Last month marked 65 years since the doomed Nazi regime hanged German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer on April 9, 1945. Christians across the theological spectrum continue to revere him. Some remember his advocacy for Jews, others his teaching on "costly grace," and still more his aid to officers plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

But his legacy has been disputed over time. Some have championed him as a post-Christian prophet of ethics that transcend confession. Pacifists claim Bonhoeffer because he expressed scruples about war and his help with killing a head of state, even one so evil as Hitler. Many evangelicals revere him as an opponent of "cheap grace," champion of Life Together, and model of The Cost of Discipleship.

Eric Metaxas clears up many misconceptions, giving priority to Bonhoeffer's own words and actions, in a massive and masterful new biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. During a harrowing time when many churches adopted Nazi ideology and others buckled under government pressure, Bonhoeffer stood strong, if sometimes alone. Metaxas presents Bonhoeffer as a clear-headed, deeply convicted Christian who submitted to no one and nothing except God and his Word. In short, Bonhoeffer's life shows that theology has consequences.

Bonhoeffer earned his doctorate at Berlin University in 1927 when he was 21. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology, once served on the school's faculty. But while Bonhoeffer studied there, Adolf von Harnack reigned in his waning years. Harnack dismissed biblical miracles as fictitious and denied canonicity for the Gospel of John. Bonhoeffer highly esteemed Harnack, though they often reached differing theological conclusions. Bonhoeffer tended toward Swiss-born theologian Karl Barth's emphasis on God's transcendence. Countering Harnack's historical criticism, Barth taught that we can only know God because he has revealed himself in his Word.

German theology in the early 20th century set the global standard. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer elected to spend some time in New York City studying at Union Theological Seminary, the capital of progressive American theology. Nearby, at the ornate new Riverside Church, the eminent pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick championed the social gospel. In 1922 he had preached the landmark sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" in which he rejected several key Christian beliefs, including Christ's divinity and the Resurrection. The New York liberals hardly impressed Bonhoeffer.

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"There is no theology here," Bonhoeffer wrote to a colleague back in Germany. "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."

Bonhoeffer scoffed at American churches that traded away repentance and faith in Christ for unbounded faith in progress. Yet he found a more hopeful, traditional message in African American churches he visited. Not only did he hear the Word of God proclaimed with confidence, but he also saw how downtrodden people took comfort in the sure hope of deliverance. Looking back on Bonhoeffer's life, Metaxas observes a corresponding surge in piety after these visits. Friends noticed a newfound purpose to his life as Bonhoeffer passionately defended the voiceless and protected the church's historical witness. He began attending church regularly for the first time in his life. Though his mother believed, Bonhoeffer had grown up mostly surrounded by religious skeptics, including his father, Germany's most eminent psychologist. Even so, they all imbibed a culture undeniably shaped by Christianity, particularly Martin Luther.  

Yet over time, historical criticism of the Scriptures by scholars such as Harnack chipped away at the Lutheran fortress. When this bulwark fell, theology was up for grabs. Philosophers did their part to eradicate the last semblances of divine revelation. In place of a crucified Messiah, Friedrich Nietzsche substituted the Übermensch, a man unbounded by objective ethics. Like the Übermensch, Hitler pursued his ends of Aryan domination by any means necessary, dooming 6 million Jews and millions of other supposed enemies under the Nazi regime. German church leaders who had jettisoned divine revelation could not discern the threat.

At the same time, few Christians who respected Scripture bothered to oppose Hitler, either. With the embarrassment of World War I fresh in German minds, Hitler's early military successes led to a surge in nationalism. Bonhoeffer eventually soured on the relatively conservative Confessing Church when few pastors acted on the stirring anti-Nazi rhetoric of the Barmen Declaration, drafted primarily by Barth in 1934. Later, many Confessing Church pastors went so far as to swear a mandatory oath of allegiance to Hitler after offering nominal protest. Bonhoeffer's close friend, Eberhard Bethge, observed the urgent necessity of direct action against Nazi rule.

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"We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers, even though there would always be new acts of refusing to be co-opted and even though we would preach 'Christ alone' Sunday after Sunday," Bethge wrote. "During the whole time the Nazi state never considered it necessary to prohibit such preaching. Why would it?"

Even so, the Nazis targeted Confessing Church pastors and drafted them into front-line service. By the end of World War II, 80 of the 150 pastors trained by Bonhoeffer at the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde had been killed. Bonhoeffer corresponded with these ministers until his dying days in SS prisons and concentration camps. Bonhoeffer treated his captors with undeserved grace. Theology, rooted in God's revealed Word, stiffened his resolve even as it softened his personal manner. In the end, however, theology mattered only if he was willing to act on it.

"Who stands fast?" Bonhoeffer asked. "Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tried to make his whole life an answer to the call of God."

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns available on our site include:

Piper, Warren, and the Perils of Movement Building | Why the debate over separatism still matters. (April 19, 2010)
 The Toll of Our Toiling | John Piper takes an eight-month leave of absence. (March 30, 2010)
The Resurrection Changes Everything | 'Raised With Christ' highlights the neglected central event of our faith. (March 22, 2010)