Church history presents many fascinating characters, but nowhere will anyone find a character quite as unique as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is a penetrating figure whose stunning moral and theological character grip the imagination unlike any figure I have ever encountered.
Biographer Eric Metaxas agrees with this sentiment, and it is precisely what compelled him to write the first comprehensive biography of Bonhoeffer in 40 years. His book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is a stunning achievement recounting Bonhoeffer’s life with lucidity, historical detail, and a concretely contextualized handling of Bonhoeffer’s often misunderstood theological legacy. What is more, Metaxas masterfully distills Bonhoeffer’s eventful and complex life into a true narrative biography that is comprehensive and vivid without being overwhelming. Joseph Laconte, reviewing Bonhoeffer for the Wall Street Journal agrees, stating:
- “Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer’s story with passion and theological sophistication, often challenging revisionist accounts that make Bonhoeffer out to be a “humanist” or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was easily disposable.”
With all of this praise it can be easy to lose Bonhoeffer. Adjectives, I don’t think would have appealed to him; Bonhoeffer would have been more
interested in verbs and nouns–and that is what Metaxas’ biography accomplishes.
Metaxas gives us Bonhoeffer–the person and what he did–on Bonhoeffer’s terms. This approach will also come through, I hope in the following interview with Eric Metaxas. Enjoy.
Matthew: Why did you choose to write on Bonhoeffer?
Eric: When I first seriously became a Christian in 1988, the man who helped lead me to faith shared the story of Bonhoeffer with me. I was staggered. My mother is German and she lost her father in WWII, when she was just nine. So I’ve always had a fascination with that period. Hearing Bonhoeffer’s story intensified that fascination and eventually helped determine that I would write this book.
After my biography of William Wilberforce, I thought I was through with biographies. But people who enjoyed the Wilberforce book kept asking me whom I would write about next. I thought about it and realized that the only person who inspired me and captured my imagination enough to warrant another biography was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Matthew: What is it about Bonhoeffer that so fascinates you?
Eric: Part of it has to do with the fact that I myself exist on that strange borderland where conservative Evangelical Christianity meets the world of the Yale-Manhattan cultural elites. And it seems to me that Bonhoeffer stood in a similar place in his own time. Bonhoeffer has been something of a darling to those on the left, but his dedication as a Christian makes him stand above such easy categories. His Christianity defined his entire life and made him stand beyond these labels. As a result, he has something to say to the church, but he also has something important to say to those outside, to secularists, and to non-Christians. I’m attracted to him, in some large part, because of that.
Matthew: In what ways generally, and in particular points of detail, does your biography of Bonhoeffer differ from Bethge?
Eric: First, let me say that I stand in awe of Bethge and his biography. But after 40 years I thought that we needed a new biography, something that would ‘stand on the shoulders’ of Bethge’s book, as it were. I wanted to produce a book that was not a mammoth 1100-page biography, but I didn’t want it to be short either; I wanted it to be reasonably definitive and complete, to put him and his theology in the proper context, and to say all that needed saying about him, within limits. I wanted to find the middle ground; the ground that allows people to understand Bonhoeffer in the narrative of his life without overwhelming them.
I had no idea that I would find as much new material as I did. That was exciting.
I didn’t set out to do anything other than tell the story of his life, but I quickly saw that simply by putting things in context, I’ve gone a long way towards untangling Bonhoeffer’s rather tangled theological legacy. It’s a real bird’s nest sometimes, but I hope my book will change that, simply by laying out the facts.
This includes clearing up just what Bonhoeffer’s relationship is to the theological left—especially regarding his relationship to the “death of God” movement, which risibly looked to Bonhoeffer as some kind of apostle. I believe that when the facts are laid out, the picture of Bonhoeffer that emerges is quite different from the one that many on the theological left who have embraced Bonhoeffer have had.
There are a few things in my book that aren’t in Bethge’s book. Bethge likely knew these things, but out of diffidence or respect for certain people, he elected to leave them out.
For example, I write about Bonhoeffer’s eight-year romantic relationship with Elizabeth Zinn, who despite being obliquely referred to in other biographies has never been named. Their relationship lasted for almost eight years, and they were even engaged. It is a major part of Bonhoeffer’s life and has never been mentioned in print before now. I actually got her name from Bethge’s widow, Renate, who graciously hosted my wife and me in her home in Germany. It was extraordinary to meet her, not least because she’s a character in my book.
There are two other important things in my book that have not been covered before. For one thing, I give a full accounting of Bonhoeffer’s crucially important time in New York in 1939, when he was deciding whether to return to the unfolding horror of Hitler’s Germany. I provide a detailed day-by-day narrative of those 26 days, days which were determinative for the rest of his life. It’s the first full accounting of this extremely important time.
Also, for the very first time, my book tells the whole story of his romance and engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer, who was just eighteen when they were engaged. The facts of their relationship as they’ve existed in various sources are a bit confusing. The story needed a fundamental restructuring and retelling to make it clear and available in narrative form. I’m thrilled to have that story in this book.
Matthew: Throughout the book you emphasize Bonhoeffer in specific roles. Some are obvious; others are a bit more controversial. In particular you refer to him as a “prophet”. In what sense do you mean this, and how do you justify such a label?
Eric: I mean in the sense that the Bible calls Jeremiah a prophet. It seems that God called Bonhoeffer and chose him—even sometimes against his own will—to fill this role in his time. Bonhoeffer could see and understand where the Church was, and where Germany was in a way that really does seem to have been prescient to the point of being actually prophetic.
But one needn’t see it merely as a spiritual kind of prophetic vision, although I think it was that. Bonhoeffer was nurtured in an environment that demanded one think with pristine clarity—his father demanded it. He came from a family who towered in intellectual achievement. I don’t think one can escape that conclusion when reading his works and see how his theology was embodied in his life.
So one could say that he saw more deeply and farther than almost any of his contemporaries, and he was always trying to get them to see what he saw. And like most prophets, he mainly failed in this. But God tells prophets to say what they say. What others do with it is another story.
Matthew: Another label you give Bonhoeffer, and the subject of much debate, so much so that entire books have been written on the subject, is “martyr”. You clearly see him as such. Why is this?
Eric: When I began writing this book, I did not see him as a martyr and was confused by those who did. If you see his resistance to Hitler as simply a political resistance then there is no reason to call him a Christian martyr. But if you see his death as a final and fundamental outworking of his theology, then his hanging at Flossenburg is indeed a martyrdom, and that’s certainly how I’ve come to see it. Bonhoeffer’s political resistance was not an aberration from his theology, it was the direct result of his theology. It was his theology and his obedience to God that led him to the gallows. That seems very clear to me now.
Matthew: How would you answer those who object to Bonhoeffer as a martyr, especially with regard to those who argue that Bonhoeffer is not a martyr because he fails to meet the criteria set out traditionally by the church?
Eric: I’m not sure what you mean exactly, but if Hitler could have had Bonhoeffer torn apart by lions, I’m sure he would have been happy to do so. We have to remember that Bonhoeffer himself doesn’t care what history says about him and whether or not we consider him a martyr and saint, or whatever. What Bonhoeffer cared about was what God required of him. His life and theology were inextricably intertwined; his theology was his life. So as I say, it was his fealty to God that led him to the gallows.
Further, I think we evangelicals are so influenced by rationalism that we sometimes wrongly separate our life and our theology. But God isn’t fooled by what we say we believe intellectually. He looks at our lives. Our lives are our theology. Bonhoeffer is important for us today precisely because his life stands as a corrective to this error. Bonhoeffer understands that our lives and our theology have to be one thing. It’s one reason that in his theology he stresses the Incarnation as he does. I think we need to desperately recapture this emphasis, and Bonhoeffer helps us to do that.
Matthew: In your book you state that Bonhoeffer was not–ever–a pacifist, a statement that goes against an overwhelming body of opinion. How do you justify this view of him?
Eric: I would simply ask where I am mistaken. I am open to hear where I missed any facts that argue he was a pacifist.
I think that some on the theological left have fallen in love with some particular aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and they’ve ignored other aspects of his life. I wrote my book because I want people to see all of him. One cannot cherry pick one’s facts. To give Bonhoeffer a fair hearing we need to include all the facts, old, new, and obscure. And if there’s anything controversial in my book it is from Bonhoeffer’s own words, not from my interpretation or articulation of them. The quotes are straight from Bonhoeffer and many of them have simply been ignored, which has terribly muddied his legacy.
Take the story about Bonhoeffer going to Riverside Church in New York City in 1939. The pastor was Henry Fosdick and Bonhoeffer’s words about the theological liberalism he encountered there are nothing less than stunning, especially coming from the typically gracious Bonhoeffer. On the other side, his words and reaction to the “fundamentalist” Broadway Presbyterian Church under the pastorate of Dr. McComb, are likewise stunning:
- “[Broadway Presbyterian] will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Church has long since become a Temple of Baal” (334).
That’s pretty shocking stuff, given how many have characterized Bonhoeffer.
It’s extraordinary, really. On that day — June 17th, 1939 — Bonhoeffer was desperate for theologically orthodox preaching, for the real Word of God. And he got it at McComb’s church and said so, emphatically. What he got at Riverside was horrifying to him, and he says so, too. But why haven’t we heard this before? People have cherry-picked what they wanted and ignored the rest and it’s given us a false picture of who Bonhoeffer really was. I hope that can be corrected at last. We owe it to Bonhoeffer.
Matthew: What do you make of his relationship with his fellow student at Union, Jean Lassere? Many pin-point this relationship as the defining point of Bonhoeffer’s acceptance of pacifism. How do you read this event? If Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist at this point, what influence did Lasserre have on him?
Eric: It’s quite true that Jean Lasserre had a great influence on Bonhoeffer, but to say that Bonhoeffer became a pacifist as a result is simply to overstate things. Lasserre’s principal influence on Bonhoeffer was regarding the Sermon on the Mount. He forced Bonhoeffer to take it more seriously and to want to live according to it and to teach others to live according to it. That’s what was the main idea behind the communities at Zingst and Finkenwalde. But to say that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist is simply to misrepresent him.
Not only wasn’t he a pacifist, but he would have shot Hitler himself, had he thought that was the best way to get the job done. Nor did he ever counsel the seminarians at Zingst and Finkenwalde against taking up arms to defend their country. That’s the real smoking gun, no pun intended, in the whole argument about his attitude toward pacifism. Bonhoeffer’s main objection to Hitler’s war was not that it was a war, but that it was Hitler’s war. It was a war of aggression and it was not a just war. But even in this he was not very outspoken at all, especially not with his seminarians, who went to war with the idea that they were fighting for the Fatherland. Bonhoeffer accepted their decisions to do this, and was careful not to make them feel that they must accept his assessment of the war as an unjust war. That’s pretty extraordinary, really.
Matthew: After reading your book, it is clear that you believe Bonhoeffer to be profoundly orthodox theologically. Many Evangelicals would reject this view. Have Evangelicals missed the boat here? What can they learn from him? Why do you feel so strongly about his orthodoxy?
Eric: I simply don’t believe any other conclusion can be reached based on the facts we now have. We’ve been dealing with a caricatured picture of Bonhoeffer, based on a handful of cherry-picked facts, as I say. He was in some ways quite complicated, but the facts show him to be—at his very core—orthodox theologically. It is easy to see this when all the facts are considered, otherwise I have not done my job in writing this book.
I think perhaps the biggest lesson from Bonhoeffer for Evangelicals is the grace he exhibited towards those with whom he disagreed. He was not theologically liberal, but he was gracious and kind to those who were. He showed great respect for figures such Adolf von Harnack, for example. But this graciousness, too, is a manifestation of his theology. Christ did not suggest loving one’s enemies — theological or otherwise — he demanded it. Bonhoeffer showed love towards his theological opponents. He refuted them logically, but respectfully. We evangelicals can learn something from Bonhoeffer in this.
Matthew: Many have suggested that Bonhoeffer’s theology takes many radical and, at times, contradictory trajectories. Do you agree with this assessment, why or why not?
Eric: That’s not where the facts lead. Bonhoeffer’s theology was a straight, congruous development, right up to the end, and any attempt to make it look overly serpentine is mistaken. That’s perhaps the most remarkable thing about his theology and his life; they are not a herky-jerky development, but a remarkably smooth one. I think that’s why knowing the story of Bonhoeffer’s life is so extremely important, because without that it’s difficult to make sense of his theology. At first glance there are contradictions, but when one looks a bit more deeply one sees that there simply aren’t any. Bonhoeffer may be somewhat complicated at times, but he is absolutely not self-contradictory, not at any point. That’s quite important to understand.
Matthew: How much emphasis should be placed on Bonhoeffer’s epistolary theology? Do you think there is too much emphasis on enigmatic statements such as “religionless Christianity”?
Eric: Ironically, almost none. The fact that his so-called Letters and Papers from Prison were published as they were has terribly tangled and muddied his legacy for decades. I hope that my book finally sets things in context. It’s a tragedy how misunderstood he’s been as a result of a few out-of-context comments made in those private letters to his dearest friend. People have seized on those few comments and run with them and run with them.
It’s something like Mark Twain’s statement that a lie can get half-way around the world before the truth can get his shoes on. Properly understood, Bonhoeffer’s comments in those letters make perfect sense and don’t contradict anything he said before. That’s the big news. It shouldn’t be big news, but for many it will be huge news. But it’s good news, ultimately, simply because it’s true.
Matthew: Why do you think people–whatever their convictions–use Bonhoeffer to further their own ideologies?
Eric: I think it is part of human nature. It is always tempting to use someone like Bonhoeffer to support one’s own views. But Bonhoeffer resists this usage. He walks a fine line between left and right, and it is tempting for those who only propound a gospel of grace and love to dismiss Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on obedience, guilt, and sin. Bonhoeffer stands in the middle and we need to hold his theology in the tension that he held it, above trite categories of right and left. Bonhoeffer pulls us to the center where compassion and justice exist together, in Jesus Christ.
Matthew: Do you believe this approach reflects an outworking of Bonhoeffer’s Christology?
Eric: Yes, definitely. We want to gravitate towards eccentricities and exaggerations. But as I say, Bonhoeffer wants to pull us towards the center, towards Christ who judges AND forgives. “Christ the center” as a theological method is a reflection of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.
Matthew: With the exception of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which you cover in detail, you often refer to Bonhoeffer’s works giving a summary of their place in history, but do not go deeply into the contents of his works. Why did you take this approach?
Eric: I didn’t want the book to be so theological as to put off mainstream readers. But I also wanted to give just enough to entice readers into going and reading Bonhoeffer’s works for themselves. I want people to read Bonhoeffer, and it is my great hope for this book that people will go and do so. But there are plenty of books that talk about Bonhoeffer’s writings and I didn’t want to repeat what had already been said.
Matthew: It is not really possible to write about Bonhoeffer’s life without being influenced. What aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and character challenged you?
Eric: Bonhoeffer is such a clear thinker, that he challenged me to be clearer in my own thinking, and to evaluate how closely my own life comports with what I believe. I think this is a challenge for all Christians to take seriously. It’s vital.
A friend of mine Greg Thornbury, Dean of Christian Studies at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee says that Bonhoeffer is “a Church Father for the postmodern era”. I think this comment is utterly apt, because Bonhoeffer speaks to both Christians and non-Christians in a way that no one else seems to do. Bonhoeffer’s story is a story that speaks to us very powerfully today, in a way that I think is unique. There’s just no one like him.
Matthew: What is your favorite of Bonhoeffer’s works?
Eric: Life Together
Matthew: What do you want the long-term effect of your book to be?
Eric: I want the book to lead people to see Bonhoeffer as he actually was, not as an ideologically constructed version of who he was. I hope I have laid it out clearly, for Christians and non-Christians both. And I hope this will lead people to read Bonhoeffer’s own work, which will in turn lead them closer to Christ. That was certainly Bonhoeffer’s goal, to lead people to Christ, the “man for others.” I’m delighted to share that goal with him.
Eric Metaxas is a New York Times Best-selling author of several books including Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. In addition, Metaxas is the host and founder of Socrates in the City, the acclaimed speakers’ series on life, God, and other small topics.” His website is ERICMETAXAS.com.