Bonhoeffer’s theology is a modern version of Luther’s theology of the cross. It is not merely a slavishly reworked version but constitutes a highly original contribution to the conversation that captures both the essential elements and the heart of Luther’s theology and makes it relevant for today. To the extent that Luther’s work represented a copernican revolution in theology Bonhoeffer’s work does too.
The two most important elements of Luther’s theologia crucis are (a) a refutation of the rationalist approach to God and the attempt to fit God into a human system and (b) the revealedness of God in God’s hiddenness in the suffering of Jesus. These two elements are the linchpin of Bonhoeffer’s reformulation of the theology of cross. He does it in such a way that in the Bonhoeffer literature this is hardly mentioned because not sufficiently recognized. But it is there nonetheless.
The first theologia crucis element of rejection and refutation of scholasticism returns in Bonhoeffer’s all-out critique of transcendentalist, idealist, and ontological approaches in philosophy. There must be a way beyond all these approaches which are in the end nothing but the expression of the cor curvum in se. They are as against the heart of the gospel (sola gratia) as scholastic Aristotelianism (virtue). The “way beyond” consists of a coming to terms and an acceptance of the hiddenness of God which can be grasped, not by the power of reason, but in an acceptance in faith of God on the cross and the paradoxical reality that in Christ we are justified. Bonhoeffer translates this in the act of faith through which we find ourselves participating in the being of revelation, which is the Church. The Church is Christus-als-Gemeinde-existierend and is as such wrapped-up in God’s self-revelation in Christ.
Where Luther used nominalist thought patterns to deconstruct scholasticism (both in its realist and nominalist forms), Bonhoeffer uses phenomenology to critique the contemporary philosophies of his own age. Just as Luther was not a nominalist, Bonhoeffer was not a phenomenalist. Yet, just as one needs to understand the nominalism in Luther to understand Luther’s refutation of scholasticism, one needs to be able to read Bonhoeffer as a phenomenologist in order to understand how he makes room for revelation.
Like Luther, Bonhoeffer does not merely present an alternative theological method, but provides a copernican revolution: a theology that moves beyond any human system to an explication of the heart of the gospel, namely the self-giving of God in Christ which issues in the self-giving of his followers. A theology that does not in its core conform to this movement (from the centripetal cor curvum in se to the the centrifugal giving-of-self) is not worthy of the name.
It is often thought that Barth brought this copernican revolution about, but at the end of the day, it seems that where Barth initiates the revolution by means of epistemology he cannot complete it percisely because he remains stuck in the epistemological question. Bonhoeffer completes the revolution by moving beyond epistemology toward a postmodern and truly postliberal theology. In this Bonhoeffer stands to Barth as Luther stood to Biel and Ockham. That Bonhoeffer’s work is truly revolutionary can be seen from the fact that Bonhoeffer is talked about but theologically not emulated much. Such theology demands true self-involvement for it is connected to the heart of the gospel.
Bonhoeffer develops one aspect, latent in Luther’s theology, namely that the theologia crucis is not merely about the mystery of God in Jesus’ cross but that essentially those, who are God’s in Jesus, fully participate in the self-giving life of the “Man for Others.” The Church exists for the world.