Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy – Book Review

[Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Metaxas, Eric. Thomas Nelson, 2010.]

Browsing through the book aisle at Sam’s Club, I came across Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and was intrigued. For many years, I have known the name and that he had something to do with a plot against the life of Adolf Hitler. Along the way, I have read a few of Bonhoeffer’s books, but had never really gotten to know the man. That is, until I finished Eric Metaxas’ biography!

Metaxas takes his readers far beyond a superficial snapshot of his subject; rather, he dives deep into the life and times of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Page after page, you are encountered by the World War I & II era, the thinking of the people of the time, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, and the theology and thought of a brilliant German theologian and pastor.

I appreciate the way Metaxas lines up Bonhoeffer against Hitler. He contextualizes all of Bonhoeffer’s studies, preaching, and personal life with the well-known history of Hitler’s Germany. There could not be a more stark contrast between two men as there is between Bonhoeffer and Hitler. While Hitler – drunk with dreams of power and prestige – laid waste to everyone and everything that stood in his path, Bonhoeffer quietly and confidently lived out his faith in a Lord who is truly, incarnationally, actually present for him, which led Bonhoeffer to build up and strengthen everyone in his path.

If you know the name Bonhoeffer, you likely know it in relation to his aforementioned efforts to assassinate the Führer. His work with the group devoted to destroying Hitler’s reign of terror (The Abwehr) is certainly historically accurate, but Metaxas leads us through every step of Bonhoeffer’s reasoning for joining such a group. Drawing from personal correspondences and recollections from those who knew him, the author presents a thorough and accurate picture of what brought Bonhoeffer from a position of pacifism to one of active treason.

To start with, Bonhoeffer recognized early on that Adolf Hitler and his intentions were pure evil. He fought against him in various ways, always attempting to convince his fellow Christians that what Hitler was bringing forth was not of God, but more likely of the devil. He warned his contemporaries not to stand with Hitler or the watered-down version of Christianity he had implemented for the satisfaction and control of the masses.

As Hitler became more and more militarily successful, it became apparent to Bonhoeffer that he would need to take a more active role in the downfall of the dictator. Thanks to his well-connected family, Bonhoeffer was easily assimilated into the group mantled with the task of taking out Hitler (this group was the German Military Intelligence, aka the Abwehr). Bonhoeffer’s role was that of maintaining contact and garnering support from his numerous associations throughout Europe.

Circumstance and happenstance were the protectors of wicked Hitler. Bombs that were known for their reliability failed to detonate, last-minute plan changes took Hitler out of harms way and a monstrously constructed table leg that acted as a blast shield (cf. The Valkyrie Conspiracy) all saved the life of what some have labeled “evil incarnate”.

Ultimately, Bonhoeffer was found out for his part in these plots against Hitler and sentenced to death. Ever the pastor, however, Bonhoeffer wasted no opportunity to minister to the despairing souls he found in prisons and concentration camps along the road to his martyrdom. Every day lived and every choice made were for Bonhoeffer an opportunity to live in the faith which he fervently and devoutly believed. Come what may – solitude, imprisonment, even death – Bonhoeffer knew his Lord was with him every step of the way! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred only three short weeks before Adolf Hitler took his own life.

My sincere thanks to Eric Metaxas for bringing this bit of history and this wonderful man to life in the pages of his book! I would recommend this book to anyone who desires to understand more than the caricatured attitude of the German people during Hitlers reign of terror in Europe. By reading this book, I have come to a far better understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the climate of his time.

“Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.
Christ, the royal master,
Leads against the foe;
Forward into battle
See His banners go!”
Onward, Christian Soldiers (Lutheran Service Book, 662)


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