The Barmen Declaration Then and Now

The Barmen Declaration Then and Now May 28, 2024


This year marks the 90th Anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, the statement of convictions that the Confessing Church of Germany used to defy the pro-Nazi “German Christians” who had taken over the state churches.  In a time when Christians are wrestling with their relationship with the state and are facing the prospect of overt persecution, the Barmen Declaration can give guidance.

I was asked to write about the Barmen Declaration for Religion & Liberty Online.  I had written about the Nazi ideology of the time and its connection to contemporary postmodern thought in my book Modern Fascism, which seems to be getting renewed attention today.  I include a discussion of what happened to the churches in Germany and how their Nazification stemmed from mutations of liberal theology, with its mandate to conform to cultural change and its downplaying of the supernatural and historic Christian doctrines, along with the related Historical Critical approach to the Bible, a book theologians were saying the church should downplay because of its “Jewish elements.”

In my research into the Barmen Declaration I learned things I didn’t realize before.  One was just how bad the “German Christians” were, how they explicitly rejected the Bible, the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, His miracles, His atonement for sin, His resurrection, and His moral teachings.  In fact, there is nothing left of Christianity among the so-called “German Christians,” giving the lie to the charges that theological conservatism is somehow related to Nazism.

My other discovery was the Bethel Confession, a much better, more comprehensive rebuttal of Nazism and the Nazi church, including something the Barmen Declaration sadly omits, a defense of the Jews and a condemnation of their mistreatment.  The Bethel Confession was written by the great confessional Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse, whom we’ve blogged about (see this and this), as well as the more famous Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The Bethel Confession has only now been translated into English, with notes and commentary, by the longtime friend of this blog Bror Erickson.  I hope to write about that before too long.

Anyway, here is my article.  Again, I shouldn’t post it all, since it belongs on the website that publishes it, but I can post the introductory section with a link to the rest.  And I’ll make it a free post so that non-subscribers can read it too.

Fighting for the Church in a Time of Crisis: The Barmen Declaration

This is the 90th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, the statement of faith issued by the “Confessing Church” of Germany, the Christians who opposed the takeover of the Protestant churches by Nazi theologians.

At a time when political ideologies again threaten to crowd out Christian theology with a “social gospel” of either the left or the right, the Barmen Declaration remains highly relevant. It can help Christians discern the difference between legitimate political activism and social ministry and that which is worldly and idolatrous.

For much of its history, Germany consisted of dozens of principalities, each with its own ruler and its own officially recognized church. Some were Catholic; some were Protestant. Of those, some were Lutheran, some were Reformed, and some were United (a project of the kings of Prussia to unite those two traditions under a more generic Protestant theology). When Germany was united into an Empire and, after World War I, into a Republic, the states and their churches remained.

Smaller denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, various Pietist sects, and independent Lutherans were scattered throughout Germany, but the 28 Protestant “land-churches—the official churches of the various German states—formed a loose association called the German Evangelical Church Confederation.

When Hitler seized power, as part of his efforts to unite the patchwork of the still semi-independent German states into one regime under his control, he ordered that the German Evangelical Church Confederation be consolidated into a single Protestant Reich Church.

The new church body elected as its bishop the devoutly orthodox Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, who operated the Bethel Institution, which provided healthcare for the poor, the disabled, and the mentally handicapped. He would later battle Nazi efforts to euthanize the children and adults under his care and became a leader of the Confessing Church. But he was soon ousted as bishop of the new national church and was replaced by Nazi functionary Ludwig Müller, who filled other leadership positions with members of the so-called German Christian movement.

For decades, German theologians in the universities—which trained new pastors in lieu of seminaries—had been teaching theological modernism, a.k.a. liberal theology, encouraging the church to abandon its historical doctrinal commitments to conform to the changing culture. German Bible scholars in those universities were also pioneers of the “higher critical” approach to Scripture, rejecting its accounts of miracles and other supernatural content, seeking instead to study the Bible like it would any other ancient book. Those liberal theologians and Bible critics seriously undermined their church’s commitment to orthodox Christian doctrine, and some of them had already been calling for a new kind of Christianity purged of its “Jewish elements”—that is to say, its biblical elements.

The “German Christians” took these theological approaches to an extreme. The modern culture their theologians sought to conform to was that of National Socialism. To eliminate the Jewish foundations of Christianity, they called for removing the Old Testament from the Bible. They also published a “dejudaized” version of the New Testament that removed Jewish references and concepts.

What about Jesus? Wasn’t He a Jew? The “German Christians” claimed he was not. Jesus was from Galilee, which they said had been settled by Aryans from Iran and India. These Galileans were supposedly forced to convert to Judaism, but they were not Jews “by blood.” The “German Christians” denied that Jesus was miraculously born of the Virgin Mary, teaching instead that He was the illegitimate son of a Germanic soldier serving in the Roman legion. Thus, according to them, Jesus was an Aryan and a German!

The “German Christians” went so far as to commission the poet and historical novelist Lulu von Strauss und Torney to write a “Fifth Gospel” depicting this Nazi view of Jesus. In her narrative, she removed Christ’s miracles, His moral teachings, His saving work, and His resurrection. Rather, she portrayed Him as a German hero who battled the Jews until they crucified Him.

The “German Christians” also repudiated Christian ethics, with its emphasis on love, compassion, and forgiveness. These were signs of what they called “negative Christianity,” with its dogmas, fixation on sin, and calls for repentance. Instead, the “German Christians” promoted what they called “positive Christianity,” which was an optimistic, this-worldly, fighting religion.

In her book The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, Susannah Heschel documents how the “German Christians” “shifted Christian attention from the humanity of God to the divinity of man: Hitler as an individual Christ, the German Volk as a collective Christ, and Christ as Judaism’s deadly opponent.”

What were actual Christians to do in the face of this blasphemy and idolatry? How were they to respond to its proponents, who were now the ruling authorities in the Protestant churches?

[Click here to keep reading. . .]


Photo:  “Synodal elections 1933: German Christians and Confessing Church campaigners in Berlin” by Gregor Helms at German Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.*

*The sign on the left reads in part, “Choose the list: German Christian!”  The sign on the right reads, in part, “. . .the Church must remain!  Choose the list:  The Gospel and the Church.”  Both sides had its slate of candidates for church office.  The German Christians won by a 2/3 majority.  See this.

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