What more remains to be said about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? More to the point, what can I contribute to what so many others have already said about him and this amazing book? Here are a few brief comments:
1. This is among the quite rare definitive biographies I have read (608 pages in length) to which there seems to be little (if anything) to add but, at the same time, from which there is little (if anything) to delete. The same can be said of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson and few others.
2. With all due respect to his martyrdom, Bonhoeffer was not a saint. Rather, as he would repeatedly insist, he was an imperfect human being who - during the last years of his life - struggled to be worthy of his faith that he viewed as a gift of holy grace,
3. He had no wish to die but, as H. Fischer-Hullstrung (Flossenburg concentration camp's doctor) later remembered, he seems to have embraced what he viewed - with serene gratitude - an opportunity to die for a faith for which he so fully lived.
4. Eric Metaxas' juxtaposition of Bonheoffer with Adolph Hitler invests this biography with tension and focus in ways and to an extent I have seldom encountered in a work of non-fiction. I am immediately reminded of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
5. As Bonhoeffer is portrayed in this book, he is the polar opposite of those for whom Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell: people who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. He was compelled to "let his light so shine before men...." Of course, Hitler wanted him "destroyed."
I have accumulated a number of quotations and now share a few:
"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession....Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
"Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility."
"To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ."
"God's truth judges created things out of love, and Satan's truth judges them out of envy and hatred."
"The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children."
"A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol"
"We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."
"When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh."
"Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are."
"Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; he waited until one of them turned to him."
In the Prologue, Eric Metaxas observes, "The man who died was engaged to be married. He was a pastor and theologian. And he was executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. This is his story." I congratulate Metaxas for creating what is certain to remain the definitive account of that "story."
* * *
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a theologian, martyr, a spiritual writer, a musician, a pastor, and an author of poetry and fiction. The integrity of his Christian faith and life, and the international appeal of his writings, have received broad recognition and admiration, all of which has led to a consensus that he is one of the theologians of his time whose theological reflections might lead future generations of Christians into creating a new more spiritual and responsible millennium. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian famous for his stand against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. His beliefs and convictions ultimately cost him his life in a Nazi concentration camp. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous theologians and martyrs of the 20th century. To learn more about him, please visit http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/.
This is a very engaging account of a very interesting life. Bonhoeffer was a complex character who lived in complex times. As a theologian, he laboured on the battle ground between liberalism and biblical orthodoxy. As a German, he lived in the stormy years of the Great War, the injustice and depression of the interwar years, and the rise and fall of one of the most evil political and ideological regimes of the 20th century, Nazism. As a pastor, mentor and teacher, he helped train people to minister while he himself ministered to souls (from troubled children to blue collar congregations to intellectual elites to seminarians to fellow prisoners). As a German, he struggled to remain faithful to his nation while opposing the evil ideology of the Nazis from the earliest days in every way he could both at home and abroad. To say he lived in tumultuous times is gross understatement.
Any version of Bonhoeffer's life or any assessment of his theology that doesn't take into account the complexities of his ecclesiastical and historical-political context is going to paint a warped caricature. To a certain extent, because of the incompleteness of his own work (he died too young to have fully developed his own theological ideas) and the unevenness of the sources (there are only patchy details about certain parts of his life and work, and of course his own letters and the reports of his family and friends won't give a full-orbed picture), any biography will, at least at some points, be a project in interpretation rather than objective reporting. In fact, because of the incompleteness of Bonhoeffer's theology, it has made him an easy project for both liberals and conservatives to adopt and, reading him in light of their own contemporary debates, mold to fit their own agendas and argue for their own side. This has been done too frequently to the point that there are two Bonhoeffers out their and they often don't sound much like one another. Even though Metaxas will no doubt be accused of claiming Bonhoeffer for the "conservatives" and "evangelicals", he provides some balance to the image that liberals have tried to paint of Bonhoeffer, even if the balance comes in the form of a pendulum swing possibly slightly too far in the other direction.
But Metaxas certainly is right to reclaim Bonhoeffer as a personal disciple of Christ, one who loved God, believed his Word, followed Christ personally and lovingly shepherded his church. Too often liberals have tried to claim Bonhoeffer and his "religionless Christianity" as supporting their godless Christianity. They simply attempt to coopt the heroic Bonhoeffer in their project to maintain the ethic of the man Jesus even as they empty Jesus of his moral authority as God incarnate, the central pillar in their attempt to make Christian morality relevant to a secular scientific age that has rejected notions of the supernatural. But Bonhoeffer was a follower of the Jesus of divine revelation and a passionate student of Scripture. He preached the gospel of the cross and faced his imprisonment with courage and his execution by the Gestapo with the hope of the resurrection because his faith rested in the resurrected and sovereign Lord Jesus.
There are minor issues with editing in perhaps 6 or 8 places. Little typos (doubled words, misspellings, etc.) which make it look like final editing might have been rushed, especially toward the end of the book. Also, in the final pages, Metaxas makes a dramatic point that the text which Bishop George Bell, a friend of Bonhoeffer and fellow worker in the ecumenical movement and anti-Nazi efforts of the Confessing Church, used for his sermon at Bonhoeffer's memorial service in London was none other than one from the Sermon on the Mount, the passage from Matthew that forms the basis of Bonhoeffer's great book, The Cost of Discipleship. However, the passage isn't from the Sermon on the Mount but from Jesus' commissioning of his disciples in Matthew 10 as he sends them out to preach the kingdom. This is a slip-up to be sure, but nothing to diminish this engaging biography which, in most places, moves along at the pace of a good novel.
This biography has done for me what all good biographies ought to do: it has made me appreciate the person of Bonhoeffer more than I previously did, it has made me feel like I know him much better than I did, and it has sparked in me the desire to know him better through other biographies and through his own works. I highly recommend it to all and I'd give it 4.5 stars.
on March 28, 2014
I had a vague notion of this story before reading it on the recommendation of a friend but to learn of the details of Bonhoeffer's development, life and death, presented in such a wonderful, descriptive manner was a genuine gift!
I have since recommended this book to many friends and have bought 2 copies to loan out.
Bravo to Eric Metaxas for his detailed and sensitive treatment of this important historical character.
on October 1, 2013
Don't accept his reasoning for justifying his plot against Hitler. Paul was not involved in a plot against Nero who was probably as demonic as Hitler. Most old testament heroes did not plot against the despots of their time. e.g. Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Esther etc.
He was a courageous Christian with an excellent gift of discernment.
IMO the long quotes from his and Maria's love letters should have been Reader's Digest like paraphrases instead.