Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Does Bonhoeffer mean when he says, "The Christ in you is stronger than the Christ in me?"

Well, those weren't his exact words, but they are a reasonable paraphrase.

In Life Together (and Sanctorum Communio), Bonhoeffer lists a variety of loving acts that flow entirely from our union with Christ.[1] According to B. these are important because true Christian community can only be found in and through Jesus Christ. To build community using acts that do not flow from our joint union with Christ is to build something that is not true Christian community.

B.'s first act of love is the proclamation of the Word to one another.[2] The proclamation of the Word is rooted in our union with Christ because we are all sinners, and “the basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other is a sinner.”[3] What do any of us have to give to one another that is of any greater value than the Gospel of Jesus Christ?[4] Our righteousness is alien to us (it is Christ's righteousness; not our own), and in keeping with its alien nature, the Word of God brings it to us from outside ourselves.

Our righteousness is received through faith in the Word of God that has been preached to us (Romans 10:17). We hunger and thirst for righteousness, so we hunger and thirst for the Word. We know what we need, so we know what our brothers and sisters need. Proclaiming the Word is not merely something that we can do, but something that we must do to and for one another. 

So sinners are ever dependent upon the Word that comes to them from the outside, from brothers and sisters in Christ. This is what B. means when he says of the sinner, “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain. His brother’s is sure.”[5] This fits with our common experience, in which we know the truth of the Gospel, and even know what to say to others, but often live in guilt because we struggle to apply it to our own consciences. 

What we need is the preaching of the Word of Christ coming at us from outside ourselves. This speaks to the necessity of our commitment to and attendance in the community of Christ (not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together). Bonhoeffer says this ministry of the Word “clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community. Their fellowship is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this “alien righteousness.””[6]

[1] In summary, Bohoeffer's list includes the proclamation of Word to one another, service to one another, intercessory prayer, confession, forgiveness, and communion. Additionally, Life Together contains an entire chapter on “Ministry” that spells out ministries of “holding our tongues” and “meekness” through which we are prepared for the ministries of “listening,” “actively helping,” and “bearing one another’s burdens” (90-109). Since “whoever will be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:43), he also lists the ministry of holding positions of authority. While these may seem somewhat random, Bonhoeffer quite intentionally developed them from and limited them to the doctrine of justification. Pulling them from anywhere else would reflect a human “wish-dream.”

[2] Life Together, 22-23, 103-8.

[3]Ibid., 106.

[4]Ibid., 108.

[5]Ibid., 23.


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