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“Prayerbook of Christ, Prayerbook of the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Interpretation of the Psalms”

Brad Pribbenow, Ph.D. (Dissertation, 2017)

A survey of publications on Dietrich Bonhoeffer from the last few decades reveals an ever-increasing body of literature that explores Bonhoeffer’s many contributions to topics such as ethics, church relations, church leadership, interreligious relations, philosophy, political resistance, spiritual formation, pastoral leadership, and the role of the seminary. The production of new works continues in strong fashion. Yet one topic that has been noticeably absent is a study of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Psalms. In fact, a review of recent scholarly writings on Bonhoeffer shows little to no work that engages in a concentrated and thorough analysis of the development, coherence, and significance of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Psalms within his intellectual context.

In the spring of 2017, I completed a PhD dissertation that aimed to fill this gap. My dissertation—titled, “Prayerbook of Christ, Prayerbook of the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Interpretation of the Psalms”—describes the development and characteristics of Bonhoeffer's hermeneutical approach to the Psalms, centering on the years of his leadership at the Confessing Church Seminary in Finkenwalde (1935–1940). Through my analysis of Bonhoeffer’s writings on the Psalms from this era through the final months of his life in prison (1943-1945), I explore how Bonhoeffer makes use of previous exegetical approaches to reach an understanding of Christological exegesis which, I believe, has aspects that have not been seen in the history of Psalms interpretation.

The main documents that I include in this study are Bonhoeffer’s 1935 “Christus in den Psalmen” lecture, his 1937 sermon on Ps 58, and his 1940 publications Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible. My study of these and other writings led me to discern in Bonhoeffer a two-pronged hermeneutical approach toward the Psalter. The two pillars of his interpretation of the Psalms are, first, the relationship of the Psalms to prayer, and, second, the relationship of the Psalms to Jesus Christ the crucified one. From this, I define what I see as his unique contribution to the history of Psalms interpretation, namely, a Christological approach which is anchored not in the Psalter’s prophetic or typological nature, but in the historical reality of the incarnation and in his conviction that Jesus Christ, in his humanity, prayed all the prayers of the Psalms. This historical reality has significance for the way in which Bonhoeffer interpreted them for himself and for his spiritual community. The Psalms were understood by Bonhoeffer, then, as the prayerbook of the church in a way that was informed by his belief that they were first and foremost the prayerbook of Jesus Christ in his incarnation.

The chapters in my dissertation are as follows:

Ch. 1: Bonhoeffer’s Interpretation of the Psalms in Context: An historical survey of the Christological Exegesis of the Psalms

Ch. 2: Early Twentieth Century Influences: Bonhoeffer distinguishes his exegetical approach toward the Psalms

Ch. 3: An Examination of Bonhoeffer’s Mature Christological Exegesis of the Psalms from the Period of his Leadership in the Confessing Church Between 1935–1940

Ch. 4: Christological Exegesis in Practice: An analysis of Bonhoeffer’s partial commentary on Psalm 119

Ch. 5: The Psalms as the Prayerbook for Life: An analysis of Bonhoeffer’s use of the Psalms during his imprisonment (1943–1945)

Ch. 6: A Summary and Assessment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Interpretation of the Psalms

I would also be happy to interact with any questions or comments on this topic.

Brad Pribbenow and his family live in Fergus Falls, MN where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Associate Dean at the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (www.lbs.edu). He completed his PhD in the spring of 2017 at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO.