The Christian church, or segments thereof, has throughout its two thousand year history published statements of faith and belief. Two of the earliest, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, are still used in regular worship by many branches of Christianity. The Protestant Reformation saw the formulation of a number of creedal statements, including the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, and the Westminster Declaration of Faith of 1646. Each of them was an attempt to define an orthodox system of belief, often in the face of tremendous pressures from opposing forces.
One significant statement of more recent formulation is The Barmen Declaration. Authored primarily by Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, this statement was developed and signed by representatives of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches in opposition to the German Christian movement imposed by the Third Reich under Hitler.
As Matthew D. Hockenos observes in his 2004 book “A Church Divided: German Protestants confront the Nazi past,” “When Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, Protestant churchmen across the country shared in the general enthusiasm for his nationalist, anticommunist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric.” Traditional Christian theology blamed all Jews in perpetuity for the death of Jesus, and German churches, following Luther’s teaching, regarded the state as ordained by God to provide peace and security for the populace. Within a year of Hitler’s accession to power leaders of the German Christians had gained control of all but three of the major regional churches. Their statement of “Guiding Principles” prioritized service to the German people, or Volk, and they gladly gave church support to Hitler’s project of national renewal.
In response, opponents of the German Christians organized under the leadership of Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller and formed what they termed the
. Their synod gathering in Barmen in May 1934 resulted in the issuance of The Barmen Declaration, which stated in its introduction, “In opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices, the Confessional Synod insists that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit.” Confessing Church
Each of the six “evangelical truths” of the Declaration follows the same three-part pattern: a Biblical text is given, the application of that text to church doctrine and practice is stated, and rejection of false doctrine is specified. These truths in summary are (1) Jesus Christ as attested in scripture is the one Word of God; (2) Jesus is God’s mighty claim on the whole of Christian life; (3) the church is solely the property of God and must proclaim God’s message without influence from “prevailing ideological and political convictions”; (4) the offices of the church are for mutual servant ministry and do not establish dominion of some over others; (5) in the present and unredeemed world, God has appointed the church with its tasks and the state with its tasks, and neither may assume the tasks of the other; and (6) the commission of the church is to deliver the message of the free grace of God through Word and Sacrament, thus the word and work of the church may not be placed in the service of any other purpose.
While Barmen offered strong resistance to National Socialist takeover of the offices and leadership of the church, it did little to provide an ethical critique of the Nazi project to brutalize and ultimately to exterminate Jews, Slavs, and other non-Aryan inhabitants of
Western Europe. Kathryn Tanner, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, writes in the February 23, 2010, issue of Christian Century, “Christians supported the Nazis not because they neglected the Word in favor of cultural trends but because they had a misguided understanding of Christianity. Hitler’s National Socialism was wrong on Christian grounds because its material policy toward Jews (and others) was unchristian and not because it forced the neglect of the Word by making an idol of the nation-state.”
Here we touch on the perennial question – how do we live as faithful Christians within the secular state? And underlying that question is another – what does it mean to be Christian, to act in a Christian way? When do we cooperate with the nation-state and when do we resist? As we have seen, German churchmen (and they were all men) by means of the Barmen Declaration objected to state intrusion into their ecclesial structures and the functions of their ministry. But few, even in the
, were willing to object to the German government’s treatment of the Jews. Confessing Church
It can serve as a cautionary example to us today. In 1933 Bavarian Bishop Meiser instructed the pastors in his jurisdiction to read from the pulpit a statement saying, “A state which brings into being again government according to God’s Laws should, in doing so, be assured not only of the applause but also of the glad and active cooperation of the Church. With gratitude and joy the Church takes note that the new state bans blasphemy, assails immorality, establishes discipline and order, with a strong hand, while at the same time calling upon man to fear God, espousing the sanctity of marriage and Christian training for the young, bringing into honor again the deeds of our fathers and kindling in thousands of hearts, in place of disparagement, an ardent love of Volk and Fatherland.” By 1945 more than eleven million had died at the hand of that state.
The Barmen Declaration was an attempt by some of the churches to resist cooptation by the state, but in the end its concern with process and structure proved sadly inadequate in the face of the evil unleashed by the Nazi Reich. Too many had been taken in by assertions of “Christian values” and failed to examine what was being done in the name of those values. Faithful living requires constant vigilance, critical thinking, and questioning of one’s own assumptions and biases. Creedal statements can be helpful in this endeavor, but even more important is a deep commitment to follow Jesus’ Way, with love of God and love of neighbor as primary obligations.