Article Note: David A.R. Clark, “Psalm 74:8 and November 1938: Rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Kristallnacht Annotation in its Interpretive Context”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 2 (June 2019)

Article Note: David A.R. Clark, “Psalm 74:8 and November 1938: Rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Kristallnacht Annotation in its Interpretive Context,” Scottish Journal of Theology 71, no. 3 (2018): 253–266.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s complex relationship to Jews and Judaism continues to preoccupy both historians and theologians. To give just one example, although Bonhoeffer has been lauded for his concern for Jews and calls for ecclesiastical resistance against the state on their behalf in his famous 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” scholars have also criticized other aspects of that same writing, including expressions of theological anti-Judaism and Bonhoeffer’s use of “Jewish Christianity” as a term of derision for a kind of legalism practiced by the pro-Nazi German Christian Movement.

In this article, Ph.D. candidate David A.R. Clark revisits Bonhoeffer’s response to the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom. Clark begins by noting that Bonhoeffer had no pulpit from which to respond to the pogrom, nor did he make a public comment. Bonhoeffer did react, though, and the evidence is in the margin of his Bible, where he wrote the date of the pogrom (November 9, 1938) beside Psalm 74:8, underlined the text, “They burn all the houses of God in the land.”[1] Clark notes that Bonhoeffer friend and scholar Eberhard Bethge described this reference to a contemporary event is unique in the marginalia of Bonhoeffer’s Bible. He adds that Bonhoeffer wrote his Finkenwalde students about a week later, explaining that he had been pondering and praying about Psalm 74, Zechariah 2:8, Romans 9:4-5, and Romans 11:11-15 in the previous few days—all passages relating to God’s special relationship to the Jews.

While other scholars have noted the political importance of Bonhoeffer’s Psalm 74 marginalia, Clark aims “to examine this annotation more thoroughly in the context of Bonhoeffer’s then-burgeoning commitment to figural interpretation of the Psalter” (255).[2] By 1935 at least, he argues, Bonhoeffer was open to drawing allegorical or symbolic meanings from biblical texts, not least because of Bonhoeffer’s conviction that the whole of Scripture was a witness to Christ and also on account of his particular interest in the relationship of Christ to the Psalms.

Clark develops Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christ in the Psalms from two of Bonhoeffer’s writings: Life Together (September/October 1938) and Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms (1940). He finds that Bonhoeffer argued that the Psalms essentially expressed the voice of Christ, and that it was most important to understand the Psalms as the prayers of the suffering and dying Christ (259). As Clark puts it, quoting Bonhoeffer, “‘No single human being can pray the psalms of lamentation out of his or her own experience.’ Rather, Bonhoeffer advocates hearing these psalms as the prayers of Christ, who ‘has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we have’” (260). Importantly, as Clark argues, Bonhoeffer then went further, “claiming additionally that the voice of Christ in psalms of suffering discloses the presence of Christ in human suffering today: ‘psalms of lament’, [Bonhoeffer] states, ‘proclaim Jesus Christ as the only help in suffering, for in Christ God is with us’” (260).

Based on this analysis of Bonhoeffer’s interest in figural interpretation, then, Clark reinterprets Bonhoeffer’s Kristallnacht annotation next to Psalm 74:8 not merely as an expression of sympathy based the similarity of contemporary and ancient cases of the abandonment of Jews, à la Eberhard Bethge, but as something more. Moving from the level of historical to christological interpretation, Clark argues “that our understanding of the Kristallnacht annotation will be enriched by attending more closely to Bonhoeffer’s figural work, which reveals the deeper theological resonance of connecting Kristallnacht with Psalm 74. As David McI. Gracie states in his brief discussion of the annotation: ‘It is important to note at the outset that Bonhoeffer taught that the psalms were to be prayed, prayed with Christ, whose prayers he believed they really were – in this case with the Christ who was being driven out of Germany when the Jews were driven out.’” (262). Clark also draws on the work of Geoffrey B. Kelly to make the point that it was as if historical distance had collapsed and Christ suffered anew in the brutalization of the German Jews.

With this Clark concludes that Bonhoeffer’s Psalm 74 annotation “entails christological presence: Bonhoeffer heard the voice of Christ praying in despair in Psalm 74:8, and – in keeping with the revelatory simultaneity of figural interpretation – he heard this voice not in the distant past of Israelite history but in the contemporary persecution of present-day Jews” (263). He closes by reminding us not to make too much of one marginal notation—it was not a public protest—but adds that it “introduces added complexities” to our understanding of Bonhoeffer’s personal solidarity with Jews (265).


[1] Bonhoeffer also placed a vertical line and bold exclamation point alongside the following verse, Psalm 74:9, which reads: “We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long.” (ESV), but as Clark notes, the date of the Kristallnacht pogrom is written only beside verse 8, and specifically beside the underlined words, “They burn all the houses of God in the land,” so that we cannot be sure that the marginalia pertaining to verse 9 relate to the events of November 1938.

[2] German-Jewish literary scholar Eric Auerbach defined the term in his work Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), 73: “Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first.”