Note: I wrote this paper some months back for a Cone class on Liberation theology. It was part of my attempt to get credit for a study I really wanted to do – to find a Christology that answers questions from both my conservative undergrad and my current liberal gradschool. Here is my logic for why the Christological dialectic of Moltmann is so helpful to me.
Suffering, Hope, Blood, and Guts: The Suffering Christ of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Moltmann in Conversation with Liberation Theology
Given that theology has shifted from a focus upon the believer/atheist dichotomy to the person/non-person, Professor Cone has made the point in recent classes that many theologies have lost their relevancy insomuch as they address an old question. However, there is a motif within European-born theology that was only hinted at in the readings for class that holds promise for continuous relevancy between old and new theology: the suffering Christ.1
Two strikingly similar theologians of recent importance – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Moltmann – center their theology upon a suffering Christ. This paper compares the two theologian’s contexts, views of Christ, and the influences a suffering Christ has on their ecclesiology to depict their pertinence to both the theology of old and the theology of today.
The theme of the suffering Christ is a rich vein within Christianity and is crucial for Christology, both in abstract and pragmatic thought. Importantly, a Christ who suffered can be both transcendent and immanent; within a strong trinitarianism a suffering Christ is socially rooted in transcendence, while at the same time entirely immanent and receptive to the pain inherent in the human world. It is this immanent Christ – whipped, bruised, and crucified – who extends understanding and hope – “justice, truth, humanity and freedom.”2
A suffering Christ is also important for shaping and informing other aspects of Christianity, beyond the human suffering within Christology. The church universal, an extension of Christ to the world, is shaped by an understanding of who Christ is. Thus, a suffering Christ shapes a church towards sensitivity to human suffering, therefore creating a space in which Christ tangibly exists and from which Christ can then reach the world and its distress.
While Bonhoeffer lacks the cohesive direction of a grand systematic theology, his thought is still consistently characterized by a focus upon the centrality of Christ.3 In the late 1930s Bonhoeffer helped lead a seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde that was declared illegal by the Nazis. The school “followed the innovative format of engaging in theological education within the context of a close-knit community.”4 Beyond regular theological courses, “the participants in the school sought to learn to live the Christian life in genuine brotherhood and in total dedication to the Lord.”5 It was out of this marginal and oppressed experience that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship, both of which are works heavy with a focus on relational community born from a suffering Christ.
To read Bonhoeffer outside of his context or as a systematic theology would be problematic at best, at worst it would do injustice to his writings. To view Bonhoeffer’s Christology of a suffering Christ is to view a suffering church and amazing grace, for Bonhoeffer inextricably ties together the identity of Christ and the church. Christology is ecclesiology; the two cannot be split or considered separately: Christology is inherently wound into the themes of “creation, community, and costly discipleship.”6
Bonhoeffer is perennially concerned with answering the question, “Who is Christ for today?”7 His answer is simply that God suffered for us.8 “If we speak of Jesus Christ as God…we must speak of his weakness, his manger, his cross. This man is no abstract God.”9 Thus the incarnate one is humiliated and exalted, and yet, in between lies the hope of the empty tomb.10 His flesh is like our flesh; however, Bonhoeffer does not leave much room to talk simply about Christ suffering, but leads into the suffering as relevant for humanity. “The Law of Christ is a law of forbearance. Forbearance means enduring and suffering.”11 Thus Christology, Christ’s nature and actions, ushering in the Kingdom of God, informs the church.12
Bonhoeffer has a specific idea of the make-up of the body of Christ. Importantly, “the Church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ”; rather, the church is a space within a community of humanity where “Christ has really taken form.”13 However, the church’s hope or the appearance of Christ in church is not based on only a messiah or even a human messiah, but specifically a suffering messiah. “‘Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving’…thus creating Christ in us by participating in his suffering.”14 It is because Christ suffered that the church can visibly extend Christ and his hope and justice to the world because the church is Christ. It is here that Bonhoeffer’s answer for the question “Who is Christ for today” is found, not only for him over half a century ago, but still the answer is relevant for today. Christ, as his church, suffers for creation. Because of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, the church’s hope and call for justice never dies.
While Bonhoeffer was “probably the most influential German theologian of the generation immediately following Barth’s,” Moltmann is “probably the most influential German theologian active at present.”15 Moltmann is largely known for reviving eschatology from the trash bin of theology, as it were. It is slightly lesser known that he was also “one of the first theologians seriously to study Bonhoeffer’s work” – it is in fact this is one of the sources from which Moltmann inherited his focus upon incorporating both social ethics and the dialogue between the church and the world.16 As a prisoner of war (not unlike Bonhoeffer), Moltmann experienced both “God as the power of hope and of God’s presence in suffering,” two themes that made their way later into his works.17 Also like Bonhoeffer, Moltmann retains a theological core of themes and through the rest of his life’s work progressively addresses them to create a mature theology in contrast to Bonhoeffer’s inchoate theology.18
Moltmann has found a sophisticated, mature theological voice open to multiple influences, writing volumes, with at least nearly 20 works translated into English, and teaching scholars like Miroslav Volf. Nine major works comprise Moltmann’s theology: the first set, a trilogy, comprised of Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, and The Church in the Power of the Spirit; and the second set of six, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, God in Creation, The Way of Jesus Christ, The Spirit of Life, The Coming of God, and Experiences in Theology. The first set is described as “complementary perspectives on Christian theology”; however, he chooses to see the second set, though it is similar to a systemic theology, as “‘contributions’ to theological discussion.”19
The themes Moltmann addresses are numerous. Aside from eschatology and suffering (also related to theodicy), he produces a complete Trinitarian view of God, formulates “the relationship of God and the world as reciprocal and as internal to God’s own Trinitarian relationships”, and departs from “the modern paradigm of reality as human history and giving theological weight to the reciprocal relationship of humanity and the rest of Nature.”20 Despite the diversity of the themes, the controlling, meta-theme lays within the trilogy – the dialectic between Jesus’ suffering death of cross and the hope filled resurrection – only to be rooted within the thorough trinitarianism of his later work. In fact, Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson state, “Taking his cue from Bonhoeffer’s statement that ‘Only the suffering God can help,’ Moltmann opened up a veritable new chapter in theology, in which the suffering of God is almost a new orthodoxy.”
As already stated, Moltmann views Christology dialectically, holding in tension the cross and resurrection – both the suffering and hope inherent to God in history. The cross represents the current condition of humanity of “subjection to sin, suffering and death,” while the resurrection is God’s promise and humanity’s hope of redemption or creation made anew.21 Thus Moltmann grasps the suffering Christ of Bonhoeffer, and builds upon it the dimension of a hopeful future.
For Moltmann, Jesus is the Christ of both God and the human race. “The Christ of God represents God himself in a still unredeemed world.”22 And speaking in Trinitarian terms, “the Son of God represents the Father in a godless and forsaken world.”23 It is only through the resurrection that Jesus could be “the Christ of God.”24 Thus the suffering and death of Jesus is the “suffering and death of the Christ of God.”25 Simply put, the identity of Jesus as Christ is only fulfilled in hope; a suffering Jesus without the resurrection would not have embodied the fullness of God. Nevertheless, the resurrection does not wrap the cross in glory; instead, the cross is always the point where God suffered, filled “with eschatology and saving significance.”26
In Christ’s resurrection preceding the resurrection of all humanity, the Christ of God becomes Christ for humanity.27 “Thus the cross of Christ modifies the resurrection of Christ under the conditions of the suffering of the world so that it changes from being a purely future event to being an event of liberating love” – Christ anticipates the future bodily resurrection and so ushers in the kingdom of God.28
The relevance of Moltmann is just as clear as Bonhoeffer, if not more so. Moltmann frankly declares that the Crucified God is for all people: the divine is “stateless and classless” – “He is the god of the poor, the oppressed and the humiliated.”29 This is a God who is clearly accessible to the non-person, and yet at the same time transcendent; He/She is located in a lofty position operating in the suffering world through the body of Christ (the church) as part of the basileia.30
Answering the Needs of Liberation Theologies
It may appear on first glance, that the Christ of Bonhoeffer and Moltmann do not meet the needs of black, feminist, and womanist liberation theologies. Not only do they not address the particular needs of liberation theologies, but as is typical of older theology, Bonhoeffer and Moltmann in their silence do not even mention the possibility of an either black or female Christ. Presumably, this Christology remains white and inaccessible to liberative modes of Christian thinking; however, little could be farther from the truth.
It is exactly the suffering nature of Bonhoeffer and Moltmann’s Christology that makes it relevant to these newer particularized communities. Indeed, when Cone formulates a Christology around a black Christ, he does not require a physically black Jesus; rather, Cone is describing a suffering Christ contextually in light of current oppression.31 In fact, Cone explicitly asserts that it is the suffering nature of Christ that enables him to be a “black Christ.” In A Black Theology of Liberation he states, “The Jesus of history is… the Christ of today as interpreted by the theological significance of the death-resurrection event.” When he declares “Black theology certainly agrees with this emphasis on the cross and resurrection,” Cone is confirming the consonance between Moltmann’s Christological focus and the needs of liberation theologies.32
Theology of Hope
Insomuch as they are theologians of hope, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen offer a focus as desperately needed in Nazi Germany and its aftermath as in our contemporary culture of cynicism and oppression. Bonhoeffer first sketched out a theology of God’s suffering which was able to speak to the suffering of many particular situations, but which lacked a necessary second dimension – future. Moltmann completed this view of the cross by raising the hope of the resurrection to equal prominence in this suffering Christology. The suffering Christ – and subsequently the church, when it focuses upon this Christ – is able to engage, share, and heal the pain of even the most oppressed, both with an existential understanding and a tangible eschatological hope for the future.
1.Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, translated by R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), xi.
2.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, translated by Neville Horton Smith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 61.
3.Stanley Grenz and Robert Olson, 20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age, 149. Wayne Whitson Floyd, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918, edited by David F. Ford and Rachel Muers (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 56.
4.20th-Century Theology, 148.5.Ibid., 148.6.Wayne Whitson Floyd, The Modern Theologians, 55.
7.20th-Century Theology, 149. John W. De Gruchy, “Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1906-45),” The Dictionary of Historical Theology, edited by Trevor A. Hart (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 81.
8.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together; Prayer Book, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly, translated by Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 100. Also see footnote 14: “The sufferings of God in Jesus Christ and Jesus’ sufferings in and for God’s people are major themes in Bonhoeffer’s theology.”
9.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, translated by Edwin H. Robertson (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 104.
12.Christ the Center, 111.
13.Ethics, 84 and 85.
14.Letters and Papers from Prison, 361.
15.Justo L. González, A History of Christian Thought: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century, vol. 3, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 447 and 452.
16.Richard Bauckham, “Jürgen Moltmann,” The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford and Rachel Muers, ed. 3 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 147.
18.The Dictionary of Modern Historical Theology, 376.
19.Richard Bauckham, The Modern Theologians, 148.
20.The Dictionary of Historical Theology, 376.
21.The Dictionary of Historical Theology, 377.
22.The Crucified God, 179.
29.Ibid., 329. Also see the quote a few lines below, “Christians will seek to anticipate the future of Christ according to the measure of the possibilities available to them, by breaking down lordship and building up the political liveliness of each individual.”
30.In using the Greek word for the “kingdom of God” (basileia), I hope to avoid master/slave presumptions that feminists have pointed out are connoted by the phrase, while still retaining the sense of transcendence that the alternate “kindom” seems to lack. All previous uses in the text of the term “kingdom” have been part of the process of quoting and in the spirit of retaining the author’s language.
31.James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis, 2006), 119-120.
33.The Crucified God, xi.