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school of prayer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Finkenwalde, and the Psalms

November 3rd, 2003 by isaac · 9 Comments

Bonhoeffer is helping me figure out some spiritual practices for us at the Rutba house . I figure his work would be a great place to learn how to do this intentional Christian community thing since he put it into practice at his seminary community. I read his book called Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms for some prayer guidance. I don’t know if it is even fair to call it a “book” as it is only 70 pages. The book seemed innocent enough. In it he lays out how he and his community read the Psalms and why we should also. But this seemingly innocuous booklet got him in big trouble with the Nazis and mainline German Christians.

In the mid-1930s German anti-Semitism was on the rise. The German Reich was attempting to rid the country of all Jewish marks in the name of nationalism. Sadly, this poison made its way into the Christian church. In order to find favor with the Nazis, Christian theologians re-introduced the ancient Marcionite practice of making the Old Testament dispensable for Christian practice and New Testament interpretation. The German church and the state partnered in purging the land of Jewish traditions. This was the climate when the young Bonhoeffer started teaching and pastoring at the Finkenwalde seminary.

At Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer made the discipline of prayer and meditation a vital part of theological training and the sustaining practice of their illegal Christian community. Their prayer book was the Psalter. Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook gives us his learned experience of their communal practice of praying the Psalms. He wrote the book shortly after the close of the seminary by the Gestapo. He wanted to pass on what he had learned through their life together at Finkenwalde. At the time of the publication (1940) Bonhoeffer was under heavy scrutiny. He was required to present any work to the Reich Board for the Regulation of Literature before he could publish it. Bonhoeffer was heavily fined when the Board discovered the nature of the work (theological exegesis on the Old Testament) and that he published without their consent. This book on the Psalms made a politically subversive statement. He submitted that the Psalms, known as a distinctly Jewish book, was the prayer book of Jesus Christ and therefore necessary for the Christian practice of prayer. Thus Bonhoeffer portrayed Jesus Christ, the Christian savior, as a 1st century practicing Jew. As Christians were trying to distance themselves from Jews, Bonhoeffer told them that they were really bedfellows. In the introduction of the book Geffrey B. Kelly describes how Bonhoeffer’s book on the Psalms was a significant political statement:

Against the quasi-apocalyptic background of Europe at war, a church divided, and his own nation engaged in a malignant national policy of genocide, Bonhoeffer’s study of the Psalms offers protest and hope. This book, coming from one who is representative of that small group of resisters acting at great risk and seemingly in vain to restore true Christianity in Germany, stands in sobering contrast to the blind, flag-waving patriotism and nationalistic sloganeering that cheered on senseless violence against innocent people. (p.153)


I briefly sketch the context so as to make clear how this book fits into Bonhoeffer’s life experience. It is important that we realize that behind every word is Bonhoeffer’s concern that the German church has abandoned the gospel for the sake of survival under Nazi rule. He spent his short life calling the Church to return to faithfulness to Christ in the midst of enemies for the sake of the enemies. If Bonhoeffer thought his message was worth possible imprisonment then it is definitely worth spending my time reading it.

Central to Bonhoeffer’s book on the Psalms is that we humans don’t know how to pray. When left to our own devices we can’t find the words of true prayer. We must join the disciples in asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Lk.11:1). It is with those words that Bonhoeffer begins his book. Bonhoeffer has a keen sense for our hopelessness without Christ. Sin has permeated our whole being, even to the point of affecting our ability to discern what we really need. Bonhoeffer writes, “It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s word, ought to determine our prayer” (p.157). We are not the best judges of what we need to pray for. God tells us what we need and tells us how to begin to align our prayers with what God wants us to need. This is why Bonhoeffer turns us to the Psalms. He calls the Psalter “the great school of prayer.” In the Psalter we learn the language of prayer. There is a discipline to the practice of prayer. It does not come easy. Why would we expect learning to talk with God would be easier than learning to drive. Learning to drive took me days of sitting at the wheel with my mom sitting by my side graciously showing how not to stall every time I let out the clutch. I stalled all the time at first, but slowly I started getting the hang of it. This is what Bonhoeffer means when he talks about the Psalms as “the school of prayer.” His analogy is better than mine:

The child learns to speak because the parent speaks to the child. The child learns the language of the parent. So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken and speaks to us. In the language of the Father in heaven God’s children learn to speak with God. Repeating God’s own words, we begin to pray to God. We ought to speak to God, and God wishes to hear us, not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ. (p.156)


We learn to speak by repeating God’s words to us and for us. The Psalms are God’s gracious gift to us. Through their words we learn how to speak the language of God back to God. We submit our self-centeredness to God and allow him to shape our desires. But did you notice the twist Bonhoeffer throws in at the end? This divine language we find in Psalms is “the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.” How is that possible? Bonhoeffer makes the connection between God’s Word (Holy Scripture) and the Word made flesh (Jesus Christ). The language God speaks is the Word, Jesus Christ. All that God has spoken is through the Word. Thus these Psalms are given to us by God through his Word. Bonhoeffer writes,

God’s speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God. (p.156)


When we pray in this language of God we are praying with Jesus Christ. He is our priest who is before the throne of the Father, petitioning the Father for us. Thus when we pray the Psalms Christ joins us in our prayers. “We pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray” (p.157).

This is why Bonhoeffer dedicated the prayer life of Finkenwalde to the Psalms. They learned how to pray from Jesus through the canonical prayer book: the Psalter. So how is this shaping our prayer life at the Rutba House? We have committed ourselves to daily morning and evening corporate prayer where we read and pray psalms together. We follow the assigned Psalms for the day from the Book of Common Prayer. In the morning we have an extended time for silent meditation on the morning passage. I have found it significant that the first and last words from my lips are prayed Scriptures. The morning prayer shapes my whole focus for the day and the evening prayer gives me a chance to offer up my day in thankful prayer to God. Please join the communion of saints in “the school of prayer.”

Tags: theology

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Laughlin // May 30, 2006 at 9:11 am

    Very well done, thank you.

  • 2 Jim Steele // Jun 25, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    I think that in a world where most men are so flawed that heros can not be found, Bonhoeffer is one man I can hold up to my children as a man they should look up to. Thanks for the insights.

  • 3 isaac // Jul 22, 2007 at 8:05 am

    Jim, thanks for reading my meditaiton on Bonhoffer’s meditation on the Psalms. I’m glad that you find in him a model of faith for your children. His example is encouraging for me as well. But I read him as more of a tragic figure—something along the lines of Fowl and Jones reading of Bonhoeffer in their short book, Reading in Communion. They offer a reading of Bonhoeffer that seems really important. They notice how the church failed Bonhoeffer in it’s absence. There was no community to discern the Word, so Bonhoeffer was left with solitary readings. So, the life of Bonhoeffer is also a call for us to be that community that forms friendships of discernment and accountablity—and, ultimately, sustain our hope as we patiently await the peaceable kingdom of God.

  • 4 Michael Baun // Feb 17, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    The Pslams reach to the depths of emotion, mind, and will. In their depth can be found the very heart of God speaking to us .

    The Psalms keep me honest before God. At times I feel abandoned, full of guilt, while at other times joy fills my heart. Tears also for myself, my family, my friends, my enemies, and especially God’s people – whom I desperately need.

    The Psalms are raw emotionally just like I sometimes deny I am. Like smelling salts they awaken my soul to love God. What it is to be a person in love with Jesus is what the Psalms declare.

  • 5 Chris // Apr 7, 2008 at 5:36 am

    Good stuff. I hadn’t realized that the book on the Psalms had gotten Bonhoeffer in that much trouble, but it stands to reason.

    Given that the Psalms are there to teach us to pray (and I more or less agree with Bonhoeffer here), what is his stance on the more difficult-to-pray Psalms—the imprecatory ones, the ones that say things like, “I’ve been just perfect, God, but this guy over here—don’t hear his prayer!”? I think I recall the idea of our praying Christ’s words (even of judgment?) was very central, but I’m not sure. And how can we both pray “Father, forgive them” and “Father, don’t forgive them”? What are your thoughts?

    Excellent post.

  • 6 DanielB // Oct 28, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I too turned to Bonhoeffer last year and re-read “The Cost of Discipleship” again. I had fallen prey to the “cheap grace” school of American “christianity.” Over the last fifteen years I had somehow morphed into a Pharisee.

    I was planning on making this comment just before I read the last post and now it seems even more pertinent. I had this amazing Sunday School teacher, Bill Delvaux, who was a high school teacher and cross country coach. An amazing man with insights that God has used to speak to me on many occasions about many subjects. The class he co-taught was on the Psalms. The first week, he spoke of the Law, the Prophets and the Gospels, but then when he came to the Psalms he opened a whole new subject that we rarely deal with in suburban churches. His words, not mine. “When we come to David’s psalms, it’s as though God has ripped opened the chest of a believer, a seeker, a disciple and for the first time we see what’s in his heart, what’s in our hearts.” And yes, the desire for revenge, self-pity and self-loathing still lurk in the dark corners. Notice though in a whole lot of those psalms how there seems to be a pause and then it’s as though God spoke to David in that pause and the tone of the Psalm radically changes. He honestly poured out his heart and what came out convicted him. Don’t plead the fifth amendment! Be honest with Him, yourself and others. Read them all!

  • 7 rey // Jan 30, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    You can’t tie Marcionism to genocide since the whole point of rejecting the OT is to reject the god of genocide found there. Marcionism was never about hating Jews but rejecting the genocidal god of the OT as a lower god than the Heavenly Father specifically because of his cruelty and immorality.

    The theology you are referring to has no right to be called Marcionism (which is properly a dualistic belief in two gods and a rejection of the genocidal creator in preference to the Loving Alien God).

    Rather, the theology you refer to is a sort of secular rejection of the OT via source criticism, like the Documentary Hypothesis. It doesn’t say (as Marcion did) that the OT is the true revelation of a lower and immoral god. Rather it says the OT is a pack of lies created by the Jews to help them take over the world. As such, it actually is antagonistic to the Jews (whereas Marcionism proper is not) and it actually is dangerous because it lacks Marcionism’s moral core, the rejection of genocide.

    As such this secular rejection of the OT via source criticism can lead to genocide, and it did! But Marcionism could never lead to genocide since the rejection of genocide is at its very core. In fact, Marcionism is the ONLY religion that consistently rejects genocide. ‘Orthodox’ Christians are forced to defend the genocides of the OT, and thus to basically say “Genocide is good as long as Jews are doing the killing rather than being killed.” But Marcionism ALWAYS rejects genocide as immoral.

    –Rey Beowulf Jacobs, proud Marcionite

    PS: As to the Psalter being “the great school of prayer.” Is there any greater school of genocide? Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” The Psalms are full of violence and genocide. Rejecting Marcionism and going to the Psalms is not a good idea. Essentially, those theologians of the third reich who thought they were abandoning the OT, were in reality its greatest followers. The thought they were doing God’s work by committing genocide. They were following in the path of Joshua and Saul, not Marcion. They claimed rejection of the OT, but they lived as thought he OT god himself had addressed Numbers 31:17-18 to them “Kill everyone; men, boys, women who aren’t virgins; but as for the virgin little girls, keep them for yourselves.” What a bunch of Old Testament pricks the Nazis were! Marcion may have been on their lips, but their hearts were far from him.

  • 8 Michael Volland // Dec 1, 2010 at 7:47 am

    I too have just re-read Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and was deeply convicted by the extent to which we (in the UK) have widely bought into the cheap-grace mentality. I’ve just spent the afternoon reading his ‘Life Together’ – so much of worth as we think about the nature and shape of Christian communities that may emerge in the coming decades.

  • 9 isaac // Jan 5, 2011 at 5:59 am

    Thanks, Michael, for the comment. There’s a lot of great stuff to digest in Bonhoeffer’s corpus.