Note: I wrote this review nine years ago. Since that time, for a number of reasons, I have changed much of my opinion of Metaxas’ book. I’ve decided to leave this review up but link to my recent (2020) review of Stephen R. Haynes’ The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump that, I think, will explain some of my own shifting views on Metaxas’ book and Metaxas himself. It probably won’t explain it to anybody’s real liking, but I think the general idea comes through. Anyway, here’s my earlier review, unedited, but please follow the link for a more updated opinion. There is much I’d change about this review with almost a decade of reflection between then and now.
Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has already achieved the status of a modern biography classic. Having just finished it (technically, having just finished listening to my Kindle read it to me over a few very long drives), I would say that this status is justly deserved. Metaxas has produced a work that is illuminating, inspiring and informative. A towering figure like Bonhoeffer is deserving of a worthy chronicler, and Metaxas does not disappoint.
Metaxas handles the nuances and complexities of the early-twentieth century theological landscape with erudition and finesse. Without lapsing into Evangelical hagiography, he depicts Bonhoeffer as a sincere believer in the Lord Jesus who had a high regard for scripture truth, for the Christian life, and for Christlikeness. His handling of Bonhoeffer’s activities in the resistance, as well as his demonstration of how Bonhoeffer’s mind and convictions developed, leading him into the resistance, was most interesting and helpful.
Bonhoeffer was a complex figure who has been claimed by various camps over the years. He does not fit neatly into any camp, however. This means that various Christian subcultures will have no problem finding things about Bonhoeffer that trouble them as well as things that delight them. This being said, Metaxas has, in my opinion, driven a stake through the heart of the supposed “liberal Bonhoeffer” by showing him to be a man with a healthy distrust of the siren songs of theological modernity and its erstwhile discontents. He demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s tenacious hold on the gospel of Christ, his desire for biblical preaching (his frustration at the liberal preaching he encountered in New York and his preference for conservative, Bible-based preaching is most telling), his rejection of empty, cultural, nominal Christianity, and his desire not to remove the scandal of the cross.
Metaxas nimbly, judiciously, and impressively reveals the heart and mind of his subject in ways that will deeply affect the reader. About the highest compliment one can pay a biography is to say, upon finishing it, “I feel that I know the man.” I daresay you will most likely say this after finishing this wonderful work.
I was deeply moved by Metaxas’ handling of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria, his fiance. His treatment of Bonhoeffer’s developing thought leading up to his participation in the resistance was extremely helpful and insightful. In particular, I was struck by the sheer doggedness of Bonhoeffer’s moral vision as he looked in horror at who Hitler was and what He was about.
It is a fascinating tale of the collision between Christian conviction and evil. Like many people, I was generally familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story as I approached this biography. I have been caught up (again, like so many others) in an interest in and admiration of Bonhoeffer ever since I read The Cost of Discipleship in college, an experience that ranks right up there (almost) with my first reading of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Even so, this biography deepened both my understanding of Bonhoeffer and my appreciation for him.
One or two sections of Metaxas’ book may be a bit much for some in terms of the difficulty of the subject matter. I’m speaking mainly of his discussion of the theological controversies and the overall theological milieu surrounding Bonhoeffer in his school days. But I would think that most people would find even these sections very interesting.
This truly is a worthwhile, significant book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.