Posted in book reviews

Bonhoeffer: a new portrait for a new generation

bonhoeffer_featureI’ve always enjoyed a good biography, but have to tell you: Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010; Kindle edition) is not good. It is very good.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was a world-class theologian who opposed the regime of Adolf Hitler and ultimately was jailed and hanged for his involvement in the plot on the Führer’s life. That episode is the best-known part of the German martyr’s story. What Metexas adds is a vivid description of Bonhoeffer’s life prior to that chapter, painting with a clear and readable style a sympathetic portrait of the man celebrated for The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.

Much in Metaxas’ portrayal was new to me, including the extent to which Karl Barth’s theology influenced Bonhoeffer and the latter’s distaste for the liberal theology prominent at New York’s Union Theological Seminary where he studied  in 1930-31. Also endearing was Bonhoeffer’s love of music – he was an accomplished pianist – and the details of his engagement and letter writing to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

The book is replete with excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s books, addresses, and letters. These reveal how important he thought practical and recurrent experience in pastoring was. In this way, theology never becomes distant or detached. Instead, it was to be hammered out in the life of the community of faith. He pastored churches in Barcelona and London, and always sensed tension between his hunger to pursue both the life of theological academia and the work of a parish minister.

Here’s a sample of some of the sections I highlighted as I was reading:

“For many Germans, their national identify had become so melted together with whatever Lutheran Christian faith they had that it was impossible to see either clearly. After four hundred years of taking for granted that all Germans were Lutheran Christians, no one really knew what Christianity was any more.” – Metaxas, p. 174

“The question is really: Christianity of Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day, the better.” – D. Bonhoeffer, cited by Metaxas, p. 183

“He was convinced that a church that was not willing to stand up for the Jews in its midst was not the real church of Jesus Christ. On that, he was quite decided.” – Metaxas, p. 186

“First they came fo the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, 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.” – Martin Niemöller, cited by Metaxas, p. 192

“Bonhoeffer was constantly joking, whether verbally or in other ways.” – Metaxas, p. 201

“Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” – D. Bonhoeffer, cited by Metaxas, p. 241

“Bonhoeffer advocated a Christianity that seemed too worldly for traditional Lutheran conservatives and too pietistic for theological liberals. He was too much something for everyone, so both sides misunderstood and criticized him.” – Metaxas, p. 248

“Things do exist that are worth standing up for without compromise. To me it seems that peace and social justice are such things, as is Christ himself.” – D. Bonhoeffer, cited by Metaxas, p. 260

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become a Protestant saint. For this reason, it is frowned upon to criticize him. To his credit, Metaxas does not present him as a perfect man. Bonhoeffer’s doubts and fears emerged particularly in his conversations with Eberhard Bethge, who was a close friend and became a confessor to him. In Metaxas’ estimation, Bonhoeffer could also come across as an elitist, stand-offish to the point of seeming arrogant. These are darker shades that add texture to the canvas.

One weakness in the book is the tone of the discussion questions at the end. They are written in a time and culture-bound way, from an American, right-wing Republican perspective. This is unfortunate for the international reader, introducing a parochial and ephemeral element to a book that otherwise deals with universal, lasting themes.

The book’s and Bonhoeffer’s weaknesses aside, there is much to admire about the young German man who was not content to rest in the realm of theory. Instead, he moved to action at a time when action and not merely discussion was most needed. Eric Metaxas is to be commended for winsomely introducing a new generation to an exceptional leader.


Image credit: Baylor Institute


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

5 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer: a new portrait for a new generation

  1. Greg,
    Does the book mention that while he was teaching at Union Seminary, he was worshiping at a Harlem-African American Church?
    Does he mention what Martin Neimoller missed concerning the Third Reich that the first people they came after were the Handicapped, then the Homosexual?

  2. I too enjoyed the book but, having seen the discussion questions, questioned the perspective of the book overall. I’m anxious to read “Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking” another new book that tries to deal with Bonhoeffer, his actions, and his theology.

    1. Thanks, Chris, for this helpful comment. The other title you’ll be reading sounds interesting. It was curious that in a book as detailed as that of Metaxas he was very vague about what Bonhoeffer’s specific role in the “plot” was, other than traveling for the Abwehr.

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