Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nazi Germany (video: Eric Metaxas)

Eric Metaxas

An Evening with Eric Metaxas from ChristianityDotCom on Vimeo.

In this video excerpt, best-selling author, Eric Metaxas, entertainingly discusses his highly acclaimed and powerful book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. It is the first major biography in 40 years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer---the young pastor and theologian who sacrificed his life opposing Hitler.

Eric spoke to a full house at this November 20, 2010 event organized by The Richmond Center for Christian Study and hosted by St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Read more about Eric Metaxas at his website:​


[Editor's note: the following is an excerpt (pages 150-56) of the book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer presents a profoundly orthodox Christian theologian whose faith led him to boldly confront one of the greatest evils of the 20th century--Nazi Germany.]

In the first months of Nazi rule, the speed and scope of what the Nazis intended and had begun executing throughout German society were staggering.  Under what was called the Gleischaltung (synchronization), the country would be thoroughly reordered along National Socialist lines.  No one dreamed how quickly and dramatically things would change.

The Bonhoeffers always had access to privileged information, but as the shadow of the Third Reich fell across Germany, much of the information came from Christel's husband, lawyer Hans von Dohnanyi, at the German Supreme Court.  The Bonhoeffers learned that something especially disturbing called the Aryan Paragraph would take effect April 7.  It would result in a series of far-reaching laws that were cynically announced as the "Restoration of the Civil Service."  Government employees must be of "Aryan" stock; anyone of Jewish descent would lose his job.  If the German church, essentially a state church, went along, all pastors with Jewish blood would be excluded from ministry.  That would apply to Bonhoeffer's friend, Franz Hildebrandt.  Many were confused about how to respond.  The pressure to get in line with the National Socialist wave sweeping the country was intense.  Bonhoeffer knew someone must think it all through carefully, and in March 1933, he did so.  The result was his essay, "The Church and the Jewish Question."

The Church and the Jewish Question

A group of pastors had been meeting in the home of Gerhard Jacobi, pastor of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, to discuss developments in the country.  Bonhoeffer planned to deliver his essay to them in early April.

The German church was in turmoil.  Some church leaders felt the church should make peace with the Nazis, who were strongly opposed to communism and "godlessness."  They believed the church should conform to the Nazi racial laws and the Führer Principle.  They thought that by wedding the church to the state, they would restore the church and Germany to her former glory, before the Treaty of Versailles and the chaos and humiliation of the last twenty years.  The moral degeneration of Weimar Germany was self-evident.  Hadn't Hitler spoken of restoring moral order to the nation?  They didn't agree with him on everything, but they believed that if the church's prestige were restored, they might be able to influence him in the right direction.

There was at this time a group that stood solidly behind Hitler's rise to power and blithely tossed two millennia of Christian orthodoxy overboard.  They wanted a strong, unified Reich church and a "Christianity" that was strong and masculine, that would stand up to and defeat the godless and degenerate forces of Bolshevism.  They boldly called themselves the Deutshe Christen (German Christians) and referred to their brand of Christianity as "positive Christianity."  The German Christians became very aggressive in attacking those who didn't agree with them and generally caused much confusion and division in the church.

But perhaps the most grievous aspect of the church turmoil was the willingness of mainstream Protestant Christian leaders to consider adopting the Aryan Paragraph.  They reasoned that Jews who were baptized Christians could form their own church and had no particular business expecting to be a part of a distinctly "German" church.  In the 1930s, such racially ideological ideas were not nearly as foreign as they are today, nor can all who were open to them be dismissed as hate-filled anti-Semites.

The idea that the races should be "separate, but equal" was popular and widespread in the Jim Crow American South, and Bonhoeffer had seen it firsthand.  He knew that such ideas were powerfully rooted in notions about human identity and community.  Across Europe and the world, there had often been strong taboos against mixing races and ethnicities.  So even though Bonhoeffer knew that what he was facing was inimical to Christian faith, he knew that such thinking was also widespread.  It was indeed possible that a German theologian or pastor who genuinely bore no ill will toward Jews might be persuaded that the Aryan Paragraph was acceptable.  Some believed that an ethnically Jewish person who was honestly converted to Christian faith should be part of a church composed of other converted Jews.  Many sincere white American Christians felt that way about Christians of other races until just a few decades ago.  Bonhoeffer knew that he couldn't simply attack such people as racists.  He would have to argue logically against such ideas.

Unlike most Germans, Bonhoeffer had experienced the church far beyond the Lutheran churches of Germany.  In Rome, he had seen Christians of many races and nationalities worshipping together; in the United States, he had worshiped with African American Christians in Harlem; and via the ecumenical movement, he had worshiped with other European Christians.  The immediate question before him was, what is the church's response to the Jewish question?  But the question that stood behind that question was still, what is the church?

"The fact, unique in history," he began, "that the Jew has been made subject to special laws by the state solely because of the race to which he belongs and quite apart from his religious beliefs, raises two new problems for the theologian, which must be examined separately."

He addressed the issue of the church's attitude toward the state and created common ground with his skeptical readers by paraphrasing Romans 13: "There is no power, but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God."  In other words, governments are established by God for the preservation of order.  The church had no fundamental quarrel with the state being the state, with its restraining evil, even by use of force.  His dramatic opening sentence seemed to overstate the case: "Without doubt, the Church of the Reformation has no right to address the state directly in its specifically political actions."  But he was aware of his audience and wished to establish that he shared their attitude here.  He was also aware of speaking within a tradition that took its cues from Luther, and Luther's attitude toward the role of the state erred much on the side of the state, whom Luther applauded in crushing the Peasants' Rebellion, for example.  Bonhoeffer must tread carefully.

Then he moved on to clarify that the church does, nonetheless, play a vital role for the state.  What is that role?  The church must "continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder."  In other words, it is the church's role to help the state be the state.  If the state is not creating an atmosphere of law and order, as Scripture says it must, then it is the job of the church to draw the state's attention to this failing.  And if on the other hand, the state is creating an atmosphere of "excessive law and order," it is the church's job to draw the state's attention to that too.

If the state is creating "excessive law and order," then "the state develops its power to such an extent that it deprives Christian preaching and Christian faith . . . of their rights."  Bonhoeffer called this a "grotesque situation."  "The church," he said, "must reject this encroachment of the order of the state precisely because of its better knowledge of the state and of the limitations of its action.  The state which endangers the Christian proclamation negates itself."

Bonhoeffer then famously enumerated "three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state."  The first, already mentioned, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy—to help the state be the state as God has ordained.  The second way—and here he took a bold leap—was "to aid the victims of state action."  He said that the church "has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society."  And before that sentence was over, he took another leap, far bolder than the first—in fact, some ministers walked out—by declaring that the church "has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community."  Everyone knew that Bonhoeffer was talking about the Jews, including Jews who were not baptized Christians.  Bonhoeffer then quoted Galatians: "Do good to all men."  To say that it is unequivocally the responsibility of the Christian church to help all Jews was dramatic, even revolutionary.  But Bonhoeffer wasn't through yet.

The third way the church can act toward the state, he said, "is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself."  The translation is awkward, but he meant that a stick must be jammed into the spokes of the wheel to stop the vehicle.  It is sometimes not enough to help those crushed by the evil actions of a state; at some point the church must directly take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating evil.  This, he said, is permitted only when the church sees its very existence threatened by the state, and when the state ceases to be the state as defined by God.  Bonhoeffer added that this condition exists if the state forces the "exclusion of baptized Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews."

The church would be "in status confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating itself."  This Latin phrase, which means "in a state of confession," was originally used as a specifically Lutheran phrase in the sixteenth century.  By Bonhoeffer's time it had come to mean a state of crisis in which the "confession" of the gospel was at stake.  To "confess the gospel" simply meant to speak forth the good news of Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer continued, "A state which includes within itself a terrorized church has lost its most faithful servant."

Bonhoeffer went on to say that to "confess Christ" meant to do so to Jews as well as to Gentiles.  He declared it vital for the church to attempt to bring the Messiah of the Jews to the Jewish people who did not yet know him.  If Hitler's laws were adopted, this would be impossible.  His dramatic and somewhat shocking conclusion was that not only should the church allow Jews to be a part of the church, but that this was precisely what the church was: it was the place where Jews and Germans stand together.  "What is at stake," he said, "is by no means the question whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews.  It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not."

Many would have remembered Galatians 3:28, declaring that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  To underscore his point, Bonhoeffer concluded with words from Luther's commentary on Psalm 110:3: "There is no other rule or test for who is a member of the people of God or the church of Christ than this: where there is a little band of those who accept this word of the Lord, teach it purely and confess against those who persecute it, and for that reason suffers what is their due."

In the spring of 1933, Bonhoeffer was declaring it the duty of the church to stand up for the Jews.  This would have seemed radical to even staunch allies, especially since the Jews had not begun to suffer the horrors they would suffer in a few years.  Bonhoeffer's three conclusions—that the church must question the state, help the state's victims, and work against the state, if necessary—were too much for almost everyone.  But for him they were inescapable.  In time, he would do all three.

The advent of the Nazi victory and the Nazis' attempt to co-opt the church resulted in chaos within the church itself, and in fighting and politicking among the many factions of the church.  Bonhoeffer wanted to drown out the cacophony of voices and look at these things calmly and logically.  He knew that if these questions were not addressed properly, one would be reduced to merely "political answers" or "pragmatic" answers.  One could begin to veer away from the true gospel, toward worshiping a god made in one's own image, rather than God himself, the "eternally other" of whom Barth had spoken and written.  And just as many well-meaning Christians at Union had unwittingly abandoned that God for many good reasons, so too many of the well-meaning Christians in Germany were now doing.  They were convinced that if they bent their theology a bit, it wouldn't matter—the results would be all right in the end.  Many of them honestly believed that under Hitler the opportunities for evangelism would increase.  But Bonhoeffer knew that a church that did not stand with the Jews was not the church of Jesus Christ, and to evangelize people into a church that was not the church of Jesus Christ was foolishness and heresy.  From the time Bonhoeffer finished writing "The Church and the Jewish Question," he saw this clearly and would stake everything on it.  But it would be a long and lonely road.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
By Eric Metaxas

Originally published January 06, 2011.

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