Philip Ziegler: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theologian of the Word of God”

The Wheaton Theology Conference is underway, with the first presentation given by Philip Ziegler, titled “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theologian of the Word of God.” Ziegler, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, is writing a book by the same title to appear in the Great Theologians series from Ashgate.

What kind of theologian was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? According to Ziegler, he was a theologian of the Word of God.  Although the themes of discipleship and community are certainly primary in Bonhoeffer’s theology, Ziegler contends that both are derivative of the one true center and foundation of Bonhoeffer’s theology, the Word of God – God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ as encountered through his written Word.

Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on Scripture as God’s word especially stands out against the backdrop of his context, namely the German church struggle and the critical intellectual mood of its time. Two key influences for Bonhoeffer’s theology were Martin Luther and Karl Barth. Against the common misappropriation of the Reformer, Bonhoeffer discovered and sought to propagate Luther’s radical emphasis on Solus Christus. Barth, a contemporary and friend, was the most influential on Bonhoeffer, especially in his emphasis on the primacy, particularity, and completeness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

Ziegler points to the Barmen Declaration (the official statement of the Confessing Church against the Nazi-supporting “German Church”) as an important yet overlooked place for seeing Bonhoeffer’s theology of the Word.  According to Ziegler, the Barmen Declaration was vigorously supported by Bonhoeffer and faithfully represents his theology of the word, both in its stress on the crucial importance of Scripture and the centrality of Christ. Bonhoeffer served the cause of the Barmen Declaration by drawing out its practical and political implications, as evidenced in his founding the seminary in Finkenwalde and writing the highly influential Nachfolge (published in English as The Cost of Discipleship). Ziegler notes that the first words in Nachfolge are not about “cheap grace,” but rather the importance of God’s Word for the church: “In times of Church renewal, holy Scripture naturally becomes richer in content for us.”

In sum, Bonhoeffer is essentially a theologian of the Word because it is through Scripture that Christ is present to the church as its Lord.  In Bonhoeffer’s words, “Jesus Christ is not dead but alive and still speaking to us today through the testimony of scripture.”


About Jeremy Treat

I’m a doctoral student at Wheaton under Kevin Vanhoozer and writing my dissertation on the relationship between the kingdom and the cross in biblical and systematic theology. I’m from Alaska and Washington and have studied at Biola U., Seattle Pacific U., Fuller Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Somewhere in there I was a pastor for seven years. I married my basketball coach’s daughter (score!) and we have two little girls. My oldest daughter just learned how to tell me “I love you,” which might be the best analogy for theology I’ve come across.
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3 Responses to Philip Ziegler: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theologian of the Word of God”

  1. Carmen Imes says:

    Thanks, Jeremy for this excellent summary of the lecture!

    My big take-away from Ziegler’s lecture was on the topic of relevance. Here’s my rough attempt at quoting him: “Programmatic concerns for relevance privilege the cultural context over divine revelation. God himself defines what is important to hear and know.” Later he said, “Theology becomes useful to the world as it listens to the living Word.”

    In other words, Bonhoeffer was adamant that the church should not try to make theology relevant to the world. As we actively engage the Word in our own contexts, it will speak to us in powerful ways. Ziegler explained, “If we look at Scripture as witness to the living Christ, we will find all we need.”

    Good Word.

  2. christianclarityreview says:

    For some reason there seems to be move on these days to re-cast Bonhoeffer as a Calvinist-by-any-other-name; a Christian brother who was truely born again, etc. In fact, Bonhoeffer denied the virgin birth of Christ and believed that Scripture was the Word of God, but in such a way as to a
    non-creating, powerless word of commands and advice that left room for the possibility of human free will.Bonhoeffer , believed, without ever saying it, that men, Satan and God share a common speech and the essence of that speech is not-God and can’t create anything.

    Bonhoeffer hated the truth that Jesus Christ did NOT speak the human speech God broke up at the tower of Babel. Bonhoeffer was a zealous free willer: you don’t write a book on ‘ethics’ (which are by definition ‘what a free willed human being ought to do under specific stimulus’ ) and not be a believer in libertarian free will.

    Like any other Christ-hater, he twisted Christ into a false god non-new creatures in Jesus Christ would love and then praised and ‘followed’ that false Christ in public. He was an arminian who practiced and preached a false gospel that had certain conservative air to it, but was never able to truly birth anyone in Jesus Christ.

    All those guys touting Bonheoffer these days? Get off the script of the usual arguments between Arminainism and Calvinism and bring in the Tower of Babel and the difference between the speech that God confounded and Christ as the Word of God and they run away, accusing as they go. ALL of their lies are based on a hope of your ignorance of the difference.

    Sure Bonhoeffer died while he opposed Hitler. All those who die still in Islam, to include those who are ‘conservative’ Islamics are going to the lake of fire, even though they oppose al Qaeda. False religion is false religion, even false Christianity that Bonhoeffer championed. What God wrote wasn’t good enough: Bonhoeffer wanted everyone to live how he wanted them to live so he wrote a manual of behavior called ‘ethics’.

    Do not be deceived by those pushing old, arminian theologians of the past. If they love free will, they hate Christ as a rule and are probably part of a conspiracy that includes infiltrating the seminaries, business schools and marketing firms to push a choice-based everything: in their ‘theology’, you prove you have personal power every time you buy something. So by all means, prove you have that power to buy by buying Jesus first, THEN after you’ve supposedly proved how powerful and smart you are to have chosen who God is and isn’t, then buy their products to keep feeling the pride.

    The next time you hear: Being a Christian is an act of your will!, just know there is a reason they want you to believe it and a reason they would sponsor a book championing lying theologians who sided with them in the past.

    What they do is not rocket science. It is just plain old witchcraft.

    Luke_8:8 And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

  3. Adam Morton says:

    Interesting. I wonder whether Ziegler said anything about Bonhoeffer’s emphasis (from Luther) on the preached word and its relation to the word of scripture (and to Christ himself). Here Bonhoeffer must be distinguished even from Barth–certainly he was a theologian of the Word, but to speak only of scripture and not of preaching obscures a good part of what he was really after. So he could say in lectures at Finkenwalde that…”Therefore the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word.”

    And even more: “Through the Word the world was created. The Word became incarnate. The incarnate Word continues to exist for us in the Scripture. Through the Holy Spirit, the incarnate Word comes to us from the Scripture in the sermon. And it is one and the same Word: the word of creation, the Word of the incarnation, the Word of the Holy Scriptures, the Word of the sermon. It is the creating, accepting, and reconciling Word of God, for whose sake the world exists.”

    For Bonhoeffer, the preached Word is literally Jesus Christ in person. The centrality of Christ the Word is thus the centrality of preaching.

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