The Barmen Declaration at 70
Part of our Presbyterian Book of Confessions is The Theological Declaration of Barmen. This document was largely written
by the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth (who was teaching in Germany at the time) and approved by a gathering synod of the
German Evangelical Church in 1934. (Hence we will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year.) The meeting was convened by
a minority of German Protestants in those days because the majority had decided to go along with the policies of the Nazi
government, which had legally come to power the previous year.
The new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, had decreed that the churches should be subservient to the State. This was in
itself nothing new. Churches had been virtual arms of the State in Germany, as in most European countries, for hundreds of
years. Even today, ministers are paid by the government in many countries. What was different about Germany was that Hitler
was being more explicit and aggressive about making the Church a tool of not just the State but of the Nazi regime and its
The scary thing is that most Germans had no problem with this. The majority in the German Evangelical Church was dominated
by a group patriotically calling themselves "German Christians." They were so used to the arrangement where the
State set the agenda for the Church that they didn't see any precedent for opposing it in this case. More importantly, Germans
were increasingly enthusiastic about the new government. The Nazis would win elections with 80% of the vote or more in this
period. The new nationalistic pride, apparent social order, and especially the booming economy, convinced Germans to close
their eyes to the evils being perpetrated by their government. Many Christians who endorsed the Barmen Declaration were eventually
arrested. Some ended up in concentrations camps and martyred for their faith, including a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Barmen Declaration became part of the Presbyterian Book of Confessions in 1967. I find myself always drawn back
to this document as foundational for my faith. In every age the Church includes many who profess faith in and loyalty to
"events, powers, figures, and truths" other than Jesus Christ. Indeed, all of us face this temptation all the time,
which is why a confession like Barmen is so important. It reminds us with no hesitation or ambivalence who is our One and
only Lord in all areas of our life.
Perhaps the earliest Christian confession is "Jesus is Lord!" It was proclaimed by believers beginning with
the Apostles. But it was more than a religious affirmation; it was intended to be a political statement as well. For to
acclaim Jesus as Lord was at least implicitly to deny lordship to Caesar. Caesar's police and bureaucrats heard this loud
and clear. Many Christians suffered cruel tortures and death for making this confession.
The Barmen Declaration makes this same confession for the 20th century and beyond. It says that "Jesus Christ, as
he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey
in life and in death." This proclamation is something all Christians profess. But it is easy for us to forget the radical
exclusiveness of this claim. So Barmen goes on to make it more explicit. "We reject the false doctrine, as though the
Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still
other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation."
To affirm Jesus as Lord means now, just as it did in the 1st century, that "Caesar," that is, all the powers,
philosophies, ideologies, trends, and loyalties competing for and demanding our allegiance and obedience in society, are not
our Lord. At best they are secondary, subsidiary, and subordinate to Christ. Whatever value they have is from Christ, and
they are to be judged by their conformity to him alone. Anything that gets in the way of our relationship with Christ is
demonic and idolatrous.
These "events and powers, figures and truths" that the Church and Christians are tempted to acknowledge and
obey instead of the "One Word of God," Jesus Christ are many and they are everywhere. Among these are the ideologies
of "secular humanism." When the Church lets its faith be defined by the findings of social and other sciences,
or when it follows after psychologies of self-indulgence, myths of progress, and philosophies which place humanity at the
center of the universe, it is denying its Lord. For Christians, Christ alone is our wisdom.
The ideologies of secular humanism which Barmen was written specifically to oppose include the sin of nationalism. The
film of Germans singing "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night") holding candles and gathered around a Christmas
tree adorned with Nazi flags and regalia, should always horrify and disgust us. Christians need to be extremely suspicious
of any government that starts using religious language in the service of its policies, or claiming that its own views of things
like "freedom" are identical with "God's gift to the world." Jesus Christ alone is God's gift to the
world; he alone is our true freedom.
Barmen also rejects the militarism that was at that time overtaking Germany, with disastrous results for the whole world
a decade later. The economic recovery of Germany was built on the development of a strong military-industrial complex. Militarism
makes a nation feel good and invincible; but it is really the use of God's resources in the service of death. Trusting in
military prowess is a denial of Christ who preached non-violence. For Christians, Christ alone is our strength.
The Nazis did not finally come to power until the wealthy industrialists of Germany decided that it would be good for
the economy to support them. This temptation to sacrifice what is good, true, and right for the sake of economic benefits
is something we need to be very vigilant about. Jesus' view is that we should "work, not for the perishable food, but
for the food that lasts, the food of eternal life" (John 6:27). It is more important to him that we have "treasures
in heaven" than that we acquire wealth on Earth. He says poverty is a blessed state and wealth is a snare from which
it is nearly impossible to escape. For the Church to enlist in the service of Capital, the market, free-trade, or economic
growth is a rejection of Christ who is alone our true wealth.
Every generation and every era will have its temptations for the Church and Christians to face. Barmen teaches us that
we only face them successfully and faithfully when we confessionally criticize our own desires, tastes, dreams, loyalties,
and self-righteousness, and instead keep Jesus Christ firmly in the center. He alone is "the One Word of God" whom
"we have to trust and obey in life and in death."