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.”