Eric Metaxas is a versatile author, working on such projects as books on Wilberforce and Veggie Tales cartoons. This time, Metaxas turns his attention to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is an important figure to write on as he is both well and little known. Many Christians are familiar with the name, may have heard of the phrase ‘cheap grace’ and are vaguely aware that Bonhoeffer participated in some assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Beyond that, Bonhoeffer is mostly a mystery to the average reader.
Metaxas takes the reader on a journey through Bonhoeffer’s life. Beginning with his family, Metaxas paints a picture of Bonhoeffer’s childhood. Much space is given to setting up the intellectual and cultural context to Bonhoeffer, while at the same time revealing the circumstances that would allow the Nazis to come to power. Bonhoeffer was early recognized as a brilliant student. He excelled at his theological studies and learned from some of the greatest German scholars. Bonhoeffer studied under Adolf von Harnack and, while disagreeing with his liberal theology, was able to take his commitment to detail and apply it to his own studies. Metaxas also provides information concerning Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Karl Barth and the impact of his theology.
As Hitler rose to power, there was increasing challenges for the church. Anti-semitism gradually increased, leading ultimately to the holocaust. The so-called ‘German Christians,’ those who gave in to the Nazi agenda, attempted to remove all Jewish influence and imagery from Christianity. Their attempts led to something that could no longer be recognized as Christianity. Responding to this, Bonhoeffer and others worked toward creating a confessing church, one that took biblical theology seriously. As Nazi violence increased, Bonhoeffer was sent to safety in America to teach at Union Seminary in New York. While still on the journey to America, Bonhoeffer realized that this was a mistake. Bonhoeffer soon returned to Germany and began some illegal seminaries to teach confessing pastors. As the situation deteriorated, it became apparent that things would not get better as long as Hitler was in power. Bonhoeffer was already connected with Germans open to assassinating Hitler and he eventually joined the plot. When the attempt failed, all those involved were imprisoned. While we do not have any of Bonhoeffer’s writings from his last days, we do have accounts from other participants. Bonhoeffer went to his death with courage and confidence in eternal life.
What use does this book have in the area of apologetics? First of all, it is still claimed by skeptics that Hitler was a Christian and that the holocaust is an example of the evils of religion. Metaxas does a good job of demonstrating Hitler’s contempt for Christianity and his willingness to use it temporarily for his own purposes. More importantly, Metaxas portrays Bonhoeffer as an apologist, even though he does not use that term. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant theologian who was willing to question the liberal assumptions of contemporary German scholarship. Bonhoeffer worked to keep orthodox theology centre, eventually leading to the creation of the confessing church. Even within the confessing church, Bonhoeffer was continually challenging them to remain loyal to biblical teachings.
The situation today is both different and similar to Bonhoeffer’s. We do not experience the severe persecution under regimes such as the Nazis. However, there is continual pressure to compromise and to give in to trends and cultural changes. While the result of remaining loyal to the Gospel are not likely to lead to time in a concentration camp, there is much we can learn from Bonhoeffer. We need to continually deepen our biblical and theological understanding, learning from the best in scholarship. It is from a keen mind and a passionate love for God that the church can respond to internal and external challenges. Bonhoeffer was able to see the best in other traditions (even having a great desire learn from Gandhi) and was willing to question his own traditions. All of this was based on what the Bible taught, testing all to the teachings of Jesus.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is a well written and compelling book. If the reader is willing, it can be an inspiration to become a better scholar, pastor, Christian and even apologist. There is an opportunity to learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to share the passion for God’s Word and the faithfulness of the Christian Church. Those familiar with Bonhoeffer’s writings will appreciate the greater context in which they were written. This book is highly recommended for all Christians for both challenge and encouragement.
Stephen J. Bedard