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The most popular of several biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that by Eric Metaxas, who proves himself to be a good storyteller. . .but an inept theologian. The book is a pleasant read but shows that Metaxas has grasped the thinking neither of Bonhoeffer nor of the liberal theology against which the author portrays Bonhoeffer. He is apparently unaware, for example, that the “Death of God” theology never represented mainstream liberalism and, at any rate, has itself been dead for nearly half a century.

At several points in the first half of the book, Metaxas rightly observes that in Bonhoeffer’s early writings we find the seeds of all the most radical thinking which came later. When he actually gets to the later thought, however, he calls it inchoate (which means undeveloped, premature) and says Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to find anyone taking his ideas seriously today. Pages 465 and 466 show Metaxas at his most blundering foolishness and make one wonder whether a heavy-handed editor has interfered.

There are four major books by Bonhoeffer: Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics, Letters and Papers from Prison. Evangelicals have long appreciated the first two because they tend to reinforce what we already believe. We’ve not liked the second two because they push us out of our comfort zone. Unfortunately, Metaxas simply follows this Evangelical mindset and doesn’t even grapple with Bonhoeffer’s mature thinking.

Mark Noll (in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) observed that, “The trouble with the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Metaxas proves Noll right.

There are also some less serious misunderstanding in the book, such as the idea that Hitler was elected to be Chancellor when in fact he was appointed by President Hindenburg.  Metaxas’ title suggests he hasn’t even understood Bonhoeffer’s own history: Contrary to the title, Bonhoeffer was never a spy. These are less serious than Metaxas’ theological errors but are misleading nonetheless.

One of Metaxas’ more serious failings is his failure to take advantage of the superb set of Bonhoeffer’s entire writing, the Fortress series called Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, with its excellent and very educational Forewords (by English scholars) and Afterwords (by German scholars). Because these books are so good, even one as theologically unlettered as Metaxas has no excuse for not finding Bonhoeffer accessible.

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