“Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What more remains to be said about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? More to the point, what can I contribute to what so many others have already said about him and this amazing book? Here are a few brief comments:
1. This is among the quite rare definitive biographies I have read (608 pages in length) to which there seems to be little (if anything) to add but, at the same time, from which there is little (if anything) to delete. The same can be said of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson and few others.
2. With all due respect to his martyrdom, Bonhoeffer was not a saint. Rather, as he would repeatedly insist, he was an imperfect human being who – during the last years of his life – struggled to be worthy of his faith that he viewed as a gift of holy grace,
3. He had no wish to die but, as H. Fischer-Hullstrung (Flossenburg concentration camp’s doctor) later remembered, he seems to have embraced what he viewed – with serene gratitude – an opportunity to die for a faith for which he so fully lived.
4. Eric Metaxas’ juxtaposition of Bonheoffer with Adolf Hitler invests this biography with tension and focus in ways and to an extent I have seldom encountered in a work of non-fiction. I am immediately reminded of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
5. As Bonhoeffer is portrayed in this book, he is the polar opposite of those for whom Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell: people who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. He was compelled to “let his light so shine before men….” Of course, Hitler wanted him “destroyed.”
I have accumulated a number of quotations and now share a few:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”
“To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”
“God’s truth judges created things out of love, and Satan’s truth judges them out of envy and hatred.”
“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”
“A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
“When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.”
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
“Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; he waited until one of them turned to him.”
In the Prologue, Eric Metaxas observes, “The man who died was engaged to be married. He was a pastor and theologian. And he was executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. This is his story.” I congratulate Metaxas for creating what is certain to remain the definitive account of that “story.”
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.