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Sanctorum Communio: The Best Protestant Ecclesiology Ever Written

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.


  1. Hill wrote:

    One day I’ll learn how to do the fancy html block quoting. Until then, I’m responding in reference to the following passage:

    “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.”

    A casual perusal of the sections of the CCC and other material on basic Catholic teachings on the church reveal that your characterization above is at best a vast overemphasis of certain aspects of Catholic teach and omission of certain others to serve your point, especially the part about Catholic doctrine binding “Christ’s presence in the church almost exclusively to the church’s office.” I’m not sure where you got this unless you’ve been reading a lot of Chick tracts. It simply doesn’t suffice to demarcate “the dominant self-understanding” of Catholics in such a facile way, especially when what you ascribe to that self-understanding is clearly different than the rather plainly set forth teaching in the Catechism (among other places, of course). This isn’t to say there aren’t aspects of Catholic ecclesiological teaching to which Protestants might still object, but you’ve bent the Catholic position in to something actually rather alien to it in the service of this hermeneutic of the “middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism, something of which I understand the appeal, but in the end is ultimately unconvincing. The attempt to place Bonhoeffer somewhere bisecting the trajectories of modern magisterial Protestantism and modern Roman Catholicism requires a fair bit of rhetorical gymnastics (as I’ve pointed out above). My experience has been that orthodox Catholics find Bonhoeffer quite amenable to their general theological world view and that he sits much more uncomfortably with Protestants. Of course, I’m speaking metaphorically here, as I’m sure you’ll agree with me that being “comfortable” with Bonhoeffer is to be “uncomfortable.”

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Hill, here I was mostly trying to articulate the way in which Bonhoeffer himself distinguished his position from Roman catholicism in the book in question. Certainly that was pre-Vatican II, so I don’t know that he would say the exact same thing today.

    I of course realize that there is plenty of Catholic teaching to countermand the point about Christ’s presence in the church being solely confined to the church’s office. Though of course I did not say solely, but merely “almost exclusively.” However, I think the point is still relevant, especially at the level of practice. For Bonhoeffer, you need the Pope in an onto-ecclesial sense, but he needs you just as much. I don’t think a catholic can say that in the same way. There is something that is ontologically special about the church’s office and the clergy-laity distinction that is central to their ecclesiology, particularly in regard to the mediation of Christic grace. This isn’t to say that the congregation is irrelevant to Roman catholic ecclesiology, I didn’t mean to imply that. But, the way Bonhoeffer puts the matter is quite different, and indeed, quite congregationalist in orientation.

    As such, for whatever gymnastics I may be doing here, I don’t think I have to stretch out too much to stick my landing!

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I see more clearly where you are going, but I don’t think that what you have characterized is necessarily the full teaching of the Church, it just tends to be what has been emphasized, given that it’s de-emphasis has been that to which the church had needed to respond. I think that is more the vagaries of history than anything else. I still think the true teaching of the Church, apart from this or that specific polemical context, more or less encompasses the good things you are bringing up. I think in general, and this is really a large, complex issue, there is a modern tendency to divide “polities,” if you will, in to one of two extreme categories, either an utterly egalitarian non-hierarchical type or an autocratic, rigidly hierarchical type. In the realm of religious anthropology, of course the former corresponds to Protestantism and the latter Catholicism. The modern imagination, with all of the Enlightenment impugning of hierarchy of any sort, lacks the ability to conceive of the more complex arrangements that more accurately describe a truly orthodox and truly theological account of all of these dichotomies, whether it be Christ and the Church, clerical and lay, etc. What I’m suggesting is that too often the ancient hierarchical forms of authority and mediation within the Church are too readily reduced in the modern mind to purely unidirectional and pyramidal modes, because frankly, this is the only kind of hierarchy we understand, and we understand it to be uniformly bad. Milbank has actually done interesting (if somewhat obscure) work here, with his notions of “complex gothic space” “tangled hierarchies” etc. In general, I’m responding out of a desire to problematize the typical understanding of ecclesial hierarchy and the relationship of that hierarchy to the “mediation” of grace (a highly problematic way to put it). Let me just say in short that I think there are foundational conceptual problems with much of the common Protestant criticisms, even the careful and considered ones, of Roman catholic hierarchy.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  4. hilaron wrote:

    As a dilettant in theological and ecclesiological matters, I would still like to add that some short notes on what I have appropriated regarding the self-understanding of the Catholic Church.

    The problem seems to be that hierarchy, as Hill puts it, is seen as unidirectional, authoritarian and so forth in congregationalist perceptions of the holy communion. It is easy to slide into both the Pelagian and Docetic heresy, either by placing the Church merely in those who are fullfilling the commandments of Christ or to deny the bodily, visible, communion of the Church. Not that it is necessary, especially from the perspective of Bonhoeffer which is, as you say, the best protestant ecclesiology around.

    Holy order, the proper meaning of hierarchy, means exactly performing the function which God puts us in. Saint Peter was the leader of the Apostles, but it was God’s Mother that followed our Lord every step of the way. In an analogical manner we could see Saint Peter as the archetype of episcopacy, magisterial teaching and – of course – papacy and Holy Mary as the archetype of the sanctified life. This is also what I have appropriated from my education in the Catholic Faith. The summom bonum of the Church must of course be to become transparent for the grace of God (holy), but it must also fulfill the task of being one, catholic and apostolic, without which it can not indeed become holy.

    For instance, the oneness of the Church is not merely oneness in holiness, but a true bodily oneness, it is inconceivable to think of the body as functioning with its limbs sprayed out over the tarmac after a severe car crash. Why would it be any different for the Church, the Body of Christ?

    In this manner I think Bonhoeffer, as portrayed by you, has too much Lutheran baggage. The right preaching of the Word of God, the proper use of the Sacraments, and transparence to God, is simply not the only constituent of the sacred community. This being said, I truly think that Bonhoeffer offers a great deal to both Catholics and Protestants, in matters of ecclesiology as well as soteriology. My own speculation is that this is badly needed in large parts of the Protestant community, but he is badly needed in Liberal parts of the Catholic Church as well.

    PS. Bonhoeffer is one of my favourite theologians and his Discipleship is one of the books which really changed my whole view of what it actually meant to be a Christian, beyond feel-good and cheap grace. DS.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    “I still think the true teaching of the Church, apart from this or that specific polemical context, more or less encompasses the good things you are bringing up.”

    Certainly. Much as I think that the specific polemical context of Protestantism I reference does not mitigate the fact that it also encompasses the good things that Bonhoeffer brings up. What I find unique in Bonhoeffer is his ability to sythesize without reducing and to criticize roundly while doing so in such a way that is profoundly Catholic and Evangelical in nature.

    Regardless of how we all may be able to evade his various criticisms at certain levels, what I am more interested in is how his constructive work can reshape us in areas that need reshaping. Because no matter whether your Catholic or Protestant, we all agree that the church in every age needs purification and constant self-examination.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Evan wrote:

    Great post! I’ve made a few comments on my own site. You’ve got me thinking about what other Protestant ecclesiologies, especially since Bonhoeffer, might sit alongside Sanctorum Communio. One that popped into my mind was John Webster’s “Word and Church”, but I think that on the whole there is a lack in the Protestant tradition, especially as it compares to Roman Catholic ecclesiology since Lumen Gentium. Anyone else have thoughts about laudable Protestant engagements with the doctrine of the Church?

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I just left a comment on your blog about that. I think Miroslav Volf’s After Our Likeness is quite excellent.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  8. JK wrote:

    Michael Horton brings up a counter view to Bonhoeffer’s statement that “the church is Christ existing as church-community. I’ll paste it and ask if you please to comment on which ways you prefer Bonhoefer’s viewpoint to the one Horton offers.

    “The resurrection and ascension of Jesus generate a remarkable paradox. Right at the place where the Suffering Servant has been exalted as conquering Lord, the first fruit of a new creation, and the head of a body, he disappears. Then, precisely in that place that is vacated by the one who has ascended, a church emerges.

    “The most direct ascension account comes from Luke (Luke 24:13-27; 24:50-53). Acts 1 reprises this episode in its opening verses (Ac 1:6-11). Thus the ascension (and parousia) became part of the gospel itself. Not only was Jesus crucified and raised according to the prophets, but the Messiah will be sent again. Jesus, says Peter, “must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Ac 3:20-21, emphasis added by MSH).

    “As they were taught by Jesus in the Olivet and Upper Room discourses and on the road to Emmaus (Matt. 24-25; John 14-16; Luke 24:13ff), the apostolic preaching in Acts follows the familiar pattern of descent-ascent-return, justifying the confession in the eucharistic liturgy, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Jesus’ departure is as real and decisive as his incarnation, and he “will come [again] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Ac 1:11)—that is, in the flesh. In the meantime, he is absent in the flesh.

    “One problem in the history of interpretation, however, has been to treat the ascension as little more than a dazzling exclamation point for the resurrection rather than as a new event in its own right. The ascension of Jesus in the flesh opens up an interim within history that keeps us looking forward to the return of the same Jesus. Nothing can replace Jesus in the flesh.

    “As the first fruits of the new creation, Jesus in his ascension does not abandon history but redefines all that has preceded it as the old age of sin and death, subjecting it to judgment. The history of human misery and pomp, autonomy and strife, which can only yield the fruit of condemnation, is now passing away. It’s becoming obsolete. Even now the “age to come” is reconfiguring reality around its glorified head. The time that the church thus occupies because of the ascension is defined neither by full presence nor full absence, but by a eucharistic tension between “this age” and “the age to come.” The church is lodged in that precarious place of ambiguity and tension between these two ages, and it must live there until Jesus returns, relying only on the Word and Spirit.

    “…Why this excursus on the ascension? Because there is so much dangerous talk these days about the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ, the active agent of redemption, who completes the work that Christ came to accomplish. In short, the church is substituted for Christ. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic followers of German idealism have made this move, and the trail leads all the way to Pope Benedict XVI, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, and the circle of brilliant writers known as Radical Orthodoxy.

    “Graham Ward, a representative of Radical Orthodoxy, has recently written, ‘We have no access to the body of the gendered Jew…It is pointless because the Church is now the body of Christ, so to understand the body of Jesus we can only examine what the Church is and what it has to say concerning the nature of that body as scripture attests it…As Gregory of Nyssa points out, in his thirteenth sermon on Song of Songs, ‘he who sees the Church looks directly at Christ.’”

    “I realize that most evangelicals bristle at such grandiose claims for the institutional church, much less the pope, but do we not regularly encounter the claim that Christians are called to save Western civilization, transform the culture, and build the kingdom of God as the extension of Christ’s redeeming mission in the world?

    “…In fact, “incarnational” is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness. Christ’s person and work easily becomes a “model” or “vision” for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness. We increasingly hear about “incarnational ministry,” as if Christ’s unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church, whether conceived in “high church” or “low church” terms, rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord. In its train, the sacramental cosmos returns. As Christ and his work is assimilated to the church and its work, similar conflations emerge between the gospel and culture; between the word of God and the experience of our particular group; and between the church’s commission and the transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.

    “It is this recurring temptation to look away from Christ’s absence—toward a false presence, often substituting itself as an extension of Christ’s incarnation and reconciling work—that distracts it from directing the world’s attention to Christ’s parousia in the future. Yet a church that does not acknowledge Christ’s absence is no longer focused on Christ; instead, it’s tempted to idolatrous substitutions in the attempt to seize Canaan prematurely.” — Michael Horton, Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex – 9Marks

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Evan wrote:

    If I may make a brief comment about Horton and Bonhoeffer, I think that the main challenge for ecclesiology here is to balance the equally biblical conceptions of the Church as body and bride of Christ. Insofar as we are the body of Christ I think that Bonhoeffer is warranted in what he says about Christ’s ecclesial existence, and insofar as we are His bride I think Horton has a point in separating us from the Christ who will come again. (it might also be worth noting that Horton wants to separate the ascension from the resurrection- and rightly so- but it is not at all clear that his use of the Eucharistic liturgy- Christ has died, is risen, will come again, makes the same separation… what does it refer to in saying that Jesus is risen? His resurrection? his ascension? Both?)

    I would not want to abandon the points that either theologian is making. I don’t think one makes the other illegitimate, rather I think it’s valuable to put each in place as a caution to the other.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 7:13 am | Permalink
  10. Dave Belcher wrote:


    It’s literally as easy as typing in the word “blockquote” in between the starting html brackets:

    and then at the end of the blockquote closing it out like you would an italic or a bold:

    Some comments boxes won’t let you do hyperlinks or blockquotes though…Halden’s should be set up to work ok.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  11. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Wow…I have no idea why it accepted code that was incorrect….

    Anyways you’ll use the carrots: to begin the quote (with the word “blockquote” between them — no quotation marks) and then make sure you close out the quote by doing exactly the same thing except with a forward slash before the word “blockquote.”

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 7:40 am | Permalink
  12. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Wow, still cut out the carrots…these things: will be to close

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 7:41 am | Permalink
  13. Dave Belcher wrote:

    I give up. < is the first the one that is opposite is this is the closing

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 7:42 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    JK, I agree with Evan’s point above. And I think that Bonhoeffer is not at odds with Horton on this point, they merely stress different sides of the dialectic of presence and absence. The RO crowd Horton is critiquing have little or nothing in common with Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology. Even in the text of Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer is careful to deny any easy identification of ourselves as the church with Christ’s presence. His strong statements about the church as the presence of Christ are radical statement about what the church is called to be, it is a challenge, not self-confirming assertion, as I noted above.

    Moreover, in Life Together Bonhoeffer is very clear on this point: “If they [Christian's] are asked ‘where is your salvation, your blessedness, your righteousness?,’ they can never point to themselves. Instead, they point to the Word of God in Jesus Christ that grants them salvation, blessedness, and righteousness. They watch for this Word wherever they can. Because they daily hunger and thirst for righteousness, they long for the redeeming Word again and again. It can only come from the outside. IN themselves they are destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing us redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

    There is no seamless identification of the church with Christ and salvation in Bonhoeffer, rather there is a dialectic of presence and absence in which the Word is embodied in the Church, seeks out the Church, and indwells the Church, while all the while remaining extra nos, transcending, critiquing, and reforming the Church.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  15. Nathan Smith wrote:


    The “code” HTML tag allows the display of HTML tags.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  16. Nathan Smith wrote:

    . . . but it is not allowed by the comment system. Well, Halden, you can feel free to delete both of these. :-)

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  17. JK wrote:

    thanks Halden, you clarified what I was wondering. For my part, I think a more complete perspective according to Scripture is given if the role that the Holy Spirit plays in representing/mediating the presence of Christ until his return is brought out more directly and in stronger terms. Simply saying that the church is the presence of Christ himself vis-a-vis the church community doesn’t quite complete the picture sufficiently, nor give the HS his due. In any case I don’t suppose you’d have any qualms about that point but I thought it should be mentioned.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  18. Matt Jenson wrote:

    Thanks for this, Halden, as I frantically scramble to pull together a suitable list for a course on ecclesiology. I’ve actually been considering using ‘Discipleship’ (and not ‘Sanctorum Communio’), but nothing’s in stone yet. This’ll cause me to rethink. A couple other pretty wonderful Protestant ecclesiologies. I continue to come back to Book IV of Calvin’s Institutes for its sensitive account of the sacraments. And Schleiermacher has much helpful insight in the long ecclesiological sections of The Christian Faith. I second the commendation of Webster, too, for his icy evangelical blast that ecclesiology really is about God first. And Cavanaugh on the RC side – not ‘the best’, but certainly a ‘must read’. Thanks for all the good writing, and for all the good provocation and resources with that.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  19. kim fabricius wrote:

    Yes, Halden, thank you very much. Perhaps you will find the following helpful; in nuce, it is the basic shape of Bonhoeffer’s theology as I understand it:

    Theology is inescapably Christology.
    Christology is inescapably ecclesiology (“The church is the presence of Christ himself”).
    Ecclesiology inescapably actualise itself in ethics(“Whoever sees Jesus Christ actually sees God and the world as one; he can no longer see God without the world nor the world without God”) – being-in-act, how Christ takes form in the world. Bonhoeffer despised “churchiness”; Nietzsche’s “be true to the earth” was a decisive influence in Bonhoeffer’s theology from start to finish.


    Monday, July 14, 2008 at 8:14 am | Permalink

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