CMDA's The Point

The Incredible Impact of a Humble Man of Faith

April 8, 2021
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by Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

In a previous blog, I recommended John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center, and BreakPoint, his daily blog. The Colson Center has several formats for outreach including the Colson Fellow program, weekly podcasts, daily email briefings and Wilberforce Weekend. The Colson Center takes on many of the most pressing issues of the day and thoughtfully discusses ways in which we as Christians can engage our culture. As I said in that earlier blog, if you stop reading this right now and explore the Colson Center options, I will have succeeded in pointing you to a good path for improving your Christian walk.

There are many other articulate engaging Christian spokespeople today, and this is encouraging. At a time when many Americans have lost faith in the general media, Eric Metaxas, for instance, is a thought leader and a voice of reason who evaluates current events from a Christian worldview perspective. An articulate, engaging speaker and thinker, he also has a radio show and podcast. A recent Google search lists 60 books he has authored, from children’s adventure stories, to apologetics and, more famously, biographies. His most notable biopics are on Martin Luther, William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Bonhoeffer biography is available in several forms—among these are the original long version, an abridged version, a study guide version and an audio version. Over the course of my many hour-long daily commutes, I recently relished the 23-hour audio version.

In his introduction, Metaxas relates that when the publisher who originally asked him to write on Bonhoeffer reviewed his finished work, he instructed Eric to make his tome much shorter. Instead, Metaxas chose a different publisher and gave the public his full, extended version. Metaxas is a meticulous researcher, and he writes from previously unpublished sermons, pamphlets and personal communications of the complex life of a dedicated Christian. In evaluating this book, the Kirkus Review states in part:

“WHO BETTER TO FACE THE GREATEST EVIL OF THE 20TH CENTURY THAN A HUMBLE MAN OF FAITH? As Adolf Hitler and the Nazis seduced a nation, bullied a continent, and attempted to exterminate the Jews of Europe, a small number of dissidents and saboteurs worked to dismantle the Third Reich from the inside. One of these was Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a pastor and author.”

How did Bonhoeffer ever emerge to be the man he became? Dietrich’s father was a distinguished, secular, academic psychiatrist in Berlin during the 1930s and 1940s. Dietrich grew up in a cultured, intellectually rarified home. When he chose religion as his area of graduate study, it is likely he was essentially a “cultural” Christian. His siblings, among whom were a physicist and lawyer, were initially mystified at his career choice. Somewhere in his early years of graduate study, however, his perspective and life changed. It was not an instantaneous Damascus Road conversion, but it was a deep, full surrender to God, and his life took a new trajectory.

After achieving his PhD by the age of 21, he had to await ordination in the Lutheran church until he was 25 years old. During this time, he continued post-doctoral studies, completing a second PhD, while serving in active pastoral ministry at several different locations. In the ensuing years, he became a university professor, preacher, organizer, writer, ecumenical leader and undercover spy working for the overthrow of Hitler from within the German Army Intelligence Service, the Abwehr. In this role, grossly misunderstood by many in the Confessing Church, he funneled key information to the underground resistance movement in Germany. He eventually became a member of a secret cabal plotting to assassinate Hitler. After several undetected aborted assassination bids, the Nazis apprehended Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators when their final attempt failed.

The Nazis jailed him for more than a year, much of which time he spent in solitary confinement. All the while, Bonhoeffer thought that as the war was concluding, German authorities or the Allies would bring about his soon release. Two weeks before he committed suicide and ended the war, however, a vengeful Hitler issued an edict to “kill the conspirators.” A few days later, Dietrich died on the gallows, peacefully accepting God’s will just days short of liberation. As his captors prepared him for his death, he preached a final sermon to his fellow prisoners. One of these, a captured Royal Air Force pilot, recalled his final words, “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.”

Several things from Bonhoeffer’s life stand out and challenge me today:

  • He had a strong personal relationship with God at a time when German theologians were becoming more and more secular. In the end, the National German Lutheran church capitulated to Hitler and claimed ultimate allegiance—not to Christ, but to the fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.
  • A key pillar in his complete surrender to Christ was his daily meditation on Scripture and extended times of prayer. He continually interceded for his family, friends, nation and the worldwide church.
  • In 1939, German and American colleagues offered Dietrich the opportunity, and strongly urged him, to remain safely in an American teaching post, thus avoiding the impending devastation they knew was almost certain for Germany and Europe. Instead, he obeyed God’s leading in his life, and returned home at great risk to himself, to do whatever he could to help Germany and his beloved German Lutheran Church during this terrible time.
  • When he was fully convinced of the rightness of a cause or principle, he would not compromise. Many German state-paid clerics capitulated to the demands of the central government. Bonhoeffer, instead, began underground seminary classes for young members of the “Confessing Church.”
  • He was able to disagree with others without being obnoxious or personally antagonistic. In fact, he became close friends with men with whom he argued theological doctrine frequently, while maintaining respectful decorum and good relationships.
  • As he prayed, read, discussed and thought about the German plight, he arrived at the conclusion that while murder is a sin, he nonetheless had to join the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He realized that many people would not understand his decision to do so, but he reasoned that the surrender of his own reputation and even his life were of no account when compared to the peril of disobeying God’s mandate for him: to do his best to save Germany and the lives of millions of European Poles, Gypsies and Jews.
  • In the midst of terrible danger to himself and his family, he maintained a peaceful equanimity, certain that God remained sovereign and that he was where God had placed him and wanted him to be.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a saint or a perfect human being, but he was, as Metaxas would say, “A great man.” He loved God, loved Germany and loved his fellow humans. And when he was convinced of God’s leading, he did not shirk from obedience—even when he knew it might cost him everything. As he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Matthew 16:24-25 says, “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’” (NKJV).

Christ has always demanded that we die to ourselves. This remains true spiritually today, and in the apocalyptic days ahead, for many of us, it may soon be true literally as well.

About Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics), MSHA, FAAN, CPE, is a board certified neurologist, with additional training and experience in palliative medicine, executive coaching and medical leadership. He is completing his 30th year serving at Carle Health, (formerly Carle Foundation Hospital) in Urbana, Illinois, as an attending neurologist, and (Past Chair—14 years) of the Carle Ethics Committee. He is a clinical professor of medicine (neurology) at Carle Illinois College of Medicine in Urbana-Champaign and is on the clinical faculty of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is a member of the CMDA Ethics Committee. He and his wife Tammy are grateful for their five grown children, their daughters- and sons-in-law and their 11 grandchildren.

2 Comments

  1. Eugene Shively MD FACS on May 10, 2021 at 11:56 am

    I read Eric Metaxas bibliography on Bonhoeffer several years ago and was very impressed. Metaxas seems to support Trump now. I cannot reconcile. Can you explain?

  2. Mike Chupp on May 10, 2021 at 7:18 pm

    Thank you so much Dr. Cranston for writing this thoughtful blog about Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer biography. I loved the book as well and read it from cover to cover during an overseas trip to Africa. I am wanting to take a deep dive into Bonhoeffer’s book “Life Together” on the critical nature of Christian community to endure hardship and persecution, written during his Finkwald time, I believe. I think this is also a critical lesson we must apply in the months and years ahead. Appreciate your thoughtful writing and service to followers of Christ in healthcare.

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