Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Righteous Gentile vs The Third Reich
 By Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson, Inc

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a theological Rorschach test. We read into him what we want to see. I’ve encountered preachers who saw him as a Martin Luther King Jr figure, a theologian who believed that Bonhoeffer was a so-called “pro-family conservative," a colleague who says that Bonhoeffer would be a crusader for gay rights if he were living today, and a writer who said that Bonhoeffer was simply a tweedy academic who was in over his political head.

If there is anything resembling a Lutheran saint, Bonhoeffer is it. And as a Lutheran myself, I know that Bonhoeffer’s shadow looms large over our collective identity. Most Lutherans see Bonhoeffer as a righteous martyr, bearing witness to God’s vision of justice during one of the most unjust regimes in history.

Noting that Eric Metaxas’ massive treatment of Bonhoeffer was published by Thomas Nelson, I worried that the author would turn the theologian into an American-style evangelical. My fears weren’t soothed when I read the preface by Timothy Keller:

In talking about Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between 'cheap grace' and 'costly grace' Keller writes:

“We still have a lot of legalism and moralism in our churches. In reaction to that, many Christians want to talk only about God’s love and acceptance. They don’t like talking about Jesus’ death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice. Some even call it 'divine child abuse.' Yet if they are not careful, they run the risk of falling into the belief in 'cheap grace' - a non-costly love from a non-holy God who just loves and accepts us as we are. That will never change anyone’s life.

“So it looks like we still need to listen to Bonhoeffer and others who go deep into discussing the nature of the gospel.”

Keller hasn’t done his homework. Bonhoeffer, as a Lutheran, wouldn’t have been terribly enthralled with the “divine satisfaction” and “penal substitution” atonement theories that Keller has combined and presented as normative for orthodox protestant theology. Bonhoeffer knew his historical theology too well to be swallowed up by simplistic theological explanations of Jesus’ saving work.

And Keller’s observation set the tone for this book. There was an attempt by Metaxas to turn Bonhoeffer into a theological conservative because of his rejection of Harnack and nineteenth century (and it’s 20th century incarnation at Union Seminary), and by his connection to Karl Barth.

But Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, which defies the categories of liberal and conservative. At least the way they’re presently understood.

Bonhoeffer reached back to the Reformation and its re-emphasis of scripture as the “norm for faith and life” to find God’s activity in the world. And not in a simple “the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it...” childish hermeneutic. But a nuanced exploration into the proclamation of salvation through Jesus, which he believed - as a Lutheran - was the purpose of scripture; what Luther called “The Living Word.”

What I liked most about this book was that Metaxas let Bonhoeffer speak for himself. The book is loaded with quotes from his books, letters, and sermons, and the author expertly navigates the reader through Bonhoeffer’s life using the theologian's words to put his experiences in context.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Righteous Gentile vs The Third Reich is a useful, if flaed and limited addition to Bonhoeffer studies. This book should be read along side other treatments to help get a fuller view of the man.

(NB: Book has been provided courtesy of the author and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller)

UPDATE: Sojourners has a much more thorough review of this book. (free registration required)

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