Bonhoeffer
Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 04/13/2010 by John Bird.

Recommended. One of the most thorough, inspiring, and balanced biographies of this towering 20th century Christian figure.

On the morning of April 9, 1945, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp. The camp doctor, H. Fischer-Hullstrung, later remembered: [Just before the execution] I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to God...so certain that God heard his prayer...I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Others testified that, up to his last day, the 39 year-old Bonhoeffer remained cheerful. He knew what he had to do, was reconciled to God's will, and was able to climb the steps to the gallows "brave and composed."

Who was this man who died so bravely—who Hitler himself, from his bunker beneath Berlin just three weeks before his suicide, ordered to be "destroyed?" He is the subject of best-selling author Eric Metaxas' new biography: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

Shortly after his conversion in 1988, Metaxas read Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship and learned the story of the young man who, "because of his Christian faith stood up to the Nazis and ultimately gave his life." From then on, he was determined to tell the story to others. And tell it he has, and well.

Metaxas takes readers, in 592 pages, through Bonhoeffer's entire life, from his parents' courtship to his memorial service. No corner of the subject's life is left unexplored. Through the author's use of Bonhoeffer's personal letters to family and friends, earlier biographies, interviews with those who knew Bonhoeffer, and other thorough research, readers get a comprehensive and balanced look into one of recent history's greatest theologians.

Appropriately, Metaxas emphasizes Bonhoeffer's theology and how it played out in his life. In contrast to "cheap grace," Bonhoeffer believed that true grace influences all aspects of a Christian's life. Christianity is more than formal religion, and it requires believers to be willing to sacrifice everything to God. Christianity is also more than legalistic morality. Ethics, according to Bonhoeffer, can't be reduced to a set of rules. These beliefs are what led this humble and devout follower of Christ to be involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

How Christianity and assassination plots can be reconciled is hard for many to fathom--especially those who have lived only in peace and safety. We must consider Bonhoeffer in the context of his life, his country, and the war that he had no choice but to be a part of. Ethics, once so clear, become unclear. Do we lie to the Nazis, or do we give them information that leads to the deaths of innocents? Do we obey our nation's laws, or do we defy them by leading Jews into safety? Do we fight in Hitler's army, or do we refuse, knowing that we will be beheaded and leave our family destitute? These are some of the questions Bonhoeffer faced.

But readers can sympathize with Bonhoeffer. Metaxas masterfully inserts us into the protagonist's world. We celebrate with him in his family's parlor. We study with him in his illegal seminary. We watch with him as his world unravels. And we see him agonize over decisions, decisions that are not so clear, and decisions that he often had to make without the support of others.

Metaxas' Bonhoeffer will regarded as one of the best books of the year. I've learned, as expected, much about the life of a great and inspiring Christian. But I’ve also learned about the world, sin and evil, what it really means to be a Christian, and what it really means to live. There are a few books that, years after I have read them, I realize have had a great influence on me. This is sure to be one of them. You can't go wrong with this book; I give it my highest recommendation.