Bonhoeffer Stood Fast
Last month marked 65 years since the doomed Nazi regime hanged German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer on April 9, 1945. Christians across the theological spectrum continue to revere him. Some remember his advocacy for Jews, others his teaching on "costly grace," and still more his aid to officers plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
But his legacy has been disputed over time. Some have championed him as a post-Christian prophet of ethics that transcend confession. Pacifists claim Bonhoeffer because he expressed scruples about war and his help with killing a head of state, even one so evil as Hitler. Many evangelicals revere him as an opponent of "cheap grace," champion of Life Together, and model of The Cost of Discipleship.
Eric Metaxas clears up many misconceptions, giving priority to Bonhoeffer's own words and actions, in a massive and masterful new biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. During a harrowing time when many churches adopted Nazi ideology and others buckled under government pressure, Bonhoeffer stood strong, if sometimes alone. Metaxas presents Bonhoeffer as a clear-headed, deeply convicted Christian who submitted to no one and nothing except God and his Word. In short, Bonhoeffer's life shows that theology has consequences.
Bonhoeffer earned his doctorate at Berlin University in 1927 when he was 21. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology, once served on the school's faculty. But while Bonhoeffer studied there, Adolf von Harnack reigned in his waning years. Harnack dismissed biblical miracles as fictitious and denied canonicity for the Gospel of John. Bonhoeffer highly esteemed Harnack, though they often reached differing theological conclusions. Bonhoeffer tended toward Swiss-born theologian Karl Barth's emphasis on God's transcendence. Countering Harnack's historical criticism, Barth taught that we can only know God because he has revealed himself in his Word.
German theology in the early 20th century set the global standard. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer elected to spend some time in New York City studying at Union Theological Seminary, the capital of progressive American theology. Nearby, at the ornate new Riverside Church, the eminent pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick championed the social gospel. In 1922 he had preached the landmark sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" in which he rejected several key Christian beliefs, including Christ's divinity and the Resurrection. The New York liberals hardly impressed Bonhoeffer.
"There is no theology here," Bonhoeffer wrote to a colleague back in Germany. "The students—on the average twenty-five to thirty years old—are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level."
Bonhoeffer scoffed at American churches that traded away repentance and faith in Christ for unbounded faith in progress. Yet he found a more hopeful, traditional message in African American churches he visited. Not only did he hear the Word of God proclaimed with confidence, but he also saw how downtrodden people took comfort in the sure hope of deliverance. Looking back on Bonhoeffer's life, Metaxas observes a corresponding surge in piety after these visits. Friends noticed a newfound purpose to his life as Bonhoeffer passionately defended the voiceless and protected the church's historical witness. He began attending church regularly for the first time in his life. Though his mother believed, Bonhoeffer had grown up mostly surrounded by religious skeptics, including his father, Germany's most eminent psychologist. Even so, they all imbibed a culture undeniably shaped by Christianity, particularly Martin Luther.