The Barmen Theological Declaration 1934

It was thanks to the crisis made and symbolized by Hitler that Barth became a famously influential theologian for politics. He was prepared for the occasion, because, by 1933, his theological learning, skill, and direction were massive and mature. He had extraordinary energy, personal attractiveness and standing as a well-known church theologian, while not being entangled in church administration. He had come to a clear, neither hasty nor simplistic, political judgment against Nazism and in favor of social democracy and even moderate nationalism. Barth had a major influence on the Synod of Barmen, May 29-31, 1934, through months of preparatory work and in writing the final version of its theological declaration (Nicolaisen 1985; Barth 1971: 72). Through the tedious and self-important intricacies of church politics, he discerned and articulated theological issues, so that the command and comfort of the Word of God opened up a way of service and witness and political illumination.

The situation of the church required a distinction to be drawn, saying No to false connections of church and political movement, of faith in God and national belonging. The No cleared space for a Yes, the making of a true connection. The "German Christians" exalted Hitler as bringing salvation to Germany, like a contemporary living Messiah, the agent of a God alive today; they demanded that the Protestant churches should cooperate in national renewal under his leadership, not letting separatist ecclesiastical attitudes or theological scruples hold them back. The German Christians gained control of several regional churches, often with unconstitutional force, in their drive to assimilate the church, in doctrine and practice, to the Nazi order. In reaction, the Synod of Barmen was the foundational rallying point of the Confessing Church. The grounds of its resistance, and its positive commitment, were spelt out in its theological declaration.

Although it might anachronistically be wished, Barmen did not offer explicit political opposition to Hitler, in defense of Weimar's subverted, though imperfect, liberal democracy, of political parties, and of the rights of Jews and other endangered minorities. Barth later chided himself that he had not seen early enough the political significance of God's irrevocable election of the Jewish people and the incompatibility of antisemitism with the confession of Jesus as Lord. Barth, however, attacked the heresy of the German Christians, not in order to evade politics, but as the key entry point for responsible action by the church. If that is so - it is highly debatable - then the criticism of the church's political action in 1933-4 must turn, not on its failure to work with a nontheological analysis, but on what it achieved by going through this theological opening. In Nazi Germany and in communist lands after 1945, Barth consistently dealt with political issues as a theologian, acting pastorally to help the church to be the church, so that the church in turn could be the prophetic witness to Jesus Christ. The church under threat and persecution could easily lose itself in defending its inheritance. Barth worked to save the church from this loss of identity, not by protecting its share in the general political right to freedom of religion, but by calling the church to be faithful to the Word of God. Discerning and doing what God commanded, singlemindedly and with joy, was more in accord with faith in God than launching defensive fearful attacks on any enemy. It was thus that Christians worked in and witnessed to the freedom of God, which was their freedom and confidence.

According to the first of the declaration's six sharp little paragraphs, the church has its identity in hearing and obeying the one Word of God, Jesus Christ

- no other voice. The existence of the church, as Barth argued elsewhere, was essentially "theological"; and theology did not belong to marginal cliques of intellectuals, but was a central activity of the church, because it derives from the Word of God. Paragraph II declares that Jesus Christ does not only offer comfort, which in its ultimate form is the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, but makes God's powerful claim upon the whole of our life. Barth's political theology was always a pastoral theology, but his pastoral practice was not so much sympathetic as challenging; it was to call people to responsibility, to the service of God in the world, and so to a humanity which was in analogy to God's reality. God's word "frees us from the godless entanglements in this world, to free, grateful service to his creatures." The claim upon the church, therefore, is for total faithful service to God, and so service throughout God's creation. The church must be church, but not for or in itself in any exclusive way. There may be cultural forms of the world which are godless, but they are not the world which is real because the real is what God wills to create and sustain, and refuses to surrender to any rival. God's world cannot be left in the hands of the devil, or of Hitler, or any other group or system, whatever their power, physical or spiritual. This liberation Barth witnessed to and enjoyed as a thinker and writer - he spoke of the powers of this world as already discredited, discrediting themselves, and being overcome by God in Christ (Barth 1939).

According to paragraph III, since the church is where Jesus Christ acts as the "present Lord," its preaching and organization are not to be aligned with currently ascendant political ideas. And paragraph IV goes on to reject the command-giving Führer as the model or principle of church government; church leaders are not above the church, but members of an organizationally flatter brotherhood, which as a whole is charged with the service of God.

These four paragraphs are the controlling context of, not merely the preamble to, Barmen V, which has famously focused discussion of the political responsibility of the church (Jüngel 1992). State and church exist by divine authority, each with a specific task. The state is to care for justice and peace by the threat and use of force, according to human insight and human capacities in this not yet redeemed world (where the church also stands). Here is no perverse twisting of the doctrine of Two Kingdoms, resigning the political order to the devil of autonomous force, as though he had a kingdom where "might is right," while God in his kingdom practices a gentle spiritual - and ineffectual - order. The Two Kingdoms here are, rather, two complementary means by which the One God rules one human world. Force, according to Barmen V, serves God by requiring and enabling people to work for peace and justice. The text's potential for critical opposition to Hitler's policies of war and injustice was recognized by some at the time, but to a grievously limited extent, as has been acknowledged often since then, signally in the Stuttgart Declaration of 1945 (Brakelmann 1985; Barnett 1992).

The church is not to aim to dispense with or subvert the state in principle: it is called to give thanks to God for the state, honoring its role in God's order. The church does not use force because, for itself, it trusts the power of the Word, through which God carries all things. It has the specific ministry to the state to remind it of God's kingdom (his rule) and so to call rulers and ruled to responsibility. The service of reminding the whole political society of the kingdom of God acknowledges the distinction God's Word makes between church and state, and even between God's will and the world in its present unredeemed condition. In itself, however, it is an act of connecting, of communicating, of argument and appeal. The church will promote peaceful politics by energetically participating in society. It will stir up political discussion, by direct address to political people, and by its witness to the whole Word of God, in its prayer and worship. There is nothing the church cannot talk about publicly, even to the embarrassment of the state, and to its own discomfort: what limits the church is not only that it lacks force, but that all its political contributions must be true witness to God and service to his kingdom. So the relation of church and state is not rightly ordered by policing a separation, to prevent the least trespass from the other side of the fence, but rather requires each to understand and respect the duty of the other, so that there can be a proper partnership, connecting what is distinct, in order that both serve together the one Lord, who has not let the state exempt itself from his service, even when it crucifies the Lord (Barth 1939: 16).

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