In Crossway’s ongoing series “The Theologians on the Christian Life” authors aim to provide an accessible introduction to some of the great teachers on the Christian life. The challenge is present in the goal. If you have a great teacher then accessibility may present a problem. What’s more, many (great) teachers are very interesting people. Their lives fill up pages quickly.
This gets intensified further when we consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With a biography named Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy–you can see how the author would have his work cut out for him. In this case, I feel that Stephen Nichols has done a superb job at introducing us to the life and theology of such an intriguing and admirable guy as Bonhoeffer.
Nichols consolidates from several sources to present Bonhoeffer to us. The primary works are The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. In both of these books Nichols aims to show how the Christian’s life is a life that is cruciformed (formed by the cross) and lived as Christotelic discipleship (toward Christ). Everything is shaped by the cross and lived toward Christ. These may seem like elementary principles. But as you read what Bonhoeffer says about worldliness, freedom, and love—you will see that he is actually quite radical (in contemporary standards).
This is where Nichols comes in as a helpful guide. If this is your first encounter with Nichols you will be grateful for this new friend. He is a historian who is a theologian. As a result he is able to speak clearly to the contemporary theological and even philosophical issues that were facing Bonhoeffer in his context. Further, he often would go back to the time of Martin Luther to help explain how the German people found themselves in such a tension.
One example of this historical/theological analysis that I found helpful was a discussion about piety and pietism. Piety is pious acts toward God and others out of love. On the other hand, “Pietism reduces Christianity to personal acts of holiness. It also tends toward emotionalism. Pietism stresses personal striving after God. It cares little for theological reflection. In pietism one typically hears of orthodoxy when the topic is ‘dead orthodoxy.’ …It would be safe to say that by the nineteenth century, pietism had long since dislodged Puritanism as the dominant in American religious life….Pietism is problematic because of what it leaves out. It tends to leave out theological confession and careful reflection and analytical argument. And, as it tends to be self-focused, it leaves out the focus on the grace of God.”The opposite of pietism is rationalism. Pietists went after the emotions while the rationalists went after the intellect. (pp. 114-115)
How does this apply? Nichols observes that while Bonhoeffer was lecturing in the seminary he saw students bred in rationalism. When he was in the churches the people were bred on pietism. What did he do? He sought to brought them together by emphasizing that theological truth needed to be believed and lived out. This is one of many examples of how the author digs out a historical/theological path and helps us to see how Bonhoeffer worked within it.
A friend asked me what the difference was between this book and Eric Metaxas’ biography. First, you should read Metaxas’ book. It is great. Second, the scope of the work are very different. Nichols is giving some biography with a lot of theological interaction. Whereas, Metaxas is giving you a lot of biography/history with some theology. They are both very good in their respective aims.
If you are looking for some good summer reading I recommend this book. You will not be disappointed.
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