Bonhoeffer, the Psalms and Nazi Germany

tss-bonhoeffer.jpgDietrich Bonhoeffer lived and died in Nazi Germany. You can imagine the delight of the Nazis when, in 1940, Bonhoeffer published a book – Das Gebetbuch der Bibel – calling Christians to recapture the importance of the Psalms. A Christian pastor publishing a German book highlighting the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures was about as welcomed by the Nazis as a swastika flag burning demonstration. They threatened Bonhoeffer with a fine and then retracted it. Three years later he was arrested for his anti-Nazi sentiments and hung in 1945. You know the story.

The English translation of this German book is known to us as The Prayerbook of the Bible. Although his arguments can sometimes be over-stated, this short work presses us to see the importance of the Psalms in the Christian community. Not surprising, it remains one of Bonhoeffer’s beloved classics.

But why, in light of the bubbling anti-Semitism, did Bonhoeffer risk his life to draw Christians to the Psalms?

The Psalms + the Lord’s Prayer

First, Bonhoeffer noticed a parallel between the themes of the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms. And there are striking parallels. He learned this from Martin Luther who wrote of the Psalms “it runs through the Lord’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer runs through it, so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to being them into joyful harmony.”

Here is what Jesus taught His disciples to pray (Matt. 6:9-13):

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”

Because these parallel themes run through the Psalms, Bonhoeffer concludes the Psalms too find their origin in Christ. If the Lord’s Prayer is from Christ, we can be certain these similar themes in the Psalms are from Christ, too. There is a deeply Christological understanding of the Psalms for Bonhoeffer. The Psalms are the voice of Christ modeling prayer and worship for His people in the presence of the Father.

The inspired prayers

Whether or not we fully embrace his Christological thesis, we are led to an important question about the composition of the Psalms.

“Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words. How then do they come to be in the Bible? Let us make no mistake: the Bible is God’s Word, even in the Psalms. Then are the prayers to God really God’s own Word? That seems difficult for us to understand. We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes again a human word” (5:156-157).

Track his argument here. Are prayers not the spontaneous expressions of a human heart towards God? If so, why are they here written and included in Scripture? If the prayers of David merely originated in the heart of David, why are they preserved in Scripture?

Bonhoeffer responds that the Psalms are preserved in Scripture because these prayer/songs are inspired by God. Or to put it another way, God wrote these prayer/songs to Himself! God – by the inspiration of the Spirit through the pen of the Psalmists – leaves us a pattern of prayer and song that brings us back to the model of Lord’s Prayer. See that? So the Psalms in prayer and praise model the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer.

This leads Bonhoeffer to a further conclusion: prayer is not merely waiting for spontaneous thoughts to emanate from our hearts.

“We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ. Thus it does not matter whether the Psalms express exactly what we feel in our hearts at the moment we pray. Perhaps it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly. It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. If we were dependent on ourselves alone, we would probably often pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s Word, ought to determine our prayer” (5:157).

The Psalms are God’s prayers as inspired by God. As children learning to talk from the language of their parents, the Psalms are teaching saints the language of prayer (5:155). It does not first matter whether the Psalms seem to be what we would pray for any more than we would naturally pray “hallowed be your name” or “lead us not into temptation.” Our prayers do not rest upon the impulse of our hearts, but the richness of Scripture.

The point is we are not limited in prayer until we feel ready to pray. We can learn to pray.

“Teach us to pray”

This returns to the beginning of the book. Bonhoeffer begins with the disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

“’To learn to pray’ sounds contradictory to us. Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray. But this is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray. We then confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing – all of which the heart can certainly do on its own – with praying. But in doing so we confuse earth and heaven, human beings and God. Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ” (5:155).

We need to learn how to pray. The disciples request was answered by Jesus showing them how to pray and what to pray. He models for His disciples the very words to speak – a prayer that certainly would not have naturally emanated from our hearts. The Psalms therefore lay a pattern that touches our prayer and worship lives. These are the inspired prayer/songs of God. They are the words God has chosen to be worshipped with and pleaded by.

For Bonhoeffer, encouraging Christians to pray and sing the Psalms was a worthy exchange for his comforts in Nazi Germany. “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “With its recovery will come unexpected power” (5:162).

The above quotes were taken from volume five of the Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Fortress Press has packaged The Prayerbook of the Bible with Life Together – a thought-provoking book on the value of small groups and Christian community.

7 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer, the Psalms and Nazi Germany

  1. Though I have not read this book by by Bonhoeffer, his love for the Psalms comes through in his other writings. In “Life Together” he urges Christians to participate in three devotions per day, modeling the example given by David in the Psalms. Thanks for pointing out this other work by Bonhoeffer.

  2. Tony, as I’ve mentioned before, I did not appreciate the book of Psalm until recently. Do you think that the majority of Psalms (the famous ones, like Ps. 1, 23, 100, excluded) are neglected in today’s church? If so, why? By neglected, I mean not read in private devotions, not preached about from the pulpit, not studied for theology, etc. I rarely hear them preached from or a Bible study given going throgh them. Just wondering if that my isolated circumstance or a wider phenomenon throughout the evangelical church.

  3. Hello Matthew! I would say the disappearance of the Psalter from corporate worship is the best example of what has happened to the Psalms in the contemporary reformed church. Why, I don’t know? That’s what I’m trying to understand. See the post earlier from Carl Trueman. Blessings! Tony

  4. Thanks for the book review. I have read some of Bonhoeffer’s other works but not this one.

    I was introduced to the use of the Psalter in worship while attending Seminary at Reformed Presbyterian (RPCNA) Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. I must admit it was different than what I had been used to in terms of worship music. However, I have a come to appreciate it and wish it was more widely used.

    The Reformed Presbyterian Churches of the RPCNA clearly interprets the Regulative Principle of Worship to mean exclusive psalmody. There are several lines of defense for their position. Some are doctrinally based; others are based on commentary and notes from the original Westminster Assembly, still others on their Scottish Covenanter tradition. The argument to me that seems to hold the most weight is that with exclusive psalmody, we are singing Scripture, the inspired, inerrant, unchanging Word of God. Our minds are being brought to His Word, not the mere words of men. For a summary defense of exclusive psalmody, one can be found here . Another book that weighs the arguments and comes to a different conclusion is Worship in Spirit and Truth by John Frame.

    With all of this I must let you know that I do not worship at an RPCNA or other exclusive psalmody church. I love singing from the Psalter but I do not dogmatically endorse the exclusive position.

  5. Thanks for the comment costigaj! It would be hard to argue for Psalms-only worship music when Scripture calls us to sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Obviously Paul was not referring to John Newton but it does seem Scripture says to us “sing different types of songs.” It gives us the freedom to write songs as we have the freedom to write and deliver sermons. My concern is with the total disappearance of the Psalms in musical worship. Maybe the Psalms-only position is unknowingly driving the Psalms away from other churches? I’m not certain. Thanks for your insights! Tony

  6. I recently saw the documentary film “Bonhoeffer” and it really stirred me up. How I want to read the books by him, so I appreciate these and other suggestions. This is my first time on this website, and I appreciate it very much. I enjoyed your testimony about being transformed from being a Pharisee. God is looking for people who really love him in Spirit and Truth, not just going through the motions of “A Form of Godliness”. Thanks again.

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