Bonhoeffer On the Christian Life: A Review

I recently found out about (and read) Stephen Nichols’ book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theology called Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013).  At just over 200 pages, it is quite a bit shorter and more accessible than Metaxas’ similar book.  In fact, there is a lot of overlap between the two books, although Nichols focuses a bit more on theology than Bonhoeffer’s life.

The book is structured well.  There are five main parts: 1) Intro, 2) Foundations (Christ and community), 3) Disciplines (word, prayer, confession), 4) Life (worldliness, freedom, love), and 5) Literature (suggestions for further reading).  Nichols writes in a clear and readable way; the book wasn’t too difficult to read or understand.  There was some repetition in the book, but overall it was well written.

However, I hesitate to recommend this book.  Why?  Well, to put it simply, because Nichols intentionally reads and interprets Bonhoeffer as a conservative, orthodox evangelical with a high view of Scripture (see chapter 4).  In his reading, Nichols sees Bonhoeffer as a conservative who believed in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and who held to an orthodox Christology.  Nichols also worked hard to distance Bonhoeffer from Barth (see footnote 15 in chapter 4).  These issues have been debated for quite a few years; many good scholars have showed that Bonhoeffer was not a conservative evangelical in today’s sense of the term.  In my own reading, I have found places where Bonhoeffer questioned the historicity of Genesis 1-3, where he seemed to have a higher-critical view of the OT, and where he echoed Barth in Christology.  I believe Nichols did not accurately summarize Bonhoeffer’s theology.

In fact, when I was about halfway through this book I could easily guess where it was going: in the direction of evangelical theology (evangelical views on preaching, prayer, devotions, church, love, etc.).  By the end of the book I didn’t feel like I was learning Bonhoeffer’s views, but reviewing evangelical theology.  I was hoping that there would be some constructive criticism of Bonhoeffer’s views, that there would be explanations of how Bonhoeffer developed and/or changed in his theological views, and how we should view Bonhoeffer’s language and theological constructions (in a Barthian way?  In a Lutheran way? etc.).  There was no significant critique of Bonhoeffer in this book.

In summary, I was disappointed with Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life because it paints too evangelical a picture of Bonhoeffer.  I love reading Bonhoeffer, I’ve learned much from him, I’ll keep reading him, but I also see several serious problems with his views and writings.  Nichols’ account flattened Bonhoeffer’s views and took the excitement and “strangeness” out of them.  I like to run across a passage in Bonhoeffer that makes me upset, challenges me, and forces me to read it again (and put an exclamation point or question mark by it!).

If you want a book that wrestles with Bonhoeffer’s theology in a critically constructive and accurate way, you’ll want to pass on this one.

shane lems
hammond, wi

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

Athanasius: Christian Biographies for Young Readers

Athanasius The latest biography in the Reformation Heritage Book series “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” has recently been released.  This one, written by Simonetta Carr, is on Athanasius (d. 373), a bishop in Alexandria who was a leading contender against the Arian heresy.  The book is just over 60 pages long, and, as noted, written in a way that children can understand.  It may vary a bit, but I’d say this would work well for kids ages 10 to 13 (though adults will also learn much from it!).

I’ve really appreciated these books so far.  Our church library already has the similar works on Augustine and Calvin, and I’m happy to add this one on Athanasius.  Carr did her homework; the information is accurate and summarized in such a way that the main aspects of Athanasius’ life and ministry are clearly set forth.  I also appreciate how it is straightforward – there are no tangents, side tracks, or forced application for today.  Here’s a paragraph that will give you a little idea of its contents.

“When Constantine died in 337, the empire was divided between his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans.  Constantine II, who was in charge of the area including Trier, liked Athanasius and convinced his brothers to allow him and all the other exiled bishops to return to their churches” (p. 28).

This book also contains wonderful artwork, maps, a time line of Athanasius’ life, the Nicene Creed, and some “did you know” type questions.  Though the larger size makes it somewhat difficult to store on a normal bookshelf, the hardcover is well-bound and the pages are thick and solid, so it should last a long time.  I highly recommend this book on Athanasius, as well as the others in this series. I believe one important way to stay firm in the Christian faith is to learn our historical roots, and these books will help toward that end.

(My thanks go to the publishers for a review copy.)

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Two Good Reads

A few weeks back I finished this historical biography on Anne Bradstreet (1612-1642) by Faith Cook: Anne Bradstreet Pilgrim and Poet (Carlisle: EP Books, 2010).  This is a great introduction to an amazing Puritan woman’s life, times, and writings.  Anne came to America with some of the first Puritan refugees in the 1630s and faced the tough shores of the American East coast.  Her life was filled with death – many of her children, siblings, and friends died at young ages.  Her poems often reflected this unavoidable reality along with the truth of life after death:

All men must die and so must I
This cannot be revoked
For Adam’s sake this word God spake
When he so high provoked
Yet live I shall, this life’s but small
In place of highest bliss
Where I shall have all I can crave
No life is like to this.

I enjoyed this book; I’ve not read many books about this time period in America’s Puritan history, so it was fascinating.  I recommend it for anyone who enjoys historical biography along with excellent poems of Christian piety.  Faith Cook is a superb author and biographer.  This book will not disappoint.  It would be a good one for a women’s book club at your church.

Another EP book I want to recommend is Every Word Counts by Tom Barnes (Carlisle: EP Books, 2010).  This new book was written in response to the ongoing discussions and debates about the nature of Scripture, including inerrancy, authority, and infallibility.  He starts by very briefly mentioning the Beale/Enns debate, along with other authors like A. T. B. McGowan, John Webster, and Timothy Ward, just to name a few.

This book is helpful because Barnes simply goes through scripture highlighting what it says about itself.  When we talk about if, how, and why scripture is inerrant/infallible, we have to do so in scripture’s own terms.  Of course, this is a key truth to the whole debate.  Barnes talks about Jesus’ use of the OT, the “true” aspect of scripture, inspiration, how scripture is a treasure, and how the church should respond to scripture.  It was pretty straight forward and clear.  In fact, I think it is much more helpful than Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008) because it is easier to read, more level-headed, less polemic, and didn’t overstate premises as much as Erosion.

In summary, Every Word Counts is a great book to read and study if you want a good scriptural summary on the Bible.  I’ll hand this one out to Christians who do have questions about scripture – it will answer quite a few of those questions and give the reader an appreciation for and love of the Bible along the way.

Note: Thanks to EP books for sending me these review copies.

shane lems

sunnyside wa