Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church

Try as I might, I simply cannot believe that a young man in his twenties could write such a mind-boggling, thought-provoking, and insightful masterpiece as Sanctorum Communio.  I feel that I will never think of “church” in quite the same way again.  In fact, I feel like I’ve just been given a view of a mountain that I know I must go back and climb again, but the overall sensation of its height is so startling that I’m not quite sure how to begin.  (Maybe, in a weird way, a kind of awed despair is the mark of all truly great books?)  They say that Barth’s commentary on Romans fell on the playground of the liberal theologians like an atom bomb.  Well, Sanctorum Communio has fallen into the playground of this Baptist pastor in just the same way.

Originally published in 1930, three years after it initially appeared as Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation (and 15 years before Bonhoeffer would be put to death), Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church represents a staggering achievement.  Karl Barth would later say of this work, “I openly confess that I have misgivings whether I can even maintain the high level reached by Bonhoeffer, saying no less in my own words and context, and saying it no less forcefully, than did this young man so many years ago” (2).  He would also call this book “a miracle.”

It is steeped in sociological categories that many readers might find offputting.  I do not claim to have followed some of the more technical aspects of the social philosophy sections, but struggling through these parts is reward enough in and of itself to warrant the effort.  Even so, I daresay that the work is accessible enough to anybody who cares deeply about the church.  I found it to be so anyway.  (In a strange way this book reminds of Moby Dick.  I had to sludge through some of the sailing history and terminology that was, frankly, foreign to me.  But the story, and, on hindsight, the foundation that the denser parts of that book lend to the story, was overwhelming.)

I had certain disagreements with Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology.  His approach to church discipline is, in my opinion, hopelessly muddled and amazingly oversimplified.  But I do recall seeing a more biblical handling of it in his Finkenwalde guide, Life Together, so I want to reserve passing too harsh a judgment on him in this regard.  Furthermore, I (obviously) have reservations about his handling of infant baptism.  I thought it was pretty par-for-the-course as far as such arguments go.  There was nothing terribly new about it.  But, in truth, I remain, to date, firmly unconvinced, though a bit more appreciative than I would have been ten years ago.

Bonhoeffer begins by describing the fundamental sociality of existence.  He does this by showing the necessity for one person to acknowledge the other as a genuine person.  Only when this happens can we speak of the “individual” existing:

“When the concrete ethical barrier of the other person is acknowledged or, alternatively, when the person is compelled to acknowledge it, we have made a fundamental step that allows us to grasp the social ontic ethical basic-relations of persons…Thus, the individual exists only in relation to an ‘other’; individual does not mean solitary.  On the contrary, for the individual to exist, ‘others’ must necessarily be there” (50-51).

But this understanding of “I” and “You” (which Bonhoeffer calls “the social basic category…the I-You-relation) is itself a work of God.

“God or the Holy Spirit joins the concrete You; only through God’s active working does the other become a You to me from whom my I arises.  In other words, every human You is an image of the divine You” (54-55)

What strikes me about Bonhoeffer’s argument is how it aims a blow directly at the fragmented, isolationist understanding of the person that has overwhelmed not only our basic relational assumptions but also, in evangelicalism, our ecclesiology.  We have become a people of the lone individual, or so we like to think.  But relationality is fundamentally necessary and also God-enabled.  In a footnote, Bonhoeffer praises his doctoral supervisor (or whatever he was called at the time), Dr. Reinhold Seeberg, for presenting “the idea of sociality as an inherent component of original human nature.  He thereby brought back into theology an important doctrine without which the ideas of original sin and especially the church could not be fully understood” (64).

I do not know about the truthfulness of this statement from a historical-theological perspective (whether or not it was Seeberg who brought this understanding back), but I do believe that the sentiment is true.  In fact, I believe that our rejection of this sentiment (whether explicitly or implicitly) has led to the weakening of the church in profound and tragic ways.

Bonhoeffer goes even further in this direction:

“It is our view that there would be no self-consciousness without community – or better, that self-consciousness arises concurrently with the consciousness of existing in community.  Second, we assert that will is by its nature oriented toward other wills” (70).

Yes, but does this destroy the reality of the individual?  To be sure, we are individuals-run-amuck, but can we not speak of “the individual”?  Bonhoeffer’s answer is telling and, I believe, quite profound:

“The universal person of God does not think of people as isolated individual beings, but in a natural state of communication with other human beings.  Furthermore, in relations with others, I do not merely satisfy one side of my structurally closed being as spirit; rather, only here do I discover my reality, i.e., my I-ness.  God created man and woman directed to one another.  God does not desire a history of individual human beings, but the history of the human community.  However, God does not want a community that absorbs the individual into itself, but a community of human beings.  In God’s eyes, community and individual exist in the same moment and rest in one another.  The collective unit and the individual unit have the same structure in God’s eyes.  On these basic-relations rest the concepts of the religious community and the church” (80).

Bonhoeffer also points to the potential benefits of conflict in communities:  “Genuine life arises only in the conflict of wills; strength unfolds only in strife.  This is an old insight” (85).  This is a welcome word for those who wrongly think that all conflict is inherently bad or injurious to the body of Christ.

He then moves to the issue of sin and human culpability.  He argues for an individual and corporate understanding of sin, whereby, in a very real sense, my sins represent the sins of the whole world.  This opens up the very real possibility for corporate repentance.

When Bonhoeffer moves into a more specific discussion of the church, he sees these sociological realities as reaching their apex in the body of Christ:  “There is in fact only one religion in which the idea of community is an integral element of its nature, and that is Christianity” (130-131).  Furthermore, Christ is present in the church:  “The church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God” (138).  And He is poignantly present because of “the paradoxical reality of a community-of-the-cross, which contains within itself the contradiction of simultaneously representing utmost solitude and closest community.  And this is the specifically Christian church-community” (151).

Here is one of the great strengths of Sanctorum Communio:  it’s argument that the church is an inherently necessary definitional reality.  How badly do Southern Baptists, among others, need to return to this kind of understanding of the church?  The church is not a voluntary association of separated, isolated, “saved” individuals.  The church is the necessary definition and identity of the community of the cross which is comprised of all of those who are in Christ.

Bonhoeffer goes on to some very helpful discussions of forgiveness of sin, the Lord’s Supper, the need for confession, and the interchange of wills within the body of Christ.  I found all of this illuminating, even when I disagreed.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the book in this review, but I do hope it has given a picture of the kind of thinking and wisdom you’ll find in Sanctorum Communio.  This book is a masterpiece and a treasure.  Every pastor should read this and drink long and deep from this well.

2 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church

  1. Thank You for this review. I am reading Eric Mataxes “Bonhoeffer” and the Sanctorum Communio greatly interests me.
    It sounds like it the understanding in it is some of what our current No. American church needs for revival.

    • Thank you for the comment Ronald. Sanctorum Communio is a very important book! I need to reread it actually. Barth called that book a miracle.

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