Barth versus Bonhoeffer: The Musical Showdown

I’ve been working my way through a fabulous book, Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology. One chapter in particular, a discussion by David J. R. S. Moseley of “Music as Witness in the Theology of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” has fundamentally altered my entire perspective of how music can witness to scripture, which is why I’m drawn to share it with you.

Some of you may know of the theologies of Barth and Bonhoeffer, two of the most significant figures in twentieth-century theology, and of their explicit understanding of music as a responsive form of “witness” that links worldly existence with its ground in God’s reconciling self-revelation in Christ. Barth understood this through the concept of “parables”, and Bonhoeffer understood this as “polyphony.” In this essay, Moseley explores how these two musical theologies can resonate with each other and with the modern-day church.

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Barth was a passionate amateur musician. He played the piano, learned violin at age 10, and played the classical composers, but he was fonder of singing than of playing, and loved hymns for their intrinsic theology.

As a young theologian, he was drawn immediately to a theology of music, writing as a teenager, “Why shouldn’t we see a divine spark in the genius of a Mozart or a Wagner?” In 1910, he published an article on “Faith and History” in which he included Francis of Assisi, Michelangelo, and Beethoven as “sources of revelation” alongside Paul.

As he matured, he shifted away from theological liberalism, becoming more wary of giving theological significance to music, but continuing to obsess over the genius of Bach and Haydn, and most of all, Mozart. It was through the lens of Mozart’s music that Barth developed his theology of “parables.”

In Barth’s How I Changed My Mind, (pp. 71-72) he wrote,

I am not… inclined to confuse or identify salvation history with any part of the history of art. But the golden sounds and melodies of Mozart’s music have from early times spoken to me not as gospel but as parables of the realm of God’s free grace as revealed in the gospel—and they do so again and again with great spontaneity and directness.

Mozart’s music has several fundamental aspects that Barth insisted were enough for it to be taken seriously in theology: it has non-synthetic dialects of light and darkness; there is a fundamental orientation of praise; and a mediating agency of God’s good and perfect creation. In fact, Barth used Mozart’s music as a litmus test for good theology in the prefaces to two part-volumes of the Church Dogmatics. It’s through these aspects that Barth understands and uses Mozart’s music to illustrate various theological points and describe its witness to the Kingdom of God.

It’s important to note that this is not a theory of literalism in musical association and representation. Barth describes the primary purpose of parables as not that we might understand the kingdom of God, but that we might experience it. In this way, the music of Mozart can engage with the contemporary secular, “religionless” world, because it can witness to God’s reconciling act in Christ in both the church and the world.

In other words: even if you don’t believe in Christ, understand the kingdom of God, or have the foundational theological language to describe or relate to Christ’s sacrifice of grace, mercy, light, and joy, Barth believed that you could still experience all of these things through the parables of Scripture that are inherent in the music of Mozart. In that way, Mozart’s music witnesses to the love of Christ through all the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Unlike Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was such an accomplished pianist that his family thought for a time that he might become a professional musician. He ultimately chose to study theology, but his classical musical education continued to inform and influence his theology for the rest of his life.

In some of his earliest writings, he addresses the seduction of musical beauty in a similar fashion to Augustine. He warned against “the power of beautiful music which might prevent us from hearing the Word of God and truly praising God in the new song of our redemption in Christ.” He also differentiated between the “outer beauty” and the “inner beauty” of music; the former would draw us in, seducing the ear and flattering the listener’s superficial enjoyment at the expense of deeper, spiritual fulfillment and joy found in the latter.

It was in May 1944, from his Nazi prison cell, that he first wrote of his theory of polyphony in a letter to his friend, Eberhard Bethge:

There’s always a danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to weaken or injure our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint.

Bonhoeffer had struggled for some time with the changes and impermanence of life during the war, and how he could find constancy and meaning in life despite all that had been “fragmented.” He found it through this idea of polyphony, writing that this very fragmentariness

may, in fact, point towards a fulfilment beyond the limits of human achievement; I have to keep that in mind, particularly in view of the death of so many of the best of my former pupils. Even if the pressure of outward events may split our lives into fragments, like bombs falling on houses, we must do our best to keep in view how the whole was planned and thought out.

He continued by putting this into an eschatological perspective, describing how some of these fragments may be forgotten, but there are others

whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments that must be fragments— I’m thinking, e.g., of the Art of the Fugue. If our life is but the remotest reflection of such a fragment, if we accumulate, at least for a short time, a wealth of themes and weld them into a harmony in which the great counterpoint is maintained from start to finish, so that at last, when it breaks off abruptly, we can sing no more than the chorale, I come before thy throne,” we will not bemoan the fragmentariness of our life, but rather rejoice in it.’

Taking these ideas of cantus firmus and fragmentariness, Bonhoeffer developed a full theory of the “polyphony of life,” with our love for God as the cantus firmus of our lives, bringing order and coherence to the fragmentary nature of contrapuntal human life.

I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going. …[R]ely on the cantus firmus.

Barth vs. Bonhoeffer; Parables vs. Polyphony

These two concepts are such great images for understanding how music can serve as a foundational part of Christian faith.

Barth’s “parables” shows the connections of Christian witness in a secular world, and the power of Christ’s love to be present in experience, in love, in light, in beauty, and in music, whether or not the music is found in the cathedral or the concert hall. Traditional evangelism involves words, it involves Christians preaching, handing out pamphlets, and sharing the love of Christ with our neighbors, and this is a calling of the church. However, we don’t have to limit evangelism to words. God can be found throughout creation, and the love and grace of Christ can be found there also, whether it’s in the joy of a child, kindness shown to a stranger, or the beauty of Mozart.

Bonhoeffer’s “polyphony” is a profound way to understand the ordering of the Christian life. Musical polyphony is nothing without a good cantus firmus. It’s the basis for every other part of the piece of music. Without a good cf, the work is empty, rudderless, foundationless, and meaningless. The cf is the purpose and foundation of the work, through which the other musical parts are interpreted and understood.

In this analogy with the Christian life, Bonhoeffer encourages us to set God as our cantus firmus, providing a fundamental “bass line” to the many different fragments of life. We can then use God as cf of to interpret those different fragments, discovering a deeper relationship to the many facets of the human experience when they are understood through and in relation to the cantus firmus of our faith in God.

As you go about the rest of the week, I encourage you to keep Bonhoeffer’s encouragement close to your heart: “[R]ely on the cantus firmus.”

For further reading, see Chapter 10 of Resonant Witness.


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