A Review of
|Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Reviewed by Douglas Connelly.
April 9, 2010 marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of the death of the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As the Third Reich crumbled around them, the embattled Nazi leadership had Bonhoeffer hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp. Christians have long considered him a martyr, but Bonhoeffer was not executed primarily for his faith. He and four others were killed that spring morning for their participation in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler – a plot that almost succeeded. Bonhoeffer’s act of treason was the official reason for his murder, but his political action stemmed directly from his theology. This German pastor believed he was doing the will of God.
Eric Metaxas in his masterful new biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, weaves three historical themes together with skill and engaging detail. First, he tells the story of the German nation from their humiliating defeat in World War I through the rise of National Socialism and the horrors of World War II. The second thread is the story of the German Lutheran church. We see the rise of intellectual liberalism, its resulting critical view of the Bible, and the devastating effect of their departure from God’s truth on the moral strength of the Christian leaders. Then, third, the story of Bonhoeffer’s life and theological development are followed through the twists and turns of political change and ecclesiastical compromise. It all makes for captivating reading.
Evangelical Christians have always been a little nervous about Bonhoeffer. He rejected the liberal theology of the German academics only to drink deeply at the neo-orthodox well of fellow-theologian, Karl Barth. He held a view of the Bible that said “the Bible contains the Word of God,” rather than “the Bible is the Word of God.” Bonhoeffer also cultivated close ties with the ecumenical movement in Europe and America and even wanted to visit Gandhi in India to gain further insight into non-violent response to oppression and injustice. Evangelicals had plenty of reasons to be uncomfortable with Bonhoeffer!
But Eric Metaxas uses his narrative and Bonhoeffer’s own words to cast the German pastor in a much more evangelical light. Bonhoeffer was a passionate pastor and preacher of the Gospel. When he came to the United States to study at the ultra-liberal Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer was sadly disappointed by the lack of real theological discourse in the school and the lack of biblical preaching in the liberal churches of America. Bonhoeffer found himself attending African-American churches to hear Bible-centered messages and to experience heart-felt worship.
Bonhoeffer believed that God had revealed himself clearly in the Bible and that humanity’s only hope of reconciliation with God was through faith in the crucified, risen Lord Jesus. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Bonhoeffer wrote: “If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever will find him must go to the foot of the Cross” (137).
Bonhoeffer did participate whole-heartedly in ecumenical activities and conferences, but, as Metaxas traces so carefully, the German pastor used his ecumenical contacts, particularly in Norway and England, to let the world know what was happening inside Nazi Germany and especially in the German church.
There are a couple things about Metaxas’ style that are bothersome. In his attempt to connect with readers, he uses some words and expressions that seem out of place in a formal biography. These expressions appear most often in relation to Hitler or other Nazi leaders. Metaxas writes dismissively about them or trivializes their evil actions. He refers to Mein Kampf, for example, as Hitler’s “crackpot manifesto” (44), when in reality that book laid the foundation for Nazi political thought and action. We may regard it today as “crackpot” but in Germany in the 1920s and 30s it was taken very seriously.
The other issue that may bother some readers is the use of long quotations from Bonhoeffer’s own writings. Metaxas, I’m sure, wanted the man to speak in his own words but sometimes a shorter quotation would have been just as effective.
These are small issues, however, compared to the enjoyment and intrigue of the biography as a whole.
I’ve read Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, and several other biographical studies of his life, but I finished this biography with a few new impressions – or at least stronger impressions than I had before.
I saw what a devoted pastor Bonhoeffer was. He cared deeply for the church, the body, the community of believers. He certainly cared for its theological foundation and moral principles, but he cared even more for the people. Bonhoeffer was not just an academic theologian; he taught children in Sunday School, he nurtured the pastoral students who attended his “illegal” seminary, he wrote books and letters that challenged ordinary Christians to lives of extraordinary service.
I saw as well how seriously Bonhoeffer looked at discipleship. He didn’t just preach radical discipleship; he modeled it in his personal life as a follower of Jesus and in his public life as a courageous church leader. You can’t read this book without being challenged to examine your own level of commitment to Christ and asking what price you would be willing to pay to follow God’s call completely. At a crucial time in the church’s history and in the world’s history, Bonhoeffer boldly rejected what he called “cheap grace” – mere belief without sacrificial action.
The doctor who oversaw executions at the Flossenburg camp wrote what is perhaps Bonhoeffer’s best epitaph: “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (532).
Douglas Connelly is the author of The Bible for Blockheads and Christianity for Blockheads (Zondervan). He is the senior pastor of Parkside Community Church in Sterling Heights, MI.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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