Monday, September 8, 2008

The Church within a Church: a possibility 1 A revisit of the subject

Over at A Classical Presbyterian we have been having an interesting discussion on the Church, and various groups within the Church. Exploring Covenanted Fellowships, Part Four: The company we keep. As I was writing my last answer I remembered this series of postings and have decided to re-post them. Besides I noticed I didn't finish them-has anyone else ever done that? Anyway I hope this will contribute to the conversation.

This series will deal with how the Confessing Church in Germany, during the Nazi years, dealt with its position as a Church within a Church and how that is relevant to the orthodox in the PC(USA) today.

The official Church was a combination of the Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches gathered together under a Church government shaped, promoted and used by the Nazi Government. Many will see this as a non-relevant subject for the orthodox within the PCUSA today, and clearly the differences are vast. But surprisingly the most basic issues, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, revelation, atonement and ideas about the form and nature of the Church are the same.

With this beginning post I lay out the vast differences, the similarities, and the Confessing Church’s path of resistance that I believe offer some clues toward the future.

Certainly the most serious differences were the dictatorship the Church struggled under and the real issues of life and death. The most serious symptom of the real theological issues within the Church was the German Church official’s refusal to allow Jewish Christians a place within the Church as well as the end of missionary activity to the Jewish people.

Confessing Church pastors and officials faced loss of their ordination; they faced prison and death. All of those involved in youth ministry faced the despair of watching their organizations be dissolved into Hitler’s youth organization. Theological professors lost their university jobs. But one Professor, in particular, noted that the problem was much deeper than the militant dictatorship that existed in his day.

Karl Barth understood that the Church's theological problems began in Germany two-hundred years before and stated that after the, “Church will have finished with the public, savage heretics [the German Christians],” …”who will save her from the blandishments of those who seem correct as to the standards of the Church, Bible and Reformation. And yet, in principle do not think differently from those heretics.”

So, for similarities the most basic sameness in the two Church struggles has to do with revelation. Without dictatorships, without Nazis or any other evil ideology some fail to see that the two struggles are the same. The theologians of Germany for two hundred years had prepared the Church of Germany to recognize other forms of revelation beside Jesus Christ as he is found in Holy Scripture. Today it is reason, science, culture, gender, community, etc. Then, culture, soil, community (volk) and the events of history became the revelation German Christianity placed beside Jesus Christ.

Christianity became Germanic; Hitler and National Socialism were the great gifts and revelation that God had supposedly given to Germany. This is why the German Christians rejected the Jewish people and the Hebrew Bible. This is also why many of the German Christians rejected the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. For them Jesus became a kind of super hero, some one to emulate rather then kneel before. The culture of Germany became more important than the blood of the cross.

Ideas about the Church changed with the new revelation. The Church was seen as a means to unify the community, the volk. The Church was to be an instrument for building up people and culture. The Church took on a new appearance. The German officials rejected the Reform understanding of parliamentary governance. Leaders of the German Faith movement wrote in their "Guiding Priniciples":

“The time of parliamentarianism has outlived itself even in the Church. Ecclesiastical parties have no religious sanction to represent Church people and are opposed to the lofty purpose of becoming a national Church.”1

The leaders believed parliamentary governance destroyed the unity of the Church and the nation. Instead they opted for a hierarchical structure that went well beyond the Lutheran tradition since it was shaped on an administrative rather than a spiritual foundation.

The orthodox in the midst of the Church crisis began to call for free synods. Arthur Cochrane writes:

"There remained for Christ’s flock the one thing possible—the one thing the Church can do when all other possibilities have been exhausted, namely, a common Confession of Christ in the face of a heresy that threatens the life of the Church as the true bride of Christ. Thus in the early months of 1934, a new movement appeared on the scene, in which the laity played as important a part as the clergy. A.S. Duncan-Jones has called this the ‘synodical movement, because it took the form of local synods of clergy and laity who expressed their mind on the dangers that threatened the Church.’”

As part of this movement and alongside it several declarations were formulated which eventually led to the Declaration of Barmen. Beyond this, at the same synod that produced the Declaration of Barmen, the Confessional Synod voted for a resolution that dealt with such things as the Confessing Church's legality, their practical work, the spiritual renewal of ministers, education and the mission of the Church, (which included among other projects ministering to Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth!).

With further postings I intend to deal with the “free Synods,” the gathering declarations and finally with the various resolutions the members of the Synod of Barmen approved to guide them as they became a Church within a Church.

1 “The Guiding Principles of the Faith Movement of the ‘German Christians,, June 6 1932” Appendix II in The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, Arthur C. Cochrane, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press 1961) 222.


Dave Moody said...

interesting Vi. I look forward to the series. Thanks!

Pastor Bob said...


You haven't mentioned Schleiermacher and his dependence on feelings as part of the problem. Are you going to do so? It seems to me that this is also a problem now as it was in the 200 years before Hitler.

Viola said...

Thanks for bringing up Schleiermacher who is known as the father of liberal theology. As I am sure you know, so much of what Karl Barth wrote was an answer to the theology of Schleiermacher.

I have, at least in my mind, included Schleiermacher, within the quote by Karl Barth, that the theological problems began two hundred years before the Church struggle in Germany. Schleiermacher was trying to make a defense for Christianity which was simply based on his understanding that human feelings of dependence were best answered by Christianity. But that was a Christianity that understood God to be the Father of all humanity, and saw Jesus as simply brother in a great human brotherhood. Salvation was equated with living a good life. It was a poor apologetic, beginning with human feelings rather than God's revelation about himself, and because of that an even poorer view of Christianity.

I am not sure I will go there as I have written on Schleiermacher before. My main focus is to look at how the Confessing Church could maintain its structure, function and confession within the heretical German Church.
I would be interested in reading and linking to anything you might write about Schleiermacher.

Pastor Bob said...


That's what I get for opening my big mouth: a homework assignment!

I'll work on it!

Viola said...

Bob, As I was reading and writing this morning I found a quote I was looking for yesterday and could not find. This is Barth writing in the seventh issue of Theological Existence Today. (That is a booklet he wrote that turned into a paper during some of the hardest years of the Church struggle.) Anyway the quote:
"The error that has broken out in the theology and Church politics of the 'German Christians' does not have its origin in the school of either Luther or Calvin, but it is--Schleiermacher, R. Rothe, and W. Beyschlag may be numbered among its special fathers ..."

Dave Moody said...

JI Packer calls Schleiermacher the "Demon King" of theologians. And he's no huge fan of Barth.


Viola said...

Thanks Dave,
I am going to remember that! Although I am wondering if Jurgen Moltmann doesn't deserve that name for our day and age. I know that somewhere later I will have to explain: )