Authenticity appears to be the virtue du jour for many Christians. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer wasn't just talking about authenticity; he was actually living it. The Lutheran pastor-theologian was eventually hanged for conspiring to kill Adolf Hitler. In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson), author Eric Metaxas uncovers the person behind such Christian classics as The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. CT editor at large Collin Hansen spoke with Metaxas about Bonhoeffer's life and legacy.
What inspired you to begin studying Bonhoeffer?
My mother grew up in Nazi Germany, losing her father during the war. He was one of many reluctant German soldiers forced to participate in a war he was against. The history of this painful period has always haunted me. When I first heard in 1988 about Bonhoeffer and his death at the hands of the Nazis, I was staggered. I couldn't believe I had never heard about it before. The idea that a man, because of his Christian faith, would stand up to Hitler and would give his life just astonished me.
Would you describe Bonhoeffer as an evangelical? What distinguished his views from the prevailing liberal theology of his professors, including Adolf von Harnack?
That is what's so amazing. Bonhoeffer is more like a theologically conservative evangelical than anything else. He was as orthodox as Saint Paul or Isaiah, from his teen years all the way to his last day on earth. But it seems that theological liberals have somehow made Bonhoeffer in their own image, mainly based on the fact that he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and that he wanted to visit Mahatma Gandhi, and that he used the phrase "religionless Christianity" in a letter.
But if you look deeper, you'll see that this view is somewhat misleading. For example, by the phrase "religionless Christianity" Bonhoeffer meant only that the dead religion that was passing for Lutheran Christianity in Germany before the war had failed [his generation]. Bonhoeffer knew that for Christianity to be more than religion—more than a fig leaf—it had to declare Jesus as Lord over everything, not just the religious sphere.
What did Bonhoeffer think of America? How did his visits affect him?
Bonhoeffer was hardly affected by his studies at Union. In letters sent home, he sneered at what passed for theology in the U.S. But a trip to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem changed everything. He saw the full-throated gospel of Christ for perhaps the first time in his life. The worship and sermons stunned him. He'd seen the real thing, a Christianity based on wholehearted devotion to Jesus. When he returned to Germany, everyone could see that he was different. The experience deepened his faith quite dramatically.
In 1939, Bonhoeffer thought he should leave Germany and avoid the coming war by returning to New York. He stayed for only 26 days in America, where he felt wildly out of sorts. He knew that God was calling him back to Germany.
Do you expect any controversy from your evaluation of Bonhoeffer?
Some people on the theological Left who have thought of Bonhoeffer as belonging to them may find that he also belongs to some of the people they think of as their theological enemies. But the good news is that Bonhoeffer knew that he belonged to Christ, so everyone can keep their shirts on.
How does Bonhoeffer challenge Christians today to consider the cost of discipleship?
Bonhoeffer showed genuine courage and authenticity in his life. He said many unpopular things and was unafraid to do so. For example, he was not afraid to say that abortion was murder. He was sexually pure, and he was devoted to Jesus. One could see that with him; it was never mere talk. He was the real deal, all the way through. It's hard not to be inspired by that.
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Bonhoeffer is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Christian History has a section on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Bonhoeffer include:
Bonhoeffer Stood Fast | Martyred German pastor showed theology has consequences. (May 5, 2010)
CT Classic: Bonhoeffer in Love | Letters from 1943 to 1945 between the theologian and his fiancée reveal the other half of a costly discipleship. (February 1, 2001)
Christian History Corner: Agent of Grace | PBS's Bonhoeffer film shows us a theologian in action. (June 1, 2000)
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