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The Church in a Secular Age:

The Conception of the Church in Bonhoeffer and Ebeling

One may wonder, why have an interest in the church today? Is it an outdated

institution having outlived its usefulness? Nevertheless, as a Christian, the church is a

part of the life of faith. Faith is not to occur strictly in isolation as an individual but at its

fullest in community. Many an everyday conversation regarding Christianity will often

turn to, “Where do you go to church?” or “What church are you a member of?” Even

more telling is the observational comment, “Look at that beautiful church.” or “Oh my!

That is a large church!” It is from such conversations that one can draw basic

understandings regarding a mundane conception of the church. The latter two I mention

reflect the common understanding (or misunderstanding) of ‘church’ as the building one

sees among other buildings. A better view might be, ‘that building over there is the

church house.’ In either instance, one views the ‘church’ as a structure in which

Christians gather for worship. This idea of a Christian gathering might be the better

notion. Where one goes to church would be an indicator of the place of meeting for

worship, i.e. the church house. What church one is a member of might be the better

notion regarding the ‘church’ since it draws from scripture and indicates being part of a

particular gather of Christians. It is from such ordinary exchanges (among Christians)

that I would like venture into conceptions of ‘church’ that would have (some sort of)

meaning in our contemporary situation in North America.

While globally Christianity may be on the increase, the recent rise in popular

attention regarding atheism and secularism pose some challenges to the notion of the

church. It is in the view of these challenges that I will examine Bonhoeffer's conception

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 1

of the church. He frames his theological work regarding the church in relation to his

struggles within his native Germany during World War 2 and his desire to engage his

understanding of the Christian faith fully with the world. Though his later writings speak

of “the world come of age,” from the beginning his concern has been the relation of

Christianity to the contemporary world. Likewise, as his student, Ebeling seeks to

continue this engagement of the Christian faith with the present milieu. The issue for

Ebeling is the interpretation of the ancient Christian message in terms that are non-

religious and therefore relevant to persons today. While Bonhoeffer focuses on the

concrete reality of the church and Ebeling on the language and conception of the church,

I believe both open the door for church practice that is radically different from how one

would understand it commonly or traditionally.

Bonhoeffer’s conception of the Church remains rather consistent throughout

his thought. From The Communion of Saints to his Letters and Papers from Prison he

understands the church as a visible community in the world and ultimately for the world.

This community is a concrete and spiritual reality founded in and through Jesus Christ. I

will begin with his earlier work in The Communion of Saints move on to The Cost of

Discipleship and Life Together and conclude with his Letters and Papers from Prison.

While I believe his conception of the Church was consistent throughout with only minor

changes in terminology, I will contend that he does begin to shift his understanding of

church structure from a more traditional Lutheran expression to something akin to an

expression similar to a Free Church expression. I believe part of this shift in emphasis is

in part to his view of the Christian faith in a secular age. In relation to Bonhoeffer's view,

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 2

I will frame the issue in Ebeling’s further elaboration of the Christian faith in a secular

society especially as that faith finds expression through the Church.

Bonhoeffer begins his work, The Communion of Saints, with an examination in

sociological terms of the relation between the individual and society. After considering

the current scholarship regarding this relation, he moves on to a Christian understanding

of the human person. He defines a person in concrete terms rather than any abstract or

idealist terminology believing such constructions lead toward distinctions in a person not

grounded in lived reality. He states, “The Christian concept affirms the whole concrete

person, body and soul, in its difference from all other beings in its moral relevance.” 1 It

is from this concrete understanding of the human person and the reality of human social

structures that he begins his elaboration on the theological conception of the Church. It is

important to note that Bonhoeffer is seeking at this point a middle way between sociology

and dogmatics. In other words, he seeks to engage the social sciences of the period with

the faith tradition he is a part of.

Bonhoeffer makes it clear that one must distinguish between the Church and a

religious community. The primary distinction between the two is that of faith.

The concept of the church is possible only in the sphere of reality based on
God; that is, it is not deducible. The reality of the church is a reality of
revelation, part of whose nature it is to be either believed or denied. So if
we want to find an adequate criterion for justifying the church’s claim that
it is the church of God, this is possible only if we place ourselves within it,
if we submit in faith to its claim. 2

The reality of God determines the church of God. Faith is necessary to understand the

church; if not, what one views as the church apart from faith is a view of a religious

community subject to sociological scrutiny rather than subject to God.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 3

Bonhoeffer further distinguishes the understanding of the church by addressing

the Greek origin in the term of ecclesia. The notion has a dual meaning, that of an act of

gathering together and that of an assembled group of people. So drawing from Pauline

teaching, Bonhoeffer elucidates between the people of God and local congregations. He

states, “It is ‘the form in which the whole church appears in one place.’ The whole

church is real only in the local church.” 3 He has no notion of the ‘mystical body of

Christ.’ The church is a visible reality founded in and on Christ. This idea takes

seriously the relation of Christ to the church in a dual fashion namely that Christ, “…is

the creator of the whole life, which rests on him, the master-builder of the church, and he

is also really present at all times in his church, for the church is his body, he rules over it
as the head does the body.” He continues in expressing this unity of Christ and the

church by reference to the headship of Christ. From this, he declares the church as an

organism with an organic life, that is, the person and personality of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s

assertion of the church as an organism does not rest on biological, Roman Catholic or

political conceptions of an organism but on a community of united members each

belonging in the life of the community. 5 I gather his view of the church is that of a

cooperative fellowship functioning as a collective person, namely the person of Christ.

He is clear to point out that the church is not a second incarnation of Christ, it is however

a revelatory form of Christ that functions as his body on earth. 6

With this idea of the church as revelation and a functioning body, Bonhoeffer

returns the beginning of the church at Pentecost and the role of the Spirit. Though he

speaks of the spirit of individuals and even communities, he makes the distinction

between such understandings of human spirit(s) and the Spirit of Christ operating in the

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 4

church. The former spirit would seek a derivative or reductionist understanding of

community whereas the church operating in the Spirit is something else entirely. The

Spirit of Christ in the church indicates something other than religion or a religious

community. Rather:

…God established the reality of the church, of mankind pardoned in Jesus

Christ. Not religion, but revelation, not a religious community, but he
church: that is what the reality of Jesus Christ means….Thus the relation
of Jesus Christ to the Christian church is to be understood in a dual sense.
1. The church is consummated in him and time is annulled. 2. Within
time the church is to be built up on him as the foundation. He is the
church’s historical principle. 7 [Emphasis is in the original.]

This brings one back to the notion of faith as necessary to properly understand the

church. The proper understanding of the church is not an issue of religion but of

revelation, of the Word.

The actualization of the church takes place through the Word by the Spirit.

Without the mediation of the Word, “…the idea of the church would be individualistic,

and thus be dissolved at its very source.” 8 It is in the united action of the Word and the

Spirit in that, “…the Word expresses that the Word is intended for a plurality of hearers,

and a visible sign is set up, by which the actualization is brought about.” 9 The Word and

the Spirit bring about the communion of saints as the communion of Christ. This is the

reality of the eternal community that lays waste to any individualistic view of the church.

One may be an individual member of the body of Christ, but this membership in the body

one finds in Christ before creation. So the community that found in Christ is not the

work of man but of God. “The church does not come into being through people coming

together (genetic sociology). But it is in being through the Spirit which is effective in the

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 5

community.” 10 In other words, in history, the Spirit builds up the church; in Christ, the

church is an eternal communion.

Now with the work of the Spirit occurring in the church we return to the notion of

the local congregation and the global Christian community. This reflects the dogmatics

side as confessed in the Apostle’s Creed regarding the one, holy, catholic church.

Bonhoeffer distinguishes these as the gathered church and the national church, that is,

between those who gather in the church of their own free will and those who claim

membership in the church by birth in a particular nation. While the notion of a national

church may seem foreign to American minds, a similar occurrence does happen in

American culture. This would be the membership within a church by being born into it.

Instead of a national inclusion, it becomes a familial inclusion. As Bonhoeffer’s states it,

both views of the church include the work of the Holy Spirit. He further states, “The

logical and sociological unity of the gathered and national, essential and empirical,

‘invisible’ and visible’ church is thus established through the Word…” 11 while this unity

is evident in history, Bonhoeffer still presses for a unity regarding the ‘empirical’ church,

that is, the many gathering congregations as members of one ‘Body of Christ.’ The

conclusion reached is that, “…each individual local church is the Body of Christ, and yet

there is only One Body, and again only the universal church can actualise all the

relationships in the Body of Christ.” 12

Bonhoeffer, regarding the issue of authority in the church and implicitly the

matter of church structure, raises an interesting point that I will quote in its entirety.

For us the church’s entire claim to authority derives solely from the
authority of the Word. Thus the idea of the priesthood of all believers

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 6

remains the principle upon which the church is built. No empirical body
‘in itself’ has a claim to authority over the church. Every claim derives its
authority from the Word. It seems to me that the necessary conclusion is
that the church should become independent, that is, be disestablished; but
we must leave this question here. 13

This quote raises two important issues that I will return to later in this paper. The first is

the issue of the priesthood of all believers, the Lutheran ecclesial doctrine of distinction

and the second is the disestablishment of the church. Both of these issues return in his

Letters and Papers from Prison. As I understand Bonhoeffer, I read this passage as the

seeds for a future free church understanding of church structure.

The next work we turn to is Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, which draws from his

time teaching in the underground seminary of the Confessing Church in Finkenwalde.

From the beginning he seeks to expound guidance for “…our life together under the

Word.” 14 and “…that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other

Christians.” 15 On this last note he states, “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are

allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” 16 In his discussion of Christian

community that follows, Bonhoeffer first elaborates the Christological basis for such

community; he then distinguishes between the Spiritual/divine reality as opposed to the

human/ideal understanding of Christian community.

Bonhoeffer states that, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and

in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more than this.” 17 He elaborates on this

meaning in three ways namely the need for others, coming to others and eternal unity in

and through Jesus Christ. On the first point, Bonhoeffer speaks of the necessity of others

in the reality one’s finding salvation, justification and so on in Christ alone. This end of

individualism comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the

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Word of God, which is external to one’s self. The Word of God comes to us in human

language through others sharing this message. He states that this need is met in “…his

brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.” 18 The desire for

fellowship is rooted in this message of justification, that is, a community rooted in Christ

alone. The next point Bonhoeffer explains is that it is only through Christ that Christians

can come to one another. The discord between God and man and man and man is only

overcome through the reconciliation of the cross of Jesus Christ. Only through this work

of mediation do we come to know God or our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. “Only

in Jesus Christ are we one, only through him are we bound together. To eternity he

remains the one Mediator.” 19 The third point is that of the eternal unity of the Christian

community in Jesus Christ. Again, it is not a matter of what one does that forms the

foundation for community but what Jesus Christ has done for community. “What

determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with

one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.” 20 This work of

community is in not only the building up of community in time but also in the eternal

fellowship in Christ and in God before creation.

From this Christological foundation for Christian community, Bonhoeffer

continues his elaboration of Christian community by grounding it in reality. He first

speaks of Christian brotherhood not as an ideal but a divine reality. He opposes the

visionary dreamer with demands and wishful thinking that lead only to disillusionment

and accusation. “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather

a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” 21 He next turns to speak

of Christian community as a spiritual not a human reality. At this point, he distinguishes

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between the Holy Spirit and the human spirit with the Holy Spirit bringing truth and the

human spirit bringing desire. Depending on which spirit that is at work, the community

formation will take on quite different characteristics. The primary distinctive of Christian

community over against a human community is the agape love manifest among the

brothers and sisters. The two types of love and the direction each takes is clarified in the

following: “Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love

loves him for Christ’s sake.” 22 This type of Christian love is only possible in and

through Jesus Christ. It is the recognition of Christ standing between myself and my

brother or sister in Christ. In this recognition, one also sees the freedom that the other

has in Christ. In honoring the other’s freedom, “…I must meet him only as the person

that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can

meet others only through the mediation of Christ.” 23 So through the reconciling work of

Jesus Christ and by the power of the Spirit, the Christian community and the love it

engenders orders truth, creates freedom and produces fruit according to the grace of God.

Bonhoeffer concludes this elaboration on community with a practical point

regarding “the life or death of a Christian community.” As he states:

…life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where
it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium
pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being part of the one,
holy, catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in
the sufferings and struggles and promise of the whole Church. 24

This is Bonhoeffer's response to any sectarian separation from other Christians. No

matter how the local congregation organizes or functions, it shares in the totality of all

those in the Christian communion. While he makes it clear that faith overrides

experience in Christian community life, the reality of the communion of all the saints is

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 9

in Christ. “For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do

we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.” 25

Since Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship were written in approximately

the same period, I will only draw out passages from The Cost of Discipleship that expand

on his ideas in Life Together. As he examines the Body of Christ in relation to the

Church, he ties incarnation and church together. Since Bonhoeffer, as a Lutheran,

understands incarnation in a very particular way, this carries over to the church as Body

of Christ.

…since he is the incarnate Son of God who came in human flesh, he needs
a community of followers, who will participate not merely in his
teachings, but also in his Body. The disciples have communion and
fellowship in the Body of Christ. They live and suffer in bodily
communion with him. 26

While he does expound on the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it is the

identification of the Body of Christ as the new humanity that is striking. It is this view of

the church as the Body of Christ presenting the new humanity that is a radical notion.

“The Church is the real presence of Christ….We should think of the Church not as an

institution, but as a person, though of course a person in a unique sense.” 27 He further

states that, “When we have recognized the unity between Christ and his Body, the

Church, we must also hold fast to the complementary truth of Christ’s Lordship over the

Body.” 28 As he expounds on the Pauline teaching of the Body of Christ, Bonhoeffer

makes a distinction regarding the Body, while it is one Body, it is comprised of a

fellowship of members. Through the presence of the Spirit, the fellowship shares in the

life and Lordship of Jesus Christ. Then again, he states, these ideas are not new but are

radical in the sense that, “We are simply following in the steps of the first disciples of

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 10

Christ.” 29 Therefore, with this radical view of the Body of Christ and the life of Christian

community he turns to explaining the Church as “the visible community.”

As he previously stated regarding the Body of Christ and incarnation, this leads to

him concluding, “…the Body of Christ can only be a visible Body, or else it is not a Body

at all.” 30 This is an elaboration of the visibility of Jesus as a man and incarnation as the

Son of God. The humanity of Jesus is a historical fact while the Body of Christ incarnate

is an issue of faith. Just as Bonhoeffer argued for Christian community in the Body of

Christ, he also argues for the Body of Christ is visible so too is Christian community.

“The body of the exalted Lord is also a visible body in the shape of the Church.” 31 In

defining the shape of the Church, Bonhoeffer understands the congregation sharing the

sacraments of baptism and Eucharist first, then the preaching of the Word, second. He

elaborates this point in the following: “…that the Church of Jesus Christ claims space in

the world for its proclamation. The Body of Christ becomes visible to the world in the

congregation gathered round the Word and Sacrament.” 32 As the congregation becomes

visible, it takes the shape of an organism, that is, the Body of Christ that also will,

“…include its articulation and order.” 33 As the Body of Christ is manifest in

proclamation and sacrament, the Body is also visible through its order.

It is such sentiments regarding following Christ and the entailing community of

Christ that appeal to other groups besides Lutherans. As Jay Rochelle states in the

following that Bonhoeffer

…makes additional notes about the church which are not customarily
identified with Lutherans. These have endeared him to other traditions,
perhaps notably Anabaptist, because he emphasizes discipleship and
because he expands christology to mean not only the Christ who is present
in the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments,
but the Christ who is present among us as community. 34

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 11

The gathering congregation under the Word and before the sacraments is a revelation of

the Body of Christ in the world and therefore in history. This interesting correlation to

Anabaptist thought continues further in the following elaboration on the relation of the

church and the world.

While Bonhoeffer did elaborate on the community and order of the Church in Life

Together, it is his understanding of the relationship between the Church and the world by

expounding the text of Romans 13.1ff that sets it apart. He distinguishes between the

dominion of the world and the service of the Christian. So as the Christian submits to the

powers that be and seeks to do good, “That is the one thing necessary.” 35 In a sense,

Bonhoeffer advocates a worldly or secular Christianity by not abandoning the world but

remaining in it (though not of it).

Let the Christian remain in the world,…for the sake of the Body of the
incarnate Christ and for the sake of the Church. Let him remain in the
world to engage in a frontal assault on it, and let him live the life of his
secular calling in order to show himself as a stranger in this world all the
more. But that is only possible if we are visible members of the Church. 36

He further distinguishes this in the world but not of the world notion by addressing the

proper way of being in the world. He states that this different way is that, “…the Church

of Christ has a different ‘form’ from the world. Her task is increasingly to realize this

form. It is the form of Christ himself…” 37 Just as the Son of God was incarnate and

came to the world so too will the Church as the Body of Christ. “In the right

confrontation with the world, the Church will become ever more like to the form of its

suffering Lord.” 38 This is the meaning of the visible Body of Christ. As Jesus Christ

enfleshed the Son of God, the Church is given the privilege to participate in the Body of

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 12

Christ as fleshing out Jesus Christ to and for the world and to share in his joy and


The final gathering of Bonhoeffer's thoughts is found in the collection Letters &

Papers From Prison. The difficulty with trying to understand these thoughts is partly the

situation, in which they were written, in a Nazi prison, and the ideas are often presented

in an embryonic state or as rather fragmentary. Bonhoeffer makes scattered references

throughout his letters but it his outline for a book that brings the most to this examination

of his ecclesiology. I will touch on some of the scattered references but will focus on the

book outline.

One of the first places he mentions the church is on Reformation Day 1943. At

one point in the letter, he speaks of the actions taken by Luther and consequences that

were the opposite of what he intended. The one of interest is that of Luther wanting to

“...establishment of a genuine secular social order free from clerical privilege.” 39 The

implication here is that Luther desired the separation between Church and state. This

would seem to be a logical conclusion of his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers,

however, this lead to the Peasants’ War and a general breakdown in social order and

cohesion in Europe. The next passage also closely related to Kierkegaard's thought is in

relation to the divine mandates of “marriage, work, state and church” and the broader

concept of freedom. He wonders of the possibility, “ regain the idea of the church as

providing an understanding of the area of freedom (art, education, friendship, play), so

that Kierkegaard's 'aesthetic experience' would not be banished from the church's

sphere...” 40 So from these two quotes one could gather an increasing interest in

disestablishing clerical power and allowing greater freedom in the church. This greater

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interest could be in the light of the priesthood of all believers worked out for the

contemporary situation.

While these previous passages deal with notions of freedom and power in the

church, the following passages deal more closely with the church in a secular culture and

its place in the midst of that culture. The following comes in the middle of a

conversation regarding “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoeffer writes, “The church

stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the

village.” 41 Along similar lines he states, “In the place of religion there now stands the

church – that is in itself biblical – but the world is in some degree made to depend on

itself and left to its own devices, and that is the mistake!” 42 And again, “The church must

come out of its stagnation. We must move out again into the open air of intellectual

discussion with the world, and risk saying controversial things, if we are to get down to

the serious problems of life.” 43 In this continuing dialogue regarding religionless

Christianity, Bonhoeffer is not advocating a dismissal of the church, which would be a

mistaken understanding. Rather, he is addressing the engagement of the church with the

world in such a way that one no longer views the church as a religious institution but a

place of freedom in dialogue with the world and speaking to the life problems of a secular

culture. It is in my understanding that such previously mentioned ideas are in line with a

general notion of free church theology.

Now turning to his book outline, he further expands on these ideas. While he

states that the ideas are “very crude and condensed”, I believe they provide a continued

trajectory for his thought regarding the future of the church. The first two chapters deal

with “A Stocktaking of Christianity” and “The Real Meaning of Christian Faith.” This

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 14

would have been his response, both critical and constructive, of Christian faith in a

secular age. Chapter 3 was to be his conclusions and, in particular, in relation to the

church. I will quote the passage in full.

The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it
should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live
solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage
in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of
ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell
men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. 44

Maybe this is Bonhoeffer's out working of an issue he raised but did not address in The

Communion of Saints, that of the disestablishment of the church. The response here is

what he sees as a possible conclusion to earlier notions that one could roughly call “free

church.” This notion of the “free church” rests on two ideas, freedom of all members of

the church in light of the priesthood of all believers and the freedom of the church from

the influence of the state (and vice versa). This also bears some similarity to the

Anabaptist idea of the believer’s church, that of believers voluntarily associating together

in freedom without outside coercion. One could argue that Bonhoeffer’s thought was

heading in this direction with the origin of the Confessing Church in Germany and

possibly even beyond that expression of the church. As a separate branch of the State

Lutheran Church, the Confessing Church was seeking two things: to be free from the

influence of the German government and free to worship together under the Word. The

Lutheran pastors who sought to distance themselves from and oppose the Nazi ideology

that had ascended at the time one could consider a manifestation of the free church


While Bonhoeffer sought to engage the present-day world with the Christian faith,

Ebeling continues a similar engagement with contemporary culture by interpreting the

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 15

gospel message in contemporary language. As a student of Bonhoeffer's, Ebeling

expands on these earlier scholarly influences to develop a hermeneutical approach to

Christian faith that would be significant to the present time.

Ebeling expands on Bonhoeffer's thought regarding the church and the

contemporary world by addressing the issues of language in his Introduction to a

Theological Theory of Language. In dealing with the boredom of language and in

particular the crisis of language, Ebeling speaks of the loss of force, meaning and content

of most language regarding God. He repeats Bonhoeffer's sentiment that in the current

state of the world, Christian faith is limited to prayer and action. Such a limitation leads

the church to be “the church for others” and a life of example that will emphasize and

empower the word. Ebeling cites that this desire for silence from the world regarding

Christian faith is “…that the boredom with words is the negative side of a longing for a

true word.” 45 He quotes from Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers regarding the non-

religious language that will one day be spoken as the word of God bringing change and

renewal. Even in the midst of an overabundance of language in Christian theology,

Ebeling seeks to expound the language of God in such a way that is relevant to “the

world come of age” and yet is true to the faith in which one can find God. He states at

the end of this section regarding Bonhoeffer that even in the world’s desire for silence

from Christianity, one can keep, “…a close look-out for fundamental experiences which

could once again give rise to genuine and conscientious speech and reveal the possibility

of making a wholesome and saving use of words.” 46 It seems as if Ebeling echoes the

thought of Bonhoeffer in that a proper interpretation of the current worldly situation can

give rise to a proper interpretation of the Christian message for the present age.

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Ebeling continues this interpretation in a series of public lectures published as The

Nature of Faith. These lectures implicitly seek to interpret the various aspects of the

Apostle’s Creed in the language of contemporary culture. In the lecture entitled “The

Summons of Faith,” he addresses the idea of the church and the understanding of it in the

present age. He begins this reflection on the church as an attempt to clear up confusions

in common understandings by investigating the various etymologies of the word

‘church.’ In this elaboration, he stays with the original Greek used, ekklesia, as opposed

to the Germanic Kirche and its variations. While seeking to clarify the history of ekklesia

as well, Ebeling points out that the New Testament use has a dual meaning much like

modern use of church. He speaks of both the local and universal church in the following:

Wherever the ekklesia appears, it does so as the one ekklesia, and not just
as a part of it. Both the so-called local church, whether the ekklesia in
Corinth or Jerusalem or Rome, and even the gathering of Christians in a
house-church, and the whole church of Christ in all places, are described
by the same word. 47

As Ebeling works this out, he concludes that one understanding is that of ‘congregation,’

but another is that of new creation. This latter point points to the indivisible unity of the

church, which is beyond that of the local congregation. He also points out the original

Greek usage was secular, that of a summoned assembly of people. This leads to his view

“that the community of faith…is something different from a religious community.” 48

This is seen in two ways within early Christianity: First, in the context of faith new

possibilities are opened for community in which previous dividing differences are no

longer important. This echoes the Pauline teaching of neither Jew nor Greek, male nor

female in Christ. Second, essential religious aspects like priests, rituals and sacrifices

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played no part in early Christian faith and worship. In a sense, one can understand this as

“The Way” of the early Christian faith as spoken of in Acts.

After his reflections on the origin and early Christian practice, Ebeling poses the

following question: “Is the church, as we know it among us today, even remotely

challenging men to a decision?” 49 From this and other questions that are distinct from

Bonhoeffer's, he seeks to provide a positive construction of previous criticisms of the

understanding of church. The decision, as quoted, is concerning the summons of faith.

The important point for Ebeling is not whether the church is necessary, but if one even

hears the summons of faith at all in the contemporary situation. Faith, obedience and

action are essential if faith is truly faith. Such an understanding of faith rests on the

church as he states, “The church is the summons to believe. That is how the worship of

the church is to be regarded—so that we do not leave as those who are dismissed, but as

those who have a summons and a sending.” 50 This is the community of the faithful,

called in faith to the obedience of faith. This is a faith lived in community that is in the

world yet alien to the world.

Ebeling writes in the appendix of this collection of lectures some continuing

thoughts on both Bonhoeffer and the church. He quotes from one of Bonhoeffer's later

letters concerning the failure of traditional church language regarding the Word of God in

the following: “In the traditional words and actions we glimpse something new and

revolutionary, without being able to grasp it and express it. That is our fault.” 51 This

returns to the idea of communicating the Word of God in non-religious language. While

many are stuck at the opposing poles of either not saying anything or saying too much

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 18

regarding God, Ebeling builds on Bonhoeffer's ideas that a hermeneutic is possible to

speak the Word of God effectively today so that faith may arise.

From the later writings of Bonhoeffer a wide variety of interpretations have arisen

and Dumas in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Theologian of Reality elaborates on three such

interpretations namely Lutheran, atheistic and ontological. 52 While the atheistic

interpretation is in my understanding a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of

Bonhoeffer’s thought, the work of Ebeling is characteristic of the Lutheran interpretation.

The ontological reading is tied closely to an ontology of relations rather than metaphysics

and would be beyond the limits of this paper but worthy of further investigation. It is this

Lutheran reading that shapes Ebeling’s understanding of his former teacher, that is, as

Bonhoeffer sought to reinterpret Reformation teaching in light of the contemporary world

situation. Ebeling continues the reinterpretation of Christian faith in non-religious terms

that is in inchoate form in Bonhoeffer's writings. Ebeling stresses the three main

concerns in Bonhoeffer's thought in the concrete terms of the church, faith in a secular

world and the response of such faith. 53 It is the second concern that Ebeling seems to

pursue in terms of hermeneutical theology. Ebeling stresses the distinction of Christian

faith and that of religion. While Christianity has many religious forms, it is the root of

Christian faith that is in constant need of reformation, and thus reinterpretation in respect

to the current situation of humanity in the world. Bethge also speaks of the Bonhoeffer's

usage of the term ‘religion’ not so much as distinguishing true and false religions but

“…a distinction, learned from Luther, between faith and religion—religion coming from

the flesh, but faith from the Spirit.” 54 It is the understanding of Christianity as a faith

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 19

over against a religion that shapes the agenda for Ebeling’s thought in light of


A Dissent on Bonhoeffer by Hopper is another response to the atheistic

interpretation of Bonhoeffer in the 1950s and 1960s. In speaking of Ebeling’s reading of

the later Bonhoeffer that the “non-religious interpretation” of faith is long-standing

theological presupposition held by Bonhoeffer from the beginning of his theological

thought. 55 While some of the radical and death of God theologians would argue that

Bonhoeffer deserted the idea of the church for the world, Hopper finds that a better

reading shows, “…that there is no abandonment of the concept of theology church over

the course of Bonhoeffer's theological work.” 56 From The Communion of Saints to the

Letters and Papers, Bonhoeffer's thought regarding the church is strikingly consistent. It

is only in his later writings that the sphere of the church expands to embrace the entire

world. The enlarged scope is partially based on the life of discipleship that Bonhoeffer

held that bore out in his theological work. 57 Many of his later statements regarding the

church must be taken in light of his deep involvement in the world as he struggled to

answer the question of his own faith. 58 Hopper summarizes the theology of Bonhoeffer

in the following:

At the end, Bonhoeffer's statement of faith and his humanity were not very
different from the faith and humanity of the long nineteen hundred years
of Christian history. And it is this Bonhoeffer--not the restless,
provocative theologian--who is likely to strengthen and nurture the faith of
the church. 59

On this note, I tend to agree with Hopper. While Bonhoeffer's life engaged both the

Christian faith and the world, he held to both without excluding either.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 20

In the midst of the controversy regarding radical theology, Beyond Religion by

Daniel Jenkins addresses some of the issues raised by a “religionless Christianity” as it

relates to the church. Early on in the book, he speaks of this type of Christianity as no

more, “…than the striving after a more adequate expression of faith working through love

in maturity and freedom….” 60 This is an elaboration of the Pauline teaching regarding

the mature man in the letter to the Ephesians in light of the current situation the church

finds itself in, ‘the world come of age.’ Jenkins continues this line of thought in relation

to faith and secularization and makes the following provocative statement:

A religionless Christianity may strictly be impossible but a church that

does not transcend its religion in the venture of faith is the abomination of
desolation standing where it ought not…true holiness in the world arises
only when the members of the Church forget their corporate interest…as
they fulfill their common mission. 61

This mission is the “self-forgetting ministry” of loving their neighbors as servants under

God. Jenkins further states that such service in the world is more effective when less

effort is spent on defending the church’s interests and more is spent on serving society as

a whole. 62 This line of thought is parallel to Bonhoeffer's notion of “the church for

others.” Jenkins also elaborates on the type of leadership needed for a church that

embraces such a mission. While recognizing the strengths and limits of institutional

structure he sees a leadership that does not try to reinforce the established structures but

retains mobility and prophetic power that adapts toward future changes. Two practical

concerns he raises are that of a simple and streamlined structure with leaders of open and

flexible viewpoints and the desire for leadership to gain secular and therefore clerical

power. This echoes Bonhoeffer's thought, both early and latter, regarding the

disestablishment of the church. In any effort of reform or renewal, the desire for worldly

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 21

power and influence often undermines the service the church ought to be engaged in,

service to others.

The following quote from Jenkins strikes close to home considering my

current place of my spiritual journey. Regarding the desire of many for relevant

Christian community, he states:

It is often a mark of the Protestant who has seen some of the meaning of
‘religionless Christianity’ that he has constantly to make up his mind on
Sunday morning whether the irritation which he will experience if he goes
to church is less tolerable than the sense of frustration and guilt he will
have if he stays home. 63

I have been, for several years, in this paradoxical place. Sad to say, the amount of guilt

has become less over time and the frustration remains. Even with this frustration and

years away from church membership, I remain hopeful for the future of the church.

Ultimately this hope is rooted in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have found

fellowship with other Christians along the way and thereby acknowledging my

membership in the Body of Christ. While many seek to reinterpret traditional language

and liturgy for the current postmodern situation, others are seeking to reinterpret church

structures and practices in a less traditional fashion. Two movements within Christianity

that are addressing this reinterpretation are the emergent and house-church movements.

The emergent conversation seeks dialogue with the contemporary culture concerning the

Christian message. One could view the house-church movement as the logical

outworking of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. All members participate

and are ministers of Christ, the ultimate disestablishment of the church and in a sense the

reestablishment of the church. Perhaps it is in the convergence of these two movements

one could hope to find a model for the church in a secular or post-secular age.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 22

Simplicity in structure that allows for flexibility for the future and a post-secular and

post-modern language that speaks deeply and profoundly to contemporary culture. Full

participation by all members in worship and ministry will lead to encouragement for the

church to face the world with the non-religious message of the Christian faith and above

all, love the world.

End Notes

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Communion of Saints, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1963), 35.
Ibid., 89.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 23

Ibid., 98.
Ibid., 99.
Ibid., 102.
Ibid., 101.
Ibid., 111-112.
Ibid., 115.
Ibid., 116.
Ibid., 152.
Ibid., 155.
Ibid., 185.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1954), 17.
Ibid., 18.
Ibid., 20.
Ibid., 21.
Ibid., 23.
Ibid., 24.
Ibid., 25.
Ibid., 30.
Ibid., 34.
Ibid., 36.
Ibid., 37.
Ibid., 39.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1963),
Ibid., 269.
Ibid., 271.
Ibid., 274.
Ibid., 277.
Ibid., 278.
Ibid., 281.
Ibid., 282.
Jay C. Rochelle, “Mystery and Relationship as Keys to the Church’s Response to Secularism,” in
Currents in Theology and Mission 19 (1992), 271.
Ibid., 293.
Ibid., 297.
Ibid., 300.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers From Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge, (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1971), 123.
Ibid., 193.
Ibid., 282.
Ibid., 286.
Ibid., 378.
Ibid., 382-382.
Gerhard Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
1973), 67-68.
Ibid., 68.
Gerhard Ebeling, The Nature of Faith, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 140-141.
Ibid., 142-143.
Ibid., 146.
Ibid., 148.
Ibid., 184 [or letters page]
André Dumas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Theologian of Reality, (The Macmillan Company, 1971), 237-280.
Ibid., 243.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 24

Eberhard Bethge, “Bonhoeffer's Christology and His ‘Religionless Christianity’” in Bonhoeffer in a
World Come of Age, edited by Peter Vorkink, II, 46-72, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 53-54.
David H. Hopper, A Dissent on Bonhoeffer, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 28.
Ibid., 34.
Ibid., 132.
Ibid., 135.
Ibid., 144.
Daniel Jenkins, Beyond Religion, (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1962), 25.
Ibid., 79.
Ibid., 102.
Jenkins, 113.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey W. Roop. All Rights Reserved. 25

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