Reflections on the Bible: Human Word and Word of God by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In honor of the 113th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday (February 4, 1906), here are a few excerpts from a collection of his writings as found in Reflections on the Bible: Human Word and Word of God (Hendrickson, 2017).

Word and Deed

In a world in which deeds speak their own language in such an overwhelming way, what is the word of the church supposed to be? Has it not become superfluous? Should we not ourselves simply fall in line with these deeds and, in place of so many words, just contribute our own deeds? Deeds are credible. Should we complain about how deeds come about in this world? That deeds take matters into their own hands? That here the applicable watchword is simply that God helps those who help themselves? It is precisely as we stand in the midst of deeds that we ask for a clarifying word—otherwise we cannot carry on.

Deeds make their own point. They roll wordlessly over everything weaker than they are. They knock it down and trample on it. Petty critiques are crushed by the force of the deed itself. This is the inherent law of the deed. Only one is greater than the deed: the one who grants it. Every deed knows this, that it is not its own master but is permitted and given. It should render praise to the one who grants it. Whether it does that or not is decided by its stance toward the word of God. The word of God is there, and is the only thing over which the deed has no power. Human capacities for the word of God may be small and weak, so that they are broken and wiped out along with all else that is purely human. The word alone endures forever. It challenges every deed without fear, for it is eternal, invulnerable, almighty. Its advocates may not be worthy of it; then they must disappear. The word, however, forces its own path wherever it pleases, and chooses its own hearers as it pleases, for it is God’s own word. The poverty of the word. The same God, who allows and grants great deeds, who visibly and yet incomprehensibly gives and takes away, wants to rescue humanity and grant it eternal salvation. In the deeds themselves God remains silent, but he reveals himself to those he wishes to save, the ones who are to find him. This revelation happens in the poverty of the word, for God wants to be believed and trusted. God does not want to compel belief by a miracle but wants to speak to the heart by the word and lead it to a freely chosen faith.

Word of God and the Creeds

The church is gathered around word and sacrament: a fellowship of faith, of worship, of life. It is built alone on the word of God.

Theology is the inflection of the church’s faith under the comprehensive and ordered knowledge of the word of God in its contextual and concrete form, as guided by the creedal statements of the church. Theology serves the authentic proclamation of the word in the church and the building up of the community in conformity with the word of God.

The essence of the church is not to practice theology but to believe and obey the word of God. But because it has pleased God to make himself known in the spoken human word and because this word is subject to distortion and dilution by human ideas and opinions, the community needs clarity about what constitutes true and false preaching—it needs theology not as an end in itself but as a means to help keep its proclamation authentic and combat false preaching. In times of testing and temptation the church is called in a special way to such maturity. The word of God is the only norm and rule of all true Christian knowledge. The creedal confession is the exposition and inflection of the word of God for a particular time and danger and is itself subject to the word of God. Theology is the exposition of the church’s confession from particular points of view and with a constant testing of the confession by Scripture. Faith comes only by the preaching of the word of God (Romans 10:17); it does not need theology, but authentic preaching needs both the creeds and theology. Faith, called into being by Christian preaching, turns to the Scripture and the creeds for its confirmation and thus engages in theology.

What importance do the theological disciplines have for the church? Is it not enough just to know the Bible? What need is there for dogmatics? For church history? For practical theology? What is the connection between congregational life and theology? One cannot understand the Bible apart from the basic teachings of the church, that is, dogmatics. One cannot engage in dogmatics without study of the Bible. One cannot overlook the reality that between us and the Bible there stands a church that has a history. Practical theology means to act today, but to do so under the word of Scripture, the creeds, history, and theology.

For more information about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, check out these books we’ve published: Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dallas Roark; Reflections on the Bible: Human Word and Word of God; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to His Thought by Sabine Dramm.

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