Book Review: Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

February 23, 2011

It’s hard to imagine a more complex study than the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After more than a half-century after his death, the debate still rages about his life. Was he a committed evangelical motivated by the gospel to resist the Nazi regime? Or was he noble, yet a dedicated liberal theologian, a skeptic of the orthodox positions of the Christian church?

Stepping into the breach is the extraordinarily talented biographer, Eric Metaxas. Metaxas, whose work on William Wilberforce was widely praised, seems to have a thing for the lives of counter-cultural, Christian reformers. Bonhoeffer, like Wilberforce, resisted the prevailing social trends in the church and in the culture, standing up to injustice, regardless of the cost.

Bonhoeffer is a weighty book. It’s not a light read and while Metaxas tackles his subject with verve and tight, interesting prose, he presents a rather comprehensive account of this man’s life. Much has been written and said both about Metaxas’ work and Bonhoeffer. I’d like to just share a few of the things I learned while reading this magnificent biography of this extraordinary life:

  • By painstakingly moving through the German of Bonhoeffer’s formative life, I received a first-rate education of the high-class German society, the Christian heritage of Germany before Hitler, and the many crosscurrents that shaped Bonhoeffer’s early life.
  • In many ways, the seeds of the Nazi ideology were planted by the mad words of Martin Luther toward the Jewish people, written at the end of his life. This was a time when Luther had gone nuts really and so his comments have to be taken in the context of someone who, at the end of his life, due to physical and mental breakdown, lashed out at anyone and anything near him. Hitler cut and paste Luther’s ill-advised words and applied them to the Christianity of Germany. Sadly, many German Christians swallowed this and cheered on Hitler, at least early on.
  • As a cautionary tale, the rise of Hitler was the culmination of a perfect storm of cross winds: economic unrest caused by the Treaty of Versailles, liberal higher-criticism in Germany’s theological institutions and in the Lutheran church, and the tragic melding of patriotism and Christianity in the Lutheran church. Sadly, the church was more interested in “restoring Germany” than in adhering to biblical orthodoxy. Hitler skillfully manipulated these passions to rise to power.
  • I was amazed at the strength of the German resistance. Many of the German officers and higher officials, when exposed to the atrocities of Hitler’s SS, were powerfully convicted by their Christian faith and determined to give their lives in stopping this madman. In fact, were it not for the stupidity and naiveté of British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, a coup may have toppled Hitler. He was on the ropes, about to madly invade Czechoslovakia, when Chamberlain foolishly legitimized Hitler. Also, the German resistance had no help from the Allied powers. So they bravely attempted to take down Hitler, many of them losing their lives for what they believed to be a just cause. Bonhoeffer one of them.
  • I came away amazed at the sincerity and depth of Bonhoeffer’s faith. A few loose statements have been cherry-picked out of his voluminous writings to suggest that he was not a Bible believer. But Metaxas excerpts many of his writings and painstakingly researches his life to bring the portrait of a man deeply committed to Christ and the cross. His sole motivation for standing, often alone, against the monstrosity of Hitler’s Nazism was the Bible. And if you read his writings, his pastoral counseling, his disgust for cross-less preaching, you come away with no doubt that this man was a believer.
  • I was deeply convicted in my own heart at my own lack of discipline when compared to that of Bonhoeffer. Every day of his life was spent deep in study of the Word of God. He permeated his life and thinking. And it gave him the strength to stand against the evil of his day. And when he was forced to prison, like Paul, Bonhoeffer dug deeper and used the occasion to write, to study, to know God more.
  • Bonhoeffer also studied and created, I believe, a solid theology of activism. He felt that to be personally pious, but to ignore injustice was to be complicit in that very injustice. He had to make very hard choices, as did many German Christians at the time. But he felt complete peace in participating in the resistance to Hitler, because he felt that a robust faith is a faith that works, that acts, that is compelled to action.

Bonhoeffer is a book I highly recommend. It is a weighty, important biography of a man used greatly by God. Bonhoeffer was unsuccessful in taking down Hitler, but his life has become an inspiration for Christian boldness, faith, and cross-bearing in the many decades since he was martyred.

I have a feeling that this is the book Eric Metaxas will be always be known for. His painstaking work has given us a great gift.