Bonhoeffer, Bethge and Metaxas

With the publication of Eric Metaxas’s acclaimed (and criticised) biography in 2010 I decided it was time to revisit Bonhoeffer. I had read most of Bonhoeffer’s best-known books as a student, but my limited theological vocabulary at the time made it a mostly fruitless exercise. To rectify this, over the past couple of years I have read Metaxas’s biography, followed by Ian Kershaw’s outstanding two-volume biography of Hitler to provide some additional historical background. I rounded it all off by reading Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography, which (to borrow J.I.Packer’s quip about John Owen) was exhaustive and exhausting.

Rather than review these entire books, I would like to compare Metaxas’s and Bethge’s treatment of the theological themes in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters. The most significant letters were sent by Bonhoeffer to Bethge, his friend and colleague, in April 1944 onwards.

Metaxas’s assessment of the content of these theological letters is mixed. He labels Bonhoeffer’s thoughts “ruminations”, “inchoate”, “dubious”, “ill-expressed”, “scattered bricks” and “bone fragments” – but, also calls them “Bonhoeffer’s deepest thoughts”. Bonhoeffer’s own assessment of the theological letters was guarded, but positive. Bonhoeffer asked Bethge to keep the letters in case he wanted to read them at a later date, claiming he can “write some things in a more natural and lively way in a letter than in a book and in letters I often have better ideas than when I’m writing for myself.”

It is true that Bonhoeffer was reluctant to share his thoughts with a wider audience at that time. This is obviously not because he doubted them, but because they were not fully formed. Bethge tells us that Bonhoeffer would usually publish writings as soon as they were ready to provoke a response and were underpinned by argument. But, he did not need to have all objections answered at the time of publication. It seems likely, then, that Bonhoeffer had a firm grasp of this “new theology” (since he worked feverishly on a manuscript while in prison) but had not yet fleshed out the supporting arguments necessary to withstand scrutiny by a theologically astute reader.

In his biography, Metaxas focuses entirely on the infamous term “religionless Christianity” and quotes Bethge from a lecture in 1967:

…the isolated use and handing down of the famous term “religionless Christianity” has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God. (Quoted in Metaxas, p. 465)

Metaxas could never be accused of championing an undialectical shallow modernism. Nevertheless, he is guilty of an isolated assessment of a term that Bonhoeffer uses only once in his letters. Unfortunately, this does mean, to a certain extent, he obscures Bonhoeffer’s new thinking about God, Jesus, the church and the world. Furthermore, if Bonhoeffer’s thoughts were no more than ruminations, it seems a bit presumptuous for Metaxas to suggest a resolution to the controversy in little over 2 pages, using just two short passages from Bonhoeffer’s letters in support. If Metaxas’s summary of the meaning of “religionless Christianity” is accurate, it is hard to understand how Bonhoeffer failed to communicate his own thoughts as clearly and simply as Metaxas does.

In contrast, Bethge, perceiving the complex theological landscape in which this term is found, requires 37 pages of detailed discussion to help explain Bonhoeffer’s “New Theology”. Although Metaxas doesn’t say so, one wonders if he thinks Bethge is one of those “overeager theologians [who] have built diminutive Ziggurats from these few scattered bricks” (p. 466).

Metaxas believes Bonhoeffer was “rethinking some basic things and wondered whether modern man had moved beyond religion” (p. 466). “Religion” was not authentic Christianity, but an “ersatz and abbreviated” Christianity. Metaxas comments:

This ‘religious’ Christianity had failed Germany and the West during this great time of crisis, for one thing, and he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time for the lordship  of Jesus Christ to move past Sunday mornings and churches and into the whole world. But this was an extension of his previous theology, which was dedicatedly Bible centered and Christ centered.  … God was bigger than everyone imagined, and he wanted more of his followers and more of the world than was given him. … Bonhoeffer was wondering if it wasn’t time to bring God into the whole world and stop pretending he wanted only to live in those religious corners that we reserved for him. (p. 466)

In a Christianity Today interview in 2010, Metaxas again addresses the issue narrowly and provides a simple explanation:

“…by the phrase “religionless Christianity” Bonhoeffer meant only that the dead religion that was passing for Lutheran Christianity in Germany before the war had failed [his generation]. Bonhoeffer knew that for Christianity to be more than religion—more than a fig leaf—it had to declare Jesus as Lord over everything, not just the religious sphere.” (

Again, this prompts more questions. Does this adequately reflect Bonhoeffer’s concern in his theological letters? Is the idea of the total lordship of Christ over everything the reason why Bonhoeffer was sometimes “quite shocked” at what he was saying? Was such an innocuous conclusion the reason why Bonhoeffer warned Bethge “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to” (letter, 30th April)?

The fact that Jesus is Lord over the world is a biblical truism. The fact that dead religion is not Christianity is not shocking, nor should we be worried by anyone expressing such thoughts. Bonhoeffer’s shocking thought was that Christ is Lord over the world “come of age”, and over “a world grown of age” and over a “world coming of age”. It is not the world simpliciter that Bonhoeffer is concerned with but the particular stage in Western development of which we are inescapably a part. He was questioning whether we are by nature “religious” or whether we are “worldly”, and considered how Christianity would look when the “religious a priori” is rejected. Most importantly Bonhoeffer is grappling with the consequences for our understanding of who Christ is – a question that bothered Bonhoeffer “incessantly”:

“Let me just summarize briefly what I am concerned about: the claims of Jesus Christ on a world that has come of age.” (letter 30th June, emphasis added)

It is not the fact that Christ has claims on the world, but that he has claims on a secular world, a world that has developed to a place of autonomy apart from God – a religionless world. Bonhoeffer seeks to uncover the meaning of that lordship and, as Christians, our full participation in true worldliness (not in the moral sense) that is devoid of religion. He asks:

“In what way are we “religionless–secular” Christians, in what way are we the ecclesia, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?”

Bethge picks out Bonhoeffer’s central point:

“…it is not a question of how we ought to proclaim the Gospel today but, in view of the historical development of the western world, of who is its content” (Bethge, p. 864, emphasis added).

“Bonhoeffer’s theme entails setting out in order to discover the presence of Christ in the world of today: it is not a discovery of the modern world, nor a discovery of Christ from this modern world. but discovering him in this world. Bonhoeffer asks the simplest of questions, from which it is impossible to emerge unchanged: “Who are you?” (Bethge, p. 865-6. Emphasis is Bethge’s).

Bonhoeffer worked hard on his manuscript. Although this manuscript is lost, we do have chapter headings and a brief outline. In that outline, Bonhoeffer refers back to his letters, which indicates that the content of those earlier letters would be developed in his manuscript. Bethge recognises themes in those letters that correspond to the chapter headings of his manuscript and uses these headings to structure his own analysis of Bonhoeffer’s “New Theology”:

(A) the world come of age (chap. 1: A Stocktaking of Christianity)
(B) nonreligious interpretation (chap. 2: The Real Meaning of Christian Faith)
(C) arcane discipline (chap. 3: Conclusions)

To understand what “religionless Christianity” means for Bonhoeffer it is essential that we, as far as we are able, take into account the breadth of Bonhoeffer’s thought in his prison letters. Bethge does this in a stimulating and well-argued manner.

As time and ability permits, I intend to provide a summary of Bethge’s analysis. By so doing, I hope it will become clear that Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are more complex and more radical than Metaxas believes them to be. And, in a small way, it may help those who do not wish to read Bethge’s 1000-page biography to know more clearly his views on the matter.