90 Years Barmen Declaration of Faith (1934)

Introduction and Scope

[1] The assault on Germany’s Protestant church through the nationalist “faith movement” called the “German Christians” was as swift as it was successful: In 1931, “German Christians” did not exist. In the church elections of 1932 they scored dismally. On church Election Day July 23, 1933, “German Christians” took over leadership of the largest regional church within the German Protestant Church.[1]

[2] In the months following their victory they rigorously aligned the church with Nazi ideology by removing clergy deemed “politically unreliable” and by implementing anti-Jewish policies.

[3] But those left out of the new Reichskirche were puzzled: Were these German Christian nationalists a “false church” to be vigorously opposed and overpowered or merely a “church in error” in need of correction and advice?

[4] Finally, in May 1934 those in opposition to the “German Christians” met for a confessional synod in the town of Barmen—to decide this question and to craft their theological response. This synod created the Barmen Declaration of Faith, a Protestant document that still stands out among the most important statements of faith in modern time. Numerous churches worldwide have since incorporated it into statements of their faith.[2]

[5] This essay revisits the “Barmen Declaration”, now at its 90-year anniversary in May 2024. Part one illuminates the early Nazi years in Germany as the historical context of the Barmen Declaration. The second part introduces each of the six theses and its rationale. For this, we closely follow the very presentation introducing them to the synod’s delegates at the time.

Part 1: The  Precarious “Golden Twenties”

[6] The twentieth centuries “Golden Twenties” were a time of uneven wealth and prosperity in Germany. Monarchy had been replaced by a fragile democracy that was under constant, militant attack from domestic forces. In November 1923, Hitler’s “Beerhall Putsch” attempted to topple the state government of Bavaria. By the late 1920’s, street fighting involving organized squads of Communists and Nazis were an almost daily occurrence . The federal and local governments seemed powerless to stop them.

[7] 1921-23, a hyperinflation destroyed the German currency and bankrupted most Germans in the process. Later in that “lost decade”, persistent mass unemployment through the stock market crash of 1929 further aggravated an already calamitous situation for ordinary German citizens.

A Strongman is Enthusiastically Greeted to Start a New, Better Era

[8] Long before power formally fell into Nazi hands, Weimar became a “democracy without democrats”: None of the political parties, not the trade unions, neither high-ranking military nor diplomats, not even its own civil servants could bring themselves to support the state they all lived in. The general mood of the times—and that is rarely understood in its full significance—was thus openly welcoming, often exuberantly receptive for National Socialism and their message. Instead of dismissing Nazi out of hand, why not give that experiment its fair chance? Why not see what Nazi’s “many good ideas” would amount to in practice? All else had been tried and failed, so why not try them?[3]

[9] Important to note, it was voters who made the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, the largest party in Weimar’s parliament in a perfectly free and fair election in 1932. On January 30, 1933, after months of fruitless negotiations for a majority coalition, Weimar’s President Paul von Hindenburg named the head of the largest party in parliament “Chancellor” of the Republic and tasked him to form a government. That man was Adolf Hitler. Instead of public alarm his “victory” was greeted with widespread, genuine joy. Stocks in Berlin climbed 3-5% upon the news[4]. Not even the Jewish Review of the following day saw the end of democracy had arrived:[5]

“[We believe] … that within the German nation, too, still the forces are active that would turn against a barbarian anti-Jewish policy.”

A New State Asserts its Christian Foundation

[10] In the months after January 1933 a great and renewed hope gripped German Protestantism: the regime had not yet shown its ugly face in ways most people could understand. Many indeed believed their prayers had been answered: The Nazi Party’s program of 1922[6] not only proclaimed freedom of all religion, but indeed called for “positive Christianity” as the underpinning attitude of federal government. The day after his installation, Chancellor Hitler, a self-professed Catholic, publicly declared “Christianity as the foundation of our entire morality.” Hitler’s nationwide radio address closed with the words:[7]

“May Almighty God take our work into His grace, shape our will, bless our understanding, and grant us the pleasure of the trust of our people.”

[11] A snap election of March 5, 1933 further strengthened the governing coalition of NSDAP and DNVP.[8] On March 8, the German Evangelical Church greeted these results with satisfaction. General Superintendent of the regional church of the Kurmark, Otto Dibelius, wrote to the pastors under his supervision: [9]

“There will be few among us who do not enjoy this turn of events with their whole heart.”

[12] March 16 the official party newspaper of the National Socialist Party NSDAP, the “Völkischer Beobachter,” headlined: “Adolf Hitler’s Foundation of Government: Christianity.”[10] The new German parliament began its work on March 21, 1933 with a worship service at which Dibelius preached. Two days later Hitler’s governing coalition introduced their “Enabling Law.”[11] Explaining the proposition, Hitler directly addressed the relationship between the new National Socialist state and the church:[12]

“By being determined to carry out the political and moral detoxification of our public life, the government is creating and safeguarding the conditions for a truly profound, internal religious life. … The national government considers the two Christian denominations to be the most important factors in the preservation of our nationality. … Their rights should not be infringed.”

The Theological Dimension of Christian nationalism

[13] When the NSDAP party began lobbying for support from the Christian churches, Protestant theologians started probing their faith for potential support of NSDAP’s ideals. Long before National Socialism gained power in 1933, a few hundred Protestant pastors joined the Nazi party following personal views. From this pool of sympathizers emerged a Nazi-affiliated group desiring to run in the church elections under the name of Protestant National Socialists (“Evangelische Nationalsozialisten”), Hitler himself ordered their name be changed into “Deutsche Christen”—“German Christians.”[13] Led by Berlin Pastor Joachim Hossenfelder, they published their first party program on June 6, 1932, It demanded the church abandon its neutrality regarding party politics:[14]

“We want to bring the reawakened German attitude to bear meaning in our church and make our church vigorous again. In the fateful struggle for Germany’s freedom and future, the Church and its leadership have proven to be too weak. … We want our Church to be at the forefront of the decisive, existential battle of our people.”

Protestantism Attacked from Within

[14] The theological foundation of Germany’s Christian nationalists can easily be summed up:[15]

“God is a living and acting one. He spoke to Israel through Moses and the Prophets by revealing His will to them. The entire world heard His will through the birth, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the “Lord over History,” God continues to determine the development of all peoples and their nations. He spoke to them in the actual events in their history and revealed His divine will through these events. And God continues to do that today.”

[15] In this spirit, many Protestants believed they were seeing God in action when the National Socialist movement and its NSDAP party advanced in every election. Hitler’s appointment in January 1933 further confirmed what many already felt they knew: Chancellor Hitler was the agent of God’s will for Germany, especially created and sent by God to lead their nation into a brighter, divinely intended future. Some ten weeks after Hitler’s installation, the Protestant High Church Council of Germany’s largest regional church[16] wrote in their Easter message:[17]

“This year we deliver this Easter message of the risen Christ to a people to whom God has spoken through a profound turnaround. … Convinced that the renewal of the people and the Reich can only be supported and secured by these forces, the Church recognizes itself gratefully united with the leadership of the new Germany. It is joyfully prepared to collaborate in the national and moral renewal of our people.”

[16] The German Christians believed all believers had the right to resist church leadership they deemed lazy, complacent or unwilling or unable to join the epic battle of the ensuing national uprising:[18]

“God created me as a German. German national traditions (“Deutschtum”) are God’s gift. God wants me to fight for my German traditions … For a German the church is the community of believers that is committed to fighting for a Christian Germany. … Adolf Hitler’s state is calling for the church, the church heard the call.”

[17] The German Christians, rather than establishing themselves as a new and separate church, had its adherents colonize the parishes and congregations of the existing Protestant churches in Nazi Germany. They demanded folding all the 28 regional church bodies into one unified Reichskirche under the leadership of a single, state-appointed official. This was seen as a matter of course because Hitler’s new state and the church were rooted in positive Christianity, both fighting the same fight.

[18] It is hard to overestimate how deeply the nation was in the intoxicating grip of what felt like a national awakening. Many Protestants were openly sympathetic to National Socialism, they simply saw no contradiction between Nazi and Protestant doctrine. Even those opposing the German Christians in the 1933 church elections were friendly, not: critical or hostile, to Nazi government. For example, the Protestant weekly “Licht und Leben” voiced the opposition’s view in its “Election Edition” as follows:[19]

“We hope that the government we have today will succeed in achieving its goal, and we want to support it in the pursuit of this goal: peace in the country! Peace with all peoples! … Work for everyone! Combating class hatred! … Building a state based on the rule of law! … Keeping away from all acts of violence! Legal certainty! For an authority pursuing such goals we will stand up with our praying intercession.”

[19] Few documents better demonstrate the exuberant mindset of many Protestant theologians in those early days of Nazism than a homage telegram addressed to the Führer. The day Hitler pulled Germany from the League of Nations on October 15, 1933, Pastor Martin Niemöller sent a voluntarily expression of loyalty on behalf of those in the Protestant Church who refused to embrace the German Christians in the church elections:[20]

“In this crucial hour for people and fatherland, we greet our Führer. We thank you for your manly actions and clear words that protect Germany’s honor. On behalf of more than 2,500 Protestant pastors who do not belong to the faith movement of German Christians, we pledge loyal allegiance and intercessory remembrance.”

[20] Whatever else we may learn from the historic developments in 1930s Germany, we know German Protestants were not hapless victims of state coercion. Rather, many among Protestant clergy and the vast majority of its parishioners could not wait to throw themselves into the arms of the new regime!

Part 2: The Barmen Synod and Declaration of Faith

[21] In these early months of Nazi Rule, hardly anyone in Germany’s Protestant church recognized the dangers from German Christian Nationalism. Prominently among Protestant theologians who clearly saw the threat were Paul Tillich[21], Karl Barth[22], Joachim Beckmann[23], and Dietrich Bonhoeffer[24]. But they remained isolated. In a 1936 lecture Karl Barth later said:[25]

“Anyone who did not believe in Hitler’s mission in 1933 was an ostracized man, even in the ranks of the Confessing Church. It was a slow, laborious struggle in which these people (within the Confessing Church) slowly liberated themselves and awakened to clear realizations.”

[22] Reformed theologian Karl Barth was among the first to identify the theological errors in the views of the “German Christians.” Barth, later to be the key author of the Barmen Declaration, discussed this subject in a short book. He especially called out the habit of asserting that new revelation is disclosed in a nation’s current affairs and to derive from it actionable divine intent:[26]

“… in our anxiety in face of existing dangers we no longer put our whole trust in the authority of God’s Word, but we think we ought to come to its aid with all sorts of contrivances, and we thus throw quite aside our confidence in the Word’s power to triumph. … we think ourselves capable of facing, solving and molding definite problems better from some other source than that from and by means of God’s Word.”

[23] In consequence, we divide our hearts between God’s Word and all kinds of other things we ourselves invest with divine glory. Barth famously summed up the end result:[27]

“… this means that under the stormy assault of ‘principalities, powers and rulers of this world’s darkness,’ we seek for God elsewhere than in his Word, and seek his Word somewhere else than in Jesus Christ, and seek Jesus Christ elsewhere than in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. And so we become as those who do not seek for God at all.”

[24] Mounting a coordinated Protestant response to the challenge, however, proved difficult. Germany’s Protestantism landscape (to this day) is a quilt colored by regionally varying blends of Lutheran, Reformed and Union persuasions. Their sympathies and grievances with the German Christians and their attitudes to state and authority differed substantially. After numerous but uncoordinated attempts to respond to the new reality of an official Protestantism now marching to the orders of Nazi ideology, Protestant leaders finally convened for a nationwide Confessional Synod from May 29 through 31, 1934. Over 200 delegates from Lutheran, Reformed and Union churches gathered at the Gemarke Church held in the town of Barmen.[28] They urgently needed a theological explanation of how genuine Protestantism might exclude the convictions held by German Christians.

[25] German Christians and state representatives expected a falling out among the delegates, considering their differences to be irreconcilable. Therefore, they allowed the meeting to proceed unmolested by the Gestapo (Nazism’s secret police) which usually shut down or disrupted such events. But there was no falling out. Instead, the delegates created one of the most powerful documents in post-Reformation times: the “Barmen Declaration of Faith.”

[26] In a presentation to the assembled attendees, Altona Pastor Hans Asmussen explained the proposed set of six theses, each of which followed the format used in the Book of Concord. This set, he emphasized in his introduction, was not mere input for negotiations with the German Christians. [29]

“… as if from these starting positions we could arrive with our opponents at some shared middle ground. Instead, we understand these as conditio sine qua non.”

[27] Rather, the sustained action of “German Christians” and the leadership of the Reichskirche they controlled, Barmen delegates considered in grave danger the unity of the confession to the one and only church of Jesus Christ. For “German Christians’” teachings and actions were not “occasional lapses of individuals”, but rather …[30]

“… it is false doctrine on all fronts and a behavior that is not only occasionally, but fundamentally and in its entire breadth contrary to the Gospel, the existing confessions and the constitution of the German Evangelical Church.”

First Thesis: The Ground of the Church.

[28] Congruently, the declaration’s First Thesis addresses the theological root cause behind all political demands and actions of the “German Christians”—the heresy of deriving divine revelation from a single nation’s history and current affairs:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber… I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9)

“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.

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.”

[29] Introducing Bible verse and statement clause of the First Thesis, Asmussen explained: [31]

“We are standing in a place in the history of the Church where, in our opinion, attempts are being made to enter the sheepfold in a different place than through the door. … [The statement clause] says that it is the charge, and indeed the only and most urgent charge of the Church, to preach Jesus Christ. It is only by error that it is possible to preach Him as a mere idea that is more or less realized in history. If this were so, then the interpretation of contemporary history and the proclamation of Jesus Christ would be one and the same. Rather, it is the case that Jesus Christ is not an idea realized, but God incarnate, who humbled Himself in order to redeem us from our attempts of self-exaltation and self-aggrandizement. He still comes to us today in His word as the one who was once humbled. … Where a claim of His reaches us in our living or dying, this claim is so urgent that all other claims, however serious, become invalid as a demand for obedience the very moment when He demands obedience from us. It is precisely this that is disputed today by those who falsely call themselves church, too.”

[30] Illuminating the rejection clause of the First Thesis, Asmussen continued:

“For the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must not tire of emphasizing again and again that it is false doctrine to place—in addition to its bond to the Word made flesh in Christ and the Word preached in Him—other bonds for the Church. That’s what’s happening today. The Church and its members were constantly and persistently approached with the aim of recognizing the events of 1933 as binding on the proclamation and interpretation of the Scriptures, as demanding obedience alongside Holy Scripture and beyond the claims it makes. If we protest against this, we do so not as members of our community of peoples[32] against our recent history, not as citizens against the new state, not as subjects against the authorities, but we are protesting against the same phenomenon that has been slowly preparing the devastation of the Church for more than 200 years. For it is only a relative difference whether, in addition to the Holy Scriptures, we mention historical events in the Church, or we name reason, or culture, or aesthetic sensibilities, or progress or other powers and factors as binding claims on the Church.”

Second Thesis: No Exempt Areas of Life

[31] The Second Thesis refutes the idea that there are and ever could be worldly leaders, such as heads of state, whose will and wants would somehow displace God’s claim on every aspect of our life:

“Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1. Cor. 1:30)

[32] Asmussen explained:

“This biblical text sums up the Christian message in such a way that it becomes apparent: The work of Christ is not a partial phenomenon in a process of redemption that takes place all in itself, nor is it in any sense the foundation for a work to be led by humans, but it is comprehensive as His, and only as His work. It understands itself as everything that God has done, is doing, and will do to remedy human misery. It does not suffer any kind of complementation and support from sinful, unbelieving or believing people. It is wholly sufficient and therefore does tolerate neither partitioning nor shattering. We believe that today we must give the following interpretation of this Bible text:

 ‘As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.'”

[33] The Second Thesis reiterates yet another of Protestantism’s core understandings: Salvation is a free gift from God that does not require or necessitate any work from humans. It addresses two false teachings propagated by earlier versions of German Christian nationalists: Not only was there no revelation of God’s will to be recognized in contemporary affairs of their country, there was also no place, let alone any obligation for humans to assist in implementing that which is erroneously discovered as God’s alleged will. Indeed, belief in continuous revelation is an old heresy. Leading into the rejection clause of the Second Thesis, Asmussen continued:[33]

“But what we fear more than death is the fact that the creatures of God and the events of history tempt us, just as they have tempted all humans throughout history. Those that succumbed to the temptation to seek God without Christ out of and in such events or creatures—they became pagans. Wherever this happens, whether under pagan or Christian labels, they only implement their own wisdom, their own righteousness, their own sanctification, their own redemption. Wherever this happens, other masters gain power over us, other commandments than His commandments. These offer themselves to us as saviors, but they prove to be the torturers of an unredeemed world. Wherefore we exhort all Christians to guard with the utmost diligence against this heresy, as if justification and sanctification could be torn asunder. We warn everyone against the abuse of the divine offer, in which one wants the encouragement of the forgiveness of sins, but denies God’s claim on the basis of that forgiveness of sins. We summarize these findings as follows:

‘We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.'”

[34] Long before German Christians, the first crusaders’ in 1096 cried “Deus vult” (“God wills it”), thinking they were executing God’s will as revealed to their leaders. During the German Peasant’s War of 1525, Luther’s opponent Thomas Müntzer repeated the cry, calling himself “God’s hammer” on a mission to “eliminate the godless.” In the German city of Münster 1534/35, radical Anabaptists built their sectarian government because they concluded from contemporary political events that “God so willed it.”[34] Tempted like their forebears, “German Christians” fell and believed their country played a divinely ordained “special role” in the world and its history. It is from this perspective that Christian nationalists like the “German Christians” erode and blur the boundary between Church and State.

Third Thesis: The Nature of the Church.

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.” (Eph 4:15,16)

[35] The Apostle, Asmussen explained, would not speak in this way if church were merely a human-made institution springing from the righteousness of citizens or love based on blood relations. Instead, church emerges from Christ’s righteousness and Christ’s love. Church people unconvinced that church is something entirely different from a human-made institution would need to consider the church struggle with the regime entirely unjustified, indeed: as outright criminal. But since church people believe their fellowship and communion to result not from biological birth but from rebirth in Christ, they must confess as follows:[35]

“The Christian church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.”

[36] This different nature of the church and its preaching the Word, Asmussen continued, enables church to function as an “obvious, special sign” that church “is the property of Jesus Christ, that it can only live by His consolation and His direction.”[36]

[37] Perhaps somewhat surprising to us moderns, large numbers of German Protestants did not see an autocratic state as an enemy to be fought, but openly welcomed it: Would it not be logical for any state claiming to rule a genuinely Christian Nation to also run its Christian church? Commenting on the Second Thesis, Eberhard Busch explained how such erroneous view could emerge from of a chain of religious arguments:[37]

“The church’s task in its own sphere was to proclaim only the gospel, without instructions for daily life in the ‘world.’ The Law that one is to obey in the ‘world’ is encountered by Christians solely in the worldly orders of the state. And since the Law is not connected with the Gospel, the Law comes more clearly to the fore as the legal powers of the world function in more authoritarian and merciless ways.

For this reason, the church could welcome the nationalist–racist state and say, ’by submitting myself to the law of this state, I am being obedient to God and heaping no guilt upon myself. If something evil happens, then the obedient subjects will not be guilty, but solely the state power, if at all.’ This view of the Law signifies the de-Christianization of God’s law by means of Christian theology.”[38]

[38] The Church is simply not at liberty to allow this, because “… she is only church as the property of Jesus Christ, she can only live by His consolation and His direction.”[39] Specifically, Asmussen explained:[40]

“We understand very well the calls to draw into the space of the church as a church-forming power the desires of contemporaries and their change in convictions. In order to proselytize in this way, they want to make clear to the world that it is in its own interest to be ecclesiastical and to be Christian. But it is precisely against this that we must protest. For just as little as the subjects can and must not make themselves popular by taking on airs and graces of authority … does the Church become missionary by placing herself on the same level as the world she is tasked to evangelize.”

[39] The rejection clause thus objects all such exploitation of state authority.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

Fourth Thesis: The Order of the Church

[40] Therefore, the church’s structure must conform to its inner nature as explained above:

“You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt 20:25,26)

[41] The church, explained Asmussen, does not object that “princes” rule the world. But the rule of the church has to be different, that “it shall not be so among you.” “With regard to the organization of the Church, we understand this Word of the Lord as follows:[41]

“The various offices in the church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the exercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.”

[42] The church has but one leader: Christ himself. And yet, as the church’s form and message is instrumentalized by an autocratic state the pressure to accept worldly leadership will mount. Like the high priests of any cult, a prophetic, infallible leader is the central part of any autocratic movement’s narrative. Whenever Christian message and state purpose are mixed up many believers will idolize this leader and get befuddled about their spiritual allegiance. In short order, such state leaders typically will attempt to impose control onto “their” church. An anonymous member of the Confessing Church reported this moment in Nazism: “In 1933 in three Berlin churches there stood on the Holy Communion Tables instead of the Cross, pictures of Hitler …”[42]

[43] Asmussen introduced this thesis’ rejection clause by comparing their situation with the hierarchy once imposed on the church by “medieval papery”:[43]

“President and bishop, bishop and president, pastor and deacon, deacon and pastor are the lowest servants of the congregation in inverse proportion to their rank. But the decisive processes take place outside of this hierarchy wherever and whenever God through his Word and his Sacrament through his mighty hand moves people from death to life, from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the dear Son of God. This already interprets what we mean by the second paragraph, which reads as follows:

‘We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.'”

Fifth Thesis: Relationship to the State

[44] In those early days of Nazis’ rule anyone even remotely critical to National Socialism was decried as unpatriotic and disloyal to the new government, hindering the national renewal it promised. This included all those Protestants criticizing the German Christians. This helped create a deep personal conflict within many, if not most, Christians who decidedly rejected the Nazi state meddling in the church’s affairs while at the same time agreeing with much of Nazi ideology and action. Victoria Barnett summarized this dilemma, writing:

“These Christians disagreed with the “German Christians” and with Nazi attempts to seize control of the Evangelical Church. But there are numerous open professions of support for various Nazi policies … They show that there was true support in the churches for some Nazi policies.”[44]

[45] Against this background, Asmussen said that the church’s criticisms did not amount to an outright rejection of Nazism. Indeed, Christians were obliged to be loyal citizens by the Bible verse introducing Thesis Five:[45]

“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Pet 2:17)

[46] Let it be known to the world, Asmussen said, that Christians are bound by this single Bible verse “more firmly … than [through] a thousand oaths.” Therefore, the relevant interpretation of this verse follows as:

“Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the state has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfils this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.”

[47] What then is the role of the state? It is only by ensuring justice and peace that state action establishes the space in which Church can subsequently exist and in which it can attend to its commission. The Fifth Thesis of The Barmen Declaration reminds us that the Church’s role is distinct, separate from, but in co-existence with the role of the State.

[48] At the same time the State has no license to replace the Church in that task as though “the State is to fulfill the Church’s vocation. … If the state proclaims an eternal kingdom, an eternal law, and an eternal justice, then it corrupts itself and its people.”[46] The twin rejection clauses clarify that State and Church mutually serve each other, each by fulfilling its own commission and without taking over the role of the respective other:

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the state, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the state, thus itself becoming an organ of the state.”

Sixth Thesis: The Commission of the Church.

[49] Introducing the Sixth Thesis, Asmussen said it would testify to the matchless uniqueness and scope of the church. It opens with two verses:

“Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20)
“The word of God is not fettered.” (2 Tim 2:9)

“There is no state, nor is there any peoples, for whom the Word is valid that Christ is with them until the end of the world. For this reason, there is no policy, not even church policy that does not fall under these words of Scripture: ‘All flesh is like grass.’ Every political speech is rightly exposed to the means of power of this earth. [However,] the Word of God cannot be tethered, because He is with us until the end of the world. One exists within the other. From this, and from this alone, follows what is characteristic and genuine to the Church, which we must bring to bear:

‘The church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.'”

[50] On the rejection clause, Asmussen concludes his introduction with:[47]

“It is the urgent task of the Church to express by visible signs that the teaching of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ are not ideals of the Church worth striving for, but instead are the origins of her action in Word and work. This is the one and only way to understand when …

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

[51] The concluding thesis of the Barmen Declaration repeats something we think we know and implement–the importance of delivering the message of God’s free grace to all.

[52] But “all people” means that there must be no preconditions and no exclusions. At the time this also meant: including non-Germans. This truth exposes that fundamental flaw of “Christian nationalism” where it attaches Christianity to peoples of a particular nationality. But there are no national versions of Christian belief; there is single Christianity for all humankind. As Eberhard Busch explains, this changes everything:[48]

“[T]here is a difference—a serious difference like the one between truth and error—whether one says that the God … normatively testified to in the Bible loves in a wonderful way all people in their various ethnicities, or one says that rootedness in a distinctive people is the inviolable presupposition for one’s being loved by God and for the proclamation of that love.”

[53] What implements this error for “Christian nationalists” is submitting to be used by political circles. The error, Busch continues, is the “Christian nationalist’s” failure to engage people in such a way that they understand the gospel:[49]

“The fundamental error is that the church in its mission is not subjecting itself to the Word of its Lord but rather it subjects his Word to intentions that it has established and is striving for, completely apart from the Word. Its error is that it does not carry out its task as service solely of the ‘Word and work of the Lord,’ but that it uses the Word and works of the Lord to bless interests that it has formulated without listening to the Word of God.”


[54] 90 years ago this May, German Protestantism responded to the mortal threat from German Christian nationalism with a Declaration of Faith that spanned across and briefly united all its major factions.

[55] This Declaration of Faith guided their response of genuine Christians to the imposter Christianity filled from the ranks of its own members and clergy. Their Barmen Declaration of Faith erected a timeless theological yardstick to identify, calibrate and deflect threats from any false churches posturing as Christian that in fact merely exploit and abuse Christianity’s message and symbols for their unholy purposes.

[56] After 90 years, Barmen allows us to rediscover the most effective response to any form of Christian nationalism. Instead of responding to the numerous and ever-changing political demands of such movements we must expose the fatally flawed and fake theology.

[57] Asmussen’s presentation to the delegates in 1934 gives us a guide to reliably tell a church in error from a false church—the former in need of our assistance and the latter to be fought on all fronts.[50]



[1] Norden, Günther van. Kirche in der Krise: die Stellung der evangelischen Kirche zum nationalsozialistischen Staat im Jahre 1933. Düsseldorf: Presseverband der Ev. Kirche im Rheinland, 1963. 88 and 96. (Hereafter KIDK). “German Christians” won with 156 delegates against 71 opposing.

[2] Many churches, such as the Presbyterian Church in the United States, have since included the Barmen Declaration in their statements of faith. Many, including the Rheinische Landeskirche (Germany’s largest regional church), now ordain their pastors also on Barmen’s six theses. The English-language wording of the theses quoted here are from the Statements of Faith as adopted by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. https://www.presbyterian.org.nz/about/statements-of-faith/the-barmen-declaration-1934.

[3] These sentences paraphrase regional Protestant bishop Hanns Lilje reminiscing at a lecture in Bremen on April 19, 1954. Lilje recognized his error about the intent of Nazism and later helped form the Confessing Church. Author’s paraphrase of a text quoted in Beckmann, Joachim. Gollwitzer, Helmut et al. Dann werden die Steine schreien: 50 Jahre Theologische Erklärung Barmen. Bielefeld: Kirche und Mann, 1983. 12. (Hereafter referred to as DWDSS)

[4] The New York Times of February 1, 1933 reported a 3-5 % boom at Germany’s stock exchange the day after Hitler’s appointment.https://www.nytimes.com/1933/02/01/archives/stocks-advance-in-berlin.html

[5] Jüdische Rundschau (Jewish Review), on January 31st, 1933

[6] The full text of article 24 reads: “We demand freedom of religion for all religious denominations within the state so long as they do not endanger its existence or oppose the moral senses of the Germanic race. The Party as such advocates the standpoint of a positive Christianity without confessionally binding itself to any one denomination. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit within and around us and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only succeed from within on the framework.”

[7] Norden, Günther van. Kirche in der Krise: die Stellung der evangelischen Kirche zum nationalsozialistischen Staat im Jahre 1933. Düsseldorf: Presseverband der Evangelischen Kirche im Rheinland, 1963. 42. (Hereafter KIDK)

[8] The „German National People’s Party“, the DNVP, was a nationalist-conservative and monarchist political party that served as the junior coalition partner when Nazi first came to power. Before the NASDAP overtook them in the polls, the DNVP was the party holding many of the same views on anti-semitism, nationalism and autocratic rule.

[9] KIDK. 43. However, Dibelius continued to clarify that the church would remain independent from any political party or ideology. In its entirety, Dibelius’ letter demonstrates the dilemma for many in the Protestant hierarchy: On the one hand the joy about the end of a shameful era for the German nation, and on the other the clear refusal to bind the Protestant church to any political party or movement. The Nazi reaction to this letter makes clear they recognized the church’s refusal to embrace their party and movement: KIDK. 44.

[10] KIDK. 42. Footnote 55. Headline published March 16, 1933

[11] Despite common belief “Enabling Laws” were nothing new or uncommon in Weimar: numerous governments in the short history of the Weimar Republic required a partial suspension of the state’s checks and balances to become able to conduct the daily business of governing at all. Without parliamentary majorities in support of necessary legislation and to keep government going, parliaments frequently granted (limited) emergency powers to the head of state to keep the state afloat while bitter debates in parliament continued to paralyze legislation.

[12] KIDK. 44.

[13] KIDK. 22. For American Readers: “Evangelisch” in German does not translate to “Evangelical” but “Protestant”. “Evangelisch” to be sure, lacks any of the fundamentalist connotations often attributed to “Evangelical.”

[14] Point 5 in Hossenfelder’s “ Guidelines of the German Christians ”: Hossenfelder, Joachim. Die Richtlinien der deutschen Christen. Berlin: Kranzverlag-Druckerei, 1932. Quoted from DWDSS. 155.

[15] KIDK. 103.

[16] The “Altpreussische Union,” Old Prussian Union, is one of the 28 Protestant “Landeskirchen”, independent regional church bodies across Germany.

[17] Published April 16, 1933. Quoted from KIDK. 46-47.

[18] From the resolution of the nation-wide conference of the “German Christians” April 3-5, 1933.KIDK. 50.

[19] Licht und Leben, 45 (No. 30), July 23, 1933. Quoted from KIDK. 85.

[20]Quoted from DWDSS. 14. Niemöller, like Dibelius, would later actively help form the “Confessing Church”. Niemöller was imprisoned by the Nazis from 1938 to 1945.

[21] Especially his concept of “original” and “dependent” revelation is useful here. By distinguishing message and situation, Tillich refuses and warns against taking eager reception of the message in a given situation as a criterion of its theological validity: “Fundamentalists in America and orthodox theologians in Europe can point to the fact that their theology is eagerly received and held by many people just because of the historical or biographical situation in which men find themselves today. The fact is obvious, but the interpretation is wrong. “Situation,” as one pole of all theological work, does not refer to the psychological or sociological state in which individuals or groups live. It refers to the scientific and artistic, the economic, political, and ethical forms in which they express their interpretation of existence. The “situation” to which theology must speak relevantly is not the situation of the individual as individual and not the situation of the group as group. Theology is neither preaching nor counseling; therefore, the success of a theology when it is applied to preaching or to the care of souls is not necessarily a criterion of its truth. The fact that fundamentalist ideas are eagerly grasped in a period of personal or communal disintegration does not prove their theological validity, just as the success of a liberal theology in periods of personal or communal integration is no certification of its truth.” Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. 5th THUS edition. University of Chicago Press, 1956. 10.

[22] Especially important here is: Karl Barth. Theological Existence To-Day!: A Plea for Theological Freedom. Translated by R. Birch Hoyle. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2012 (1933).

[23] Representing many similar expressions is the response of the Rhinish Brotherhood of Pastors to the “Rengsdorf Theses” published by “German Christians” after they took over the Rhinish regional church. Its title “Species-appropriate Christianity or Scriptural Faith” summarizes the gist of the response: The core Christian message is precisely not customizable for different nations, their peoples or the historic situations they happen to experience. Reprint in: Beckmann, Joachim. So schwach waren wir: der Kampf um den rechten Glauben in der evangelischen Kirche des 20. Jahrhunderts : Aufsätze und Vorträge von 1933 bis 1984. Düsseldorf: Presseverband der Evangelischen Kirche im Rheinland e.V., 1985. 11-37.

[24] On February 1, 1933, two days after Hitler’s installation as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address in the “Berliner Funkstunde” titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Führer,” questioning the idea of a leader to be followed blindly. At the time Bonhoeffer was a student chaplain at the Technical College in Charlottenburg.

[25] Quoted from KIDK. 57.

[26] Theological Existence To-Day!. 14-15.

[27] Ibid. 15.

[28] For a much more complete account, see, for example, Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession under Hitler. (Pittsburgh: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1976).

[29] Bekenntnissynode der Deutschen Evangelischen Kirche Barmen 1934 – Vorträge und Entschliessungen (Wuppertal-Barmen: E. Mueller, 1934). 15. (Hereafter: Barmen Vorträge)

[30] Barmen Vorträge. 13.

[31] Barmen Vorträge. 16.

[32] German term: Volksglieder

[33] Barmen Vorträge. 18. Emphasis in the Original.

[34] See also footnote 23.

[35] Barmen Vorträge. 19.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Eberhard Busch and Daniel Migliore. The Barmen Theses Then and Now: The 2004 Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. Translated by Darrell Guder and Judith Guder. Eerdmans, 2010. 50-51.

[38] Busch and Migliore. The Barmen Theses Then and Now. 36-37. Emphasis in the original.

[39] Barmen Vorträge. 19.

[40] Barmen Vorträge. 20.

[41] Barmen Vorträge. 20.

[42] Epaphroditus. “The Church Conflict in Germany.” Churchman 54, no. 1 (1940): 25–33. 28. This resource also offers a chilling report about the situation in Nazi Germany around 1940. It is written by an anonymous member of the Confessing Church. Available at https://www.churchsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Cman_054_1_Epaphroditus.pdf.

[43] Barmen Vorträge. 21.

[44] Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, 1st edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998). 72. Let us also note that state-sponsored prosecution, deportations and harassment of Jews was already happening openly for all to see. Regrettably, the Barmen Declaration remained silent on this topic—as did the entire German Protestant Church for most of Nazi rule.

[45] Barmen Vorträge. 21.

[46] Barmen Vorträge. 22.

[47] Barmen Vorträge. 23. Emphasis in the original. (All Asmussen quotes on the Sixth Theses refer to this page)

[48] Busch and Migliore. The Barmen Theses Then and Now. 89. Emphasis in the original.

[49] Busch and Migliore. The Barmen Theses Then and Now. 93. Emphasis in the original.

[50] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937. Edited by Mark S. Brocker and H. Gaylon Barker. Translated by Douglas W. Stott. First English-Language edition. Vol. 14. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2014. 665. Bonhoeffer delivered this essay April 20-25, 1936

Michael T. Grzonka

Michael T. Grzonka is a Ph.D. chemist by trade and applies scientific, bilingual research techniques to Martin Luther, his times and his writings. He is the author of Martin Luther and His Times, a book on the German Reformation. Recent projects include Charging Interest—Medieval Wisdom for a Modern Financial Crisis (with Fortress Press), and co-authoring the “The Cry for a Life-Sustaining Economy” (with the World Council of Church’s economic Work Group). “Mick” is interested in the connection between Christian religion and its guidance for the economic orders we may design. In this context, the first half of the 20th century and the fascist movements following the “Roaring/Golden Twenties” prove a fascinating field, with Nazi Germany a particular focus.