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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas
Published by Thomas Nelson in 2011

On The New York Times’ Bestseller List for weeks, Eric Metaxas’ biography has introduced thousands to one of the most important chapters in church history since the Reformation and one of its most fascinating figures. Given most reviews, evangelicals seem the most enthusiastic about it. Many have discovered a friend they never knew they had. They are surprised to find a modern German theologian so devout, courageous, pious, and orthodox and, indeed, more so than any American theologian that comes to mind.

Yet not everyone is pleased. Scholars, naturally suspicious of popular portraits, have been cooler in their reception. Bonhoeffer specialists have been particularly critical and have pointed out various historical inaccuracies, unwarranted speculations, and factual errors. These cannot be ignored, but given the project’s overall scope, most seem relatively small. More problematic is the author’s tendency to oversimplify complex cultural, political, and theological issues and to focus on “good guys” (the Confessing Church) versus “bad guys” (the Nazified “German Christians”) and to overlook the majority of church folk who, for unexplained yet plausible reasons, saw themselves “in the middle.”

It is likewise disappointing that at the expense of so many other leaders, Bonhoeffer’s leadership in the German Church struggle is somewhat exaggerated throughout, as is the impression that he was always the most clear-sighted and uncompromising one. The fact is, Bonhoeffer did not “mid-wife” the Confessing Church movement (249), had nothing to do with the Barmen Declaration as is implied (221), and was not even in Germany for almost a year during the most crucial months of the Kirchenkampf. And Metaxas significantly mollifies the criticism Bonhoeffer received from his mentor, Karl Barth, because of it. In short, Bonhoeffer was not a general in this war, but an extraordinarily bright, energetic, and daring young colonel, who, like many loyal churchmen, paid with his life.

Metaxas’ severest critics, however, claim he is too “ideological,” that is, that he writes from a “conservative” bias, offers a “consciously evangelical” interpretation,1 and has “hijacked” Bonhoeffer.2 Metaxas’ interview on Fox News with Glen Beck has only reinforced this concern. Of course, plenty has been written about Bonhoeffer from the political and theological left that never raised such a din among scholars. So now why all the fuss?

Metaxas offers no new research. But he has shown to thousands heretofore unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer that not only was Bonhoeffer not a liberal, but he was also a severe critic of theological and political liberalism, and especially of the sort he found in America in the 1930s. Metaxas highlights Bonhoeffer’s disdain for the culturally elitist community sur-rounding Union Seminary and Riverside Church in NYC, his disgust for the “unbearable” preaching of liberal pulpiteers such as Fosdick, the sentimental theology of the social gospel movement, his bewilderment at the intellectual shallowness of so many Union students who were so cavalier, dismissive, and patronizing in their attitude toward conservatives and fundamentalists yet, in terms of their own preparation, were “not even up to their level” (101). Obviously, for many liberals who have tried to co-opt Bonhoeffer for their cause, Metaxas has not only touched a nerve; he has gotten under their skin.

In fairness, Metaxas does throw some low blows. Analogies between Nazis and today’s mainline Protestant leaders are too hastily drawn (400). And his claim that Bonhoeffer made “a staggering equation” between American fundamentalists in the 1920s and 1930s as a persecuted minority with the Confessing Church – “marginalized here as we are marginalized there” (334) – is not only unsubstantiated but absurd. American fundamentalists were never so threatened nor the poor, powerless victims implied (and the liberals’ “hatred” [103] for them was certainly mutual and freely expressed) and such a claim trivializes the courage, suffering, and sacrifice of confessing Christians in Germany at the time.

Still, most of Metaxas’s punches in demonstrating Bonhoeffer’s attitude toward liberalism are above the belt and accurate. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s theological critique of Protestant liberalism in America, which is not really undertaken, is far more penetrating than Metaxas demonstrates. Indeed, it makes J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism look like the lancing of a boil compared to open-heart surgery.

Affinities between evangelicals and Bonhoeffer are highlighted throughout, such as the latter’s devotional practices of daily prayer and Bible reading, commitment to Scripture’s authority, personal piety and character, mostly positive relation to pietism, views on marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and so on. Metaxas also plays up Bonhoeffer’s relation to revivalism and evangelistic preaching such as he heard from Bramwell Booth or at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. “A part of him was powerfully attracted to this sort of thing,” we are told (39). But Metaxas never elaborates the other part of Bonhoeffer that could be devastatingly critical of “this sort of thing” such as we find, among other places, in his lectures on preaching.3

We are likewise told that Bonhoeffer thought the American free church “system” was “of course … a fine idea” (254). Yet Metaxas provides no evidence for this and seems unaware of the dangers Bonhoeffer saw in the American church, such as its disregard for the visible unity of the church, the inordinate “influence” and “power of the free Church associations which are not linked to denominations,” the “incredible picture of fragmenta-tion” the American church as a whole represents, its inherent individualism, “enthusiastic doctrine of the state,” and tendency to democratize Christianity, all of which Bonhoeffer saw as contributing to a church on the brink of “complete secularization.”4

Of course, many bridges built here between evangelicals and Bonhoeffer are not without foundation. But, theologically, the traffic on them tends to flow one way. For example, the author asks whether Bonhoeffer had been “born again” after his American experience. “The fiery sermons and the joyous worship and singing had all opened his eyes to something and had changed him. Had he been ‘born again’?” (124). As if theretofore Bonhoeffer had embraced a faith less biblical or radical or such an experience had engendered a deeper, more serious form of discipleship.

By establishing several “points of contact,” Metaxas emphasizes Bonhoeffer’s solidarity with American evangelicalism. Yet conspicuously absent is an elaboration of prominent features of Bonhoeffer’s theology that pose challenges to it. For example, Bonhoeffer was astonished at the lack of intellectual rigor and concern for dogmatics, as well as the penchant toward pragmatism that he saw on both the theological left and right. But the deeper problem, as he elaborates in his essay, “Protestantism without Reformation,” is the merely honorific, ancillary, or supplementary role that Jesus Christ tended to play in American theology of that time. Bonhoeffer puts it more strongly:

The rejection of Christology is characteristic of the whole of present-day American theology. Christianity basically amounts to religion and ethics in American theology. Consequently, the person and work of Christ fall into the background and remain basically not understood in this theology….American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of “criticism” by the Word of God and all that signifies….A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology.5

This is a serious charge, but Metaxas never mentions it nor provides any indication that he understands what Bonhoeffer may have meant, though he could hardly be un-aware of it given other passages he cites. Metaxas recognizes the importance of Bonhoef-fer’s “Christocentricism” (472), but he does not see how deeply this informs Bonhoeffer’s theology or how decisively it relates to the basic issues surrounding the German Church struggle. Though he cites almost the entire Barmen Declaration, he offers no commentary or exposition, and seems not to recognize that the Confessing Church’s primary battle was over revelation and against natural theology, which, according to Bonhoeffer, was more pervasive in America than in Germany. A lack of understanding of these issues is betrayed, for example, when Metaxas speaks of Bonhoeffer’s desire to incorporate “the best of both” Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (56), characterizes Barth’s theological revolution as being based on the discovery “that God actually exists” (60), contrasts Barth’s theology to Adolph von Harnack’s as the difference between Intelligent Design and evolution (61), or refers to Bonhoeffer teaching “Christian apologetics” (65).

To his credit, however, Metaxas is correct in relating Bonhoeffer’s reaction to Ameri-can intellectual life generally and theological education specifically. Bonhoeffer was over-whelmed by the way Americans allowed concepts of community and fairness to trump excellence, breed mediocrity, and evade the question of truth under the tyranny of tolerance. Bonhoeffer certainly was not politically correct. And despite what critics have said, Metaxas’s critique of the liberal appropriation of Bonhoeffer, the great amount of nonsense that has been written about his prison theology, “religionless Christianity,” and so on, is largely on target (465-472). Yet Metaxas also chastises “the pious and ‘religious’ theologians who would abdicate Bonhoeffer’s theology to the liberals” and criticizes the naiveté of evangelicals such as Frank Buchman who thought, presumably through “friendship evangelism,” they could convert Hitler yet were taken in by him.

Still, Metaxas does not do much to show how so many conservative and pietistic Christians allowed themselves to be taken in or, worse, become complicit in Nazism’s evils. Neither does he mention nor apparently know what to make of Bonhoeffer’s severest indict-ments against American Christianity, that “God has granted to American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God.”6 In short, the greatest strength of this biography is that it makes Bonhoeffer not only accessible but extraordinarily attractive to American evangelicals. Yet, from a theological perspective, this is also its greatest weakness. It does more to bring Bonhoeffer to American evangelicals than to bring American evangelicals to Bonhoeffer. As an evangelical, I wish more could have been done about the latter.

Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful to Metaxas. He not only gets the basic story straight, but also tells it in a remarkably engaging way. His biography has generated enormous interest in Bonhoeffer. I have used it in my Bonhoeffer course and will again because, notwithstanding the flaws scholars have pointed out, Metaxas has greatly advanced what Bonhoeffer considered an equally pressing task: “The decisive task for today is the dialogue between Protestantism without Reformation and the churches of the Reformation.”7 Frankly, no one in recent decades has done more to introduce more people to this dialogue than Metaxas.

Metaxas’ biography has made thousands of American evangelicals aware of some of the most faithful, courageous, serious-minded Christians in the twentieth century. This is significant. Moreover, he has forced us to ask difficult questions of ourselves. By describing the modest piety and quiet courage, the discipline, fortitude, and resolve, the fervent zeal yet joyful bearing, the willingness to sacrifice everything, including life itself, of not just one Christian but of many, in a thoroughly modern context not so removed from our own, Metaxas has forced us to ask: Who were these people? How did they stand so firm? What sort of theological and spiritual resources did they draw upon? What kind of Christian community raised and nurtured them? What kind of faith sustained them? Do we have such a community, such a faith?

In the Foreword, Tim Keller asks a different but related question: “Could it happen to us?” The “it” implied is the emergence of a context in which we could be persecuted like the Confessing Church in Germany and, presumably, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.” But if the question “Could it happen to us?” has to do with the likelihood or readiness and willingness of our churches to sacrifice themselves in single-minded obedience, to unite and speak with one voice, actively to resist prevailing political and cultural winds on the basis of common theological convictions, then perhaps the answer is: “Probably not.”

Perhaps herein lies Metaxas’ greatest contribution. By exposing American evangelicals to the riches of Bonhoeffer’s theological heritage and the strengths of a truly confessing church (albeit with weaknesses too), Metaxas has caused us to wonder whether our churches are or ever were as rich or as strong as the church was in Germany in the 1930s. This book may serve to sober us up from our triumphalistic assumptions and help us realize that, theologically, “the dialogue between Protestantism without Reformation and the churches of the Reformation” may still be, just as Bonhoeffer said, “the decisive task for today.”8

Cite this article
Richard E. Burnett, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:3 , 337-340


  1. Victoria Barnett, Association of Contemporary Church Historians Newsletter 16.3 (September 2010): 12-14.
  2. Clifford Green, “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,” The Christian Century 127.21 (October 2010): 34-39.
  3. See Bonhoeffer’s “Lectures on Preaching” in Clyde E. Fant, Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 115-180.
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism Without Reformation” in No Rusty Swords, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (London: Collins, 1965), 94ff.
  5. Ibid., 117.
  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., 118.
  8. Ibid., 118.

Richard E. Burnett

Richard E. Burnett, Systematic Theology, Erskine Theological Seminary