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Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the few 20th-century theologians who are known by name to many people who otherwise don’t pay much attention to theology and its purveyors. His principled religious resistance to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany, finding expression in his best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, culminated in his arrest and ultimate execution by the Nazis near the end of the Second World War. He is remembered as one of the Protestant saints of the 20th century. But in addition to his theological, pastoral, and political roles, there is another facet of his life that is very little known: his deep interest in music, both as listener and as performer. The theologian and the musician in Bonhoeffer continuously interacted – not only in the sense that his theology informed his musical judgments, but also that his musical knowledge and sensibilities helped him to think through and express some of his most significant theological ideas. Understanding this interaction can, I believe, help us to unleash creative sources of spiritual insight in our own lives.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a prominent family of the academic and professional middle class. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Berlin; his mother, Paula, was of aristocratic background. He was one of eight children, four boys and four girls, who were raised in the affluent Berlin suburb of Grunewald, where their family’s circle of friends included professors, artist, musicians, and political figures. Bonhoeffer chose to study theology, and completed his doctorate at Berlin in 1927, at the precocious age of 21. He spent a year as an intern with a German congregation in Barcelona, and another year as a post-graduate fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He seemed well positioned to pursue both a pastoral and an academic career in Berlin.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer quickly saw the totalitarian nature of the regime, and joined the group within the German Evangelical Church that proposed to resist the Nazi attempt to take over the church’s message and life. He was a fervent supporter of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, and of the Confessing Church opposing the Nazi-aligned “German Christian” movement. By 1935, Bonhoeffer had been tapped to head one of the so-called “underground seminaries” of the Confessing Church and it was in this context that he wrote such beloved works as The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. But the tide was turning against the Confessing Church as the Nazis consolidated their power. In the summer of 1939, Bonhoeffer returned briefly to Union Seminary in New York, before deciding that his calling was to remain in Germany as part of the anti-Nazi struggle.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, Bonhoeffer was prohibited from publishing and public lecturing. At this point, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, recruited Dietrich, his older brother Klaus, and another brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, for the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s role was to use his international ecumenical contacts as a channel for communication with the Allies. In his spare moments, he worked on a book, Ethics, which was destined to remain unfinished. In early 1943, he became engaged to a young woman named Maria von Wedemeyer. A few weeks later, he and Dohnanyi were arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion, and incarcerated at the Tegel military prison in Berlin. 

Under interrogation for over a year, Bonhoeffer succeeded in protecting the on-going conspiracy. Meanwhile, with the help of friendly guards, he was able to carry on an extensive, smuggled correspondence with his close friend and colleague, Eberhard Bethge. In these letters, published after the war as the Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer responded to his personal circumstances, and to those of his nation, with deep theological insight and a bold vision of a possible future for Germany, western civilization, and Christianity. But after the failure of the assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944, documents were discovered that implicated Bonhoeffer and the others in the conspiracy. Along with hundreds of other resisters, Bonhoeffer was executed in the final weeks before Germany’s surrender in 1945.

Because the church struggle and the conspiracy claimed much of Bonhoeffer’s focus and energy from 1933 to 1945, he did not have the opportunity to produce finished works in the theological fields that most interested him. Those fields, notably the doctrines of Christ, the church, human existence, and ethics, were always linked to concerns of practical theology such as discipleship, community, ecumenism, and church polity. Nonetheless, certain features of his thought stand out when it is viewed as a whole. One such feature is a strong Christological focus, an insistence that every theological and ethical issue be understood in relation to what he called the “Christ-Reality.” Another is the claim that the Christian faith does not remove the believer from the world, but rather must be lived out in the midst of worldly, human concerns.  A “religious” (that is, other-worldly and individualistic) interpretation of Christianity, in Bonhoeffer’s view, is no longer appropriate for Christians living in a world that is “coming of age.” The church of the future will need to discover a “new language” to express its message, and that discovery will need to arise out of its core activities: prayer and doing justice.


Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer was deeply engaged with music. A gifted pianist, he once considered the possibility of a musical career. During family musical evenings, he would accompany his mother and older sisters in songs by 19th-century German and Austrian composers, such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf. He also played the lute and guitar. His brother Klaus was an accomplished cellist, his twin sister Sabine played the violin, and two older siblings married into the family of the composer Ernst von Dohnanyi. So the extended family, which remained very close in adulthood, continued and intensified this musical tradition.

Bonhoeffer at the piano

Bonhoeffer’s own tastes in music centered on the European tradition from Bach to Wolf. But during his year in New York City he worshiped frequently at African-American churches in Harlem and enthusiastically collected gramophone recordings of Negro spirituals. During a sojourn in London he explored the English choral tradition. And his friendship with the also-musical Bethge brought him into contact with Renaissance music, particularly the motets of Heinrich Schütz. He does not appear to have delved deeply into the music of his own century, certainly not Mahler, much less Schönberg or Stravinsky; but he does offer some appreciative words for contemporaneous church music composers such as Hugo Distler and Ernst Pepping, whom he sees as reaching back to the Renaissance and Baroque tradition.

These musical passions were not unrelated to his theological interests. He saw music as an important aspect of Bildung, education and character development, in a spiritual as well as a cultural sense. In a sermon written in prison in May 1944 for the baptism of Eberhard Bethge’s son Dietrich, he addressed his infant godson directly regarding the future that he anticipated for him:

“Amid the general impoverishment of spiritual life, you will find your parents’ home a treasury of spiritual values and a source of inspiration. Music, as your parents understand and practice it, will bring you back from confusion to your clearest and purest self and perceptions, and from cares and sorrows to the underlying note of joy.”

The German word translated here as “underlying note” is Grundton, which in German can refer to the tonic note of a scale or the root tone of a chord. Earlier translators rendered it as “ground-bass,” and although that term suggests a sequence of tones such as a cantus firmus or basso ostinato rather than an individual tone, I think this may come closer to Bonhoeffer’s intended meaning. In a series of letters he wrote to Bethge during precisely the period that he was writing this sermon, he frequently used musical terms such as polyphony, counterpoint, and cantus firmus to express certain theological ideas about the Christian life.         

For instance, in a letter written a little over two months earlier, Bonhoeffer had been reflecting on the disrupted and fragmentary lives of people in his generation–thinking no doubt about the derailment of his own academic and pastoral career as well as his separation from his fiancée. He cited J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue as an example of those fragments “which remain meaningful for years because only God could perfect them.” He continued:

“If our life is only the most remote reflection of such a fragment, in which, even for a short time, the various themes gradually accumulate and harmonize with one another, and in which the great counterpoint is sustained from beginning to end – so that finally, when they cease, all one can do is sing the chorale ‘Before Thy Throne I Now Appear’–then it is not for us, either, to complain about this fragmentary life of ours, but even to be glad of it.”

Bonhoeffer was referring to the masterpiece that Bach left unfinished at his death, having laid it aside in the midst of the majestic final quadruple fugue. In editing it for publication Bach’s son, C. P. E. Bach, left that shockingly sudden break-off as it was in his father’s manuscript, but appended to it, as a conclusion, a short setting of a chorale that Bach had dictated to his son-in-law a few days before his death. This has become standard performance practice down to the present, perhaps because it does not impose a human “completion” of the fragment, but instead pictures Bach as offering it to God for completion. As Bonhoeffer was to write a few months later in his poem, “Stations on the Way to Freedom,”

“Just for one blissful moment you could feel the sweet touch of freedom,
Then you gave it to God, that God might perfect it in glory.”

Bach’s unfinished fugue

But it was not only his own fragmented life that Bonhoeffer sought to understand under this musical metaphor. This can be seen in the pastoral advice he offered to Bethge and his wife Renate, who were separated while Bethge was stationed in Italy. They should not feel that their physical longing for each other is somehow unspiritual, in Bonhoeffer’s view. It is a necessary part of “the polyphony of life.”

“What I mean is that God, the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus to which the other voices of life resound in counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes, which keep their full independence but are still related to the cantus firmus, is earthly love. . . . Where the cantus firmus is clear and distinct, the counterpoint can develop as mightily as it wants.”

Bonhoeffer even compared the relationship between the cantus firmus and the contrapuntal themes to that between the divine and human natures of Christ according to the Definition of Chalcedon: “undivided and yet distinct.”

Bonhoeffer confessed to Bethge in a letter written a day later that “the image of polyphony is following me around,” as he dealt with the potent combination of joy for his friend and sorrow for his own isolation. And a week later it returned once again: in reflecting on his experience of air raids (frequent in Berlin by this point in the war), Bonhoeffer noted “how few people there are who can harbor many different things at the same time. When bombers come, they are nothing but fear itself; when there’s something good to eat, nothing but greed itself. . . . They are missing out on the fullness of life. . . . Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many dimensions of life at the same time; in a way, we accommodate God and the whole world within us. . . . Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic.” Whether the issue was shattered plans, erotic love, conflicting emotions, or response to danger, Bonhoeffer found the image of polyphony a powerful metaphor to express an understanding of life that he identified with the Christian faith.


But is polyphony merely a metaphor–that is, an illustration chosen after the fact to express an idea arrived at independently? Or should we see Bonhoeffer as someone who actually “thought musically” about life and faith, whose musicality is constitutive of his theology, rather than just illustrative? This is a complex question; about which we can only offer some suggestions here. Andreas Pangritz has studied the major passages in the Letters and Papers that refer to music, in his book The Polyphony of Life: Bonhoeffer’s Theology of Music (ET Cascade Books, 2019). He observes that these passages, taken together, offer “a complete eschatology formulated in musical concepts.” By “eschatology” he does not mean an advance script of supposed end-time events, but rather an understanding of how our own lives here and now are connected to God’s deepest and final purposes for the world. Important biblical concepts such as the kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the new creation are implicated in Bonhoeffer’s eschatology; and Bonhoeffer sometimes expresses these ideas in musical terms.

For instance, a line from a hymn by Paul Gerhardt (“Calm your hearts, dear friends; / whatever plagues you, / whatever fails you, / I will restore it all”) leads him to a discussion of Irenaeus’s doctrine of recapitulation, or the eschatological restoration of all earthly desires in purified form; and that reminds him of a series of ascending melismas on the words “O how my soul longs for you” in a motet of Heinrich Schütz. “In a certain way, namely in its devotion – ecstatic, aching, and nevertheless so pure – isn’t this passage something like the ‘restoration’ of all earthly desire?” he asks. Similarly, thinking about the Easter hymns that he must now hear “with the inner ear alone” leads him to reflect that such music is “purer, all the dross falls away, and it seems to take on a ‘new body.’” He continues: “I’m getting an existential appreciation of Beethoven’s music from when he was deaf,” and he sketches on staff lines the opening bars of the final movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata.

Interestingly, these examples follow a common pattern: a remembered hymn leads Bonhoeffer to a theological idea, which then leads him to a musical passage that seems both to confirm and deepen the insight. The lines of causation seem to move in both directions–from music to theology and back again. But it seems clear that the musical element in his thinking is not merely illustrative; rather, it leads his thinking forward in enriching ways.

In his book Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge University Press, 2000), theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie offers some provocative ideas about music as a constitutive element in theology. First, he notes that “music . . . is ‘performative’ through and through.” That is, it functions by being performed and heard physically in time; hence, “music entails sharing in and shaping the temporality of the world.” Further, he notes the many ways that Western music uses harmonic and rhythmic tension and resolution, repetition and variation, to enrich our experience of the present by linking it to the past in memory and the future in anticipation. This makes music particularly apt to “perform possibilities for theology,” and perhaps most notably for eschatology, with its embeddedness in the flow of time. Hence, Begbie argues that theological insights may be generated, for some at least, by the practice of performing (or listening attentively to) music, insights that might be less available to abstract conceptual formulation.

A similar insight is offered regarding visual artists by art historian Leo Steinberg in his monumental book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (2nd edition, University of Chicago Press, 1996). Observing that painters during the Renaissance often portrayed the infant Christ with his genitals exposed and even emphasized, Steinberg hypothesizes that they were motivated by a desire to express the full humanity of the incarnate Savior. When challenged by critics to cite medieval or Renaissance texts that they may have been illustrating, Steinberg countered that artist do not simply illustrate texts; that art is a way of thinking with its own logical exigencies; and that artists may therefore say new things, un-imagined or un-dared by wordsmiths. Unlike a writer, a visual artist cannot simply ignore what lies between the waist and the knees, but must decide how to portray it in faithful devotion. And for a brief window during the Renaissance, this meant devoutly revealing Christ’s manhood.

The parallels between Steinberg and Begbie are suggestive for our understanding of a thinker like Bonhoeffer, who combined a capacity for theoretical reflection in the Germanic tradition of Luther, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Barth with a deep love of literature, art, and music. His musicality in particular seemed to be a source of theological insight, particularly on issues of eschatology – how our lives and loves in the “penultimate” realm of this-worldly reality receives meaning and fulfilment in the light of the ultimate Christ-reality. This suggests that we should expand the list of his theological forebears to include Heinrich Schütz, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Ludwig van Beethoven – each of whom sounded for Bonhoeffer “the underlying note of joy.”

David E. Timmer

David E. Timmer

David Timmer recently retired from teaching Religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa. He now has more time to devote to appreciating music, both as a listener and as a choral singer.

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