Below are three questions I recently asked Eric Metaxas, author of the new major biography on Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor-theologian in Germany who was hanged for conspiring to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s popular works like Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship continue to be widely read, but few know the full story of his courageous, fascinating life. Metaxas tells the story and tells it well.
What drew you to write on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and what effect did this research have on your own life?
There seems to me to be absolutely no one like Bonhoeffer. He seems extremely modern somehow. Greg Thornbury at Union University has called him a “Church Father for the Post-Modern Era.” Somehow that captures it for me. I think of him as a hero in the faith we desperately need to hear about right now, at this time in history. He shows us how to be Christians, with courage, in a unique way.
But this story is very personal for me, too. My mother grew up in Germany, and she lost her father at age nine during the war. I see Bonhoeffer as a voice for those who couldn’t speak out. First for the Jews, of course, but also for the Germans like my grandfather, who knew that Hitler was evil. My research into Bonhoeffer somehow connected me to my own family history and to German history in a way that has changed me forever. This is my history and my family’s history.
Do you think Bonhoeffer was justified in conspiring to kill Hitler?
In a word: yes. Bonhoeffer knew what was going on with the Jews. His family was well-connected, and he knew the worst stories of what was happening. He saw it as the plain duty of a Christian to protect the weak and the innocent. To sit back while this was going on, while he knew it was going on, was simply unthinkable. It would have been nothing less than cowardice. He felt that God Himself was calling him to act boldly, in faith. To step out and act. It was what his faith and his theology led him to do. That’s very important to understand, and if I’ve finally clarified that somewhat in my book I think I’ve done something very valuable.
Bonhoeffer once famously advocated “religionless Christianity.” What did he mean by that?
What he meant by that is completely and shockingly different from what people have said he meant! This is another reason I’m so excited about people reading my book. For decades this has been misunderstood, and it’s muddied his legacy. What Bonhoeffer meant was that the German church had failed. Hitler’s rise and the horrors that attended that rise—especially in the Holocaust—were proof of that. Bonhoeffer was saying that the Church must really be the Church, must be a bold and uncompromising witness to Jesus. But what they had mainly been up to that point was merely “religious” in the negative sense. The difference between the dead religion of the German churches and the “religionless Christianity” of real faith in Jesus Christ is the difference between fig leaves (“dead religion”) and the Blood of Jesus Christ. One was a sham that did nothing. It certainly didn’t fool God. The other was the only thing that could stand against evil. “Religionless Christianity” was true faith and obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every sphere—not just some circumscribed “religious” sphere, but in every sphere of life. People have gotten this so wrong it’s staggering. I hope that will change once and for all when they read my book.
You’ve written a major biography on Wilberforce, and now one on Bonhoeffer. Who’s next for you?
Merv Griffin. Just kidding! I have so much else I want to do, but writing another biography is not one of them. This book took so much out of me I simply cannot think about doing another one. But I know the Lord will use it to His glory for His purposes. And He’ll show me what to do next.