Being an historian and reading Bonhoeffer

Like any craft, doing history takes time to learn. And it normally involves being mentored by one who is already a practitioner. In other words, to do history, to write historical reflection, to be an historian, requires a process of education that entails a master’s degree and, today, a doctorate. This is not snobbery: it is simply reality. Of course, the internet and our culture’s penchant for immediacy are trashing this idea: anyone can be a historian. Just read enough history books and you can do it. A good case in point is Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A big book, it looks like an authentic historical read. Of course, Metaxas gets the basic facts right, but is it good history? In portraying Bonhoeffer as a North American evangelical, has he read Bonhoeffer rightly? The scholarly answer is no. I have read some of the Bonhoeffer corpus—my favourite work, Life Together, a number of times. But there is much I have not read and I am far from being an expert in his thought. But even I felt something was awry with Metaxas’ read of the German theologian.

An excellent overview of the evangelical misread of Bonhoeffer has now been published in the Trinity Journal by Richard Weikart: “So Many Different Dietrich Bonhoeffers,” Trinity Journal, 32 n.s. (2011): 69-81. For an online version, see