Monday, April 18, 2011

Bonhoeffer: pastor, martyrt, prophet, spy by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

If Metaxas accomplished nothing else by writing a biography of one of the most notable if not controversial pastors and theologians of the twentieth century, he showed what a fascinating individual Bonhoeffer is.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born to a father who was a brilliant and famous agnostic psychiatrist and a mother who showed him Christ's love. His mother was ahead of her time in that she home schooled her children up to a certain age before sending them to German schools. Between both parents Dietrich received a thorough and critical education that held him in good stead throughout college. Even though his mother was a Christian, most of Bonhoeffer's family derided him for his choice of careers. His persistence in standing for and being able to intelligently defend his beliefs is what enabled him to persevere when these beliefs came under attack, not only by the Nazi regime but by the German church.

There is so much rich information in this wonderful biography that I could not do it justice by attempting to review it. Instead I am going to limit my post to a couple of observations I was able to make after reading the personal experiences of someone who truly lived what he believed even though it meant swimming upstream and ultimately cost him his life. These observations pertain to the Christian church both then and now.

At one point in his early pastorate Bonhoeffer visited the United States. The churches he visited were huge, sophisticated structures that had completely rejected the Gospel. They had become social clubs and venues for liberal thought.

Riverside was the church Rockefeller had built for Harry Emerson Fosdick.....Bonhoeffer was in the mood to hear God in the preaching of his Word...but he was in no mood for what he heard that morning at Riverside. The text for the sermon was from James, but not from the James of the New Testament. It was from the American philosopher William James...(pg333)

Bonhoeffer wrote:

There is no theology here.. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The (theology) students..are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level...

Fosdick had been the pastor at New York's First Presbyterian Church when in 1922 he preached an infamous sermon titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in it he laid out a kind of Apostate's Creed in which he expressed his serious doubts about most of the historic assertions of the Christian faith, including the virgin birth, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the atonement, miracles, and the Bible as the Word of God. (pgs 101,102)

Bonhoeffer began attending a church in Harlem because it was the only place he found in the city where he heard the Gospel preached.

It is interesting to note that, according to Metaxas, it was these liberal churches that were in favor of appeasing Hitler.

Hmm.. how does this description of churches compare with certain churches today?

The church in Germany was no better. The German church had for years been so wrapped up in its German identity that Hitler simply needed to push the right buttons in order to make it the German Reich Church. This church became bent on eradicating any “Jewishness” from the scriptures.

For one, the Old Testament must go. It was obviously too Jewish...As for the New Testament, the German Christians quoted scriptures out of context and twisted the meaning to suit their anti-Semitic agenda....

...the 'German Christians preached' Christianity as the polar opposite of Judaism, Jesus as the arch anti-Semite, and the cross as the symbol of war against Jews. Fusing the German Volk (people) with the German Kirche (church) meant stretching and twisting the definitions of both. Step one was to define Germanness as inherently in opposition to Jewishness. To make Christianity one with Germanness meant purging it of everything Jewish. It was an absurd project. (pg.172)

Eventually the German church acquiesced into obligating Hitler by including an “Aryan paragraph” into their creed. Basically this paragraph excluded anyone even remotely of Jewish descent from being a member of the German church. This actually excluded a large number of Christians in Germany whether they had gone to church all their life or had converted to Christianity.

I have heard a number of Jewish people today assert that Hitler was a Christian. It is important to point out that Hitler was not a Christian. He used whatever means necessary to get himself in power.

One sometimes hears that Hitler was a Christian. He was certainly not, but neither was he openly anti-Christian, as most of his top lieutenants were. What helped him aggrandize power, he approved of, and what prevented it, he did not. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain. In private, he possessed an unblemished record of statements against Christianity and Christians. (Pg 166)

It's been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn't we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness? -Adolph Hitler (pg 165)

So Bonhoeffer started the confessing church in Germany. It was definitely a minority who joined it but it was a group that refused to compromise on any part of the Gospel of the Bible. By starting this church Bonhoeffer got to experience unpopularity, isolation, being ostracized and all the loneliness, discouragement and frustration that went with it. But he didn't give in an inch.

Most Christians who belonged to the German church were not in favor of the more radical creeds of the Reich church but neither did they fight it. They just decided to lay low and quietly wait it out, hoping that Hitler would eventually just fade away. many church members today fit in this category? How many Americans period fit this category?

Bonhoeffer was not willing to wait for Der Fuhrer to go away on his own. He joined a group of conspirators who decided to assassinate Hitler.

This part of the Bonhoeffer's life I must frankly admit to neither understanding nor agreeing with. As sound as his theology is in every other respect, he simply cannot Biblically support trying to assassinate someone, even a person as evil as Hitler. Metaxas records how Hitler miraculously escapes their plots over and over again. And I do mean miraculous. Bombs that simply did not detonate for no reason whatsoever. Even when a bomb did finally go off, right next to Hitler, a freak design of a table leg blocked him and he survived. I don't see how God could have spoken any clearer than that. He is the determiner of people's lifespans, not us. Hitler did die, by his own hands, two weeks after Bonhoeffer was executed for his part in the assassination attempts.

Even though, modern liberal religious leaders have tried to hold Bonhoeffer up as their model of “revolutionary theologian”, he actually stood against everything they stand for. I don't understand how Bonhoeffer came to justify an assassination attempt but it only proves that he was human and not omniscient or perfect. What he was, was a man who stood up for the truth even when he was standing alone for much of his life. This poses questions for myself.

Am I willing to stand alone for truth? Am I willing to die for it? How many church members are going to stand on the side of truth when push comes to shove? How many will know what side truth is on?

In addition to these thought provoking questions, Metaxas offers an impeccable record of how some one like Hitler came to power, the abominable atrocities the Nazi's committed and most importantly of all, how a devout Christian responded to it all.

In my review of “They Are Still Alive” a memoir by a Jewish survivor of Hitler's regime I quoted the author, Philip Pressler explaining why the Holocaust made him an atheist. He couldn't understand why God would allow such suffering.

This is what the camp doctor at Flossenburg had to say when witnessing Bonhoeffer's execution:

..I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer...kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. ….I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. (pg532)

Metaxas writes:

Bonhoeffer thought it the plain duty of the Christian-and the privilege and honor-to suffer with those who suffered. He knew that it was a privilege to be allowed by God to partake of the sufferings of the Jews who had died in this place before him.....the crematorium at Flossenburg was not working, so the bodies of the men hanged that morning were burned in piles, and in this, too, he had the honor to be joined to the millions of other victims of the Third Reich. (pg 532)

I'll end with an excerpt of one of Bonhoeffer's sermons:

No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about he realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that being released from bodily existence.

Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.

Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death. (pg 531)

Amen and praise God!

My post doesn't even skim the surface of this brilliant biography which not only records the life of a great Christian but is a remarkable historical record of one of the darkest eras of human history. I hope you, the reader will take the time to read Eric Metaxas' book.

For more reviews on WWII:
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Navajo Code Talkers
The Whisperers
The Secret Holocaust Diaries
On Hilter's Mountain and In My Hands

If you buy this book, please do so through my link so I can receive a small percentage.


While reading his biography I concurrently read Bonhoeffer's book, The Cost of Discipleship. I highly recommend this. It greatly enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of Metaxas' book.


  1. Interesting review and some very thought-provoking questions. Until I read this, all I knew about Bonhoeffer was a couple of quotes.

  2. Me too. All I heard were people quoting him so when this book came out I bought it so I would know what this guy was all about.

  3. This was a great review! Thanks for taking the time to be so thorough. I especially appreciated the quotes that gave insight into his thinking. Chris and I started watching the Bonhoeffer documentary last night. But I am going to look at the biography next.

  4. Thanks! I want to see the documentary as well. Take care!

  5. Sharon, this is one of the most thorough book reviews I've read. You did a fine job.

  6. Thanks, Mike! It's a wonderful book. I hope you've read it or have the opportunity to do so.

  7. What a wonderful post, Sharon. I've been reading a collection of essays called Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Thought, and the essay "Peacemaking" by Glen Stassen addresses some of the issues you bring up. He sees Bonhoeffer's participation in the plot to overthrow Hitler as "a singular, extreme case not justified by law or principle but only as a free act of Christian responsibility done in the hope of God's mercy." Further, he points out Bonhoeffer saw the only way to stop the Nazi killing was a coup d'etat, which included Hitler's death. I agree that's slippery logic, but I confess to regretting that an assassination attempt did not succeed. And I am a pacifist.
    Another interesting point Stassen makes is that Bonhoeffer's experience with blacks in the U.S. sensitized him to identify with the suffering of Jews under Hitler. So much to think about.
    Now I'll have to add Metaxas' book to my list of must-reads. Thanks!

  8. Thanks for visiting and your extensive comment. Metaxas probably agrees with Stassen judging by the way he expressed Bonhoeffer's belief he was doing God's will by participating in the plot.
    I will have to read Stassen now. I like getting the benefit of different writer's research on the same topic. Have a great day!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.