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Thursday, June 9, 2011


I knew just a little bit about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, enough to be intrigued about this man who was a renowned Lutheran pastor in Germany before and during the reign of terror of Adolph Hitler.  Bonhoeffer didn’t just have a strong faith in Jesus as his Savior, but under the most trying of circumstances became a martyr rather than submit to the atheist, Hitler.  In fact, I wondered how an orthodox Christian like Bonheoffer could justify being part of a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler (knowing that part of that effort included the killing of Hitler) in light of what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 13:

            “1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there
            is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities
            that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels
            against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and
            those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Paul’s words are pretty straightforward and don’t seem to offer any wiggle room.  So how did a Bible believing Lutheran pastor justify participating in a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler?  I wanted to know.

That’s why I bought and read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson 2010).  In fact, I didn’t pick it up and read it immediately after I purchased it, but took it with me on a trip to the UK.  I was immediately intrigued by this complex man and had a hard time putting the book down.  In fact, during one of my short breaks in reading during the flight across the Atlantic, a man walked by who noticed the book and said he was a friend of Eric Metaxas (
).  I first encountered the writing of Eric Metaxas when I read his excellent biography of William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace.

It should not have surprised me that Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from a highly accomplished family.  His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, held the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin.  He saw nothing scientific about Freud’s approach and the book identifies him as an “agnostic” in both psychoanalysis and religion.  Dietrich’s brother, Karl-Friedrich was a physicist who worked in pre-war Germany with Albert Einstein and Max Planck, two of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time.  His grandparents, his mother and his other siblings were similarly talented and excelled in whatever they did.  The Bonhoeffer home was one rich in culture and intellect.

Surprisingly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not come from a church going family.  In fact, Metaxas says “…the Bonhoeffers rarely went to church…”  Nevertheless, according to the author, they were immersed in a German culture that was “inescapably Christian.”  Metaxas attributes this to the enduring influence of Martin Luther, who even so many centuries after his death, remained the most powerful influence on the culture and outlook of German society. 

The following passage from the book captures the intellectual challenge of being a member of the Bonhoeffer family…

            “It wasn’t until 1920, when Dietrich turned fourteen, that he was ready
            to tell anyone he had decided to become a theologian.  It took a bold
            and courageous person to announce such a thing in the Bonhoeffer
            family.  His father might treat it with respect and cordiality, even if he
            disagreed with it, but his brothers and sisters would not.  They were a
            formidable group, all highly intelligent, and most of them openly and
            often mockingly opposed their cocky young brother’s ideas.  They
            always teased him and gave him a hard time over many things much
            less important than his choice of profession.  When he was about
            eleven, he mispronounced the name of a play by Friedrich Schiller to
            roars of laughter.  That he should be reading Schiller at that age was
            taken for granted.”
At the University, Bonhoeffer was respectful of his professors and the theological ideas they held, even though he was not afraid to disagree with them when he thought that they were inconsistent with the Bible.  Because of his intellect and his respectful approach, Bonhoeffer’s affection for his professors was returned in kind, at least up to a point.  They were, however, put off by his independent mindedness and his refusal “to come directly under the influence of any one of them, always preferring to maintain some distance.” 

Bonhoeffer’s faith was clear and precise.  He believed “…that in order to know anything at all about God, one had to rely on revelation from God.  In other words, God could speak into this world, but man could not reach out of this world to examine God.  It was a one-way street, and of course this was directly related to the especially Lutheran doctrine of grace.  Man could not earn his way up to heaven, but God could reach down and graciously lift man toward him.”
Just out of the University, Bonhoeffer’s intellect and theological depth was widely recognized by men and women much older than himself.  His lectures were well attended, nevertheless he decided not to follow a career as a theologian, but to do the work of a pastor, which he believed to be far more important.

I was surprised to learn in reading the book the fact that Jews were an integral part of the Church in Germany prior to Hitler.  In fact, Sabine, the sister that Bonhoeffer was closest to, married Franz Hildebrandt, a Jew.  Hildebrandt not only embraced Christianity, but choose to become a minister of the Christian faith.  Apparently, this was not at all uncommon up until the time of Hitler.

Coming from an affluent family, Bonhoeffer traveled widely and spent two periods in the United States, primarily in New York City where he was loosely affiliated with the liberal Union Theological Seminary.  In Bonhoeffer’s view those at the Seminary had “jettisoned serious scholarship altogether.”
While Bonhoeffer did not find the Gospel being preached at Union Theological Seminary, he did find it preached with power and authority by Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Unfortunately Bonhoeffer’s travels were limited in the United States and because of his connection with Union Theological Seminary he had a (justifiably) low view of Christian theologians in the United States.  Had his path crossed that of Lutheran theologians of that period such as Dr. Walter A. Maier, William Beck as well as theologians of a similar cast, he might have had a much higher opinion of theologians in the United States.  One important thing that Bonhoeffer did glean from his time in the US was an understanding of the advantages of free and independent churches that did not receive financial support from the government.  He realized that churches dependent on government support are also churches that are under the thumb of government.

Although this theme is not fully developed in the book, it highlights once again the danger of all powerful government being an enemy of both freedom and faith.  In pre World War II Germany and during that war it compromised the Gospel and the integrity of the church.  Even today, fidelity to Scripture is nearly non-existent in the official government church of Germany.  It is only in the free churches that the Gospel is preached unimpeded.  In fact, being born a “Lutheran” today in Germany destroys the bond between the member and the church itself, and ultimately waters down doctrine.  It has impeded evangelism in Germany and has led to the decline of Europe itself.

We learn much of Bonhoeffer’s struggles with the National [Lutheran] church of Germany that wittingly or unwittingly became an enabler of Hitler.  We learn of the development of the independent Confessing [Lutheran] Church, its commitment to sound doctrine, and the short-lived creation of an independent seminary with Bonhoeffer as its head.

Metaxas does an excellent job in the book of also uncovering Bonhoeffer the man—his love of music and the arts, his temperament, his passion to serve as a pastor rather than just a theologian, his playfulness, his romantic interest in Elizabeth Zinn and his engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer.  We learn about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts through his letters and writings. 

But what about Bonhoeffer’s participation in the scheme (with some 1,000 or more co-conspirators) to overthrow Hitler?  How did Bonhoeffer, a Bible believing Christian, reconcile it with Paul’s clear directive Romans 13?  Truthfully, Metaxas does not deal with this issue directly.  In fact he makes this remark on the topic…

            “The willingness of Lutherans to keep the church out of the world
            reflected an unbiblical overemphasis on Romans 13.”
But Metaxas never explains why believers should not take the words of Paul literally.  Instead, he weaves a very compelling story of the unsavory choices that were left to Bonhoeffer and the reader is left to conclude that he did, indeed, make the right decision.  While I believe that Bonhoeffer was a true champion of the faith, an intellectual giant, and a man of incredible courage, I have no way of knowing if he made the right decision to come back to Germany from the US just as war was breaking out.  What if he had remained in the US during the war and then returned to Germany after the war to lead and build an independent church faithful to scripture?  Would post war Germany (and perhaps Europe) have experienced not only an economic boom, but also a spiritual renaissance?

I can’t put myself in Bonhoeffer’s shoes, nor can I explain the implications of Romans 13 in the context of Bonhoeffer’s situation.  Most pastors don’t like to talk about the implications of Romans 13 in terms of real life issues such as abortion, infanticide, mercy killings, civil rights, or even in regard to the American Revolution.  It’s easier to simply not think about it.  There is no unity of thought about the application of Romans 13 among Christian churches in the US today.

Perhaps this verse from 1st Corinthians 13:12 is our guide…

            “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face
            to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully
Lest there be any doubt in regard to the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, just take a moment to read this excerpt from a letter he wrote in 1936 to his brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, a very liberal theologian…

            “First of all I will confess quite simply—I believe that the Bible alone is
            the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly
            and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer.  One cannot simply
            read the Bible, like other books.  One must be prepared really to
            enquire of it.  Only thus will it reveal itself.  Only if we expect from it
            the ultimate answer, shall we receive it.  That is because in the Bible
            God speaks to us.  And one simply cannot think about God in one’s own
            strength, one has to enquire of him.  Only if we seek him, will he
            answer us...  Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible,
            as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does
            not will to leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to
            rejoice in the Bible…  If it is I who determine where God is to be found,
            then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who
            is obliging, who is connected with my own nature.  But if God
            determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is
            not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial
            to me.  This place is the cross of Christ.  And whoever would find him
            must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount
            commands.  This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely
            contrary to it.  But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New
            but also in the Old Testament.  …since I have learnt to read the Bible in
            this way…it becomes every day more wonderful to me.”

Although I can quibble with little parts of this book and rebel at real or imagined personal biases of the author, this is a marvelous book.  It is a well-told story of a 20th Century hero of the faith.  It challenges the reader to more fully live my faith and to rely more completely on God each and every day.  I urge you to get a copy and read it.

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