(written by Ge Hao)
Christology lies at the heart of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology. Unlike traditional theology, however, his Christology is centred not on the cross but on incarnation, which he believes is “the miracle of all miracles…The Son of God becomes a human being. The Word became flesh.” For him, the fact that God became human in bodily form is the most profound event that sets Christianity apart from disembodied principles or religions. The truth of Christianity, in his eyes, rests entirely upon the man—the incarnate Son of God: “Ecce homo—behold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.” For this reason, to understand Bonhoeffer’s theology, we must ask, “What does incarnation mean for Bonhoeffer?” which is the main question this paper seeks to answer. My thesis is that, for Bonhoeffer, incarnation means that Christianity is essentially about participating in Christ—through discipleship, through being fully human, through living completely in this world, and through embracing religion-less Christianity. In the following, I will discuss each of the four implications in the same order.
First, incarnation necessitates discipleship. For Bonhoeffer, Christianity does not consist of a set of universal principles, but solely rests upon the person of Jesus Christ. The most amazing fact is that God became human in order to reveal himself to the world. The truth embodied in the incarnate Son is thus not to be studied and meditated upon in a detached fashion, but practiced and lived out with commitment. In Bonhoeffer’s view, the only proper response to the living Christ is “following after”—discipleship. “Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship.” But “God’s Son became human, he is the mediator—that is why discipleship is the right relation to him.” It is thus incarnation that makes discipleship essential and indispensible for Christian life, for discipleship is commitment to the living Christ.
What does discipleship involve? Discipleship is a response to costly grace, for “costly grace is the incarnation of God.” It is costly, “because it costs God the life of God’s Son…It is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live.” Discipleship is an act of faith and obedience. It is faith, because the disciples, hearing Jesus’ call, must leave the familiar environment and step into the unknown; it is obedience, because “only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe.” Discipleship is letting Christ be the medium between us and the world. “In becoming human, he put himself between me and the given circumstances of the world.” Any kind of “immediacy to the natural given things in life” must be broken for Christ, through whom we now see God, others and the world. Discipleship is participating in the suffering of Christ, who by becoming human suffers for the world. In the same way, the disciples must go through “suffering and being rejected, thereby participating in crucifixion,” for the salvation of others. Finally, discipleship is service to others. “Because the Son of God became a human being, service to God in worship can no longer be detached from service to sisters and brothers.” For “in Jesus, service to the least brother or sister and service to God became one.”
Discipleship is carried out not only individually but also corporately. “Everyone enters discipleship alone, but no one remains alone in discipleship. Those who dare to become single individuals trusting in the word are given the gift of church-community,” since “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.” The church-community must be visible, because “the body of Jesus Christ can only be a visible body, or else it is not a body at all.” Jesus’ body becomes visible only through the word and the sacraments of “baptism and Lord’s supper, both of which emanate from the true humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For this reason, discipleship—following Christ—means to “listen to the word that is preached, and receive the sacrament.” “Baptism incorporates us as members into the unity of the body of Christ. The Lord’s Supper keeps us in this community with Christ’s body.” Discipleship also means being formed into the image of Christ. In Bonhoeffer’s view, the image of God has been lost due to the Fall, and the only way to restore the image is through incarnation—God takes the human form by becoming fully human. “In Christ’s incarnation all of humanity regains the dignity of bearing the image of God.” In this sense, “the follower [Nachfolger] of Jesus is the imitator [Nachahmer] of God.”
Second, incarnation means that we are to be fully human. In implicit disagreement with the early church father’s emphasis on deification, Bonhoeffer stresses that our telos is humanity, not divinity. “Human beings become human because God became human. But human beings do not become God…God changes God’s form into human form in order that human beings can become, not God, but human before God.” The Christian, thus, does not strive to be something other than human, but human itself. Any attempt to rise above our humanity or to “spiritualize” the Christian life is in contradiction with the truth of incarnation. It is against such mind-set that Bonhoeffer writes emphatically:
Jesus Christ, the God who became human—this means that God has bodily taken on human nature in its entirety, that from now on divine being can be found nowhere else but in human form, that in Jesus Christ human beings are set free to be truly human before God. Now the “Christian” is not something beyond the human, but it wants to be in the midst of the human. What is “Christian” is not an end in itself, but means that human beings may and should live as human beings before God.
What does it mean to be fully human? It means first that bodily life should be affirmed. Because Jesus takes on a human body, Christians, as his followers, should not despise but value the body. To be human means to be bodily. As long as we are human, we will remain bodily and never become disembodied spirits. Therefore, “bodily life, like life as a whole, is both a means to an end and an end in itself...The human being is a bodily being and remains so in eternity as well. Bodiliness and being human belong in eternity as well.” Because the body is an end itself, we should enjoy bodily pleasures “without subordinating them to a further, higher purpose.” 
Eating and drinking serve not only the purpose of keeping the body healthy, but also the natural joy of bodily life. Clothing is not merely a necessary covering for the body, but is at the same time an adornment of the body. Relaxation not only serves the purpose of increasing the capacity for work, but also provides the body with the measure of rest and joy that is due to it.
To be fully human also means that we have the freedom to live as true human beings. In other words, God gives us the freedom to enjoy our daily life without becoming a kind of religious maniacs that are obsessed with introspective examination and pray for divine guidance in every decision of the day.
God’s commandment allows human beings to be human before God. It lets the flow of life take its courses, lets human beings eat, drink, sleep, work, celebrate, and play without interrupting those activities…The self-tormenting and hopeless question about the purity of one’s motives, suspicious self-observation, the blazing and wearisome light of ceaseless conscious awareness—all this has nothing to do with God’s commandment, which grants freedom to live and act.
For Bonhoeffer, therefore, God’s will is for us to live fully and freely as human beings, and any attempt to deny the bodily life or human freedom is to reject Jesus Christ and his becoming human. By repeatedly using the phrase “God’s becoming human” in Ethics, Bonhoeffer seems to emphasize that the goal of Christianity is about “humanity and humanization.” For this reason, “it is not too much to say that Bonhoeffer’s Christology, his doctrine of God’s becoming human in Jesus Christ, is the foundation of a Christian humanism.”
Third, incarnation means that we are to live completely in this world. “When Bonhoeffer speaks of ‘the world,’ he means the whole of the created order—space and time—in which human life takes place.” In incarnation, Christ takes up the human body, part of the world, so that not only God and human but also God and the world are reconciled and united in him. “In Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the reality of world at the same time, the one not without the other. The reality of God is disclosed only as it places me completely into the reality of the world.” Because of Jesus’ incarnation, we do not live in two separate realms—one holy and one profane, one Christian and one worldly—but in one reality in Christ, in whom God and the world are made one. In stressing this unity, Bonhoeffer writes:
There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in reality of God and in the reality of God…There are not two competing realms standing side by side and battling over the borderline, as if the question of boundaries was always the decisive one. Rather, the whole reality of the world has already been drawn into and is held together in Christ.
For this reason, “worldliness does not separate one from Christ, and being Christian does not separate one from the world. Belonging completely to Christ, one stands at the same time completely in the world.” Because of incarnation, we participate in Christ only by living in this world, which means that Christianity is decisively earthly and this-worldly. To be Christian is to be truly human living in this world, for “there can be no retreat, therefore, from a ‘worldly’ into a ‘spiritual’ ‘realm’.” Our home is then on the earth, not in heaven. In this sense, redemption is not about extracting human souls out of this world and placing them into the heavenly realm. Rather, redemption takes place in this world and helps us be fully human in this life. Reflecting on the biblical notion of redemption, Bonhoeffer concludes: “The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but like Christ himself...he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs…This world must not be prematurely written off.”
For Bonhoeffer, therefore, any uncontrolled longing for the next world while we are called to remain in this one is based not on Christian hope but on pietistic fantasy. For this reason, he criticizes this kind of other-worldliness that downplays earthly life:
To put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives.
Toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer is increasingly convinced of the earthly and this-worldly nature of Christian life. In one of his letters to Bethge, he writes:
During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religious, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man…it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith….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.
In fact, the second theme, becoming human, is closely related to the third, living completely in this world, both of which are consequences of incarnation. Because God became human in Christ, we are to become fully human to follow Christ; because God and the world are united in Christ, we are to remain in this world to participate in the reality of Christ; and because the world is the place where human life takes place, to be fully human means to live completely in this world. Such an ultimate this-worldliness of Bonhoeffer’s theology is summarized by his bold statement, “What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world.”
Fourth, incarnation means that we are to embrace religionless Christianity. This provocative phrase has caused much confusion and controversy, since it was adopted by the death-of-God movement. But to understand the phrase, we must first understand what Bonhoeffer means by “religion”. According to John G. Stackhouse, religion for Bonhoeffer means at least two things. “Sociologically speaking, religion was the condition of official, mainstream German Christianity by the turn of the twentieth century.” Theologically speaking, “religion was the general quest for, apprehension of, and response to the divine among human beings around the world.” This second meaning again has two senses, as expounded by Bonhoeffer himself: “What does it mean to ‘interpret it in a religious sense’? I think it means on the one hand metaphysically, and on the other hand individualistically. Neither of these is relevant to the biblical message or to the man of today.” For Bonhoeffer, therefore, religion in first sense is metaphysics or ‘“religious a priori’ of mankind,” which concerns ‘“ultimate questions’—death, guilt—to which only ‘God’ can give an answer.” It is a form of existentialist philosophy. It is making God “a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science,”which has been increasingly abandoned by “a world that has come of age.” In the second sense, religion is an introspective matter that places God in the domain of individuals’ “inner life.” It turns God into a solution for personal, private issues and Christianity into a form of psychotherapy. Toward such inwardness, Bonhoeffer simply cannot hold back his contempt:
The displacement of God from the world, and from the public part of human life, led to the attempt to keep his place secure at least in the sphere of the ‘personal’, the ‘inner’, and the ‘private’. And as every man still has a private sphere somewhere, that is where he was thought to be the most vulnerable. The secrets known to a man’s valet—that is, to put it crudely, the range of his intimate life, from prayer to his sexual life—have become the hunting-ground of modern pastoral workers.
Hence, for Bonhoeffer, religion means on the hand metaphysical presuppositions and on the other hand individualistic psychotherapy, as is expressed in his musing: “How do we speak of God—without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on?” In a sense, religion is a solution to basic human needs and a fulfilment of universal religious impulses. By building Christianity on this general religious mode, liberal Christianity has tried to persuade the modern man that he still needs Christianity, hoping to retain a legitimate place for God in the world that has become increasingly secularized. As a result, Christianity, as a religion, has become the basic fabric of modern German life and has enjoyed a privileged status in midst of the general anti-Christian atmosphere.
Bur for Bonhoeffer, this religion has nothing do with Christ—the incarnate Son of God. It is this kind of religion that he wants to remove from Christianity. For him, Christianity is not the fulfilment of the universal religion or the solution to psychological troubles of modern men, both of which push God out to the peripheries of human life. God revealed in Christ should be at the centre of life, not on the boundaries or in the unknown domain:
God is no stop-gap; he must be recognized at the centre of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is the centre of life, and he certainly didn’t ‘come’ to answer our unsolved problems.
It is thus against the whole project of liberal Christianity that Bonhoeffer proposes the “religion-less Christianity.” The God revealed in Christ does not need any privileged status in modern culture or any room reserved for him in the domain of metaphysics and psychology; instead he willingly “lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.” Christianity is not about providing solutions to “religious” problems, but about participating in Christ, who becomes human so that we may become truly human. Seen in this light, “religionless Christianity” is not the godless theology of the death-of-God movement; rather it is profoundly Christocentric, as it places Jesus Christ at the centre of Christianity, of the world, and of life—“Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.” “In that case, Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world.” Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, therefore, is not a departure from his earlier theology, but a natural consequence of his constant Christ-centred approach to theology and of his long-time contemplation on the profound meaning of incarnation—God becoming human.
In conclusion, incarnation is the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s theology, which has profoundly shaped his understanding of the essence of Christianity—to participate in Christ. Because God became human, we practice Christianity only by following Christ—“discipleship”. Because Christ is human, the goal of discipleship is to become “fully human” like Christ. Because God and the world are united in Christ, we must follow Christ by “living completely in this world.” Because truth is the incarnate Son, we must let Christ, not “religion”, be the centre of life. In fact, those four implications are only different aspects of the participation in Christ, because it is only through participating in the living Christ that we truly follow him, become fully human, live completely in the world, and make him the centre of life. In essence, “faith is participation in this being of Jesus…our relation to God is a new life in existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus.”
Word count: 3267
 This is reflected in the question that he constantly wrestled with: who is Christ really for us today? See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, the enlarged edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller, Frank Clark, and John Bowden (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 279.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey; trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 214.
 Bonhoeffer especially emphasizes the visible body of Christ in comparison to bodiless truths. “The body of Jesus Christ takes up physical space here on earth. By becoming human Christ claims a place among us human beings…A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space of its own. Such entities are bodiless. They do not go beyond being heard, learned, and understood. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears or even hearts; he needs actual living human beings who follow him.” Ibid., 225-6.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 6, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green; trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Scott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 84.
 This is the literal meaning of the German word Nachfolge.
 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 59.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 93.
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 124.
 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 99.
 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 21.
 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 225.
 Ibid., 228.
 Ibid., 204.
 Ibid., 216.
 Ibid., 285.
 Ibid., 288.
 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 96.
 Ibid., 400.
 Ibid., 186.
 Ibid., 187.
 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 133.
 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 385.
 Clifford J. Green, “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” Ibid., 6.
 Wayne W. Floyd, The Wisdom and Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 25.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 69.
 Bonhoeffer, Letters, 337.
 Ibid., 168-69.
 Ibid., 369-70
 Ibid., 286.
 Stackhouse, Making of Best of It, 142.
 Bonhoeffer, Letters, 285-6.
 Ibid., 280.
 Ibid., 326.
 Ibid., 360.
 Ibid., 341.
 Ibid., 344.
 Ibid., 280.
 Ibid., 312.
 Ibid., 360.
 Ibid., 337.
 Ibid., 281.
 Ibid., 381.