Wednesday, April 11, 2007
The Theological Declaration of Barmen
With thanks, again, to Peg True!
With the Barmen Declaration we move from Reformation Confessions to Contemporary Declarations in The Book of Confessions. This Declaration was written in 1934 by representatives from eighteen German provincial churches – Lutheran, Reformed, and United (Lutheran and Reformed). They met in the industrial city of Barmen-Wuppertal as the First Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church. They were protesting interference in the life of the churches by the Nazi government and the resulting errors they saw in the Nazi-inspired “German Christian” movement. These brave church leaders would not vow their allegiance to Hitler nor would they continue to pastor in churches where Jesus Christ was less important than the current government. So they formed Confessing Churches which kept Christian faith at the center and risked their lives to remain true to their faith.
Authored principally by Karl Barth, the declaration is a clarification or explanation of the meaning of the older confessions and is applied to a concrete evil that threatened Christians in 1934. The action of the delegates at Barmen proved to be so right in their time, and so useful as a warning for Christians at all times, that it is included in our Book of Confessions. Their style of clarifying faith in the face of current problems in church and society served as a model to American Presbyterians in the writing of the Confession of 1967.
Two essential tenets, or beliefs, of the Reformed Faith are discussed in The Barmen Declaration. The first is the sin of idolatry. Reformed Christians believe that every person can know God, for that knowledge is in us. When we choose not to acknowledge God we create idols. In the Barmen Declaration the primary idolatry is giving ultimate loyalty to any idea, person, institution or purpose. Using the litany beginning, “We reject the false doctrine” they name the error of the “German Christians.” They spoke out against the idolatry of “prevailing ideological and political convictions; special leaders vested with ruling powers.
The second belief stated is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, proclaimed to be the “one Word, or revelation, of God, to the church and to the world. They also affirmed that Jesus Christ “is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins.
One of the most memorable figures in the struggle of the Confessing Church against Hitler was Pastor Martin Niemoeller who spent seven years in concentration camps. (Click to see a photo of his cell.) After the war he shared the guilt of the German people with these famous words:
"In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t
Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade
unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a
Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
That’s what the Barmen Declaration says to us today! As Christians we must keep Christ at the center of our lives and be an active member of our society assuring that all people can live together in freedom and peace.