Bonhoeffer on Singing

Singing the New Song

The prayers of the psalms and the reading of Scripture should be followed by the singing together of a hymn, this being the voice of the Church, praising, thanking, and praying.

“Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalter enjoins us again and again. It is the Christ-hymn, new every morning, that the family fellowship strikes up at the beginning of the day, the hymn that is sung by the whole Church of God on earth and in heaven, and in which we are summoned to join. God has prepared for Himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join this song. It is the song that the “morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” at the creation of the world (Job 38:7). It is the victory song of the children of Israel after passing through the Red Sea, the Magnificat of Mary after the annunciation, the song of Paul and Silas in the night of prison, the song of the singers on the sea of glass after their rescue, the “song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Rev. 15:3). It is the new song of the heavenly fellowship.

In the morning of every day the Church on earth lifts up this song and in the evening it closes the day with this hymn. It is the triune God and His works that are extolled. This song has a different ring on earth from what it has in heaven. On earth it is the song of those who believe, in heaven the song of those who see. On earth it is a song expressed in fallible human terms, in heaven it is the “unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (II Cor. 12:4), it is the “new song” that “no man could learn…but the hundred and forty and four thousand” (Rev. 14:3), the song to which “the harps of God” are played (Rev. 15:2).

What do we know of that new song and the harps of God? Our new song is an earthly song, a song of pilgrims and wayfarers upon whom the Word of God has dawned to light their way. Our earthly song is bound to God’s revealing Word in Jesus Christ. It is the simple song of the children of this earth who have been called to be God’s children; not ecstatic, not enraptured, but sober, grateful, reverent, addressed steadily to God’s revealed Word.

“Sing and make melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). The new song is sung first in the heart. Otherwise it cannot be sung at all. The heart sings because it is overflowing with Christ. That is why all singing in the church is a spiritual performance. Surrender to the Word, incorporation in the community, great humility, and much discipline – these are the prerequisites of all singing together. Where the heart is not singing there is no melody, there is only the dreadful medley of human self-praise. Where the singing is not to the Lord, it is singing to the honor of the self or the music, and the new song becomes a song of idols.

“Speak to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). Our song on earth is speech. It is the sung Word. Why do Christians sing when they are together? The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word. All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn. The fact that we do not speak it but sing it only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, that the burden of our song goes far beyond all human words. Yet we do not hum a melody; we sing words of praise to God, words of thanksgiving, confession, and prayer. Thus the music is completely the servant of the Word. It elucidates the Word in its mystery.

Because it is bound wholly to the Word, the singing of the congregation, especially of the family congregation, is essentially singing in unison. Here words and music combine in a unique way. The soaring tone of unison singing finds its sole and essential support in the words that are sung and therefore does not need the musical support of other voices.

                                                With one voice let us sing today
                                                In unison both praise and pray

sang the Bohemian Brethren. “With one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6). The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity of and frugality, the humaneness and warmth of this way of singing is the essence of all congregational singing. This, it is true, discloses itself to our cultivated ears only gradually and by patient practice. It becomes a question of a congregation’s power of spiritual discernment whether it adopts proper unison singing. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity.

There are some destroyers of unison singing in the fellowship that must be rigorously eliminated. There is no place in the service of worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing. There is, first, the improvised second part which one hears almost everywhere. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing fullness to the soaring unison tone, and thus kills both the words and the tone. There is the bass or the alto who must call everybody’s attention to his astonishing range and therefore sings every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant from a full chest and drowns out everything else to the glory of its own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the “unmusical,” who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe, and finally, there are often those also who because of some mood will not join in the singing and thus disturb the fellowship.

Unison singing, difficult as it is, is less of a musical than a spiritual matter. Only where everybody in the group is disposed to an attitude of worship and discipleship can unison singing, even though it may lack much musically, give us the joy which is peculiar to it alone.

For practice in unison singing we should adopt first the Reformation chorales, then the hymns of the Bohemian Brethren and those of the ancient church. Starting here, one’s judgment as to which hymns of our hymnbook lend themselves to such rendition and those which do not will be formed quite of itself. Any doctrinaire attitude, which we meet with so often in this area, comes from evil. The decision in this issue can only be made on the merits of each case, and here too we must not be iconoclastic. A Christians family fellowship will therefore try to master as large as possible a number of hymns that can be sung freely from memory. It will achieve this aim if in every devotion it includes, beside a freely selected hymn, several set stanzas that may be sung between the readings.

But there should be singing, not only at devotions, but at regular times of the day or week. The more we sing, the more joy will we derive from it, but, above all, the more devotion and discipline and joy we put into our singing, the richer will be the blessing that will come to the whole of life of the fellowship from singing together.

It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song. Thus all singing together that is right must serve in its song. Thus all singing together that is right must serve to widen our spiritual horizons, make us see our little company as a member of the great Christian Church on earth, and help us willingly and gladly to join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the Church.


Excerpted from Life Together, The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer





4 responses to “Bonhoeffer on Singing

  1. Becky, I don’t think he’s calling for the elimination of harmony as much as he is calling for unity of voice. If I understand Bonhoeffer correctly, it seems that he is arguing that when we are focused on “our parts” we’re not focusing on the whole – which, in his view, disturbs the fellowship.

    He opens the book by quoting Psalm 133:1 – “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” He then writes, “In the following we shall consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide for our life together under the Word.” His concern in the book is to explore and encourage the church toward unity. As singing goes, it is his position that it is less about music and musicality than it is about a unified voice.

    One could argue that singing the same notes in this regard is akin to singing the same words. To sing together (notes and words) is to take individual flourishes out of the equation and make it about the body speaking together with one voice.

    An analogy (which will break down as all analogies do) is the movement of a company of soldiers. In boot camp soldiers (and sailors and marines, etc.) learn to walk together. That is, they learn to march in formation – they tailor their stride and cadence to the company rather than each walking his own way, adding his own style as an enhancement to the unit.

    When someone does add his own special something it is not a contribution to the whole but a diminishing of it. This is most clear when you’re observing the movement of a military unit. When someone is out of step (or worse, adding a little bounce or flourish) the whole unit is out of sync. It just isn’t right.

    Interestingly, learning to march in formation is difficult and requires much practice. After spending 18 or so years walking the way one walks, it is uncomfortable and awkward to march in step and cadence with others. Getting a unit of, say, 80 or so soldiers to do the same thing the same way is not a small task. Over the course of the boot camp experience, young soldiers learn to think in terms of the unit and their singularity of purpose rather than their own personal style or fulfillment.

    Also interesting is that as young men emerge from boot camp they find it exceedingly difficult to not walk in step with each other. The bent toward unity replaces the bent away from it (at least in this regard).

    At the end of the day, it is less about walking in straight lines with precision than it is about disparate parts moving as one. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell (or march or sing) together in unity!

    Now, does this mean that the only proper singing in a worship service is unison singing? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that we’re better servants if we ask the questions and deal with them soberly. To not ask the question because we’re not sure we’re going to like the answers is unwise.

    I do think that harmony can manifest itself in other ways in the church – in fact, it must. When each one is working according to his or her giftedness (Ephesians 4:15-16; Romans 12:3-8; etc.), there is a serious harmony of effort that is a symphony of living worship.

    I’m drawn to the Bonhoeffer perspective because it promotes us being together in our worship. Whether or not it is the only way is a good and reasonable question. But the impulse toward unity is the right one. It doesn’t come naturally to us (we are inclined toward disunity and disintegration), just as it doesn’t come naturally to the recruit to walk like and with others. It takes practice and discipline and commitment. But there is a habit that develops and reward that comes – it is good and pleasant.

    “Unison singing, difficult as it is, is less of a musical than a spiritual matter. Only where everybody in the group is disposed to an attitude of worship and discipleship can unison singing, even though it may lack much musically, give us the joy which is peculiar to it alone.”

  2. Haven’t stopped by the blog in a while, but I guess this means you’re enjoying the Bonhoeffer book? I loved it, his whole perspective is Christ centric and he promotes unity in Him (in Whom all things hold together).
    I agree with your assertation of what Bonhoffer is getting at and I like the marching analogy. It was hard not to walk in step with shipmates even when not in formation.
    It’s about Christ, not us and our preferences and tastes, and we should sing unto Him as such.

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