April 2012 - Vol. 59


Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All) - mosaic, 1148 AD, dome of Cathedral of Cefal, Palermo, Italy
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The Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen Lord
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by Dieterich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

This excerpt is from Ethics, the last book Bonhoeffer was working on before his execution by the Nazi regime on April 9, 1945. The unfinished work was hidden away for safety and retrieved after the war. Bonhoeffer's friend Eberhard Bethge assembled it for publication in 1949.
.In Jesus Christ we have faith in the incarnate, crucified and risen God. In the incarnation we learn of the love of God for his creation. In the crucifixion we learn of the judgment of God upon all flesh. And in the resurrection we learn of God's will for a new world. There could be no greater error than to tear these three elements apart for each of them comprises the whole. It is quite wrong to establish a separate theology of the incarnation, a theology of the cross, or a theology of the resurrection, each in opposition to the others, by a misconceived absolutization of one of these parts. It is equally wrong to apply the same procedure to a consideration of the Christian life. A Christian ethic constructed solely on the basis of the incarnation would lead directly to the compromise solution. An ethic which was based solely on the cross or the resurrection of Jesus would fall victim to radicalism and enthusiasm. Only in the unity is the conflict resolved. 

Jesus Christ the man this means that God enters into created reality. It means that we have the right and the obligation to be men before God. The destruction of manhood, of man's quality as man (Menschsein), is sin, and is therefore a hindrance to God's redemption of man. Yet the manhood (Menschsein) of Jesus Christ does not mean simply the corroboration of the established world and of the human character as it is. Jesus was man "without sin" (Hebrews 4.15) that is what is decisive. Yet among men Jesus lived in the most utter poverty, unmarried, and he died as a criminal. Thus the manhood of Jesus implies already a twofold condemnation of man, the absolute condemnation of sin and the relative condemnation of the established human orders. But even under this condemnation Jesus is really man, and it is his will that we shall be men. He neither renders the human reality independent nor destroys it, but he allows it to remain as that which is before the last, as a penultimate which requires to be taken seriously in its own way, and yet not to be taken seriously, a penultimate which has become the outer covering of the ultimate. 

Jesus Christ the crucified this means that God pronounces its final condemnation on the fallen creation. The rejection of God on the cross of Jesus Christ contains within itself the rejection of the whole human race without exception. The cross of Jesus is the death sentence upon the world. Man cannot glory now in his humanity, nor the world in its divine orders. The glory of men has come now to its last end in the face of the Crucified, bruised and bloody and spat upon. Yet the crucifixion of Jesus does not simply mean the annihilation of the created world but under this sign of death, the cross, men are now to continue to live, to their own condemnation if they despise it, but to their own salvation if they give it its due. The ultimate has become real in the cross, as the judgment upon all that is penultimate, yet also as mercy towards that penultimate which bows before the judgment of the ultimate. 

Jesus Christ who rose again this means that God out of his love and omnipotence sets an end to death and calls a new creation into life, imparts new life. "Old things are passed away" (2 Corinthians 5.17). "Behold, I make all things new" (Revelation 21.5). Already in the midst of the old world, resurrection has dawned, as a last sign of its end and of its future, and at the same time as a living reality. Jesus rose again as a man, and by so doing he gave men the gift of the resurrection. Thus man remains man, even though he is a new, a risen man, who in no way resembles the old man. Until he crosses the frontier of his death, even though he has already risen again with Christ, he remains in the world of the penultimate, the world into which Jesus entered and the world in which the cross stands. Thus, so long as the earth continues, even the resurrection does not annul the penultimate, but the eternal life, the new life, breaks in with ever greater power into the earthly life and wins its space for itself within it. 

[Excerpt from Ethics, first published in German by Chr. Kaiser Verlag, Munich 1949. English translation by Neville Horton Smith SCM Press Ltd London 1955.]


Dieterich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, one of seven children. He grew up in Berlin, where his father worked as a  prominent professor of psychiatry and neurology. His mother was one of the few women of her generation to obtain a university degree. At the age of 14 he decided he would become a Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews. He was 39 years old when he was taken out of his prison cell and hanged as a Nazi traitor on April 9, 1945. As he left his cell he said to his companion, "This is the end but for me, the beginning of life.".

photo of Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison, summer 1944 
source: Christian Kaiser Verlag

> See related article Cheap Grace versus Costly Grace by Bonhoeffer
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