Who is Christ for us Today?

By Chris L. Rice

Paper delivered 12/7/07 for Project 12 as a final discussion related to “Dietrich Bonhoeffer as we understand him at JPUSA

I. Christian reality as being for others

Up to this point in this class we have been looking at how Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to understand himself as a Christian in his German church context—what his particular calling looked like as it related to the situation in Germany prior to WWII. We’ve read about how Germans needed to be remade into the image of Christ and what this looked like in the community of Finkenwalde. If we’ve been doing this right up to this point, you’ve been led to encounter a way of following Jesus that unsettles you, removes the comfort of some age old cultural assumptions, and thrusts you into an unknown realm of faith. Following Jesus has now been wrestled away from a privatized faith into a way of being for others.
Now what we’re asking is what does following Jesus look like in our context, here for us? I want to suggest that we can’t even begin to know who Jesus is for us today until we’re ready to divest ourselves of personal power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into a privileged family, but his faith rooted him not in privilege, but in weakness. He used the privilege he had for others, but to him, this was learning to be a man of faith—not a saint. His responsible faith led him to participate in the resistance. He was his times not as one for attaining a comfortable living and power, but for being for others. The way he chose left him in God’s hands to judge. To friends and enemies alike his final actions were hard to understand. He cared more about following Jesus than being understood.

“You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to; and this is where I miss you most of all, because I don’t know anyone else with whom I could so well discuss them to have my thinking clarified. What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is , for us today.”

—30 April, 1944. Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Eberhard Bethge,
Letters and Papers from Prison, pg. 279, Touchstone, 1997.

Note that this question is not posed to the sky, or to the twentieth century, or in the abstract. He is wanting a dialogue with his dear friend, Eberhard Bethge. The question is asked in community, and this is the only way we can face this question today: together as Christians. There are many much easier questions than “Who is Christ for us today?” This question should be one to surely silence us as members of a United States Church, and rightly so. The “us today” this refers to have been able talkers about Jesus up to this point, as the money we have made in His name shows, but very feeble practitioners, as our inaction regarding our nation’s use of money, power, torture, and war demonstrate. This question is hard because it accuses us with who we are today in light of Who Christ is. And in our hearts we know Christ cannot be bought out by power and money as easily as we have been.

Afraid to face Jesus himself, our churches have retreated into religion and ethics as usual, asking “What Would Jesus Do?” Notice how this way of questioning is different? Following a Jesus who asks hypothetical ethical questions about situations that could possibly happen, we can safely lower our eyes from our neighbor, from being “for others” as Jesus was. But where has this theoretical Jesus of religion and ethics gotten us? How has it enabled us to obey Jesus, His Great Commission to disciple the nations, save human life, stop the War, act as responsible inhabitants of the planet, question Technique, heal, perform miracles, and just BE His Church?

In Bonhoeffer’s final work, Ethics, he fashioned a Christological Ethic as a critique of all other ethics.

“Life in the origin is knowing nothing but God alone. Knowing good and evil is knowing from our own possibilities, namely to be good or evil. . . .Knowing ourselves beside and outside of God, which means knowing nothing but ourselves, and God not at all.” (DBW 6, Ethics, pg. 300)

In asking “Who is Christ for us today?” we are looking at our source, Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith, in action–for us—in our particular place in this world today. He doesn’t ask “Are we worthy, are we righteous, or are we following?” These questions are all out of place. Christ is for us today. He is for his Church as it sustains and renews the world in Him.

It is easy to talk about following Jesus by taking up our cross, promising not to seek power, living a simple life of weakness, especially here in an intentional community in Uptown Chicago. But speaking about weakness is like speaking about faith. It is nothing unless it has an object. We can only truly divest ourselves of power and take on Christ’s suffering as we live by faith and obey the Holy Spirit. Otherwise all this talk of weakness will just be a different way of seeking admiration, a saintly appearance, and yes, power. Alone I will always seek enablement for myself. Only within the church-community can I take up a cross and follow Jesus. And in turn, this being for others in Christ has a real impact on the world.

“The church-community has, therefore, a very real impact on the life of the world. It gains space for Christ. For whatever is “in Christ” is no longer under the dominion of the world, of sin, or of the law. Within this newly created community, all the laws of this world have lost their binding force. This sphere in which brothers and sisters are loved with Christian love is subject to Christ; it is no longer subject to the world. The church-community can never consent to any restrictions of its service of love and compassion toward other human beings. For wherever there is a brother or sister, there Christ’s own body is present; and wherever Christ’s body is present, his church-community is also always present, which means I must also be present there.” (DBW 4, Discipleship, pg. 236)

II. Faith & Metanoia

We’ve seen how being for others in this world means sharing in Christ’s suffering in this world. It means giving up forever the notion that Jesus took up his cross, but that we don’t have to. In a letter from prison to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes:

“I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s suffering through a life of this kind?” (Letters & Papers from Prison, pgs. 369-370)

Let’s look at this closely.
• living completely in this world
• abandon any attempt to make something of oneself
• throw ourselves completely into the arms of God
• take God’s suffering in the world seriously
• watching with Christ at Gethsemane
• Gratitude with past and present, contentment with them.

There is a dialectical tension here, that Jacques Ellul in The Presence of the Kingdom calls “the agonistic life.” It seeks not to run away from the real world, not to empower ourselves, not to try to “save” the world, but just to throw ourselves into God’s arms, watch, pray, and be thankful. This will in effect make us irritating inhabitants of this world–daily reminders that the world is in decay, but that we live by a different Source. We will be aliens and strangers, and yes, Paul promises us that we will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12).

III. Christian practices as a “subversion” of the Powers

Our “this worldly” faith needs to be understood in terms of Christ’s person and work in all of the world. It is important to note here that, to Bonhoeffer, Jesus Christ is the Mediator between God and Nature as well as God and Man. He writes in Christ the Center that “Christ is indeed the centre of human existence, the centre of history and now, too, the centre of nature. . . ” (pg. 67)

James S. Stewart noted that:

“The really tragic force of the dilemma of history and of the human predicament is not answered by any theology which speaks of the Cross as a revelation of love and mercy—and goes no further. But the primitive proclamation (of the early Church) spoke of an objective transaction which had changed the human situation and indeed the universe, the kosmos itself. It spoke of the decisive irrevocable defeat of the powers of darkness. ” (cited in Marva Dawn, Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God, Eerdmans, 2001, pg. 8.)

In the New Testament we learn of Principalities, Powers, rulers, and authorities that were created for good, that are fallen with creation, that Christ defeated them on the cross, that they are made subject to Christ, but that we must stand against and resist them, using the armor of God. Discerning the Powers and allowing God’s power to work in our weakness IS the Christian life.

For example, in testing the spirits we can discern that Late Capitalism is a monetary system that denies the Incarnation (1 John 4: 1-4) by denying any greater power than itself and claiming complete control over our bodies. Rather than being sons and daughters of God, (John 1: 11-14) a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), it claims that from the day we are born until we die we will be in debt, forced to work it off and then keep it off. Late Capitalism enthrones mammon as the only god worth serving, disciplining our desires so that we conform to its values of lack, envy, and greed. Jesus gave us a clear choice between God and mammon, (Matt. 6: 24) describing us as slaves of one or the other.

I must confess that I feel bemused in speaking about the powers. As a young Christian when I read these passages about Principalities and Powers and waging spiritual warfare I was taught to imagine demons and angels along the lines of Frank Peretti’s novel, This Present Darkness. It made it all quite fanciful. I wasn’t impressed with the novel or the fad among some friends of mine at the time to see “demons behind every bush.” This fear of not being able to see things named in the Bible as Powers, kept me from wanting to speculate on what these powers are. Having read Hendrik Berkhof and Marva Dawn’s full explanations of the Powers’ place in creation, fall, redemption and subjection, I find nothing extra biblical or outside what is embodied in Christian teaching. In fact, these books have expanded my understanding of Christ’s power in the Scriptures.

In his book Christ and the Powers, Hendrik Berkhof describes the way he saw the Powers active:

“When Hitler took the helm in Germany in 1933, the Powers of Volk, race, and state took a new grip on men. Thousands were grateful, after the confusion of the preceding years, to find their lives again protected from chaos, order and security restored. No one could withhold himself, without utmost effort, from the grasp these Powers had on men’s inner and outer life. While studying in Berlin (1937) I myself experienced almost literally how such Powers may be “in the air.” At the same time one had to see how they intruded as a barrier between God’s Word and men. They acted as if they were ultimate values, calling for loyalty as if they were the gods of the cosmos.” (pg. 32, Herald Press, 1977)

In 1932 Bonhoeffer had written:

“How can one close one’s eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy. . . ?” [cited in Bill Wylie Kellermann, “Not Vice Versa”]

I know of no easy way to describe seeing the Principalities and Powers work in the world today. I’ve been reading many varying accounts that speak of demonic forces at work in social and political structures like governments, the economy, and the arts to name a few. Some of these, like Walter Wink, reject the powers as real supernatural entities, even with clear Biblical examples of Jesus exorcising demons. If we’re not careful we can become so enamored by speculating about the Powers themselves that we lose sight of Jesus Christ. We’re not called to hunt demons, we’re called to proclaim the Reign of Jesus Christ.

If you want a biographical account that demonstrates the Principalities and Powers in both the social, structural and the demonic, I recommend the book The Awakening by Friedrich Zuendel. This book is an account of Johann Christoph Blumhardt and the exorcism of Gottliebin Dittus in Möttlingen Germany in 1842, which was followed by a revival in Blumhardt’s parish. Marva Dawn’s book is an exhaustive account of the history of the theology of the Powers, with a critical assessment of where Walter Wink’s exegesis goes wrong.

Time does not allow me to give more than a working explanation of the Powers here. All I want to do is relate that the Powers are real and biblical, and that we must discern them at work today. Discerning the powers involves being faithful Christians, active in our church, knowing that many churches throughout history have acted as fallen Powers themselves, and that the devil has used them against God’s work. Marva Dawn guides us through seven practices of the early Church that help us discern “some of the ways in which contemporary powers beguile us and lead us astray from those practices and from God” and return to the true life of faith. (pg. 81)


Maybe at this point we can only know “Christ for us today” in terms of what we are not. Hopefully we can discern that the power, admiration, wealth, and technological advance we United States Christians have so freely and shamelessly amassed for ourselves in the name of stewardship has really turned us into fallen powers. Our only hope is to return to the early Church’s practices, and allow Christ to exorcise us of all that defiles and disembowels us. Here in our own church on Wilson avenue, we need new eyes to see this world as God sees it. We need the mind of Christ and the kind of Christian practices that will truly be salt and light in the world.

Further Reading

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBW6, Fortress, 2005.

Letters & Papers from Prison, Touchstone, 1997.

Hendrik Berkhof, Christ & the Powers, Herald Press, 1977

Marva J. Dawn, Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God, Eerdmans, 2000.

Jacque Ellul, [http://www.jesusradicals.com/library/ellul.php]

The Presence of the Kingdom, Helmers & Howard Publishing, 1989

False Presence of the Kingdom, Seabury, 1972.

Money & Power, IVP, 1984

Friedrich Zuendel, The Awakening [accessed 12/4/07 at http://www.plough.com/ebooks/pdfs/Awakening.pdf]

D. Brent Laytham, editor, God is Not. . . . religious, nice, “one of us”, an American, a capitalist, Brazos Press, 2004.


Bill Wylie Kellerman, “Not vice versa. Reading the powers biblically: Stringfellow, hermeneutics, and the principalities”, Anglican Theological Review, Fall 1999
[Accessed on 12/7/07]

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