Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson 2010)

John C. Henegan

Article by John C. Henegan Featured Author


Over the west door of Westminster Abby is a panel depicting ten religious martyrs of the 20th century from all faiths. Included is a statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran minister who is also one of the imminent protestant theologians of the 20th century. In 1939 he turned down a faculty position at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary in New York City and returned to Berlin to be with his fellow church members who opposed the Nazi party’s takeover of the German Lutheran Church. He was later taken without formal charges from his home on April 5, 1943, and after being shuttled from prison to prison for two years, the SS of the Third Reich executed Bonhoeffer and several others in Flossenberg, Germany, for their participation in the failed attempt in July of 1944 to assassinate Fuhrer Adolph Hitler. There was no trial. Hitler delivered the order of execution when Germany’s defeat was a foregone conclusion, only a month before he committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.

Bonhoeffer studied under Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. He was a neo-orthodox, whose Christology is central to his theology. Yet he famously and controversially spoke of a “religionless Christianity,” a term he believed was misinterpreted and misunderstood and is still debated. His works include Letter and Papers from Prison, Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship, and Ethics, an unfinished piece on which he was working until his death. All are in print. They are the subject of devotional books, are read and studied in colleges, seminaries, and Sunday school classes, and are quoted in lectures, speeches, and sermons. His work is examined in theological studies, and his life is recounted in biographies, memoirs, films, and plays.

BONHOEFFER — PASTOR, MARTYR, PROPHET, SPY by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson 2010) (591 pp.), a bestseller that was included on several notable book lists of 2011, examines the events of his life and death. How could a theologian who took the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to love one’s enemy and to turn the other cheek as a literal command — not as a metaphor or an aspirational guide — later decide to take part in a conspiracy to assassinate his fellow Germans, even if they were in the highest ranks of the Nazi command?

Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906, the youngest of four sons, a few minutes before his twin sister, Sabine, into what became a large, distinguished Berlin family. He was too young to serve in the German military during World War I. He was fluent in several languages, played the piano, traveled extensively in Italy, and worked at a German church in Barcelona, Spain. By 23, Bonhoeffer had earned two doctorates in theology. His doctoral theses are still studied today. These works drew so much acclaim within the German Lutheran Church that Bonhoeffer was recommended for a fellowship at Union Theological, an interdenominational seminary, next door to Columbia University in Manhattan, New York.

Bonhoeffer could not be ordained in the Lutheran Church until he became 25. He postponed a German lectureship, accepted the fellowship, and went to Union in the fall of 1930 to study for a year under, among others, Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the best seller, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, about his years as a church pastor in Detroit. Bonhoeffer took two courses under Niebuhr, who would later become known as this country’s most prominent 20th-century theologian. In one course Niebuhr introduced Bonhoeffer to the poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, members of the Harlem Renaissance. But Bonhoeffer often disagreed with Niebuhr’s religious views, and he complained to his faculty advisor at Union, “There is no theology here.”

When Bonhoeffer arrived at Union in 1930, the conflict between the liberals and the fundamentalists of the mainline churches in New York was at its zenith. The leading figure of the liberals was the Reverend Henry Fosdick, who made the cover of Time for his sermons at Riverside Church (built by John D. Rockefeller) and taught homiletics at Union. The leading fundamentalist was Dr. Walter Duncan Buchanan, who preached at Broadway Presbyterian Church. The churches were within walking distance of Bonhoeffer’s Union dormitory. Upon arriving at Union, he attended Sunday services at both but was unsatisfied with their message — from his perspective either irreligious or too diluted. He wrote that “they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed, … the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

Later reflecting on his year abroad, Bonhoeffer said that he had been a religious person in Germany but became a Christian in America.”

Frank Fisher, a graduate of Howard University and a fellow Union seminarian from Birmingham, Alabama, heard about Bonhoeffer’s discontent. Fisher invited Bonhoeffer to attend Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Fisher interned as part of his seminary field work and went to Sunday services. Abyssinian Baptist, located in Harlem, was formed during President Jefferson’s administration when its members left First Baptist Church of New York City over its segregated seating policy. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., whose parents had been slaves, preached at Abyssinian Baptist, and he frequently spoke about his mid-life St. Augustine-like conversion.

Abyssinian Baptist Church had over 14,000 members and was one of the largest churches in the nation. According to Metaxas, at Abyssinian, “Bonhoeffer found a theological feast that spared nothing. Powell combined the fire of a revivalist preacher with great intellect and social vision. He was active in combating racism and minced no words about the saving power of Jesus Christ … For the first time Bonhoeffer saw the gospel preached and lived out in obedience to God’s commands.” Bonhoeffer purchased vinyl phonographs of the African-American spirituals that he heard and sang while at Abyssinian and took them back to Germany where, as a professor of theology, he would play them to his seminary students and his family. Bonhoeffer not only worshipped there for the rest of the school year, but he taught a Sunday School class of young boys, just as he had in Barcelona, and a Wednesday night women’s Bible study, and preached from the pulpit before returning to Germany in 1931.1 Several of his fellow seminarians have written in detail about how enthusiastically he embraced this time, and he would share his experiences at Abyssinian at length with them.2 Later reflecting on his year abroad, Bonhoeffer said that he had been a religious person in Germany but became a Christian in America.

During the Thanksgiving Holidays of 1930, Bonhoeffer traveled with Fisher and two other seminarians to Washington, D.C. They toured the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial and visited Howard University. There he confronted Jim Crow for the first time. Writing his parents about his trip, he told them that he “lived completely among the Negroes and through the [seminary] students was able to become acquainted with all the leading figures of the Negro movement, was in their homes, and had extraordinarily interesting discussions with them … The conditions are really rather unbelievable. Not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also, for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant with a Negro, I was refused service.”

He later wrote one of his brothers about the infamous Scottsboro case, which received nationwide attention in March of 1931, reflecting in his letter “whether I have perhaps spent too much time on this question here, especially since we don’t really have an analogous situation in Germany, but I have just found it enormously interesting, and I have never for a moment found it boring.” When he returned to Germany, one of his students later wrote that Bonhoeffer had talked about “the piety of the negroes” in America and that, as Bonhoeffer was about to return to Germany, Fisher had told him: “‘Make our sufferings known in Germany. Tell them what is happening to us, and show them what we are like.’”

Two days after Bonhoeffer had arrived in America on September 14, 1930, the Nazi Party catapulted from the smallest to the second largest political party in the German Reichstag. Within three years, Hitler was sworn in as the democratically elected Chancellor of Germany. Shortly afterwards, the Reichstag caught fire, and the next day Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to suspend those parts of the German Constitution that guaranteed civil liberties. The Nazis blamed the Communist Party for the fire; arrested, convicted, and beheaded one person as part of a larger conspiracy to overthrow the German Reich; and exiled the leading local Communists to the Soviet Union. On March 23, the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act, which transferred the complete power of the Reichstag for four years to Hitler and his cabinet. On March 30, Hitler announced that there would be a boycott of Jewish stores in Germany to prevent the international press from spreading propaganda about the German government.

Shortly afterwards, the Third Reich announced that the Aryan Paragraph, which provided that only persons of “Aryan” descent could work for the government, which included the German Church, would take effect on April 7. On May 10, the Nazis sponsored a nation-wide book burning of all anti-German books, including the works of Helen Keller and Jack London. The adoption of the Aryan Paragraph meant that all Jews and their descendants would be barred from state employment. Incredibly, a large group within the German church known as German Christians supported the Aryan Paragraph and advocated that those Jews and their descendants who were baptized Christians could form their own church separate from the German church.

Bonhoeffer, who had seen the effects of a separate but equal society in America, publicly opposed the Aryan Paragraph. He argued that this was a defining moment in history and that the German Church must confess the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Metaxas’s words, according to Bonhoeffer, it was “the duty of the church to stand up for the Jews,” explaining that “the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary,” all of which Bonhoeffer would do in time.

The Nazi party soon took over the leadership positions within the German National Church. They stood silent as Jews were deported and murdered in concentration camps and as disabled and handicapped Germans who were unable to take care of themselves were relocated and also murdered. Private statements and diaries of Nazi leaders revealed later that they viewed Christianity as incompatible with the Fuhrer principle of leadership and that their ultimate goal was to destroy the Christian church in Germany. Over 800 persons who left the German Church and became pastors or lay leaders in the Confessing Church based on the principles of the Barmen Declaration were in 1937 arrested or imprisoned. As these atrocities slowly came to light, a group of prominent Germans, which eventually included Bonhoeffer, organized a determined but nonetheless failed plan to assassinate the leaders of the Nazi party and remove the rest from power.

The encounter between Bonhoeffer and Albert Franklin Fisher brings to mind the passage in Acts about Phillip and the Ethiopian, only the roles are very much reversed. There appears to be no evidence that Bonhoeffer and Fisher ever communicated after Bonhoeffer left America in 1931 and returned to Germany or during the two months in 1939 when Bonhoeffer returned to Union. Fisher graduated from Union. He taught religion for several years at Morehouse College and became chief pastor at West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was arrested in 1957 along with several other Atlanta pastors and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for attempting to integrate the Atlanta public bus system. Fisher passed away in 1960, and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy took over his pastoral duties at West Hunter.3 There is no indication that Fisher ever referred to Bonhoeffer in any of his writings. There is no evidence that Phillip and the Ethiopian had any subsequent communications either.

Metaxas’s work is a richly detailed portrait of the life and personality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that does a superb job of placing him into the historical context of his country and explaining the timeless quality of his thinking and the courageous nature of his actions. Bonhoeffer’s entire life was characterized by a singularity of purpose and focus upon the working out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ within the world as he encountered it. He had a capacity for opening up his heart and mind to others regardless of their race or gender or the circumstances in which he met them whether in Germany, elsewhere in Europe, or across the Atlantic. His work and studies and experiences living outside Germany before returning the final time in July of 1939 plainly transformed his religious thinking and his life. Metaxas convincingly brings to life the strength of Bonhoeffer’s intellect and character and how as a result of his religious convictions he would not withdraw or retreat from or stand mute in the face of the events of the world as overwhelming as they must have seemed.

  1. Charles Marsh, “From The Phraseological To The Real”: Lived Theology And The Mysteries Of Practice, Vanderbilt Conference on Faith and Practice 22 (PDF undated) (accessed at — Mar. 2, 2014) (“C. Marsh”).
  2. Id. 22–25.
  3. Id. 26–27.