Who is the Real Bonhoeffer?

Everywhere I go people are singing the praise of Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  We blogged a bit about it here.

I have not read the book, but it appears that Metaxas uses the book to try to turn Bonhoeffer into an evangelical Christian. Clifford Green, the executive director of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, is having none of it.  In a critical review in The Christian Century, Green writes how Metaxas has manipulated evidence to tell the story of a Bonhoeffer that he (Green) does not recognize.  The title of the review is “Hijcking Bonhoeffer.”  Here is a taste:

I will not linger over the numerous factual errors, including problems with the German words sprinkled throughout the text (even the notorious names Buchenwald and Dachau are misspelled). I will not fret about the problems infecting the copious endnotes, especially the missing, incomplete and garbled sources. I will not dwell on the fact that a critical assessment of sources is absent. (Metaxas repeats the pious and probably self-serving statement of the Flossenbürg camp doctor about Bonhoeffer’s death and the canard about Bonhoeffer’s radio speech on the Führer being cut off as if he were a marked man from the beginning of Hitler’s rule, when in fact he just went over the time limit.) One of the signs that the book was rushed through the press to appear on the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death is found in the news that Bonhoeffer crossed the Atlantic in the “thirty-three-ton ship” Columbus.

Informed readers will attend to what else is missing. Contrary to claims in the publicity, there is no new research in this biography. Bonhoeffer scholars are thanked but only mentioned in their role as editors; their research and writings are never discussed. (Disclosure: I have edited several volumes in the Bonhoeffer Works.) Because research has found new documents and new interpretation has been written since Bethge’s book, one can indeed make a case for a new biography. (Ferdinand Schlingensiepen has just undertaken this serious task in Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance.) And given the tendency of evangelicals and liberals to focus on different parts of Bonhoeffer’s theology and witness, the challenge is to transcend theological polarization and present an integrated and compelling picture.

But that is not Metaxas’s approach: polarization is a structural motif of the whole narrative, because his mission is to reclaim the true Bonhoeffer from “liberals” who have “hijacked” the theologian. Consider the treatment of Bon­hoeffer’s year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-1931. It is true that Bonhoeffer was very critical of theology at Union as well as the preaching he heard in white churches like Riverside Church. What Metaxas highlights, however, is Bon­hoeffer’s experience at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where, he implies, Bonhoeffer had a conversion experience and became a serious Christian. In volume 10 of the Bonhoeffer Works I present new evidence of Abyssinian’s deep personal impact on Bonhoeffer. But that is to complement, not disparage, the decisive impact of Bonhoeffer’s friends at Union Seminary.

One commentator writes that Green has a “case of extreme envy.”  Perhaps.  But it does appear that this book has some flaws.

5 thoughts on “Who is the Real Bonhoeffer?

  1. Thx, Phil. I'm very critical of Leo Strauss, although he's had “a decisive impact.”

    He ends his book “The City and Man” with the question “quid sit deus just hanging there.

    If there is a God, what would he [it] be?

    For the Christian, starting at the beginning [theism] instead of the end [revelation] can be a fruitful enterprise, for if Christianity is true, the answers will come out the same no matter where we start. I suspect Bonhoeffer returned to the beginning in those years in Hitler's prison, and do not draw any magisterium-like conclusions from work that Hitler's executioner cut short.

    At this point, since what Bonhoeffer was “very critical” about in the “liberal” Union theology is left unstated, this tug-of-war for St. Dietrich between Green and Metaxas amounts to diddly to this interested but uninvested observer.

    I have no horse in the race. Just more culture war, with no winners, just war. Feh.

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  2. I've not read the entire Metaxas volume, just the sections about Bonhoeffer's time at Union. As Green suggests, it is derivative of other work. Plus, anyone interested should consult Green’s fine work on vol. 10 of the Bonhoeffer Works (English edition). Ones sees how important Union and Abyssinian were on Bonhoeffer’s maturation as a pastor and theologian.

    Bonhoeffer was critical of the liberal theology at Union, but friends such as Frank Fisher provided an entrée into the difficulties of life in Jim Crow America and introduced him to the old spirituals that Bonhoeffer grew to love. Professors such as Charles Webber took Bonhoeffer around NYC and introduced him to social gospel organizations.

    So, while Bonhoeffer did criticize some of Union’s theology, he also felt its impact in other ways too.

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  3. It is true that Bonhoeffer was very critical of theology at Union as well as the preaching he heard in white churches like Riverside Church…In volume 10 of the Bonhoeffer Works I present new evidence of Abyssinian's deep personal impact on Bonhoeffer. But that is to complement, not disparage, the decisive impact of Bonhoeffer's friends at Union Seminary.

    So which is it about the “liberal” theology at Union? Green seems self-contradictory here, that Bonhoeffer was “very critical” of the theology, yet his friends at Union had a “decisive impact.”

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  4. I don't know enough about the historiography of Bonhoeffer to know who's right, but the repeated use of “I will not…” cracks me up because it always ends with him saying what he just said he wouldn't. (-:

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