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Bonhoeffer and the body of Christ

Too often we tend to talk about the church as the body of Christ in a way that occludes the distinctly Christological and soteriological importance of this biblical image. The way the image tends to function in much theological discourse is to append Christ to the church in such a way as to bolster the church’s own institutional self-confidence and certainty. It simply functions to assure us that the church is in continuity with Christ and is therefore in the right.

But as Bonhoeffer points out beautifully in Ethics, the body of Christ language in Scripture serves first and foremost to point us to Christ and his act for the salvation of all humanity in the cross and resurrection:

Above all we must turn our eyes to the image of Jesus Christ’s own body — the one who became human, was crucified, and is risen. In the body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humankind, all humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled to God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took on the sin of all the world and bore it. There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God. Whoever perceives the body of Jesus Christ in faith can no longer speak of the world as if it were lost, as if it were separated from God; they can no longer separate themselves in clerical pride from the world. The world belongs to Christ, and only in Christ is the world what it is. It needs, therefore, nothing less than Christ himself. Everything would be spoiled if we were to reserve Christ for the church while granting the world only some law, Christian though it may be. Christ died for the world, and Christ is Christ only in the midst of the world. It is nothing but unbelief to give the world — for well intentioned pedagogical reasons to be sure, which nonetheless leave an aftertaste of clericalism — less than Christ. It means not taking seriously the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the bodily resurrection. It means denying the body of Christ. (pp. 66-67)

Bonhoeffer goes show how understanding the church as the body of Christ means not that “the church-community is first and foremost set apart from the world. On the contrary, in line with the New Testament statements about God becoming flesh in Christ, it expresses just this — that in the body of Christ all humanity is accepted, included, and borne, and the the church-community of believers is to make this know to the world by word and life” (p. 67).

Thus the church is understood as the body of Christ first and foremost in terms of soteriology and Christology. In Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection God has taken on the flesh of all humanity (or rather all people participate in Christ’s own distinct humanity) and the church is the proleptic sign and sacrament of this reality. Thus, the church as the body of Christ is neither a metaphor or something to be explained in mystical terms. Rather it is a Christological reality. The church is the body of Christ in that it is the sign and sacrament of the event of Christ in which all human flesh, indeed the whole world is united and transfigured in the love of the triune God.


  1. Dom wrote:

    If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that the whole world is in Christ, and the church is the community who recognizes this and proclaims it. Who are the “people of God” in this framework? The church or the world? Furthermore, is there any relationship between faith and being “in Christ”?

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  2. Myles wrote:

    Dom, as I understand Bonhoeffer, “in Christ” precedes faith, such that the world is Christ’s world, and there is no “outside” Christ. Only in that configuration can we speak of judgment, in that the world and church are already under reconciliation, but reject it.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Dom, the “people of God” are those who are called out, by grace through faith to bear witness to the reconciliation of the world in Christ. Here I (and Bonhoeffer, I think) am saying fundamentally the same thing that Paul says in 2 Cor 5:14-19.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  4. kim fabricius wrote:

    First, how happy I am to see Halden Redivivus. Then, on thread:

    Bonhoeffer never identifies the church with Christ; there is no Christological subsidence in the temple of God. He says that the church is “Christ existing as community”, but Christ remains the Lord of the church, which, in a Lutheran key, is creatura verbi divini and communio simul sanctorum et peccatorum.

    Nor does Bonhoeffer erase the distinction between the church and the world. In his earlier writings the distinction is accentuated, but even in his later writings, when he rejects what he calls “two-spheres” thinking, the distinction is never erased, rather it becomes more nuanced in the wake of the shifting historical context and Bonhoeffer’s experiences in the resistance. In the prison writings, the church becomes not so much more this-worldly – Bonhoeffer recognises a vapid and corrupt this-worldliness and, further, he begins a sketch of the disciplina arcani – but rather more in-the-this-worldly and for-the-this-worldly.

    In short, for Bonhoeffer Christ is not collapsed into the church, and the church is not collapsed into the world, but Christ is “the man for others” and “the church is the church only when it exists for others.”

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  5. CCW wrote:

    Hi Halden, great to see you back at work!
    Good stuff thus far, both on this post and the other two preceeding.

    I haven’t been able to move away from the question of supercessionism over the summer so please forgive me if this sounds redundant, but I am wondering about Israel in this construal. I should also say I’m just trying to think out loud here as well.

    It seems to me that the body of Jesus, the real Jewish flesh of Jesus, brings forward a definite connection between the church and Israel in the economy of God’s salvation especially as it pertains to ongoing history. I see this as a point of contact with the Bonhoeffer passage. That being said, I guess what I’m wondering is whether or not the term “people of God” ought not, or even can, be further expanded to include Israel [I can here the imperialist assumptions in this even as I write this--as if the church were allowed to 'include' Israel!; the reality is more properly reversed, or better still, both are included by grace], such that the people of God are those who witness to the victory of God, both in trust and in longing. This is obviously a generic definition, and one that as a Christian I have probably over-determined Christologically, but I do think the ongoing existence of Israel could bear such a description. The question is whether it would want to or not.

    On the one hand this seems appropriate to me. It allows for the ongoing connection between the church and Israel that comes much closer to the pauline conviction that God will never abandon God’s beloved. I also wonder if the solution to the question of the “world’s” vacuity might not lie in this direction. “As Israel goes, so goes creation.” Can we understand Israel as the “world”? Probably not; in fact the rabbinic saying offerred above is probably the root of our thinking about church vs. non-church (i.e., Israel envelopes the world). But at the same time, there does seem to be something here, given that no matter how much we should see Israel and the church as related, as belonging to the same vine, nonetheless, they are different. Perhaps this distinction is the critical difference that’s needed to render one’s understanding of the “world” as more than an empty space?

    On the other hand, such a rendering problematizes Israel given the way that “world” functions in Scripture–I guess what would save this identification is the fact the “world” bears more than one meaning. The other thing that worries me is whether or not a Christologically defined description of the “people of God” can ever finally escape an element of supercessionism (ala, Boesel’s argument).

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  6. Nairbel wrote:

    Kim Fabricus,

    What is important, and what I think you are not understanding, is that from the Lutheran point of view, the crux verdana scriptorium is the focal point of Bonhoeffer’s theological discourse.

    In Bonhoeffer we see a genuine re-casting of the kerygma in a diffusive, yet eschatalogical, manner.

    The claim the Bonhoeffer rejects “two-spheres thinking” is partly founded on a misreading of a certain line in his book Communio en Ecclessia, unfortunately released only in Italian.

    You are correct in your last paragraph, however.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  7. kim fabricius wrote:

    By the Ethics, and certainly in his prison correspondence, Bonhoeffer explicity rejects what he calls “thinking in two spheres”, viz., the spheres of the sacred and the secular, while (as I say) he always maintains a distinction between the church and the world.

    Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 2:14 am | Permalink
  8. Rev. Dr. Paul O. Bischoff wrote:

    Kim….Please re-read Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, to correct your errant statement “Christ exists as community”…from the German “Christus als Gemeinde existierend” current scholarship translates as “Christ exists as church-community” to correct your other errancy stating that “Bonhoeffer never identifies the church with Christ.” In fact, Bonhoeffer always identifies Christ with Gemeinde, Luther’s preferred term for the church.

    Rev. Dr. Paul O. Bischoff

    Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

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