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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tony Jones, Scot McKnight on Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer

The focus of my writing on Eric Metaxas has been on his refusal to substantiate extraordinary charges against the Obama Administration in general and the Health and Human Services in particular. But of course the reason Metaxas has a platform for these opinions, indeed the seeming reason why he is not even forced to make an actual argument for his view that the HHS Mandate is comparable to early Nazi legislation, is because of the mantle of authority that his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has provided him. In that light, it is interesting to see two of Metaxas’ fellow Christian intellectuals, Tony Jones and Scot McKnight, raising important questions about the veracity of that scholarship. Both Jones and McKnight reference with approval a significant review by the Bonhoeffer scholar Victoria Barnett. McKnight calls her essay “one of the best” and says she has “the same sort of problems I had with Metaxas, not the least of which is his failure to mention that Bonhoeffer was on Bultmann’s side when it came to the historicity of the Gospels — both when Bonhoeffer was in Spain and then later when the conservative Lutheran pastors disputed Bultmann.”

Jones points to Barnett’s review as well, noting it is an example of a trend that should cause Metaxas’ loyal followers some pause:

The problem? Metaxas’s account of Bonhoeffer’s life has been almost universally derided by Bonhoeffer scholars. They say that he simply took bits and pieces of Bonhoeffer’s biography — all cribbed from earlier books — and pasted them together to make his point that Bonhoeffer was actually a conservative cultural warrior who repudiated liberal Christianity and considered fundamentalists in America to be in the same plight as German Jews.

I trust that Metaxas is my brother in Christ, but unfortunately he simply does not have sufficient grounding in history, theology, and philosophy to properly interpret Bonhoeffer. This is not just my opinion. Victoria Barnett, the editor of the English-language edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, wrote a scathing review of Metaxas's biography. In her opinion, Metaxas "has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period." She then calls Metaxas's portrayal of Bonhoeffer's theology "a terrible simplification and at times misrepresentation."

What Barnett says of Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer is what I say about his claim to have discerned some sort of link between early Nazi laws and the HHS Mandate, namely that it is “a terrible simplification and at times misrepresentation."


  1. And yet Bonhoeffer delivers a clear warning to those who would wade in as Bultmann did in applying a 20th century mindset to a 1st/2nd century question: "It is neither possible nor right for us to try to get behind the Word of the Scriptures to the events as they actually occurred. Rather the whole Word of the Scriptures summons us to follow Jesus." (Cost of Discipleship, p.84)

  2. Most certainly, Father, Bonhoeffer is deeply relevant to our times. I don't think Scot or Tony would disagree with you at all. I think what they are trying to say is that the Bonhoeffer of history is richer and more complex than Metaxas' Bonhoeffer.

  3. You may disagree with Mataxes due to some real or perceived bias he has - certainly you are not disagreeing with the notion that pre-war Germany passed laws that at first seemed well intended, but in hindsight paved the way for mass atrocities are you? This is Mataxes point and it is a good one. Whether Bonhoeffer's experience is similar or not - our government is accruing more and more power...and power corrupts. I think even you would agree with this. It now holds controlling interest major corporations (in failing industries), it (soon)controls 1/6th of our economy and quite literally who lives and who dies. Whether it is the Patriot Act (Bush) or ACA (Obama), our government is accruing more and more power unto itself and, left unchecked, one day we'll have more than just whether we provide contraception to our employees as a mandate. In your reality, do we EVER cry foul? When?

  4. @Happy, "Whether Bonhoeffer's experience is similar or not" is precisely the point Metaxas is making. If he wanted to say "our government is accruing more and more power" there are plenty of ways to say that, and plenty of historical examples to compare that to. The question is not "do we ever cry foul?", it is "is Metaxas crying wolf?" I think he is and that the more one does that, the less people should credit his cry as credible.