Eric Metaxas has outdone himself with his latest work, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The author sets the stage for Bonhoeffer’s life and ministry by detailing his life as a child and the events that led to full-time Christian ministry.
Metaxas provides rich detail that helps deconstruct this enigmatic character we know as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The formative years in Rome are explored, student life in Berlin, and his first pastorate in Barcelona. Bonhoeffer is painted as one who loved children and had a passion for equipping young men for the ministry.
His life as a university student in Berlin is a fascinating journey, especially the information that pertains to his friendship with the German theologian, Karl Barth. Also interesting is path chosen by Bonhoeffer as he studied with German liberals like Adolf von Harnack. These years taught Bonhoeffer to think for himself and carefully formulate his theological presuppositions and produce doctoral and post-doctoral dissertations (Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being respectively).
Shortly after Act and Being was published with little acclaim, Bonhoeffer make his way to America in 1930. He struggled with the lack of discipline that he saw demonstrated among the theological students. He was shocked at horrific way that some Caucasians treated African-Americans.
In 1931, Bonhoeffer journeyed back to Germany after his time in America. At this time, he struck up a friendship with Karl Barth. He also returned to the lectern and pulpit with renewed fervor. Metaxas observes Bonhoeffer’s desire to nurture the life of the Christian mind in his students: “He wished to disciple them in the true life of the Christian. This ran the gamut, from understanding current events through a biblical lens to reading the Bible not just as a theology student but as a disciple of Jesus Christ. This approach was unique among German university theologians of that era.”
One of Bonhoeffer’s students commented, “Among the public, there spread the expectation that the salvation of the German people would now come from Hitler. But in the lectures we were told that salvation comes only from Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer sought students who were biblical to the core. Another student noted, “He taught us that the Bible goes directly into your life, [to] where your problems are.”
Bonhoeffer was a man of conviction. In 1933 he preached at Trinity church in Berlin and boldly proclaimed, “The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty … Whoever seeks something other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God … The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit, faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will then the will of God, however well-intentioned.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer not only took a stand for Christ; he stood on behalf of Jewish brothers and sisters. His essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question” helped bolster his case for the Jews. Metaxas rightly observes, “But Bonhoeffer knew that a church that did not stand with the Jews was not the church of Jesus Christ, and to evangelize people into a church that was not the church of Jesus Christ was foolishness and heresy.”
This German pastor was intensely practical and had little interest in academics as an end it itself. Bonhoeffer writes, “Theological work and real pastoral fellowship can only grow in a life which is governed by gathering round the Word morning and evening and by fixed times of prayer.” Additionally, Bonhoeffer would have been grieved by the so-called postmodern emphasis on “making the Bible relevant.” He adds, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic … Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it … Trust the Word.”
Bonhoeffer placed a strong emphasis on preaching the written Word of God. Metaxas comments, “For him a sermon was nothing less than the very word of God, a place where God would speak to his people … Like the incarnation, it was a place of revelation, where Christ came into this world from outside it.”
Metaxas chronicles the fascinating account of Bonhoeffer’s role as a spy and conspirator against the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was a member of Military Intelligence but was in reality working to destroy Hitler’s evil devices. The author speaks approvingly of this double agent pastor/spy: “Bonhoeffer was not telling little white lies. In Luther’s famous phrase, he was ‘sinning boldly.’ He was involved in a high-stakes game 0f deception upon deception, and yet Bonhoeffer himself knew that in all of it, he was being utterly obedient to God.”
Metaxas meticulously details the events that led to two assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler which ultimately sent him to prison (even though the Gestapo did not initially have any idea of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy) and led him to the gallows.
Metaxas surveys the prison landscape that would serve as Bonhoeffer’s home for the last eighteen months of his life. He explains how Bonhoeffer sought to keep the details of the conspiracy secret and hints at the Lutheran pastors’ ability to play a skillful game of subterfuge: “He was not a ‘worldly’ or ‘compromised’ pastor, but a pastor whose very devotion to God depended on his deceiving the evil powers ranged against him. He was serving God by taking them all for a long ride.”
Before Bonhoeffer made his way to the gallows, he uttered these final words: “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is a thoughtful and illuminating biographical account of a man who lived a faithful Christian life before God and the people of God. The author brilliantly weaves data from personal research and a voluminous set of letters to and from Bonhoeffer. The final product is an encouraging portrait of a courageous pastor who sought above all to obey God. Highly recommended!