Monday, October 17, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christ is the Center: lectures on the centrality of Christ in Christianity

Christ the Center Christ the Center

Christ the Center, published by Harper Collins, is a collection of lectures given by Protestant preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the summer semester (May-July) in 1933 at the University of Berlin. In these talks, Bonhoeffer stressed the importance of having the correct knowledge of who Jesus Christ is. In one of his letters, he wrote, "The world's coming of age . . . is better understood than it understands itself, namely on the basis of the Gospel and in the light of Christ."

It must be noted, however, that the texts were reconstructed from the notes of Eberhard Bethge and a few of his students who actually sat down in those lectures. According to Edwin H. Robertson, the translator of this work, these lectures are important because "they stand between the developing theologian influence by all that he had read and thought on the great doctrinal issues, and the leader of the resistance, who was determined that this resistance would be theological rather than political." Bonhoeffer, of course, is known for founding the Confessing Church, part of the Christian resistance against Nazism.

The lectures were divided into three major parts: the first dealt with Christ being present in the Word, the Sacrament, and the Church; the second part dealt with the historical Christ (Bonhoeffer also extensively explained the flaws of various heresies pertaining to the humanity and diety of Jesus Christ). The third part was supposed to be on the Eternal Christ, but there were no traces of notes, and this portion was left blank.

According to Roberston, "In these lectures on christology, Bonhoeffer is not prepared to find a category for Christ. His questions are not, 'How is it possible for Christ to be both man and God?' His question about Christ is never, 'How?', but always, 'Who?' . . . Every avenue of his thinking leads him to confront Christ and ask, 'Where art thou, Lord?' or to be confronted by Christ and hear his question, 'Whom do you say that I am?'"

Bonhoeffer's lectures reflect the amount of time and effort he spent wrestling with important questions that would form the solid Biblical foundation of his ministry. The lectures themselves are hard to swallow all at once, but he wrote them in the simplest terms possible, such that an ordinary reader like me can comprehend at least some of them. Compared to the more emotional Bonhoeffer I came to know in the book, Prisoner for God (you can read it in this blog entry), this work shows his brilliance as a theologian and a professor.

Many times I asked myself how it must have felt like, listening to a man like him. Thankfully, one of his students, Otto Dudzus, wrote this poignant description:

He looked like a student himself when he mounted the platform. But then what he had to say  so gripped us all that we were no longer there to just listen to this very young man, but we were there because of what he had to say—even though it was dreadfully early in the morning.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

On Christ as the center of human existence:
In the fallen world, the center is also the boundary. Man stands between law and fulfilment. He has the law, but he cannot fulfil it. Now Christ stands where man has failed before the law. Christ as the centre means that he is the fulfilment of the law. So he is in turn the boundary and judgement of man, but also the beginning of his new existence, its centre. Christ as the centre of human existence means that he is the judgement and justification of man.  (p.61)

On miracles and faith:
Belief in miracles is no more than believing the evidence of one's eyes in visible Epiphany. When I acknowledge a miracle nothing happens to me. But faith is there when a man so surrenders himself to the humiliated God-Man that he bets his life on him, even when this seems against all sense. Faith is when the search for certainty out of visible evidence is given up. Then it is faith in God and not in the world. The only assurance which faith accepts is the Word itself, which comes to me through Christ. (p. 110)

On the Church of Christ:
The Church gazes always only at the humiliated Christ, whether it itself is exalted or made low. It is not good when the Church is anxious to praise itself readily for its humble state. Equally, it is not good for it to boast of its power and its influence too soon. It is only when the Church humbly confesses its sins, allows itself to be forgiven and confesses its Lord. Daily must it receive the will of God from Christ anew. It receives it because of the presence of the incarnate, the humiliated and the exalted one. Daily, this Christ becomes a stumbling block to its hopes and wishes. Daily, it stumbles at the words afresh, 'You will all be offended because of me' (Matthew 26:31). And daily it holds anew to the promise, 'Blessed is he who is not offended in me' (Matthew 11:6). (p. 113)
Many thanks to my good friend, Frances Bocobo, for lending me a copy.



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