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The Inauguration of the Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Research-Center for Public Theology

January 29 2008, Great Hall of Bamberg University
Pictures: Gertraud Gerner

On Tuesday, January 29 2008, the Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Research-Center for Public Theology was inaugurated with a ceremony in the Great Hall of Bamberg University. The Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Churches in Germany Dr. Wolfgang Huber gave the inauguration lecture "Ökumene der Profile" ("Ecumenism of Profiles"). (Download the lecture as a pdf-file on the bottom of this page.)

(For general information on the Research Center please use the yellow links on the left side of this website.)

Prof. Dr. Bedford-Strohm, who initiated the Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Research Center for Public Theology, was happy to greet an audience of circa 450 people in the former Dominican church which now serves as Great Hall of Bamberg University. - The broad interest in the Research Center gave a powerful impulse at the start of the new center's research activities on behalf of Public Theology.

Public Theology intends to affect the broader public - and at the same time it continuously refers to the church(es). The churches are a natural and important ally of Public Theology and vice versa. Thus it was a great honour and joy for Prof. Bedford-Strohm that the Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Church in Germany, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Huber, had agreed to give the inauguration lecture for the Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Research-Center for Public Theology.

Today the churches are part of a pluralistic society characterized by numerous competing moral and spiritual worldviews. Yet the churches continue to play a vital role in the public discourse as soon as the sources of social cohesion are debated.

Public Theology intends to help the churches articulate their contemporary stance on questions of public relevance. It does so by referring to the Christian traditions and by seeking interdisciplinary insights in its very own university context. In accordance with its academic nature, Public Theology's marriage to the churches includes constructive critique as well as theological support in the shared agenda of substantiating the relevance of religious perspectives for contemporary debates.

Naming the Research Center after Dietrich Bonhoeffer is programmatic: Bonhoeffer can be regarded as an exemplary public theologian avant la lettre. Already in April 1933 - only a few days after the first National-Socialist measures against German Jews - Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a lecture entitled „Die Kirche vor der Judenfrage“, in which he excoriated NS antisemitism. He also proposed three ways for the church to deal with the state in this lecture. After describing the way of helping the victims of society (which today can be identified with Diakonia and Caritas) and the way of resistance (which Bonhoeffer eventually chose for himself), Bonhoeffer suggests a third way that sums up Public Theology: Given a situation in which it is at all possible to gain the attention of the state and of society, the church needs to point out unjust conditions in public; the church's worldly responsibility here includes holding the state responsible for unjust conditions and working towards justice and peace.

- Together with the inauguration of the Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Research Center for Public Theology, the celebration on January 29 marked the bicentenary of the first officially recognized Protestant Church in catholic Bamberg (aka "Franconia's Rome"). The Protestant Dean of Bamberg, Otfried Sperl greeted the audience on behalf of the Lutheran Church of Bavaria. (Right: Dean Otfried Sperl and Prof. Bedford-Strohm.)

In conclusion of his introductory speech, Prof. Bedford-Strohm cordially welcomed Bishop Huber as an exemplary speaker for the occasion: Bischop Huber has been one of the theologians who helped to introduce Public Theology in Germany; he is one of the editors of the series „Öffentliche Theologie“. Furthermore, Bishop Huber is the spokesman of the editorial board of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (the German edition of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works). - And ecumenical exchange has always been at the heart of his theological endeavors.

Then the Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Church in Germany, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Huber began his much anticipated lecture by asking: Why should one choose the title "Ecumenism of Profiles" as the topic for the inaugurating lecture of the Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Research-Center for Public Theology?

Public Theology reflects on problems of public relevance in the light of theological traditions. It does so by presupposing that theology can give helpful orientation in contended public questions – orienting both Christian positions on such matters and the public as a whole. Yet theological orientation comes in the form of diverse denominational traditions. Does the denominational and theological diversity of Christianity support the public impact of the churches? If the churches agree on wanting to give witness to the Christian traditions in the context of contemporary moral and spiritual debates - how should they go about it?

At this point, Bishop Huber referred to the situation in Bamberg: Here, Public Theology naturally and necessarily takes an ecumenical form as the (Lutheran) Chair for Systematic Theology and Contemporary Theological Issues cooperates closely with the Department of Catholic Theology of Bamberg University. The Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Research-Center for Public Theology is placed in a region with a strong catholic tradition. The once popular saying in Bamberg "Protestants? Not here!" („Evangelische gibt’s hier nicht!“) actually refers to a time long past, which is immediately obvious upon celebrating the Protestant bicentenary. And the inner-German migration after the Second World War caused an increase of denominational diversity even in regions that once were as religiously homogeneous as the archbishopric of Bamberg.

(Right: the President of Bamberg University, Prof. Dr. Godehart Ruppert - a catholic theologian - and to his left the Deans of the Departments of Bamberg University.)

A second contextual argument for the ecumenical profile of Public Theology in Bamberg can be found in the theologian for whom the new research center is named: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bishop Huber emphasized Bonhoeffer's continuous ecumenical commitment. Bonhoeffer developed his unusual theological perspective by focusing on the visible form of the church as a theological problem.

Then Bishop Huber gave a diagnosis of the current ecumenical situation and  characterized the major ecumenical tasks that face the churches today. Thus he posed the question: Do we have to accept some inter-denominational disagreements as abiding disparities? And if so, how should the churches deal with this situation?

The answer to these questions is subject to ecumenical dissent. Are such abiding inter-denominational disparities an insurmountable barrier for ecumenism? Bishop Huber argued for his approach of "Ecumenism of Profiles". "Ecumenism of Profiles" starts by earnestly articulating the differences between the denominations - and continues by allowing other churches a seed of truth.

Bishop Huber cited the "Leuenberg Agreement" of 1973: In this document, 105 European Protestant Churches developed a ground breaking model for unity in diversity. Notwithstanding abiding differences in spiritual mentality and theology, the churches that signed the agreement established unity in the celebration of the Lord's Supper and recognized each other's proclamation of the gospel as legitimate and true.

The ecumenical concept of unity proposed by the Leuenberg Concorde mirrors the Augsburg Confession of 1530. In its seventh article, CA emphasizes that "unto the true unity of the Church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments." This concept of ecclesial unity views the churches' unity not only as a fruit of ecumenical labors but as a reality that is granted in faith and confession. Such unity does not hinder diversity, it appreciates diversity. The Augsburg Confession's interpretation of ecclesial unity envisions a true dialogue between the churches, a dialogue of truth, i.e. seeking the truth in the position not one's own. 

(Right: the Protestant Regional Bishop of Bayreuth, Wilfried Beyhl, the Protestant Dean of Bamberg, Otfried Sperl, and Professor Bedford-Strohm.)

At the end of his lecture, Bishop Huber summarized: From the perspective of ecclesial unity as delineated by the Augsburg Confession and the Leuenberg Agreement, ecumenical diversity does not hinder Public Theology at all. Rather, the plurality of churches can take the role of a vanguard for unity in diversity, for freedom and peace in plurality. In this way, the churches can guard each other against forgetting the right and privilege to differ from each other. Ecclesial unity in diversity can serve as a paragon for peaceful diversity in pluralistic societies.

(Right: Bishop Huber receives the plaudits for his lecture.)