makes possible the presence of the living person and gives the necessary presupposition for christology, which is no longer lost in historical energy or the appearance of an ideal Christ.

Luther tried to interpret the presence of Christ from the Ascension. Christ can be our contemporary because he sits at the right hand of God. 'When he was on earth, he was far from us. Now that he is far, he is near to us.' That means that only the risen one, who has ascended to heaven, can be present with us, not one who is only within history. Ritschl and Herrmann put the resurrection to one side; Schleiermacher symbolizes it; in so doing, they destroy the Church. 'If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins' (I Corinthians 15:17).

Here we meet the first christological problem: if Christ is present, not only as power, but in his person, how are we to think of this presence so that it does not violate this person? To be present means a particular time and place, i.e. to be there. Even as the risen one, Jesus Christ remains the man Jesus in time and space. Because Jesus Christ is man, he is present in time and space; because Jesus Christ is God, he is eternally present. The presence of Christ requires the statement, 'Jesus is fully man'; but it also requires the other statement, 'Jesus is fully God'. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Church, at a particular time and place, is because of the fact that there is one whole person of the God-Man. It is therefore an impossible question to ask how the man Jesus, limited by space and time, can be contemporary with us. This Jesus does not exist in isolation. Equally impossible is the other question, how God can be in time. This isolated God does not exist. The only possible and meaningful question is, 'Who is there, present in time and place?' The answer is, 'The one person of the God-Man, Jesus Christ'. I do not know who the man Jesus Christ is unless I can at the same time say, 'Jesus Christ is God'; I do not know who the God Jesus Christ is, unless I can at the same time say, 'Jesus Christ is man'. The two factors cannot be isolated, because they are not separable. God in timeless eternity is not God; Jesus limited by time is not Jesus. Rather we may say that in the man Jesus, God is God. In this Jesus Christ, God is present. This one God-Man is the starting point for christology.

Christ the Center copyright © by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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