Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life of Obedience

I just finished the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. The subtitle is Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, and Mextaxas does a nice job developing each of these four dimensions of who Bonhoeffer was in facing the rise and reign of Hitler during WWII. What reviewers are saying is that Metaxas presents another side to Bonhoeffer – the more conservative side – that has sometimes been lost to liberal theologians who have tried to claim him as their own.

Here are a couple of quotes:

God was interested not in success, but in obedience. If one obeyed God and was willing to suffer defeat and whatever else came one’s way, God would show a kind of success that the world couldn’t imagine. But this was the narrow path, and few would take it. (p. 363)

So God is not merely a religious concept or religious reality. God is the one who invented reality, and reality can only be seen truly as it exists in God. Nothing that exists is outside his realm. (p. 469)

The utter evilness of evil now showed itself clearly, and it showed up the bankruptcy of man’s so-called ethical attempts to deal with it. The problem of evil is too much for us. We are tainted by it and cannot escape being tainted by it. (p. 471)

The solution is to do the will of God, to do it radically and courageously and joyfully. (p. 471)

Aside from the liberal/conservative theological debate, I hadn’t fully appreciated the challenge Bonhoeffer and others faced in dealing with the state church in Germany and then especially the Confessing Church in terms of not acting quickly or decisively with Hitler. On dealing with the Confessing Church, Metaxas writes:

[the Confessing Church] was guilty of the typically Lutheran error of confining itself to the narrow sphere of how church and state were related. When the state is trying to encroach upon the church, this is the proper sphere of concern. But for Bonhoeffer, the idea of limiting the church’s actions to this sphere alone was absurd. The church had been instituted by God to exist for the whole world. It was to speak into the world and to be a voice in the world, so it had an obligation to speak out against things that did not affect it directly. (p. 280)

The book is well-written and comprehensive in its scope. It presents another side of Bonhoeffer and provides a context for many of the decisions he faced. It provides a lesson not only in obedience to God but also in the prophetic role of the church as a community of faith.

2 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life of Obedience

  1. I’m just finished “Life Together” and “The Cost of Discipleship”. I wouldn’t say Bonhoffer is “fun” to read but his desperate and forceful prose raises and answers hard questions about a faith walk in the face of persecution unto death. It’s somewhat disturbing and liberating at the same time.

    • It was interesting to read his biography to get a sense for the context in which he wrote those classic books. You might find that particularly interesting now that you just finished them.

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