In the German Churches in the late 1920’s and early thirties there were cries for reform, but this was wedded to the belief that historical events, the rise of Adolf Hitler to power, and the political ideology of national socialism was God’s means of reform. The German Christians pushed, politically, for the church to reform herself in such a manner that the German people caught up in the events of the day would flock to the churches as a means of furthering the goals of the nation.
At least three actions were made in an attempt at reformation. One was the formation of a church union, the second was the call for a church bishop over all the churches and third the formation of a new constitution for the churches. But the overriding problem for the Evangelical churches was the tendency of everyone to interpret the events of the day as revelation and to wed this to whatever position they held.
Arthur C. Cochrane author of The Church's Confession Under Hitler, points out that even the pious von Bodelschwingh who was the first, and only, fairly elected bishop, held such a view. In his acceptance speech von Bodelschwingh stated:
"We thank God that he has given us a government which with a reverence for history strengthens the will to work mightily for a better future, which wishes to lead us back again to the discipline, faithfulness, and integrity of our fathers, and which honors work. In a joyful spontaneity we Christians want to place ourselves heart and soul at its disposal in this service to the nation."
Cochrane writes, “he was a man who was blind to the theological issue of the day. That issue was whether the norm for the reformation of the Church was to be ‘a reverence for history’ and political changes, or Jesus Christ alone as attested in Holy Scripture.” (96) Here was the great issue that would lead to Barmen.
The Church did not turn to the Word of God for reform and so reform failed and instead, within a totalitarian state, there arose a false Church system. It was lead by those who rejected a great deal of Scripture, viewed Jesus Christ as simply a heroic figure minus his redemptive action on the cross. Without question, they looked down on and persecuted confessing Christians.
Not unlike today, political pronouncements and new confessional statements began emerging. Barth complains about the political pronouncements. He points out the difference between reform arising out of the Church because of Holy Scripture and that which arises because of political ideology. Barth writes:
From Theological Existence Today:
“Of course I refer to the many Church pronouncements, with their political Preambles, very important for explaining the Church Reform taken in hand, or the conferences and sessions lying behind these pronouncements. Yet the meaning of these Preambles, rather, was not the justifiable affirmation, that by means of political events God’s leading has now given a chance to the Church to give new heed and obedience to the Word of God, which is ‘The Church’s One Foundation.'1.
Again, the meaning of these Preambles was not simply the de facto admission of the New State as the ‘Higher Power,’ co-ordinated with the Church by God, according to Romans xiii. … The point is really not as to whether the men of the Church who, then by silence [1918 and World War I] now by speaking, are to blame for expressing their political views as such, so far as they answer to their private convictions.
But who gave them the authority to express this opinion of theirs in the name of the Church? to establish the Church anew upon political views? to ‘assimilate’ (Gleichschaltung) Church and State on the fundamental Article, and by this ‘assimilation’ to exclude from the Church about-to-be-reformed those who do not agree with their opinions, and to bind the Church to one particular form of secular process in irresponsible fashion?
And above all, in principle, to set the ball a-rolling for Church Reform by means of proclamations of a new and unheard-of rule of theological standard? Or, is not this a proclamation of a new and unheard of rule in the Evangelical Church, when it is now publicly avowed that they have learnt to see the ‘new commission of the Lord to the Church,’ not at all in the Sacred Scriptures, but’ in the great events of our days’? …(26-27)
And consequently, ought not Church Reform to issue forth from out of the life of the Church itself, and thus be capable of becoming real reform of the Church? A lot of enthusiasm and seriousness has been put into this business during the past months: but the Holy Scriptures have not been allowed to be the Master in this work, and therefore, the Word of God has not either.
And yet the Evangelical Church still possesses the Bible, and with it the promise of reform, not by human, political and Church-political arbitrariness, but by means of the Word of God. Where the Bible is allowed to be Master, theological existence lives, it is then possible for Church reform to issue from the Church’s life. Where there is no theological existence, then, in our own day, as in every age of the Church in which she seeks selfishly to help herself, reform can and will be still-born. (30)”
1.As I did in the post before, I have divided Barth's longer paragraphs into smaller ones.