A modern confession of the Christian faith

Since 9/11, many North American and Western Christians have become aware that Christian involvement in politics is both necessary and complicated. As a result, in our seminaries, we have seen a return to the sources of Christian political thought, especially in the works of the Anglican theologian Oliver O'Donovan. Paul Ramsey, the Niebuhr brothers and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have also been given a new lease on their literary and theological lives as Christians have begun to discuss again notions of just war, political realism and public discipleship.

In this context, The Barmen Theses Then and Now should be warmly received. Its author, Eberhard Busch, professor emeritus of Reformed Theology at the University of Göttingen, is uniquely positioned to write this book. Not only was his father one of the original signatories, but Bush himself was a student and assistant to the Theses' principal author, Karl Barth. His scholarship is well integrated with direct and personal knowledge of the Theses and the events that led to them.

The book, in fact, is late to appear in English, being first published in 2004 in German as Die Barmen Thesen 1934-2004. But translators Darrel and Judith Guder have done their usual excellent work in rendering Busch's original text in accessible English.

The book itself is simply planned. After Presbyterian theologian Daniel Migliore's foreword, the opening essay comments on the significance of the Barmen Declaration as a modern confession of Christian faith. Following are six chapters, each expounding one thesis, paying careful attention to the circumstances that gave rise to it. The result is a thoroughly situated, and therefore illuminated, Barmen Declaration. And as a result, readers will leave the book with a clearer understanding not only of what Barmen said in 1934, but also what it continues to say in 2011.

And that, it seems to me, is the chief strength of the book. Reformed theology has often (and rightly) held that its confessions arise out of and speak to specific contexts. They are self-consciously time-bound documents and simply do not make sense without taking the circumstances of their construction into view. This is as true for the major Reformed Confessions - Heidelberg, Westminster and Dort - as the many, many minor ones. It is even true of such modern confessions as Barmen, whose context is much closer to our own. Reformed Confessions do not aspire to replace the great Creeds of Christendom that do, in fact, transcend their original historical and cultural boundaries.

Sadly, in the move from seminary education to pastoral care, this often seems to be forgotten. Either confessions are so absolutized as to be treated as creedal documents that function in a context-independent way or they are so relativized as to be seen as silent in the modern era, speaking only to the context in which they were formed.

Busch's important book reminds us that neither extreme is true. On the one hand, he is very clear that Barmen is only understood in the context of 1934 Germany. Its theses take on new and subtle hues when we learn just how and why they were formulated, to whom and for whom. On the other, far from silencing Barmen this contextual situation actually frees it to speak fresh words today! It is only as we understand just what Barmen said to German Christians in 1934 that we can begin to grapple with what, if anything, it is saying to Christians in 2011.

And that, perhaps, is the most important insight of the book. The Barmen Declaration was not a declaration of the Church to the Nazis and still less, to the world at large. Barmen was a call from the Church (in this instance, the Confessing Church) to the Church (in this instance, the German Christian Movement) to be the Church (in this instance, to refuse any compromise with Nazism).

The book's value to historians and those interested in modern Church history is obvious, as is its worth to any interested in the contemporary intersections of faith and politics. But it is also an important gift by a thoughtful theologian to a more general audience. For it invites us again to reflect on just what it means to be a disciple of Jesus here and how. And how much that discipleship costs.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.

About the author