Religion & Liberty Online

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

Barmen Declaration Memorial in Wuppertal, Germany (Image credit: Frank Vincentz) This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Ninety years ago, a document was drawn up by faithful Protestant Christians to proclaim their stand against the Nazi state’s attempt to coopt the church and pervert its teachings. It remains both a herald and a witness for the faithful today.

Read More…

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?

On July 20, 1933, the Nazis signed a concordat with the Vatican, allowing the Catholic Church to function as long as it stayed out of politics, though Catholic schools, hospitals, and other institutions were shut down and Catholics who resisted Hitler were brutally persecuted. Such an external conflict between the Catholic Church and the Nazi regime was bad enough. With the Protestants, however, the Nazi strategy was to take over their churches and change them from within. Many pastors and church members, caught up in the Nazi frenzy and their faith weakened by liberal theology and biblical criticism, had already embraced the “German Christian” religion, whose origins long preceded Hitler’s ascent to power.

Traditional Protestants alarmed at the “German Christian” capture of the institutional church rallied around the ousted bishop Bodelschwingh. Pastor Martin Niemöller founded “the Pastors’ Emergency League” to deal with the crisis. They resolved first to encourage local pastors and congregations to remain faithful in their teaching and preaching, despite the new church hierarchy. They also formulated plans for a “confessing church,” a network of pastors and congregations that would form a parallel church body that would continue to “confess” the Christian faith in the face of all opposition.

This Confessing Church needed a statement of that faith. The first attempt was by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, then a lecturer at the University of Berlin, and Hermann Sasse, a professor at Erlangen University. They composed the “Bethel Confession,” named after von Bodelschwingh’s ministry. This was a comprehensive statement of faith—with extensive articles on Scripture, the Reformation, the Trinity, Creation, Sin, Christ, and the Church—at every point refuting the “German Christian” positions on these topics. The Bethel Confession also took a strong stand in support of the Jews and condemned their mistreatment.

The Bethel Confession, however, was a distinctly Lutheran document, backing up its assertions not only with biblical texts but also with quotations from Luther and the Lutheran confessions of faith. It was sent to 20 other readers for suggestions. The consequent revisions toned down and muddled its arguments, to the point that even its two authors, Bonhoeffer and Sasse, refused to sign it.

What was needed was a shorter, more ecumenical document. The neo-orthodox Reformed theologian Karl Barth took on the task, with input from Niemöller and other confessing pastors. A meeting in the city of Barmen approved the document. On May 31, 1934, the Barmen Theological Declaration was published.

The English translation is less than 1,500 words. It consists of a preamble with two articles, setting forth the bold claim that the Confessing Church and not the institution led by the “German Christians” is the true Protestant church of Germany. It then gives six theses, following the format of the Lutheran Formula of Concord in stating both the teaching that is affirmed and the contrary teaching that is rejected. Here is a brief paraphrase of each thesis, quoting the powerful and still timely antitheses:

(1) Jesus Christ, as testified in Scripture, is the Word of God. He is God’s revelation and the church’s authority. “We reject the false doctrine! As if the church can and must recognise as a source of her proclamation, other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation, apart from and besides this one Word of God.”

(2) Jesus Christ forgives our sins and claims our entire lives. “We reject the false doctrine! As if there are areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords, areas in which we do not need justification and sanctification through him.”

(3) Jesus Christ acts in the Church through the Holy Spirit by means of the Word and the Sacraments. “We reject the false doctrine! As if the church is allowed to abandon the form of her message and her order to her own pleasure, or to the changes of prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

(4) Offices in the Church are not a matter of power and rule over others; rather, they carry out the ministry of the whole congregation. “We reject the false doctrine! As if the church, apart from this ministry, can and may be permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders with ruling powers.”

(5) God has established the state to provide justice and peace, and the Church to bring people into His eternal kingdom. “We reject the false doctrine! As if the state should and can, beyond its special commission, become the single and total order of human life, and thus also fulfil the purpose of the church. We reject the false doctrine! As if the church should and can, beyond its special commission, appropriate the nature of the state, the tasks of the state, and the dignity of the state, and thus itself become an organ of the state.”

(6) The Church’s mission is to deliver the message of the free grace of God to all people. “We reject the false doctrine! As if the church in human arrogance could place the Word and Work of the Lord at the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

The Barmen Declaration was not perfect. Unlike the Bethel Confession, it said nothing about the Jews. It overreached ecumenically, with its ambition to join Lutheran, Reformed, and United congregations into a single new church body, without addressing the theological differences that separated them. (For that reason, Hermann Sasse, among other theological conservatives, refused to sign it. He would later leave the state churches completely to join the small denomination of Independent Lutherans, whose strict adherence to the Bible and the Lutheran confessions had been enough to keep out the “German Christians.” He eventually emigrated to Australia, where he would teach at the Lutheran seminary in Adelaide and become one of the leading confessional Lutheran theologians of the 20th century.)

According to William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Germany in 1935 had, in round numbers, 18,000 Protestant pastors. Of these, 3,000 were “German Christians.” An equal number were committed to the Confessing Church. The other 12,000 kept their heads down, publicly committing to neither side.

The tendency has been to disparage that silent majority, but very likely many and maybe most of them took Niemöller’s advice simply to remain faithful in their local congregations, teaching and preaching like before, despite what the hierarchy might say. And they took at least some risk in not embracing the “German Christians.”

The Barmen Declaration arguably put a brake on that movement, which never succeeded in its goal of changing what was taught in typical, grassroots parishes. Hitler eventually gave up on the project of co-opting the Protestant churches. To a certain extent, he left them alone so long as they did not openly question his policies, though he cracked down on dissenting Christians and the leadership of the Confessing Church.

For example: Some 700 pastors were arrested. Bonhoeffer joined a secret anti-Nazi faction of Germany’s military intelligence, for which he was imprisoned, and, after the faction’s attempt to assassinate Hitler failed, he was sent to Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was hanged. Thousands of others in the German resistance, many of whom were motivated by their Christian faith, were executed. Niemöller was sent to a concentration camp but survived. Bodelschwingh continued to defend those under his care. When Berlin ordered his arrest, the local Nazi official refused to do so, saying the pastor was so beloved in the community that arresting him would cause too much trouble. Sasse, too, was protected by his popularity. The students at the University of Erlangen held him in high regard as a teacher, and his dean protected him. After the war, Sasse would preside over the university’s de-Nazification. Barth was ousted from his professorship at the University of Bonn, whereupon he returned to his native Switzerland.

The Barmen Declaration may not have achieved its immediate intended purpose, but after 90 years, it nevertheless endures. The mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, as well as the pietist Moravian Church, accept it as an official confession of faith. So does today’s Evangelical Church of Germany, the successor of the German Evangelical Church Confederation.

And it clearly speaks today against the perennial threats of both the divinized state and the secularized church.

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith is provost emeritus at Patrick Henry College, where he also served as professor of literature and interim president. He is currently the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary at Fort Wayne, Ind., and the author of over 25 books on the topics of Christianity and culture, literature, the arts, classical education, vocation, and theology.