Chapter 3: The Church: Objective Source of Revelation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Dallas M. Roark

Chapter 3: The Church: Objective Source of Revelation

Bonhoeffer’s second work, Act and Being, was written in 1931 and presented as his inaugural dissertation, giving him the right to lecture at the university. Act and Being, like the first work, is abstract and difficult to read. Certainly Bonhoeffer’s popularity has come from other works than these. Yet Act and Being deals with the important problem of revelation. What philosophical modes should be used to express God’s self-revelation? Should one speak only of God’s self-revelation as events in biblical history? Is there a better way of speaking of God’s self-revelation than in the category of being? Is there some other alternative? Bonhoeffer treats these questions in three parts in his work.


Part One exposes the problem of act and being as a problem of how and what one may know, especially about God. He treats two alternatives: the transcendental and the ontological endeavors. The transcendental approach is traced from Immanuel Kant to Karl Barth who, at the time, was regarded by Bonhoeffer as being dependent upon Kant in some ways. The development of philosophical thought from Kant (1724- 1804) to G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) serves as a backdrop to these issues. In his theory of knowledge, Kant divided reality into two types: phenomena and noumena. We experience phenomena only by the senses in the things we see, hear, taste, touch, etc. The noumena, or the reality behind appearances, the thing-in-itself, can never be known by the senses, and hence cannot be known at all. Noumena may refer to God or the existence of the soul. Bonhoeffer is especially interested in the subject of God, for he is transcendent. How is one to know God, the numinous? Needless to say, Bonhoeffer introduces the idea of God’s self-revelation, in which God comes to man who is incapable of searching out God on his own. But in what way and how is this done? This is a crucial question for Bonhoeffer, and to this we will return later.

Kant’s successors eliminated the distinction between phenomena and noumena. In Kant there was always something set over against the personal “I” which was not known. In later philosophers when the noumena was dropped, God and the self became identified.1 There are serious problems both with Kant’s transcendental philosophy and with the idealism of his “specious” successors. Bonhoeffer’s main criticisms are directed at Kant’s successors. If the “I” becomes paramount, its knowledge is restricted. It never knows anything other than itself. Thus, what is supposed to be revelation is turned into the study of anthropology or psychology. God “becomes the prisoner of the consciousness.”2 “What reason can learn from itself (thus Hegel) is revelation, and so God is incarcerated in consciousness.”3 Equally untenable is the inference that “if God is to come to man, man must be in essence divine.”4 Bonhoeffer admits that transcendentalism has a solution, but that it is inadequate without “radical transformation and completion.”5

The second alternative is the ontological endeavor. A true ontology,6 says Bonhoeffer, aims at showing real being existing apart from consciousness. “Systematic ontology supposes pure being to be intuitively beheld in its transcendence of consciousness.”7 In his treatment Bonhoeffer outlines the approach of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the father of philosophical phenomenology. Phenomenology “is the study of the phenomena in the pure consciousness.”8 Husserl rejected the Kantian concept of noumena, and this led him to affirm greater areas of knowledge for man. More than simply knowing phenomena, one might know being.9 Because Husserl says that man can intellectually intuit being, Bonhoeffer places him in the idealist tradition. But as far as the question of God is concerned, Husserl attains no great clarity and does not advance beyond the purely human word of Hegel. He may shed light on man’s way of thinking but not on the problem of being.

In this alternative Bonhoeffer treats the view of Max Scheler (1874-1928) who altered Husserl’s emphases somewhat but who, for Bonhoeffer, did not solve anything. Also included is a pupil of Husserl, Martin Heidegger (b. 1889). For Heidegger, being is “understood from Dasein” or existence. Existence is known by an existential analysis of man. Although Heidegger aims at exposing being to the philosophical world, he never proceeds further than man. The implication, for Bonhoeffer, is that Heidegger has left no room for the idea of revelation10 and is useless for purposes of theology.

The last example of a being-approach to theology is that of Roman Catholic writers. Up to this point the transcendence of God has been either rejected, overlooked, or identified with nature. In Thomism, God’s transcendence is allowed. Thomism, which follows the principles elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), employs the analogia entis or analogy of being. The analogy of being supposes that God has left a trace of himself in nature which indirectly and proportionately testifies of himself. Thomism rejects the identification of God and man, yet argues that some likeness of God is perceived in man. But if one accepts the analogia as useful for theology, one may arrive at a “being” which may not be God.11 Being is still self-projection, and thus is not successful.

The offending element in all these attempts at arriving at being is that they suppose that man is capable of bestowing truth on himself. One fundamental problem in this issue is man and his sin. Bonhoeffer declares, “Thought is as little able as good works to deliver the cor curvurm in se from itself.”12 There is little room for revelation in philosophy. Philosophy’s hope is to confess itself as Christian, for it seeks to give, and cannot, what only Christ can give in understanding the universe and man.13


Part Two deals with the act-being problem in revelation. Revelation is defined in terms of the acts of God. Thus revelation is transcendent. When God comes to man this act becomes the means whereby man can know the truth of God and come to understand himself. Revelation as act means: (1) that God is free; (2) that man is receptive; (3) that God is not “haveable” or graspable, in the sense that he comes under man’s power through knowledge; (4) that God is known only because of self-revealing grace. Consequently, God is nonobjective and nonavailable. In act, “God is always the ‘coming’, not the existing’ deity (Barth).”14 If God is conceived in act as nonobjective, Bonhoeffer concludes that one may also speak of faith as nonobjective. The practical problem of the act-theology relates to decision. Is not the act inadequate in fulfilling the needs of the “everydayness” of the religious life and decision?15 The religious life needs some basis for continuity.

The alternative to the above position is to speak of revelation in terms of being, and this can take one of three possibilities: (1) doctrine, (2) psychic experience, and (3) an institutional form.16 The latter may be understood as the institution of the Catholic Church or the Protestant idea of verbal inspiration of the Bible. Bonhoeffer rejects all three of these because: they understand the revealed God as an entity, whereas entities are transcended by act and being. Man assimilates them into his transcendental I, and so they are unable to be objective in the full sense, hence are useless for theological explanation of the revelation in Christ. . .17

While any of these may be reassuring, man is always in control of them.

A true and meaningful ontology, or being theology, “must satisfy two all-important requirements: 1. it must involve the existence of man; 2. it must be possible to think of the being in continuity,” i.e., it must define “being in.”18 Because these two alternatives, revelation as act and revelation as being, are inadequate alone, Bonhoeffer turns to a synthesis in which act and being take on a new dimension in the church.


The heart of his proposal is in the chapter, “The Church as a Unity of Act and Being.” Assuming the inadequacy of philosophy’s understanding of existence, Bonhoeffer declares that existence can be understood only in the church, because the church gives an explanation “outside” of man. Revelation is only confronted in the church. Thus revelation is not the past remembered, but exists presently and continually in the church, for “the Church is the Christ of the present, ‘Christ existing as community’. . . Christ is the corporate person of the Christian communion.”19

Because of the personal involvement of Christ in the church, Bonhoeffer asserts that the old issue of act or being, as it relates to revelation, is now resolved. God gives himself in act to the individual who at the same time is in the communion of Christ. Man’s existence is affected because he is “in Christ.” If man’s existence were unchanged, being in the community of revelation “would be pointless.”20

Bonhoeffer claims that the problem of subjectivism is overcome because the church is “concretely visible.”21 Faith supposes an object outside of itself, but faith is a mode of being in the church. Although faith might be viewed as a series of broken discrete acts, Bonhoeffer declares that “faith as an act knows itself as the mode of being of its being in the church, the continuity is indeed only ‘in the believing’ but thereby is really preserved as being in the Church.”22 Even sin does not disrupt the continuity of the new existence of man in Christ. Man’s inability to put himself beyond “the pale of God’s commonwealth” underlines the “everydayness” of life in the church — which is in Christ.23

Bonhoeffer closes24 his work by considering the act-being problem in man. Man has a relationship to either Adam or Christ. In either case, revelation is necessary to know this.25 The act-being relation for “being in Adam” is the problem of sin. Sin must be defined initially as a willful “act.” But if sin were only an act, “it would be theoretically and humanly possible to find one’s way back to a sinless being.”26 The death of Christ would have been unnecessary. Bonhoeffer does not assume a historical beginning point of sin with Adam. Rather viewing man as a corporate being, he declared, “I myself am Adam, am I and humanity together; in me falls humanity; as I am Adam, so is every individual, but then in all individuals the one person of humanity, Adam, is active.”27 Thus the “everydayness of Adam” is related to the “everydayness” of life — man’s sin is both act and being. In act he is responsible, in being he corrupts the rest of mankind. Being in Adam means guilt, despair, isolation, temptation, and death.28 Being in Christ is to become a new being, yet one susceptible to the old being’s influence. But faith brings forgiveness for guilt, hope for despair, communion with God instead of isolation, help for temptation, and life through death.29 The new being belongs to the future; the old being belongs to the past.

In closing this chapter, certain questions may be raised about Bonhoeffer’s ideas. First the concreteness of the church and its objectivity are points quite well taken, but one wonders whether Bonhoeffer fully distinguishes his view from the Roman Catholic view of the church, particularly when Roman Catholicism sees the church as the mystical body of Christ. Second, his emphasis on faith as a gift of God, rather than salvation being a gift of God (Eph. 2:8), is suspect exegetically. When faith is regarded as a gift of God, faith as response and commitment is sidetracked. This is particularly pertinent to the issue of infant baptism.30 Third, one feels uneasy and unclear about Bonhoeffer’s use of the term “God’s Word.” It is used with ambiguity because he speaks decisively about God’s Word but then rejects the role of Scripture as incapable of fulfilling the demands of the “being” aspect of revelation. The Bible becomes an “entity,” “whereas entities are transcended by act and being.”31 This is particularly puzzling since one of Bonhoeffer’s favorite passages of Scripture is Isaiah 55:11 in which God promises that his Word would not return to him without fulfilling his purposes. Since the Word of God is described as a double-edged sword which man cannot control, Bonhoeffer’s view seems out of character with his overall position.



1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, trans. Bernard Noble (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 30.

2. Ibid., p. 39.

3. Ibid., p. 41.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ontology is an area of philosophy that examines the nature of being, or reality. What does it mean to be? What is existence?

7. Ibid., p. 51.

8. Ibid., p. 52.

9. Cf. Quentin Lauer, Phenomenology: Its Genesis and Prospect (New York: Harper & Row, Torchbook, 1965), pp. 65-81.

10. Act and Being, p. 65.

11. Ibid., p. 69.

12. Ibid., p. 72.

13. Ibid., p. 70.

14. Ibid., p. 83.

15. Ibid., p. 105.

16. Ibid., p. 108.

17. Ibid., pp. 111-12.

18. Ibid., p. 115.

19. Ibid., p. 120. Bonhoeffer appeals to Scripture for several statements like this one. See I Cor. 12:12; 6:15; 1:13; Rom. 6:13, 19; Eph. 2:14. “The Church is the body of Christ: I Cor. 12:12ff.; Rom. 12:4ff; Eph. 1:23; 4: 15f.; Col. 1:18. Christ is in the communion as the communion is in Christ: I Cor. 1:30; 3:16; II Cor. 6:16; 13:5; Col. 2:17; 3:11. The communion is a corporate person whose name is also Christ: Gal. 3:28;. Col. 3 :l0f.; cf. Eph. 1:23” (pp. 120-21).

20. Ibid., p. 124.

21. Ibid., p. 125.

22. Ibid., p. 128.

23. Ibid., p. 134.

24. One of the concerns of Act and Being is the theology of Barth, which Bonhoeffer regarded as an “act” theology. Barth changed his position considerably, perhaps under the criticism of Bonhoeffer.

25. Ibid., p. 155.

26. Ibid., p. 163.

27. Ibid., p. 165.

28. Ibid., p. 166.

29. Ibid., p. 179.

30. Ibid., p. 182.

31. Ibid., p. 111.