Bonhoeffer and Biography

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised A short while ago, here on this blog, I posted a few fairly critical comments of Eric Metaxas’ bibliography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HERE and HERE).  My main criticism of Metaxas’ work is that it casts Bonhoeffer in an American, conservative, patriotic, evangelical mold.  A secondary critique I have is that Metaxas isn’t exactly accurate in the realm of history.  For example, Bonhoeffer wasn’t really a martyr for the Christian faith (though he was a brave, principled Christian who sought to live out his convictions consistently).  For another example, Metaxas used modern American evangelical language to explain Bonhoeffer’s ministry and theology, which leads to several anachronisms.  Anyway, if you haven’t read my earlier posts, click those links above for more info.

The point of this post is to recommend Eberhard Bethge’s bibliography (pictured above).  Eberhard Bethge (d. 2000) was a close friend and former student of Bonhoeffer.  In fact, if you’ve read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison you can read fascinating letters the two wrote to one another while Bonhoeffer was in German prisons.  Bethge edited and published Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, Letters and Papers from Prison, six volumes of Bonhoeffer’s Collected Works, and worked to ensure publication of many other things Bonhoeffer wrote.  Eberhard Bethge is certainly a man who was more than qualified to write the definitive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The book, like most biographies, simply traces Bonhoeffer’s life chronologically (starting in Berslau, 1906).  Bethge discussed in detail Bonhoeffer’s roots, including his German ancestors and bloodline.  He traced through the student years of Bonhoeffer, from 1923 to 1927.  I especially appreciated how Bethge described Bonhoeffer’s years in the pastorate as well as his many travels (in and out of Germany).  The book is very detailed, but the English translation (by Eric Mosbacker, re-edited by Victoria Barnett) is not too difficult to read. The details about Bonhoeffer’s final weeks, moving from one prison to the next, is especially fascinating and written without embellishment.

Here are a few reasons why I liked Bethge’s book much better than Metaxas’: 1) Bethge didn’t spend time weaving a love story through the last part of Bonhoeffer’s life.  Metaxas’ emphasis on Maria in the story seemed to be played up a bit too much.  Granted, Maria was part of Bonhoeffer’s life, but only for a very short time.  2) Bethge didn’t try to make Bonhoeffer a saint.  He was willing to point out flaws and errors of Bonhoeffer and explain how quite a few others worked just as hard in the resistance as Bonhoeffer, whereas Metaxas made Bonhoeffer into an Athanasius (contra mundum) type of figure.  3) Bethge spelled out the nuances between the state and free (confessing) church (for example the Synods of Barmen and Dahlem) while Metaxas seemed to make things too black and white.  4) Bethge’s descriptions of Bonhoeffer’s theology were much more accurate than Metaxas’.  Bethge helpfully explained how, why, and when Barth’s theology influenced Bonhoeffer and which parts Bonhoeffer rejected (and on what grounds he rejected them).  5) Bethge’s explanation of Bonhoeffer’s major turning points were much more descriptive than Metaxas’.  Metaxas made these turning points sound like the course every good patriotic Christian would take, while Bethge explained how Bonhoeffer and others felt about these turning points (not everyone agreed that Bonhoeffer did the most “Christian” thing – and Bonhoeffer even questioned himself at times).

Anyway, I could go on.  The main point is that Bethge’s account is much more nuanced and accurate.  My recommendation is this: if you’ve read Metaxas’ book, view it like a good and fairly accurate Hollywood movie about a historical event (which, for the sake of argument, we’ll assume actually exists).  In other words, Metaxas’ book has a lot of merits, and is pretty accurate, but written from a the standpoint of an American evangelical patriot and contains some historical flaws.  I wouldn’t recommend using Metaxas’ book for any scholarly work on Bonhoeffer.  You’ll need Bethge for that.  If you’re interested in a more accurate picture of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, get Bethge.

Finally, if you haven’t read Metaxas’ book, bypass it and purchase Bethge’s instead.  Granted, it costs a few dollars more and is about 200 pages longer (at a whopping 900+ pages!), but for the sake of intelligent, fair, and accurate history and theology, go with the German expert rather than the American evangelical patriot.

By the way, if you’ve read both of these books, I’d love your comments here.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

7 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer and Biography”

  1. I heard Metaxas’s recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast and was impressed with his unapologetic Christian message. Nevertheless, I’m willing to believe his historical depiction of Bonhoeffer may not be completely accurate. If time permitted, I’d be very interested to read both biographies!

    Michael Kearney
    West Sayville URC
    Long Island, New York


  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve never been a big fan of biographies (Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography being a notable exception), but I’m looking to expand my reading a bit.


  3. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Bethge book, but I’m tracking with what you are saying–it is the best book on Bonhoeffer. The Lutheran church put out a movie several years ago on him which wasn’t bad, considering. I read the Metaxas book–yes, he painted him as an evangelical; it was misleading, I thought. Authors who profess Christ need to do better than this.


  4. I have read both books and agree that Metaxas is somewhat less informed and precise in his history–he speaks as though the USA declared war on Germany, calls Niemoeller’s parish Dahlem a working class neighborhood (it was professional and upper middle class) and gets the occasional Latin term wrong. I even agree that it is a book begging to be filmed, written perhaps with that in mind. I further agree that he uses our American evangelical terminology when those Germans would have put things somewhat differently.
    Yet, I found it a fine book. For one thing, it moves along in a lively manner. Bethge was a painstaking scholar, friend of Bonhoeffer, eyewitness, all things which qualify him as the indispensable biographer he was. Yet I find him a tedious stylist. I have his book Widerstand und Ergebung, essays on the German resistance, and there too I find him tedious. In that way he is like the magisterial English historian Ian Kershaw–vastly informed and judicious in judgment, but dry. (I have the same complaint about Alistair McGrath–almost everything I have read by him I agree with, but it could certainly be put in a more lively fashion).
    But to my mind Metaxas’s strongest contribution is to show what it cost those Germans to oppose Hitler. Their hesitation, struggles of conscience, slow pace of recognizing the evil in Germany–all this was obvious to Bethge’s original German readers, but finds almost total incomprehension among us Americans. Our distance and victory, the unquestionable color of massive atrocity, our tradition of separation of church and state and glorification of the underdog–all this makes us deaf to the voices that would have deeply moved the Germans; the fear of Russian Communism, which they knew to be a deadly enemy of the church; the exhaustion of living under a weak government in the Weimar Republic, the shock of losing the First World War when they thought they were in good shape, the violence and anarchy of the late 20’s and early 30’s, the longing for the great days of Wilhelmian Germany, the association of Protestant culture with German greatness. On top of that, Hitler promises to maintain the churches’ rights and build Germany on the basis of “positive Christianity”. These people were truly in a bind that we have a hard time sympathizing with. This comes across more strongly in Metaxas than Bethge, if I remember Bethge rightly, for of course Bethge was preaching to the choir.
    Monty Ledford


    1. Monty – thanks much for your thoughtful commentary! I read it with interest. I suppose the reason I’m so critical of Metaxas’ biography is because it will simply give people a somewhat distorted view of Bonhoeffer (assuming that’s all they read about Bonhoeffer).

      I think your movie reference was right on. Metaxas reads like a Hollywood movie script, taking some liberties to make the story more engaging, exciting, and interesting to people (specifically evangelicals). As I said earlier, it is sort of like the old movie “Pearl Harbor” – based on a true story, but not exactly accurate (and almost ruined by a dumb love story!).

      Anyway, we’re glad to have guys like you comment, so thanks again!



  5. This is not about Bonhoeffer, but it is a striking account that I read today and I wanted to share it.I am reading a biography of Adolf von Harnack. He had been a much-appreciated professor at the seminary of the Hessian Lutheran church in Giessen and had published many technical titles, but his 1885 History of Dogma (still in print, I believe) rocketed his reputation to great heights. His strictly immanent and historical view of dogma took a very different tack from that of his father, an orthodox Lutheran theology professor. Here is the account of the most moving of the reactions to his book.
    “In the chorus of voices resounding over Harnack, either with admiration and gratitude or criticism and rejection, there was one missing, and that the most honored and dearest–his father’s. Theodosius Harnack for some time did not write one word; he had requested his theological colleagues in Dorpat not to request any reaction from him to his son’s book; when he did finally write he formulated his opposition with unconditional sharpness: “Our differences are not about theology, but deeply and directly about Christ, so that if I should ignore them, I would be denying Christ, and that is something that no man, no matter how near and dear–even as you, my son–can demand or expect from me. Whoever–naming only the all-decisive point–takes a position like yours on the fact of the resurrection…is in my eyes no longer a Christian theologian. I am totally at a loss to understand how one can call upon history and at the same time practice such a mess-up of history, or I understand it only as a degradation of Christianity. So, it is Either, Or…to me, Christianity stands and falls with the fact of the resurrection; with it also stands the Trinity on solid ground.” The emotions in Theodosius’s soul were revealed in a letter from Harnack’s mother, who stood in the midst between father and son with her warm, sympathetic heart: “Papa’s silence must never at all be understood to imply any lack of love or even estrangement. But you have caused him deep pain. For your views, being what they now appear to be, have struck at his very heart. You know well enough both the state of the matter and your father himself. I am not able to judge how far you felt compelled to write in this manner, on every hand I must reserve opinion–my heart has enough with the pain that see in you all and in us. I well know the boundless measure of your love for your father and your behavior toward him, dear Adolf! You are the most tender and faithful son, and papa the sort of father that one does not see every day–and now from both sides such sorrow of heart!” This sorrow of heart had to be borne, and it left its mark on the man that bore it. Adolf Harnack in later years never once uttered a word about this conflict with his father; indeed, any expression alluding to this experience at all came extremely seldom and always with utmost restraint regarding his own development. The bubbling readiness of his [earlier] Leipzig letters to inform others of his innermost thoughts and judgments disappears almost entirely in the 80’s; any light into his inner self was granted only to the closest family circle, to his wife, and, only now and then, in a brief glimpse, to his children; for the wider circle he was the immutably assured, calm and consistent One, who never brought his personal problems to his friends, but rather allowed them to brings theirs to him, to help them through them.
    Agnes von Zahn in Adolf Harnack, pages 144f


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