May 31st marked the eightieth anniversary of the Barmen Declaration. Written primarily by Karl Barth on behalf of the German Evangelical Church, a federal union of Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches, Barmen was the resounding “no” to the political agenda of the Third Reich.

In a series of lectures at Princeton Seminary in 2004, Eberhard Busch set out the theological importance of Barmen in light of the German situation. Barmen was a confessional word in the midst of a divided Christian response to Hitler’s policies. Both the “German Christian” party and the “centrist” party had capitulated to the state. In 1933 the Güstrow Confession of the so-called “Faith Movement of German Christians,” whom Busch labels as centrists, confessed Christ while also asserting that “God has determined the fate of ethnicities” and genuflecting before “God’s leading in the ethnocentric renewal of our fatherland.” Because all confessions represent an act of worship, such assertions placed service to Christ under the banner of service to the state thereby capitulating to an earthly dominion. By this invocation, the signers engaged in an idolatrous veneration of human political authority.

Conversely, the Barmen Declaration began with an appeal to the theological ground of union among the confessing churches as “the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . attested . . . in Holy Scripture and brought to light again in the Confessions of the Reformation.” It situated this ground in the common act of worship to “the one Lord of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” When the Declaration later proclaimed that the church must always hear and obey her Lord over against all other authorities, it did so in the light of the scriptures and the communal memory of the church, which gives concrete embodiment to her worship. The creation of tradition, the communal memory of the church expressed in and through her cultural life, is the continuous act of the church’s worship of her Lord. Such acts must be always be subject to the test of obedience, which is why Barmen exhorts its readers to “try the spirits whether they are of God.”

To frame everything in terms of acts of worship, as Barmen does, places the situation squarely in terms of competing claims to lordship. As social animals, humans enter into a web of relations that make claims on their lives. In Augustinian terms, humans are made to love and whatever they do love functions authoritatively in their lives. Humans break the grip of one authority by finding another love, which is how conversions occur. Simply put, there is no neutral ground from which humans form moral and political judgments because such decisions embody an embrace of this authority or that authority. Since there is no freedom from authority, the question becomes what authority offers a genuine freedom—a freedom to live in the truth.

In its structure, the Barmen Declaration proclaims that genuine freedom is found in the message of grace from Jesus Christ who is the Lord of the church. This message flows through Barmen’s movement between affirmations of the Lordship of Christ and denunciations of other claims to lordship. There can be only one Lord of life, one true lover of soul and society. The state oversteps its boundaries and encroaches upon human dignity when it seeks to extend its authority into all areas of human life in the same way that the church ceases to be true to its own commission when it becomes an organ of the state. In its own way, the Declaration argues for religious freedom as not simply entailing private acts of worship, but also the guarantee of a public space for the institutional expression of religious commitment. To guarantee religious freedom is to acknowledge the limitations of the authority of the state to define the lives of its citizens. Part of the proclamation of the gospel is that the state cannot be Lord of life without turning into the beast.

There is a Chesteronian flavor to the Declaration’s final claim that the church’s commission remains grounded in the freedom to proclaim a universal message of grace given to her by Jesus Christ. This is how Christians fly the flag of the world. The world is “the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret” and Christians love the world for the sake of its gladness and should love it more in its sadness. It is precisely because the world can have no ultimate claim on human existence—no lordship—that Christians can love it deeply and yet feel homesick within it. Christian optimism about the world stems from the fact that they do not fit within the world, which was Chesterton’s way of saying that the ground of Christian optimism cannot stem from trust in the world.

The Barmen Declaration serves as a vivid reminder of the ongoing need for the church to remain true to her own identity under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This faithfulness stems from the church hearing anew the old time gospel of Jesus Christ in the sacred scriptures, tempered by the communal hearing of that Word, which is its collective memory. Through its loyalty to the Lord of creation, the church flies the flag of the world.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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