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Christ in practice: a christology of everyday life

30 November, 1999

Clive Marsh considers how Christ is present today, and invites us to reflect on how communal human interaction can be informed and transformed through attempting to understand this question. He considers how Christ and the Church relate today, highlighting the decisive role to be played by the Church in society, and the humility with which it needs to fulfil its task. It is a passionate plea for Christians to remain faithful to a commitment to Christ as present and active in the world.

168 pp, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 2006. To purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk



1. Who is Christ today? Refining Bonhoeffer’s challenge

‘What?’, as well as ‘who?’
Sharpening the central question: a conversation with Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Jesus/Christ
Christ as counter-logos
Christ existing as community
Christ as word
Christ as sacrament
Jesus Christ as word, sacrament and church:
a summary
Jesus/Christ in Bonhoeffer’s theology: a critical analysis Christ and otherness
Relating in Christ
Bonhoeffer’s ‘church optimism’
Bonhoeffer’s practical challenge

2. Where in the world is Christ today? Christology as ethical challenge

Identifying the presence of God in Christ: an approach through motifs from the story of Jesus
Wherever people suffer innocently or for a just cause
When solidarity is shown with those who are mistreated
Wherever forgiveness occurs
When people experience a transformation in life
Whenever people discover what they believe to be their true identity
Whenever truth is told, however painful truth-telling may sometimes prove
Wherever the abuse of power is challenged Whenever creativity blossoms
Whenever people renounce reliance on wealth
At meal-times
The fragmented body of Christ: responding to the ethical challenge of doing Christology
Beyond individualism
Christ and church
Life, not Christian life
The purpose of theology

3. Race, nation and ethnicity: Christ in whatever state we’re in

Christ and the human race
Christ and the state
Bonhoeffer on church and state
Working insights
Christ and ethnicity

4. Christ as community of practice (I):

A Basic Framework
Christian reflection in public
Why’ church’ might be good for you
The breadth of Christian living
Working conclusions
Christ and the concept of ‘community of practice’
‘Community of practice’: a working definition
Communities of practice: what do they achieve?
Communities of practice as forms of Christ

5. Christ as community of practice (II): work and education

Christ at work
The meaning of work
Groups at work
The master-slave mentality
Education into Christ
And what of Christ in all of this?
Christ as a ‘person’
The hidden Christ
A critical postscript

6. Christ as community of practice (III):

Family, Friends and Church
Christ in the family
Families and households
‘Family’ as a community of practice
What families achieve
Christ among friends
Defining friendship today
A Christology of friendship
The church as witness to Christ’s body in the world
Church as local
Churches as intentional communities
And what of Christ in all of this (once more)?
The Lordship of Christ revisited
Christ and Kingdom

7. ‘God be in my head’: on participating in the mind of Christ

Discerning ‘the mind of Christ’
The challenge of situated cognition: ‘the mind of Christ’ in contemporary perspective
Christology, spirituality and communities of practice: some working conclusions



Clive Marsh’s scholarly Christ in Practice refuses to locate Christ solely in the Church, but finds him in the midst of contemporary life, especially in the complex ethical challenges of daily living. In the process, he considers how Christ and the Church relate today, highlighting the decisive role to be played by the Church in society, and the humility with which it needs to fulfil its task. He argues that the point of Christology (and of Christianity itself) is not to interpret Christ but to live within Christ, and to do so without being consumed by ‘Church’. It is a thoughtful passionate plea for Christians to remain faithful to a commitment to Christ as present and active in the world.




The central question of Christology is this: who is Christ? A sharpened version of it was offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his prison cell in Berlin in 1944, and this has reverberated throughout Christian theology ever since:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is, for us, today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience – and that means the time of religion in genera1 (1).

There is an urgency in the emphasis on ‘today’: the past provides no adequate answer to the basic christological question. The ‘us’ also invites scrutiny. Who is the ‘us’ today, to whom Christ speaks, and for whom Christ died and lives?

Bonhoeffer was an utterly Christocentric thinker and activist. ‘Who is Christ?’ was, for him, a life-or-death existential question and the quest for an answer shaped his entire world view and conduct. Looking at the way Bonhoeffer thought about the question can help us to clarify how we should address it today.

‘What?’, as well as ‘who?’
I agree wholeheartedly with Bonhoeffer that Christology must be seen as the heart of Christian thought and practice. However, I differ from him in asking ‘what?’ Christ is today, as well as ‘who?’. As explored in my previous book, Christ in Focus, I believe that we must recognize Christ today in three interlocking forms. First, Christ is embodied in particular kinds of human relationships – those in which people seek and find justice, worth and dignity. Second, Christ is a spiritual presence within people who seek such relationships. Third, Christ exists as words and images about Jesus/Christ, which are a resource for people in their task of forming justice-seeking relationships. I suggest that Christ exists in all three of these forms simultaneously, and is not reducible to anyone of them alone. ‘Christ’ thus needs to be understood as a fundamentally relational concept, and it is reflection on what Christians have made of Jesus which has enabled this to be seen clearly.

Jesus of Nazareth is a decisive historical figure for Christian faith. He was crucified and, in Christian understanding, is risen and living. However, it is not simply as a past, individual figure that Jesus is proclaimed ‘Christ’. A present understanding of Christ therefore informs what is made of the past and vice versa. If the present living form of Jesus as the Christ is that of embodied relationships, then this will be seen reflected in Jesus’ own life. And sure enough, Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ in the context of those around him: who followed him, argued with him, misunderstood him, denied him, proclaimed him ‘Lord’. In the present, Jesus Christ is encountered among people who suffer, are persecuted, find life, are liberated, experience joy. In short, Christology leaves its task incomplete if it seeks to interpret an isolated, individual figure, especially if that figure is located in the historical past.

Jesus Christ is also best understood relationally because Christ is encountered among groups of people who – wittingly or unwittingly, in the context of human life – follow or experience the God who is known as the Father of Jesus Christ. Christology is thus not a task undertaken in the abstract. We can and must interpret who, what and where Christ is today in the context of ordinary, complex human relationships. It is therefore also possible to work back from certain forms of human relationships to what can be said of Christ today.
Sharpening the central question: a conversation with Bonhoeffer
For Bonhoeffer, Christology is the central discipline not simply of the Christian theological task, but of alllearning.(2) Further than this, he believes that the reality of Christ lies at the heart of Christian thought and practice – a reality that is not to be equated with human ideas or beliefs about Christ. In his exposition of ‘the present Christ’, (3) Bonhoeffer identifies Christ as word, sacrament and church, central to human existence and history, and at the interface between God and nature. Even the casual reader would be struck by the fact that, for Bonhoeffer, Christocentrism does not therefore mean limiting the centrality of Christ to a centrality for the church, or for Christian thought and practice. Christ is undoubtedly central to what it means to be church. But in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christianity ‘church’ exists for ‘world’. In other words, the church exists to serve others, but in serving the world it is not subject to the world’s beck and call, or able merely to follow its own chosen path. ‘Church’ exists for world precisely because it is Christ for the world, the form in which Christ is present in the world.

Any exploration of Bonhoeffer’s Christocentrism must unpick the close relationship he sees between Christ and church. Does it leave him open to the charge of ecclesiocentrism, despite the safeguards he has built into his approach? (4) Or has Bonhoeffer replaced Christ as centre, not with the church, but with a different form of human community? Is his attempt to locate Christ at the centre of Christian thought and practice therefore ultimately a form of social anthropocentrism? (5) At the very least, what does Bonhoeffer make of the way that Christ relates to, or is evident in, a variety of forms of human community, not only’ church’? Does Bonhoeffer provide significant, positive insights into what form Christ and Christocentrism take in Christian thought and practice today?

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Jesus/Christ
In his earliest writings, Bonhoeffer explores the interplay of theology, sociology and social philosophy. It is therefore not surprising that his reflections upon the person of Jesus Christ are related directly to understandings of church and human community. (6) I have drawn on both Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, as well as sections of Bonhoeffer’s later works, Ethics and The Cost of Discipleship, and shorter writings and letters contained in a variety of collections (not least Letters and Papers from Prison). (7) However, Bonhoeffer’s most focused writings on Christology are his 1933 lectures, and so these provide the main substance for the following exposition. (8)

Bonhoeffer’s most famous formulation of the central christological question, already cited (page 1), is the poignant reiteration of the question which had always preoccupied him in both his academic and his personal life. The ‘who?’ question about Christ lies at the heart of the 1933 lectures. Rather than become enmeshed in ‘how?’ questions – for example, how could divine and human natures be united in one person? – Bonhoeffer stresses the need to ask personal questions: about Christ’s person and about the enquirer. Who is Christ? Who am I? How are those two questions related?

Christ as ‘counter-logos’
Bonhoeffer defines Christ first and foremost as the’ counterlogos’. (9) By this he means that the role of Jesus Christ, as the Word of God, is to correct and redefine any ‘word’ by which human beings try to describe and order the world in which they live. As counter-logos, Jesus Christ subverts all human attempts to address ‘how?’ questions in Christology and thus all efforts to include Christ himself within the world of human objects. This means that Jesus Christ has to be understood as an active, living presence, though as the one who confronts us. Christ is not to be claimed or manipulated.

Bonhoeffer seeks to avoid two common ways in which Christology collapses into Jesusology: (1) by referring solely to the individual figure of Jesus of Nazareth;, (10) and (2) by overemphasizing the past at cost to the present. The counter-logos is identifiable at a point in history, but is not confined to that point.(11) Indeed, it must not be, as the work of Christ, the counter-logos, continues in the questioning of human beings who seek to find out who they are. This is something that they can only do in relation to Christ.

Christ existing as community
The definition of Christ as ‘counter-logos’ could suggest that Christ stands over against contemporary experience in an abstract, unrooted, non-material, spiritualized way. (12) Bonhoeffer will have none of this. The phrase that reverberates through much of his work is ‘Christ existing as community’ (‘Christus als Gemeinde existierend’).(13) With this expression Bonhoeffer explores how Christ is not simply discovered by people in community, but is present as community. He brings ‘Christ’ and ‘church’ into the closest proximity. Christ is church.

In and through Christ the church is established in reality. It is not as if Christ could be abstracted from the church; rather it is none other than Christ who ‘is’ the church. . . Christ did not merely make the church possible, but rather realized it for eternity. (14)

‘Christ existing as community’ could imply that any collection of human beings, defined in any sense as a ‘community’, could be deemed to be Christ. But this is clearly not Bonhoeffer’s view. Christ exists as ‘church’, but Bonhoeffer knows he needs to be very careful in defining ‘church’ and in pinpointing where any such’ church’ might exist in concrete form. (15) For people assume too easily that they know what ‘church’ and ‘Christ’ mean, and so Bonhoeffer must still explain more precisely what ‘Christ existing as community’ means. He acknowledges the distinction often made between the ‘person’ and ‘work’ of Christ. (16) Though he respects both aspects in his exploration, Bonhoeffer’s emphasis is clearly on Christ’s person. He fears that prioritizing soteriology over Christology, work over person, might run counter to his revelation-based approach to theology. If emphasis is laid on salvation, it is too easy to lose sight of the one saving in favour of the one saved. This danger can be averted by continually asking who it is that is doing the saving.

Against this background it is clear that, for Bonhoeffer, ‘church’ cannot primarily mean a gathering of the redeemed, where the emphasis is upon the gathered. Defining Christ as (church-) community in this sense could move the focus away from Christ and onto those incorporated in Christ – that is, those included within this new way of being human in community. The implication might then be that Christ was actually not needed for this human community to exist.

All this does not mean that Bonhoeffer plays down the profoundly personal character of believers’ participation in Christ. Near the beginning of the Christology lectures he explores the personal dimension to Christ in relation to those who are Christ’s body, the church, and makes the startling statement: ‘Every christology which does not begin with the assumption that God is only God for me, Christ is only Christ for me, condemns itself.” (17) This statement might seem to contradict his prioritizing of Christology over soteriology and to turn Bonhoeffer into the existentialist that some have (wrongly) sought to make him. (18) In fact, Bonhoeffer is simply pointing out that detachment from Christ and exploration of Christ’s person are incompatible. To be in Christ, one ‘has to be in the church; being in the church (rightly understood) means being in Christ. One cannot be an isolated individual and be ‘in Christ’. One must be in a particular form of relationship with others in order to be ‘in Christ’. This will then indicate who and what the church is, in and as Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s is thus a Christology of involvement, which also seeks to avoid being a Christology of mere self-assertion, even corporate self-assertion, of those who deem themselves ‘saved’. We can only be in Christ, in church, in community, because Christ includes us, and not because we can work towards an understanding of Christ on the basis of our experience of being redeemed. (19)

Christ as Word
Bonhoeffer takes two steps to explain further what ‘Christ existing as community’ means. Though he introduced his understanding of Christ and community in his first two works, the exposition of ‘the present Christ’ in the 1933 lectures prefaces exploration of Christ as community with expositions of Christ as ‘word’ and Christ as ‘sacrament’ (20) In the same way that Bonhoeffer redefines ‘church’, it is no surprise to find him taking the two necessary steps to redefine ‘word’ and ‘sacrament’ too, lest anyone assumes that they understand what these are and believes that they have grasped in advance the form of Christ’s presence.

Again, Bonhoeffer works with a corporate understanding of Christ. Resisting a notion of a timeless word or a disembodied idea, (21) Bonhoeffer sees Christ in terms of concrete address to the human person, in the context of an addressed community.

The character of truth in this addressing word is such that it seeks community, in order to face it with the truth. Truth is not something in itself, which rests for itself, but something that happens between two. Truth happens only in community. It is here for the first time that the concept of the Word acquires its full significance. (22)

Bonhoeffer has already expressed his agreement with Martin Kahler a few pages beforehand: ‘The Christ who is preached is the real Christ. (23) Here we see how important it is for Bonhoeffer that Christ is preached in the context of the community of Christ (for the community, rightly understood, is Christ present). As the Word, Christ is not preached in a detached way, as if the Word is but words:

Christ is not only present in the Word of the Church, but also as Word of the Church, that means the spoken Word of preaching. In the Word, could be too little, because it could separate Christ from his Word (24)

Again the insistence on the concrete, communal embodiment of Christ is evident. Christ is not to become an idea, or even simply a sermon, despite the crucial significance of preaching.(25) Christ as word and Christ as community belong together, in so far as the preaching addresses the recipient within the context of the real, concrete human relationships which ‘church’ makes possible.

Christ as sacrament
‘Word’ clearly has priority over sacrament in Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Christ. Recognizing Christ to be ‘Word’ secures the revelation-based, God-centredness of Christ and of any understanding of Christ. (26) But given the nature of Bonhoeffer’s attention to ‘Christ existing as community’, it is inevitable that Bonhoeffer feels pressed to say more about the form of Christ’s concrete presence. ‘Word’ could still remain too immaterial. As ‘sacrament’ Christ is present as ’embodied Word’. (27) The gospel is proclaimed as clearly via a sacrament – water, or bread and wine – as via the word of preaching. Here we see God making use of fallible created material: ‘against the attempt to limit Christ to doctrine, or to lose him in general truth, the Church stresses the sacramental form of Christ. He is not only doctrine, nor only idea, but nature and history. (28)

The concreteness of the church is thus directly reflected in the concrete form of the word as sacrament. The ‘God-Human Being’ is present in tangible form in the present, despite ‘the inadequacies of nature and history’. Though the material forms of Christ’s presence as water, bread or wine may be termed ‘God’s cloak’, they do not lead to God’s devaluing of the material world as a whole. For as God is revealed in the flesh of Jesus, so also Christ is revealed in the sacrament of bread and wine ‘not as straw is in a sack; this in must be understood theologically’. (29)

Consistent with his whole approach to Christology, Bonhoeffer again resists venturing too far into the question of ‘how’ Christ is present. He takes up the topic with great reluctance, and with astonishing brevity given how much attention has been paid to it throughout Christian history.

‘Who is present in the sacrament?’, is the only question to ask. The complete person of the God-Man is present, in his exaltation and humiliation’ is the answer. Christ exists in such a way that he is existentially present in the sacrament. His being in the sacrament is not a special property, one quality among others; this is the way in which he exists in the Church. The humiliation is no accident of his divine-human substance, but it is his existence. (30)

Bonhoeffer in effect invites us to consider Christ as a community of three circles in which the outer circle is the community in which Christ is manifest, an inner circle the sacramental form of Christ and the innermost circle Christ as word. All of these together constitute the communal form which Christ strives to take in the world. In this way, Bonhoeffer preserves the priority of revelation (as word), and remains fully concrete and communal in his Christocentrism.

Jesus Christ as word, sacrament and church: a summary
Human life is to be interpreted, for Bonhoeffer, through these three lenses. Christ is community, but is identifiable neither with the church as we know it nor merely any form of community. Christ is community when read in the light of word and sacrament. Not everything is sacramental. Word and sacrament disclose where true church ‘is’ and thus where Christ is. Word and sacrament are not dispensable media, as if some disembodied ‘Christ’ could be evident behind or beyond them. Word, sacrament and church belong together. (31)

We must now go on to ask, however, whether the potential for Bonhoeffer’s approach radically to critique a customary understanding of ‘church’ is not undermined by the manner of his attention to word and sacrament.

Jesus/Christ in Bonhoeffer’s theology: a critical analysis
Christ and otherness
The first critical question to pose to Bonhoeffer concerns whether he as consistently holds to the identification of Christ as (church-) community as his work implies. Bonhoeffer notes in his discussion of Paul’s exploration of Christ and the church that a ‘complete identification between Christ and the church-community cannot be made (32) He is, however, insistent on attention to the revelation of God in Christ in this life and in the present time. This latter emphasis is linked with Bonhoeffer’s opposition to all forms of idealism, or monism of the spirit, which in his view places too much store by the individual detached from the concrete demands of actual living.(33) But has Bonhoeffer carried through this opposition consistently? It seems to me that Bonhoeffer’s recognition that a Christ/community equation is not made by Paul is both a helpful challenge to the tenor of Bonhoeffer’s thought and a necessary reminder of how a complete opposition to idealism in all its forms is simply not possible in Christianity.

It is clear why Bonhoeffer feels unable wholly to equate Christ with any communal form: to do so risks confusing creator with creature, God with (fallible) humanity. (34) Such an approach would fall into the trap of working from contemporary experience back to the reality of God (rather than vice versa). The liberals of Bonhoeffer’s time, whom Bonhoeffer opposed, were not all guilty of this (35) but such a theological procedure could undoubtedly play into the hands of the German Christians in their preoccupation with ‘relevance’ and their desire to justify Christianity in terms of the present. (36) In order to avoid the trap, Bonhoeffer stresses the primacy of revelation, and thus the independent, free action of God. But he must do this, it seems to me, in a way which requires him to make some use of idealism. The ontology that Bonhoeffer needs to support his own emphasis on ‘Christ as community’ is not without its own idealist strain. There is always an ‘otherness’ needed outside of the concrete form in which Christ is present to enable the claim to be made that it is Christ who is present. In other words, Bonhoeffer supports an implicit ontology of a form which subverts the ontology he supports in Act and Being. He remains more idealist than he thinks he is, wants to be, and believes is good for Christian theology.

Idealism need not be characterized in the devilish terms which Bonhoeffer implies. A recognition of the importance of the nonmaterial aspects of human living does not inevitably lead to Nazism. Bonhoeffer’s trenchant critique of much German Christianity in the 1930S and 1940S was admittedly necessary given the tendency to favour an eternal, timeless, ethereal Christ. Bonhoeffer saw such an ideological commitment to be inadequate. For him, Christ must always be ‘other’ (as the ‘counterlogos’) but always also concrete and corporate. It is, as we see here, in the conceptuality of maintaining that sense of otherness that difficulties arise.

How, then, is the otherness of God in Christ to be respected? One may accept that identifying Christ with community need not be quite as negative towards idealism as Bonhoeffer makes out. But how could Bonhoeffer be reassured that a human community claiming to embody Christ does so in a valid way? Bonhoeffer himself makes use of a christological criterion in order to determine the true from the false church (the church is wherever Christ takes shape). But how is such a christological criterion to operate? In order to be able to present Christ as existing as community without inevitably collapsing Christ into community without remainder, there at least needs to be a narrative tradition about (the) Christ, in relation to which claims of Christ’s communal presence can be cross-checked. (37) Christ cannot be identified in, with or as a community, without a means through which a community can be thus identified. Recognizing that ‘Christ’ is words and images as well as being a spiritual presence and embodied in relationships offers a broad channel through which the presence of Christ can be identified. The ways in which people fashion images of Jesus in the Christian tradition is a prime’ means through which God-talk is undertaken. The fact that this happens as images as well as words challenges and extends Bonhoeffer’s reluctance to attach equal significance to the visual as well as the verbal. The importance and sheer difficulty of critically assessing the many and varied words and images that present Christ remains. But the necessity, the value and the practical function of such images is clear. They are the way in which God in Christ is not collapsed wholly into the concrete forms in which Christ is nevertheless seen to be present. They are a link between the concrete form of Christ and the otherness of the God revealed.

Relating in Christ
A second question to ask in studying Bonhoeffer’s work is whether he sufficiently explores the nature of the relationships between people within the community/ communities that Christ can be held to ‘exist as’. In some ways, Bonhoeffer offers a simple answer: Christ exists only as church-community. So my question is posed only in regard to his definition and exploration of ‘church’, and a direct response comes from his exposition of life at the community he formed in Finkenwalde. (38) Christ creates the sense of Christians belonging to one another (39) and any sense of mutual belonging derives solely from Christ. (40) It is thus from ‘church’ that we understand what ‘community’ (and human relationship) is. It is in the light of the existence of Christian community that we can grasp what human community might be. Without a sense of Christian community, we do not, in Bonhoeffer’s view, understand what it is possible for human community to be.

Yet things are not as simple as this, and the degree to which Bonhoeffer plays off ‘church’ against ‘world’ (even if understandable in his historical context) leaves ill explored the nature of relationships within ‘church’ as he defines it. If we are to place Christ centrally in Christian thought and practice, and if Christ is to be grasped as a corporate concept, then the actual nature of the relationships between those who constitute the corporateness of Christ must be examined. If Christ is relational, what kind of relationships are to be fostered? Standing in relationship with others does not necessarily mean that one enjoys good, life-enhancing, empowering relationships. (41)

Bonhoeffer’s insights in this regard can be teased out further from his Ethics, but a full discussion of this cannot be entered into here. (42) Suffice it to say that while much fruitful exploration of Christian conduct and relationships (inside and outside of the faith community) can be developed from Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the self-expenditure of the Christian ‘for others’, the particular way in which he makes use of the ‘church/world’ framework does tend to leave the ‘church’ framework itself underdeveloped as a model of social practice. Further, Bonhoeffer terms as ‘mandates’ a number of forms of social living which in his view require closest scrutiny (labour, marriage, government and church) (43) He also refers to friendship, art, education and playas ‘spheres of freedom’. (44) However, there is a relative lack of critique of these social frameworks and practices within which an encounter with Christ can occur. It could be argued that both the mandates and the ‘spheres of freedom’ could be used in the service of developing a more comprehensive relational Christology. The ‘church/world’ distinction, as Bonhoeffer interprets it within his own time, makes it impossible to reach a fuller corporate understanding of Christ; one which does justice to the fact that most of human living is not, in fact, lived as ‘church’.

Christian thought and practice after Bonhoeffer is therefore left the task of identifying what form such an undertaking might take, without reducing Christology to ethics or to mere ‘application’ of a definition of Christ worked out beforehand. Discovering who Christ is will always in part be the result of participation in the social forms in which Christ is present in the world today.

Bonhoeffer’s ‘church optimism’
As a response to the question about the relational character of his Christology, Bonhoeffer’s reference to ‘church’ could well seem inadequate. By ‘church’, of course, he did not mean the church in any simple form as concretely evident (not ‘the religious community’ as such). He could only actually be pro-church in a limited way, given the concrete setting in which he worked out his (christological) criterion for identifying what ‘church’ should be. Even so, his approach remains too subtle and his use of ‘church’ as a category surprisingly optimistic. Even if what’ church’ is can only be seen on the basis of revelation, (45) and even if all concrete manifestations of ‘church’ are recognized as imperfect, communal living with God is certainly, for Bonhoeffer, ‘church-dependent’. It is, though, understandable if one’s focus then falls on the forms of church that we actually know, even if this is the wrong way round: the concrete form of church then defining who and what Christ is rather than vice versa.

It is therefore difficult to put Bonhoeffer’s insights fully to work outside of their immediate context. His critique of concrete manifestations of ‘church’ can be put to good use. At the opposite pole, his opposition to the view that the church somehow’ exists’ as an idea outside of time remains important. But it is very clear that further exploration is needed of the forms of human relationships that would not readily be defined as ‘church’, yet which may correlate with forms of human community worthy of linking with Jesus/Christ., (46) The surprising optimism of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of church – an ‘optimism’ born only of God, as working in and through Christ and the Spirit -leaves little, if any, room for the positive interpretation of forms of human community outside of identifiable Christianity. Even in Christian terms I am not sure that Bonhoeffer quite leaves as much room as he supposes for the appreciation of the mandates as forms in which Christ can be present in the world. All four mandates are to be christologically understood (‘each in its own way, shall be through Christ, directed towards Christ, and in Christ’). (47) But the divine mandate of church is clearly of a different order from the other three, despite the fact that Christians live in the world, in relation to all three other mandates, like anyone else., (48) In remaining, despite his best insights, strangely optimistic about ‘church’, Bonhoeffer was certainly a man of his time, and of his culture. More than fifty years on, a different approach must be adopted in exploring the relationality claimed for the corporate forms in which Christ is seen to take form in the world.

These are, then, three critical questions which may be brought to Bonhoeffer’s Christology:

  • How can Christ remain ‘other’ when emphasis is so firmly placed on Christ’s concrete presence as community?
  • What kind of relationships are we talking about here?
  • Is not Bonhoeffer over-optimistic about what we can glean about Christ in and through’ church’?

There is no way in which these critical observations prevent Bonhoeffer’s insights being of profound usefulness for our own enquiry. But they are worth noting because they alert us to some of the pitfalls of trying to identify who and where Christ is for us today.

Bonhoeffer’s practical challenge
A crucial, positive point emerges from this discussion of Bonhoeffer. His ‘theological study of the sociology of the church’, in Sanctorum Communio, provides both a christological reading of the church and a corporate Christology. ‘Church’ cannot be understood appropriately except as a concrete manifestation of the living Christ. Christ cannot be experienced except from within the context of corporate human experience. These assertions challenge all ensuing Christian theologies to clarify whether they relate ‘Christ’ and ‘church’, to what extent they do this, and how they understand the relationship between individual and corporate Christian existence. Any attempt to define Christ or church without reference to concrete human experience becomes questionable. At the same time, Bonhoeffer’s method rules out lazy extrapolations from human experience – be it individual or corporate. Bonhoeffer wishes all the time to find ways of ensuring that, in theology, we speak about God, rather than merely human ideas about God, or about human experience (religious or otherwise). (49)

His achievement is to stress that the God we know in Christ becomes known in corporate human experience of a certain kind (which can be called ‘church’). Experience of God, we might say, is received as a gift in the midst of human relationships of a particular nature and quality. Such corporate experience, which we may term ‘redeemed sociality’ in so far as it is a form of communalliving that God intends for creation (50) may indeed only be identifiable because of ‘church’. (51) But it is not clear that it is either logical or Christian to claim that all examples of such ‘redeemed sociality’ should be labelled ‘church’. (52) Indeed, as Daniel Hardy notes, the insights that the apostle Paul offered in the context of early Christianity concerned the’ discovery of the presence of the risen Christ in the world itself’. Paul’s experience was ‘a constant finding of Christ’ . (53)

To Paul’s insight we might well add, with Bonhoeffer, that the development and enjoyment of relationships of a quality worth describing as just, redeemed and redemptive, forgiving, inspiring and empowering, will, in Christian understanding, always be made with reference to Christ. But Bonhoeffer’s approach appears to do two things: it assumes that Christianity has a monopoly upon the promotion of such relationships; and it so centralizes the role of ‘church’ that Bonhoeffer cannot escape the charge of ecclesiocentrism. (54) There seems simply no room for any group outside of Christianity to discover what it means to be forgiven, redeemed or empowered – even if Christians may then attribute the emergence of such redemption to God, acting in Christ. Perhaps that is precisely Bonhoeffer’s point: it cannot happen. Christocentrism means solus Christus. Because redemption, forgiveness or empowerment happen ‘by Christ alone’, they can only happen consciously ‘by Christ alone’. Without such consciousness, we are back in the realm of human self-assertion, and any group might make the claim to be ‘redeemed’ (or offer some equivalent concept or experience).(55)

Bonhoeffer does not overlook the need to ask what kind of relationships are being fostered when any community is claimed to be redemptive and empowering. But he does not make clear how, by means of a christological criterion, it can be judged, say, that a National Socialist group could make no legitimate claim to embody Christ, in contrast to a community of Sikhs living in a Christ-like way.  (56) At this point, then, we can begin to appreciate the full force of the question posed about the relational aspects of Bonhoeffer’s corporate Christology. It is not enough to relate ‘Christ’ closely either with ‘church’ or indeed with any notion of human community. ‘Christ’ has to inform an understanding of the kinds of relationships that people work at and seek to form within the context of everyday patterns of life. What this all means for a contemporary practical Christology forms the substance of the rest of this book.

Not only must Christian theology be Christocentric, Christian living must be too. Such living cannot be abstract or individualistic. It is crucial to clarify the social forms of Christ, and thus how the presence of Christ both informs and actively shapes human living. ‘Church’ cannot be ignored. There is no Christian living without reference to, and participation in, ‘church’ of some kind. But as the critical discussion of his work has highlighted, Bonhoeffer failed to explore adequately the multiple social forms in which Christ may be present in the world. While identifying the practical theological significance of ‘church’, Bonhoeffer has not gone far enough beyond the social form of ‘church’ in seeking to clarify how and where Christ is in the world today. Though not writing with Bonhoeffer in view, Rowan Williams’ comment is pertinent.

Family and nation, in particular, are of themselves good patterns of sociality, needing only the context of incarnational theology to save them from idolatry and set them on a firm base. But the secular analyst of ideology may object: if you say that the social forms of family and nation are good, but waiting for the seal of Christian completion, precisely what forms are you talking about? (57)

Family and nation (and work) are, as Williams recognizes all liable to idolization. They are not ends in themselves. The firm base on which they can be set is not, however, by being more like church or even being related to church (however understood). They deserve christological interpretation so that what they are capable of being in their own right, and the people they are capable of forming, better befit the work of the God who creates, redeems and sanctifies.

This present book works in the light of the recognition that Christ takes form in the world as ‘church’. But it pushes further. It asks what it means to speak of a ‘Christology of everyday life’. It does not label relationships as ‘Christ’ because they are vaguely ‘good’, ‘useful’ or ‘helpful’. It recognizes that to speak of Christ taking social form entails analysing the accepted and institutional forms of social and political life beyond church: family, friendships, work relationships, educational life, nation state. It seeks not to be a book of ‘applied theology’. Aspects of who Christ is are not merely confirmed through critical, christological analysis of the different social forms; they are discovered. We learn more about who Christ is by being friends, by being children and parents, and by engaging in the complexity of employment relationships. I suggest that such an approach is wholly in keeping with Bonhoeffer’s intention, and this is why discussion of his work has been a good place to start. We can now go on to press the question ‘who is Christ for us today?’ by asking: what is Christ doing in the midst of national, family, working and educational life, and among friends, as well as in the form of church?

1. D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press, 1971, p. 279.
2. D. Bonhoeffer, Christology, London: Fount, 1978, p. 28.
3. Bonhoeffer, Christology, pp. 43-65.
4. I have considered ‘ecclesiocentrism’ as one of many possible ‘centrisms’ that distort Christocentrism in Chapter 3 of Christ in Focus.
5. ‘Anthropocentrism’ is also one of the’ centrisms’ considered in Christ in Focus (pp. 53-54).
6. D. Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998 (written 1925-27; first published Berlin 1930; first ET London: Collins, 1963), Act and Being, London: Collins, 1962 (written 1930-31; first published Munich, 1956), his doctorate, and Habilitationsschrift (his dissertation written to qualify him to teach), respectively, introduce Bonhoeffer’s key theological concerns: revelation, opposition to idealist individualism, church and community, what it means to be human, Christ as key to resolution of individualist tendencies to withdraw from others.
7 Supplemented by relevant material from D. Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes 1928-1936, London: Collins, 1965 and The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures and Notes 1935-1939, London: Collins, 1966.
8 The Christology lectures remained incomplete and are reconstructed. (Eberhard Bethge reconstructed the text of the lectures, drawing on notes and recollections of eight students.) Indeed, the third part of the series, ‘The Eternal Christ’, was probably never delivered. Any attempt to grasp Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christ thus encounters the fragmentary nature of his work. In what follows I interact especially with the two published parts, ‘The Present Christ’ and ‘The Historical Christ’, adding to what can be concluded from those sections whatever else can be gleaned from other writings.
9. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 30.
10. On this as a distortion of Christocentrism, see Christ in Focus, pp. 44-‘7.
11. Bonhoeffer, Christology, pp. 30 and 33-4.
12. To use the threefold categorization of the forms of Christ I used in Christ is Focus, this would mean: Christ as ‘spiritual presence’, though not also as embodied in relationship, and as words and images.
13. Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, pp. 121, 189—90, 199, 207, 211, 214, 216, 231,
 260,280 and 288; Act and Being, pp. 120, 122 and 125.
14. Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, p. 157.
15. This point relates to the translators’ and editor’s decision to translate ‘Christus
als Gemeinde existierend’ as ‘Christ existing as church-community’ throughout the most recent edition of Sanctorum Communio (1998). The editor (Clifford J. Green) rightly stresses (p. 15) that church is defined by where Christ exists as community, and not vice versa. But the inclusion of the word ‘church’ in the translation does, in my view, have the opposite effect of the intention: i.e., it draws the reader’s attention to the church as we know it first. The challenge of the interpreter (and then the user) of Bonhoeffer’s theology is to grasp the distinctions between the church as we know it, Christ as community, and any human community. Only once these distinctions are allowed their space can Bonhoeffer’s challenging concept ‘Christ as community’ have a chance to work.
16. Bonhoeffer, Christology, pp. 37-9.
17. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 47.
18. The misleading ‘Death of God’ appropriation of Bonhoeffer and his work is per
tinent here.
19. It could, I think rightly, be claimed that Bonhoeffer has perhaps gone a bit too far against Melanchthon and his heirs in order to make his point about the pro me aspect of Christology and soteriology (Bonhoeffer, Christology, pp. 37-9), prior to making his more positive point (p. 47)’ But this is not a matter that needs discussing here.
20. Bonhoeffer, Christology, pp. 49-58.
21. And here Bonhoeffer sounds like Bultmann, though without displaying Bultmann’s individualist tendencies.
22. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 50.
23. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 46, echoing M. Kahler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964 (German original, 1892), p. 71. The debt is acknowledged later in the Christology lectures in the context of Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the ‘Historical Christ’ (Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 70).
24. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 51 (Bonhoeffer’s emphasis).
25. ‘If the complete Christ is not in the preaching, then the Church is broken’
(Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 52).
26. It is worth noting that Bonhoeffer, in rather stereotypical Protestant fashion (and despite his love of music), has just excluded other possibilities prior to developing this second form of Christ’s presence in his discussion: ‘Christ is present in the church as the spoken word, not as music nor as art’ (Bonhoeffer, Christology,p. 52).
27. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 53.
28. Bonhoeffer, Christology, pp. 53-4.
29. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 56, where Bonhoeffer is following Luther; the nature of the presence of Christ ‘in’ the water of baptism has, of course, been explored less and is, not surprisingly, not a question raised by Bonhoeffer.
30. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 57.
31. At this point it is worth noting that there is a correlation, even if not a perfect one, between Bonhoeffer’s conclusions and those to which I came at the end of Christ in Focus. ‘Church’ relates to embodied relationships, ‘sacrament’ relates to relationships and to ‘words and images’, and ‘Word’ relates to words and images and spiritual presence. The value of my different construal, I suggest, lies in its movement beyond overly ecclesiastical categories.
32. Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, p. 140.
33 Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, pp. 160-1.
34. Something which, in 1930S Germany, Bonhoeffer saw to be dangerous.
35. As Bonhoeffer recognizes (and here he is more charitable than Barth), No Rusty
, p. 309.
36. Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, p. 310.
37. There will doubtless need to be much more. For Bonhoeffer himself this narrative tradition is biblical. Biblical material will inevitably feature prominently in any such Christian argumentation. To what extent the Bible might be supplemented by other sources, however normatively it might function, is an important question. I am thus using ‘narrative’ in a broad sense here. The recognition of Christ existing as ‘words and images’ and as ‘spiritual presence’ (see Christ in Focus) is important here. A link can also be made with my suggestion that Rita Nakashima Brock underestimates the extent to which she needs a ‘narrative Jesus’ in her Christology (Christ in Focus, Ch. 6).
38. D. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, London: SCM Press, 1954.
39. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 10.
40. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 14.
41. Though it is worth noting how easily in current theological discussion ‘relationality’, ‘relation’ or ‘relationship’ are seen as positive words.
42. L Rasmussen’s essay, ‘The ethics of responsible action’ in J. De Gruchy (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 206-25; and many of the essays in J. De Gruchy (ed.), Bonhoeffer for a New Day, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, are useful starting points.
43 D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, London: SCM Press, 1955, pp. 73-8. On the concept of ‘mandate’, see especially Ethics, pp. 254-8. Three mandates are listed in Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, pp. 192-3 (family, society and work). Bonhoeffer comes closest to anticipating what I am attempting to do in this book in Ethics, pp. 264-7. Even here, however, the actual detail of what this means for daily livIl1g is insufficiently explored.
44 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, p. 193.
45. Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, p. 134.
46. This point is already to assume the direction of much later discussion, but seems necessary at this stage. The point may be formulated as a question: does every form of human relationality that Christians may identify as ‘Christ existing as community’ need also to be identified as ‘church’?
47. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 73. ”
48. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 76.
49 We must, in fact, say that humans only ‘have’ experience at all because God is.
50. A phrase I first encountered in D.W. Hardy, ‘Created and Redeemed Sociality’ in C.Gunton and D.W. Hardy (eds), On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989, pp. 21-47 (reprinted in D.W. Hardy, God’s Ways with the World: Thinking and Practising Christian Faith, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996, pp. 188-205).
51. In the sense that Christians will only be able to identify particular human communities as examples of such ‘redeemed sociality’ because of the church’s carrying with it the traditions about God in Christ which enable such perceptions. It may even be claimed that humanity in general may depend upon Christian communities for the same.
52. An ascription that may, of course, be most unwelcome to some groups! Whether or not this would be an appropriate move, or an adequate theology of inclusivism, cannot be gone into here. Suffice it to say: to make such a move is of primary concern to the Christians who make it. To discuss what benefit would be gained by groups so described is another matter.
53.Hardy, ‘Created and Redeemed Sociality’, p. 205. I note in passing here, without underplaying the potential significance of the point, that Hardy distinguishes the notion of ‘social transcendental’ from ‘idealism’ in this essay, wanting to hold to the former without committing himself to the latter. Hardy is supportive of Bonhoeffer’s critique of idealism, though not of his suspicion about transcendentals. I must admit that I am unsure that the distinctions being drawn here carry much weight in practice. For my purpose, I want to hold to the notion that no person simply ‘is’ in oneself. We are because of an Other (God) and discover this through others (people). But we also need a conceptual or narrative framework through which we can grasp this. These framewor.ks are linguistic attempts to acknowledge that God (who ‘is’ independently of us) is nevertheless fundamentally relational and committed to self-expenditure to enable creation to be, to be redeemed, and to struggle towards completion.
54 Even allowing for Bonhoeffer’s bold attempt to redefine church through Christ.
55.And then the door is open for National Socialists to make a claim to be ‘saving’ the German people.
56. It is intriguing to ask how Bonhoeffer would have responded to the notion that a family in the Nazi era (who, say, hid Jews on the run, yet whose sons were in the Hitler youth) might be embodying Christ while not necessarily claiming Christian allegiance.
57. R.Williams, ‘Incarnation and the Renewal of Community’ in On Christian Theology, Oxford and Malden: Blackwell, 2000, p. 228.


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