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One Realm of Christ-Reality: Bonhoeffer and Bulgakov

Bonhoeffer and Bulgakov offer two similarly Christological construals of the world as the tabernacle of God’s presence and action. What I find alluring about both of them is that they portray the way in which God’s action is “at home” in the world, bringing it to completion and perfection without positing some sort of “natural” divine seed in nature qua nature.

“There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself. The world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ. It is a denial of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to wish to be ‘Christian’ without being ‘worldly,’ or to which to be worldly without seeing and recognizing the world in Christ. Hence, there are not two realms, but only the one realm of the Christ-reality,  in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 58.

“The whole world is the Holy Grail, for it recived into itself and contains Christ’s precious blood and water [John 19:34]. The whole world is the chalice of Christ’s blood and water; the whole world partook of them in communion in the hour of Christ’s death. And the whole world hides the blood and water within itself. A drop of Christ’s blood dripped upon Adam’s head and redeemed Adam, but also all the blood and water of Christ that flowed forth into the world santified the world. This blood and water made the world a place of the presence of Christ’s power, prepared the world for its future transfiguration, for the meeting with Christ come in glory.”

– Sergius Bulgakov, The Holy Grail and the Eucharist (Hudson, NY: Lindsfarne, 1997), 44.

What do others think of these sorts of Christological construals of the world, revelation, and eschatology?


  1. Hill wrote:

    It seems to me that their point is that there is no such thing as nature qua nature. Do you think that is a fair characterization? I realize the spectre of natural theology may be lurking here.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I’d say so, but the point of distinction for both of them is that this is the case because of the Christological reality of cross and resurrection. For Bulgakov it is the water and blood from Christ’s side which sanctifies the world, abides in it, and makes it a fitting vessel for eschatological transfiguration. The Christ event alone is what actualizes this “supranatural state of nature” so to speak.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  3. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    And if there is “no such thing as nature qua nature” then “natural theology” as such cannot exist. In fact, in this perspective no human inquiry could be undertaken, especially not theology, without reference to Christ. Right?

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  4. Doug Harink wrote:


    I worry about the “one realm.” Is there a wish to establish worldly continuity and stability again, beyond the apocalyptic invasion and liberation in Christ? The “world” remains in rebellion against God, still crucifying the Lord of glory rather than showing him hospitality. So, the age to come is still…to come. To relax the conflict between the ages (perhaps more the tendency in Bonhoeffer than in Bulgakov) and to become more world-affirming is to render Christian hope somewhat bourgeois, it seems to me.

    On a more general note, thanks for the many excellent posts over the past few weeks. For me they almost invariably generate and feed my thinking on important themes.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I think the Bulgakovian view (and others) operate under a privative notion of sin so radical that it allows them to make these sorts of affirmations, even if they have something of an apophatic character. I ultimately don’t have a problem with this, because one is going to come up against the incomprehensibility of sin at some point, and it might as well be in this way. The truly strange thing is that it is very often these radical treatments of sin, in an ontological sense, that foster the growth highly sophisticated and attentive moral theologies (if you could call them theologies). Eastern monasticism comes to mind. I say that just as a qualification against the charge that this view “doesn’t take sin seriously.”

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Doug, I think a reading of Bonhoeffer as apocalyptic is close at hand. The “one realm” of “Christ-reality” that Bonhoeffer proclaims is precisely the whole of created reality apocalyptically constituted anew in Christ’s intrusion into the world (and only there). The “world” as you are using the term is what Bonhoeffer would talk about as anti-Christ, or in his specific denunciations of Hitler’s regime, “the tyrannical despiser of humanity.”

    I don’t see Bonhoeffer or Bulgakov searching for some sort of “worldly continuity and stability,” rather they are insisting that what invades “the world” is the transfiguring presence of Christ and the Spirit which creates the world anew, and in so both burns and purges, kills and resurrects, only thus bringing creation to its redemption, but insisting that that redemption leaves nothing out whatsoever. In other words, only in Christ’s apocalypse is a whole “world” truly actualized at all.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  7. Brian wrote:

    I don’t know much about Bulgakov, but Bonhoeffer does provide the resources for thinking about worldly continuity and stability in his notion of the penultimate, which is that which leads up to (and follows after) the eschatological (or perhaps apocalyptic) disruption that is the ultimate. Bonhoeffer characterizes the penultimate in terms of being human (Menschsein), being good (Gutsein), as well as a notion of the natural. This is not a pure nature in itself, because it takes sin into account as well as the coming radically transformative disruption of the ultimate.

    The penultimate is not a self-sufficient reality, because it is only revealed as penultimate in relation to the ultimate (as the very definition of “penultimate” implies). What Bonhoeffer argues is that we need to maintain the importance of the ultimate as well as the penultimate. An imbalance toward the penultimate tends toward compromise (e.g. liberal theology, bourgeois complacency, etc.) and an imbalance toward the ultimate tends toward radicalism.

    Bonhoeffer deals with these themes in “Ethics,” and it seems to me that this is a highly promising way of thinking through these issues of immanence and transcendence, being and event, continuity and rupture.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 4:53 am | Permalink

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