The Perkins Perspective | Books | Spring 2012


Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy


By Elissa Cook


Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson (2010), 591 pages

While reading an almost 600-page biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer may not be high on most busy American’s list, frankly, it should be.


Eric Metaxas’s latest work is equal parts biography, war history, and theology -- seamlessly sewn together in a straightforward, engaging manner.


Though at times Metaxas’s hyperbolic descriptions of Nazi leaders border on ludicrous, making these men seem laughable instead of evil (at one point, Hitler is called “the former Viennese vagrant”), the text as a whole reveals a serious and nuanced understanding of the cast of characters, challenging readers’ assumptions about Bonhoeffer, Germans, and Christianity.


Karl Bonhoeffer and Paula von Hase, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s parents, both came from lines of extraordinarily gifted ancestors. Their family trees, traced back for centuries, and they include connections to the German court, famous artists, musicians, theologians, doctors, pastors, professors, and officials.

In every generation, their families were influential in the some of the highest circles in Germany. Karl and Paula took care to educate their eight children about their rich heritage. Their extensive network of relatives and friends formed an extended family that was no less influential. Far from standing alone (as the book’s second subtitle implies), Bonhoeffer was profoundly influenced by his family circle.

The German Resistance

The book also challenges the unfortunate assumption by heirs of the Allies that there was no significant German resistance to Hitler’s tyranny. Numerous senior army and political leaders were horrified at the plans of the Fuhrer. Multiple conspiracies to overthrow Hitler involved members at the highest levels of government, and at one point a military coup was planned. Given their access to elite circles, many members of the Bonhoeffer family — not just Dietrich — were involved in these schemes.

Metaxas introduces readers to Germans whose deep commitment to truth and justice prevented them from being blinded by propaganda, yet whose love of country motivated them to stay and work for its restoration rather than flee and leave it to be destroyed by a tyrant.


Bonhoeffer’s deep love of his country was, in fact, connected to his Christian ministry. He saw the church as playing a critical role for the state. In his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he stated that the church has an obligation to critique the state — to “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state.”


Furthermore, if the state does not act justly toward its people, the church’s “unconditional obligation” is “to aid the victims of state action ... even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” And in extreme circumstances, he determined, the church is called to take direct action against the state to stop its evil actions.

This radical concept reveals a major theme of Bonhoeffer’s life: Following God does not means obeying a set list of legalistic principles. In a sense, the underlying question of the whole book is How could a man of deep Christian faith, who held human life to be sacred, conspire to kill a man in cold blood? How can a man be a pastor, martyr, and prophet — living a life of faith — and at the same time a spy, living a life of deception?


A “More Demanding Obedience"

Throughout Bonhoeffer’s life, he sought to follow God at a deeper level than the vast majority of those around him — even his fellow pastors — could imagine. No logic or philosophical argument convinced Bonhoeffer to help take a man’s life. Rather, he was following what Metaxas terms a “more demanding and mature level of obedience” — a way of following God that looked to Christ rather than to ethics or principles.

Metaxas cites an incident in which Bonhoeffer and his best friend, Eberhard Bethge were caught in the middle of a group of people cheering, “Heil, Hitler!” To have refused to participate would have resulted in serious consequences, and Bethge froze, not knowing what to do. But Bonhoeffer acted swiftly:

... along with everyone else, [Bonhoeffer] stood up and threw out his arm in the “Heil, Hitler!” salute. As Bethge stood there gawking, Bonhoeffer whispered to him: “Are you crazy? Raise your arm! We have to run risks for many different things, but this silly salute is not one of them!”

This incident clearly reveals the deeper conspiracy that Bonhoeffer had become part of. “He didn’t want to make an anti-Hitler statement; he had bigger fish to fry,” writes Metaxas. “He wanted to be left alone to do the things he knew God was calling him to do, and these things required him to remain unnoticed.” He chose to break commandments such as “you shall not lie” and “you shall not murder” — at least superficially — in order to obey the higher calling of loving God and loving his neighbor.

What emerges most of all from this 591-page volume is a man who was most vibrantly alive. And Metaxas makes it abundantly clear that this life stemmed from Bonhoeffer’s faith in a God who was deeper and wider than the majority of believers in his time — or ours — dared to imagine.


Elissa Cook Elissa Cook graduated in 2011 from Seattle Pacific University with a major in Spanish and a minor in English literature, after which she returned to her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. She is now a kindergarten literacy tutor with Minnesota Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program.




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