Christ is the Church: a Review of Sanctorum Communio (1930/1998)

At the tender age of twenty-one, Dietrich Bonhoeffer finished his doctoral work at the University of Berlin, where he completed his dissertation and first book, Sanctorum Communio: eine Dogmatische Untersuchung zur Soziologie der Kirche (Sanctorum Communio: a Dogmatic Study on the Sociology of the Church). The product of his studies up to that point, Sanctorum Communio proffers a view of the-church-as-revelation “from two, or even three, directions: theology, social philosophy, and sociology.”[1]

By refusing to entertain an inquiry or justification of the church “from below,”[2] Bonhoeffer seeks to preserve the nature of the church as a revelatory community, given by God, and not as a purely human society or community, a distinction Bonhoeffer makes quite forcefully.[3] For Bonhoeffer, to “take the claim of the church seriously” is to view the church “from the standpoint of the gospel” and to refuse to subject its nature to the judgement of one’s conceptions and suppositions.[4] In a manner qualitatively similar to the church’s declaration of Christ’s nature as the God-man, Christians assert that the church exists by way of revelation of God—and this assertion (and its referent) “must either be believed or denied.”[5] He further rejects wholesale any attempt to ground the nature of the church in any kind of deductive argument, whether from “a general concept of religions” or “from a concept of the ‘holy.’”[6] As he states it, the church can never be argued for or against but only recognized, because “in doctrinal theology necessity can be deduced only from reality. This follows from the concept of revelation.”[7] The existence of the church demonstrates its necessity, as it were.

For Bonhoeffer, rather, the church exists where the sacraments are practiced, because there Christ is present. That is to say, the presence of Christ constitutes the church. Green aptly summarizes Bonhoeffer in his introduction when he writes,

It is not a church organization that defines Christ, but Christ who defines the Church. In other words, it is precisely where, and only where, ‘Christ-exists-as-Gemeinde [local community]’ that we find the ‘church’ (Kirche). … Only Christ present in communal word and sacrament, that is, the Gemeinde Christi, constitutes the church.[8]

Bonhoeffer offers a curious construction of how it is that Christ is present through the various sacraments. He imagines that the sacraments speak to distinct, though concentric, circles of Christian community. He writes,

Whereas baptism signifies the will of the church-community in its most comprehensive form to spread God’s rule, which for us implies the fact of a church-of-the-people, the church addressed by preaching consists of those who are personally faced with the decision whether to accept or reject God’s gift, and is thus both a church-of-the-people and a voluntary church. In the Lord’s Supper the church-community manifests itself purely as voluntary and as a community confessing its faith, and is summoned and recognized by God as such. It is not a manifestation of the pure sanctorum communion, however; rather it is the smallest of the three concentric, sociologically distinct church-community springs, and the focal point into which all its life flows. This duality is what constitutes its vitality, which is the vitality of the church, in that it is simultaneously the aim and the instrument of God’s work.[9]

The consistent sacramental baptizing, preaching, and supping seem to be as institutional as Bonhoeffer will permit the church.

Because Christ fundamentally grounds the church in his presence, its members correlate by virtue of their union with Christ. For Bonhoeffer, “This being-with-each-other of the church community and its members through Christ already entails their being-for-each-other.”[10] Being-for-each-other means that members of the Christian community act as Christ and “become a Christ” to others.[11] Actualizing this posture falls under three broad headings,[12] and, while actualization is important, “every genuine act of love” intends “a purely vicarious action,” which mirrors the self-renouncing work of Christ for our sake.[13] In this manner, being-for-each-other and imaging Christ complements Christ-in-the-sacraments, and together they constitute the Christ-as-Gemeinde referenced above.

This ecclesiological construction suggests two things at the front. First, a local church that neglects the consistent practice of baptizing, preaching, and sacramental supping denies Christ to its members. Each of these elements must be held in high esteem, practiced regularly, and done for the good of the church. In light of this, a flippant or irreverent treatment of any of these elements is beyond the pale for Christian worship. Concerning preaching, in particular, it will not do simply to say that a church that reads from Scripture and pontificates thereupon has actually “preached.” One of the more important lessons from my seminary experience is the art of expositional, exegetical preaching. Preaching must be directed, corralled, and corrected by Scripture—and the task must be taken with appropriate gravitas. Bonhoeffer poignantly writes, “The church-community is created only through the word and sustained by it. … The word, to be specific, is present in the church-community as the word of scripture and of preaching—essentially as the latter.”[14]

Bonhoeffer’s construction also suggests that a church-community unmarked by an overwhelming posture of being-for-each-other also denies Christ to its members. This notion is a bit more difficult to swallow for most evangelicals, because evangelicalism has largely embraced the American ethos of individualism. People enter as individuals and remain in the community through voluntary association. Nevertheless, one of the clear markers of Christian ethics in the New Testament is a deep and abiding concern for your brother and sister on the basis of their being your brother and sister through your shared union with Christ.[15] The local church that does not have the regular practice of caring for its members has lost sight of the essentially familial structure of the church, for which Bonhoeffer lays an adequate foundation in his discussion of the difference between society and community.[16]

The Christian’s premier ethical concern is not for the world as such but for the church, because the church is the family, and then for the world because the world is the church-yet-to-be-pardoned.[17] In this sense, evangelism and social justice (broadly conceived) are acts of love geared towards “restoration and consummation of the created sociality of all humanity.”[18] Nevertheless, those external acts are secondary for the church at-large to the internal acts of love and Christ-imaging. This is especially the case where no other bond exists among church members other “than that of the community that exists within the church.”[19]

Bonhoeffer’s conception of the church as Christ’s presence—through sacrament and love—is not without tension, but it does provide a corrective to contemporary practices. The church belongs to Christ, but not as to an indifferent landlord. The church belongs to Christ because in every one of its acts, Christ is embodied and made manifest.


[1]Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio: a Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Translated by Joachim Von Soosten. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Volume 1. Edited by Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 33.

[2]As we would come to refer to the methodology a few decades later.

[3]E.g., “Communities are built on a shared will …, whereas societies are constructed through contracts” (89). As well, “If we describe the temporal intention of a community as reaching the boundary of time, that of a society would be timebound. Because of the eschatological character of the community, which it shares with history, the deepest significance of community is ‘from God to God.’ This is the basis for the ‘holiness’ of human community life, whether we think of physical communities of blood and clan, historical communities like a nation, or life-changing communities such as marriage and friendship. This holiness reveals the fundamental indissolubility of all these life structures. By contrast, the idea of a society never extends beyond the idea of its constitutive purpose. It remains timebound within history; for a society, the end of history is a real end, not a boundary. This explains why only a community, and never a society, can or should become ‘church’” (101).

[4]33.

[5]127.

[6]128.

[7]134.

[8]Green, Clifford J., “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” in Sanctorum Communio: 14 – 15.

[9]Bonhoeffer, 247.

[10]182.

[11]Ibid.

[12]“Self-renouncing, active work for the neighbor; intercessory prayer; and, finally, the mutual forgiveness of sins in God’s name” (184).

[13]Ibid.

[14]232.

[15]Cf. Ac. 4.32ff

[16]See n. 3 above.

[17]Green writes, “Bonhoeffer does not interpret the Christian community as a religious ghetto, but advances a thesis about human sociality per se. When Bonhoeffer writes in his Ethics that the Christian community is ‘a section of humanity in which Christ has really taken form,’ that is another way of stating the point already made in his first book, that ‘the church is God’s new will and purpose for humanity.’ Christ personifies the new humanity, and the Christian community is about the restoration and consummation of the created sociality of all humanity” (3).

[18]Ibid.

[19]281.

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One comment

  1. […] at all the case that Gemeinde necessarily broadens in such a manner. Gemeinde is the term that Bonhoeffer chooses for the local church. Part and parcel of belonging to a community that practices the sacraments in faith,[4] of […]

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