Chapter 2: The Shape of the Church

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Dallas M. Roark

Chapter 2: The Shape of the Church

Bonhoeffer’s first and in many ways most difficult work was the Sanctorum Communio, or The Communion of Saints. It is abstract, technical, and important. This work is not an example of the "popular" Bonhoeffer. Yet the book serves as the foundation for much of his writings. Should the reader bog down here, he might with justification turn to chapter 4 and continue there to the end of this work before coming back to chapter 2.


The Communion of Saints attempts to relate sociology and theology to one another. Sociology is defined as "the science of the structures of empirical communities."3 An empirical community is one that can be viewed objectively. Bonhoeffer aimed then to study the church from the standpoint of sociology. If, however, one is to understand a religious community, one must examine it from within, taking the claims of the community seriously. Without assuming this internal stance, the church cannot be understood at all.

Because the religious community is composed of people, it becomes necessary to define the Christian concept of person. The concept of person will determine the type of community that will come forth. Bonhoeffer speaks of different types: Aristotelian (man becomes a person by partaking of reason); Stoic ("a man becomes a person by submitting to a higher obligation");4 Epicurean (man’s life is heightened by pleasure, though it has a "defective concept of spirit");5 and the idealist tradition flowing from Immanuel Kant (the perceiving person is the starting point for philosophy).

Bonhoeffer trades blows predominantly with the idealist tradition. In turn, he defines the Christian concept of a person in nonstatic terms. Person is fluctuating and can be said to exist only "when a man is morally responsible."6 The person comes into existence only when "he is passionately involved in a moral struggle, and confronted by a claim which overwhelms him."7 Into this struggle Bonhoeffer introduces the idea of a"barrier" that man faces. The barrier involves "the absolute distinction between God and man."8 The deeper man realizes this separation to be, the more profound will his self-understanding be. The barrier is a problem for man not only with reference to God, but with other men in community. In community the "I" is confronted by a "Thou" which may be either God or man. Yet one may not know oneself as a "Thou," nor can one know another person as an "I."

Bonhoeffer rejects the idea that encounter creates persons, and declares that "God, or the Holy Spirit, comes to the concrete Thou, only by his action does the other become a Thou for me, from which my I arises. In other words, every human Thou is an image of the divine Thou."9 Thus Bonhoeffer concludes that personhood is related to social relations.

Building upon his definition of person, Bonhoeffer develops the idea with reference to man’s first state of existence before God in contrast to man’s existence after rebellion against God. In contrast to idealism, which knows only continuity in man’s life in the Spirit, Bonhoeffer recognizes sin as a reality in history. The conflict of man with God poses problems for any idea of community, but community is God’s design for man. Thus ethics and morality have meaning only in sociality.

If man stands in community, what is the relation of the community to his own being? Bonhoeffer answers: "The individual personal spirit lives solely by virtue of sociality, and the ‘social spirit’ becomes real only in individual embodiment.10 Therefore Bonhoeffer can speak of both the individual and a collective being.11 The design of God for men to live in community leads to the natural question of the religious community.

The community is constituted by desire, or will, and not necessarily on the idea of commonness, or formal agreement. Because willing is important, conflict thereby arises in the community: Bonhoeffer assesses several forms of human relationships: the community, the society, and the mass. A community is where "life is lived," a society is an association in rational action, and the mass is man caught up by stimuli in which there are no real social bonds.12 The idea of the community — the willed entity — is important for the form of the church.13

Having set forth his idea of community, Bonhoeffer relates it to sin’s entry which causes a broken community. Sin breaks communion with God and man, and man with man. The natural forms of community are now corrupted. Why is the I phenomena of sin universal? In answer he says that the Bible speaks of the universality of sin but nothing of original sin. Bonhoeffer’s solution is that "the guilt of the individual and the universality of sin should be conceived of together."14

Sin must not be understood biologically. Instead, sin and guilt are the bases for understanding the species, or mankind. The race is in sin because I am in sin. With each individual falling into sin, the race falls, and hence "in principle none of us is distinct from Adam — which also means, however, that each of us is the ‘first’ sinner."15 Sin itself is unfathomable. One might understand it psychologically up to the deed, but "the deed itself is . . . psychologically inexplicable."16

Building upon the idea that sin affects the species, Bonhoeffer proceeds to speak of collective persons. Israel is an example of God’s relation to the collective group. "It was the people, and not the individuals, who had sinned."17 A community — the collective person — stands before God and is dealt with as a whole regardless of what certain individuals may or may not do. The old race in Adam is a collective person in contrast to the new collective person, "Christ existing as the church."18 Yet a collective person is subject to fragmentation.


The heart of the book comes in a long chapter (118 pages) entitled "Sanctorum Communio." In setting forth basic principles, Bonhoeffer declares that "the Christian concept of the church is reached only by way of the concept of revelation."19 He rejects as untenable the explanation that a concept of "the Holy" leads to community.20 Accepting the revelatory nature of the church, he briefly sketches the New Testament view of the church. The significance of this lies in the conviction that equates the two statements "to be in Christ" and "to be in the church."21 This equation means that "Christ is really present only in the church."22 Bonhoeffer does not mean that a second incarnation takes place but that "we must think of a revelatory form in which ‘Christ exists as the church’."23 The church so understood brings together many persons, is a community, and has unity, although it is not without conflict of wills.

Regardless of sin and man’s alienation in the primal state, God’s purpose for man is in the church.24 The isolation of man from man and from God is nullified in the life and death of Christ. Repentance becomes the avenue of entry into the new community and the exit out of the community of Adam. The new community is unlike other communities in that the Holy Spirit lives in it.

There are other implications of the central theme: the church is Christ and Christ is the church. Christ in the church is related to the Word through which the Spirit speaks. Christ is in the Word and the Word is directed to "a plurality of hearers."25 The Spirit is active in three sociological relationships: the individual spirit of man, the spiritual community, and spiritual oneness. The Spirit makes a claim on the individual in his loneliness, to bring him to Christ. In trusting Christ, men are made members of the divine community. Being a new creation, they come to know the meaning of agape. Love seeking a response means communion with God and man. Loving communion also means self-surrender to the "Thou" before man — either God or man.

The acts of love for man in community with Christ are:

(1) self-renunciation — to work for others by giving up personal claims to happiness; (2) intercessory prayer; and (3) "the mutual granting of forgiveness of sins in God’s name."26

Bonhoeffer’s comments on intercessory prayer follow the inspiration of Luther and need serious reconsideration in modern times. More controversial is the matter of mutual granting of forgiveness. This leads most naturally to Bonhoeffer’s proposal that a Protestant confession be reinstituted, but only if proper instruction is given concerning its meaning.

Bonhoeffer’s treatment of spiritual oneness anticipates a theology for the ecumenical movement. Spiritual, unity is willed by God and is not the result of a concord or agreement between men. Unity is misunderstood. The unity of the New Testament is not "one theology and one rite, one opinion upon all things both public and private, and one mode of conduct in life," but rather "one body and one Spirit, one

Lord, one faith, one baptism. . ."27 Oneness and unity are different. Oneness suggests conformity; unity exhibits the possibility of diversity in the Spirit. This unity is invisible, but it must be believed.28 On the ecumenical movement, Bonhoeffer declares that "unification from below is not the same as unity from above." The first may never be achieved, but the second is real. Spiritual unity is related to equality. There is equality before God, but neither in the church nor in any community are men identical.

He devotes considerable space to the empirical form of the church. The church is simultaneously the community of the holy as well as a community of sinners. The church is not to be identified with the kingdom of God; rather, it is the kingdom of Christ and does not include Old Testament believers. He rejects the "gathered-church" concept for the Lutheran Volkskirche or national-church concept.29 The universal church embraces "all individual churches."30

The church has certain functions, primarily worshiping. There is need of a ministry to a congregation, for preaching is divinely ordained. The function, not the person, is ordained to the congregation. For a Christian to be unattached to a congregation is "unthinkable" as a reality.31 The church also comes together for the sacraments. Bonhoeffer follows a Lutheran position on infant baptism, in which faith is located by proxy in the congregation rather than the infant. Because Bonhoeffer takes the church seriously as life in Christ, he looks critically at the pietistic movements designated as "the church within the church."32 Movements on this order lead to factions and peril.

His treatment shows deep respect for the church, and he argues that it has authority because it rests upon the Word.33 This may produce a threat to the freedom of the conscience, but obedience is due to the church, and it occasionally may need to demand the sacrifice of the intellect. Rebellion against the church by the individual member is a serious matter for God alone to decide; "the only valid motive . . . would be a perfect obedience rooted in the closest attachment to the church and to the Word in it.34

Toward the end of this work, Bonhoeffer discusses the church as an independent sociological type. It is not an association which can be banded and disbanded by agreement. It is not an institution, in the sense held by Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, where grace and gifts are dispensed to the dues-paying members. Even the term community is not fully adequate, for although it has affinities to the community, the church is one of a kind.35 The uniqueness of the community is found in its divine institution rather than in pure doctrine.36

Growing, out of his rejection of "the purity" of doctrine as a norm for the church, Bonhoeffer admits that the state or "national" church and the "gathered" church belong together. The national church stands in peril if it is not reaching out. In a brief section on the church and the proletariat, he discusses the inwardness of the national church. The’ church cannot be satisfied with a middle-class norm but must reach the working man in his language and culture. The future church will change from its bourgeois form to what? Bonhoeffer did not profess to know, but he was sure it would change.37

The last word on the church is an eschatological38 one. The church will be redeemed collectively and individually. On how the collective feature will take place Bonhoeffer admits ignorance, but yet affirms its truth. The future community of God will involve the resurrection of the body, "a new corporality for the godless as well."39 Intrigued by the possibility of universal salvation for all mankind, he yet rejects it as a part of his system. The end of the story of the church is its incorporation into "the kingdom of God in all the world."40

By way of a brief assessment, the following may be offered. First, sociologists will fail to see an empirical treatment of the church, but instead will find a highly abstract theological approach to it. Second, to the "free" church tradition it will appear that Bonhoeffer saw the church more from the Lutheran national-church pattern rather than taking seriously the New Testament forms. The national-church form seeks to justify some practices that seem contrary to certain concepts of Christian faith. For instance, faith appears incompatible with infant baptism, and the national church appears contrary to personal commitment and choice. Bonhoeffer follows the attitude of Luther concerning the so-called "radicals" who advocated a gathered church, and adult or believers’ baptism based upon personal commitment in faith.

At the same time, it must be said that this work is a significant study in the nature of the church because the position is maintained that the church is not just another organization, it is the Body of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s treatment of this question is relevant today, since the church is puzzling over its own nature, its role, its renewal. Does the church have political, economic, and other social responsibilities? For Bonhoeffer, the church is unique. If it will not be the church, the Body of Christ, its existence cannot be defended. This truth must be maintained as well as regained where it has been lost.



1. The Communion of Saints, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith, et al. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

2. Following the example of Martin E. Marty, ed., in The Place of Bonhoeffer (New York: Association Press, 1962).

3. Peter Berger is quick to point out that Bonhoeffer’s definition declares itself for an empirical approach, but the argument is carried forth on an abstract, not an empirical approach to sociology. Cf. The Place of Bonhoeffer, p. 59.

4. The Communion of Saints, p. 23.

5. Ibid., p. 24.

6. Ibid., p. 31.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 36.

10. Ibid., p. 49.

11. Sociologically, the problem of an empirical collective being is untenable.

12. Communion of Saints, p. 59.

13. Ibid., p. 57.

14. Ibid., p. 78.

15. Ibid., p. 79.

16. Ibid., p. 81.

17. Ibid., p. 83.

18. Ibid., p. 85.19. Ibid., p. 97. 20. The view of Max Scheler in Wertethik.

21. Communion of Saints, p. 100.

22. Ibid. Bonhoeffer’s theory that two different concepts of the church exist in the New Testament, a Jerusalem version which is the basis of Roman Catholicism, and a Gentile, Pauline view serving as foundation for Lutheranism, will undoubtedly disturb those of the free church tradition who would not acknowledge this to be true.

23. The Communion of Saints, p. 101.

24. Ibid., p. 103.

25. Ibid., p. 115.

26. Ibid., p. 130.

27. Ibid., p. 137.

28. Ibid., p. 139.

29. Ibid., p. 151.

30. Ibid., p. 154. The "gathered-church" is one stressing voluntary commitment, while the Volkskirche is one that involves membership by infant baptism.

31. The Communion of Saints, p. 156.

32. Ibid., p. 169.

33. Ibid., p. 173.

34. Ibid., p. 175.

35. Ibid., p. 185,

36. Bonhoeffer says that "pure" doctrine is not a condition for the existence of the congregation of the saints (Isa. 55:11 says nothing of this), p. 187. This verse is often quoted by Bonhoeffer, and it strange that in this context an Old Testament verse should be used to delineate what the church should or should not be, especially since he emphasizes the kingdom of Christ as opposed to the kingdom of God.

37. The Communion of Saints, p. 193.

38. Eschatology is the doctrine of the end of the age, or the consummation of all things. It has a broad meaning describing the beginning of life in Christ now, but here it concerns the church’s future at. Christ’s return.

39. The Communion of Saints, p. 200.

40. Ibid., p. 204.