Metaxas's Counterfeit Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Critique
Review of Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile Vs. the Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010)
by Richard Weikart
Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer biography has won many accolades from evangelicals, not only because Metaxas is an excellent writer, but also because he serves up a Bonhoeffer suited to the evangelical taste. Many evangelicals admire Bonhoeffer and consider him a fellow evangelical. Metaxas's book confirms this image. In an interview with Christianity Today Metaxas even made the astonishing statement that Bonhoeffer was as orthodox theologically as the apostle Paul.
As orthodox as Paul? Metaxas does not seem to know that in his Christology lectures in 1933 Bonhoeffer claimed, "The biblical witness is uncertain with regard to the virgin birth." Bonhoeffer also rejected the notion of the verbal inspiration of scripture, and in a footnote to Cost of Discipleship he warned against viewing statements about Christ's resurrection as ontological statements (i.e., statements about something that happened in real space and time). Bonhoeffer also rejected the entire enterprise of apologetics, which he thought was misguided. 
How did Metaxas get it so wrong? Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Metaxas simply got in over his head. Bonhoeffer was a sophisticated thinker immersed in early twentieth-century German philosophy and theology. Even though I have a Ph.D. in modern European intellectual history and have read Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Barth, Bultmann, and many other philosophers and theologians who shaped Bonhoeffer's thought, I do not find Bonhoeffer's writings an easy read. For one thing, Bonhoeffer (like his mentor Barth) admitted that Kierkegaard was one of the most powerful influences on his theology, which means that Bonhoeffer was committed to an irrationalist, existentialist worldview that is quite different from the mindset of American evangelicals. Though most evangelicals probably do not know it, most Bonhoeffer scholars dismissively reject the idea that Bonhoeffer's theology is compatible with American evangelical theology.
I trust that Metaxas is my brother in Christ, but unfortunately he simply does not have sufficient grounding in history, theology, and philosophy to properly interpret Bonhoeffer. This is not just my opinion. Victoria Barnett, the editor of the English-language edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, wrote a scathing review of Metaxas's biography. In her opinion, Metaxas "has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period." She then calls Metaxas's portrayal of Bonhoeffer's theology "a terrible simplification and at times misrepresentation."  Clifford Green, another bona fide Bonhoeffer scholar who has edited part of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works and has written extensively about Bonhoeffer, has also criticized Metaxas heavily, claiming that Metaxas's biography should be entitled, "Bonhoeffer Hijacked." 
Let's start with the historical problems. Metaxas read enough about Bonhoeffer's life to get many facts right about the events of Bonhoeffer's life. This is the strongest part of the biography. Even here, however, there are some major problems. For instance, Metaxas mistakenly claims, "From the beginning of his time until the end, Bonhoeffer maintained the daily discipline of scriptural meditation and prayer he had been practicing for more than a decade. . . . Once he got his Bible back he read it for hours each day." (p. 438) This portrait will certainly make Bonhoeffer popular among serious evangelicals, but unfortunately this image is false. In 1944 Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge, "Once again I'm having weeks when I don't read the Bible much." Bonhoeffer had told Bethge the same thing twice before in 1941 and 1942. 
Metaxas also does not have a solid grasp on Bonhoeffer's historical context. It is hard to give much credence to someone writing about German history who thinks that Bonn is in Switzerland or that Hitler was democratically elected into office or that Germany was not yet a police state in August 1934. Metaxas also claims that the Barmen Declaration, which was the doctrinal statement of the Confessing Church, rejected anti-Semitism. In reality, the Barmen Declaration does not mention anti-Semitism at all, and many scholars have criticized it for this.
Metaxas also seems to have little understanding of German theology. His bibliography contains no works on German theology, except for works specifically about Bonhoeffer, and even many important works on Bonhoeffer's theology are missing from his reading list. Metaxas correctly acknowledges that Karl Barth was the most important influence on Bonhoeffer's theology. However, he never explains anything about Barth's theology, except that Barth opposed liberal theology. Metaxas does not seem to understand that Barth's rejection of liberal theology did not cause him to embrace biblical inerrancy.
Events dominate this biography, and Metaxas only devotes a few pages to discussing Bonhoeffer's writings. Indeed it is hard to tell how much he has even read of Bonhoeffer's corpus. For example, in 1932-33 Bonhoeffer taught theology at the University of Berlin; two of his courses were published: Creation and Fall and Christ the Center. Though Metaxas lists both in his bibliography, he does not discuss them nor cite them. Both of these works contain ideas that would cause most evangelicals to cringe (or worse). Even Bonhoeffer's Ethics receive only cursory treatment, and Metaxas does not fathom Bonhoeffer's support for situation ethics therein.
Metaxas, then, has presented us with a sanitized Bonhoeffer fit for evangelical audiences. Evangelicals can continue to believe comfortingly that Bonhoeffer is one of them, and that his heroic stance against Hitler was the product of evangelical-style theology. This view is naive, but many wish it to be so. They might prefer Metaxas's counterfeit Bonhoeffer to the real, much more complex, German theologian who continued to believe in the validity of higher biblical criticism, who praised Rudolf Bultmann when he called for demythologizing the New Testament, and who in his prison writings called for us to live "as if there were no God." In 1944, toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer admitted that he was a theologian who "still carries within himself the heritage of liberal theology." 
1. For an evangelical critique of Bonhoeffer's theology, see Richard Weikart, The Myth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Is His Theology Evangelical? (International Scholars Publications, 1997), or Richard Weikart, "Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer," Fides et Historia 25 (1993): 12-25; also, I am currently writing another book that will probably be entitled, "Why Evangelicals Do Not Understand Bonhoeffer."
2. Victoria Barnett, review of Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, in Association of Contemporary Church Historians Newsletter 16, 3 (September 2010), at http://journal.ambrose.edu/ojs/index.php/acchquarterly/article/view/46/92, accessed September 2010.
3. Clifford Green, "Hijacking Bonhoeffer," Christian Century (Oct. 5, 2010), at www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2010-09/hijacking-bonhoeffer, accessed Jan. 13, 2011.
4. Bonhoeffer to Bethge, March 19, 1944, in Widerstand und Ergebung: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1954), 163 (also in Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald Fuller et al. [NY: Macmillan, 1971], 234); Bonhoeffer to Bethge, January 31, 1941, and June 25, 1942, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Eberhard Bethge, 5 vols. (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1958ff.), 5:397, 420. 5. Bonhoeffer to Bethge, 3 August 1944, in Widerstand und Ergebung, 257 (Letters and Papers from Prison, 378).
Updated: June 28, 2022