Metaxas: Bonhoeffer’s Times and Ours

Bonhoeffer_06242014Eric Metaxas. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

High school friends once accused me of being born 16 years old.  Having grown up with Vietnam in the 1960s, questions about war and peace were fought in the streets, on television, and in personal relationships. The day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated my third grade teacher began crying uncontrollably in front of the class. After the King assassination, I witnessed my hometown of Washington DC burning and tanks rolling through its streets.  In trying to understand it all, I turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s: The Cost of Discipleship.

When Eric Metaxas’ biography—Bonhoeffer—was published in 2010, I immediately bought a copy but working full-time and going to seminary I did not have time to read it.  Or, at least, that is what I told myself.  The truth is that I approached this biography with a bit of fear as to what I might learn about the hero of my youth—and about myself. I first learned a bit about Bonhoeffer’s life when a film by Eric Till appeared in 2000—Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace with Ulrich Tukur [1]—but that was before seminary opened the doors to explore so many forbidden topics in my own history.  Not the least of which was my year as a foreign exchange student in Göttingen, Germany.

Metaxas, a German-American, dedicates his book (in German) to his grandfather who was killed in 1944 fighting in reluctant service to his country.  His dedication cites the apostle John:

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40 ESV)

Metaxas looks to the day when he will get to meet his grandfather [2].  For Metaxas and for me, the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was and is highly personal.

The task of writing a complete biography of Bonhoeffer was immense [3].  Bonhoeffer’s persona was complex; his theological writings profound; and his political views veiled and nuanced.  Let me touch on each challenge briefly.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from an aristocratic family and was himself extraordinarily talented.  His father was the leading psychiatrist in Germany at the time and his own brother was a noted physicist. Neither were professing Christians and the family did not attend church on a regular basis.  His mother was his most significant religious influence. Dietrich declared his intention to become a theologian at age 14 before he had even been confirmed; he received his doctorate at age 21.  Metaxas pictures Dietrich becoming a committed Christian, much like John Wesley, only after he was already working as a theologian. After Bonhoeffer had made a visit to New York in 1936, Metaxas asks:  What had happened that Bonhoeffer [the brilliant young theologian] should suddenly take attending church so seriously? (124)

Bonhoeffer is the author of a number of influential books [4] and, along with Swiss theologian Karl Barth (one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration [5]), is credited with starting the neo-orthodox school of thought.  Bonhoeffer laid out important principles of his thinking already in 1928 (age 22) in Barcelona in three points:

  1. …Christianity is not a religion at all, but about the person of Christ…religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely—God himself, alive (83).
  2. He differentiated between Christianity…which attempt but fail to make an ethical way for man to climb to heaven…and following Christ, who demands everything (84). and
  3. He identified ‘the Greek spirit’ or ‘humanism’ as ‘the most severe enemy that Christianity ever had…dualism, the idea that the body is at war with the soul (85).

In other words, Christians must only follow Christ; we cannot approach God, only God can reveal Himself to us; and heart and mind cannot be separated in our faith.

Bonhoeffer, the spy, worked with military intelligence (Abwehr) and was executed late in the war for assisting a plot to kill Hitler. Spies can trust almost no one and cannot reveal their true intentions. The offices of pastor and spy are in strong tension which is a theme in Bonhoeffer’s book, Ethics.

Resistance to the official German Church (Reichskirche) was weak because of state funding, pride, and weak theology.

State Funding.  How can a German pastor work against the German government when, in fact, the government pays the pastor’s salary?  It was only Bonhoeffer’s deep faith expressed in his theology allowed him to overcome the tendency to look the other way and to do nothing—martyrdom is obviously not a feel-good thing.  Only when heart and mind work together is faith strong enough to endure a winter of rainy days.  Obviously, many German pastors could not follow Bonhoeffer’s lead.

The role of finance in theology cannot be easily set aside.  American churches are not state funded, but are instead given tax breaks.  Private donors are, however, much more fully present in the lives of American pastors.  Metaxas notes, for example, that after John Emerson Fosdick began preaching views at variance with the Apostle’s Creed in the 1920s and was subject to Presbytery investigation, John D. Rockefeller build a church for him and made sure he are called to pastor it (101-102).  By this standard, state financing by a normally sleepy bureaucracy does not seem nearly so intrusive.

Pride.  In fact, a major theme in Metaxas’ narrative in 31 chapters is the German church’s almost total capitulation to Nazi rule.  Germans were deeply shamed by their treatment by the allies at the end of World War I.  When Hitler restored German pride in seizing France, he became a pseudo messianic figure.  It is probably not an accident, for example, that the Barmen Declaration was authored primarily by a Swiss theologian (Karl Barth), not a German one.

American pride is also a factor in its relationship with government.  Political parties and interest groups are not indifferent to the views represented from the pulpit. What better way to promote a political agenda than to have it endorsed by pastors claiming (unmitigated by an orthodox reading of the biblical text) that it is God’s will?  In turn, the pastors can claim that they influenced government policy.  The pastor of my home church resigned at one point to write a book about this very subject [6].

Weak theology.  Theologians who questioned the divinity of Christ, such as Schleiermacher and von Harnack, reduced German theological study to nothing more than careful exposition of ancient texts.  German worship descended into a litany of religious formalities and cultural tradition (59-61).  If faith is no more than half-hearted adherence to tradition, where is the power and authority to oppose evil?

Bonhoeffer’s visits to America especially disappointed him because even the seminaries lacked theological rigor and the Gospel was rarely preached.  For example, Bonhoeffer wrote his friend Max Diestal from New York in 1930:  There is no theology here… they talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and no evidence of any criteria (101).  Bonhoeffer did, however, find solace in African American worship and Gospel singing (110).

Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer is both a page turner and a deep meditation.  It provides both the personal and the German historical context for reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books.  The length of the book is necessary to accomplish the goal of being thorough and complete.  Metaxas is also helpful for reclaiming the historical Bonhoeffer from groups wanting to piggy-back on his popularity as an opponent to Adolf Hitler while spinning his story and theology to suit other agendas [7].  This biography is likely to remain the standard by which other biographies are measured.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulrich_Tukur

[2] http://harpers.org/blog/2010/12/dietrich-bonhoeffer-six-questions-for-eric-metaxas

[3] Metaxas appears to have written his biography in the encomium form which has 4 parts:  1. Origins and Birth, 2. Nurture and Training, 3. Accomplishments and Deeds, and 4. Comparison (Jerome H. Neyrey. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.  Page 79).

[4] I have personally read several—The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, Creation and Fall, and Ethics.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barmen_Declaration.

[6] Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr.  1988.  God in the White House:  How Religion Has Changed the Modern Presidency.  New York:  MacMillan Publishing Company. (http://wapo.st/1lbwu1h)

[7] The translation of Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge as The Cost of Discipleship is a possible example of this spin.  Nachfolge literally means to “follow after” in German which points to God, consistent with Bonhoeffer’s first two Barcelona principles.  The Cost of Discipleship, which points more to us (a more humanistic interpretation) emphasizes Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of “cheap grace”.

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