Bonhoeffer: Whose Hero?

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: August–September 2012

Biblical Theology

Also in this issue

The Value of Daydreaming

Calvin’s Kline

Biblical Theology

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Series Review (Part One)

Faith in Politics: A Review Article

Ode on Solitude

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Mataxas. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010, xvi + 591 pages, $29.99.

Considered from the perspective of pure reading enjoyment this book is a gem. From Christianity Today to Publishers Weekly and the Wall Street Journal the book gets the highest accolades. Written with page-turning agility, it should reign for some time as the definitive biography of this twentieth-century hero. But with liberals, like Alan Wolfe in The New Republic (review January 13, 2011), and evangelicals, like Collin Hansen, wanting to claim Bonhoeffer as their own, we should be cautious of how we assess such a hero.

Raised in a seriously sophisticated home and culture, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) had extraordinary advantages of both intellect and piety. His father, Karl, was the son of Stanislaus Kalkreuth, an accomplished painter. Karl was a brilliant, notable physician, becoming the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin in 1912 (13). His mother, Paula, was born of nobility. Her mother, Countess Clara von Hase, took piano lessons from Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann (6). Both parents were highly disciplined, requiring intelligent conversation at the family table. But this strictness was well seasoned with lots of informal sports and regular trips to family cottages in the mountains. Karl had a great sense of humor and tempered his intolerance of narrow-mindedness, dishonesty, and clichés with fairness and kindness (15).

Dietrich and his twin sister, Sabine, were blessed with two governesses, Käthe and Maria van Horn, both schooled in the pietist theologian Count Zinzendorf’s community at Herrnhut (11–12). Bonhoeffer’s mother oversaw the religious training of her children, but they were not church goers, preferring home piety to the formalism of the state Lutheran church of Germany (12, 19). His father was not a Christian but never interfered with his wife’s instruction of their children (14). Mataxas describes German Christianity in the early twentieth century:

The worlds of folklore and religion were so mingled in early twentieth century German culture that even families that didn’t go to church were often deeply Christian.... German culture was inescapably Christian. This was the result of the legacy of Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who invented Protestantism. (19)

Mataxas never reflects on the possibility that the nominalism fostered by a state-sponsored church, albeit confessional, combined with home grown pietism, was not a formidable enough opponent to withstand the intense nationalism of the Nazi juggernaut that forced it to compromise its confessional heritage and embrace National Socialism.

Mataxas does a splendid job of weaving Bonhoeffer’s story into world, and especially European and American, history. The Bonhoeffers were reserved in their enthusiasm for World War I. Dietrich’s two older brothers, Karl-Friederich and Walter, were called up as the war progressed in 1917 (25). Walter was killed in early 1918 (26). Years later after the loss of two more sons to Nazism, Karl remarked, “We are sad, but also proud” (26). Such a heroic attitude was a family trait. Dietrich was never far from personal loss and national tragedy. The Treaty of Versailles would help cultivate the soil of an intense German nationalism that would bring out the worst in some and best in others. The intellectual and artistic genius of a nation would be in ruins before the eyes of one of Germany’s noblest sons. Mataxas begins chronicling the rise of Adolf Hitler as early as 1923 (44).

Rare indeed was the theologian, in Bonhoeffer’s milieu, that would affirm Christian orthodoxy. Liberalism had been a staple of German academic theology since well back into the nineteenth century. At the age of fourteen in 1920 he announced to his family that he intended to be a theologian (37). At age fifteen he attended his first evangelistic meetings in Berlin, conducted by General Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army. In 1923 Bonhoeffer studied at Tübingen and then the following year at Berlin University (42).

At this point he began to ponder a lifelong question, What is the church? (53–57). During his first trip to Rome he found himself deeply impressed with Catholicism. He had been raised to eschew parochialism, and so the catholicity of the church would lead him to become part of the ecumenical movement. While some of his ecumenical ties would not impress us, the basic thrust of Bonhoeffer’s catholic—with a small “c”— sensibilities helped him see the church as a divine institution that was never to be defined by any national identity (53). Bonhoeffer was also impressed by the classical antiquity of the Roman church (54). Historic continuity was vital to maintaining the church’s witness in the midst of various cultures. Sadly, the Lutheran church of his day was so compromised that he could not find that continuity there and even wondered if the Reformation had been necessary (55). But Bonhoeffer had no intention of converting. The illegal seminaries that Bonhoeffer created “incorporated the best of both Protestant and Catholic traditions” (61).

As a student in Berlin, Bonhoeffer had much contact with Adolf von Harnack, who was a neighbor and family friend. But, while he esteemed him as a scholar, he did not agree at all with his theological liberalism (59). Among the theological heavy-weights of Berlin University at the time were Karl Holl, Reinhold Seeberg, and Adolf Deissman (60). But no one was to have such an influence on Bonhoeffer as the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth of Göttingen.

For refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler, Barth would be kicked out of Germany in 1934, and would become the principal author of the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church trumpeted its rejection of the Nazi’s attempt to bring their philosophy into the German church. (61)

Bonhoeffer’s professor John Baillie reckoned Bonhoeffer “the most convinced disciple of Dr. Barth that had appeared among us up to that time, and withal as stout an opponent of liberalism as had ever come my way.” (106)

In 1931 Bonhoeffer first met Barth and visited him frequently thereafter (119–21).

During the 1930s, the Nazi party not only took political power, but began subtly to co-opt the Lutheran state church for its own severely nationalistic purposes. This is an intricate and cautionary tale at many levels. But it was Bonhoeffer’s conception of the uniqueness of the church and its gospel message that enabled him to navigate the treacherous waters of Hitler’s Germany. It was here that Barth’s emphasis on the transcendence of God as “eternally other” helped Bonhoeffer (155), even though the dangers of Barth’s theology are well-known—or ought to be—among us.[1]

At the end of 1927 Bonhoeffer successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in Berlin University. Shortly after this, in 1928, he took his first pastorate in the German congregation in Barcelona, Spain. He threw himself into the work, believing that communicating his theology in the congregation was “as important as the theology itself” (85). A year later in 1929 he returned to Berlin for post-doctoral studies (87).

At this point Mataxas briefly explores the question of Luther and the Jews (91–4). He shows how the Nazis used the worst of Luther’s thoughts about the Jews, which occurred later in his life, to deceive the German people. Early in his ministry Luther had been quite charitable toward the Jews. Mataxas seems to lay much of Luther’s later bitterness toward the Jews at the feet of his various illnesses.

In the summer of 1929 Bonhoeffer passed his second theological exam, qualifying him to be a university lecturer. Shortly after this, in 1930, he sailed for America to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (96). He found the cosmopolitan culture to be vibrant in contrast with the fatigued German Weimar culture (99). The seminary, on the other hand, proved less than satisfying. He complained:

There is no theology here.... They talk a blue steak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. 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. (101)

In line with the family tradition, instilled by his father, Bonhoeffer had no patience with the cant of the liberal elite he encountered at Union and Riverside Church. His correspondence reveals a certain heartache over the theological shallowness of the students he studied with. In the churches he lamented the absence of the proclamation of the gospel and biblical preaching. “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events” (106).

By contrast Bonhoeffer found the worship in the black churches of Harlem to be encouraging. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church became a favorite. Mataxas notes, “Powell combined the fire of a revivalist preacher with great intellect and social vision” (108). It is curious, though, that despite the strength of Bonhoeffer’s critique of American liberalism, he does not critique the intellectually powerful liberal theologians under which he was trained with the same kind of trenchant interaction offered by J. Gresham Machen in books like Christianity and Liberalism. It would seem that the liberalism of the German theological schools accounts for much of the weakness of the Lutheran church of Bonhoeffer’s day. Perhaps he was too intellectually proud at this point in his life to see this.

It is curious that, while mentioning the fundamentalist controversy that Bonhoeffer encountered during his stay at Union[2] Mataxas never mentions professor J. Gresham Machen, who was not only prominent in the controversy, but followed a tack oddly similar, at least in broad outline, to Bonhoeffer’s own course. Like Machen, Bonhoeffer took a brave stand against the corruption of the Lutheran church; he started his own seminaries (Zingst and Finkenvalde); and was instrumental in seeking to start a faithful church (The Confessing Church).

The year 1931 found Bonhoeffer back in Berlin. Shortly after his return he experienced a profound deepening of his seriousness as a Christian. “I had seen a great deal of the Church, and talked and preached about it—but I had not yet become a Christian” (123). He had prayed little, but now the Sermon on the Mount convinced him that a true servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church. He “became a regular churchgoer for the first time in his life and took Communion as often as possible.”

After describing the dramatic change of attitude in Bonhoeffer during the early 1930s, Mataxas queries, “Had he been ‘born again’?” (124). But, why do we American evangelicals wish to co-opt Bonhoeffer for our cause? Professor Carl Trueman raised this question in a recent blog, “Bonhoeffer and Anonymous Evangelicals.”[3] As in the case of Wilberforce, many evangelicals are enthralled by Christian involvement in the cultural moment, as if such overt, especially public, political, acts are the most dependable signs of authenticity. Early on Mataxas states a theme that lies at the heart of his motivation to write a biography of Bonhoeffer. “Bonhoeffer was no mere academic. For him ideas and beliefs were nothing if they did not relate to the world of reality outside one’s mind” (53). Significant people make a difference in the world. Fair enough, there is great value in what Mataxas presents. Mataxas insists, “Bonhoeffer’s words reveal that he was never what we might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal” (95). But one still senses something of the cultural transformationist in Mataxas’s interest in Bonhoeffer.

As Hitler came to power and began to infiltrate German culture with his diabolical, utopian agenda, Bonhoeffer began more and more to articulate the contrast between the Nazi claim that Hitler could save Germany and the Bible’s claim that “salvation comes only from Jesus Christ” (128). The Third Reich began when Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. The Führer Principle posited independent and absolute authority in the “leader” of the German people. Bonhoeffer contrasted this with the old biblical idea of leadership in which the leader sought to serve others and knew the limits of his authority under God (138–45).

From this point on, Bonhoeffer’s struggles with the Nazi’s and the church are epic. His London pastorate and his brief return to Union in New York could not tempt him to abandon his country in its hour of need. Hitler proved a very sly adversary as he sought to win Christians to his vision for the nation. His propaganda was powerful in its determination to convince the churches of the compatibility of Christianity with the aims of the Third Reich (165–75). Secretly, in the beginning, Hitler and the Nazis despised Christianity as a religion of the weak, inhibiting the will to power of the Nietzschean superman (168). Many church leaders, known as the German Christians, were convinced and even willing to adopt the Aryan Paragraph, which would exclude all but the “pure race” from the church. Many more in the middle were afraid to oppose what they knew to be wrong. A minority had the foresight and courage to openly condemn the vicious anti-Semitic racism and tyranny of the Nazis. This would give rise to Bonhoeffer’s leadership in the formation of the Confessing Church in May 1934 (222). The famous Barmen Confession, mainly composed by Karl Barth, distinguished historical Lutheran theology from the corrupt theology of the Nazi-favoring German Christians (222–26).

The various intrigues and heroic deeds that followed, as Hitler eventually lead Germany into World War II, resulted in Bonhoeffer’s untimely execution, just two weeks before the war’s end. I will not recount this part of the story in the interest of space and my unwillingness to ruin the story for the reader. But several important lessons stand out.

Reared in the most rigorous academic milieu of family, culture, and university, and a man of stellar brilliance, Bonhoeffer nonetheless believed that preaching the Word was the most important activity of his life as a minister (he was ordained November 15, 1931 in Berlin). Teaching his students at the illegal seminary in Finkenvalde, he declared:

We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them.... Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic.... Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it.... Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity. (272)

During a brief visit to New York in 1939 he went to Riverside Church to hear liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick. In his diary he wrote, “Quite unbearable.”

The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration.  This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. (333)

Bonhoeffer would go on to be delighted by the fundamentalist preacher Dr. McComb, pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church (334).

Equal to his enthusiasm for preaching, which had begun in the early 1930s, was an emphasis on prayer. His last book published in his lifetime was The Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), a scholarly exposition of the Psalms as prayers. He believed that we can pray only in Christ and we pray with him when we pray the Psalms (386). This took great courage as well, since the book was quite unpopular with the Nazis. No wonder. At every point the Psalms challenge all attempts to perfect humanity without the Lord and Christ the true king, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ ” (Ps. 2:1–3).

Bonhoeffer was willing to lay down his life for his Jewish neighbors, even though they were not Christians. One does not need to be a transformationist to act in love on behalf of one’s neighbor. His kindness won some of the most hardened prison guards to admire and even love him. Mataxas paints a rich portrait of Bonhoeffer as a man, covering his noble character, wide cultural interests, his strict self-discipline, and even his romantic life. His embrace of creation was based on his belief that Christ’s incarnation was a renewal the created order (468–69), “God’s humanism, redeemed in Christ.” His engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer was never consummated due to his execution.

Wherever one comes out on the question of the justice of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, one must admire his principled reasoning. He was, after all, involved with what many Reformers referred to as “lesser magistrates,” albeit the majority were in high positions of the military. But Bonhoeffer did not come to decide on his involvement without great wrestling in thought and prayer. In the end he felt that the Bible did not speak directly to this issue, leaving him to exercise wisdom in dependence on the Lord.

Finally, Bonhoeffer’s courage in the face of death was not natural but came rather from his regular spiritual discipline while he was in prison, especially, he said, in the reading of Psalms and Revelation, and in singing the hymns of Paul Gerhardt (463). As he faced certain death in the prison at Flossenbürg, he reflected:

Death is not wild and terrible if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word.... Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death. (531)

The camp doctor described the last minutes of Bonhoeffer’s life:

I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. (532)

I am convinced that Bonhoeffer’s sacrifice was motivated by his grasp of the message of the New Testament. His intelligence and bravery make him a true hero, but this does not mean we should try to make him something he wasn’t—an evangelical. This is not to say he was not a Christian—just not an American evangelical. There is much we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s writings and life. But this should not mean that we are uncritical about his Barthianism or other unique aspects of his theology. This said, I highly recommend this book as a classic piece of edifying entertainment. The scope and intrigue proffered by the subtitle “Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” is delivered in full. It is like a great international spy thriller, only having a profound impact on the reader.


[1] Cf. Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1946); Christianity and Barthianism (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1962).

[2] Mataxas makes a minor historical mistake when he identifies Fosdick as the pastor of New York’s First Presbyterian Church (102). He was in fact a Baptist who was stated supply for that church in 1922.

[3] Carl Trueman, “Bonhoeffer and Anonymous Evangelicals,” Reformation 21 (January 18, 2011), http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/01/bonhoeffer-and-anonymous-evang.php.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, August 2012.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2012

Biblical Theology

Also in this issue

The Value of Daydreaming

Calvin’s Kline

Biblical Theology

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Series Review (Part One)

Faith in Politics: A Review Article

Ode on Solitude


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