This We Believe: The Theological Declaration of Barmen

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Having dipped our toes into the theological waters with the Brief Statement of Faith (written at the reunion of the northern and southern churches, becoming the PCUSA, finished in 1991), it’s time now to turn to another confession. Since we are embarking on a WEAVE class about how our faith affects our public life, and since our country has turned its attention to election season yet again, how about exploring a confession written at a time of deep national and political strife that had worked its way into the faith and life of the church and Christians?

In 1932, the German Christian movement was organized as an attempt to organize the church around the National Socialist party line. The people forming this movement believed the church was not adequately supporting German nationalism, and that Christianity was really rooted in nationhood. Among other things, they taught that God created certain orders in life, and the church’s task was to maintain those orders–including racial purity and German superiority. They also championed the removal of anyone with Jewish heritage from the church–Jews were not even worthy of evangelization, they were simply to be purged.  Many church leaders and intellectuals of the day supported this view.

The Pastors Emergency League, organized by Martin Niemoller in late 1932, attempted to resist. Thousands of pastors and other church leaders gathered in an attempt to maintain true Christian faith–and for their efforts, many were jailed. Niemoller ended up as Hitler’s personal prisoner, eventually spending time in Dachau.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor of Germany, and though he initially feigned compatibility with Christianity, it soon became clear that was not the truth. Soon the Nazi party was coercing churches into doing their political will, including that bit about making one’s racial background a criteria for church membership.

In May 1934, delegates representing several denominations (Lutheran, Reformed, and United) met in Barmen to reiterate their faith in the gospel–and so openly contested the imposition of the Nazi agenda on the churches. This was, at the very least, unpatriotic, and more likely treasonous. But the church believed it had reached a time called status confessionis, where it is impossible NOT to make a new and public declaration of faith.

To be clear on some language: “German Christians” are the state church, the “Evangelical Church” is the protestant coalition that stood against the Nazis. (in other words: Evangelical then and Evangelical now are not exactly the same thing!)  There were also German Catholics, of course, though Barmen and its history doesn’t go into their response to this public and political faith crisis. The faithful in the Evangelical Church eventually became known as the “Confessing Movement” which is, again, different from the Confessing Church movement in the PCUSA in the 20th/21st century.

Karl Barth, a well known German theologian, did most of the writing of this confession, “fortified by strong coffee and one or two Brazilian cigars.” The confession is in 2 sections–first, a “why are we doing this” section, and then a 6-point confession of faith that both declares what we believe and what we do not believe–in other words, affirming that to say “yes” to the gospel, we must say “no” to some other things.

Section 1: An Appeal to the Evangelical Congregations and Christians in Germany

In this section, the delegates explain what they are doing.

“With gratitude to God, they are convinced they have been given a common word to utter. It was not their intention to found a new Church or to form a union. Nothings was farther from their minds than the abolition of the confessional status of our Churches. Their intention was, rather, to withstand in faith and unanimity the destruction of the Confession of Faith, and thus of the Evangelical Church in Germany. In opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the church by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices, the Confessional Synod insists that the unity of the church can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit.

“Therefore the Confessional Synod calls upon the congregations to range themselves behind it in prayer…

“Be not deceived by loose talk, as if we meant to oppose the unity of the German nation! …

“If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ “

Already in just their introduction, the Synod is making a theological statement: they believe that the Spirit of God is still moving and active, giving them a common word to utter against the false doctrine and use of force that has been imposed on the church. They clearly believe that the Church belongs to God, not to human beings, and so in prayer and with careful study of Scripture we will find the authority to follow Christ–not in careful study of what the elected leader wants the church to do. In fact, they say that it is important to speak up, that we cannot remain silent in the face of such untruth and injustice–that when we see the state, the powers, the culture twisting the word of God, or working against it, then we as people of faith must speak.

They also clearly state that opposing the state’s interference in the church is NOT the same as opposing the nation. Notice, however, that they do not comment on the ruling party or on Hitler. It was still early in the Nazi experience, but even so many of the people at the Synod felt guilty about this later–that they did not stand up and more clearly oppose Hitler and Nazi policy and practice. After the war ended, many in the movement believed they could (and should) have done more, and they signed the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt, embracing their collective responsibility for the sings of the war years. Though there is plenty of debate about whether the church could have done more to stand up to Nazi atrocities, it is certain that many in the movement paid a high price even for this much dissent–many (including Barth) lost teaching positions and pastorates, and some, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, lost their lives.

Check in every Monday for the next few weeks as we discuss the six points of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, and wonder about the crossing of our own faith and public life.

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One response »

  1. Pingback: peeking in on the Men’s Breakfast talk…Church and State « the Blog of RCLPC

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