by istock

Discipleship as a “Who” Question: Bonhoeffer on Reading Scripture as the Call of the Present Christ

“Christianity without the living Jesus Christ remains necessarily a Christianity without discipleship; and a Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ.”[1]

The theme of Christ’s presence is one of the most prominent and consistent in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Even his earliest works – which are near-impenetrable pieces of academic theology – revolve around his account of Christ’s real presence as the church: “Christ existing as community.”[1] When he turns to the topic of Christology in 1933, it is hardly surprising that he speaks of the person of Christ in terms of his personal presence. For Bonhoeffer, Christ is God-with-us; he is present by virtue of who he eternally is. Because in Christology we are dealing with the present Christ, we cannot ask about him in a detached way. In Christ’s presence, the only appropriate question is: who are you? This “who” question is at the heart of his Christology. This same question, I would like to suggest, is at the heart of his classic book, Discipleship.

The breath-taking opening chapters of Discipleship abound with memorable lines and provocative ideas. “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church,” he says. “Our struggle today is for costly grace.”[2] Empty faith will not do; obedience is required: “Only the believer obeys, and only the obedient believes.”[3] And this obedience may cost us our lives: “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.”[4] The effect of these moments is unavoidably intensified by our retrospective knowledge of the course Bonhoeffer’s life took. He wasn’t interested in cheap grace. His faith never went without obedience. And in the end, it cost him his life.

Unfortunately, a point that is sometimes lost is that a good portion of Discipleship is scriptural exegesis, centrally, the Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer says in the preface: “In times of church renewal holy scripture naturally becomes richer in content for us. Behind the daily catchwords and battle cries needed in the Church Struggle, a more intense, questioning search arises for the one who is our sole concern, for Jesus himself.”[5] This intense questioning, this necessary search for Jesus is what drives the church back to Holy Scripture, precisely because Scripture’s content is Jesus Christ. But the way in which Bonhoeffer reads Scripture rarely receives much attention. The point of those stunning opening chapters is not, as is sometimes assumed, to swing the faith-works pendulum a bit closer to the centre. Bonhoeffer is not trying to find a place for works-righteousness in the church. He is trying to remind the church that at the centre of its life together is the person of Jesus Christ, and that Christian life means hearing and heeding Christ’s call to follow him.

Learning to Ask the “Who” Question

Why did Bonhoeffer so emphasise Christ’s presence? Why his insistence on the “who” question? He famously argues in his 1933 Christology lectures that Christology depends on our asking the “who” question rather than the “how” question.[6] The “how” question is Bonhoeffer’s shorthand for any mode of inquiry that tries to classify an object in terms of existing categories of thought. Such questions make the human logos the final arbiter in any line of questioning. When theology occupies itself exclusively with “how” questions, it ceases to be about God’s word and becomes instead a human system of thought. That’s why Bonhoeffer orients his Christology around the “who” question. This question, he says, “expresses the otherness of the other.”[7] That is, the “who” question knows that the object of inquiry can never be reduced to a mere object of knowledge. It is the question we ask of a person who is present, as opposed to a fact we are investigating. This means that the answer to the “who” question is not and can never be merely words. The answer is a person, Jesus Christ himself. In this way, the “who” question is Bonhoeffer’s way of honouring the transcendence of Jesus. Even though he wants to speak faithfully of the person and work of Christ, the “who” question reminds us that Christ is always beyond the words we might say about him. He is, to use Bonhoeffer’s term, the counter-Logos.[8] We come to ask who Jesus is, and we find that we have come up against the limit of ourselves. In asking the “who” question of Christ, we find ourselves “interrogated” by the presence of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.[9]

Thus, the “who” question safeguards the transcendence of Christ; but it also presupposes his presence. We can only truly ask “who?” of the one who is already there. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “Only because Christ is the Christ who is present are we still able to inquire of him.”[10] But surely, we might object, it is one thing to speak of Jesus’ presence in first-century Palestine and quite another to speak of his presence today. And yet Bonhoeffer is not so quick to concede this point. Jesus, after all, is not dead but alive. In Christology, we are not dealing with someone like Socrates or Goethe. The Jesus who is present in the church in the form of word and sacrament is one and the same as the Jesus who lived in the first century. And the question is not how this can actually be the case. The question is, rather, who is this one, who is present to us in this way? What Bonhoeffer is after in all this is a way of speaking about who Christ is for us on the basis of who Christ is in himself. And, in fact, Bonhoeffer sees no distinction between the two. Christ’s being for us is who he eternally is in himself. In Bonhoeffer’s thinking, “it is not only useless to meditate on a Christ-in-himself but godless, precisely because Christ is not there in-himself, but rather is there for you.”[11] For Christ, to be present is simply to be who he eternally is. That’s why Christology is never a matter of detached speculation, because the Christological question is always directed towards the one who is already there for you. The “who” question is and can only be asked in his presence.

The “Who” of Scripture

The “who” question is also at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s scriptural exegesis. We cannot properly hear Holy Scripture as God’s Word without knowing who this Word is. If we are looking for ethics, for inspiring stories, or for systematic theology, that’s exactly what we’ll find. But the true substance of Scripture is the present Christ, and so the real question at the heart of exegesis is this: Who is Jesus?

Bonhoeffer was, from his earliest writings, a theologian of the word of God.[12] All human talk about God must be grounded in God’s self-revealing word. Moreover, if God’s word is truly self-revelation, then the content of this word is not information or ideas, but God himself.[13] So, if the content of divine revelation is really God, then what does this say about Holy Scripture as God’s word? How can the human words of the Bible be understood as God’s very word? As God’s very self? Because Bonhoeffer was always concerned to safeguard the transcendence of God in revelation (a theological trait he picked up from Barth), he staunchly rejected ideas about the Bible that made revelation somehow identical with the words on the page. God’s word is the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. When God speaks, the content of his speech is Jesus Christ, full stop. And wherever Christ is, he is there as the Word of God. Revelation is God himself in the person of Christ. God’s self-revelation cannot be reduced to words or ideas.

So, when Bonhoeffer rejects the idea of the “verbal inspiration” of the Bible, he is not simply parroting his liberal teachers in Berlin.[14] He doesn’t reject inspiration altogether, just a particular way of accounting for it. The doctrine of verbal inspiration, as he sees it, “[grounds] its faith on something besides the living God, namely, on the verbally inspired Bible.”[15] It is not that he thinks the Holy Spirit was silent during the composition of biblical texts; he just thinks that the content of the Spirit-breathed word is God’s word in Christ. The Spirit is always bearing witness to the Word himself. The inspired word of Scripture has this same character. Scripture is the witness to Christ. When God speaks through Scripture by the Holy Spirit, Christ is there as the Word spoken. So, in Bonhoeffer’s view, reading and (especially) preaching Scripture is not a matter of ideas or ethics. It is a matter of encountering Jesus Christ in person. Revelation is the presence of Christ, and Scripture is the witness to the present Christ.

This has profound implications for how Bonhoeffer actually reads Scripture. If Christ is the content of revelation, then when God speaks through Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ is the Word he speaks. And the question before us as we hear God’s Word in Scripture is always, who is this Jesus? Reading, interpreting, and proclaiming Scripture in accordance with its character as witness to Christ means “making the whole of Holy Scripture audible as a witness to the word of God.”[16] And this is the kind of exegesis that “has the promise of Christ’s presence.”[17] Because the content of God’s word in Scripture is the present Christ, the kinds of questions we ask of Scripture are the same kinds of questions we ask of Christ. Therefore, the primary exegetical question is a “who” question. Not: did this event really happen, or, how do these rules apply to me today? But rather: who is this Jesus that I am encountering in this scriptural text? And, just like the Christological “who” question, the exegetical question interrogates not only the text but ultimately ourselves.

The “Who” of the Sermon on the Mount

When we consider Bonhoeffer’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount, we should keep in mind that he is trying to read Scripture in accordance with its subject matter. And because the subject matter of Scripture is the present Christ, scriptural exegesis entails a real encounter with Jesus. Bonhoeffer is keenly aware of the various ways we manage to evade exegesis’s character as an encounter with God’s word; we find ways of interpreting the text that excludes either Christ’s presence before us, or, conversely, our presence before him.

Bonhoeffer’s reading of the Beatitudes is a good case-in-point. Consider the first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). Bonhoeffer alludes to at least two misguided interpretations of this passage. The first is a purely ethical interpretation. This view regards poverty as an ultimate good in its own right. Blessing is inherent in the practice of voluntary poverty, and so the only important thing is that we make ourselves poor. Bonhoeffer’s problem with this view is that it has no necessary connection with Jesus. It turns the call of Jesus into a moral principle that can exist with or without him. A moral code, after all, does not require a living Lord. For Bonhoeffer, this will not do. Scriptural commandments are to be read “not as eternal norms and laws but as commandments of a Lord, in which the commandment is only understood correctly where the Lord is recognized.”[18] Exegesis of Scripture is inextricably linked to the presence of the one who speaks the words of Scripture. Biblical commandments must be heard as the concrete word of the present Lord. This is more than a general Christological title. If I am to encounter Christ as the Lord, I must encounter him as my Lord. To be in his presence is to be under his lordship. And he is present as my Lord precisely in the commanding word of Scripture.

Another misinterpretation of the Beatitude takes the way of “cheap grace.” This view understands that Jesus is not setting up a new law in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather, is calling human beings to faith. Since faith can be had irrespective of my wealth, the important thing is not to let my wealth interfere with my faith. Jesus’ command is not to be taken literally, but to be followed in spirit. “You are free to keep your possessions, but have them as if you did not have them.”[19] This is an example of “interpreting and applying” rather than simple obedience. It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that the commandment, when interpreted in a particular way, can simply affirm us as we are. It is a word that makes us feel good in the moment, but, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, “when the storm comes, I will lose the word quickly and I will learn that … I did not have the word of Christ. Instead, I had a word I wrested away from him and made my own by reflecting on it, but not doing it.”[20] As Bonhoeffer well knows, we are quite adept at interpreting Jesus’ commands in a way that gets us off the hook of having to obey them. In so doing, we deny our own presence before the call of Christ. If we read the Sermon on the Mount in such a way that we are not faced with a decision, then we have repudiated our own place in the situation of being called. We have, in other words, not allowed ourselves to be present before the commands of the crucified and risen Lord.

For Bonhoeffer, the blessings of the Beatitudes come neither from the inherent good of the ethical principle nor from our doctrinally correct interpretation of the commandment. The blessing comes from Christ. To be poor for poverty’s sake is of no value. To be poor for the sake of Christ is to receive the kingdom of heaven. What poverty means in this context is simply to be “needy in every way.”[21] Wealth, security, spiritual riches, and power – all this is lost. “When [the disciples] followed [Jesus], they lost themselves and everything else which could have made them rich.”[22] The Beatitudes are not, then, ethical principles. They describe the cruciform shape of the life of discipleship and promise blessing for the sake of Christ who calls us to discipleship. There is no distinction in Bonhoeffer’s mind between different kinds of Beatitudes, nor between Matthew’s “spiritualised” or Luke’s “politicised” versions. Such dichotomies, he thinks, arise from the attempt to ground the blessedness of the Beatitudes in something other than Christ’s call and promise.[23]

If God’s Word in Scripture is the present Christ, then exegesis entails a human response. The “who” question interrogates us. Bonhoeffer’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship represents his sustained attempt to ask the Christological “who” question of the Lord who calls us to follow him. Faith and obedience together constitute the singular human response to this “who” question. The question of the Sermon on the Mount is not, “How am I to understand this call for myself today?” but rather, “Who is this one calling me today?” The Sermon on the Mount presents Jesus as the one who calls us to follow him to the cross. And if the one who calls is our Lord, then, Bonhoeffer thinks, we can either follow him to the cross, or we can send him to the cross. To follow him to the cross is to confess him as Lord; to send him to the cross is to reject his lordship. That is the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s well-known expression: “Only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe.”[24] He is not trying to paste faith and works together, as if these are two distinct acts that we can somehow unite. He is affirming that faith and works are already united as the total human response to Jesus as our Lord. This is central to Bonhoeffer’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount as the witness to Christ: not because it gives us a new moral code, but because it presents us with the commandments of a Lord, who is present precisely in this commanding word. And the only way to recognise the Lord of the commandment is to obey the word he commands. Thus, to hear and proclaim the Sermon on the Mount as a witness to Christ is to respond in obedience. This is not the same as taking the commandments as universal moral laws to be applied to every situation. This would be to separate the commandments from the Lord who commands. Christ does not call us to follow an ethical mandate that exists prior to and apart from the call. Christ calls us to follow him.

In Bonhoeffer’s reading, Jesus addresses the Beatitudes to his followers, who have given up everything to follow him. Jesus recognises their humble state now that they have heeded his call, and he promises them his blessing. All they now lack because of Christ they will receive back from Christ. For Bonhoeffer, each Beatitude describes a kind of renunciation. The poor have renounced dependence on everything that would offer security. Those who mourn have renounced their happiness, the meek their rights, those who hunger and thirst their own righteousness, the merciful their honour, the pure in heart their moral purity, and the peacemakers violence and strife. Bonhoeffer reads this passage as descriptive rather than prescriptive. What it describes is the lives of those who have obeyed the call to discipleship, and how it does so is by outlining all that must be left behind for the sake of following Jesus. They are not, in and of themselves, commandments of Christ, but they work to expand on the singular commandment: follow me! And the blessings that come are not intrinsic to the renunciation. They do not arise from the cause-and-effect of inherent moral goods or a merit-based system of sacrifice and reward. Renunciation and blessing are based in the call and promise of the Lord Jesus. He, and he alone, is the origin, content, and goal of discipleship.

Because the one who calls is the Crucified One, the call to discipleship leads inexorably to the cross. Those who would follow Christ to his cross cannot lay claim to human ways of security and self-sufficiency. Following Christ makes us poor in every way, yet the one who calls us there also promises us blessing, the blessing of the kingdom of heaven. The validity of this promise rests purely in the authority of the one who makes it. If Jesus were giving us an ethical teaching, then the blessedness of poverty would rest in the validity of the ethical principle behind it. But if the one who calls and promises is the Lord, then he alone is the basis for the promised blessing.

All of this is grounded in Bonhoeffer’s belief that the one who speaks the call and promise of the Beatitudes is actually there to speak it. Because Christ is present as the crucified Lord, his call leads us where we would not and could not go on our own. He calls us to find him at the place of his cross. The Christological question must guide our exegesis. Not: how can we live according to the Sermon on the Mount today? But rather: who is this one calling me today? And where the Holy Spirit leads us to say in faith that “Jesus is Lord,” then we are immediately placed in the moment of decision. We find ourselves interrogated by the “who” question.

Inconclusive Exegetical Postscript

Discipleship, for Bonhoeffer, means much more than a programme for growing in morality or character. It is not a question of what I can do to become more like Jesus. Moreover, the church’s commission to make disciples of all nations cannot be reduced to its implementation of any such programme, no matter how rigorous or effective. For Bonhoeffer, discipleship is a lifelong “who” question, a question that we ask daily of the living Lord who encounters us in the word of Scripture as we strive to discern in God’s word the presence of the Word himself. It is a question that we ask only and exclusively in Christ’s presence, a question that ultimately interrogates us as we are transformed into the image of the one who calls us to follow him. To treat the life of discipleship as the daily encounter with the present Christ means learning to encounter this Jesus in the words of Scripture. However, because the Spirit speaks a living word, and because this word, moreover, is God’s word, we should not be looking for an exegetical skeleton key that will unlock every part of Scripture for all people in every imaginable context. What Christians can do – prayerfully and patiently, in solitude and in community, in the power of the Spirit and with whatever measure of gifts they have been given – is to read and proclaim Scripture’s witness to the living Jesus.

Although there is no magic formula for how this works, there are a few red flags that might indicate when things are not working. One test that I find valuable is to ask whether my reading and proclamation of a given passage would remain coherent if I were to take the present Christ out of the equation. If I can remove Jesus from my exegesis and lose nothing as a result, then I am probably not attending carefully enough to the character of Scripture as the address of the living God. I emphasise the present Christ here, because it is surprisingly easy to talk a lot about Jesus in a sermon or Bible study without ever actually engaging with the “who” question that his presence demands. For example, a sermon that exhorts the congregation not to lie “because Jesus says so” might as well say, “because Kant says so.” We need to go further and ask who is this Jesus who issues this commandment? And why does the commanding word of this person present me with a decision that goes beyond the choice to “do the right thing”? And why does it matter that this person is not a dead moral teacher, but the living Lord who is present for us today in the commanding word? Wherever Christ is, he is there as the risen Lord. So, let’s not talk about him like he’s not in the room.

Another exegetical red flag: if my reading and proclamation of a given passage largely affirms the kind of person I already am – and especially if, in the process, it casts aspersions on the kinds of person I’m not – then quite possibly I am not paying enough attention to the character of Scripture as the living God’s address to me. Note that this isn’t about taking a hard stance on moral issues, boisterously denouncing the world around us on the basis of biblical principles, but about recognising that Christ’s call to discipleship is a call to follow him to the cross. The former can masquerade as a kind of “costly discipleship,” but too often it just means suffering for the sake of following principles rather than following Christ. Bonhoeffer would remind us that it is Christ’s suffering and rejection, not that of our own devising, to which Christians are called.[25] Going where Jesus goes, participating in what he is doing today, puts us on the path of suffering and rejection. And this is not because it demands us to behave in ways that are out of sync with the surrounding culture (although this may well be the case), but rather because wherever Christ is, he is there as the crucified Lord.

In the end, Bonhoeffer’s insistence on the “who” question in Christology, exegesis, and discipleship reminds us that the Christ who calls is here for us today. The life of discipleship is possible only on the basis of Christ’s ongoing presence. All of this goes back to the Great Commission, where discipleship and Christ’s presence are held together in Jesus’ own words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19–20).

Joel Banman is a graduate of Providence Theological Seminary (Otterburne, Canada) and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Otago. His area of research is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological exegesis of Scripture. He lives in Dunedin with his wife and two children.

[1] See, for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 1(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 121; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr., trans. Hans-Richard Reuter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 111. The German Gemeinde is translated in Sanctorum Communio as “church-community” and in Act and Being as “community.”

[2] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 43.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] Ibid., 87.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 37.

[6] Bonhoeffer’s 1933 lectures on Christology are reconstructed from student notes in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932–1933, ed. Larry L. Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best, David Higgins, and Douglas W. Stott, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 299–360.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Berlin, 303.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Berlin, 302.

[9] John Webster expresses it well: ‘One of the most striking features of Bonhoeffer’s Christology fragments is his insistence that Jesus Christ is a question posed to the church, that the church is relentlessly interrogated by the fact that at the heart of its life is the presence of the incarnate one who cannot be assimilated into or clothed by a form of religious life’ (John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001], 120 [Webster’s emphasis]).

[10] Bonhoeffer, Berlin, 310.

[11] Bonhoeffer, Berlin, 314.

[12] This theme in Bonhoeffer’s theology is often overlooked but has not been completely ignored. See Philip G. Ziegler, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theologian of the Word of God’, in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, ed. Keith L. Johnson (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 17–37.

[13] Bonhoeffer had adopted these basic insights from the theology of Karl Barth and the dialectical movement in the 20s and early-30s.

[14] For his critical statements against “verbal inspiration”, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Young Bonhoeffer: 1918–1927, ed. Paul Duane Matheny, Clifford J. Green, and Marshall D. Johnson, trans. Mary C. Nebelsick and Douglas W. Stott, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 9 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 288; Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 104, 108; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935–1937, ed. H. Gaylon Barker and Mark S. Brocker, trans. Douglas W. Stott, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 14 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 390.

[15] Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde, 390.

[16] Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde, 421.

[17] Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde, 421–22.

[18] Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde, 427.

[19] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 78.

[20] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 182.

[21] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 102.

[22] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 103.

[23] See Bonhoeffer’s note in Discipleship, 102 note 2.

[24] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 63.

[25] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 86.