One of the recurring, and very significant criticisms of Protestant churches and theology involves the lacunae of an explicit and substantive ecclesiology. While there are of course some extremely significant ecclesiological resources within the heritage of the Reformation, particularly Luther’s ecclesiology and the ecclesiology of the Radical Reformers, much of this and any continuity with the strong ecclesiology of the Roman catholic church has been lost in contemporary Protestantism.
One shining example in 20th-century theology of taking the church with absolute seriousness is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio, his first doctoral dissertation — which was approved when he was at the tender age of 21, mind you. The book transitions nimbly between philosophy, sociology, and theology as it presents a vision of the church that is at once radically catholic and radically reformational and evangelical. Christians from any tradition will be challenged by the seriousness and power of Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology. For him, the church is “Christ existing as church-community.” The church itself is the very presence of Christ taking eschatological shape in the world through the Holy Spirit. However, this should not be understood to mean that the church can understand itself as simply being institutionally identical with Christ by virtue of what the church is in herself, or a natural prolongation of the incarnation. Rather, when Bonhoeffer claims that the church is Christ existing as community, he is claiming that the church is present only where Christ is indeed existing in the world as community. It is not a reassurance to the church that they are where Christ is, but rather a radical challenge to the church to radical self-questioning and prayerful ecclesial self-examination. Bonhoeffer calls into question any easy identification of ourselves and our churches with the fullness of Christ’s body by demanding that we refuse to tame our definition of the church or of Christ’s presence so as to legitimate our own ecclesial experience and practice. In this Bonhoeffer poses a distinctive challenge both to Roman catholics and to Protestants in regard to ecclesiology.
Unlike most Protestant ecclesial understandings, for Bonhoeffer the church “is not merely a means to an end but also an end in itself. It is the presence of Christ himself, and this is why ‘being in Christ’ and ‘being in the church-community’ is the same thing.” However, unlike much of the emphasis in Roman catholicism which binds Christ’s presence in the church almost exclusively to the church’s office –at least for all practical purposes– for Bonhoeffer it is axiomatic that the presence of Christ as the church through the Holy Spirit takes place through the whole communion of saints as the people of God, all of whom mutually constitute one another, each person being irreducible and indispensable to the other. Ultimately Bonhoeffer concludes that the sanctorum communio is present both in the churches of the Reformation and in the Roman church. He takes the most difficult path, that of calling the dominant self-understandings of both Protestants and Roman catholics into question on the basis of the word of God. And that is what we both always need.
In my view, Bonhoeffer’s work represents the most substantive ecclesiology to ever be written by a Protestant theologian. As such, re-engaging with Bonhoeffer’s thought will become more and more central to Protestant Christians who care about ecclesiology and ecumenism. And similarly his contribution should be widely read by Roman catholics. If Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology were taken seriously by various folks in the ecumenical landscape, I believe far more common ground could be found than is often the case in cross-confessional debates about ecclesiology. Regardless of what one think of Bonhoeffer’s proposals ultimately, there is no denying that this is some of the most brilliant work on ecclesiology to be done in modern times. Ignoring it is not an option.