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May 30 The Confessing Church resisting the Nazis

Today in 1934 the first synod of the Confessing Church ended. They issued the important Barmen Declaration. An important and brave resistance to Hitler's rise to power, they were appalled at how the majority of the Evangelical Church had fallen in line with the Nazi's.

When the Nazis took power, the German Protestant church consisted of a federation of independent regional churches. However, there was a growing movement who called themselves German Christians who shared Hitler’s nationalist and racial ideology. With their influence, a new constitution for a new "national" church was agreed upon which would enhance the coordination of Church and State, as a part of the overall Nazi process of Gleichschaltung ("coordination", which in reality was a forced co-option). Hitler's advisor on religious affairs, Ludwig Müller, was proposed as the new Church's bishop. An unpopular candidate, Müller had poor political skills, little political support within the Church and no real qualifications for the job, other than his commitment to Nazism and a desire for power. When the federation council met to approve the new constitution, it elected someone else by a wide margin, largely on the advice of the leadership of the 28 church bodies. This infuriated Hitler and he place Muller into office without consent form Church leadership. The formidable propaganda apparatus of the Nazi state was deployed to help the German Christians win synodal elections in order to dominate the upcoming synod and finally rubber-stamp Müller into office.

Further pro-Nazi developments followed the elevation of Müller, the old-Prussian church (led by Müller since his government appointment) had adopted the infamous Aryan Paragraph, effectively defrocking clergy of Jewish descent and even clergy married to non-Aryans. As this ‘Nazification’ of the Protestant Church accelerated, the opposition met in a church synod in Barmen. The rebellious pastors denounced Müller and his leadership, declared that they constituted the true Evangelical Church of Germany. The Barmen Declaration, primarily authored by Karl Barth, re-affirmed that the German Church was not an "organ of the State" and that the concept of State control over the Church was doctrinally false. The Declaration stipulated, that any State, even a totalitarian one, encountered a limit when confronted with God's commandments.

Theologically this would prove problematic as 400 years before Martin Luther had relied on the Protestant Princes to push through the Reformation, and this was reflected in any legal or constitutional documents of the German Evangelical churches. In an attempt to redress this the Barmen Declaration affirmed the Confessing Church’s loyalty to Christ and set forth the limits of secular government. Barth rejected natural theology, which provided arguments for the existence of God based on reason and ordinary experience of nature. In the wake of the Enlightenment Barth had become progressively disillusioned with the influence of liberal & natural theology on the church, believing it to be an overreaction to cultural shifts, particularly around scientific authority. This grappling with modernity, and a liberal attempt to justify Christianity, had gone too far and hollowed out the church, weakening its authority and leaving it vulnerable to the political manipulation that Hitler was now practicing (See pod of May 10)

Barth argued that "by starting from such experience, rather than from the gracious revelation through Jesus Christ, we produce a concept of God that is the projection of the highest we know, a construct of human thinking, divorced from salvation history". If God is divorced from the historical revelation of salvation, he argued that God is restricted by the construct of human thinking, fatally distinguishing it from revealed theology, which is based on scripture and/or religious experiences, and transcendental theology, which is based on a priori reasoning. Many Lutherans opposed Barth’s theology because it “challenged some of conservative Lutheran’s most sacred tenets: the law-gospel dialectic, the orders of creation or divine orders, natural revelation, and Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. There were significant internal conflicts between the radical and conservative wings of the Confessing Church. The Niemöller wing believed that it was necessary to publicly protest state laws and decrees that interfered with the church’s control over its administrative, financial, legal, and pastoral offices. But the conservative wing had a strong desire to be tied to the government was rooted in their Lutheran theology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see pod of Apr 8) and Karl Barth disagreed on the Jewish question and the Aryan clause.


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