Metaxas on Bonhoeffer

The most popular of several biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that by Eric Metaxas, who proves himself to be a good storyteller. . .but an inept theologian. The book is a pleasant read but shows that Metaxas has grasped the thinking neither of Bonhoeffer nor of the liberal theology against which the author portrays Bonhoeffer. He is apparently unaware, for example, that the “Death of God” theology never represented mainstream liberalism and, at any rate, has itself been dead for nearly half a century.

At several points in the first half of the book, Metaxas rightly observes that in Bonhoeffer’s early writings we find the seeds of all the most radical thinking which came later. When he actually gets to the later thought, however, he calls it inchoate (which means undeveloped, premature) and says Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to find anyone taking his ideas seriously today. Pages 465 and 466 show Metaxas at his most blundering foolishness and make one wonder whether a heavy-handed editor has interfered.

There are also some less serious misunderstanding in the book, such as the idea that Hitler was elected to be Chancellor when in fact he was appointed by President Hindenburg. These are less serious than Metaxas’ theological errors but are misleading nonetheless.

One of Metaxas’ more serious errors in the book is his failure to take advantage of the superb set of Bonhoeffer’s entire writing, the Fortress series called Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, with its excellent and very educational Forewords (by English scholars) and Afterwords (by German scholars). Because these books are so good, even one as theologically unlettered as Metaxas has no excuse for not finding Bonhoeffer accessible.


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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6 Responses to Metaxas on Bonhoeffer

  1. Ben says:

    I’m so glad that I found your blog, as I have recently been reading more Bonhoeffer. So much of the theological aspects of his life are quite deep for me. But I recently read “The Cost of Discipleship” for the second time (what a life-changing book!) and just days ago I finished his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” I was thinking about picking up a copy of Metaxas’ biography, but I also learned while reading Letters and Papers that Bonhoeffer’s good friend Eberhard Bethge wrote an acclaimed biography awhile back. He would obviously have more insight into the theological aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life I would think. I would also like to read “Life Together” at some point, but “Ethics” seems a bit daunting.
    I know some aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology are controversial, and I’ve been reading a bit about it online. I guess there were some ideas ideas being batted around by Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries (Barth, etc.) in those days that, as you say, have “been dead for nearly half a century.” Even Bonhoeffer himself mentioned in his letters and papers that “The Cost of Discipleship” could be “dangerous”, but he was standing by what he wrote. I’m not exactly sure what to make of all of it. But I know that he was a great man who had courage that I hope to have, and his writings on the Christian life are motivating to say the least.
    Thanks for your insight.

    • mthayes42 says:

      Good note, Ben. Thanks. Yes, Bonhoeffer was controversial in a number of his comments but as I read the Gospels, it seems no one could be quite as outrageous as was Jesus. The difference for me is that when I read some of Jesus’ boldest statements (e.g., “No one can follow me unless he hates his family”) I know I have to ponder it until I can see its truth, but when I read Bonhoeffer’s bold statements I have to ponder them in order to decide whether they are true. Most of the time, of course, I find myself appreciating Bonhoeffer’s insight.

      What do you think Bonhoeffer might have meant by calling “Cost of Discipleship” a dangerous book?


    • mthayes42 says:

      By the way, Ben, the very large bio by Bethge is superb. It has all the virtues to be found in any other bio of DB . . .except brevity. It certainly is the standard by which the others must be measured. Much more brief but still quite good is the one by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen (T & T Clark, Eng edition 2010).


  2. Ben says:

    Thanks very much for your insight regarding the biographies! I hadn’t even heard of the other one, but it appears to be worth considering as well.
    I like the way you described looking to understand the truth in what Jesus said, but looking at Bonhoeffer’s words to see if they are true. I most often am appreciative of his insight, but obviously stop short of treating his words as though divinely inspired.
    My insight into his comment about “The Cost of Discipleship” perhaps being dangerous is based mostly upon the context of the larger exerpt from page 369 of “Letters and Papers from Prison”. Letter to Eberhard Bethge, July 21, 1944:
    “I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote. I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself… By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world- watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith… and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian… How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”
    I know Christians benefit greatly from being physically present with other believers, able to bounce ideas around and be refined in our thinking. By the time Bonhoeffer was writing these later letters, he had been studying in solitude for years under very difficult circumstances, and I tried to take that into account as I read his letters and papers (not to mention I think much of what he says is a bit over my head). I think I see the possible impression that the book can give that faith (or even salvation) can only be achieved by a certain way of life, or more simply, works. That could be the danger. In pushing people to reject cheap grace, maybe he unintentionally downplayed that salvation is a free gift. Seeking to stand with God instead of improving ourselves could be what he is emphasizing in the letter. I’m just guessing here, but the full context gives a bit of insight, and I’m still quick to recommend Cost of Discipleship and hugely inspired by it to take up my cross and not look for the easy way through life.
    Wow, I think my comment may be longer than your original post! Sorry about that!
    By the way, I look forward to browsing through your other posts.

    • mthayes42 says:

      Good thoughts, Ben. I think a complementary way to express the “dangers” of the “cost of Discipleship” (which Bonhoeffer entitled merely “Discipleship”) is to say that it is centered on the individual and thus can easily become part of the “Jesus and me” kind of thinking. Since the Enlightenment we in the West have tended to so emphasize individualism that we really struggle now to understand the relationship between the individual and the community.

      This weekend my wife and I saw a cluster of five young people standing outside a store — three of them were texting on their phones. The person we are not with is becoming more important to us than the person we are with. That is a sign, I think, of dysfunctional relationships

      Like you, I think of “Discipleship” as one of the basic books we all should read. It should be followed by “Life Together” to form a more balanced whole.

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