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Metaxas's Bonhoeffer: What I Learned

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Clifford Green writes in The Christian Century (yes, I know this is a magazine of a Mainline Protestant perspective), “Readers coming to Bonhoeffer for the first time will likely be carried along by Metaxas’s engaging narrative and admiration for his subject.” That aptly describes me. I haven’t read any of his works, and frankly know very little about him. Green goes on to cite what he considers to be significant flaws with the historical content of the biography.

One might dismiss Green as simply a biased voice, a scholar who has a take on Bonhoeffer that conflicts with Metaxas’s interpretation. The problem is that other Bonhoeffer scholars take issue with Metaxas’s handling of the historical details as well. In some cases they question his grasp of historical facts. In others they take issue with his command of the theological, political, and social issues that shaped his story. You can find a critical review here (a very different point of view than Green, but similar concerns), along with a short list of some others.

The crux  as far a recommending this biography, then, has to do with the question of whether Metaxas presents reliable history when it comes to Bonhoeffer. To be sure, this is one of the challenges that attends to history for any writer. No one can escape bias in that regard. However, it is possible to allow one’s personal bias to misconstrue the evidence that is there.

I have no ill will toward Metaxas. Nor am I vested in the fight over Bonhoeffer’s legacy. However, even my own (admittedly limited) understanding of Barthian theology makes it challenging for me to see Bonhoeffer in the light Metaxas seems to want to present him. For that reason, the criticisms calling into question his portrayal at least seem plausible. There is still much to commend this book. But it probably shouldn’t be viewed as the definitive word on Bonhoeffer.

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