Book Review – Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906 - 1945], Deutscher evangelischer Theologe, Mitglied der Bekennenden Kirche, 1945 hingerichtetAufnahmedatum: 1924Inventar-Nr.: Nachl. 299 (D. Bonhoeffer)Systematik: Personen / Religiöse Persönlichkeiten / Bonhoeffer / Porträts

Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas, Thomas Nelson, 608 pp., pbk, £12.99.


This was a curious biography to read, because at first I was genuinely wondering why I was tackling it – other than just having received it as a gift. Surely Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was a theological liberal? This was an impression bolstered by the account of Bonhoeffer’s upbringing: his non-Christian father, his family’s failure to attend church, and his apparently nominal confirmation into Church membership. Even his decision as a teenager to pursue a career as a theologian seemed more of an academic ambition than any kind of spiritual calling.

However, despite acknowledging the thoroughgoing liberalism of theological education in Germany in the 1920s, this account of Bonhoeffer’s studies shows that he reacted against that whole approach. Bonhoeffer sided with Karl Barth and the so-called ‘Neo-orthodox’ movement against the prevailing liberal theology of teachers like Adolf von Harnack, which proceeded on a wholly secular basis. While the neo-orthodox movement had serious theological flaws, and failed to take a robust stance on the Reformed confessions, it nonetheless rejected the unscriptural basis of Liberalism, and gave a vital place to the Bible in the discussion of theology. Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s Scottish teacher during his year in New York, John Baillie, called him ‘as stout an opponent of liberalism as had ever come my way’ (p.106).

More importantly, it was during his American year (1930-31) that Bonhoeffer had the formative experience of his spiritual life, discovering, apparently for the first time, the benefit of spiritual disciplines such as Bible-reading, meditation on texts, prayer, and regular attendance at public worship. From the manner in which he described the radical effect of this change, it is hard to doubt that this was Bonhoeffer’s ‘New Birth’, even though he had been a theological student, and latterly a minister, over the preceding few years. Much more than his neo-orthodox theology, this spiritual grounding seems to have prepared Bonhoeffer for what lay ahead.

The love of Scripture now became central to Bonhoeffer’s life, and especially the constant question, what the Word was saying to him. He refused to consider the Bible in purely academic terms, but rather meditated on its content daily, as God’s message to His own people. The identity of God’s true church was similarly no longer an abstract question, but a vital spiritual challenge, especially as the German Church conceded more and more control to the authorities of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer helped to found the Confessing Church that stood separate from the Nazi State, though he often had reason to criticize the compromises of his own allies in this body.

He recognized the dangers of this opposition, but was more concerned about the dangers of inaction in the face of the brutality of the Nazi regime. He recognized that the general spirit of apathy and compromise was a spiritual problem, and that what was needed was a true revival of dedicated Christian living, ‘the day-to-day reality of dying to self, of following Christ with every ounce of one’s being’ (p.248). It was this spiritual life – more than any intellectual information – that Bonhoeffer tried to instill in his students as he led the secret seminary training of the theological students of the Confessing Church in the 1930s. Later, it was this conviction that led Bonhoeffer to abandon the safe exile in American academia that his friends had arranged, and return to Germany in the summer of 1939.

Bonhoeffer was never a conservative evangelical in theology, and his writings could not be recommended to any reader lacking discernment. But nevertheless, several important lessons arise from his thought. He warned frequently about the danger of ‘cheap grace’, that offered forgiveness to those who neither sought it, nor thought they needed it. Although he applied this especially to the Nazi regime, it is just as relevant to present dealings with sinful human beings. Grace works on the basis of repentance, not by making light of sin, or passing over it.

In ethics, Bonhoeffer thought seriously and at length about the Christian response to an evil regime, and came to argue strongly that confession with words was not enough, that the hideous crimes being perpetrated by the Nazis required active resistance from Christian people. He considered that a Christian could actively deceive in pursuit of such resistance, and that he was also justified in putting to death a tyrant. In fulfilment of these principles, Bonhoeffer feigned loyalty to the Third Reich after the outbreak of war, joining German military intelligence as an agent, while covertly working with the resistance movement, and plotting to help assassinate Hitler.

Bonhoeffer considered his book, Ethics, to be his magnum opus, and his work in this field is important, not least because of his own self-sacrificial ethical example. Fundamentally, he argued that the question is not one of right and wrong but rather of the will of God in the individual circumstances facing the Christian. As in the Sermon on the Mount, what matters is not the letter of the law, but its spirit. For example, Bonhoeffer emphasized the distinction between truth and facts, arguing that the service of the former, which is an obligation on all Christians, sometimes requires concealment of the facts, and even falsification. Vital questions include what right the questioner has to the information sought, and also whether a refusal to answer will itself confirm the questioner’s suspicions. He gave the illustration of a girl asked by her teacher before the class whether her father is a drunkard. By an affirmative, or a telling refusal to answer, she will immediately confirm the suspicion, and dishonor her father publicly: she will have given a fact, but not served truth. Rather she should indeed answer no, as the facts of the case are not the business of any present. This was the reasoning Bonhoeffer followed in his own resistance activities.

Bonhoeffer’s weaknesses will be obvious to any careful reader of Reformed convictions: the basic content of the Gospel is present in his work, but not the urgency of eternal salvation and eternal damnation; the supremacy of Christ is acknowledged, but not His uniqueness, as in his admiration for the Hindu mystic M.K. Gandhi. Equally, he had an unjustified regard for the Church of Rome, adopting some of the spiritual practices of Catholicism, and maintained a wholly misplaced faith in the ecumenical movement, which tragically failed to acknowledge the Confessing Church as the true German Church to the exclusion of the Nazi-dominated Reich Church. Perhaps most of all, as a theologian, he lacked care and precision in language, such that his writing is easily misunderstood. A good example was his call for ‘religionless Christianity’, which Metaxas points out meant, in its original context, the lordship of Christ over the whole of life, not just Sunday morning worship. This phrase, however, was later adopted as an endorsement by the radical liberal ‘death of God’ movement, wholly without justification.

But these cautions must be placed in context: in a day when most German Christians were passive and quiescent, Bonhoeffer was utterly sacrificial of himself in his dedication to opposing the Third Reich. By April 1943, he was in prison under heavy suspicion; and once the Stauffenberg plot failed to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew his days were numbered. He was eventually hanged, along with some of the key Resistance leaders, at Flossenburg concentration camp on 9 April 1945, just weeks before the German surrender. This is a well-written and gripping account of a most important life, worthy of the attention of all committed Christians.

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