Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2011) is a long biography not easily summarized in a few paragraphs. What I will do instead is mention some of my takeaways.

1. What a marvelous and unusual thing to see someone from an elite home who couples all the culture, education, and family resources with a deep and vital Christian faith.

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s (1906 – 1945) visit to the United States in the 1930s was eye-opening in its portrayal of the vacuousness of liberalism. His visits to black churches was significant in his recognition that the vital core of Christian faith was found in Christ.

3. Bonhoeffer stood out as a beacon of moral clarity even within the Confessing Church in recognizing that there was no place of compromise with Hitler. Anyone who could suggest that a particular group such as the Jews must be first excluded and then ultimately exterminated could not possibly be compromised. This was utterly alien to the gospel.

4. Bonhoeffer loved Germany even while loving Christ ultimately — unlike much of the German church who put Germany first. Which is more important to us? Nevertheless, will we love a country determined to destroy itself. This may in fact be the call of American Christians in coming decades.

5. I have questions about Bonhoeffer’s choice to pursue a relationship to engagement while part of a plot to kill Hitler. This was treated as an act of hope — I question the judgment of drawing Maria von Wedemeyer into the potential danger and deep pain that his involvement brought upon her.

6. Perhaps most striking is the unself-conscious character of Bonhoeffer in prison. On his last day, he was leading worship when to German officers came. His last words: “This is the end . . . for me the beginning of life.” When taken to the gallows he said a short prayer and mounted the gallows with composure.


From the desk of the editor . . .

If you have not already done such I encourage you to check out the new ESN Blog series on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prayer life. Note: You may remember that Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship was reviewed by Bob Trube and reached the Final Four of ESN’s March Madness.


Note to the reader: The Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) continues to encourage those who have read the book “under review” to comment. In addition, we acknowledge that some who have not read the book “under review,” also bring helpful insights to the concepts/data explored in a given book, the writing of a particular author, and/or the understanding of the concepts/data as offered by the reviewer. As such we are open to “civil” on-topic comments from both those who have read and those who have not read the book “under review.”

Deep down ESN longs for reviews such as those offered by Bob not only to foster dialogue, but also to serve as teasers — providing an opportunity for our readers to discern what books to place in their personal and book discussion group queue. If you have books you desire to review and/or to have reviewed by ESN, please email ESN.

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Associate Director Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network, Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania) and leads the ministry to graduate students and faculty at The Ohio State University. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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    Michael Stell commented on November 5, 2013 Reply

    I read Metaxes’ book a couple of summers ago and I don’t know that I questioned this then, but I noticed the moniker of martyr applied with Nichols new book on Bonhoeffer as well and I was wondering about that claim. Why is it that we think of Bonhoeffer as a martyr? He was executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler, not for his witness to the Gospel. Since the martyrial witness has always been understood for those who are witnesses to the truth of Christ, what was Bonhoeffer a witness to? I don’t remember what Metaxes’ argument was (it was a library book that I read) in regard to this. I would be interested in people’s thoughts about Bonhoeffer as a martyr – does this title really hit the mark?

    rtrube54 commented on November 5, 2013 Reply

    Michael, you make a great observation in my opinion. What Bonhoeffer did was in fact an act of civil disobedience, not an act of witness. In my review of Cost of Discipleship, i note the conflict between his statements about love of the enemy and his decision to participate in the plot to kill Hitler. As far as I know, he never reconciled this conflict. Rather, he simply was convinced of the necessity of this act to resist evil and willing to take the consequences, both in terms of the secular powers and before God. It is true that he lived a striking life of witness during his imprisonment, but his imprisonment and death were not a consequence of his witness but of his civil disobedience. I would be interested in knowing what Metaxas would say in this regard.

    Zak Schmoll commented on November 9, 2013 Reply

    In my mind, a martyr can be anyone who dies for particularly a religious cause but possibly any cause. Whether or not we agree with his theological position, I think it is safe to say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would probably not have done what he did without a belief in Christianity. That was what caused him to believe that it was morally necessary to stop Hitler at any cost. Perhaps he would have still acted without his beliefs, but in my mind, his beliefs and actions were so tightly intertwined that I think that we can say that he did die for his religious beliefs. Whether or not we agree with them is probably a bigger debate, but I think that I would say that he was a martyr.

      Michael Stell commented on November 9, 2013 Reply

      But that is really my point – what beliefs was he supposedly bearing witness to? I am not challenging anything about his beliefs or even his actions. I am questioning whether his death can be called a martyrdom. The word is used in its Christian context only for those that make the ultimate sacrifice -the baptism of blood. I just don’t see that in the case of Bonhoeffer.

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