Bonhoeffer and Christmas

Author: Rob Schenck

The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the author of the book, "Costly Grace".

“. . . the testimony of Christmas for all human beings is you have been accepted: God has not despised you but bodily bears the flesh and blood of you all. Look to the manger!”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Christmas letter to pastors


Bonhoeffer (2nd from right) befriended and prayed for his prison guards while at Tegel.

In December of 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a communique to pastors entitled “Theological Letter on Christmas.” It was included with the regular monthly circular sent out to Confessing Church clergy who had courageously resisted political corruption by refusing to give their allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

This was not your typical Christmas Letter. It didn’t include a summary of special events from the past 12 months, nor reports on how much taller the children had grown, or the ordeal of a kitchen remodeling project. It didn’t even include gift wishes. Instead, Dietrich held forth on how the ancient church fathers parsed out the taking on of “human nature” by Christ, as opposed to his having taken on a “human being.” It exposed the fallacy of “modalistic–idealistic—pantheistic—Schleiermacher-like blending of God and humankind.” And it expounded on the Lutheran teaching of the “genus majestaticum.”

OK, I know, it doesn’t sound very Hallmark-like.

Actually, it sounds pretty—well—stuffy.

It was.

Yet, buried deep in this seemingly pedantic essay on the human nature of Christ is something else–something about Bonhoeffer’s passion for humanity. Throughout his life and work we see Bonhoeffer’s love for others—his parents and family, friends, seminary students, his fellow pastors, prisoners—even his interrogators and jailors.

That love for others was supported by a substantial theological infrastructure.

What Bonhoeffer saw in the manger at Bethlehem was an inseparable union. God and man were so intertwined at the Incarnation, they could never be pulled apart. This had far-reaching implications. It was, among so many other things, the ultimate expression of God’s identification with—affirmation of—and passion for all humanity. Quoting Martin Luther, he wrote, “. . . wherever you place God for me, there you must also place the humanity for me.”

For Bonhoeffer, his humanism was as important as his Christology—or his understanding of Christ. He celebrated the dual nature of Christ—as divine and human—and, by extension, he celebrated all things human. He would eventually take his greatest risk for the sake of humanity. In joining the conspiracy to bring down Hitler’s tyrannical and murderous Third Reich, Bonhoeffer sealed his own fate. In this way, he followed the pattern of his Lord, who, he had written elsewhere, was, consummately, “the one for others.”

Still, notwithstanding the complexity of this treatise—or the enormous consequences of its embrace for its author and his fellow clergy—Bonhoeffer told his readers his intention in sending it to them was quite modest:

“These are ancient thoughts we have expressed here, the smallest fragments of the edifice of ecclesiastical Christology. But the point, of course, is not that we admire the edifice, but that through one or another of these thoughts we will be led to read and contemplate the biblical testimony to the mystery of God’s becoming human with more reverence and adoration, and perhaps even to sing Luther’s Christmas hymns more thoughtfully and joyously.”

Bonhoeffer can be very difficult to read—and the work we do here at the institute named in his honor can be just as difficult to understand and, perhaps, to appreciate—but, in the end, our intention is as simple as that of his 1939 Christmas letter, to help others appreciate more deeply what it means for God to have become human.   

Wishing you and yours a thoughtful and joyous Christmas,

Rob Schenck