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Summary:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer died a martyr’s death at the age of 39 but remains one of the most influential and challenging theologians of our time. His writings teach us the value of cross-centered theology, and his courageous actions against the Nazi regime compel us to consider the cost of discipleship.

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 Eric Metaxas

by Eric Metaxas
July 25, 2010

Discussing his recent and critically acclaimed book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the famed Lutheran theologian who was killed in the 1940s for opposing Nazism – author Eric Metaxas spoke to CNA in an interview, calling the pastor a man of “staggering” relevance for our time.

The late German theologian is the subject of Metaxas’ recent work, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” which was published in April.

Speaking with CNA via e-mail, the author reflected on the relevance of Bonhoeffer’s life and writings in contemporary society. He noted Bonhoeffer’s “extremely pro-Catholic” stance and refuted common misconceptions by “liberal theologians” who have “hijacked” the pastor’s writings in support of atheism.

Addressing the significance of Bonhoeffer to the lives of modern Americans, Metaxas explained that there are “powerful parallels” between how “the American government is today trying to bully the church on certain issues of sexuality,” as well as “abortion and euthanasia and stem-cell research.”

In the same way, he noted, the “Third Reich was bullying the German church at that time.”

“Bonhoeffer’s relevance to us today is staggering, and I confess that when I began writing the book I had no idea I would stumble over so many powerful parallels to our own situation,” Metaxas told CNA. “For one thing, the story of Bonhoeffer is a primer on the burning issue of what the limits of the state are.”

At the time of Bonhoeffer’s Germany, the “state was trying to take over the German church and only a few brave souls like Bonhoeffer were up to the battle. We would do well to take our lead from him in our own battle on that front.”

Although Bonhoeffer was formed by Reformation Lutheranism, Metaxas said that the late pastor “was extremely pro-Catholic and much of his own theology was specifically formed by Catholicism.”

The theologian’s 1923 trip to Rome “was extremely important,” the author noted. “He eagerly attended Mass every day … and he bought a missal and was deeply taken with what he saw and experienced.”

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(Father) Karl Bonhoeffer was not often in the forefront of his children’s lives. His study and consulting room were out of bounds to them. Despite the many demands on him as a university teacher and consulting physician, however, he never missed the family meals. These were rather ceremonial occasions. The children’s table manners were strictly supervised, and they were expected to speak only when asked about the events of the day. It was generally their mother who decided which situations in their lives should be brought to their father’s notice. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 15.

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The Bonhoeffer children grew up in a spacious house next to the newly built Breslau mental hospital in Scheitnigir Park. The garden was big enough for them to dig caves and set up tents. Next to it was a tennis court where their father played in summer and taught them skating in winter. The house was big enough for a schoolroom with desk, a hobbies room, and another in which–to the servants’ alarm–all sorts of pets were kept, such as lizards, snakes, squirrels, and pigeons, as well as collections of beetles and butterflies. Opposite the house was a Catholic cemetery, and from the window the children could watch the funeral corteges with black-draped horses drawing the hearses.   

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 14.

Julie Tafel (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Grandmother)…had inherited the alert critical sensibilities of  her ancestors. She actively participated in discussions on women’s issues and devoted herself to practical and organizational matters, like establishing a home for older women or vocational centers for girls.   

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 12.

Friedrich Bonhoeffer’s wife Julie (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Grandmother) was the direct link between a long history and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life. Born on 21 August 1842, she could talk about the days of Eduard Mörike and Justinus Kerner. But it was just as characteristic of her that, at the age of ninety-one, she marched past the S.A. (Nazi Storm Troppers) cordons promoting the boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, to shop at the Jewish-owned “Kaufhaus des Westens” on Tauentzienstrasse in Berlin.  

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 10-11.

The Bonhoeffers had immigrated from Holland (van den Boenhoff from Nimwegen) in 1513 and settled as goldsmiths in Schwäbisch Hall. After the seventeenth century they became pastors, doctors, city council members and mayors. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 9.

April 10, 2017 by

Between my own blog, this one, and a couple others, I’ve written about 1,500 posts in the last six years. I try to do it well, with a less formal tone and much greater pace than typical academic writing but still reflecting a reasonably careful degree of prior research. But I’m afraid that my haste sometimes leads me to sloppiness — worse yet, sloppiness on topics where I’m writing outside of my fields of direct expertise and already at risk of stepping heedlessly into scholarly minefields.

As in the case of something I wrote over the weekend…

On Saturday I encouraged readers to seek out Come Before Winter, a new movie about the last days of the German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I mentioned that it featured clips of an interview with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a German scholar whose 2006 biography of Bonhoeffer was published in English in 2010. At least among American readers, I noted, that work “was overshadowed by those written by Charles Marsh and Eric Metaxas….”

But then I went on (unnecessarily, I fear) to point out that Schlingensiepen has criticized both Metaxas and Marsh “for wrenching the German martyr out of his historical and theological context.” I quoted the following passage from Schlingensiepen’s dual review of Marsh’s Strange Glory and Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer:

Metaxas, BonhoefferMarsh and Metaxas have dragged Bonhoeffer into cultural and political disputes that belong in a U.S. context. The issues did not present themselves in the same way in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s time, and the way they are debated in Germany today differs greatly from that in the States. Metaxas has focused on the fight between right and left in the United States and has made Bonhoeffer into a likeable arch-conservative without theological insights and convictions of his own; Marsh concentrates on the conflict between the Conservatives and the gay rights’ movement. Both approaches are equally misguided and are used to make Bonhoeffer interesting and relevant to American society. Bonhoeffer does not need this and it certainly distorts the facts.

In retrospect, I think I did wrong to include this quotation — or, at least, to include it without adding any kind of critical comment. Here’s why:

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The great-grandfather (Karl August von Hase) was a very successful theological teacher and writer; his books went through many edition. Hutterus Redivivus, a textbook on the history of dogma, was still a respected examination aid during Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time as a student. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 6.

The social life in the Bonhoeffer home left its mark in the lively style to which Clara von Hase (Dietrich’s grandmother on his mother’s side) accustomed Dietrich’s mother. The Thuringian branch of the family was amazed at the staff of servants that was necessary when Clara and her daughters came to visit. Her children learned to enhance parties with effortless performances.

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 4. 

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