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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Ecumenical Imperative

By Clint Wilson 

In Strange Glory, Charles Marsh recalls a moment in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when the “theological storm troopers were on the march” and the battle concerned traditional Christian language. Marsh writes, “In Nazi political theology, the third article of the Trinity would be replaced with an ethno-national ideal. No less blasphemously, the Spirit was supposed to proceed from the Führer as well as the Father, and from nature, history, and nation” (pp. 178-79).

Bonhoeffer knew Hitler’s project was to exploit theology to realize his sinful and demonic political ambitions of egoism, empire, and extermination of his enemies. In the midst of such heresy and with the stakes at an all-time high, there were many responses the young theologian could have entertained, and indeed, his strategy for withstanding Hitler’s project was multi-pronged. But Bonhoeffer’s response was, for better or worse, rooted in the hope and imperative of ecumenism. In a letter to his close friend and colleague, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, Dietrich wrote:

You certainly know of the recent events within the German church and I think that there is a great likelihood for a separation of the minority from the Reichskirche, and in this case an action of ecumenical support would certainly be of immense value in this tense situation. … It seems to me that the responsibility of the ecumenic work has perhaps never been so far-reaching as in the present moment. If the ecumenic churches would keep silent during those days, I am afraid that all trust put into it by the minority would be destroyed. (From a “Letter to George Bell,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works in English13, 1/12, p. 36; henceforth, DBWE)

It was natural for Bonhoeffer to write such a letter. He was a theologian whose Christology and ecclesiology were inherently ecumenical yet anticipated many later developments in ecumenical theology. Today’s ecumenists would do well to follow his lead. 

In this time, however, aren’t we dwelling in the eve of ecumenism, watching the sun set as darkness approaches? Many theologians and ecumenists have argued for, or lamented, an ecumenical winter,and there are incredible challenges to overcome. Ecumenism could appear to be a fool’s errand. But the ecumenical call is also a call to a life of holiness and what Bonhoeffer called “costly discipleship.”

Long before the Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, for instance, Bonhoeffer lived out a holistic and concrete ecumenical vision that was, at once, rooted in robust theology and that produced practical ethical action. This is not a new observation, even if it is often unsung song among some who praise Bonhoeffer. Ecumenist Keith Clements has written a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest and other journal articles have appeared (by John Moses, Stephen Brown, and others) detailing Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical work and relationships (from Max Diestel to Bishop George Bell, from Fano to the Sofia Statement, and more). 

Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical theology speaks acutely to today’s moment and offers resources for a divided and seemingly defeated ecumenical movement. It offers a prophetic critique to nationalism, ethnocentrism, and revisionist theology. Bonhoeffer was not afraid to say “[t]he concept of heresy has been lost in the ecumenical movement” (“Report on the Theological Conference of the Provisional Bureau for Ecumenical Youth Work,” in DBWE 11, 2/13, p. 350). For him truth was relevant to the ecumenical task, not inimical to its practical implementation. Unity must ultimately be grounded in the truth as revealed in Christ and the apostolic faith, and as stewarded by those who are baptized into his body.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer anticipated now common ecumenical nomenclature such as baptismal unity and receptive ecumenism, and the idea that division must at this point be carried as a cross (see here Ephraim Radner’s arguments, especially in A Brutal Unity). The “Church is dead,” preached Bonhoeffer, but the hope for unity comes not from what humans or Christians can achieve, but what God is doing by Christ’s Holy Spirit in and through the death of the Church “beneath the cross.” “The church lives in the midst of dying,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “solely because God calls it forth out of death into life, because God does the impossible against us and through us” (“Address at the International Youth Conference In Gland on August 29, 1932,” in DBWE 11, 2/17, p. 376). Bonhoeffer resisted the false and rival forms of unity embodied in the ideology of Hitler, which used volkish theology as leverage for the Führer’sagenda, one that was ultimately, in Bonhoeffer’s view, idolatrous.

In response, Bonhoeffer proposed a superior conception of unity that grew organically from the fertile theology of both his Christology and his ecclesiology — which cannot be compartmentalized from one another, as noted by his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. Unity is an ingredient in his work, not a conceptual addition or a simple ethical implication (this could be said of his contemporary Lesslie Newbigin as well). For instance, Bonhoeffer’s concept of the transference of the Christian from the Body of Adam to the Body of Christ is explicitly a move from isolation to unity via baptism, and this idea shapes his entire theological project. He identified isolation as the sinful posture par excellence that individuals and corporate bodies can and do inhabit through participation in the first Adam, but this must not be so in the New Adam, in the body of Christ. Unity is the fruit and fount of this move from the old man to the one new man in Christ (Eph. 2).

Bonhoeffer’s concept of the Church as Christ in community calls forth ecumenical charity that relativizes denominational lines and identifies ecumenical organizations not merely as institutions, but as a distinct form of the Church.

Ecumenical work is only possible when it is also possible to justify, through the gospel itself, that Jesus’s call to discipleship simultaneously means a call into the church. If the church, the one church, is inherently preordained, then ecumenical work is the unavoidable duty of every Christian church. (“Report on the Theological Conference of the Provisional Bureau for Ecumenical Youth Work,” in DBWE 11, 2/13, pp. 346-47).

In an age when Christians often divide along the same fault lines of surrounding institutions and movements, Bonhoeffer, and the ecumenical relationships he maintained, stand as a model and a challenge to us all. 

 Ecumenism is a real hope that has led to fruits in the last century that were unimaginable only a century earlier. But as a friend of mine says, “You must hold hands in order to fall in love.” Christian denominations must continue to stress holding hands, as it were, through the persistent work of bilateral dialogues, study groups, pulpit sharing, common prayer, and common mission. Ecumenism must not be seen, for instance, as the exclusive property of progressives from varying denominations, or as the pet project of those who have decided to throw out principled theology and a thick denominational identity and heritage in favor of social justice or missional cooperation. Bonhoeffer will not allow for this, as he refused to permit ecumenism to be a partisan concern: 

Thus, this work that we also call the “ecumenical work of the church” is in no way a matter that can be considered partisan; rather it is a concern of alarmed young Christians who have become keen listeners. They see how the basis of international discussions breaks down again and again and recognize now that only the church, correctly understood, can be the unshakeable foundation for this highly difficult and ever-more dubious conversation (“Church, Youth, Peace” in DBWE 11, 2/19, p. 387).

The work of ecumenism is the work of all ecclesial communities; it will either be stewarded well or practically denied as a mark of the gospel. Christians and parishes must see and respond to the ecumenical imperative, which is no less important now than it was in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s day, at Vatican II, or during the papacy of Pope John Paul II. To be sure, ecumenism is a fool’s errand, but only because it is rooted in the foolishness of the cross.


  1. I have been teaching at Centre Sevres in Paris, the Jesuit seminary. The course covered BS Childs, Benedict, and Paul Beauchamp (and de Lubac and Ricoeur). German, Polish, Japanese, Canadian, American, Italian and French Catholics. It could have been called “Convergences” — with Benedict commending a “canonical approach”, Childs commending the history of interpretation, and Beauchamp negotiating both dimensions from the perspective of l’un et l’autre testament. There was so much shared concern, across ecclesial borders. The recent documents from the Catholic Church on the place of scripture would make Luther smile. Yet on the ground, where does the ‘man/woman in the pew’ sense or appreciate all this recent rapprochement amongst theologians and biblical scholars? I think in France the marginal character of Christian faith and life has made ecclesial differences almost without significance.

    • Dear Dr. Seitz: Thank you for your comment. I think the whole ‘Benedict Option’ conversation must ultimately find fruition in an ‘Ecumenical option,’ especially as Christian identity continues to weaken in historically ‘Christian’ locales. What you’ve mentioned above about France speaks to this need; differences become much less potent when the stranger becomes an ally (not that theological differences are unimportant, of course). In terms of your ‘on the ground question,’ it seems to me ecumenism most recognizably takes on substance in ways that are appreciated by parishioners in areas of missional cooperation (joint concern for the poor, the refugee, etc.). We held an ecumenical evensong at St. George’s in Nashville b/t the Episcopal diocese and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville, and while the common prayer component was amazing, it was the public concern for refugees and foster children locally that caught traction with lay people. The danger is, I think, that people then discard Faith & Order questions as impossibly irrelevant or even counter-productive to what really matters (i.e. social justice, outreach, etc).


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