Christ the Center
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer
(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)
Christ the Center is a collection of reconstructed lectures given by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1933 in a class on Christology. In these lectures, Bonhoeffer begins with the question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” This question is tricky when it comes to Jesus, because he is the “Counter-logos”—his existence spells the end of human logos. Thus, Christ himself only can answer the question. We know Christ as he reveals himself to us and by knowing Christ we can understand his works. Also, by knowing Christ we come to understand ourselves.
Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus Christ, as the crucified and risen one, stands at the nexus of humanity, history and nature. First, Jesus stands at the center and at the margins of humanity. He stands at the margins, because he is the fulfillment of the law, the judgment of man and the justification of man. Thus, he is the boundary by which humanity is judged. But he is also the center of humanity—he stands in our place, where we cannot stand ourselves, and becomes our rediscovered center. Second, Jesus stands at the center of history. Bonhoeffer argues that history lives between promise and fulfillment—between historical reality and the hope of the future. Jesus Christ stands at the center of history as the destroyer and fulfiller of all messianic expectations of history (62). Finally, Christ is at the center of nature–it finds in Jesus Christ its redemption. A sign of this Christ at the center of nature is the sacraments, especially the Eucharist—where elements of the old creation are become elements of the new (65).
Bonhoeffer also contends that Jesus Christ’s presence is found today in the word, the sacraments and the church. As the word, Christ illuminates the meaning of things in the concrete moment. He is the truth that humanity needs to understand itself, history and nature. Bonhoeffer locates the Christ’s presence in the word in two places: the Scriptures and preaching. In these, Christ becomes the word of judgment and the word of forgiveness. In the sacraments, Christ’s presence reaches from the eternal to humanity in its nature. And in the church the word and the sacraments are combined. Christ is the word of the church and the word for the church.
In the second half of the lectures, Bonhoeffer takes up the issue of the historical Jesus. He argues that we cannot separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. For Bonhoeffer, the contingencies of history cannot verify the absolute and therefore, the liberal project (in all its instantiations) of separating Christ from the Jesus of history undermines itself. Here he returns to his original argument that Christ reveals himself to us. He maintains that we encounter both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith in the word, the sacraments and the church.