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Counterfeit Bonhoeffer

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I enjoyed reading Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Actually, it’s one of my all-time favorite biographies; it’s readable, engaging and it deals with a fascinating part of history. But lately I’ve come across a few articles by experts in Bonhoeffer who say that it’s just plain wrong—it’s a portrayal of the man that is geared toward evangelicals and, in seeking to make the reader happy, it succumbs to all sorts of errors.

Richard Weikart of California State University says that Metaxas “serves up a Bonhoeffer suited to the evangelical taste” and notes with disbelief that in “an interview with Christianity Today Metaxas even made the astonishing statement that Bonhoeffer was as orthodox theologically as the apostle Paul.”

As orthodox as Paul? Metaxas does not seem to know that in his Christology lectures in 1933 Bonhoeffer claimed, “The biblical witness is uncertain with regard to the virgin birth.” Bonhoeffer also rejected the notion of the verbal inspiration of scripture, and in a footnote to Cost of Discipleship he warned against viewing statements about Christ’s resurrection as ontological statements (i.e., statements about something that happened in real space and time). Bonhoeffer also rejected the entire enterprise of apologetics, which he thought was misguided.

Weikart suggests that Metaxas simply got in over his head—that he did not take the time to properly understand Bonhoeffer’s theological context of German liberalism. “I trust that Metaxas is my brother in Christ, but unfortunately he simply does not have sufficient grounding in history, theology, and philosophy to properly interpret Bonhoeffer. This is not just my opinion. Victoria Barnett, the editor of the English-language edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, wrote a scathing review of Metaxas’s biography. In her opinion, Metaxas ‘has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period.’ She then calls Metaxas’s portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s theology “a terrible simplification and at times misrepresentation.”

Weikart goes on to offer a partial list of errors, saying that it “is hard to give much credence to someone writing about German history who thinks that Bonn is in Switzerland or that Hitler was democratically elected into office or that Germany was not yet a police state in August 1934.” Here is how he concludes:

Metaxas, then, has presented us with a sanitized Bonhoeffer fit for evangelical audiences. Evangelicals can continue to believe comfortingly that Bonhoeffer is one of them, and that his heroic stance against Hitler was the product of evangelical-style theology. This view is naïve, but many wish it to be so. They might prefer Metaxas’s counterfeit Bonhoeffer to the real, much more complex, German theologian who continued to believe in the validity of higher biblical criticism, who praised Rudolf Bultmann when he called for demythologizing the New Testament, and who in his prison writings called for us to live “as if there were no God.” In 1944, toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer admitted that he was a theologian who “still carries within himself the heritage of liberal theology.”

Clifford Green is another Bonhoeffer scholar, and one who has edited several volumes of Bonhoeffer’s Works. He says that Metaxas resorted to outright denial of some of the things we know to be true about Bonhoeffer and his theology and then offers this critique:

Metaxas writes as an omniscient narrator, a mind reader who knows Bonhoeffer’s every thought and feeling. (Is this just a literary device, or does it reveal how much the author pro­jects his own views into the mind and actions of his subject?) For example, at the height of the church struggle, Bonhoeffer caused an uproar when he wrote: “Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church separates himself from salvation.” Metaxas assures us that Bonhoeffer did not think this was explosive and “never imagined that it would become a focal point of the lecture.”

The purpose of his article is to say that Metaxas essentially hijacked Bonhoeffer, tearing him out of his own time and context and rewriting him in such a way that he would appeal to contemporary evangelicals.

I did not want to believe what those authors (and authors) are saying about Metaxas and his biography. But I am inclined to believe them as they bring the weight of scholarship and experience. They may well be right in suggesting that Metaxas got in over his head; and they may be right in suggesting that the true Bonhoeffer was simply too unorthodox to appeal to the likes of me—the kind of person who read, enjoyed and enthusiastically recommended the book.

Having said that, I think that some caution is in order. Scholarship can bring dimness just as it can bring clarity. I suspect we will need to wait to see how Metaxas and other scholars react to this early criticism. It would be as big a mistake to immediately believe men like Weikart and Green (because they claim to know Bonhoeffer better) as it would be to believe Metaxas (simply because he wrote a popular book). I believe that time will bring a lot of clarity—the kind that comes when people debate issues like this one.

And yet I find it quite easy to believe that an author, either deliberately or inadvertently, could create a character who was appealing, even if less than accurate. I don’t think we would need to look too far into the biography section of a bookstore to find just that kind of character. Sometimes the truth just doesn’t sell as well as a half-truth. And I’m afraid that we evangelicals may just prefer a safe and friendly character over an accurate one.