The Integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Please, Read Anything But Metaxas!

The Integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Please, Read Anything But Metaxas! June 22, 2020

Bonhoeffer met an early death 70 years ago today in a Nazi concentration camp. Already influential in his country and on the global ecumenical scene during his lifetime, Bonhoeffer’s status as a theologian and “martyr” of the church has only increased over the ensuing decades.

Of particular interest to theologians and ethicists was Bonhoeffer’s ability to maintain a faithful, confessional stance while so many other religious leaders in Germany were co-opted by the Nazi regime. What was it about Bonhoeffer as a person, Bonhoeffer as a pastor, Bonhoeffer as a theologian, that led to this self-differentiation?

So the biographies proliferate. Unfortunately, biographies are of varying qualities, some helpful, some harmful. The most popular at the moment is also probably the most harmful of all. Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, though incredibly popular, co-opts Bonhoeffer on so many points that I can do nothing but warn readers away from it.

Of recent interest, and written by an “inner circle” scholar, but also presenting a variety of interpretive problems, is Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read it over the Christmas holidays, and though I enjoyed it, I know enough of the conversation happening in the International Bonhoeffer Society around it to not accept it as a wholesale and helpful reading of Bonhoeffer’s life.
If the 70th anniversary of his death does have you interested in learning more, may I suggest the best and most faithful of the recent biographies? Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance is incredible. Schlingensiepen is one of the founding members of the IBS. His father served as a principal of one of the seminaries of the confessing church, and Schlingensiepen was a close friend of Eberhard Bethge, best friend of Bonhoeffer and editor of his collected works in German. Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography is still considered the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer.
For those who prefer to read the source texts, the major works of Bonhoeffer are now all available in English translation in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series. Each volume includes copious supplementary material to help understand Bonhoeffer’s writings in the context of his life. As a reader, I have benefitted immensely by taking a volume at a time in order to live with Bonhoeffer during a period of his life. Of particular interest to me were his time spent serving German congregations in London (volume 13), his letters and papers from prison (volume 8) and the work he did developing underground theological education as a form of resistance to the Nazis (volume 15).

Bonhoeffer offers surprises at every turn. Not everyone knows that he was immensely popular as a youth leader and pastor. During his time in Italy, and again in London, he successfully led the development of youth ministries in congregations where children’s ministries had been languishing. Andrew Root has written the definitive account of this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ministry, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together.

Another turning point in Bonhoeffer’s theological project was his time spent with the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer, open as he was to religious communities different from his own, intentionally immersed himself in the African-American community of Harlem during his time in the U.S. Reggie William’s argues in Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance that this was the crucible in which Bonhoeffer’s ethic of resistance was forged.

I find myself going back to Bonhoeffer again and again as a lodestone for reflection on the inter-relationship between careful theological inquiry and pastoral ministry. Bonhoeffer frequently wrote for the academy, and has academic theology has had a continuing influence on theological discourse. His theological work also had legs, and walked a walk that led him around the world and back to his home in an effort to resist a regime that was slaughtering innocents and co-opting the church and faith he held dear.

On this anniversary of his death, I give thanks for the witness of Bonhoeffer, and for all those who now carry the torch of his legacy, both in their actions, and in the continuing theological reflection on his work. It is the two together that honors Bonhoeffer completely in his integrity.

Plenty of folks are quoting Bonhoeffer today, I’m sure. He was eminently quotable. I’ll end with this enigmatic dialectical statement of Bonhoeffer’s, which opens up a whole other aspect of his theology, the move to “religionless” Christianity:

….we have to live in the world esti deus non daretur (even if there were no God) and this is just what we do recognize-before God. God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as humans who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark. 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.

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