Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Pp. xvi+591. $29.99 (cloth). [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.]

If ever resistance to civil authority could be excused, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s. If ever the attempt to assassinate the ruler of a nation could be justified, it was the attempt by Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators. Bonhoeffer resisted the monstrously evil Nazi Germany. He and his co-conspirators made an attempt on the life of the presage of the man of sin, the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.

On this resistance culminating in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, this splendid biography centers.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Protestant theologian and churchman who opposed Hitler and his Nazi Germany from the very beginning. Two days after Hitler became the “democratically elected chancellor of Germany” on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address in which he declared that the idea of leadership embodied in Hitler’s Fuhrer-principle—absolute lordship—is idolatry.

With Pastor Martin Niemoller and others, Bonhoeffer established the “Confessing Church” in Germany in separation from and opposition to the “German Christians”—the bulk of German Protestantism, that cravenly, shamelessly, and ardently played the whore to Hitler’s beast.

For Bonhoeffer, discipleship after Christ (the subject of one of Bonhoeffer’s famous books) demanded action against the wicked Hitler, who was destroying Germany, corrupting the church, and exterminating Jews. This action took form in 1944 in the attempt to assassinate Hitler by exploding a bomb near the German leader. By decree of Hitler himself, the German authorities executed Bonhoeffer by hanging in April, 1945.

Today, virtually all of Protestantism regards Bonhoeffer as a Christian martyr—one who died, honorably, for his confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Such is the regard for Bonhoeffer of this well-written, gripping biography: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The sub-title is A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich.


Bonhoeffer’s life is fascinating to the theologian. Bonhoeffer studied under renowned scholars: the notable liberal, Adolf von Harnack; the able historian of dogma, Reinhold Seeberg; the great Luther-scholar, Karl Holl; and the famous American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The theologian who had the most influence on Bonhoeffer’s own theological thinking was Karl Barth. The two were friends. Barth authored the Barmen Declaration, manifesto and official confession of the German Confessional Churches. The Declaration rejected “the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.” It rejected as well the notion that the church should become “an organ of the State.”

Although the book offers no critique of Bonhoeffer’s theology, it is apparent that the theology of that disciple of Karl Barth was a neo-orthodoxy that rejected the radical liberalism of von Harnack in Germany and of Emerson Fosdick in America; confessed the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; insisted on a life of costly discipleship after the risen Jesus, in contrast to “cheap grace”; and even preferred the preaching of the fundamentalists in America to that of the liberals, at the time of the fundamentalist/modernist struggle.

Of a sermon by the notorious liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick in the Riverside Church in New York, Bonhoeffer wrote:

Quite unbearable…. The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference. Do people not know that one can get on as well, even better, without “religion”?…. Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons are really more religious than we are, but they are certainly not more Christian, at least, if they still have sermons like that.

Later, that same Sunday, Bonhoeffer attended the services at which the fundamentalist McComb preached. To this sermon, Bonhoeffer responded positively. “Now the day has had a good ending…. The sermon was astonishing (Broadway Presbyterian Church, Dr. McComb) on ‘our likeness with Christ.’ A completely biblical sermon.”

During a stay in the United States in 1930, to study at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer passed this devastating judgment upon liberal theology and preaching: “In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

Typical of liberalism’s penchant for condoning evil by blaming others (especially the United States) was Fosdick’s defense of Hitler: “Fosdick was one of the most vocal proponents of appeasing Hitler. He championed moral equivalency, which argued that the phenomenon of Hitler and fascism came into being because of the faults of America and its policies.”

Bonhoeffer was a man of courage in a nation and in a church of cowards. Boldly, he rejected Hitler and National Socialism; boldly, he defended the Jews; boldly, he called the church to be the church; boldly, he urged his weak colleagues, not only in the false church of the “German Christians,” but also in the Confessing Church, to take a stand; boldly, he returned to Germany from a safe haven abroad to work for, and suffer with, the Confessing Church; boldly, he allied himself with the conspiracy to kill Hitler; and, bravely, he went to his death early one morning in April, 1945. As his executioners led him away to the gallows, he said to his fellow prisoners, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”

And then there is the haunting love of Bonhoeffer for the young woman to whom he was engaged, but whom he would never marry. His love-letters from prison are moving.

Opponent of National Socialism

Bonhoeffer’s strategic place at the center of spiritual, ecclesiastical, and physical opposition to Hitler makes this account of his life valuable, and gripping, also for its insights into Hitler, his henchmen, National Socialism, and the German nation that deified Hitler. One who has read much in the literature of Hitler, Nazi Germany, and World War II will learn more from this volume.

The chapter on Hitler’s coming to power and the rise of the terrifying reign of the Nazis—the chapter on the “Fuhrer-principle”—is as incisive as any account I have read.

So the German people clamored for order and leadership. But it was as though in the babble of their clamoring, they had summoned the devil himself, for there now rose up from the deep wound in the national psyche something strange and terrible and compelling. The Fuhrer was no mere man or mere politician. He was something terrifying and authoritarian, self-contained and self-justifying, his own father and his own god. He was a symbol who symbolized himself, who had traded his soul for the zeitgeist.

The author’s description of Hitler and his philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is worth quoting at length.

Hitler must be called a Nietzschean, although he likely would have bristled at the term since it implied that he believed in something beyond himself. This clashed with the idea of an invincible Fuhrer figure, above whom none could stand. Still, Hitler visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar many times, and there are photos of him posed, staring rapturously at a huge bust of the philosopher. He devoutly believed in what Nietzsche said about the “will to power.” Hitler worshiped power, while truth was a phantasm to be ignored; and his sworn enemy was not falsehood but weakness. For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy, a great sin. This was Christianity’s chief difficulty, that it advocated meekness. Nietzsche called Christianity “the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion…the one immortal blemish of mankind.”

Bonhoeffer resolutely opposed this demonic state. In a letter to an ecumenical churchman outside Germany, whom Bonhoeffer was urging publicly to speak out against Hitler and Nazi Germany for the sake of the true church in Germany, Bonhoeffer wrote, “It must be made quite clear—terrifying though it is—that we are immediately faced with the decision: National Socialist or Christian.”

Eric Metaxas is gifted with a scintillating style. The election of the crude, blustering, lecherous Johann Heinrich Ludwig as the Nazi bishop of the church of the “German Christians” was as if “Gomer Pyle had become the archbishop of Canterbury.” That exemplar of appeasement, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, finally declared war on Germany, when Hitler invaded Poland, because “someone lent Chamberlain a vertebra.” Of the death of Reinhold Heydrich, second only to Himmler in the Nazi hierarchy in cold-blooded killing, Metaxas writes: “Heydrich was dead…the albino stoat…the architect of the Final Solution fell into the hands of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Hitler’s clever propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, is described as “the vampiric homunculus.”


To the book’s thesis, however, the question must be put: Was Bonhoeffer’s physical resistance to the government of Nazi Germany excusable? Was the attempt to assassinate the Fuhrer justified? Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a martyr?

The question is not without practical significance. May Christians in similar circumstances today use force to overthrow a godless, persecuting state? May Christians, in the name of Christ, one day attempt the assassination of the Antichrist? Can resistance to civil government, and civil government that has come to power lawfully at that, ever be obedience to Christ—genuine discipleship—on the part of Christian citizens?

Scripture denies it. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Rom. 13:1, 2). The only account Metaxas takes of this plain prohibition of resistance to the state and, therefore, certainly of assassination of the head of state is a dismissal of the classic text. According to Metaxas, and, evidently, Bonhoeffer, one who applies Romans 13 in such a way as to condemn the resistance in which Bonhoeffer was engaged (the obvious meaning of the text!) is guilty of a “simplistic understanding of Romans 13.” Here, Bonhoeffer’s neo-orthodox denial of the inspiration of Scripture is evident.

Bonhoeffer himself indicated his awareness that the conspiracy to take the life of Hitler was sin. Early on, he asked leaders of the Confessing Church if they “would grant absolution to the murder of a tyrant.” Absolution is necessary only for sin. Discipleship after Christ neither needs nor requests absolution. Similarly, Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the Roman Catholic who placed the bomb at Hitler’s feet in the Wolf’s Lair on July 20, 1944, asked his priest, “Can the Church grant absolution to a murderer who has taken the life of a tyrant?”

The illegitimacy of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Hitler and Nazi Germany is apparent from the secretiveness and duplicity it required. Netaxas notes that Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in “the tangled huggermuggery of secret intelligence missions.” The way of Christ is not “huggermuggery.” The way of Christ is an open, bold confession, and an equally open, bold denunciation. It is the way, not of killing, but of being killed. This was Jesus’ own way before Pilate, Herod, and the godless, persecuting Roman world-power. There was no recourse to force and violence (John 18:33-37). I Peter 2:11-25 binds this way upon all Christians, always and everywhere.

It is not surprising that the resistance by Bonhoeffer and others failed miserably. When the bomb did not kill him, or even harm him seriously, Hitler hardened himself in his conviction that he was the man of Providence—the Messiah—for Germany. The result of the botched assassination was the execution of thousands, including men and women only remotely connected to the plot. Those who resist the powers receive to themselves divine judgment.

It was right that Hitler not perish by assassination. Hitler had to live to see his utter defeat and the complete failure of his thousand-year “Reich.” He must die by his own hand—no hero, treacherously “stabbed in the back” by assassins, but an abject coward, as all bullies are, afraid to face the consequences of his evil deeds.

In his execution by hanging, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a martyr. Rather, he suffered “as a murderer…an evildoer” (I Pet. 4:15).

That is a shame.