Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m hovering between three and four stars here, because I did enjoy the book. Quite a stirring narrative. But, to put it too bluntly, I don’t have a fundamental trust in the theological acumen and judgment of Eric Metaxas. He’s certainly a good writer who did his homework (more on that in a moment), but I’ve read some Bonhoeffer—and he just didn’t quite speak the language of evangelical Protestantism like Metaxas seems to assume.

Even within the book there are hints that Bonhoeffer probably shouldn’t be claimed as an evangelical patron saint, the guy who did, we’re sure, what we evangelicals would have done in the same Hitlerian circumstances. Bonhoeffer’s closeness with Barth, his appreciation for Roman Catholicism, his chumminess with Union Theological Seminary—all of these made me uneasy. Yes, he praised a fundamentalist preacher in NYC and made some incisive criticisms of Fosdick and Coffin—but I never felt comfortable with him theologically.

Metaxas defends Bonhoeffer by suggesting several times that he tended to overstate his case in order to shock people into listening. I have no reason to dispute that assessment. But I’m still stuck at three stars, because Bonhoeffer’s place on the evangelical-to-liberal spectrum seems all-important for the biography of a theologian.

In addition, Metaxas fails to delve much into the circumstances behind Bonhoeffer’s apparent conversion. He writes of one instance in Dietrich’s life, “What happened is unclear, but the results were obvious. For one thing, he now became a regular churchgoer for the first time in his life and took Communion as often as possible.” Really? He was already a theologian at this point and had done church work. This seems very important to ferret out, but Metaxas leaves it unclear.

Yes, Bonhoeffer said and did some evangelical things, and I surely hope he was regenerated. I simply don’t feel I can trust Metaxas to help me decide. I’m afraid he made Bonhoeffer into our evangelical image. Thankfully, I don’t have to decide Bonhoeffer’s eternal destiny. It’s in God’s good hands. And no matter where he is now, God’s grace (common or special?) was strong in him, and he did courageous and honorable things I’m not sure I could do, even on my best day.

Criticisms over—because Metaxas deserves a great deal of praise for this book. I couldn’t help liking the clever little wordplays he used frequently. For example:

Norway … had recently been handed over to Hitler by the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, whose surname became an improper noun, meaning “traitor.”

Metaxas also has a flair for epithets. Nazi Reinhard Heydrich was alternately a “piscine ghoul,” an “albino stoat,” and a “waxy lamprey.” (He was also “cadaverous.”) A little much, perhaps, but it made for good reading.

So did the rest of the story—at least once the conflict between Bonhoeffer and the Nazis began. I had done some study of the man, but I had no idea how early, powerfully, confidently, prominently, and presciently Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazis. He really did seem to see what was coming as few others did. And instead of being an alarmist or conspiracy theorist, Bonhoeffer had access to real evidence of Nazi atrocities.

Metaxas gives sufficient detail, lets characters speak in their own words from actual letters, and yet keeps the story moving. One thing for which I will always be indebted to him is resurrecting the validity of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with 18-year-old Maria von Wedemeyer. Getting to read her letters makes the relationship plausible in a way it hadn’t been when I just watched the movie.

Bonhoeffer’s story is one that challenged me deeply, and yet I think evangelicals should not be quick to claim him or his brave actions as their own.

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Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

5 thoughts on “Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”

  1. I recommend you check out this article:

    SO MANY DIFFERENT DIETRICH BONHOEFFERS, Richard Weikart, Trinity Journal 32 NS (2011): 69-81.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. I think Metaxas’ errors are emblematic of the problems with Conservative Evangelicalism generally speaking. While some of them are attractive to fundamentalists, the problem with close association is that you are bound to discover some area of great discomfort in their practices and/or association. It doesn’t make them evil people, or people to be totally shunned, but it makes it extremely difficult to have full fellowship and a clear conscience.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Well… I’m not so sure you’re drawing a valid parallel. I’m afraid I’m back to disagreeing with Don Johnson…

    I’m not sure how much Metaxas fits into the conservative evangelical camp; he goes to an Episcopal church. If anything, from what I can tell (and I’ve read him here and there over the years), he tracks more centrist. And I think his fault was a universal evangelical/fundamentalist impulse, not a specifically evangelical one: we all want to claim heroes who did noble things.

  4. Ok, point taken, I didn’t know Metaxas was Episcopal, although there are some very conservative Episcopalians. A very rare breed, I’ll admit, but they do exist.

    However, my broader point on this is that a defining characteristic of evangelicals is a broad-mindedness that will become problematic to a fundamentalist once it is discovered. Most of them have time for Bonhoeffer and will say kind things about him. I don’t know what some of the more conservative evangelicals would say, but I wouldn’t be surprised that many of them would not admit his Neo-Orthodoxy.

    So just as Metaxas, conservative or not, is broad-minded, it seems to me that all evangelicals, including those called conservative, have at least some areas of practice, theology, or association that is broader-minded than a fundamentalist would want to go. And usually that broad mindedness is a deal killer to real ministry partnership.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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