The Concept of Institution in the Light of Continental Sociology and Theology


The ecumenical discussions on the Church have focused attention on a provocative question: Are the churches, as they live in ecumenical fellowship, not more determined by secular social forces and patterns than by the power of the Holy Spirit? Are they not to be regarded as social institutions among other social institutions? Must their institutional patterns not be viewed as mere "nontheological factors”?1 Since these institutional factors exercise a profound influence on the structuring of the churches (for example, offices, hierarchies, status, role-sets),2 as well as on their attitude toward one another (for example, co-operation, union, and reunion), it seems to be of some fundamental importance to ask what the Church, as the Body of Christ and at the same time as an institution in society, really is.3

We shall here discuss this issue with reference to certain trends of thought in Continental sociology and theology. Our intention, however, is to present not a descriptive survey but rather a personal critical interpretation. We hope to make clear that the question of the Church as a social institution is a significant theological issue. It is, speaking in a broader context, the question of

[54] 1. See especially C.H. Dodd, “A Letter Concerning Unavowed Motives in Ecumenical Discussion,” Ecumenical Review II (1949-1950), pp. 52fF.; and D. Jenkins, Ecumenical Review III (1950-1951), pp. 339ff.
2. See the evaluation of these institutional components in culture in W.G. Muelder, Foundations of the Responsible Society (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1959), pp. 53ff.
3. See W.-D. Marsch, “Kirche als Institution in der Gesellschaft,” Zeitschrift fur evangelische Ethik, 4 (1960), pp. 73ff., also The Student World, 1959, No. 1, pp. 25ff.


maintaining continuity and binding ties in a society which may be called “autonomous.”4 (Part I) Life in such a society, as we experience it in particular in the history of Western civilization since the Enlightenment period, is regarded as secular and as a self-fulfilling social process; man has taken the responsibility for his history and final destiny; his rational attitudes toward his environment and his shaping of inherited historical institutions have reinforced his autonomy. However, even in this situation man is inevitably confronted with the “ontological question”:5 the question of meaning, the question of the contingency of his history, the question of his kairos to act. This is to be one of the main concerns of contemporary Protestant ethics to ask for the will of God within such a changing, relative, and autonomous society. Against this background we then may discuss the problem of social institutions as it is seen in contemporary sociology: how do the social sciences deal with this question of continuity within a changing world? (Part II) Finally we apply the question to the Church: how can we speak about the Church as an institution —  perhaps even as a “paradigmatic institution”6 — in the processes of society, demonstrating by its very existence God's will to give continuity and stability in a changing history? (Part III)


The Theological Quest for Historical Order and Permanent Ties in Society

We may start with an evaluation of historical-genetic thinking as it evolved during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A question of rising importance for this period was, What historical order in human society proves to be binding and permanent when metaphysical interpretations of such an order have lost their significance? When speaking of “historical order” we must, in defining the word historical, draw a distinction between at least three meanings of this word, (a) There is the experience of a general historical relativity: Order, characteristics, and ties within society may arise and disappear; they change and vary with the course of social history, (b) There is also the

[54] 4. By this term we mean a society which neither depends upon nor thinks about a “higher,” metaphysical or natural order for individual life and for the progress of society, but rather depends upon functional coherence and integration.
5. See P. Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955).
6. See W.-D. Marsch, op. cit., pp. 81f.


experience of a general contingency of order: Social order, characteristics, and ties make definite claims upon people who live according to them. But this claim appears to be somewhat accidental and contingent. It must constantly be asked, therefore, whether this or that social institution can make an unconditional claim upon man. (c) There is, finally, the experience of being in process: Order, characteristics, and ties are to be regarded in their very historical development. A universal teleology seems to be the only conceivable basis for understanding progress in history. Man regards himself and society as “being on the way” to final fulfillment. This enables and obliges him to transform and to reshape his institutions which he had hitherto regarded as eternal and unchangeable.

These three meanings may be summed up in the question: What is the permanently coherent force in a changing order of society? Analyzing its institutions, man discovered that he has always been creating them. He has been creating a “second world” of artifacts around him. And now these institutions impose claims and obligations upon man, even though he seems to be their creator and master. Obligation and existence seem to be synchronized in institutions, but their very essence, their quality of being, is felt as a highly problematic one. It is a “secondary” product, a “semitranscendent” being (A. Gehlen) which cannot be any more regarded as a God-given “higher order” and therefore requires continuous reflection and reconsideration.7 This raises significant questions for Christian ethics. How can we possibly speak of God's eternal order and dominion in history?How does the Christian have to approach the ethical implications of a life bound up in secular social institutions? These questions may be related to three different modes by which Christians link the divine order and secular institutions.

• By appeal to the sole authority of the Scripture the Christian may take as God’s order only what can be derived from the written commands in the Old and New Testaments. Puritans and Pietists, orthodox and liberal Christians, have all tried in different ways to deduce valid norms for the life of society from the

[54] 7. The problem confronting the sociologist, i.e., to understand the “dilemma of a dual world” is well illustrated by R. Dahrendorf, Homo Sociologicus (Cologne-Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1960), p. 62: “The |55| consciousness of man as a whole and his right to freedom must be the background of every sentence he speaks or writes; he should always be aware of society not only as a fact but also as a stumbling block; the moral shortcomings of his discipline should be the passionate undertone of all his actions.”


Scriptures. However, because of the immense variety of these social ties in the contemporary world as well as in the history of the Old and New Testaments themselves, it seems nearly impossible to reach a clear and universally acceptable norm. Thus we are in a situation where a simple recourse to the social order portrayed in the Scriptures does not solve our problem. This is particularly the case in ecumenical discussions, which must attempt to co-ordinate many different approaches to and interpretations of the Bible. These differ widely because the Bible is interpreted in very different historical and cultural environments. The biblical answer cannot be isolated from the human predicament. There have been times when, for example, the institution of slavery or the basic inequality of the rights of man and woman were defended with biblical arguments.

• Such permanent ties in society may also be taken as “orders given by God in creation” (Schöpfungsordnungen). These orders are regarded as rooted in an “original revelation” defined by God in the act of creation; or they may be understood as sustaining orders by which God sustains this world against chaos (Erhaltungsordnungen).8 Or again we may say that it is simply incumbent upon man to accept the existing social ties and obligations in a given period in history as impenetrable forces of destiny, as manifestations of the “hidden God” (Deus absconditus).9 Or such orders may be perceived only in exceptional cases when the Christian comes into conflict with them, as for example, when he lives in a tyrannical state or faces the power of totalitarian ideologies.10 These are some of the ways in which German Lutheran theology in particular has sought, although not very effectively, to discern permanent and normative structures in a society in constant flux.

• Should not the Christian rather inquire about his own distinctive task in the changing processes of society? This raises the question of the concrete commandments of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, who rules in His Church and His world. His dominion can be taken as the only stable structure in an unstable world, which is secular in its essence but at the same time is holy as a

[55] 8. W. Künneth, Politik zwischen Dämon und Gott (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1954).
9. W. Elert, Christliche Ethik (Hamburg: Furche Verlag, 1949); and Morphologie des Luthertums II (Munich: C.H. Becksche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2nd ed., 1953).
10. H. Thielicke, Ethik des Politischen, Theologische Ethik, II/2 (Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1958). See also the two preceding volumes. Thielicke uses “model cases” to illustrate “situations of conflict” which confront the Christian in his continuous transition from the “old” to the “coming” aeon.


field of Christian discipleship. The Christian takes the ministry of Christ as a guide for his life — reconciliation, justification, and sanctification — and he is constantly transformed through the impact of Christ on his life. He experiences that secular, autonomous world as God’s heritage, given to him for realization in history. Christian action in a particular social nexus, therefore, means accepting or rejecting the obligations of that situation as concrete opportunities for sanctification. The Christian does not ask about the essence of the social institutions in which he is bound to live, but he asks about the tasks set before him in the fulfillment of his Christian discipleship. The Christian who acknowledges the Lordship of Christ realizes that this social environment is a reality which belongs to God and which manifests itself in the faithful action of the believer.11 The question is not what such an order or obligation is in itself (or in God’s secret plan of salvation), but what those commitments are capable of becoming by human acceptance in faith.

This issue doubtless appears differently to Continental Christians than it does in an English or American perspective. Up to the nineteenth century the Continent lived under the strong influence of a “Christian” order of society, whose institutions were regarded as God-given, hierarchical, and authoritarian. England and the U.S.A. experienced more thoroughly what we might call with K. Mannheim a “fundamental democratization” of life. The resulting mode of thought has not been interested so much in establishing a societas christiana within a secular world (except for isolated experiments, such as Shakers or Mennonites), as in demonstrating how society at large can be molded and transformed, developed, and perfected in accordance with the principles of Christian ethics. The impulses which came from Puritan Protestantism led to an enlightened, democratic culture in which the Church found its place as a dynamic, evangelistic center, adapting the structure and patterns of other democratic institutions.12 In their activities the churches are promoting a dynamic, flexible basis for institutional life in terms of justice and freedom. Christians are not so much interested in arguing about a theological

[55] 11. This is the characteristic approach of the ethics of Karl Barth. From his very earliest works Barth’s crucial question was, How does God’s revelation in Jesus Christ penetrate into the immanence of history? In his Kirchliche Dogmatik he has developed that specific form of Christian thought which he calls analogia fidei. God’s absolute truth and at the same time man’s ultimate vocation are revealed in Jesus Christ. That they are revealed does not mean that the reality of God has already been transformed into human reality, but rather that man now experiences his own reality as guided by the gracious action of God. In analogy to God’s action, man acts in faith as an autonomous self. He shapes his own freedom in analogy to God's freedom: he shows mercy as God shows mercy, he takes God’s justice as his example in administering justice. Barth speaks also of an analogia relationis. Just as God lives in permanent relationship — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — man also must be seen in a continuous relationship in which he has the opportunity to create according to God’s will. Human reality, therefore, is defined as the process of permanent social relations and self-realization in obedience or disobedience to God’s will. This process must not be thought of as chaotic or without telos and order. There are certain continuous binding ties in which man perceives very clearly that he belongs to Christ. In the first place marriage must be mentioned as an “example of mutual partnership.” Also the Church must be mentioned as the “form of Jesus Christ on earth and in history.” Finally the state “represents,” despite the fact that it is not a direct manifestation of God’s grace, "nevertheless one form of the Kingdom of Grace.” See W.-D. Marsch, “Christliche Begründung des Rechts,” Evangelische Theologie 17 (1957), pp. 145ff. and 193ff.
[56] 12. For a discussion of the full integration of the Church into society, its absorption into social relationships, and its degradation to a club or to a mere reflection of society, see W. Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1955).


basis for order and institutions in society as they are concerned to shape and transform society toward the coming of the “Kingdom at Hand,” on the tacit assumption that God rules over this society and waits to be sanctified according to His will.13

Thus the question of the relation between God’s will and autonomous human action in history is here answered in a fashion similar to the view stated above (under 3): God as the center and ultimate goal of society is already accepted as being in its midst; through Christian people, He will, under the guiding power of his Spirit, transform society.14 Thus the quest for a Christian order of society seems to be replaced by the quest for Christian living in (sociologically interpreted) institutions, aiming at the establishment of a “responsible society.”15 It is taken for granted that these secular institutions have a bearing on God’s will. Thus the relation between God and history does not offer to be such a perplexing and acute problem as in the Continental tradition, where the breakdown of a traditionally “Christian culture” has necessitated a rethinking of basic principles. Nevertheless, the very fact that the problem of institutions is now being discussed in the world ecumenical movement, in its relevance not only for Christian social ethics but also for the life of the Church itself, is an indication that the issue is increasingly felt to be of general importance.

The next step in our analysis will be to examine the question: what does it mean that the Church must be regarded as a social institution among other institutions?


Institutions as a Problem of Social Science

The rise of social science coincided with the crises and upheavals which became acute during the time when the issue discussed above arose. Society, having thrown off eternal orders and ties, appeared to become a problem to itself. Sociologists hoped to achieve an objective understanding of human activity in society by applying scientific “positive” laws to social life (J. Comte, Physique sociale!). Much contemporary sociology claims to be a

[56] 13. Characteristic of this approach is G.F. Thomas’ Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955).
14. See Nels Ferré, Christianity and Society (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950). Chapter VI is particularly important.
15. W.G. Muelder, op. cit. (p. 66, Note 2). The religious institutions of society, i.e., the churches, as well as a functional sociology of religion, have the special task of providing integration “to the ultimate meanings of society.” See also J.M. Yinger, Religion, Society and the Individual (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), pp. 56f.


“science of reality” (Wirklichkeitswissenschaft, H. Freyer), based more or less upon empirical findings, and aiming toward a “theory of social action” (T. Parsons) or at least toward a socio-philosophical evaluation of the process of culture (K. Marx, M. Weber, K. Mannheim). Thus, on this view, sociology gives us a chance to discover what basic foundations are conducive to improving and stabilizing social life within the stream of historical relativity. As controlling knowledge (Herrschaftswissen, M. Weber), sociology claims at least some of the tasks previously assumed by philosophical or theological ethics.

The interpretation of institutions as stable and stabilizing factors in society obviously varies in accordance with the basic assumptions and values accepted, or in accordance with the purpose of the sociological analysis presumed. By way of illustration, we shall examine here the analysis developed by three leading German scholars in this field. It will suggest a mode of approach by which the theological question of institutions in general and of the institutionality of the Church in particular may find a more appropriate formulation.


Theories about Freedom and Institutions

Continuing the tradition of German idealism and the crises through which it passed (Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche), the German philosophers Hans Freyer (born 1887) and Arnold Gehlen (born 1904) connected a diagnosis of the contemporary situation of culture with an anthropological theory and a philosophy of institutions. They speak about man as an “unfathomed creature” (F. Nietzsche) or “the typical defective creature.” What is meant by this is that man as the initiator of action in history is not able to manifest his own creative activity totally. He realizes himself as free, subjective creativity — he can do and he is allowed to do everything — but at the same time he experiences himself as preconditioned by laws and customs, by taboos and codes, in other words, by institutionally determined actions. In


his freedom man realizes that he is not free; in his actions he realizes that he cannot act without being conditioned by institutions. Thus institutions belong to man's very historical existence. They demonstrate to him that his life is experienced as an “alienated” one. Alienation, as defined by Hegel and Marx, means the loss of creativity by living in the boundaries of a historically and economically defined society. This alienation can be overcome only by adapting to the existing institutions, by accepting the institutionality of human existence. Freyer in particular has developed this concept of alienation into a theory of a culture built of what he calls “secondary systems.” Man has created a cosmos of institutional order around himself, which, however, in its turn becomes a cosmos of its own, with laws, customs, and cultural habits that govern man and limit him in his basic freedom. A “secondary” framework of human life has developed beside the “primary” one of spontaneous activity. Only in institutionalized form can human action become valid and effective.16 As an influence which already shapes every free action, institutions are, therefore, on the one hand, essentially necessary in order to make alienated action possible at all; on the other hand, however, they are felt to be a constant stumbling block, preventing man from freely developing his creative forces of self-realization, and confronting him with the dilemma of choosing between adaptation or a critical attitude toward existing institutions.

Gehlen builds his analysis of institutions upon this dilemma of social action in general and connects it with certain socio-historical insights. In primitive civilizations man was relieved of the burden of personal free decision by accepting the mythical institutions in which he lived, such as taboo, custom, and cult. In highly differentiated civilizations, however, these institutions are looked upon as the products of man’s own technical and cultural powers, which in their turn control man.17 Man has increasingly thrown off his mythical and metaphysical ties, and is now being confronted with the necessity of constant choice and decision. He can either go on breaking down the inherited institutions and

[56] 16. Especially H. Freyer, Theorie des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1955). See also H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), Chapter 1.
17. A. Gehlen, Urmensch und Spätkultur (Bonn: Athenäum Verlag, 1956), p. 9. “The same institutions that men create in their common thought and action become an independent power and impose their own laws upon the very hearts of these men.” See also Gehlen, Sozialpsychologische Probleme in der industriellen Gesellschaft (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr-Paul Siebeck 1949); “Probleme einer soziologischen Handlungslehre,” Soziologie und Leben: Studien für C. Brinkmann (Tübingen: R. Wunderlich Verlag, 1952), pp. 28ff.; and Die Seele im technischen Zeitalter (Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1957). These positions are based on Gehlen’s anthropology, Der Mensch, seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt (Bonn: Athenäum Verlag, 4th ed., 1950).


thus live by uncontrolled impulses and unceasing intellectual reflection and personal engagement in contingent situations; or he can accept existing patterns and institutions, but, being relieved of the necessity to make continually new decisions, he then has to accept a trend toward a gradual primitivization of the human spirit. The gradual abolition of institutions inherited from earlier generations, on the one hand, and the man-created influence of powerful technical institutions, on the other, run concurrently us two conflicting trends which determine human life in industrial society.

According to Gehlen this dilemma between free reflectivity and conformist adaptation to institutions has been intensified by the Christian theology of creation. Pre-Christian primitive man was able to identify himself with the world around him. He found himself bound by the powers of nature, the cosmos, by myths and gods. The Christian view of creation as “creation out of nothing” (creatio ex nihilo), however, has turned those natural or God-given powers into pure objects of the sovereign, transcendent will of God and at the same time into objects of human will, because man has been called to dominate this creation. Social institutions, thus, may be called “semitranscendental”: they are half sacred and half secular, partly given and prescribed, and partly undergoing the process of human formation, half eternal law and half malleable working material for the improvement of social life. As Gehlen has put it in a pithy phrase, “God” (and hence also the creative impulses of man as God’s image) “and the machine have survived the world of antiquity and now confront one another alone.”18 There is no longer a sacred world which can be regarded as the framework for unquestioning acceptance by institutionalizing agents. Society with its institutions has become at the same time the object and the foundation of human freedom.

The purpose of this analysis is to explain the “secondary” quality ul these social institutions today as “the great orders which at the same time protect and swallow man, which will last far longer than he does, and which he is accepting with his eyes open.”19

[56] 18. Gehlen, Urmensch und Spätkultur, p. 285.
19. A. Gehlen, “Über die Geburt der Freiheit aus der Entfremdung,” Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, 40 (1952-1953), p. 352.


It illustrates the point that man in industrial society suffers under a universal alienation. He is forced to live in institutions which are beyond his control; though realizing a relative freedom, he has no possibility critically to question the motive or purpose of these institutions.

Applied to the Church as an institution, this kind of social analysis would imply that there is no point in inquiring into the “motives” which lead to its institutional stabilization. Christians have to live in the Church and adapt to it as an institution, in order to live in the freedom of their faith. The question of the “true Church” (ecclesia vera) and of the “Church always being reformed” (ecclesia semper reformanda) seems simply unanswerable, and it even need not be asked as long as the existing ecclesiastical institution performs its functions. The question of expediency of church practices (for example, the organization of worship and of congregational life, the adaption to the structures presented by society) would replace the question of truth.20 This would evidently mean the end altogether of questioning institutional phenomena in the churches. The Christian conviction that church life has to be the fruit of true faith, that the Body of Christ cannot live without constant recourse to Him, the Founder, would be put in doubt. The Church would share the fate of a universally alienated society.

Mention should also be made of Helmut Schelsky (born 1912). Though adopting some of the philosophical assumptions of Freyer and Gehlen, his approach is closely related to that of cultural anthropology. He sees the development and stability of institutions as resting upon the satisfaction of basic and derived needs in the sense of Malinowski, but at the same time he emphasizes the autonomous structure of institutions. These engender new artificial needs within society which must in their turn be satisfied by new institutions, building up a reality and a momentum of their own without relation to the functions originally to be satisfied. Hence the process of institutionalization must be regarded as a process of building up a “secondary” system, a framework of

[56] 20. These phenomena have been observed, e.g., by M. Freedman in respect to the Jewish dispersion: M. Freedman, “Die jüdische Gemeinde in der Diaspora,” Soziologie der Kirchengemeinde, ed. by D. Goldschmidt, F. Greiner, H. Schelsky (Stuttgart: Verlag F. Enke, 1960).


artifacts in a sense reminiscent of the theories of Freyer and Gehlen.


Implications for Theology

To sum up, we may ask: what do these sociological theories about the interrelation of man and society imply for a theological study of institutions? Three points will be made:

Man is thought of as a compound of impulses, actions, and needs. He has to satisfy these needs and their cultural reflection in society. He is living in order to survive, and to survive better ind better in a structured cultural environment. Social integration is understood as a human achievement for the purpose of better survival. Man differs from animals because he is able to mold his life consciously, while animals live by the directives and certainty of their instincts and impulses.21 Man must respond to certain functional imperatives to be capable of better self-realization. How do such statements square with biblical anthropology? According to the first chapters of the Bible man exists in a compound of institutionalized habits because he is living in society; he is not regarded as free individual subjectivity. Adam and Eve live in mutual encounter and dependence upon each other, not in free subjective self-realization. The imperatives of their lives are, on the one hand, to be interpreted as essentially functional ones, the function of sex and propagation; but there is, on the other hand, a different element which does not appear at all in functional sociological analysis: the element of mutual dependence in love as an image of God.

Society as a whole may be regarded as a web of social relations which, according to their degree of continuity and formality, assume institutional forms. Society is always in the process of creating revised forms of institutional life. It is the process of culture itself which may be called the “structural movement of society” (R. Benedict). Society is defined as the process of integration of these different and differing individual impulses of life which become increasingly interdependent in the progress

[56] 21. H. Schelsky, “Über die Stabilität von Institutionen, besonders Verfassungen,” Jahrbuch fur Sozialwissenschaften 3, 1952 (Gottingen, 1954), p. 6: “Whereas in the animal world the requirements remain constant within a species and are only changed with the historical evolution of the species, it lies in the nature of man's derived cultural requirements constantly to produce new needs arising from the first, especially institutionalized, concrete needs. This process of continuously creating new needs while already-existing needs are laid down and permanently |57| satisfied in institutions and other cultural organisms is characteristic of the whole biological and historical development of man.”


of history. There seems to be no telos of history conceivable behind or beside the continual integrating process of society itself. A fulfilled life equals to a socio-culturally integrated life. A biblical view of society, on the other hand, would question the validity of such conclusions in functional sociological theory. According to those passages of the Bible which affirm the eschatological thrust of history, society always points toward some¬thing beyond itself. It cannot be regarded as only a functioning and self-sustaining process, but must be seen as a process of permanent renewal in eschatological hope: the hope for a fulfillment and consummation of all history which transcends history itself. The historic dynamics of unconditional and unpredictable events as well as the thrust of Christian hope seem to be blocked by a theory of functional self-fulfillment of society.

Institutions may be regarded as the mediating agents between man and society. They are necessary because man is in the process of self-realization in society: no isolated life is possible for the human being. They perform the function of regulating the abstract, fragmented, and pluralistic cultural and societal factors surrounding human life. In the light of the teachings of the Bible it does not seem necessary to abrogate such a functional analysis of institutional life. It must be placed, however, in the wider context of salvation history. The Christian must permanently ask what is the purpose of these functioning institutions and how he has to accept the conditions of institutionalized life. In the cultural environment of the Old and New Testaments the Bible shows human life to be bound by certain social conditions, that is, to be institutionalized in the sense described above. However, it shows in this very same view human life as instituted by the creative will of God. God’s covenant provides the framework of every creative impulse in history. We shall therefore have to examine the interrelation between this act of divine institution and the process of human institutionalization. Is it possible to speak of a “vertical” as well as of a “horizontal” dimension in the institutions of society?

Before proceeding to this question, however, we shall briefly


apply this sociological approach more specifically to institutionalism in the Church. We find in the Church, as well as in society, Certain institutionalizing factors and agents. The Church as it inters history develops certain institutional structures because the individual impulses of the believers need to be sustained by generalized behavior patterns. The Church cannot live and prosper by relying on irregular, individual impulses. However, it seems impossible that the Church as the community of believers (contrary to Gehlen’s thesis) could ever refrain from constantly reconsidering the “motives” (that is, the originating faith) of its institutional character. The traditional patterns of the Church cannot be so commanding as to relieve the believer from questioning the “motives” of the process of institutionalization. There may indeed be tendencies to consolidate the institutional framework of church life to such an extent that it becomes increasingly difficult to revitalize the historical forces which have formed the institutional life of present churches. Institutionalism becomes predominant in the Church when those petrified traditions become so all-powerful that no room seems left to ask for the “motive” of the life of the Church.

The Christian belief that the Church is both a creation of the Holy Spirit and a human community means in this connection that by the Cross of Christ man's freedom is at once condemned and confirmed. Through his failures, man experiences his freedom anew. It is therefore in the nature of the case that the Church is to be particularly alert to the problems posed by these institutional factors. The Church must not, and by its very nature even cannot, neglect the task of continually reconsidering the “motive” of its very existence: God’s judgment and salvation. The Church may, therefore, perhaps be described as the “paradigmatic institution.”22 It is to proclaim the aim of all institutional life, recognizing alienation as a deep existential crisis which, however, cannot be thought of as the final fate of society, without hope for a rebirth grounded in the regenerating power of God who forever remains faithful to his covenant with mankind.23

[57] 22. W.-D. Marsch, op. cit. in Note 3 above, p. 87.
23. This sentence should be understood against the background of P. Tillich’s Christology in his Systematische Theologie, II (Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1958), pp. 109ff., 124ff., and 137ff.


Institutions as a Theological Problem

We can now attempt to draw some conclusions for a theology of institutions. In order to define the correlation of what we previously called the vertical and horizontal dimensions of institutions, it will be helpful to recall some of the historical meanings of the term. In the language of Roman jurisprudence, institutio was used in a pedagogical sense to denote an “introduction” to a subject; the term could also mean an instruction or teaching which helped the student to draw correct conclusions about a certain matter. In ecclesiastical Latin, institutio denotes an organization, a custom or tradition, which is either to be preserved (by fixing existing forms of life as good and permanent ones) or modified (by adapting those forms to new conditions of life) or even replaced by new institutions which serve the purpose of the common good. These different meanings may be summed up as follows: an existing order in human society is preserved or modified or replaced by divine and human action. Through and in institutions man realizes his position, his status; he is challenged to accept this personal status in society as a God-given one. In the dynamic process of society in history man becomes aware of this concrete institutionalized status. Believing this process to be at the same time the procedure of God’s history of salvation, man is challenged to accept this.

Both the secular and the religious interpretation which we find mingled in the Latin use of the word contain dynamic and static elements. The dynamic element stems from the historicity of institutions which are regarded as parts of the historical process or as parts of God’s history of salvation — God constantly challenging man to personal integration into his ongoing work of atonement. The static element is given by the fact that man lives under the contingent tutelage of the limiting and incommutable possibilities of self-realization in history. He sees himself as restricted by fixed structures of society or by the commandment of God who has placed man at a definite place in his created world. These two elements, dynamic and static, can be illustrated most clearly in the


institution of marriage. A man and a woman take a free decision to marry one another, choosing this form of partnership out of the many possible forms of partnership as the one which befits them. They are then faced with the task of confirming this partnership afresh every day in this marriage. The institution proves to be capable of being renewed over and over, and it can take many forms of expression. This is the dynamic element. But at the same time the free choice of both partners restricts their opportunities for alternative self-expression. Even if the marriage comes to an end through separation, divorce, or the death of one of the partners, they cannot regain the freedom they had before marrying each other. The institution in its static element cannot he altered at will, it is irrevocable.

Under the auspices of the Evangelical Church in Germany, during the recent decade joint commissions of jurists and theologians have been engaged in long-range studies of the nature and religious significance of the institution of marriage24 and also of the wider issue of the foundations of law.25 Since 1955 a similar group, sponsored by the Evangelical Academies, has met in annual study conferences to investigate the interdisciplinary theological, sociological and legal problems of institutions.26

Although these studies are still of an exploratory nature, they have yielded illuminating insights. Among other things, they have indicated that it is possible to develop a theory of institutions without having recourse to concepts of natural law or metaphysical order and without falling into legal positivism. The institutional structures of society can be interpreted as certain irrevocable, noninterchangeable, and unconditional relationships, structures of human existence in which the static and dynamic elements coincide.27

There are mainly three institutions of general importance to be found in the biblical affirmations about man in society, which relate to three basic existential relationships of man: (1) the relation between God and man as man responds to God’s call in His covenant — these are the institutions of worship, the Church; (2) the relation between man and his fellow man, instituted from the

[57] 24. H. Dombois, ed., Weltliche und Kirchliche Eheschliessung (Glaube und Forschung, VI) (Gladbeck: Schriftenmissions-Verlag, 1953); Familienrechtsreform, Glaube und Forschung VIII) (Witten: Luther Verlag, 1955).
25. See Kirche und Recht, Ein vom Rat der EKD veranlasstes Gespräch über die christliche Begründung des Rechts (Göttingen: Verlag Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1950).
26. The results of the first conference have been published in Recht und Institution, Glaube und Forschung IX (Witten: Luther Verlag, 1956). See especially the “Thesen,” pp. 71ff. See also the chapter by H. Dombois in the present volume. A second volume, containing the results of the Commission’s work between 1956 and 1961 will be published before long (probably in 1963 by the same firm).
27. As studies closely related to this Commission’s work, the following may be noted: M. Greiffenhagen, “Die Verstehensproblematik im Dialog zwischen Soziologie und Theologie, untersucht am Beispiel der Institution,” Zeitschrift für evangelische Ethik 5 (1961), pp. 159ff.; E. Wolf, “Eigentum und Existenz,” ibid. 6 (1962), pp. 65ff.; R.-P. Callies, Eigentum als Institution (Munich: Verlag Christian Kaiser, 1962); W.-D. Marsch, article, “Institution,” Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed., Vol. III (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1959), pp. 783ff.


very origin of mankind in the partnership between man and woman — these are the institutions of marriage and family; (3) the relation between man and nature, which is handed over to him as his dominion over the world of things — these are institutions of property and technical culture. These secular social institutions are to be interpreted as God-given “mandates” for the Christian, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase. Their ethical significance is not attached to a “divine origin” but rather to their purpose and meaning in the context of biblical anthropology.

The Bible regards man as that creature who has been elected to exist in the image of God, and with whose history God has identified Himself in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Man has received a special vocation: to actualize this being as an image of God. Christian anthropology thus depicts man as he encounters God and responds to situations given within history, situations where he stands between crisis and hope, between judgment and mercy, between the opportunities lost and the opportunities restored by God’s reconciliation, between self-glory and praise of God, between idolatry and service rendered to Him, between serfdom and freedom, between self-interest and love. For the problem of institutions this means that it is not necessary to describe human existence in terms of supposedly “divine” orders and institutions conceived as static metaphysical entities. Man must rather be understood as being God’s child, image, and partner, engaged in social relations — as God manifests Himself by being-in-relation. Instead of compiling a catalogue of divinely given institutions we ought to look for those existential relationships in human life which are visibly embodied in secular social institutions. We ought to consider those institutions as challenges in which man is called to respond to his divine vocation. By stressing this challenge, we can then speak theologically of a personal “status” gained within an institution: God has given men continuity, and man responds by freely accepting this vocation.

This calls attention to the meaning of history in relation to institutions. Man experiences history both as a rigid contingency,


a call to an unpredictable future, and as an inherited past which is to be transcended. His attitude toward history is determined both by tradition and revolution.28 This antithesis is synthesized in God’s history with man. It is characteristic of the biblical view of history that we find no clear distinction in it between historical fate and the present call of God.29 God is at work in the midst of history. History is eschatologically open to something beyond itself, and at the same time God is not working beyond history but transforming it by performing His covenant. For the theological interpretation of institutions this means that historical social institutions cannot be regarded as ethically neutral, for they have their definite place within God’s history. Their “autonomy” must be discerned as a “theonomy.”

Thus, for example, marriage as an institution is a paradigm of human being-in-relation in which man is called to live not only according to the impulses of his nature but also according to his Christian vocation. His history with his partner in that institution is likewise his history with God. Other social institutions exhibit the same basic institutionality. It would be the task of a fully developed theology of institutions to relate the infinite number of social institutions to that basic fact.

The dialectical relationship between the “vertical” and the “horizontal” dimension of human institutionality, which here lias been suggested, comes to particular evidence within the Church. On the one hand, the Church cannot be created anew by the fellowship of its actual believers; it becomes what it is through and by tradition.30 On the other hand, it is equally true that it must always be actually created anew by the dedication and witness of its believing members. It is becoming what it already is. The Church cannot “go into hibernation.” It cannot live without constantly facing the challenge to realize itself as the one body of Christ.31 This dialectical tension in which the Church is placed between sacralization and secularization of itself32 demonstrates once again that the problem of institutionalism within the churches cannot be treated as a purely sociological problem or as

[57] 28. See G. Picht, Die Erfahrung der Geschichte (Frankfurt/Main: Verlag Vittorio Klostermann, 1958).
29. Both in the procedure of the Covenant in the Old Testament and in the eschatology of the New Testament we find the interwovenness of the maintenance of tradition and the encounter of God in actual event. See J.L. Leuba, New Testament Pattern (E.T. London: Lutterworth Press, 1953).
30. It was the tradition of Old Testament’s Judaism which made the disciples gather and form the “new people of God.” In this way the Church always in her history built upon historical inheritance and traditions from generations to generations. The event of her foundation, Jesus Christ, is not mediated except by tradition. See J.L. Leuba, op. cit.
31. This means in the context of this study: the Church cannot exist as an institution without realizing — by her very existence — the ecumenical call.
32. These indications are explained in greater detail in my study mentioned above in Note 3, especially pp. 89ff.


a question of “nontheological factors.” The “vertical” and the “horizontal” dimension of the Church, that is, her being as a creation of the Holy Spirit and her being as a social institution, can only be understood as essentially interwoven. Moreover, this interwovenness is theologically significant for the understanding of social institutions in general.

These indications must suffice. Our purpose has been to suggest some of the ways in which contemporary Continental thought seeks to understand the relevance of institutions for Christian social ethics in general and for the doctrine of the Church in particular. It interprets institutions as dynamic, yet stable, “ordering factors” in society and in the Church, which challenge the Christian constantly to question his institutional ties by asking what their meaning and purpose is in the history of God with man. “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62).



Bibliography for Essay 2


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Bonhoeffer, D., Ethik (Munich: Verlag Christian Kaiser, 5th ed., 1960; E.T. London: SCM Press, 1955).
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