Metaxas: Bonhoeffer’s Times and Ours



Eric 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.

Bonhoeffer Biography

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 as Author 

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 as Spy

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 Offended

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?

American Visit

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.




[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.


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

[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”.

Metaxas: Bonhoeffer’s Times and Ours

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Community, Monday Monologues, November 12, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I pray for community and talk about Community

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Community, Monday Monologues, November 12, 2018 (podcast)

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ShipOfFools_web_10042015Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone
when he falls and has not another to lift him up! (Eccl 4:9-10)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first small group consisted of three people—Jon (my best friend), my pastor, and I—who met on Wednesday afternoons in my senior year in high school for pizza and soda to discuss the Book of Romans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book—The Cost of Discipleship (1995). While I really specifically remember only Bonhoeffer’s comments on cheap grace—

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate (44-45).

—those discussions have grounded my faith and theology ever since.

Part of my grounding came by way of Jon who after college went immediately into seminary and shared his seminary texts with me, which we discussed together. He was, for example, heavily influenced by Karl Barth and, at Jon’s prompting, I read some of Barth’s shorter works, such as Dogmatik im Grundriβ[1] in graduate school. Part of my grounding came more directly from my fascination with Bonhoeffer, which led my ordination committee years later (2010) to describe me both as neo-orthodox[2] and very theological.

Grounded or not, the backstory on our group was less encouraging—at the end of my junior year the church fired our youth director unexpectedly when the senior pastor retired. The assistant pastor attempted to fill the void created by her firing, but was not entertaining enough to keep the youth group together. The group collapsed until only Jon and I were left and, because the youth group was my primary social activity outside of school, I was deeply bitter about it. My bitterness continued for several years and, as a result, I did not attend church when I left home for college. At college, I cannot remember attending a single church event on or off campus at either Indiana University or the College of William and Mary.

My lack of church attendance posed no problem when I was away at school, but it was a source of friction when I returned home for holidays and summer vacation. Because my parents moved from Maryland to Virginia during my freshman year, the friction over church was compounded by a change in churches because the kids my age in Virginia were unfamiliar and hung out in high school clicks to which that I was not a part. Between the clicks and my own bitterness, I had no reason to attend church beyond the prompting of my parents. So Sunday morning we would fight, I would attend out of obligation, and not much came of it until I transferred to Iowa State.

At Iowa State University, I lived in Wilson Hall, which overlooked the dairy farm across the street, and shared a room with Dennis who introduced me to the Navigators,[3] a Christian group on campus and who took me to church on Sundays. The Navigators had picnics and other events around campus which I attended, just to get to know other students. Dennis’ church was nondenominational and, because I did not particularly like it, I began attending Collegiate Presbyterian Church [4] and became a member, not knowing that my parents had attended this same church when my Dad was at Iowa State in the 1950s.

Reflecting on why I was returning to church, I realized that the bitterness that I felt when my home church fired our youth director was directed at the leadership of the church, not God. God’s presence was real to me even when I was not part of any church. As a consequence, atheistic arguments never seemed real to me, even when I repeated them, because I knew God first hand and I knew that I had been blessed when I came to faith. Pascal’s Wager, which was directed at atheists, made perfect sense to me, even when I had turned my back on God.

An important atheistic argument starts with the observation that the existence of God can neither be logically proven or disproven. Atheists focusing on this observation prefer the term, agnostic, which in Greek means “not knowing”, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to make a faith decision. Pascal used probability theory  to argue that the agnostic argument is logically false in that faith is a fair bet (hence the term, Pascal’s wager)—if God exists and you believe, then you win heaven, but if God does not exist and you believe, then you loose nothing. In other words, faith in God has a positive reward even if the probability of God existing cannot be established—just so long as the probability is a non-zero, positive number.[5]  Of course, if you know first hand that God exists, Pascal’s Wager is no bet at all!

Whether Pascal’s Wager seemed logical or not, I began attending church in my junior year at Iowa State both on campus and off. Unlike at Indiana University, Iowa State was close to my grandparents who frequently hosted me on weekends when they took me to Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa where I had been baptized and where I was always in the company of relatives and friends in Christ.


Barth, Karl. 1977. Dogmatik im Grundriβ (Orig pub 1947). Zürich: Theologischer Verlag.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[1] I read Dogmatik im Grundriβ during my year in Germany (1979).

[2] Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others started the neo-orthodox school of theological thought which was popular in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but since then has fallen out of fashion.



[5] Pascal’s Wager is mathematic proof that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

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