Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Psalms

I’ve just read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book on the Psalms:

Psalms and prayer

Bonhoeffer describes the book of Psalms as a book of prayers. They can teach us how to pray. We can use them as prayers.

Bonhoeffer is not happy with the idea that we can just say “Dear God”, and start blabbing and that is a prayer.

It is a dangerous idea to suppose that prayer comes naturally to the heart. By falling into that error we confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing, with praying. Praying does not simply mean pouring out one’s heart, it means rather — whether the heart be full or empty — finding one’s way to God and talking to him.

So DB would probably say that something like, “Dear God, please let me find £1,000,000 tomorrow Amen kthxbye” is actually not a prayer.

Just like children learn their first language by copying the speech of their caregivers, we learn to pray by copying the prayers God gives us in the Bible

We begin to pray by repeating to God his own words.

I like this. I like the discipline — in the sense of learning; in the sense of putting one’s self in another’s shoes. I like the sense of high culture this position presupposes — like learning the piano by exploring Bach, Haydn and Beethoven.

I like the idea of adding Psalms to my prayer “repertoire” — and I mean whole Psalms, not just the “lines I like”. Follow and absorb the structures, digressions, repetitions — abide — and notice the subtle meanings that emerge.

Old Testament and New Testament

Bonhoeffer has a very narrow interpretation of the Old Testament as a prophesy of the life of Jesus. So here for example, the whole of the Psalms is contained in the “Our Father”. I find this unnecessary. For me the formalism (mapping OT onto NT) denies what I most love about the Bible, which is that it is so full of life, so full of different voices, over a thousand years’ worth of stories and voices. The Christian God is a living God and his book is a living book. It will break out of any structure.

I’m very pleased to find a point on which I can disagree with Bonhoeffer :D

Ten themes

He looks at ten themes in the Psalms — creation, Law, the history of salvation, the Messiah, the Church, life, suffering, guilt, enemies, and the end. For each theme he gives a few example Psalms (for the first few themes three or four examples each, then more and more, as if DB is getting tired … or short of time perhaps). For the first theme, creation, he gives Psalms 8, 19, 29 and 104.

My immediate responses to these: Psalm 104 is lovely; I can appreciate Psalm 29 but it doesn’t move me; Psalm 8 and 19 are fantastic! Psalm 8 is a sheer celebration of God’s creation and humanity’s place within it. Psalm 19 is more sober, praising God’s law, and taking a sudden humble turn in the last three verses. The two Psalms complement each other nicely. I am going to learn them.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my rock and redeemer.


I got a fright in a second-hand bookshop recently when God found me an edited selection of Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison. I haven’t started reading it properly yet. Dipping into it I found this:

The essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust, but the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal. Without such a goal, chastity is bound to become ridiculous. Chastity is the presupposition for clear and considered thinking.

Bonhoeffer’s prose is so simple and clear, so easy to read. The damage is done before you even realise you’ve read it. He seems to be speaking about me and my life exactly. The root cause (one root cause) of my weakness and misery is because I am completely aimless. Apart from the need to make money.

Here’s something I wrote on chastity a few years ago on my (now deleted) bisexual panty fetishist blog “Perfect Lips, Flawless Fingertips”:


A few thoughts to get me started:

  1. Chastity is moral purity. The word comes from the Latin castus, which means clean or pure (perhaps especially in a moral sense).
  2. Chastity precludes sex if and only if sex is immoral. Sex is not immoral. Therefore chastity does not preclude sex. Syllogism-stylee there for fans of propositional calculus.
  3. Previous point means that it is possible to be chaste and still have plenty of sex. Interesting and important.
  4. Moral purity does not come from following rules. Rules follow from prior conception of morality. Therefore it is possible to follow the rules but still not be morally pure.
    1. see Jesus, passim.
    2. Chastity belts and other devices miss the point twice: it’s not about sex; temptation is already sin.
  5. So what is my conception of moral purity? My guiding stars are Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Spinoza’s Ethics (I know Spinoza hated Aristotle but I think it’s OK to mix) and, more concretely, the practice of true love.
  6. The ends of The Good are human flourishing — eudaemonia, the growth of love, call it what you like.
  7. Chastity involves knowledge of the value of love and knowledge of the value of one’s own love.
    1. Chastity includes knowledge of the value of oneself (e.g., as a source of love).
    2. These points have implications for the practice of sex.
  8. Is it possible to be chaste without knowing it? No. Chastity involves knowledge of what chastity is and that one is chaste oneself.
    1. Someone who is chaste without knowing it should be called innocent.

More when there is more.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance
  • Ferdinand Schlingensiepen
  • 2009
  • T.& T.Clark

With God we do not take up a stance — we walk along a path.

Thank you to LisaNotes for bringing Dietrich Bonhoeffer to my attention!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 is an English translation of a recent German biography of Bonhoeffer. I decided to go for this rather than the American biography Lisa reviewed after reading some of the comments on Amazon ( & .com). The gist of the comments was that the Metaxas book was written from a particular American Evangelical perspective. As I am in the UK, and I’m mildly interested in German literature & philosophy, I thought the Schingensiepen might speak to me more.

Really, there was so much in this book. To do it justice in a review I’d have to read it again.

The depiction of the whole cultural & political milieu leading up to and during the Nazi period was very good. Perhaps especially as it was written by someone writing about their own culture. The completely ineffectual coup attempts and the author’s handwringing reminded me very much of the Decembrists. I imagine an American author might be rather less sympathetic.

Being with Bonhoeffer himself was absorbing, draining almost. His writing, his conscience is clear and simple and direct, unpretentious and even ordinary. This made the effect of being immersed in his sensibility very strong. I’m not primarily thinking of his situation. I found myself applying his words and his seriousness to my own life: not as judge of the past but as guide for the present. Stronger than “guide”.

Some quick comments:

  • The “faith and works” issue was prominent obviously. Works as a symptom of faith, rather than as an extra obligation.
  • The Old Testament. I had been thinking less and less of the Old Testament. The Reich State Church’s banning of the Old Testament and all the “Jewish” parts of the Bible gave me a shake. The Old Testament is a vast treasure. I like the developing conception of God; all the very different types of narrative; the age and the frank strangeness of it. Carrying the promise of a kind of transcendental humanism that was fulfilled in Jesus.
  • In prison Bonhoeffer’s favourite author was Adalbert Stifter (especially his novel Witiko). Reading the Wikipedia page I see Thomas Mann was also an admirer. So, I might see if I can find any of his work in English.
  • Church. Bonhoeffer writes powerfully about the church — both as a formal institution and as the community of Christians. In a different way LisaNotes writes powerfully about the Church too (e.g., 2014/08, 2013/08, 2013/07/31, 2013/07/17). … but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

I think this book would be worth reading again and studying, and perhaps reading the American biography (by Metaxas) as a comparison.