Editor’s Note: To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the death of Dietrch Bonhoeffer, NR is reprinting S.T. Karnick’s review of Eric Metaxas’s biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy from the June 21, 2010, issue.
The too-brief life of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been the subject of much film and literary interest in recent years, and Eric Metaxas’s insightful biography of this heroic figure helps us understand why. Bonhoeffer’s life vividly demonstrated the natural and indeed inevitable tensions between the individual and the modern state, and it pointed toward a response based firmly in Christian thought.
There are two powerful presences throughout the book: Bonhoeffer himself and Adolf Hitler, as the two head for the great confrontation in which the theologian engaged in an ambitious conspiracy to kill the Führer and topple his regime. Metaxas’s book makes the reader acutely aware that the same nation that produced Hitler engendered this heroic opponent and many others of similar integrity.
His family’s unusual religious life was a huge formative influence on Bonhoeffer. The Bonhoeffers seldom attended church, Metaxas writes, but their “daily life was filled with Bible reading and hymn singing, all of it led by Frau Bonhoeffer.” In addition, the children learned that a real love of God must be manifested in one’s actions. “Exhibiting selflessness, expressing generosity, and helping others were central to the family culture.”
Bonhoeffer went on to study theology at Berlin University, earning his doctorate in 1927, at age 21. The theological faculty was then dominated by proponents of the “historical-critical method.” They had concluded “that the miracles [the Bible] described never happened, and that the Gospel of John never happened,” Metaxas notes. Bonhoeffer courageously refused to accept their thinking, arguing against them politely but confidently, “on positive theological grounds,” as a fellow student described it.
Bonhoeffer was a brilliant student, and he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject “What is the church?” His answer was that the church was, as Metaxas puts it, “neither a historical entity nor an institution, but . . . ‘Christ existing as church-community.’” Metaxas describes this as “a stunning debut,” and one can see in this notion the influence of Bonhoeffer’s religious and moral upbringing. “There was no place for false piety or any kind of bogus religiosity in our home,” Metaxas quotes Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, as saying. Bonhoeffer elaborated on this idea in his book The Cost of Discipleship (1937), “in which anything short of obedience to God smacked of ‘cheap grace,’” Metaxas writes.
In 1930 and 1931, Bonhoeffer studied in New York City at Union Theological Seminary, America’s bastion of theological liberalism. In New York, he wrote at the time, “they preach about virtually everything,” except one subject: “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.” Only in the South and in black churches did Bonhoeffer find real Christianity in the United States. He began attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he found both sound doctrine and true Christian conduct. He also witnessed racial segregation firsthand and found it fascinating and appalling.
It was then, Metaxas argues, that Bonhoeffer developed his premise that the church was “called by God to stand with those who suffer.” Upon returning to Germany and accepting a teaching position at Berlin University and in teaching confirmation classes for adolescent males in a Berlin slum, he developed his then-radical thought that Christianity must be modeled, not just professed. A true Christian, Bonhoeffer taught and wrote, would strive to live a Christlike life in every endeavor.
That sort of thinking had huge political implications in the burgeoning statist regime of Nazi Germany. Only two days after Hitler was elected chancellor, Bonhoeffer, just 26 years old, delivered a radio address criticizing the nation’s “Führer Principle,” an authoritarian leadership concept that Hitler would soon exploit to his advantage. A true and good leader, Bonhoeffer argued, recognizes that his authority comes from God. That protects him from self-aggrandizement and tyranny by putting the emphasis on his discipleship.
Obviously Hitler took the opposite approach, and to stand against the Nazis required increasingly great courage. When the Nazis began contemplating strictures against the Jews, in 1933, Bonhoeffer spoke out with his essay and speech “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in which he stated that the church must defend those abused by the state, even to the point of taking direct action against the government if necessary. As usual, in making this argument he carefully used Scripture to support each point.
Bonhoeffer wrote books and essays exploring theology, morality, and politics, but there was little one could accomplish through words as the decade progressed, and the Nazis terminated civil liberties and engineered a takeover of institutions throughout Germany. Thus, in 1940, he officially joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and carry out a military coup. He had decided to act on his theological conclusion that to fail to resist evil made one complicit in it. He became a double agent, joining the Abwehr, the German military-intelligence organization, while working for the conspiracy and writing his magnum opus, Ethics.
Bonhoeffer’s part in the conspiracy was to work with the Allied authorities, specifically the British, to obtain their assurance that they would negotiate a peace with the post-Hitler government. Unfortunately, British prime minister Winston Churchill had decided that for propaganda purposes his nation’s enemy had to be not just the Nazis but all Germans, and he refused to cooperate with the conspirators or even acknowledge them. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt did the same. That decision delayed the end of the Nazi regime and ultimately doomed the anti-Hitler forces within Germany. There were at least three major conspiracies working against Hitler at the time, and the membership of these groups was overwhelmingly Christian.
While involved in one of these conspiracies, Bonhoeffer wrote an extraordinary essay, “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943,” in which he summarized his thinking about Christian duty and reiterated his views on the real source of good works: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God — the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”
Bonhoeffer and the other conspirators lived out these words by offering up their lives to save others from Nazism. Metaxas writes:
He had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. . . . It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom — that was what it was to obey God.
After two failed assassination attempts against Hitler, Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators were arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943. Bonhoeffer was executed two years later, at age 39 — just three weeks before the end of the war. He never got to marry the woman to whom he had become engaged in early 1943.
Even in prison, however, he impressed others with his continual Christlike behavior. A British prisoner of war who was with Bonhoeffer in the last days before his execution wrote, “He was, without exception, the finest and most lovable man I have ever met.” Bonhoeffer went to his death with great composure, impressing even the concentration camp’s doctor. This man who “thought of death as the last station on the road to freedom,” as Metaxas puts it, ended up turning even the direst of situations into a memorable theological lesson. Such was the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christian.
— S.T. Karnick is editor of The American Culture, culture.stkarnick.com. This article originally appeared in the June 21, 2010 issue of National Review.