Book Review: Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas


Title: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Author: Eric Metaxas
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

World War II is unquestionably one of the most devastating events in human history.  Like perhaps no other, it is a testimony to the evil of which man is capable.

Hitler’s extraordinary rise to power and his reign led to Germany’s rising out of the shame of their defeat in the First World War, followed quickly by the nation’s devastation as its desperate people bought into the promises of their false messiah. Along the way, tens of millions of men, women and children were brutally murdered.

And, seemingly, no one could stop them.

But not all of Germany’s people were deceived. Some stood against the Nazis.

Among them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and author whose works, including The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, are still widely read today.

Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is the first major biography on this important figure in forty years. Relying on past biographies, interviews and letters from Bonhoeffer written over the course of his life, Metaxas paints a captivating picture of this twentieth century martyr.

A Twentieth Century Prophet

Metaxas’ describes Bonhoeffer as being akin to an Old Testament prophet, the lone voice in the wilderness calling the people to turn back to God and away from the path to destruction. And this is a fairly apt portrayal of him.

He stood first against the tides of theological liberalism, holding fast to the truth that the Bible is the inerrant & inspired Word of God—even cordially going toe-to-toe with such men as Adolf von Harnack, one of liberal theology’s greatest proponents (and his professor at the University of Berlin).

Later he stood against the onslaught of Nazi theology and its takeover of the Lutheran Church, pleading and admonishing his fellow pastors to stand firm against Hitler and his anti-Semitic rampage. And like a true prophet, his warnings were unheeded—until it was too late.

A Conspirator of Faith

As much as it focuses on Bonhoeffer’s life and role in the plot to assassinate Hitler, the book also sheds light on the political, social and spiritual climate that led to Hitler’s rise to power. The hopeless and desperate people of Germany were looking for a savior; and Hitler was only too happy to fill that role. He was the Leader, the one to whom all swore allegiance—even the German church.

We discover how effectively he manipulated the Lutheran church, speaking well of it publicly, but doing all he could to muzzle it; to defang and destroy all within it who would dare to speak out against him. Hundreds of faithful pastors were arrested or murdered. Hundreds more compromised themselves, trading the true God for a false one from Austria.

Perhaps one of the most shocking things about Bonhoeffer is how he was able to become a willing participant in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

“[He] was pretending to be a pastor, but only pretended to be pretending, since he really was a pastor. And he was a member of Military Intelligence working for Hitler, but . . . he was in reality working against Hitler,” writes Metaxas (p. 370).

It seems to fly in the face of all the normal standards of right and wrong. But Bonhoeffer, rightly or wrongly, saw himself, not as telling little white lies; rather, he was “sinning boldly:”

He was motivated in a high-stakes game of deception upon deception, and yet Bonhoeffer himself knew that in all of it, he was being utterly obedient to God. For him, that was the cantus firmus that made the dizzying complexities of it all perfectly coherent. (p. 370)

An Active Faith

What can we learn from Bonhoeffer? Aside from gaining a wider understanding historically of the conditions in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise to power; aside from discovering a deeper knowledge of the life of a twentieth century martyr… Aside from these, we witness what a life lived fully in-tune with one’s theological convictions can look like. Metaxas quotes Bonhoeffer, writing:

If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered. (p. 447)

The Christian life is active, not merely reactive; it’s not about avoiding sin, but pursuing God, desiring to please Him.

We must not forget this. We must be watchful. And we must be willing to stand firm when pursuing God’s glory calls us to.

We’re entering a time where there are some cultural similarities are beginning to arise. Faith is increasingly privatized and actively despised. To be a Christian—unashamedly proclaiming that Jesus alone is our God, our Lord and Savior—is not popular. It’s “intolerant.” It grows closer every day to being dangerous.

But it’s true. It’s right. It’s the truth that changes everything.

It’s what we must stand for, no matter the cost.

Who stands fast? Only the man . . . who is ready to sacrifice all 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. (p. 446)

The question for us today, as in Bonhoeffer’s day, is—will we stand?

Read the book and be captivated, challenged and encouraged by Metaxas’ portrayal of this fascinating figure.

A complementary copy of this book was provided for review through Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze Program

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