Hijacking Bonhoeffer

October 4, 2010

You have to read Eric Metaxas with bifocals. With the upper lens you read the Metaxas of the book, an engaging narrative by an experienced writer who presents Bonhoeffer as a Christian hero led by God to struggle against an evil regime and against his wayward church. With the lower lens you read the Metaxas revealed in numerous web interviews in which he gives his account of Bonhoeffer's "staggering" significance today.

Metaxas first read Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship at the time of his evangelical conversion some 20 years ago. Formerly a staff writer for Chuck Colson's BreakPoint, he appears frequently as a cultural commentator on Fox News and CNN. He founded and hosts Socrates in the City, a monthly event in New York featuring prominent speakers on "life, God, and other small topics." He presumably treats such topics in his trilogy of popular apologetics, the first being Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask). In 2007 he published Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, which made the New York Times best-seller list and was the companion book to the film Amazing Grace.

Readers coming to Bonhoeffer for the first time will likely be carried along by Metaxas's engaging narrative and admiration for his subject. A talented writer, he depends heavily on Eberhard Bethge's biography— 40 years old but still an unsurpassed source. His new material comes especially from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English edition, which contains eight volumes of Bonhoeffer's letters, sermons and papers. Metaxas quotes copiously from the five volumes that have only recently been translated. Also built into the narrative are letters between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, published in 1994 as Love Letters from Cell 92. Other sources include various memoirs written by Bonhoeffer's sister Sabine and by acquaintances such as Paul Lehmann, Reinhold Niebuhr and George Bell. Martin Doblmeier, maker of the film Bonhoeffer, calls the book "a masterpiece that reads like a great novel" and its author "the preeminent biographer of Christianity's most courageous figures."

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.

At Union, as Bonhoeffer himself reports, he engaged in life-changing discussions with Lehmann, Jean Lasserre, Erwin Sutz and Frank Fisher, discussions about the Sermon on the Mount, peace and "learning to have faith." These led directly and quickly to work on his book Discipleship. There, too, he got to know several Social Gospel radicals—pacifists and socialists—about whom he continued to inquire in letters years later. Metaxas tells us nothing of all this. Why? Because his Union Seminary is a construct of his polarizing worldview in which evangelicals are pitted against liberals.

This same simplistic approach governs Metaxas's writing about German theology and about the church struggle under National Socialism. He flippantly compares the theological controversy between Harnack and Barth to the conflict between latter-day Darwinians and proponents of Intelligent Design. He presents the Confessing Church as if it were an American denomination founded by Bonhoeffer. Indeed, he describes the battles of American fundamentalists and of the Confessing Church as essentially the same. Bonhoeffer, Metaxas tells us, "equated the fundamentalists with the Confessing Church. Here they were fighting against the corrupting influences of the theologians at Union and Riverside, and at home the fight was against the Reich church."

Two aspects of Bonhoeffer are so disturbing to Metaxas that he has to deny them outright or try to explain them away. Bonhoeffer, he insists, was not a pacifist. While pacifism as usually understood is not a good word to describe Bonhoeffer's position, his Christian peace ethic was rooted in the core doctrines of his theology—his Christology and his understanding of discipleship, his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and his doctrine of the church. He did not abandon his peace ethic while working to kill Hitler and end the Nazi regime. Just one sign of this stance is the fact that even during the war Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics and spoke to his fiancée in support of conscientious objection. These matters of theology and ethics are too subtle for Metaxas; consequently his treatment of the Lasserre-Bonhoeffer friendship in New York falsifies the sources and wallows in sentimentality.

Worse, if possible, is Metaxas's embarrassment about Bonhoeffer's writing in Letters and Papers from Prison about "religionless Christianity." In a Trinity Forum interview he even stated that Bonhoeffer "never really said it," but then had to retract that because, well, Bonhoeffer did say it. But, Metaxas continues, he wrote it privately in a letter to Bethge and never intended anyone to see it because it was "utterly out of keeping with the rest of Bonhoeffer's life." He calls Bonhoeffer's theological prison reflections a "few bone fragments . . . set upon by famished kites and less noble birds, many of whose descendants gnaw them still."

Descending to insult, even insulting the subject of his own book, is a sure sign that an author is in trouble. Why does he do this? Ostensibly because the death-of-God theologians, those "liberals," have "hijacked" Bonhoeffer. But why whip a few writers who made a brief splash 40 years ago and who have had little or no influence on theology or the church? Because they function as straw men in his polarizing narrative about "orthodox Christians" and "liberals." His real target is liberals, and not just theological liberals, but political liberals too.

The simplest way to refute Metaxas's dismissal of the prison theology is to note Bonhoeffer's answer when Bethge asked him how the book he was writing on religionless Christianity related to the unfinished Ethics. Bonhoeffer answered that the book he was writing in prison was "in a certain sense a prologue to the larger work [Ethics] and, in part, anticipates it." So, pace Metaxas, Ethics and the prison theology belong together.

A lot of nonsense has been written about Bonhoeffer's prison theology, but the answer to that is good interpretation, not pretending that the prison theology is a dirty little secret. Why is the Christ-centered worldly theology of the Letters so threatening to Metaxas? Because it can't be forced into a conservative evangelical mold—or a so-called liberal one either.

Metaxas writes as an omniscient narrator, a mind reader who knows Bonhoeffer's every thought and feeling. (Is this just a literary device, or does it reveal how much the author pro­jects his own views into the mind and actions of his subject?) For example, at the height of the church struggle, Bonhoeffer caused an uproar when he wrote: "Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church separates himself from salvation." Metaxas assures us that Bonhoeffer did not think this was explosive and "never imagined that it would become a focal point of the lecture."

One curious problem parades itself in the sub-subtitle: Bonhoeffer is presented as "A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich." With this phrase Metaxas takes sides with a group that has advocated for Bonhoeffer to be recognized as a "righteous gentile" by Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Whatever one believes about the merits of the case, this element of the book is a piece of provocative posturing since there is no new information about the issue, or even discussion of it, in the book.

This brings us back to the bifocals and the Internet interviews. Bonhoeffer was a "theologically conservative evangelical," Metaxas told Christianity Today. Born again at Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer was called by God to be in his own time a prophet like Jeremiah, Metaxas told Christianbook.com. In an e-mail to the Catholic News Agency, Metaxas stated that Bonhoeffer has "staggering" relevance today: "Just as the Third Reich was bullying the German church, [so] the Ameri­can government is today trying to bully the church on certain issues of sexuality" and on "abortion and euthanasia and stem-cell research. . . . We would do well to take our lead from him in our own battle on that front."

Lauren Green of FoxNews.com wrote that Metaxas showed how Bonhoeffer's legacy was "the untold dangers of idolizing politicians as messianic figures . . . today as well." Reading this, a blogger wrote: "That's Obama and his followers he was warning us about." If you think that's a stretch, read Metaxas's comments last December on Fox Forum discussing White House Christmas celebrations, in which Obama is connected—in­directly, of course—to Herod.

Given all this, the most descriptive and honest title for Metaxas's book would perhaps be Bonhoeffer Co-opted. Or better: Bonhoeffer Hijacked.


Essential Review

This review is needed to set the story straight. Metaxas has gotten a lot of press, but the Bonhoeffer he offers doesn't jive with the Bonhoeffer I know from reading Bonhoeffer or from reading Bethge's bio -- as well as the more recent bio by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. Thanks for making this available CC!

well done review

Though the writing is wonderful- and engrossing, and I'm just halfway through this work, it feels that, as the reviewer says, Metaxas is somehow within the same mind as B.
That makes for good reading- but is it accurate?
It reads scary smooth... though compelling.

I also started to wonder a bit after reading the preview by Tim Keller; seemed a little thin to me.

Different views on a common hero

Sounds to me like a case of extreme envy on the part of the reviewer. So there are different takes on Bonhoeffer by different thinkers, what's new about that? That conservative evangelicals are having a chance to catch up on their interpretive work is a good thing. It's a community in a rapid process of reconfiguration, or passing out of existence to scatter a huge section of its populace along the ramparts of another era.

Metaxas is to be congratulated for what he offers, and not interpreter is anything but that. Harold Bloom's concept of misprision. The current reviewer did his own co-opting, as did Bethge. There's a palpable lust to appropriate that oozes from such thawt-only bull.

What of Fosdick's Shall the Fundamentalists Win? What of Van Dusen's fine but revealing Vindication of Liberal Theology, an ideology that has been uprooted by pomo. What of Rev James Farmer's sermon in Oxford Congregational Church, Oxford, Connecticut, to a boy just 14 years old who wanted to join the church, where its board was manipulated by the Union Seminary Rev to refuse membership, then preaching from the pulpit, "we are suspicious of pious people." No wonder Bonhoeffer despised the learned despisers at Union! In Germany, their ilk was in part responsible for the rise of Hitler, as was the gay army of Gen Rohm which Hitler encouraged and was dependent upon--until .... But that's a long story.

My point is that Union Seminary's liberalism was a presumptuous ideology, and Bonhoeffer was onto it, no matter how dear to him were the friends he made there. He was something else. He's the only figure at Union who survives the acids of deconstructive analysis. You, dear reviewer, don't survive it either. You're an appropriator of the passions of the Other, because you, like all of us have feet of clay, but you also have a brain of mud.

to a Metaxas apologist

So all scholarship is just "opinion"? We have no recourse to the facts of Bonhoeffer's life and the very words that he said?

I'm all in favor of conservative evangelicals playing "catch up," as you say, and learning about important Christian theologians. But I think that they should try to stick to the facts and not play the anachronistic games that Metaxas does when he inserts Bonhoeffer into modern concepts of Intelligent Design and the American religious right.

Can you think of any other serious scholar who, when trying to decide whom to ask to write the forward to his book, would just ask his pastor to write it? Tim Keller is Metaxas' pastor at Redeemer Church in NYC. But Keller has absolutely no other standing as someone with authoritative views of Bonhoeffer. He's simply Metaxas' preacher!

This book is incredibly ideological, a point that Metaxas does not seem to argue. If you read his interviews, he basically admits that he's trying to "reclaim" Bonhoeffer for his own political community.

This is the opposite of good scholarship. Is all scholarship to some degree subjective? Of course it is. But Metaxas doesn't even try to bring objectivity, as Mr. Green points out in his excellent review.

What's your point?

1. Stephen King is also a NYTimes bestselling author. So is Joel Osteen. But I wouldn't ask either to write the prologue to my book on Bonhoeffer.

2. Where do you get the idea that Metaxas is not a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church? This is public knowledge.

Fair enough

You are right on your second point. I was confused because Metaxas appears in promotional materials for Keller's church. Here's the video: http://newbirthportraits.com/gallery/10

This is what I meant by "public knowledge" -- Metaxas appears on the internet on Keller's church site, talking about his faith conversion.

Metaxas is also a lecturer at the seminary that is connected to Keller's church -- the PCA-run Redeemer Seminary.

I am still perplexed by the choice of Keller to write the prologue. I know many pastors who know Bonhoeffer's work better, not to mention the scholars who know Bonhoeffer MUCH better.

It seems like it was a political choice, not a scholarly one.


I'm pretty surprised you say this is a case of extreme envy on the part of Clifford Green. Green edited a couple of volumes in the Bonhoeffer Works in English series, the definitive translation of Bonhoeffer's works with a rich treasure trove of footnotes and prefaces providing a lot of the scholarship Metaxas relied on to write his book. Green also published a book titled Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality that is one of the leading works of Bonhoeffer scholarship out there. If anyone is qualified besides Eberhard Bethge to say that a work on Bonhoeffer is sub-par, it's Clifford Green.

case in point

That Clifford Green has done much work on Bonhoeffer that may have been used as supporting documentation for Metaxas' work would only add credence to the claim of him being jealous of the success of Metaxas' "Bonhoeffer".

To the charge that Mr. Green is "qualified" based solely on the volume of work he has conducted on the subject, I find that highly questionable. Since when does quantity equal quality? No disrespect to Mr. Green's work, but there is an immense amount of published material on pseudo-science that is patently false, a false religion unto itself, and the volume of it does zero to change the falsehood of the respective materials.

I am currently about two-thirds through Metaxas' book as I write this. I find Mr. Green's scathing commentary of it the result of his own political agenda. Mr. Green's characterization of Metaxas' work is rarely accurate and is not the book that I am reading. What Mr. Green seems to be doing is transferring his own liberal political inclination of re-reading history to suit his liberal agenda onto Mr. Metaxas. This is not to say that Metaxas is free from injecting some level of his own interpretation of Bonhoeffer into this book, but when he does, he clarifies it. Also, Mr. Green calls Mr. Tetaxas to task on "misrepresenting" some events, such as when Bonhoeffer's radio speech was cut-off during the first month of Hitler's reign; Metaxas did not state that it was a move by the Third Reich nor did Metaxas not entertain all possibilities of why the speech may have been truncated. Mr. Green, again, is the one twisting the truth by falsely accusing Metaxas of doing something he in fact did not do.

Just this one example alone is sufficient to presume that the reason Mr. Green gives Mr. Metaxas a scathing review has more to do with Mr. Green's PERSONAL political differences with Mr. Metaxas'--Mr. Green's "voluminous work" on Bonhoeffer notwithstanding.

Hijacking Bonhoeffer

Clifford Green has every right to express outrage against what he describes as the "hijacking" of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the effort by evangelical Eric Metaxas to emphasize certain parts of Bonhoeffer's life and writings for the advancement of a predetermined agenda. However, this seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, in most popular religious biography, from the Lives of the Saints through Foxe's Book of Martyrs to the present day. Timothy J. Keller's introduction to the volume is as disturbing as anything Metaxas himself penned: Keller expresses pure wonderment at the idea of how the "'church of Luther', that great teacher of the gospel, [could] have ever come to such a place" that the Nazi government in Germany could have come to dominate it. Apparently neither man has read much German history, much less Martin Luther's later-life tractates "Against the Robbing and Murdering Gangs of Peasants" (who had in fact been inspired in part by his earlier tract "On the Freedom of a Christian"), "Against the Jews and Their Lies," and "Concerning Schem Hamphoras and the Lineage of Christ." Evidently, if they're acquainted either with the life of Luther or the social and historical context of Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church at all, it's been through the lenses of historians who have similarly "hijacked" the German Reformation for their own agendas, But yet, when all is said and done, we might do well to remember a few words from W. H. Auden in his poem "September 1, 1939":

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad.

Luther's "later writings"

You use the same saw that the Nazi's used: quoting Luther's "later works" to the exclusion of the main bulk of Luther's writings. Taken in context, Luther's writings against the Jews could likely be caused by dementia, or Alzheimer's. During the time that Luther attacked the Jews, Luther attacked EVERYONE: Christian, the State, his family, himself. He was, again, probably falling into the vortex of dementia and going mad.

But that did not matter to the Nazi's, whose socialist agenda benefitted greatly from this inaccurate use of Luther's writings. And it does not seem to matter to you, either.

My feelings about the book

After reading Bethge and Schingensiepen's books I found this book a disappointment. I listened to his ranting speehc at Socrates in the City. No wonder Fox liked it. It suited their narrative about liberals. It's interesting that while Bonhoeffer was in New York there were blacks being lynched in the South by people who went to church afterwards.

Interesting point

If you had actually read Metaxas' work you would have seen that Bonhoeffer was quite upset at the church in America, specifically for allowing such treatment of blacks (cf. page 110).

Even if Metaxes didn't get it wrong

I find the whole argument about Metaxas trying to co-opt Bonhoeffer into conservatism, unjustly. The very fact that Bonhoeffer took a stand voluntarily to risk his life automatically disqualifies him from ever being a liberal by today's standard(Think abortion). Liberal/progressives had far more in common with many of Hitler's policies(think Eugenics) to the point of funding major research projects at all major Universities in the name of degeneration and Eugenics. Wilson up until his death, Roosevelt, many Hollywood celebs all were speaking out about the same causes and concerns that Nazi Germany were pushing. Margaret Sanger even dated one of Hitler's Lieutenants. These are the liberals of the yesterday and today. Why would Bonhoeffer fight the liberal causes if he was one?

Others who risk their lives

I'm sure the Century doesn't want the comments here to devolve into an argument about abortion, but attitudes about abortion cannot be a litmus test for humanitarianism . Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama-- to name just two, see humane reasons to allow for abortion.

And both risked their lives for others, as did Bonhoeffer.


Knowing that Metaxa's book was embraced by my fellow evangelicals, not as research but by presupposition, I have waited patiently for a serious intellectually objective review. I thank you, and fervently hope that historic facts will prevail rather than a rewriting of history in order to portray Bonhoeffer as an American evangelical Republican.

Letter from John Sparks

Reviewer Clifford Green has every right to express outrage against what he describes as the “hijacking” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, who emphasizes certain parts of Bonhoeffer’s life and writings to advance a predetermined agenda (Oct. 19). Sadly, this approach seems to be the rule rather than the exception for most popular religious biography.

Timothy J. Keller’s introduction to the volume is as disturbing as anything Metaxas himself penned: Keller expresses pure wonderment at the idea of how the “‘church of Luther,’ that great teacher of the gospel, [could] have ever come to such a place” that the Nazi government in Germany was able to dominate it and that it could stand by while Jews were being persecuted and murdered. Apparently neither Metaxas nor Keller has read much German history, much less Martin Luther’s later tractates such as “On the Jews and Their Lies,” “Against the Robbing and Murdering Gangs of Peasants” and “On the Holy Name and the Lineage of Christ.”

Ironically, it would seem that if Metaxas and Keller are acquainted with the social and historical context of Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church at all, it’s through the lenses of historians who have similarly hijacked the German Reformation for their own agendas. Even the introduction to the latest edition of Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer admits that Bethge originally composed his detailed defense of the plot to assassinate Hitler because many Germans, even religious ones, considered Bonhoeffer a traitor to his country--and did so as recently as the late 1960s.

So perhaps when all is said and done, Metaxas and Keller (and the rest of us) might do well to remember a few words from W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”: “Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad.”

John Sparks
Hager Hill, Ky.

Later writings ...

You use the same saw that the Nazi's used: quoting Luther's "later works" to the exclusion of the main bulk of Luther's writings. Taken in context, Luther's writings against the Jews could likely be caused by dementia, or Alzheimer's. During the time that Luther attacked the Jews, Luther attacked EVERYONE: Christian, the State, his family, himself. He was, again, probably falling into the vortex of dementia and going mad.

But that did not matter to the Nazi's, whose socialist agenda benefitted greatly from this inaccurate use of Luther's writings. And it does not seem to matter to you, either.

Echoing the Chorus...

Just to echo the majority of the comments, THANK YOU for a much needed review. If anything, Metaxas's book is being marketed strongly, and picked up by people who are just learning about Bonhoeffer. Luckily, the people who are doing this are also likely avid google users who will hopefully stumble over this review!


I remember seeing one of the earlier dvds on Bonhoeffer where Bethge is interviewed and he expresses surprise that when he first met Bonhoeffer at the confessing church seminary that Bonhoeffer explained he was a pacifist. On the same dvd Jean Lasserre said that Bonhoeffer had come around to this based on his reading of the sermon on the mount.

Bonhoeffer - a point made from one of his lectures

Metaxas quotes from one of Bonhoeffer's lectures; "With that we have articulated a basic criticism of the most grandiose of all human attemps to advance toward the divine - by way of the church. Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church. It is far to easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian religiosity and our commentment, and in so doing utterly to misunderstand and distort the Christian idea." (page 84 in bio)
Would someone help explain the part "Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church."

"Conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church."

I expect that phrase refers to the difference between human religion and God given faith. There is a real and dangerous possibility (inevitability?) of a person refusing to be a disciple of Jesus in the name of being a good Christian and good church goer (see Bonhoeffer's treatment of such in chap. 2 of Discipleship). Jesus however undermines such human piety repeatedly. It was not the ignorant and criminal who killed Jesus; rather, It was the supposed most good, most religious, and most respected.

Helpful Review, but needlessly mean-spirited

This is a helpful review...I have been an evangelical, and pacifist, most of my adult life and I resonated deeply with Metaxas' critique of theological liberalism, which, it seems to me, has done little to energize the church for a robust counter-cultural witness. So, it is good to read another report, to clarify some of Metaxas' weaknesses, and to set the record a bit more straight.

Yet, it is supremely ironic that the reviewer faults Metaxas for "reading into" the mind of Bonhoeffer, when he does it himself repeatedly in this review---re-read it and count how many times Mr. Green accuses Metaxas of things he has little way of knowing to be true. (That certain aspects of Bonhoeffer are "so disturbing" [to Metaxas] that he has to deny..." How does Green know that this is why Metaxas offers his view? Once, the reviewer, disagreeing with Metaxas, asks the rhetorical "why" and then proceeds to answer "why" in what is nothing but pure speculation. Ugh.)

Byron Borger

Green says that when an author descends to insult, you know he is in trouble. I almost smacked my forehead in reading this, pondering how such an insulting reviewer could not be more self-aware. Does he not see that he is demeaning and insulting and crosses over the line of fairness in presuming to say why Metaxas makes the errors he does?

I am not qualified to say who is right in their interpretive work on the important life and legacy of Bonhoeffer. It seems that most of those who have commented above trust Mr. Green. I know he is a Bonhoeffer scholar, and so his critique of the Metaxas' book is important, and he has marshaled some helpful data. Yet, his snarky ending, his conspiracy theory approach to Metaxas' agenda, even his assumption that the author chose the subtitle---which, as Green surely knows, may not even have been Metaxas' choice---with some dubious agenda, a matter about which, again, he engages in unkind and specious speculations, makes me suspicious of how much to trust of this review.

(I went to the recommended FoxNews op ed piece Metaxas wrote, cited by Mr. Green. He does not suggest that Obama is Herod, but only that if the White House removed the traditional creche--took Jesus out of Christmas as a social secretary put it--ordinary American's would be outraged, and view the President that way. Whether Metaxas' is right in his prediction of the fall out of such a thing, or whether we agree with him on that or not, or like FoxNews or not, it is less than compelling evidence that the book is flawed. And Green worries about "straw men." Geesh.)

It may be that Metaxas blew it. And, like all authors, he has an agenda, one which he thinks comports with Bonhoeffer's overall life, faith and theology. Avoiding the ad hominem attacks and overblown accusations would have made this a much better, and more helpful, review. I'm surprised so few CC readers have called foul at some of Green's mean-spirited digs.


Thank you for this beautiful review of Mr. Green's review!
I too found the initial review helpful, maybe compelling.
I'm an evangelical conservative, who has heard liberal evangelicals wax eloquent on Bonhoeffer. I was interested to hear an alternative view, in case the liberals had hijacked his legacy. I found Mr. Green possibly brought caution back into view, yet his own tone sounds to me from a defensive position, not one of strength and confidence in truth telling. I'm interested to know if the man Bonhoeffer, in addition to being a hero in the fight against totalitarianism, subjugation and murder, also had a healthy theology, with new lessons for the church applicable to this day. I know that such theologians stand upon the Pinnacle of Trinitarian Theology, of which it appears Mr. Bonhoeffer had some connection.
Thanks again for this review.

Excellent rebuttal to Mr. Green's smear-job

Excellent points. As I have posted elsewhere in the comments section of this "review", it seems clear to me that Mr. Green is TRANSFERRING his own tendency to re-write history to suit his political agenda onto Mr. Metaxas. It seems clear to me that, since Mr. Metaxas is a staunch conservative quite visible in the American ideological landscape, Mr. Green is venting his own prejudice and misinformation when parsing Mr. Metaxas' work.

Little of Mr. Green's characterization of Metaxas' work rings true. It certainly is not the book I am reading. Mr. Green may be a "Bonhoeffer scholar", but so what? Think about this: modern seminaries are stock full of anti-Christ, atheistic Bible scholars, Jesus-scholars, interpretive scholars, historical schoarls, etc ... ad naseum ... and I would not give a thin penny for any of their opinions if they deny God, the divinity of Christ, the God-breathed inspiration of Scripture and what Scripture is, etc ...

This is not to say that Mr. Green is such an anti-Christ atheist. It was simply a point of comparison to make the point that being a "scholar" of something does not equate to being objective nor truthful on the respective subject matter.

Helpful review, but...

This review is very helpful. I am almost finished with Metaxas's book, so it is good to know that I should not accept everything he writes at face value. However, Dr. Green seems angry that someone should write a biography accessible to non-scholars, especially one that gets media attention and generates big sales. He spits out his disapproval that Metaxas does not cover this or that Bonhoeffer position in greater depth. Others have done that in excellent books.

This book brings us alongside Bonhoeffer as one watching his life, eavesdropping on his discussions and seeing him wrestle with big questions. Dissect any Christian and you will find inconsistencies and errors in theology. Bonhoeffer, whatever his flaws, lived his convictions to the end. Liberals have a heart for the poor, the environment, justice and a handful of important causes few rational people would disagree with. Bonhoeffer took stands that were not popular, that few understood, even among his closest friends and supporters. I am not sure the academics who position Bonhoeffer in their camp would do likewise.

I find this review rather petty

Actually, it is Clifford Green's review which appears to contain a few "factual errors"...
-- The names of German concentration camps are spelled correctly in my copy of the book.
-- On page 139, Metaxas explains how the Fuhrer principle radio broadcast story is usually told, as it was indeed depicted in the Bonhoeffer documentary. And then Metaxas plainly says, "But the speech had been scheduled for some time and was not a response to Hitler's election..." He continues "...but it's also possible that Bonhoeffer and the station manager misunderstood each other, and *he simply ran out of time*. It's also unclear whether the Nazis could control the airwaves..."
Why does Clifford Green misrepresent what the author clearly presented?

And really, am I supposed to view a typo (thirty-three *thousand* ton) as a reflection on the author?

Here is my review: I enjoyed Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer biography immensely (without agreeing with his every analogy or extrapolation) -- so much that when I finished it, I couldn't stop contemplating it, so I turned it over and am reading it for a second time. I wept through nearly every page -- not because of the tragedy of Bonhoeffer's end, but in view of the absolute beauty and integrity of his life, resurrected through the pen of an eloquent writer. I bought copies as Christmas gifts for family and friends. And I was inspired to order a book on Karl Barth's theology, Bonhoeffer's Life Together, and a copy of the Eberhard Bethge biography as well.

I searched for any works by Clifford Green and found this one:
I couldn't help but notice that his book had one rating, five stars. Who was that enthusiastic reviewer? Why, it was Clifford Green himself.

Buy the Metaxas book and savor it.

Well spoken

While there are a number of critiques Green makes that I would agree with, I also have to agree with this comment by "anonymous".

Although a follower of Christ who loves his very flawed Church, I am personally critical of evangelicalism in the shape that it predominantly takes in North America and often elsewhere. I also found Metaxas' book to be flawed - not so much regarding Bonhoeffer scholarship, which I am not an authority on - but on its writing style (sometimes wonderful, often average, occasionally long-winded and occasionally downright tawdry) and on the sense that sometimes assumption or speculation was breaking in on eye-witness/documented history.

However, the Bonhoeffer of Metaxas, while having the piety and commitment to Scripture that many evangelicals would uphold, remains a person whose discipleship, even after Metaxas' treatment, stands in polar contrast to much of evangelicalism today. When I read Metaxas' description of Bonhoeffer's frustrations with the theological and political (or non-political) strategies of the German Lutheran and Reformed churches, and then of the Confessing Church, I see his subject reacting to the very things that characterise much of the evangelicalism that I observe today. If Metaxas' Bonhoeffer were alive today he would be shunned by modern evangelicals, I am sure, for the simple reason that earnest, well-intentioned believers committed to orthodox Christian faith (not theologically liberal, but probably not evangelical in the way the tradition takes its shape today) of his day found him to be too radical and too aggressive, especially in his willingness to critique both the German church institution and the State. While there are many American evangelicals who offer critiques of their government system (whether Republican or Democratic), of their culture and of US nationalism, they remain a significant minority.

Furthermore, this anonymous reply does well to point out the (quite frankly) disingenuous way that Green paints some of the flaws in Metaxas' book. For example, Metaxas is very clear about the influence of Lasserre, et al, at Union. Green's re-emphasis of these friends does not challenge Metaxas' claim that Bonhoeffer thought Union was a theological joke (as Schlingensiepen, whom Green approves of, also tells). Metaxas explicitly articulates the way the cutting off of Bonhoeffer's 1933 speech may have had nothing to do with the Nazis and that such a telling may just reflect fanciful thinking. I also don't recall finding Metaxas overly bothered by Bonhoeffer's mention of "religionless Christianity" and he uses Bethge as his source for pointing out that it is a comment that has little context, which has therefore allowed it to be interpreted (and abused) in diverse ways.

I have searched, in some vain, for a critical review of Metaxas' book. I have found two - Green's, and another by Victoria Barnett. I find both unhelpful. Neither appears generous in spirit or attitude (Green's adjective for Bonhoeffer's "conversion" is "evangelical", which already tells you how he plans to address Metaxas' writing, since Metaxas never uses the word "evangelical" in the book - except with reference to the German church of that name - and certainly not, that I recall, to one being "born again"). But most importantly, neither show, in scholarly and truthful terms, exactly just how Metaxas gets it wrong. Until someone does, I can't take their protestations too seriously, even while I have some suspicions about parts of Metaxas' book.

Personally, I think Metaxa's book makes for a helpful contribution, much as I suspect it to be a flawed work. It is inevitable that Metaxas has a lens through which he filters Bonhoeffer, as does Green. But the Bonhoeffer that results, while filtered, is not, I sense, distorted (from my own study of his writing and biographies). There is much to learn and to chew on, and hopefully to be transformed by, for people of all theological stripes, from the (mildly) evangelicalised Bonhoeffer Metaxas portrays.

That this flawed work could be useful is, perhaps, another of those gifts that God, in his grace, works, within his flawed Church.

-Jonathan Wilson

Thank you

Thank you so much Mr. Wilson for such a critical review of a review. I too found both critiques that you mentioned and both are built on ambiguous claims that can mostly be proven wrong. We need more commenters like you in this world. As for Bonhoeffer, I don't believe that he was liberal or evangelical in his theology. He had a mixture of both and he did what he felt God told him to do.

Labeling someone as important as Bonhoeffer is a very dangerous thing to do. It doesn't matter what side of the spectrum he was on. He was convicted to do what was right in light of his Christian faith. And that's all I need to know.

Bonhoeffer not a pacifist?

Green states that Metaxas claims that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist. This is true - but it is not the final word. He clearly indicates that Bonhoeffer "became a pacifist" using the words of Bonhoeffer's friend, Lasserre, who remarked that, after seeing All Quiet on the Western Front, Bonhoeffer was inconsolable. "Lasserre believed that on that afternoon Bonhoeffer became a pacifist." Perhaps a reviewer should actually read the book he/she is reviewing?

Reviewing the Reviewers

Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for your balanced and reflective critique of the negative reviews of Mr. Metaxas' book. I suppose it is hard to be dispassionate when one has a dog in the fight, as Mr. Green clearly does. But scholarship is supposed to involve some attempt at distancing and objectivity. The reviewer in this case, I believe, has revealed as much about his own scholarly temperament as he has about Mr. Metaxas' inclinations and biases. It seems that Metaxas work is now an important part of the larger body of scholarship that will need to be taken into account when one seeks a fuller view of the multi-faceted man of faith that was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Nicholas Miller
Andrews University

Bonhoeffer $ells

I don't mind conflicting views and whatnot. But I doooooo mind sloppy editorial work. In the days when so many quality writers are forced to pen their thoughts for pennies, someone published a book with misspellings and missing references. Well that just pisses me off, to be completely unspiritual about it.

Hijacked Bonhoeffer

I find it ironic that Clifford Green would accuse Metaxes of hijacking Bonhoeffer, given some of the revisionist editorial policies of Green himself in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Not only has that project translated Bonhoeffer into "inclusive" language (again, a very revisionist move), but Green spends time in his introduction to the Ethics attempting to relativize Bonhoeffer's condemnation of abortion (who refers to it as murder).

Again, ironic...

Walter Taylor

Reviewing Mr. Green

Based on the comments here alone, I would never read any of Clifford Green's works. And, in fact, I have renewed respect for Mr. Metaxas' work in which I am over half finished reading. Clifford Green seems immature and petty and jealous. Metaxas' work gnaws at him for the same reason I am sure that the Bible does: because it exposes the true nature of the human condition and makes rationalizing his own sin difficult and uncomfortable.


I got this book for my birthday. I was loving it so far, but now I feel badly about it.

Don't be discouraged

I believe Bonhoeffer would be likely to tell you the devil tears down but God builds up. Chin up and learn something from Bonhoeffer rather than this detracter. If all else fails, read the actual works of Bonhoeffer and listen for yourself.

Bonhoeffer hijacked

The debate about Metaxas's book seems to have polarised into a spat between evangelicals and liberals, each claiming Bonhoeffer as one of their own. The arguments on both sides so far seem to be somewhat simplistic. Georg Huntemann's "Dietrich Bonhoeffer - An Evangelical Reassessment" though written from a strictly - on emight say severely - evangelical point of view does have the supreme virtue of examining B's theology in great detail (and in a way that is accessible to the general reader.) What clearly emerges is that the theology is subtle, nuanced, processive and based on paradox. (The Kingdom is with us/The Kingdom is to come.) No surprise then that it has been open to varied interpretation. Whether one agrees with Huntemann's arguments and conclusions or not the book in an invaluable resource for exploring the thought of one of the 20th centuy's great theologians, whose Christian witness in act remains one of the greatest in the whole Chrstian era.

Thank you

This is a useful comment, worth more than the article above it. Thank you

Christ the Center

I have just finished reading Metaxas's biography of Bonhoeffer. During the process, I constantly thought of the classes in theology that I had with Mr. Green, one of my favorite teachers at Wellesley College.  The question of Bonhoeffer's theology in my memory boils down to his putting Christ at the center of his life.  Everything flows from that fact.  For Bonhoeffer the commitment to Christ was uncompromising.  I don't know whether this is "liberal" or "conservative," but the richness of the commitment is borne out by the kind of life Bonhoeffer lived, and that life shines through in Metaxas's biography.

Bonhoeffer Hijacked

It sounds to me like you should invite Eric Metaxas to a debate and challenge his research with your own.  How much time have you spent in Germany in conversation with survivng members of Bonhoeffer's family and friends about actual conversations rather than your own assumptions made whiole being viewed through your own lens of bias.  Many of the assertions that you are making are incorrect.  Case in point, Mr. Metaxas has said on many occasions that the radio broadcast was not interrupted because of its content, but for other reasons.  You are also suggesting that he is compelling listeners and readers to plot to assassinate the president because of drawing similar conclusions between the past and the present.  You are incorrect.  Your apparently blind prejudice against those that are not liberal theologians is staggering.  I will pray for you.  I wonder what your revisionistic take on "Ethics" is given your propensity for using your politics to flavor your faith rather than allowing your faith to flavor your politics.  You are resurrecting the exact issues that Bonhoeffer dealt with during his visit to Union Theological Seminary.  

Green is a Bonhoeffer Scholar

Clifford Green is one of the preeminent scholars in Bonhoeffer research and known throughout the international community by those who do research on his life. He most likely wasn't asked as a favor to write this review. Green knew first hand Bonhoeffer's close friends and he worked on the authoritative editions that Metaxas uses profusely. As someone who is doing his own rigorous thesis work on Bonhoeffer in English and German, it's complete foolishness and utter ignorance to suggest that Green in any way gives a hoot about Metaxas' "biography" except to call him out for intellectual dishonesty and agenda building. I won't even touch Metaxas in my own research. Consider the resumes of both men and do some research of your own before you make such incompetent and uninformed comments.

Thanks to all who are

Thanks to all who are defending Bonhoeffer against Metaxas. I just came across a copy of the "biography" a few days ago. I can't believe anyone likes it. It is upsetting because it falsifies Bonhoeffer's ideas, magically transforming them into an anachronistic vision of rightwing Christian "America."

I'll make just two points:

First, there is absolutely no point of comparison, as some comments suggest, between the struggle against Nazism in the 30s and 40s and anti-abortionism etc. in the United States today. There is no point of comparison because the Nazis had a world-historical outlook that resulted in the brutal killing of millions of Jews, Christians, Communists, homosexuals, people with disabilities, the elderly.... How, I would like to know, does abortion compare on any level to mob violence, random street beatings, concentration camps, and gas chambers?

Second, Bonhoeffer is an important philosopher and theologian because he struggled with the idea of God. He spoke to the problems of modernity and modernism, secularisation, the death of God. He was not a "liberal theologian" insofar as he rejected the idea of God as "stand-in" (for example Tillich's "ultimate concern"). He was more radical than this: he said that we must learn to live without God.

I'm happy that someone has written about Bonhoeffer again, even it is an imaginary evangelical tale. I'm happy because someone might become interested in reading Bonhoeffer on their own. He is always intelligent, compassionate, and edifying.  

street violence/abortion

Regarding your comparison. You sound young and idealistic, yet educated, without much life experience. Is that a fair analysis? I question whether you have ever observed "mob violence" in person, and I question if you have ever observed a "random street beating" or been a victim of such. Next I would challenge you about your knowledge and experience with abortions. I believe you are earnest in your thinking, however your arguments read as though you have read about the things mentioned, but your true life experiences are perhaps zero.

Until you have observed, with your own eyes, the horrors, that you flip around with fancy words, and use your cute positioning of etcetera, I suggest you title you works on these subjects as naive and hypothetical.

You may well know the Bonhoeffer story, but I don't think you know a damn thing about pain, or blood, or for that matter, innocent blood. Your slick words are slick, but your message is weak, wimpy.

bonhoeffer graphic novel

btw. anyone think another bonhoeffer graphic novel is a good idea? there are at least two already, one in German and one in English... both seem out of print though. like to write and illustrate one focusing on b's theology in relation to the Enlightenment, modernity, rise of fascism, prison writings about "man come of age".... Metaxas et al would hate it. but seriously, anyone think it is a good idea?

A little late in the game, but one question...

I am reading this book currently. Something in my spirit, although I did not previously know much about Bonhoeffer, drove me to look further. Somehow I wound up here.

As I read any work by any human, I tend to want to come to it humbly and yet carefully, asking Father to reveal Truth and wisdom to me. In all actuality, I am seeking Father in everything. The good news is that He is extremely faithful and He will show Himself to anyone to seeks Him.

With that perception of life, I ask anyone and everyone who has reviewed this book and made comments sparring back and forth on the a multitude of subjects, from scholar vs. entertainer, to liberal vs. conservative "What is Father saying to you through what you are reading?"

He hides things from the learned and reveals them to little children. Should we not all take a step back and ask Him to humble us?

So is that to say that we should not hold each other, in the church accountable for what we say or write? Yes, I believe we should. But maybe we should also first remove the planks from our own eyes. Whatever your argument is, if it is done in a belittling spirit and a spirit of self pride, I can't imagine that it is in line with the Father.

Finally I just see broken humans. I, being one, know that my opinion apart from Father's Word is meaningless. Metaxas is broken. Green is broken, I am broken. Maybe this book that Metaxas wrote, or the review that Green wrote, or the comments made by our brothers and sisters, or even my comments here have problems. Actually, there is no maybe about it. 

But no matter what Mataxas' agenda is or was, no matter what Green's agenda is or was, no matter what anyone plans to do with "their" work- Father has the final say. What He allows, He allows and for His perfect reason. And this is the beauty of Him, that His Truth, His Word, His Spirit will be heard through broken humans.

Bonhoeffer was a man. A broken man who gave himself wholly to follow His savior. Father used that in mighty ways. I wonder if he would not be embarrassed by all of this bickering over who he was and who he wasn't. And whereas I think research and accurate accounts of history are very very important, Father will not be limited by our mistakes and misunderstandings, so let's rejoice in that and be united so that the world would recognize us as His.

Phil 1:15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

That is my prayer for all of us.


Julia´s comments

My brother-in-law, who is very active in an Assemblies of God church in El Salvador, recommended the Metaxas book to his brother, my husband, as a gift for their very conservative uncle, who is Catholic, but not a practicing Catholic. Hypocrisy in the Catholic Church here drove my husband away. My husband, however, an atheist, went to the bookstore and almost immediately saw this book. He´s drawn to it even though he despises Fox News. Maybe the Father moved his eyes as I have never been able to, to exactly what he needs to know. I studied Bonhoeffer in the 60s in a Presbyterian college, but mainly remembered the jist of but not the exact words of the famous quote: They came for the communists, but I wasn´t a communist so I did nothing ...¨ Strange for my conservative brother-in-law to be recommending Bonhoefer, I thought. As we celebrate the beatification of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and as I learn more about his life, I see similarities - two men in different conflicts in different parts of the world but with the same interpretation of John 17, which a young Native American priest sang with the skill of a virtuoso yesterday. I may not have closed my parenthesess but I hope you understand that I support what you have said. I consider my faith Bible-based, not tradition based. Like Bonhoeffer, Becket and Oscar Arnulfo Romero, I believe that Mary was human.She was the noblest of women, but a woman still, not a goddess. The only one who can intercede for us before the Father is His Son, Jesus Christ.

Thank goodness for Clifford Green

Clifford Green has given his time and wealth of information to bring Bonhoeffer to the English speaking. He has edited and translated much of Bonhoeffer's work, so he is intimately familiar with the work. And he did such a good job that the Bonhoeffer series is widely respected as a great scholarly source. LOL...I would love to see a debate between Green and Metaxes. But I am grateful for Green's patience that he could read Metaxes and write a review. I was recently given the book, couldn't take the errors or the slickness of the book, and threw it away.  I find Green's review neither mean-spirited nor too critical.  I find it a very muted review of what could be said. Perhaps Metaxis should first write on Hegel and the German Idealists and then he would know something about what he is talking about.  Maybe a book for a Heart's and Mind's bookstore, but not a book for non-fictional truth-telling!