Bonhoeffer in Harlem


One suspects that there is a time and a place for a book to be written. Such is clearly the case with Eric Metaxas’s “Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” It is not so much that Metaxas has given us the “other half” of the Bonhoeffer story (which he has), but that evangelicals were, at long last, able to appreciate it.

And yet, the real Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains something of a mystery. The reason, I suspect, is that when Hitler ordered his execution in the closing days of the war, Bonhoeffer was still a relatively young man of 39 years. Mataxas’s book has been lionized by the evangelical press, but excoriated among those who have built their theological houses upon the shifting sands of a sanitized liberal Bonhoeffer narrative. Evangelicals would do well not to fall into a similar trap.

This warm and highly readable biography should be taken at face value, i.e. biography, and we should resist the temptation to reverse engineer an alternative “Bonhoeffer theology” more pleasing to our own theological sensibilities. Instead, we should appreciate the opportunity to share this German pastor’s thoughts as revealed in his private notes and journals (which constitute much of what is new in Mataxas’s book) without insisting that every current of thought fit neatly into our own theological categories. Few of our reputations would benefit from having a theology built upon our casual and anecdotal thoughts, yet it is tempting to do so with Bonhoeffer.

Union Theological Seminary, 1910.

For me, it was impossible not to come away from the notes of those private moments without a strong feeling of evangelical kinship that was entirely different than my reaction to Karl Barth, for example. I had assumed they were much the same, theologically speaking, yet it was Bonhoeffer in Harlem that shows how eclectic his thinking really was. The fact is that almost everyone can find something to like, and to feel uncomfortable about, with Bonhoeffer’s theology.

Bonhoeffer as a student, 1923.

When Bonhoeffer came to America in the ‘30s to study and work at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he immediately realized that the notion of liberal and conservative in the U.S. was quite different than in Germany. At home, Barth was considered a “conservative” simply because he supported the notion that God existed. Later generations of evangelicals would blanch at Barth’s so-called neo-orthodoxy, and be rightly scandalized by his relationship with his research assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. For many, Barth came to epitomize liberal Protestantism, much to the befuddlement of European theologians. It was, however, Bonhoeffer’s encounter with African-American Christianity that outlined in brightest detail the differences between the two.

Try as one might, it would be hard to imagine Barth leaving the heady fellowship of the Union Seminary chapel to head across town to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, yet that is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, week after week. Bonhoeffer would write of his fellow students at Union that:

“…the lack of seriousness with which the students here speak of God and the world is, to say the least, extremely surprising … Over here one can hardly imagine the innocence with which people on the brink of their ministry, or some of them already in it, ask questions in the seminar for practical theology—for example, whether one should really preach Christ. In the end, with some idealism and a bit of cunning, we will be finished even with this—that is their sort of mood.”1

To try and grasp how such views were perceived, Bonhoeffer’s professor John Baille’s comment is instructive, calling Bonhoeffer “the most convinced disciple of Dr. Barth that had appeared among us up to that time, and withal as stout an opponent of liberalism as had ever come my way.”2

Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, New York

Metaxas then brings us a quote from the young Bonhoeffer that demonstrates a remarkable grasp of the church condition in American Christianity at that time.

“Things are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I have been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity….There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se?

“The enlightened American, rather than viewing all this with skepticism, instead welcomes it as an example of progress. The fundamentalist sermon that occupies such a prominent place in the southern states has only one prominent Baptist representative in New York, one who preaches the resurrection of the flesh and the virgin birth before believers and curious alike.

“In New York they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”3

Harry Emerson Fosdick

One can easily see why modern Lutheran, Reformed and other evangelicals feel cheated that they have been deprived of this Bonhoeffer for so long. Yes, there are Bonhoeffer quotes that appear to question the historicity of the virgin birth, but there seems nothing censorial about his description of this lone bold Baptist in New York who proclaimed this doctrine “before believers and curious alike.”

Bonhoeffer saves his sharpest darts, however, for the man who was the titular head of liberal Protestantism in America, Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick had famously delivered a sermon entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in which he roundly criticized those for whom the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, Scriptural inerrancy, etc. were considered essential. Fosdick had ended up as pastor of the Riverside Church in New York, built by John D. Rockefeller himself in order to showcase Fosdick’s theological liberalism. As Metaxas points out, had Bonhoeffer also known of Fosdick’s appeasement views toward Hitler, he might have avoided Riverside Church altogether that one morning. As it happened, he walked down to services at Riverside and left as thoroughly disgusted as he seems to have ever been, writing,

“The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference. Do people not know that one can get on as well, even better, without ‘religion’? … Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxons are really more religious than we are, but they are certainly not more Christian, at least, if they still have sermons like that.”

No it was to the black churches of Harlem and the American South to which Bonhoeffer turned to find authentic Christianity. For many Americans, the name Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. recalls to memory the firebrand Democratic Congressman who also served as Pastor of the Abbysinian Baptist Church. But in Dietrich’s day, it was the father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. whose towering presence cast a shadow over

Union Theological Seminary, 1930/31. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is on the far right, 3rd row from the bottom. His friend, Frank Fisher is third from the right, 2nd row from the bottom.

African-American Christianity. Born not far from my own home in Virginia, Powell, Sr.—reputed to be the son of a white farmer and a Native American mother—chose to identify himself as African-American, migrating with many Southern blacks to the industrial cities of the North.

In New York, the young minister challenged his congregation to move to Harlem and build a massive church edifice which would soon house the largest congregation in America. It was to this church that Bonhoeffer trekked most Sundays while at Union, even taking on the responsibility to teach a children’s Sunday School class. He had been taken to Abbysinian by a classmate, Frank Fisher. Dietrich would also accept Fisher’s invitation to spend one break period with him at his home church, the two of them traveling about in the American South. The impact which this trip, and Bonhoeffer’s growing affinity for African-American Christianity, would have a seminal effect on his own thinking about German anti-Semitism back home. Frank Fisher was also destined for troubling times, returning to the South to Pastor the West Hunter Street Baptist Church. He was arrested with Martin Luther King during the civil rights era, served long and diligently in the National Baptist Church Convention, and upon his death, was succeeded by Ralph Abernathy.

The other strong influence on Bonhoeffer was a French Reformed student named Jean Lesserre. Lesserre may well have been instrumental

Jean Lesserre with Bonhoeffer, 1934.

in helping Bonhoeffer develop his views on the imperative of Christian action which is ironic, since Lesserre was, like a number of French Reformed of that era, a pacifist. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer would have to deal with his own Lutheran theological history, in particular, Luther’s doctrine of “Two Kingdoms.”

Martin Niemoller

The Nazis seized upon Luther’s doctrine and turned it to their own ends. By the late 1930s Luther’s doctrine of Two Kingdoms was the lullaby that rocked the Church to sleep as the trains to Auschwitz rumbled by in the long, dark night. Modern Lutherans rightly complain that the Nazis twisted Luther’s doctrine beyond recognition, but when added to Luther’s virulently anti-Jewish writings penned in his twilight years, it became a toxic soup, indeed. Along with fellow Lutheran Martin Niemöller, Bonhoeffer would struggle to fashion a coherent theological foundation for, first, the Confessing Church (composed of those churches which refused to become part of Hitler’s “German Church” movement), and later Bonhoeffer’s actual participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler. It would be a challenging and theologically difficult journey. Metaxas leaves the reader wanting Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Luther-anism explored more deeply. He does include one statement in which Bonhoeffer says,

“As long as Christ and the world are conceived as two realms bumping against and repelling each other, we are left with only the following options. Giving up on reality as a whole, either we place ourselves in one of the two realms, wanting Christ without the world or the world without Christ—and in both cases we deceive ourselves…There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and the reality of the world. The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself. The world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ…The theme of two realms, which has dominated the history of the church again and again, is foreign to the New Testament.”4

Flossenburg concentration camp where Bonhoeffer died.
Hitler’s 50th Birthday celebration
With members of captured Italian Air Force at the military interrogation prison at Tegel, 1944.







One of the most wonderful pictures Metaxas draws of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the very proper German student returning to his homeland on the verge of the Second World War, armed with a large collection of black gospel records. He would cherish these recordings, playing them often for friends, and especially his students at the underground seminaries and schools he directed on behalf of the Confessing Church. They reminded him not only of his friend Franklin Fisher, and his days teaching Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, but also of that strain of authentic Christianity that he encountered in the midst of a parched New York ecclesiastical landscape. American Christians are inclined to categorize, to put every pastor, teacher, theologian or personality in a box. There is no box for Bonhoeffer. We can only speculate as to how his theology would have taken form and shape had he survived that last week of the war, but he did not.

Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaking out against Hitler’s Nazi party. From Look and Learn magazine, 1971.

We are left instead with a universalism that falls well short of evangelical orthodoxy. What we should not do is deprive ourselves of hearing his story in his own voice, a gift which Eric Metaxas has presented to us and for which the Church should be duly thankful. There is much here to tug at the strings of our hearts.

1 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson) 2010, 105.
2 Ibid., 106.
3 Ibid., 106.
4 Ibid., 333.