This is the final post in a nine-part series for Spectrum’s 2014 Summer Reading Group. Each post was drawn from chapters of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
We have come to the end of discipleship. Not just the final chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, but also the goal of Christian discipleship. It is nothing less and nothing more than being formed into the image of God through Jesus Christ. As Bonhoeffer says,
All those who submit themselves completely to Jesus Christ will, indeed must, bear his image. They become sons and daughters of God; they stand next to Christ, their invisible brother, who bears the same form as they do, the image of God.1
In this shortest chapter of his book, Bonhoeffer expounds on the biblical concept of spiritual transformation. He begins with Paul’s words in Romans 8:29: “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” This was God’s plan from the beginning. It is the disciple’s destiny.
Bonhoeffer will go on to say much more about the nature of nacholge (i.e. following, or what we call discipleship) in his Ethics and writings from prison, but his ideas in this chapter will remain central to his thinking. That is because Jesus Christ is always central to his thinking.
When the illegal Confessing Church seminary first met in the seaside village of Zingst on the Baltic Sea for classes in 1935, several of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s students were already familiar with the ideas that would form his book Discipleship. As Charles Scriven rightly noted early in our summer book series, much of Bonhoeffer’s thinking in this book came out of his innovative Christology lectures at the University of Berlin in 1933 where they had been his students. The manuscripts of his lectures have been lost; only his student’s notes remain. Later Bonhoeffer’s first biographer and dear friend, Eberhard Bethge, would publish them in a book titled Christ the Center.
While Discipleship has become a spiritual classic, read by millions, it is important to keep in mind the context in which this German theologian and pastor’s thinking was formed. The year of these Berlin lectures, Hitler came to power. By that time almost every institution, including Bonhoeffer’s university, had embraced a nationalistic theology. One example of this popular thinking involved a “theology of creation” which elevated race and people (Volk) as the most important orders of creation. Their vision was a national church based on blood (Volkskirche).
The same year as the Christology lectures, Bonhoeffer spoke for the World Alliance, an ecumenical gathering of Christians in Europe. In a lecture during the conference he pushed back against the German Christian’s theology of creation.2 Bonhoeffer argued that Jesus Christ must be the key vantage point for viewing humanity — the center of all things. As Keith Clements observes, “In effect, to make nation and race ‘orders of creation’ was to sanctify racism and provide a theological justification for war.”3 In their view there was no place for a Jewish Jesus (or Jews for that matter). However, according to Bonhoeffer’s view, Christ’s incarnation had united all people. As he writes:
The incarnate one transforms his disciples into brothers and sisters of all human beings. The “philanthropy” (Titus 3:4) of God that became evident in the incarnation of Christ is the reason for Christians to love every human being on earth as a brother or sister. The form of the incarnate one transforms the church-community into the body of Christ upon which all of humanity’s sin and trouble fall, and by which alone these troubles and sins are borne.4
In thinking about what that means for us today, a question emerges. If we are going to take following Jesus seriously in the twenty-first century, which “Jesus” do we follow? How do we know we are following the real Christ? As Bonhoeffer recognizes mid-way through this chapter, “The prototype from which the human form takes its shape is either the imaginative form of God based on human projection, or it is the true and living form of God which molds the human form into the image of God.”5
What prototype is shaping our lives as professed Christians and Seventh-day Adventists? Is it based on imaginative human projections or is it the true and living form of God? Are we any different than the German Christians of Bonhoeffer’s day? Is our prototype a nationalistic Jesus? A capitalistic Jesus? A militaristic Jesus? Is this a Jesus who only loves my race, my people, my country? Or maybe my sect? Which Jesus is our prototype? For Bonhoeffer, the real Jesus calls his disciples to participate in a cruciform life, as he writes:
But whoever, according to God’s promise, seeks to participate in the radiance and glory of Jesus must first be conformed to the image of the obedient, suffering servant of God on the cross. Whoever seeks to bear the transfigured image of Jesus must first have borne the image of the crucified one, defiled in the world. No one is able to recover the lost image of God unless they come to participate in the image of the incarnate and crucified Jesus Christ. It is with this image alone that God is well-pleased. Only those who allow themselves to be found before God in the likeness of this image live as those with whom God is well pleased.6
As we have seen throughout Discipleship, following a Jesus who calls us to come and die involves obeying his concrete commands, bearing our cross, and dying with him (this certainly means baptism but may even mean martyrdom for some disciples). The good news? A new kind of life has been opened to us where we are transformed into the image of God. As Bonhoeffer says, “Only because he was as we are can we be as he was. Only because we already are made like him can we be “like Christ.”7
What then does the image of God look like in Jesus’ disciples today? In the final paragraphs, Bonhoeffer appears to return to an idea he had developed earlier—the dialectic of extraordinariness and hiddenness of the disciple’s life.8 He writes:
Since we have been formed in the image of Christ, we can live following his example. On this basis, we are now actually able to do those deeds, and in the simplicity of discipleship, to live life in the likeness of Christ. Here simple obedience to the word takes place. I no longer cast even a single glance on my own life, on the new image I bear. For in the same moment that I would desire to see it, I would lose it. For it is, of course, merely the mirror reflection of the image of Jesus Christ upon which I look without ceasing. The followers look only to the one whom they follow.9
According to Bonhoeffer, we already bear the image of Christ through his life, death, and resurrection. Therefore we cannot strive to become like God. We are already have become like God in a sense. It is out of this reality that simplicity of discipleship happens. I don’t worry about my own image (e.g. Like Adam and Eve in the garden.) Rather I only concern myself with following Jesus in simple obedience. As Bonhoeffer says, “The followers look only to the one whom they follow.” And what do these Nachfolgers do? They imitate Christ.10
Jeff Gang, D.Min., pastors the Anaheim Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Anaheim California. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberdeen, UK. He resides in Redlands, California, with his wife and three children.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition. Vol. 4, Discipleship. Edited by Kuske, Martin, Ilse Tödt, Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey. Translated by Green, Barbara and Reinhard Krauss. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003, 281.
2. The German Christians (Deutsche Christen) were a movement within German Protestantism, especially the German Evangelical Church that embraced National Socialism and Nazi Ideology. In Nazism they saw an opportunity to bring renewal to the Protestant church in Germany.
3. Keith Clements, The SPCK Introduction to Bonhoeffer (SPCK Introductions). London: SPCK, 2010. 29.
4. Bonhoeffer, DBWE 4:285.
5. Ibid., 283.
6. Ibid., 284.
7. Ibid., 287.
8. See chapters six and Bonhoeffer’s exegesis of Matthew 5 titled “On the ‘Extraordinary’ of Christian Life” and Matthew 6 “On the Hidden Nature of the Christian Life.”
9. Bonhoeffer, DBWE 4: 287-288. Growing up as a Seventh-day Adventist, I often heard people refer to Ellen White’s statement: “By beholding we become changed.” Bonhoeffer would agree. However to this he would add, “By following we become changed.”
10. Ibid., 288.