Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. By Eric Metaxas. Nashville, TN. Thomas Nelson, 2010. 608 pp. Hardcover: $29.99.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906–9 April 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi resistant, and founding member of the Confessing Church. His view of Christianity’s role in the secular world has become very influential. Bonhoeffer became known for his resistance against the Nazi dictatorship, strongly opposing Hitler’s euthanasia programs, and the genocide against the Jews. He was also involved in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and executed by hanging in April 1945, 23 days before the Nazis’ surrender.
Some of Bonheoffer’s broad appeal can be explained by his great enemy. Since 1944, both liberal and Biblical Christians have counted Hitler as the greatest of modern evils. Since Bonhoeffer stood against Nazism, he naturally has commonality across the theological spectrum. Yet his popularity draws from another important source as well. Bonhoeffer, like most people, changed fairly dramatically over the course of his short life. Metaxas does a very nice job tracing this change, though his emphasis on Bonhoeffer’s growing orthodox gained the author few friends among the more liberal theologians.
The book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy became a New York Times #1 bestseller, and was named “Book of the Year” by the ECPA. Bonhoeffer also won the 2011 John C. Pollock Award for Biography awarded by Beeson Divinity School and a 2011 Christopher Award in the Non-fiction category. Called a “biography of uncommon power,” Bonhoeffer appeared on numerous 2010 “Best of the Year” lists and was featured in the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, The New Republic, Harper’s, Kirkus (starred review), NPR, FoxNews, C-SPAN’s Book TV, Christianity Today, The Weekly Standard, and First Things.
In 2011, Metaxas was the 17th recipient of the Canterbury Medal awarded by the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom, an award based on Bonhoeffer and Eric’s earlier book Amazing Grace the story of William Wilberforce.
Not all reviews were so positive. As mentioned above, liberal thinkers were rather displeased with Metaxas’ work, feeling that Bonhoeffer’s thought was redacted to reflect a more Biblical worldview than the one Dietrich truly possessed. I think their claims have some merit, especially since the influence of Karl Barth and Berlin’s Higher Critic circles were underdeveloped in the book. That said, the progress of Bonhoeffer appears to be fairly depicted by Metaxas. It appears undeniable that he moved more and more toward Scriptural orthodoxy, away from the liberalism of Berlin and the neo-orthodoxy of Barth.
Finally, those who see the perseverance of the saints as an iffy proposition dependent on human work did not appreciate Metaxas’ attempts to trace Dietrich’s move toward the doctrine of eternal security.
Pride and Leadership: One of the early themes in Dietrich’s writing and speaking concerned the evil of pride. On Wednesday, February 1, 1933 Dietrich gave a speech on German radio. The Nazis had just won control of the government and may have pulled the plug before Bonhoeffer was finished (or the preacher may have merely gone too long.) Regardless, before the airtime was over he spoke about the evil of pride in leaders:
The difference between real leadership and the false leadership of The Leader [is] this: real leadership derives its authority from God, the source of all goodness. But the authority of a Furher [is] submitted to nothing. It is self-derived and autocratic…A true leader must know the limitations of his authority (p. 141).
Later, Bonhoeffer broke from the German church, which had become thoroughly “Nazified,” joining a group called “The Confessing Church.” He even started his own seminary on the Baltic coast. There, he was able to develop leadership according to a Biblical model.
Philosophy & Theology: In one Metaxas’ best passages, he summarizes Act & Being, Dietrich’s postdoctoral thesis (a requirement then to enter the ranks of university lecturers).
In Act and Being (Akt und Sein), he used philosophical language to show that theology is not merely another branch of philosophy, but something else entirely. For him, philosophy was man’s search for meaning apart from God. It was a type of Barth’s “religion,” in which man himself tried to reach heaven or truth or God. But theology begins and ends with faith in Christ, who reveals himself to man; apart from such revelation, there could be no such thing as truth. Thus the philosopher—and the theologian who operates on a philosopher’s assumptions—chases his own tail and gazes at his own navel. He cannot break out of that cycle, but God, via revelation, can break in (p. 89).
Dietrich’s change: When Dietrich came to America in 1930, his experiences changed him. He became increasingly disgusted with the dry liberalism that masqueraded as “progressive” thought, was horrified at racism in the US, and was deeply moved by vibrant “negro” churches in Harlem. The preaching and Bible study at Abyssinian Baptist particularly impressed him. Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy had made German theologians open to the idea of Scripture as real revelation. Of course, the Bible says that conversion comes by hearing God’s Word and in Harlem Bonhoeffer clearly heard God’s Scripture. A few years later, he wrote a letter to a friend (Elizabeth Zinn) that described the change manifested in him during 1930:
Something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible…I had often preached. I had seen a great deal of the Church, and talked and preached about it—but I had not yet become a Christian… Since then, everything has changed (p. 123).
Church & state: Dietrich was one of the earliest to understand that National Socialism was a direct threat to the Lord’s church. He recognized that church and state issues were going to become critical under the zeitgeist of Nazism. He commented about the dangers of the Gleischaltung (synchronization of society) and the wedding of state church with Hitler:
Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions—that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary—were too much for almost everyone. But for him they were inescapable. In time, he would do all three (p. 155).
After [Pastor Martin] Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, he penned these famous words:
First they came for the Socialists [Communists], and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists [businesses & bankers], and I did not speak out —because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me (p. 192).
Relevancy: Bonhoeffer had some particularly piercing thoughts on relevancy. Having spent time serving in slums and palaces, he was experienced enough to comment and insightful enough to offer this timeless idea about the Bible’s relevancy (excerpted from a letter to his friend Hildebrandt):
Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevancy is axiomatic…Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity (p. 272)!
Cheap grace: Bonhoeffer and Metaxas are each passionate about something they call “cheap grace.” The problems lie not in what each man says, but in where they place their thoughts theologically. Their calls to an accountable Christian walk are laudable; however, they often confuse following and believing. Determined to make God’s grace precious, they rather foolishly forget that for humans it is free.
The obedient Christian life, the call of the disciple…came with a cost, which explained why so many were afraid to open their eyes to it in the first place. It was the antithesis of the “cheap grace” that required nothing more than easy mental assent, which he wrote about in Discipleship (p. 279).
Bonhoeffer’s pugnacious dedication to “costly grace” led him to some colossal blunders. For example,
On April 24 , Bonhoeffer delivered a lecture titled “The Question of the Boundaries of the Church and the Church Union” [Church Union = the Confessing Church, as opposed to Hitler’s Nationalized Socialist Church]…Someplace in this beautiful [speech], planted like a time bomb, was a single sentence. It would soon explode and effectively obliterate every sentence around it and cause a firestorm of controversy…The controversial sentence was this: “Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church in Germany separates himself from salvation [that is, justification]” (p. 286).
Obviously, Bonhoeffer had joined the Roman Catholics and every other world religion in making salvation something earned or kept by behavior. That is not to say that all of Dietrich’s comments were so explosively off-base.
I consider this the best book I read in 2010. After hearing Metaxas at the Trinity Christian Academy annual banquet, I became an even bigger fan of book and author.
Frisco Bible Church