Christ Existing As Community

Bonhoeffer's Ecclesiology

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Michael Mawson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael Mawson’s Christ Existing as Community: Bonhoeffer’s Ecclesiology is a clearly written and well researched explication of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, his most opaque and least scrutinized work. Mawson clarifies many issues central to Santorum Communio, including its reliance on sociology and social philosophy as well as Bonhoeffer’s continuing relevance for contemporary work in ecclesiology. Since it follows the structure of Sanctorum Communio, this review will focus on two general critiques of an otherwise good work. 

One of Mawson’s consistent and controversial claims is that the concept of person is radically discontinuous across the different chapters of Sanctorum Communio (72, 76, 79, 104, 113). Clifford Green, Michael DeJonge, and others have argued that Bonhoeffer’s concept of person is central to his early academic work. Person is the organizing concept of his anthropology, ecclesiology, and Christology. That is, the individual (both sinful and justified), the church, and Christ are different instances of a shared formal conception of person as relational and social. According to this reading, Bonhoeffer’s fine tuning of his use of person is the coherent thread tying his early work together. Mawson disagrees, arguing that the concept of person is radically distinct depending on whether Bonhoeffer is using it in reference to the also radically distinct states of primal, fallen, or reconciled existences. This makes the “dialectic of creation, sin and reconciliation” (7, 71), and not person, the central concept of Sanctorum Communio. There are a number of reasons to doubt Mawson’s “radical discontinuity” reading.

The concept of person is materially different depending on which state of existence (primal, fallen, reconciled) or which theological domain (anthropology, ecclesiology, Christology) Bonhoeffer is analyzing; yet, there is still a formal continuity in his account of person—as relational, corporate, and social—to which he appeals in all these instances. For example, Mawson uncharitably or inaccurately reads Green as ignoring the former: “This in turn is central to Green’s claim that person is a ‘comprehensive’ or general concept, rather than one that always needs to be understood with reference to its more specific and localized uses” (72). No one argues that person does not need to be understood in importantly different ways when speaking of, for instance, the sinful individual, the church, or Christ. Rather, those like Green and DeJonge notice the fact that Bonhoeffer uses person in all these different contexts and that there are formal similarities between the importantly different uses. Mawson observes this as well, noting “In this discussion [of the collective person in relation to sin], Bonhoeffer is drawing in his ethical Christian concept of person (from chapter 2 of Sanctorum Communio) and the concept of collective person developed in relation to the primal state (from chapter 3 of Sanctorum Communio) for this ethical collective person” (113, 115, 125-6, 142, 157, 165). If there were radical discontinuity and no formal continuity, then Mawson—and Bonhoeffer—should not be able to make these kinds of claims. 

Bonhoeffer must attempt to maintain a formal continuity for the theological reasons Mawson also recognizes. Mawson correctly notes Bonhoeffer’s reliance on Martin Luther’s concept of Christian individuals and the church as simultaneously sinner and saint, indicating that these forms co-exist (49, 131, 138, 153). Upon justification and entering the church, the Christian individual is not a radically new person cut off from their past fallen existence; some type of continuity must be maintained for confessional and empirical reasons. Mawson correctly recognizes Bonhoeffer’s intention when he notes, “When God addresses and claims the human being, this leads to an understanding of human beings and all social reality as simultaneously created, sinful, and reconciled” (182). If these forms of existence are simultaneous, the individual and collective persons within them could not be as radically discontinuous as Mawson assumes. 

The second general critique is that after reading Mawson, one may believe that Sanctorum Communio is the foundational text for Bonhoeffer’s work. This is true of many of Sanctorum Communio’s intended goals, but, by Bonhoeffer’s own standards, Sanctorum Communio does not succeed at meeting many of them. For example, Sanctorum Communio is an attempt to get past the Karl Barth/dialectical and Ernst Troeltsch/liberal theology impasse; however, Mawson overlooks criticisms that Sanctorum Communio was still too Barthian. The Barthian element becomes evident when Bonhoeffer describes the ethical person as “ever and again aris[ing] and pass[ing] away in time” (Sanctorum Communio, Fortress Press, 2009). This is problematic as one is only Christian in those moments of being addressed by God, which thereby threatens the historical continuity of the Christian and the church. Through Mawson’s clarifications, it is easy to see that this problem is at the heart of Sanctorum Communio. Mawson correctly notes that Bonhoeffer wants to understand the church as both a historical community and as created by God (150, 176, 180). The empirical and historical activity of the church generates its objective spirit from below. The Holy Spirit uses the church’s objective spirit to actualize Christ in the church from above (cf. 160). This actualization occurs in preaching and the sacraments when God “encounters and claims the human being” (162). Therefore, the church is constituted in the same way as the ethical person noted above. Seemingly, that historical continuity is carried by the church’s objective spirit; while the Holy Spirit uses the objective spirit in discrete moments. Therefore, there is a risk to the continuity of not only the individual Christian but of the church, which is the body of Christ, and the revelation that constitutes the church. Mawson implies that Bonhoeffer’s intention is to move beyond this problem, but he is not able to do so in Sanctorum Communio.

Ultimately, despite the above critiques, Mawson adds clarity to Sanctorum Communio for anyone wishing to understand it. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholas Byle is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Arizona Western College.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Mawson is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen.


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