Bonhoeffers Recovery of the Political Significance of the Visible Church

In an essay entitled "The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics," John Howard Yoder makes the striking observation that after the Constantinian shift the meaning of the word "Christian" changes. Prior to Constantine it took exceptional conviction to be a Christian. After Constantine it took exceptional courage not to be counted as a Christian. This development, according to Yoder, called forth a new doctrinal development, "namely the doctrine of the invisibility of the church." Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a church, but one had to have faith that God was governing history. After Constantine, people assumed as a fact that God was governing history through the emperor, but one had to take it on faith that within the nominally Christian mass there was a community of true believers. No longer could being a Christian be identified with church membership, since many "Christians" in the church clearly had not chosen to follow Christ. Now to be a Christian is transmuted to "inwardness" (Yoder 1984: 136-7).

Bonhoeffer is a Lutheran, Yoder an Anabaptist, and Lutherans are seldom confused with Anabaptists; but nevertheless Bonhoeffer's account of the challenge facing the church closely parallels Yoder's account above. For example, in notes for lectures at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer observes that the consequence of Luther's doctrine of grace is that the church should live in the world and, according to Romans 13, in its ordinances.

Thus in his own way Luther confirms Constantine's covenant with the church. As a result, a minimal ethic prevailed. Luther of course wanted a complete ethic for everyone, not only for monastic orders. Thus the existence of the Christian became the existence of the citizen. The nature of the church vanished into the invisible realm. But in this way the New Testament message was fundamentally misunderstood, inner-worldliness became a principle. (Bonhoeffer 1965: 324)2

Faced with this result, Bonhoeffer argues that the church must define its limits by severing heresy from its body.

It has to make itself distinct and to be a community which hears the Apocalypse. It has to testify to its alien nature and to resist the false principle of inner-worldliness. Friendship between the church and the world is not normal, but abnormal. The community must suffer like Christ, without wonderment. The cross stands visibly over the community. (Bonhoeffer 1965: 324)

It is not hard to see how his stress on the necessity of visibility led him to write a book like Discipleship. Holiness but names God's way of making his will for his people visible. "To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him" (Bonhoeffer 2001: 113).

According to Bonhoeffer, sanctification, properly understood, is the church's politics. For sanctification is possible only within the visible church community.

That is the "political" character of the church community. A merely personal sanctification which seeks to bypass this openly visible separation of the church-community from the world confuses the pious desires of the religious flesh with the sanctification of the church-community, which has been accomplished in Christ's death and is being actualized by the seal of God . . . Sanctification through the seal of the Holy Spirit always places the church in the midst of struggle. (Bonhoeffer 2001: 261-2)

Bonhoeffer thought that the holiness of the church is necessary for the redemption of the world, which means Discipleship - a book often interpreted as an exemplification of his "spirituality" - is the most political of his works.

I am not suggesting that when Bonhoeffer wrote Sanctorum Communio, he did so with the clarity that can be found in the lecture he gave at Finkenwalde or in his Discipleship. In Sanctorum Communio his concerns may be described as more strictly theological, but even that early the "strictly theological" was formulated against the background of Protestant liberal mistakes, and in particular those of Ernst Troeltsch, that made inevitable his unease with the stance of the German churches toward the world. According to Bonhoeffer, "The church is God's new will and purpose for humanity. God's will is always directed toward the concrete, historical human being. But this means that it begins to be implemented in history. God's will must become visible and comprehensible at some point in history" (Bonhoeffer 1998: 141).

From the beginning to the end of his work Bonhoeffer relentlessly explores and searches for what it means for the church to faithfully manifest God's visibility. For example, in his Ethics, he notes that the church occupies a space in the world through its public worship, its parish life, and its organization. That the church takes up space is but a correlative of God in Jesus Christ occupying space in the world. "And so, too, the Church of Jesus Christ is the place, in other words the space in the world, at which the reign of Jesus Christ over the whole world is evidenced and proclaimed" (Bonhoeffer 1963: 68). Yet this is no new theme in Bonhoeffer, but rather the continued working out of the claim in Sanctorum Communio that "the whole church now rests on the unity in Christ, on the fact of Christ existing as church community" (Bonhoeffer 1998: 206-7).

For Bonhoeffer, it is in Jesus Christ that the whole of reality is taken up, that reality has an origin and end.

For that reason it is only in Him, and with Him as the point of departure, that there can be an action which is in accordance with reality. The origin of action which accords with reality is not the pseudo-Lutheran Christ who exists solely for the purpose of sanctioning the facts as they are, nor the Christ of radical enthusiasm whose function is to bless every revolution, but it is the incarnate God Jesus who has accepted man and who has loved, condemned and reconciled man and with him the world. (Bonhoeffer 1963: 199)

As Christ was in the world, so the church is in the world. These are not pious sentiments, but reality-making claims that challenge the way things are. They are the very heart of Bonhoeffer's theological politics, a politics that requires the church to be the church in order that the world can be the world. Bonhoeffer's call for the world to be the world is but the outworking of his Christology and ecclesiology. For the church to let the world be the world means the church refusing to live by the privileges granted on the world's terms. "Real secularity consists in the church's being able to renounce all privileges and all its property but never Christ's Word and the forgiveness of sins. With Christ and the forgiveness of sins to fall back on, the church is free to give up everything else" (Bonhoeffer 1990: 92). Such freedom, moreover, is the necessary condition for the church to be the zone of truth in a world of mendacity (Bonhoeffer 1965: 160).

Sanctorum Communio was Bonhoeffer's attempt to develop a "specifically Christian sociology" as an alternative to Troeltsch (Bonhoeffer 1998: 2 77). Bonhoeffer argues that the very categories set out by Troeltsch - church/sect/mysticism, Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft - must be rejected if the visibility of the church is to be reclaimed. Troeltsch confuses questions of origins with essences, with the result that the Gospel is subjected to the world. The very choice between voluntary association and compulsory organization is rendered unacceptable by the "Protestant understanding of the Spirit and the church-community, in the former because it does not take the reality of the Spirit into account at all, and in the latter in that it severs the essential relation between Spirit and church-community, thereby completely losing any sociological interest" (Bonhoeffer 1998: 260).

From Bonhoeffer's perspective, Troeltsch is but one of the most powerful representatives of the Protestant liberal presumption that the Gospel is purely religious, encompassing the outlook of the individual, but indifferent to and unconcerned with worldly institutions (Bonhoeffer 1963: 287). The sociology of Protestant liberalism, therefore, is but the other side of liberal separation of Jesus from the Christ. As a result of such a separation, Protestant liberalism continues the docetic Christological heresy that results in an equally pernicious docetic ecclesiology (Bonhoeffer 1966: 71-85). Protestant liberalism is the theological expression of the sociology of the invisible church that conceded to the world the right to determine Christ's place in the world; in the conflict between the church and the world it accepted the comparatively easy terms of peace that the world dictated. Its strength was that it did not try to put the clock back, and that it genuinely accepted the battle (Troeltsch), even though this ended with its defeat. (Bonhoeffer 1971: 327)

Bonhoeffer's work was to provide a complete alternative to the liberal Protestant attempt to make peace with the world. In a lecture at the beginning of his Finkenwalde period concerning the interpretation of scripture, Bonhoeffer asserts that the intention of contemporary Christians "should be not to justify Christianity in this present age, but to justify the present age before the Christian message" (Bonhoeffer 1965: 310, emphasis in original). Bonhoeffer's attack in Letters and Papers from Prison on the liberal Protestant apologetics that tries to secure "faith" on the edges of life, and on the despair such edges allegedly create, is but a continuation of his attack on Protestant pietism as well as his refusal to let the proclamation of the Gospel be marginalized. For the same reasons he had little regard for existentialist philosophers or psychotherapists, whose practice he regarded as but a secularized Methodism (Bonhoeffer 1971: 326-7).

Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer's suggestion about Barth's "positivism of revelation" and the correlative need for a nonreligious interpretation of theological concepts has led some to think Bonhoeffer wanted Christians to become "secular" (Bonhoeffer 1971: 328). The exact opposite is the case. He is insisting that if reality is redeemed by Christ, Christians must claim the center, refusing to use the "world's" weakness to make the Gospel intelligible. He refuses all strategies that try "to make room for God on the borders," thinking it better to leave problems unsolved. The Gospel is not an answer to questions produced by human anxiety, but a proclamation of a "fact." Thus Bonhoeffer's wonderful remark:

Belief in the Resurrection is not the solution to the problem of death. God's "beyond" is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epis-temological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. (Bonhoeffer 1971: 282)

Bonhoeffer's call for a Christian worldliness, therefore, is not his turning away from the kind of community discipline he so eloquently defended in Discipleship and Life Together. When he confesses in Letters and Papers from Prison that at one time he mistakenly assumed he could acquire faith by living a holy life, he is not rejecting the form of life they lived at Finkenwalde. When he says he now sees some of the dangers of Discipleship, though he still stands by the book, he is not returning to the false dualism between sect and church found in Troeltsch. Rather, he is making the Christological point that the Incarnation, the Crucifix ion, and the Resurrection must be held in unity if the church's relationship to the world is to be rightly understood. An emphasis on Incarnation too often leads to compromise, an ethic based on cross and Resurrection too often leads to radicalism and enthusiasm (Bonhoeffer 1963: 88-9). The church names that community that lives in radical hope in a world without hope. To so live means the church cannot help but be different from the world; but such a difference is not an end in itself but "the fruits which automatically follow from an authentic proclamation of the gospel" (Bonhoeffer 1973: 160).3

The problem Bonhoeffer saw clearly in Letters and Papers from Prison was how to respond theologically when the church had been marginalized. He saw that such a marginalization was not a disaster for the church, but rather an opportunity. The challenge was and is the recovery of the significance of the church in a world that knows well it can get along without the church. The challenge before the church is how to go on in a world that offers neither opposition to nor accommodation for the church.

Bonhoeffer's effort to recover the visibility of the church was his "politics" because "it is essential to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ that it occupies space within the world" (Bonhoeffer 1963: 68). Put positively, in Jesus Christ God has occupied space in the world and continues to do so through the work of the Holy Spirit's calling the church to faithfulness. These were the convictions Bonhoeffer brought to his war with the Nazis. These were the convictions that made him the most insightful and powerful force shaping the church's witness against Hitler. In a sense Hitler was exactly the kind of enemy that makes Bonhoeffer's (and Barth's) theological politics so compelling. The question remains, however, whether Bonhoeffer provides an adequate account of how the church must negotiate a world "after Christendom." To explore that question I must attend to what might be called Bonhoeffer's "political ethic." That ethic involves his critique of and attempt to find an alternative to the traditional Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms.

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