Brad Pribbenow, Prayerbook of Christ: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Interpretation of the Psalms, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018
This book will appeal to those interested in several different aspects of Christian history, theology, biblical interpretation, the Psalms and doctrine. All these different areas intersect when Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Psalter is explored. Although there has been immense interest in Bonhoeffer’s life, theology and ethics for several decades, the centrality of the Psalms to his devotional life and thinking has not been fully appreciated. This book sets out to provide a thorough analysis of Bonhoeffer’s use and understanding of the Psalms in order to remedy this deficit. Right at the outset Pribbenow makes the surprising claim that ‘the literature we have from Bonhoeffer provides convincing evidence that his treatment of the Psalms yields an interpretation that is, in certain key aspects, new in the history of Psalms interpretation’ (p.xix). One of the purposes of this review is to evaluate the extent to which this claim is substantiated.
The book comprises three parts. The first section considers the different ways in which the biblical psalms have been interpreted Christologically, across two millennia, in order to provide a context for Bonhoeffer’s approach. The second part considers Bonhoeffer’s early writings—i.e. those from the period of his formal theological education and his preparation for ministry—in order to understand how his approach to the Psalms took shape. The third section examines the period of his life in the Finkenwalde community to his time in prison and untimely death.
The first section opens with the briefest of sketches of the paradigm shift that the earliest Christian interpretations of the Psalms represented compared to First Century Jewish approaches to the Psalter. As Pribbenow points out, the New Testament authors read the Psalter with Jesus Christ as the focus. He goes on to show how this trajectory evolved into Augustine’s totus Christus hermeneutic in what was African Bishop’s thirty-year project, the Enarrationes in psalmos. Pribbenow makes it clear that Augustine’s approach became a central plank of interpreting the Psalms up until the Reformation. Luther’s understanding of the Psalms is then examined. Pribbenow outlines how Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms underwent a dramatic shift. His earliest work on the Psalms places a strong emphasis on Augustine, tempered with the fourfold sense of interpretation that emerged in the medieval period. The content of Luther’s later work is however distinctly different in that Christ is no longer the initial foundation for interpretation. Luther became open to understanding the Old Testament on its own terms, i.e. as prior to Christ. This enables him to take the psalmist seriously rather than simply equating him with Christ. In this way Luther reads the Psalms such that the experience of the contemporary Christian is analogous to that of the psalmist. The first section closes with a very brief survey of the impact of historical critical approaches on interpreting the Psalter. Here, Pribbenow argues that the very possibility of Christological interpretation is eclipsed by the focus on an individual psalm’s Sitz im Leben (life situation) or cultic setting.
In section two, Pribbenow opens with a brief survey of the place of the Old Testament in German Christian theology at the time of Bonhoeffer’s formative theological education. He presents the stark choices made by German scholars around this time between (i) a rejection of the Old Testament (OT), (ii) a limited retention of the OT, or (iii) an acceptance of the OT. Bonhoeffer clearly adopted the third stance. Further than this, he was part of a small, but growing, group who challenged the modern critical methods that had became the basis for so many other theologians adopting stances (i) and (ii). In this way he marks one way in which both pre-critical and critical insights can be combined. Pribbenow traces something of the development of Bonhoeffer’s thinking in this regard—based on early sermons he argues that there was an early shift from encountering specific psalms in terms of the psalmist’s Sitz im Leben, to seeing the incarnate Jesus as the context. As Bonhoeffer’s theology matured, he placed increasing emphasis on Jesus praying the Psalms and the church community’s need to pray these same prayers. He goes further in claiming that Jesus not only prayed the Psalms in his earthly ministry but continues to pray them as the Risen Christ. In Pribbenow’s words: ‘The Psalms are not just the prayerbook of the church, given to fill the mouths of the faithful as they make petition and cry out to God. The Psalms are fundamentally the prayerbook of Christ who prayed these prayers in his humanity and continues to pray them now on behalf of and in union with his church’ (p.65). Bonhoeffer’s relationship with pre-critical interpretation of the psalms is a complex one. Pribbenow suggests that despite (i) having typological elements, (ii) an understanding of David as a prophet, and (iii) sympathy with Augustine’s totus Christus, he eventually tends to articulate a consistent figural approach: ‘where he recognizes the “mystery of Christ” crucified’ (p.95).
The third part of Pribbenow’s study starts by considering Bonhoeffer’s love for Psalm 119. This psalm played an increasingly important role in his thinking after visits to various monasteries in England in 1935. This psalm was, for Bonhoeffer, special in terms of its unceasing commitment to God’s word. This commitment provided a lens through which the Psalms could be understood as of vital importance to the prayer life of believers. Bonhoeffer’s incomplete commentary on Psalm 119 is examined with a view to any evidence as to his understanding of the nature and role of the Psalter. Implicit within this short work is the understanding that the faithful disciple will use the Psalms in regular prayer. In his commentary, Christ’s relationship with this psalm is as the one who has made it possible for the disciple to pray the Psalms, rather than as the one who prays. Pribbenow presents Bonhoeffer’s use of the Psalms in a number of organised schemes in order to both substantiate his argument and provide a helpful summary of key material for those wishing to conduct their own study of Bonhoeffer and the Psalms. These include considering the use of Psalms by the genre in which he cites and uses them, by theme and by date. Pribbenow explains that during his time in prison, Bonhoeffer, ‘seems to place greater emphasis on the original context of the psalm, oftentimes a Davidic context. The connection Bonhoeffer then makes to the psalm is by means of analogy, not so much Christology’ (p.170). The reasons for this shift, if it is one, remain unclear as there is ambiguity given Bonhoeffer’s context and the necessary changes in the genres of his writings as a result of imprisonment.
In the conclusion to this book, Pribbenow examines the strengths and weakness of Bonhoeffer’s Christological interpretation of the Psalms. One of his concerns is that Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the historical critical method in favour a Christological hermeneutic is an overreaction in its singular nature. He argues that attention needs to be paid to the original historical context as well as the Christological lens. Another concern is that Bonhoeffer’s Christological lens is essentially ‘a Good Friday’ one, and neglects Christ’s resurrection and second coming.
I found the overall argument to be a compelling one—Pribbenow does do what he set out to do; demonstrating that Bonhoeffer’s approach does indeed offer something new to the interpretation of the Psalms. For Bonhoeffer the Psalter is ‘the prayerbook of Christ’ hence the name of this volume. Pribbenow has also laid out his work meticulously, and his compilation of tables summarising Bonhoeffer’s use of the Psalms is a helpful starting point for those wishing to either test Pribbenow’s conclusions or to take the work forward in the other directions suggested at the conclusion of this book. Sometimes the clarity was actually a little overdone, in that the closing and opening ‘signposting’ in some sections was rather repetitive. I was also a little disappointed with the first three chapters. I would have like to have seen a little more detail and therefore nuance in the coverage of the interpretive methods that have been applied to the Psalms over the last two millennia. There also appears to be a mistake in the section title on p.26 which mentions interpretation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but discusses Gunkel and Mowinckel, both of whom did their scholarly work in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps this title hints of material that was removed at some stage? These are minor niggles with what is a valuable contribution to the study of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and interpretation of the Psalms. I very much hope the publishers are able to print a more reasonably priced paperback in due course, to open up this book to a wider audience than specialist scholars and/or those with a specialist theological library on their doorstep.