Monday, December 18, 2006

Toward a Post-Liberal Theology?: The Architecture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christology and Ecclesiology

Part II: Christ and Church: Background and Development 1927-33

The Christology lectures of 1933 are but a small, incomplete, but rich snapshot of Bonhoeffer's robust and vibrant Christology that developed from his time under the tutelage of Harnack, Holl and Seeberg (developed in stark contrast, but with much reverence to the Christology of Harnack) on into the rest of his academic and ecclesial career. While Harnack certainly wielded much inspiration on the young Bonhoeffer at Berlin, the major influence upon his thought at this early juncture was the shift toward a "high" christological concentration initiated largely by the work of Karl Barth, whom Bonhoeffer first met in 1931 and subsequently lamented not meeting earlier. It was here, within the milieu of the project of nineteenth century theological liberalism's "turn to the subject"—a situation permanently interrupted by the second edition of Barth's Rommerbrief—that Bonhoeffer, no less than Barth before him, began to marshal his own unique riposte to the behemoth before him.

The Christology and ecclesiology of Bonhoeffer's early academic work is situated within a complex and intricate web of philosophical, historical, theological and sociological themes that makes it difficult to distill hisinitial thought, so we can hardly do it justice here. In Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer is cycling many dogmatic loci through a re-formed and re-worked understanding of person, community and sociality: "'Person', 'primal state', 'sin', and 'revelation' can be fully comprehended only in reference to sociality." His stated purpose in Sanctorum Communio then, is to "understand the structure of the given reality of a church of Christ, as revealed in Christ, from the perspective of social philosophy and sociology." Claiming that all systematic loci of dogmatic theology are essentially and obdurately social and relational at their core—a claim that characterizes and spans his entire theological and ecclesial contribution—Bonhoeffer adds a new and unique voice to the chorus of early 20th century European theology. His first dissertation then can be read as a phenomenological/theological investigation into the nature and identity of the church and its Lord. Yet although Bonhoeffer develops a very profound and elaborate concept of person, community and relationality (developed in discussion not only with German Idealism but also in the context of the emerging existential/neo-orthodox theologies of Buber, Brunner, Gogarten, et all), our purpose in this survey is to examine his early Christology and ecclesiology. We may ask then, in considering the social and relational structure of all dogmatic loci, 'Who is Jesus Christ, and who and what is his church?'

Bonhoeffer answers with the rich but difficult, and as we will argue below, the ultimately problematic christological paraphrase of the Pauline "Body of Christ": "Christus als Gemeinde existierend"—"Christ existing as church-community". Christ, as the revelation of God, is the new collective humanity in response to the old Adamic collective of broken humanity and is thus the reconciliation of humanity to its primal reality (creation). Christ, as the Stellvertretung, ('vicarious representative action') is initiator of this new sociality and is (in the sense of being, constituting and circumscribing) its reality: "Adam's action is extremely egocentric…in Christ, however, humanity has been brought once and for all—this is essential to real vicarious representative action—into communion with God." As Stellvertretung, Christ exists eccentrically—that is, pro nobis. The anthropological counterpart of this reality, the church, is the concrete manifestation or bearer of this new reality.

It is an Irenaean-type of recapitulation or reversal but it goes beyond Irenaeus in its material claims. Bonhoeffer claims, according to Green, that "the person of Christ, exists in a social form: the church." Green claims that Bonhoeffer is aware of the difficulties with parsing this phrase in such a way as to allow the church to domesticate and possess its Lord: "the presence of Christ is not the essence of the church at human disposal; Christ is not a possessed attribute of his human community, frozen into a static being." Bonhoeffer nevertheless claims that, "the church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God." He goes on to qualify this: "one must not think of a second incarnation of Christ…but rather of a form of revelation that may be called 'Christ existing as church-community'".

Needless to say, this is a notoriously slippery claim and one that requires much doctrinal qualification—qualifications that are made explicit within his Christology lectures of 1933 (which we will investigate and consider below). In short form Bonhoeffer is claiming that Christ is the church but the church is not Christ insofar as the church is at once both the peccatorum communio and the sanctorum communio and is thus unable to claim of itself the status of 'revelatory'. That is, Christ and church are identified but not to the point that Christ is identified with the church without remainder. While it is not always explicit within Bonhoeffer's early work (owing, in some measure, to the nature of these writings as largely sociological and anthropological), Christ is the Lord of the community and as its Lord He is the One who calls that community into being (here Bonhoeffer has a pneumatology at work, however truncated, which we cannot herein entertain). Only by His own activity is Christ identified with the collective community. Christ exists as Gemeinde because he freely decides to do so. The relationship is then a dynamic one and not one that can be characterized as stagnant or fixed. The free Lord freely identifies Himself with the community in the concrete acts of Word and sacrament.

In his second dissertation, Act and Being, Bonhoeffer continues to develop a relational ontology but shifts his focus to mainly epistemological and anthropological concerns. The christological and ecclesiological themes present within Sanctorum Communio undergo no major formal changes but do gain material clarity within Bonhoeffer's main concern with expounding a theological ontology. Within this ontology, it is the doctrine of revelation that provides Bonhoeffer with the opportunity to capitalize and expand upon the themes within Sanctorum Communio. Here the theme of divine freedom leads into Bonhoeffer's social ontology and ecclesiology. God in Christ is not free from humanity but free for humanity. The freedom of God, His very being, is an existence for humanity. It is an existence marked and characterized by God's freedom to be bound to humanity in Christ:
In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God—eternally remaining within the divine self, aseity—on the other side of revelation, as it is of God's coming out of God's own self in revelation. It is a matter of God's given Word, the covenant in which God is bound by God's own action. It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings. God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God's freedom. God is present, that is, not in eternal objectivity but…'haveable', graspable in the Word within the church.
Here Bonhoeffer is reacting to what he considered an abstract account of divine freedom on the part of the 'neo-orthodox' or 'dialectical' theology of his day, an account of divine freedom epitomized in the early work of Barth. This account was one-sided in the sense that in describing divine freedom the full weight of the depiction was made in reaction to the domesticated deity of Protestant liberalism.

While Bonhoeffer would agree that this was a necessary step, this picture of divine freedom did not follow its own christocentricity through to its full conclusion—that divine freedom is precisely God's binding of God's very own self to the contingent and historical reality of the world in Jesus Christ. No abstract deity here. God's identity is bound up with humanity's. God's mode of presence to the world is in Christ and Christ's mode of presence to the world is in and through his own community as himself—Christ existing as church-community: "the church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God." Indeed, we can agree with Hauerwas, who maintains that for Bonhoeffer, "that the church takes up space [in the world] is but a correlative that God in Jesus Christ occupies space in the world…. Bonhoeffer's ecclesiology is but the expression of his Christology, in which the reality of Christ determines all that is. For Bonhoeffer it is in Jesus Christ that the whole of reality is taken up." The themes of Bonhoeffer's early Christology and ecclesiology and the intricate relationship between these two dogmatic loci as developed throughout both his early academic dissertations is efficiently and simply summarized in a passage from Bonhoeffer's inaugural lecture at the University of Berlin, July 31st, 1930 entitled 'Man in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology':
It is the mystery of the community that Christ is in her and only through her reaches to men, Christ exists among us as community, as church in the hiddenness of history. The church is the hidden Christ among us. Now therefore man is never alone, but he exists only through the community, which brings him Christ, which incorporates him in itself, takes him into its life. Man in Christ is man in community; where he exists is community…. Therefore man can no longer understand himself from himself, but only from Christ, who exists as community…
Bonhoeffer's early work goes a long way in outbidding Protestant liberalism's truncated and docetic Christology and ecclesiology. However, it was not until Bonhoeffer turned his attention to Christology proper that these early themes gain the lucidity necessary to gauge Bonhoeffer's theology on the central theme of the identity of Christ and his community and to measure just how much ground he makes up in response to liberalism.


Halden said...


Great post overall. Could you perhaps supply the page numbers for the quotes you make? That quote on God's binding of himself is very suggestive to me, and I'd like to follow that up in Act and Being.

Also, could you go into a bit more detail about the problems with Bonhoeffer's identification (with distinctions, I'd argue) between Christ and the Church? Bonhoeffer says reatedly in the final section of Discipleship that Christ exists in and as the church, which I think is exactly right. The church both is his presence to the world (through Word and Sacrament) and is the locus in which his extra nos presence is experienced again and again. This seems to highlight how Bonhoeffer wants to identify Christ and the church (a la the Pauline image of the Head and the Body) and yet preserve the neccesary distinction between the church and her Lord (which he makes over and over again in Life Together). Whether Bonhoeffer achieves this with adequate conceptual precision is of course an open question.

Patrick McManus said...

Hi Halden,

I will be addressing some of those questions in further posts, so I will leave it at that. I do think there is a problem in the overall architecture of his christology and ecclesiology (and not just one of precision) which stems ultimately from his doctrine of God.

I'll get you the page # soon as I'm away from my library during Christmas.

With advent blessings,


Patrick McManus said...


the quote is from p. 90f. in the new edition.