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The Barmen Theses Then and Now

Busch, Eberhard. The Barmen Theses Then and Now: The 2004 Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 101 pp. $16.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Ryan David Hawk (January 31, 2017)



In the realm of historical theology, it is often easy to examine the events and documents of the past as merely that, things of the past. We study the history of things to observe what happened and what we can observe or learn from them in a tangible sense. But all too often, the density of these events and their implications lose their clarity, and the practicality for us today can be overshadowed with verbosity and grand explanation that the non-academic practitioner simply cannot follow. I am thankful to say that Professor Eberhard Busch’s lectures on The Barmen Theses breaks from this pattern and offers a rich and robustly pastoral take on one of modern church history’s most important documents.

It is always a formidable task to take the notes of lectures and make them into a readable script to be consumed as a reader rather than as a listener. The way we approach hearing a lecture and reading a book are often different. Here, the translation of the 2004 Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, seventy years after the publication of the original Barmen Declaration, are carefully constructed to allow one to hear what is being said while also reading what is being spoken to the Church in 1934 and today.

Busch sets out on his task placing the reader in the midst of the struggle of two kingdoms. What it means to stay true to the nature and ethic of the Church as it relates to the idea of one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, has been set against the context of culture, philosophy, war, and practical ethics in light of national socialism. In each similar historical scenario that has occurred before, a confession becomes the major signpost of the Church in a given age. The Apostolic and Nicene creeds along with the Augsburg Confession and Heidelberg Catechism can be seen as standard backdrops to “orthodox” faith in Church history and in the respective Lutheran and Reformed camps out of which Barmen comes. Understanding this, Busch notes that “The Barmen Declaration is, to be sure, not timeless, but it is also not time bound as are the others. Its strength is that it guides the church in a very particular situation to listen solely to the Word of God, trusting it alone, and obeying it alone,” (4). This is what makes Barmen transcendent to the situation from which it was birthed. These same theses can be applied to us today with the same immediate theological implications.

Busch begins by examining the historical framework and context for the Barmen Declaration. He carefully considers what the climate was at the time in a brief introduction. In this, he does presuppose a particularly dense knowledge of the historical context from the reader. This does not diminish what he will do throughout the text. Rather, it opens the reader to the possibility that more research must be done in the macro narrative of German Christianity in the 1930’s. The end of the introduction offers an equally impressive and exhaustive list of resources to observe, though many of these are in German, naturally.

Each chapter takes on one of the six theses of Barmen. A re-assertion of the authority of each statement as being grounded in scripture only adds to the timeless significance of its contents for us today. Moreover, in addressing each thesis, a highlighted context is the diversity of those gathered at Barmen who agree to the confession made. The idea of Christ being the head of the church was a powerful statement in 1934 as the rest of the country was being persuaded by the Führer principle and were justifying allegiance to God and also to Hitler as His divinely appointed servant to German renewal.

In response to the criticism and possible anti-Semitism in thesis one regarding Jesus being the only way to God, Busch allows for Barth’s clarity on the issue to speak for itself. Barth’s Christological emphasis is that the Old Testament speaks of Christ as the one who is to come as Lord of all! “Thus we say that Christians are not God’s chosen people in place of Jews, but rather that they, the Jews, are elect, and we are, thank God, (through Christ) called into them“ (33). There is a synthesis of the larger narrative that Busch identifies in Barmen that sees the New Testament faith and practice of hearing, trusting and obeying that ‘Christ is Lord!’ are carried over from the Old Testament’s roles of prophet, priest, and king exclaiming ‘that Christ is coming and He is Lord!’ Thesis one sets the authority of everything that follows by way of Christ and the revelation and authority of scripture.

Consistently in the other chapters, Busch connects the Lordship of Christ, and the authority of scripture into themes of assurance and responsibility. “Christian ethics is an ethic of freedom . . . that is not practiced in isolation but rather in connectedness with God and his children who are my brothers and sisters,” (47). This ethic is rooted in Christ as the head of the body, and doing what the head does. The ethic is rooted in prayer and community. When we read about the kirchenkampf, the subtle mistake is thinking that there was full unity amongst the churches that fell outside of the German Christian church. However, as Busch notes in his excursus of the third thesis, unity was impossible because many were welcoming to the nationalistic morale boost of the state. Further, it shows that there was a crack in the theological foundation of ecclesiology, as many church bodies had truly forgotten what the purpose of the church was. This is shown in the amount of ‘confessions’ that were drafted in 1933 alone.

In chapter four, Busch examines the responsibility of servant leadership. The church is free to serve only because Christ is Lord and serves the world. The church cannot and should not take a role in political leadership for privilege; it leads in how it serves. Moreover, Busch explains that service in this way is not a form of captivity. “It is a particular and concrete form of freedom” (66). Within the church there is no dominion of some over others, rather there is the whole congregation that serves under the headship of Christ. This participation is not merely an optional aspect of Christianity and the make up of the church; it is an “elemental component” of bearing witness to its living Lord.

The climax of the Barmen Declaration is thesis five. Public worship in the political world and the role of the church and the state are arguably at the very core of the entire document. How Busch examines this through Barth’s words re-affirm the role of the church in its assurance that Christ is Lord. The lords of the earth will pass away, but the reign of the Lord is forever. In this the allegiance is always to the sovereign God. The state, which has authority only through that which is given to them by God, has a necessary task of governing fallen humanity for the sake of justice and peace. What is clear is the distinction between the church and the state. “The church can speak and act politically only as the church, only in its hearing of the Word of God and only in His service” (75). Thesis six then examines the holistic mission of the church within it’s purpose as a place were the Word is preached and the sacraments administered, bearing witness to the kingdom that will never end.

While Busch meticulously exegetes the text of Barmen, he does so with grace to allow breathing room from the original text and Barth as its primary writer. In this case, the original intent of the text is still preserved, but it also is sprinkled with fresh insights and commentary that only a person like Busch could extrapolate as a world class scholar in Barth studies, and one who comes from a reformed and purely ecumenical understanding for the sake of the church universal and its primary mission existing under the Lordship of Christ. Moreover, it is not just the scholarly aspect that should be praised. While highly academic in its content, there is a welcoming note of pastoral consideration in Busch’s approach to the meaning of the Barmen text that solidifies the title of the book in the here and now. If the visible church exists within and embodies true space, then the agreed upon confession at the Barmen synod has a connection with all of the confessions that have stood before them. What Barmen gives us is not a replacement ideology, but a continued practical theology that in this way is a Church that is always reforming itself under the Lordship of Christ, for the sake of the world, for the glory of God, and here, Busch does well to guide us.

Ryan David Hawk, Ph.D. Student, Queen’s University Belfast

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.