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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.

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15 thoughts on “An Interview with Eric Metaxas on Bonhoeffer”

  1. Bill says:

    Thanks Justin for this interview, I pre-order this book and just received it and started reading it last week. I appreciate Metaxas’ desire to have Bonhoeffer understood. He is someone that the church needs to know. For those who are new to Bonhoeffer, Mark Devine’s “Bonhoeffer Speaks Today” is an excellent introduction to him and his ideas. I highly recommend it as a good compliment to this new book. He deals with the issues raised in the interview of what Bonhoeffer meant by “religionless Christianity” and his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. Anyhow, thanks, it is very helpful to know where Metaxas is coming from.

    Bill H.

  2. Greg says:

    While I agree that Bonhoeffer is well worth understanding, I find it unsettling that we would make him the standard bearer for a Christian response to Hitler. There were much better examples provided for us by men like Paul Schneider of Buchenwald. To say that action had to be taken in the face of evil is one thing, but to say that the action had to be that which Bonhoeffer chose to take is quite another. Paul Schneider–the first martyr of the Nazi regime–demonstrates that better Christian options were available.

    1. Kirstin says:

      When is your book coming out?

  3. dave says:

    totally agree greg! thanks for that response. i was there when metaxas presented on the 65th anniversary of bonhoeffer’s death and i was trying hard to understand why he didn’t make a big deal about how much of a struggle it was for bonhoeffer to enter into the conspiracy to kill hitler.

    as we all know, without a doubt, from his writings, bonhoeffer was a christian who firmly believe that following christ meant the path of non-violent resistence. while i love metaxas, he is quite wrong in that he completely downplayed bonhoeffer’s conviction to this way of living.

    although bonhoeffer didn’t follow through with his conviction to non-violence in the end, he is still a wonderful picture of what it looks like to struggle under the tyranny of a violent dictator. i too wish he had stuck with the way of christ.

    1. Hans says:

      To say that to over throw via killing Hitler was “non-christian” is exactly why the gas chambers were filled. Should we have handed him a Way of the Master tract?
      I guess Christ was wrong in his violence against the money changers also.
      We have a duty to protect the innocent, the victims of crime etc. To suffer for Christ without violence is proper, to watch innocent die at the hands of a tyrant and do nothing is very wrong. Bonhoeffer demonstrated his witness and faith through hid death and actions in prison.

  4. Stephen says:

    If you read Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison it’s clear that even he wasn’t convinced of the rightness of the course he chose (read especially “After Ten Years”). Nevertheless, very early on Bonhoeffer wrote about the option of “jamming a spoke in the wheel” of the Third Reich so I don’t think his later involvement in the conspiracies against Hitler should be a surprise. Bonhoeffer could have lived out the war in safety in New York, but instead he chose to return to Germany and follow the path of suffering and self-denial. He most definitely stuck to the way of Christ until the end.

  5. Greg says:

    I appreciate your concern for Christian action. My point was to say there were other actions available. With all due respect, I find the allusion to Christ’s cleansing of the Temple to be a gross form of equivocation. Are you saying chasing money-changers out of the Temple court is the same as plotting murder?

    I don’t think anyone is advocating inaction in the face of evil. I am simply asking us where is our faith? Must we resort to subterfuge, deceit, and murder? Unlike Bonhoeffer, I actually do not think that pacifism is Christian. But also unlike Bonhoeffer, I think there are better options than plotting murder.

    As for Bonhoeffer and others (like Goerdeler), I don’t fault them so much for their conclusions after such an arduous toil against evil. I am simply calling us after the fact to adopt a more sober approach. Bonhoeffer struggled terribly and knew he was going against his convictions. So, let’s learn from him. Paul Schneider maintained his faith and his convictions firm to the end. Let’s learn from him, too.

    I mention Schneider because he ended up being more effective than those who plotted Hitler’s murder. His testimony still rings true and deserves to be remembered as a Christian witness against Nazism.

  6. dave says:

    perfectly said greg. Inaction is never the christ-like response, hoever, that does not automatically lead us to murder as the first response. Very well said.

  7. JMH says:

    I don’t think killing Hitler would have been murder, on Biblical grounds or any other.

    1. Hans says:

      agreed, killing Hitler was not anymore murder than killing a soldier in combat. Are we to fight for the innocent or merely pray? what other courses of action would you prescribe other than “murder” to eliminate the murder of innocents?

  8. Greg says:

    To Hans and others, I would say that our disagreement is not as sharp as it may appear. There is a precision here that absolutely must be maintained (for reasons I will supply in just a moment). I have no problem with Hitler being killed. There is a way to justify killing in war. So, the allusion to soldiers killing in combat is acceptable in this case. However, if you are viewing Bonhoeffer that way, then he is to be regarded as a soldier of war, not a soldier of Christ. The question in debate is not whether the killing of Hitler could be justified but whether Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot is to be venerated as a Christian witness. My concern is that we not venerate Bonhoeffer’s response to Nazism. There are much better examples of Christian responses (such as Paul Schneider).

    Here is why it matters. I will offer 2 reasons in fact which will clarify my point. First, apologists for Paul Hill (such as Joe Pavone) have argued from the life of Bonhoeffer that Christians may in fact resort to murder in the cause of fighting evil. They equate the murder of abortion doctors with the murder of Hitler, since both murders are designed to stop massive killings. We must maintain–after the order of Christ and not Muhammed–that Christians may well die for what they believe, but they do not kill. Second, and more important, the Apostle Peter clearly speaks to the issue: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15).

    If we wish to honor Bonhoeffer’s courage and sacrifice, then let us honor him as a political warrior fighting injustice. He was certainly willing to sacrifice his reputation for a just cause. However, he does not need to be held forth as a Christian martyr or venerated as the best example of how to confront evil such as Nazism or abortion.

    1. Hans says:

      Understood, however as my moneychanger analogy was off, so is equating abortion shooting with war time killing. The murder, killing attacking of abortion doctors is wrong. I hold up Bonhoeffer for the totality of his life. And his christian witness at least to me is not altered in anyway by his association with the underground in Nazi Germany. I would go further and state that I a much bigger issue with wrapping Christ into the republican/conservative flag, which dilutes and alters the gospel.Bonhoeffer fought to stop the murder of millions. Thanks for the respectful debate on this issue.

  9. J says:

    I’m just wondering why people are accusing Bonhoeffer of murder when he was not plotting the murder. It is clear from historical documents that he knew of plots and smuggled documents for the German resistance but there is nothing suggesting that he had direct involvement on the planning of Hitler’s assassination (although it’s obvious he advocated it). In fact, the reason he was first arrested had nothing to do with a conspiracy but subverting the Nazi policy against the Jews…he had helped many Jews escape and flee to other countries. The case could be made that he advocated the assassination but that his role was limited to his desire to help the Jewish people escape and to develop contacts to bring about a peaceful resolution with the Allies once Hitler was removed.

  10. John Thomson says:

    There may be some validity for killing Hitler on the basis that he is an enemy soldier. However, I can see no other ground. A leader, however evil, is ordained by God and is the servant of God. David refused to harm Saul as he was the Lord’s anointed. I can think of no Scripture where we are urged to harm our civil leaders, pray for them yes, obey them too, but never harm them. We place ourselves on very shaky grounds indeed when we approve civil violence.

  11. Eugene says:

    I would like to learn if Bonhoeffer attempted to reconcile his action to kill Hitler with Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the wheat and tares of which we are called not to uproot the tares in the _world_.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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