Christology theologically precedes Soteriology

When studying the person of Jesus Christ, his nature and his identity, should we begin with his works or with his person? This was one of the questions Bonhoeffer grappled with in his lectures on christology. Bonhoeffer points to the ambiguous nature of Jesus works as irrefutable evidence that beginning with Jesus’ works in studying him is to begin on the wrong foot. He writes,

Even the works of Christ are not unambiguous. They are open to the most varied interpretations. Christ’s works permit the interpretation that he is a hero, that his cross represents the consummate act of a courageous man who is true to his convictions. There is no point in the works of Jesus to which one can unambiguously refer and say that here Jesus can truly be recognized, unambiguously and without doubt, as the Son of God on the basis of his works. This is the issue, that the son entered into the flesh, that he wants to do his work within the ambiguity of history, incognito. This incognito is the basis for the two reasons why it is impossible to recognize the person of Jesus through his work; first, because it is never possible, in human terms to draw conclusions about a person from his works, and second, because Jesus is God, and direct conclusions about God on the basis of history are never possible either (DWB, 12, 309-10).

So if knowledge of Jesus is inaccessible through a historical study of Jesus’ works how does one come to know Jesus? Bonhoeffer continued:

This can happen only in relation to that place where his person reveals himself to me as he really is. Only through Christ’s own revelation do I have opened to me his person and his works. In this way, the christological question is shown to have theological priority over the soteriological question. I must first know who it is who does something before I can know what it is that the person does (DWB, 12, 310).

The bottom line: I can know a great deal about Jesus as described in the four gospels. So in fact I can observe quite a lot about what Jesus did, how he related to people, what his so called aims were. The whole modern quest for Jesus is based on just such an approach. But, in Bonhoeffer’s view, this doesn’t lead one to any more knowledge about Jesus person. After studying the Jesus of the gospels we’re in no better position to know Jesus ironically. What this means is that with apologies to C.S. Lewis, there are more categories of understanding Jesus than Liar, Lunatic or Lord. The gospel evidence is not unambiguous. The authors of the four gospels affirmed and in fact assumed the person of Jesus as God’s Son incarnate. But I cannot know the historical Jesus unless the present resurrected Jesus reveals himself to me.

This truth is regularly confirmed to me in teaching. Just this last semester I sat in my office with an undergraduate who had grown skeptical of the truth of the Christian claims. We went round and round for a hour and in the end nothing I said could have changed her suspicious attitude toward the historical works of Jesus. She was simply not in a position at the time to recognize the incognito person of Jesus. She was not willing to believe that the one right interpretation of Jesus’  works was that he was God saving the world.

The historical Jesus Christ is known only after a person encounters the present resurrected Jesus Christ today; it is never the other way round.


  • Samuel

    Very insightful. This obviously has massive implications on how we define the Gospel and preaching its message. Wouldn’t you say?

  • J. Michael Strachan

    I’m surprised to hear Bonhoeffer sounding so much like Lessing. Personally I think there are several different issues at play here that are getting confused and inadequately lumped together, but that would take a longer reply.

  • Allen Browne

    That’s good, Joel, but surely this is more than an either/or question. One can start with the works, come to know the person, and then truly come to appreciate what the works mean. Jn 10:37-38.