I used to think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most fascinating liberal/neo-orthodox Lutheran theologians of the 20th century. After reading the New York Times Bestselling biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, I’ve changed my mind. And I suspect that author Metaxas has changed quite a few minds regarding this courageous and enigmatic man who conspired to undermine the Nazi regime and assassinate Adolf Hitler. Considering all that has written about Bonhoeffer, why did this particular biography strike a nerve in 21st century America? Because it makes a solid case that Bonhoeffer has been mislabeled. He was not a liberal Christian activist championing justice on one hand while deriding orthodox faith on the other. No, Metaxas has painstakingly labored to convince us that Bonhoeffer worked against the Nazis and for justice precisely because his orthodox Christian faith compelled him to follow the commands of Christ to the ultimate degree when the cost of discipleship was so high. In other words, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is a testimony of a life lived in true belief and true action. In an age when liberals scoff at conservatives for faith without deeds, and conservatives fire back with accusations of faithless do-gooders, Bonhoeffer’s story can show us a way forward. He was a sincere, confessional, faithful, believing, orthodox Christian who showed the world what he believed by what he did. And he paid the ultimate price. Bonhoeffer understood the cost of discipleship, and he paid that price with joy.
In order to better appreciate this biography, non-confessional evangelicals (those believers that don’t subscribe in their broader worshiping community to a particular historical statement of faith) must recognize that Bonhoeffer is not completely like them. I suspect this won’t be hard to recognize. What will be more difficult for a typical modern evangelical to see is that Bonhoeffer is a true believer—not a mainline liberal whose doctrine and practice are wishy-washy when the time comes to take a stand for God and discipleship. It’s my observation that most evangelicals are suspicious of confessional Christians because they equate confessionalism with denominationalism, and they lump all denominations together. In others words, all Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, Congregationalists, etc are the same. I used to see denominations this way too until I became a confessional Presbyterian. Confessional Christians still hold to their evangelical faith, but they have historical and ecumenical roots that bind them to other Christians with orthodox convictions but who differ on secondary doctrines. From a modern evangelical perspective, Bonhoeffer looks like a strange but interesting man—someone who is almost like “us” but not quite “one of us.” However, to a confessional Christian, Metaxas has convinced us that Bonhoeffer was certainly one of us. And to a liberal or neo-orthodox Christian, Metaxas has demonstrated through extensively citing Bonhoeffer’s own writings (both public and private) that he can no longer be claimed as one of their own. Please understand I don’t mean for this to sound like cheering for one’s team. I only mean that truly understanding who a person is allows that person’s life to teach lessons truthfully and consistently. I believe that this biography will clarify truths about Christian discipleship now that the man is more clearly understood.
Metaxas titled this biography aptly. Bonhoeffer was a pastor. He shepherded several congregations at various times during his brief life (he died at age 39 in 1945). He served as pastor to his many ordinands at the “underground” seminary he founded in Nazi Germany. At one point he served as a youth pastor of sorts for the group of young men who he was discipling as confirmands. And he took his pastoral role quite seriously, committing to living in community with those he cared for, sometimes in a peripatetic style akin to Jesus and his band of disciples. He also functioned as pastor-theologian to the German resistance against the Nazi regime, an important role in which he provided spiritual counsel and theological justification for the plot to kill The Fuhrer. As most people who are at all familiar with Bonhoeffer’s life, he was assassinated for his involvement in the conspiracy. But the Nazis knew that Bonhoeffer was an important target because he was an orthodox ecumenical Christian whose Christian convictions drove him to subvert the German regime. For this they murdered him at a concentration camp. Thus he became a martyr for Christ, a fact that his international ecumenical friends immediately recognized and communicated to the worldwide church. Bonhoeffer was not a late-comer to the game of Nazi denouncing and resistance. Due to his family of origin’s social status within upper class Berlin, his network of contacts informed him very early during the rise of Hitler and his Nazi party what kind of men Hitler and his cronies were. Bonhoeffer also came to know about Nazi atrocities on the battlefield, in the ghettos, and in the concentration camps. But he was able to extrapolate with this knowledge with “prophetic” insight that self-restrained evil would eventually (and shortly) become unrestrained by unleashing its horrific vision on the enemy. While much of the world was still seeking to appease Hitler and win him over, Bonhoeffer stood alone as the voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the world to meet the real Hitler. When the time came when it was likely he would soon be drafted into the German military to fight the war Hitler aggressively started, Bonhoeffer instead choose to use his family’s social status to secure a position in the German government, serving in an intelligence organization that happened to be a den of secret Nazi resistors. From this position inside the Nazi government, Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators were able to plan and execute the nearly-successful Valkyrie assassination attempt.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the man who was a pastor, martyr, prophet, and spy, was a humble and joyful man. He understood himself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ first and foremost. A man of deep faith and deep commitment to following the Lord Jesus, wherever that may lead, can teach lukewarm Christians today many things, especially about how a Christian can remain faithful and courageous when tested by the fires of evil. There are many books written by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I suggest you start with this biography to correctly orient yourself to his life and thought. Below is a video plugging the book.