What does a fourth-century Catholic bishop and Greek-Egyptian, Athanasius of Alexandria, have in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th-century German Protestant pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident? Both theologians wrote a book on the Psalms of the Bible. Both theologians suffered persecution because of their religious convictions, and as a result both were exiled by oppressive systems. The Coptic Christian bishop was exiled five times throughout life, but died peacefully in his bed in 373 A.D. Like Athanasius, Bonhoeffer was exiled as well, to the Flossenburg concentration camp near the Czechoslovakian border, yet Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945. According to one of his students present at the hanging, Eberhard Bethge, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer ... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed.” (927) The “way this lovable man prayed” is described in detail by Bonhoeffer in his short book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Fortress Press). In it we learn how his prayer is not really his prayer; “it can become our prayer only because it was [Jesus’s] prayer.” In Athanasius’s book, St. Athanasius on the Psalms, in contrast, Athanasius humanizes the Psalms when he writes about the “movements of the human soul,” and it is only Athanasius who in a ternary way believes “these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn of life.”
For both Athanasius and Bonhoeffer, the Psalms helped them through their suffering in exile, or “at every turn of life.” Persecution and exile usually come hand in hand, and this is the case for Athanasius, but for Athanasius the Psalms allow him to address God directly. For instance, Athanasius informs us that “We are told … here again the Psalms supply words with which both those who flee persecution and those who suffer under it may suitably address themselves to God” (Para. 10). A few paragraphs later, we see how Athanasius reads himself into the place of David the poet when he claims, “If any plot against you, as did Ahithophel against David [as with Athanasius], and someone tells you of it, sing Psalm 7, and put your trust in God Who will deliver you.” (Para. 15)
Just as the Christian brothers and sisters pursued Athanasius because of his religious convictions, so did the Nazis pursue Bonhoeffer. According to Worthen, Bonhoeffer’s “Prayerbook of the Bible was the last book Bonhoeffer was able to publish, and the one that brought him into the most immediate trouble with the [Nazi] authorities—despite its appearing to be no more than a short devotional treatise on a much-loved book of the Bible.”(6) Like Athanasius, Bonhoeffer looked to the Psalms for instruction of how to face persecution. For instance, “The Psalter gives us ample instruction in how to come before God in a proper way, bearing the frequent suffering which this world brings upon us. Serious illness and severe loneliness before God and men, threat, persecution, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on earth are know by the Psalms” (46).
The Psalms meet “our own soul’s need” more for Athanasius than for Bonhoeffer. In his short work, Athanasius mentions the “soul” 19 times compared to Bonhoeffer who mentions it only once. For instance, when citing Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer declares the Psalms “…demand a quiet and restful soul, which can grasp and hold to that which the Holy Spirit there presents and offers” (23; italics added). Bonhoeffer’s “demand” depicts an image of a drowning person who can only “grasp and hold” onto what the Holy Spirit presents. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Athanasius presents an image of what seems to be a feedback loop between the Holy Spirit and the human soul. For instance, Athanasius believes that the book of Psalms “has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.” (Para. 10; italics added)
For Bonhoeffer there is no “self” when considering the Psalms, only Jesus. In contrast, Athanasius describes how our souls are reflected in the Psalms — as our faces are reflected in a mirror; hence, this mirror is how these “divine songs suit ourselves.” First, Bonhoeffer asks, “How is it possible for a man and Jesus Christ to pray the Psalter together? ... It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer, and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer” (20-1). Hence, according to Bonhoeffer, our prayer is not really ours, because “it can become our prayer only because it was [Jesus’s] prayer.” Yet, for Athanasius “every other Psalm is spoken and composed by the Spirit in the selfsame way: just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them, and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives.” (Para. 12; italics added) Accordingly, Kolbet argues that for Anthanasius, “The Psalms, consequently, are a secondary remedial mirror, a corrective lens, that is needed since the human soul, the primary mirror, has become occluded, weakened, and disordered, no longer functioning to reflect the divine image” (95). Unlike Bonhoeffer, Athanasius reveals how a feedback loop exits between our souls and the Psalms, and how these divine songs are corrective lenses to suit ourselves.
In the future, my choice of commentary on the Psalms would be Athanasius over Bonheoffer because Athanasius humanizes the Psalms for me, in that my “face is reflected” in them; hence, these divine songs suit me. In addition, when I read Athanasius’s commentary, I feel my “own soul’s need” is being met at every turn of life because I feel my life is animated when woven within these divine songs by the Holy Spirit.
Gilbert McInnis is completing his master’s degree in divinity through Queen’s College, Memorial University, and currently is an assistant professor and the co-ordinator of the writing centre for the University College of the North, Thompson. His forthcoming book “Kurt Vonnegut: Myth and Science in a Postmodern World” will be released in the spring by Peter Lang Inc. See his Amazon Author’s website for more works by him.
Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times: A Biography Rev. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Kolbet, Paul K. “Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self.” Harvard Theological Review 99.1 (2006): 85-101.
Worthen, Jeremy. “Praying the Psalms and the Challenges of Christian-Jewish Relations: Dietrich Bonoeffer and Thomas Merton.” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 9 (2014): 1-23.