Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity

It is well known that Adolf von Harnack along with other German theologians of the early 20th century promoted a “return” to the essence of Christianity. They believed that through the centuries Christianity had been perverted by Hellenistic philosophy. True Christianity – the essence of Christianity – was found in the teachings of Jesus, not in church dogma. In other words the teachings of Jesus were the kernel of Christianity and dogma was the husk. If modern day people were to believe in Christianity they would need to get rid of the husk and embrace the kernel.

Among the “husk” was the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. Liberal German theologians tended to believe that Jesus was not “divine” in the same sense that the creeds spoke about, rather (in a Schleiermacher-ian sense) he was divine because he possessed “God consciousness.” This belief isn’t the essence of Christianity, rather it’s the essence of low Christology.

In comes Barth though – he points out the foolishness of this type of theology. He points out that this sort of Liberal theology only amounts to idolatrous speech, because this sort of theology did not actually talk about God as he is rather it amounted to talking about God in a really loud human voice. To talk about God is to speak the Word of God after God. It is to allow God to reveal himself – something only God can do – then speak God’s words after God. The theology of Liberal Germans was stuck in an anthropomorphic captivity, theology needed to be set free…

With this Barth – and a new school of theologians emerged talking not about a God in our own image, but talking about a God who traverses the path to human beings; a God who can only be known in his self-revelation. This God was radically different from the God of the Liberal Germans. That God did not require much from a person, he simply required one to live a moral and upstanding life amidst one’s social strata. After all if the essence of Christianity was “Jesus Moral Teachings” what more should one do? However Barth, and in today’s blog Bonhoeffer preached of a Christ who demands way more than simply an “upright life.” This God – the God who reveals himself – demands everything one has…

The following is a section from a lecture titled “Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave in Barcelona during a brief stint as a parish minister:

To the nineteenth- and twentieth-century mind, religion plays the part of the parlor, as it were, into which one doesn’t mind withdrawing for a couple of hours, but from which one then immediately returns to one’s business. One thing, however, is clear: namely, that we understand Christ only if we omit to Him in a abrupt either-or. He was not nailed to the cross as an ornament or decoration for our lives. If we would have Him, we must recognize that He makes fundamental claims on our entire being. We scarcely understand Him if we make room for Him in merely one region of our spiritual life, but rather only if our life takes its orientation from him alone or, otherwise, if we speak a straightforward no. Of course, there are those not concerned with seriously considering the claims Christ makes on us with His questions: Do you wish to make a complete commitment or not? They should rather not get mixed up with Christianity at all; that would be better for Christianity since such people no longer have anything in common with Christ. The religion of Christ is not the tidbit after the bread it is the bread itself, or it is nothing.

This powerful word continues to speak today – Christ – the true Christ makes claims on our entire being. As God himself he has the right to make those demands of us.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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