The matter of the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is at once straightforward and immensely complicated. About the man there is no question. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s flaws — and Charles Marsh’s masterly and comprehensive new biography Strange Glory reveals that there were more than is commonly supposed — the witness of his breathtakingly courageous opposition to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich leaves criticism disarmed.1 In the one great challenge of his life, he was magnificent. He behaved the way that the rest of us, in our most hopeful moments, like to imagine we would.
But Bonhoeffer is known to history not simply as a victim of Nazi horror but as a theologian of note. His appeal is startlingly ecumenical: He finds adherents across the Christian spectrum from conservative evangelicals to Lutherans (of various stripes) to liberal Protestants to celebrants of the death of God. Bonhoeffer himself was sympathetic to Catholicism—Karl Barth worried about his “nostalgia for Rome”—and he even came to insist, in Marsh’s words, on “equivalence before God of the church and the synagogue, between the body of Christ and the chosen people of Israel.”
But from such extravagant pluralism, can there be any coherence? Marsh suggests possible answers, but does so in a restrained and non-dogmatic fashion that seems appropriate to the evidence. He makes no attempt to conceal the conflicting impulses in Bonhoeffer’s thought, and thus provides ample resources for readers to arrive at conclusions at odds with his own. Outstanding biographies—and this is one—commonly receive acclaim as “definitive,” but it is difficult to attach that label to analysis of a man whose thought resists precise and settled definition.
Some time ago, I read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. I enjoyed the book, and I think that it makes for a good introduction to Bonhoeffer. (For some less favorable reviews of Metaxas’s biography, see here and here. See also this post.) I remember being especially surprised and impressed by the international dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s education and pastoral work (Barcelona, London, New York); his experiences abroad almost certainly gave him a more cosmopolitan (or, less blinkered) outlook than many of his peers and colleagues in the German clergy of the time.
Marsh’s new biography of Bonhoeffer is here. I may have to check it out. On the other hand, I see Bonhoeffer’s own posthumously published Ethics sitting on my bookshelf, still unread, and perhaps I should tackle that first.