228 Great Men’s Biographies

No 20th century theologian elicits more admiration than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for whom Eric Metaxas’s recent biography, Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, a Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, c. 2010) provides us an engaging and insightful introduction.  As the eminent Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder says:  “Metaxas has the rare skill of taking the mundane but crucial details of life and weaving them into a history that flows like a novel.  For anyone interested in what the strength of belief and conviction can accomplish, Bonhoeffer is an essential read.”  Though other works (especially those by Bonhoeffer’s closet friend, Edward Bethge) are more detailed and ultimately definitive, this biography is a wonderful fusion of scholarly accuracy and scintillating style.    

In 1906 Bonhoeffer was born into the highest echelon of the German aristocracy, tracing his ancestry through centuries of illustrious physicians, judges, professors and statesmen.  His father was a renowned psychiatrist, a professor at the University of Berlin, his mother a teacher whose “parents and family were closely connected to the emperor’s court at Potsdam” (p. 6).  He received the finest possible education, both at home and school, where he excelled in most everything (including music, which ever remained a major avocation for him).  Profoundly affected by the turmoil of WWI—and especially by the death of an older brother—he determined at the age of 13 to study theology.  After a term at Tubingen University, he returned to Berlin to live at home and complete his university studies under the tutelage of the famed Church historian and devotee of the theological Liberalism, Adolf von Harnack.  While studying under (and ever respectful of) Harnack, however, young Bonhoeffer was drawn to the insurgent Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth that would sustain the Confessing Church in its struggle with National Socialism.  

Following his university years, Bonhoeffer served briefly as a youth pastor for a German congregation in Barcelona, Spain, refining his preaching skills and Christological concerns in the process.  “‘Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously,’” he insisted.  Doing so requires “‘for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment’” (p. 83).  Determined to finish his theological training he returned to Berlin, writing a dissertation (Act and Being) that qualified him as a university lecturer in 1930.  An opportunity to further his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York led him to spend a year in America, where he quickly became disillusioned with the superficiality of students who “‘are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions.  They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level’” (p. 99).  In nearby  churches he heard messages delivered by the likes of Harry Emerson Fosdick (presiding over the recently built and prestigious Riverside Church) devoted to most everything but the main thing, “‘namely the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life’” (p. 99).  

He did, however, find the gospel proclaimed in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem by Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., the son of former slaves who “brought an outsized vision of faith to the pulpit,” combining “the fire of a revivalist preacher with great intellect and social vision” (p. 108).  Consequently, Bonhoeffer regularly attended and taught Sunday school at Abyssinian.   Years later, shortly before WWII erupted, Bonhoeffer briefly returned to New York and delighted in attending Broadway Presbyterian Church to hear messages delivered by a fundamentalist pastor (Dr. McComb) who unapologetically preached God’s Word.  To Bonhoeffer, American Fundamentalists were quite akin to the Confessing Church, staying true to the Bible rather than accommodating secular powers.  Siding with the Fundamentalists, in opposition to the Liberals at Riverside Church and Union Theological Seminary, he said:  “‘This will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Church has long since become a temple of Baal’” (p. 334).  

Though offered a position at Harvard, Bonhoeffer felt led to return to Germany and serve his own people amidst the turbulence of Hitler’s rise to power.  At a crucial moment, he wrote, “‘something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day.  For the first time I discovered the Bible’” (p. 123).  It alone, he discovered, “‘is the answer to all our questions’” (p. 136).  He’d obviously read and preached from it for years, but suddenly the Bible became a living Word, a Way to live.  He began lecturing at the University of Berlin, insisting that Jesus Christ, not Adolf Hitler, was the only Savior.  As the Nazis tightened their control over all the institutions of society, Bonhoeffer early joined the opposition, especially working to establish the Confessing Church within the state-run  Lutheran Church, which was controlled by the “German Christians” who accommodated Hitler by repudiating the Old Testament and generally promoting Der Fuhrer’s “Nietzschean social Darwinism” (p. 173).  

Metaxas details Bonhoeffer’s valiant struggle to restore an authentic faith and discipleship within the established Lutheran church, noting his conviction that:  “‘The question at stake in the German church is no longer an internal issue but is the question of the existence of Christianity in Europe’” (p. 204).  “‘For me,” he declared, “‘the fight against National Socialism is essentially a fight in defense of the Christian conception of the world.  Whereas Hitler wants to revive the Old Germanic paganism, I want to revive the Christian Middle Ages’” (p. 232).  This led him to engage in various activities:  making international appeals, establishing an underground seminary, and—as WWII erupted and the Nazi’s genocidal policies against the Jews became clear—joining plots against Hitler.  

Bonhoeffer’s family and social ties linked him to the highest echelon of Germany’s military caste—including an anti-Hitler cadre of officers such as Count Helmuth von Moltke and Admiral Canaris—who early sensed the necessity of removing Der Fuhrer for the good of both Germany and mankind.  In 1941, “Bonhoeffer famously said that, if necessary, he would be willing to kill Hitler” (p. 388).  For a pastor who had espoused virtually pacifist positions a decade earlier, this was quite a change!  Several conspiracies almost succeeded, but Hitler seemed to live a curiously charmed life.  Failed assassination attempts led to arrests and executions of those involved and in time the Gestapo apprehended and imprisoned Bonhoeffer.  

Imprisoned for the last two years of his life, Bonhoeffer continued to write and minister to those around him.  Fortunately, his uncle, Paul von Hase, was the military commandment of Berlin and buffered  some of the regime’s strictures on his nephew.  He was thus able to receive visits from his family, friends and fiancée as well as continue his theological study and writing.  The failure of yet another attempt to kill Hitler in 1944, however, led to harsher treatment, as everyone remotely connected to the conspiracy was targeted.  Many, including Paul von Hase, were summarily executed.   One of these officers, shortly before he died, said:  “‘The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing.  Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world.  When, in a few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify in good conscience what I did in the struggle against Hitler’” (p. 487).  

While his regime was collapsing, Hitler still sought to destroy those who had dared oppose him, personally approving their executions.  So Bonhoeffer and 17 others were taken from his cell in Berlin and sent to Buchenwald, a notorious death camp.  Here, an English prisoner, Payne “Best described Bonhoeffer as ‘all humility and sweetness, he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. . . .   He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him’” (p. 314).   From Buchenwald he was sent to a smaller camp, Flossenburg, where he was hanged on April 8, 1945, two weeks before the Allies liberated the camp, three weeks before Hitler killed himself.  

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Admirers of the late Pope John Paul II frequently call him “The Great,” appraising him the equal of a handful of thusly-titled pontiffs such as Leo I and Gregory I.  They regard him the most significant successor of St. Peter in 500 years.  George Weigel clearly shares this high evaluation in his two-volume (1500 pp) biography, a richly detailed model of scholarship, “the culmination of twenty years of studying and writing” (p. 14).  The first volume is titled Witness to Hope:  The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, c. 1999).  

Karol Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-TEE-wah) was born in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920.  His mother died while he was young, but his father, a notably “just man,” an army officer known as “‘the captain,’ was a gentleman of the old school and a man of granite integrity whose army career . . . was based on a combination of intelligence, diligence, dependability, and above all, honesty” (p. 29).  Young Wojtyla flourished in school, mastering his studies and standing out as an athlete.  He and his father moved to Krakow in order for him to enter the Jagiellonian University the year before the Germany invaded Poland and ignited WWII.  In short order the Nazis arrested and deported many Polish leaders, including university professors.  Young Wojtyla, though forced to work as a quarryman, quickly engaged in underground cultural activities (mainly theatrical performances), subtly resisting the occupying forces.  He also sensed and obeyed a call to the priestly ministry, especially as a result of reading the works of St. John of the Cross with their call to total surrender to God’s will, and studied in the university’s “underground” seminary.  

Wojtyla was completing his theological studies as Russians replaced Germans occupying Poland in 1945.  Ordained in 1946 and obviously gifted, he was then sent to further his studies in Rome’s famed Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he excelled in every way, writing (in Latin) a doctoral thesis on St. John of the Cross under the direction of the famed Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.  Returning to his native land he creatively engaged in pastoral ministry, notably honing strategies that included skiing and kayaking expeditions to reach young people who became life-long friends.  His intellectual gifts could not be wasted, however, and he was soon given an academic assignment, becoming an ethics professor at the University of Lublin.  While teaching he sustained a “hard-won conviction about the ‘objective’ reality of the world” which “disclosed important things about the virtues, about the pursuit of happiness, and about our moral duties in life” (p. 126).  

Named auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII in 1958, Wojtyla joined fellow bishops at the Second Vatican Council, where he took an unexpectedly (for such a young bishop) active role, especially emphasizing the Christian’s call to holiness, which  “was nothing less than a ‘sublime sharing in the very holiness of the Holy Trinity,’ of God himself” (p. 162).    Back in Poland he was installed as Archbishop of Krakow and later named a cardinal.  As a bishop he “governed his diocese (and did his philosophy and theology) ‘on his knees’—or at a desk in the sacramental presence of his Lord” (p. 188).   He also continued to vigorously preach and write as well as represent the Church in her continuous struggle with the country’s Communist authorities who were conducting “the assault on human dignity he had described to Henri de Lubac as ‘the evil of our times’” (p. 227).   

In 1978, following the brief pontificate of John Paul I, Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope and soon uttered his signature call:  “Be not afraid!”  He subsequently launched a series of initiatives designed to promote the Gospel around the world, continually traveling (taking scores of what he called “pilgrimages”),  preaching to vast throngs (personally addressing more people than anyone in human history), presiding over unexpectedly momentous “youth days,” teaching through weekly audiences and a steady stream of encyclicals and papal letters, issuing the momentous Catechism of the Catholic Church to clearly define orthodox positions, defending both the rights of the unborn and the freedoms of people enchained by totalitarian regimes, appointing bishops and cardinals and curial officials (most notably the man who would succeed him, Joseph Ratzinger) designed to implement his vision for the Church.   

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The second volume of George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II is entitled The End and the Beginning:  Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (New York:  Doubleday, c. 2010).  Inasmuch as one third of the book revisits Karol Wojtyla’s life-long struggle with Communism, it is rightly described as an “amplification and completion” of Witness to Hope, the first volume of the study.  This is largely due to the availability of documents recently made public that reveal the machinations of Communist authorities in various countries to discredit and if possible destroy Wojtyla.  Rightly perceiving him as a signal threat to the iron fist crushing the peoples of Russia and Eastern Europe, Poland’s secret police and Russia’s KGB diligently recruited agents to infiltrate priestly circles in both Poland and Rome, determined to both gain information regarding Wojtyla and craft strategies to undermine him.  As Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (the exiled Russian novelist then living in Vermont) declared when Wojtyla was elected Pope, “‘It’s a miracle!  It’s the first positive event since World War I and it’s going to change the face of the world!’” (p. 101).  And indeed—beginning with his epochal nine day pilgrimage to Poland in 1979—he would!  Within a decade the Communist world was collapsing, and Pope John Paul II (along with his ally Ronald Reagan) played a formidable role in its demise.  

Concluding his discussion of Wojtyla’s struggle with Communism, Weigel turns, in part two, to the Pope’s final five years, entitling his presentation “Kenosis.”   Physically vigorous when he became Pope, he had suffered an assassination attempt in 1981 and Parkinson’s disease further weakened him in his final years, but through it all he allowed nothing to compromise his commitment to serving in the place God assigned.  He orchestrated an unexpectedly successful Great Jubilee in 2000, drawing millions of pilgrims to Rome, and despite his infirmities he continued his own pilgrimages to various nations, most notably Israel.  He continued his ambitious project of canonizing saints—especially 20th century martyrs dying at the hands of despots.  

On the basis of three decades of interviews and scholarly studies, Weigel ends his biography with an assessment of his subject.  To do so he begins with an appreciation of Wojtyla’s inner life, organized in terms of faith, hope, and love—the supernatural virtues clearly evident to the Pope’s closest observers.  Still more, the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, temperance) were equally apparent.  By any standard, his pontificate (despite certain disappointments, including the clerical scandals in America and academic dissidents’ unfaithfulness) was momentously ambitious and successful.  Especially important is the “legacy of ideas,” set forth in the vast corpus of his writings, setting forth doctrinal and moral positions rooted in tradition but attuned to modernity.  

To understand John Paul II—as well as the world he both indwelt and influenced—Weigel’s definitive work is, quite simply, indispensable.  

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Among the 20th century’s “great men” are eminent thinkers who have transformed our understanding the world.  Among these are John Polkinghorne, whose story is told by Dean Nelson (a journalist) and Karl Giberson (a physicist) in Quantum Leap:  How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion (Grand Rapids:  Monarch Books, c. 2011).  The authors make no pretense of offering a definitive “conventional biography,” though their work rests upon in-depth interviews and careful reading of their subject’s works.  Rather they seek to “tell the story of Polkinghorne, and along the way, we also unfold some bigger issues.  How do we know what ‘Truth’ is?  How does a leading scientist think about the more mysterious aspects of faith—prayer, miracles, life after death, resurrection?” (p. 7).  Furthermore, they want to reach a broad public, rather than an elite corps of physicists and theologians, providing us a warmly written and engaging work, a wonderful introduction to the man and his ideas.  

Polkinghorne’s work on quark theory, as one of an elite group of physicists at Cambridge University, “earned him countless recognitions,” including membership in Britain’s Royal Society, being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, serving as president of Queen’s College, and delivering the prestigious Gifford Lecture Series (p. 13).  In the midst of his scientific work, however, he sensed a call to the Christian ministry and devoted several years to theological study and pastoral work in an Anglican parish, finding time there to write “one of his most successful books, One World:  The Interaction of Science and Theology” (p. 85).  In his judgment, “‘Christianity affords a coherent insight into the strange way the world is’” (p. 159).  Rejecting some scientists’ contentions that the cosmos has no meaning or purpose, that it’s all “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he insists we can discover meaning:  “‘In fact the world has a meaning that extends beyond us’” (p. 31).  He envisions God as “a ‘Divine Mind’, and Cosmic Mathematician’, but who also cares for the individual” (p. 48).  

In time he returned to Cambridge University, where he set his mind to the task of synthesizing the two great (and at times paradoxical) concerns of his life:  science and religion.  As a physicist he accepted “the idea that light is both a wave and a particle, two fundamentally contradictory viewpoints.  Acceptance that the simple reality of something as familiar as light required deep paradox serves as a preparation for wrestling with the central Christian belief that Jesus is both human and divine, that he lived and died and lives again” (p. 89).  Science, no less than theology, deals with unseen, transcendent realities.  Thus the Resurrection of Jesus, to Polkinghorne, elicits faith:  “On the truth or falsehood of that belief turns the whole Christian understanding of God and God’s purposes in Jesus of Nazareth’” (p. 90).  So too miracles may well be credible as “‘perceptions of a deeper rationality than that which we encounter in the very day, occasions which make visible a more profound level of divine activity.  They are transparent moments in which the Kingdom is found to be manifestly present’” (p. 95).  They do not contradict the “laws of nature, which themselves are expressions of God’s will, but are revelations of the character of the divine relationship to creation” (p. 95).  

His unique training and perspective led to appointments to prestigious committees, including “the Human Genetics Commission, which evaluated the ethical consequences of recent advances inhuman genetic research” (p. 123).   Accepting such appointments demanded insight and judgment as well as skill in working with others (one of Polkinghorne’s strengths).  He also joined distinguished theologians such as N.T. Wright on a fifteen-member Doctrine Commission established to provide direction for the Church of England.  His views on some items (stem cell research, the ordination of women, etc.) cannot be aligned with those of traditional Catholics or conservative Evangelicals, but they are rather middle-road positions in his church.  And amidst it all he exuded a gentle, gracious spirit bearing witness to his Savior.