Bonhoeffer on What it Means “To Believe in the Church”

I taught an intensive intercession course on the “Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” during the first week of January this year.  While the students were responsible for completing some reading prior to our week together in class—including Christianne Tietz’s excellent, new short biography, Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—most of the major engagement with the primary sources in the Bonhoeffer corpus has been taking place over the past few weeks following the conclusion of our time together in class.  In recent days, the students would have encountered this remarkable passage from Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation in which he addresses the question of what is means “to believe in the church.”  The passage is noteworthy not only because it was penned by a theology student who was a mere twenty-one years old at the time, but also because it anticipates in many ways the central themes of Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology that will come to the fore throughout his life.

“But then what does it mean ‘to believe in the church’? We do not believe in an invisible church, nor in the Realm of God within the church as coetus electorum [company of the elect]. Instead we believe that God has made the concrete, empirical church [Kirche] in which the word is preached and the sacraments are celebrated to be God’s own church–community [Gemeinde]. We believe that it is the body of Christ, Christ’s presence in the world, and that according to the promise God’s Spirit is at work in it. We have faith that God is also at work in the others. We do not believe in the call of individuals, but rather in that of the church–community. We believe in the church as the church of God, as the community of saints, those who are sanctified by God. We believe, however, that this takes place always within the historical framework of the empirical church. Thus we believe the means of grace to be effective within the empirical church and hence have faith in the holy church–community created by these means of grace. We believe in the church as una [one], since it is ‘Christ existing as church–community’, and Christ is the one Lord over those who are all one in him; as sancta [holy], since the Holy Spirit is at work in it; as catholica [catholic], since as God’s church its call is to the entire world, and wherever in the world God’s word is preached, there is the church. We believe in the church not as an ideal that is unattainable or yet to be fulfilled, but as a present reality. Christian thinking, in contrast to all idealist theories of community, considers Christian community to be God’s church–community at every moment in history. And yet within its historical development it never knows a state of fulfillment. It will remain impure as long as there is history, and yet in this concrete form it is nevertheless God’s church–community.”1

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 280-281.

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