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A Tale of Two Declarations

Timothy George

Bonhoeffer faced a church that had bowed its knee to the reigning culture, but we are facing that today as well. The situation that compelled Bonhoeffer and the other Confessing Church leaders to draft the Barmen Declaration in the 1930’s is not so terribly different from the current situation that has compelled Christian leaders to draft the Manhattan Declaration. —Eric Metaxas

It was a bright, sunny day
on May 31, 1934, not a cloud in the sky, when 139 delegates from Protestant churches throughout Germany came together in the town of Barmen and issued the Theological Declaration of the First Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church. Though the weather was beautiful that day, the storm clouds of a gathering crisis were evident to believing Christians in the Third Reich. The Barmen Declaration nowhere mentioned Hitler or the Nazis by name, but the issues which gave rise to this confession of faith were known to everyone who had eyes to see.

Tgemarker_kirchehe Barmen Declaration set forth in six clearly written articles the meaning of Christian faith and life based on the Holy Scriptures and the great confessions of the sixteenth-century Reformation. It rejected the totalitarian claims of the state and called the German church back to the central truths of the Gospel. It did so by announcing in its first article that “Jesus Christ, as he has attested for us in the 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.”

During the spring semester of 2011, the community of Beeson Divinity School is studying the Barmen Declaration and asking what it can mean for us today. “Give to the Winds Thy Fears,” from a hymn text by Paul Gerhardt (translated by John Wesley), is the theme of our community worship services this spring. Each week in Hodges Chapel, we will listen to sermons on the significance of the Barmen Declaration today. We shall also sing some of the great hymns of Luther and Gerhardt and listen to the music of the Reformation that so inspired Bonhoeffer and other believers in the Confessing Church.

One of the speakers in our series was Eric Metaxas, a biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He, among others, has compared the Barmen Declaration to the Manhattan Declaration (MD), a recent statement of Christian conscience affirming the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, the dignity of marriage as a lifelong covenantal union between one man and one woman, and religious freedom for all persons. The MD was drafted by Chuck Colson, Robert George, and me and released in November, 2009. Within one year of its release, the MD had garnered the signatures of some half-million Christian believers. You can find out more about the Manhattan Declaration on its website: www.manhattandeclaration.org.

It needs to be said that these three issues are not the only matters of pressing moral concern in our culture today. Many issues call for Christian engagement. Care of creation, racial injustice, the proliferation of violence, the spread of HIV-AIDS, the blight of poverty and hunger around the world, and many others are all areas of concern. But life, marriage and freedom are threshold issues on which so much else depends. If Christians cannot stand together on the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage, and religious freedom for all, then how can we act with any moral earnestness on a host of other concerns that press upon us?

Photo courtesy of Manhattan DeclarationThe Manhattan Declaration was written on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Barmen Declaration. The early drafts of the MD did cite the Barmen statement as a precedent that inspired our concern. But the reference to Barmen was deleted in the final form of the MD for several good reasons. First, the plight of the church in North America today, serious as it is, is not analogous to the repression Jews, Christians and many others experienced in Hitler’s Germany. Second, the Barmen Declaration was written and signed by only Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) Christians, whereas the MD includes Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant and Eastern Orthodox voices. None of us is interested in an easygoing ecumenism that blurs the theological convictions we hold dear. But at this critical moment in our life together, we find it important to stand together in a common struggle, to practice what I once called “an ecumenism of the trenches.” 

Still, Metaxas is right to discern an underlying similarity between the statements of 1934 and 2009.

First, both Barmen and the MD appeal to the authority of Holy Scripture. Each offers quotations from the Bible as the theological basis of its statements. Each recognizes that the Christian faith can be, and often has been, distorted by accommodation to the “prevailing ideological and political convictions” of the day. Thus, it is not surprising that both Barmen and Manhattan have been controversial. Each document subscribes the claim of Jesus in John 14:6, an assertion that demands a decision: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Second, neither Barmen nor Manhattan are “political” statements in the sense of being tied to a particular political party or ideology. The MD has been signed by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. Some say today that the church should take a sabbatical from speaking to the culture at large. Hitler himself was happy (at least for a while) to leave the Christians alone so long as they stayed within the four walls of their church buildings and refrained from “meddling” in matters related to public policy and the common life of the German people. But both Barmen and Manhattan refuse to say that there are areas of life which do not belong to Jesus Christ. Both affirm the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Finally, both Barmen and Manhattan are more than mere statements of academic discourse. They are not mere declarations of religious opinion. Both are movements of the Spirit and calls to commitment. Stefanie von Mackensen, the only woman delegate at Barmen, later said that she had felt the presence of the Holy Spirit sweep the room when the Barmen Declaration was unanimously adopted and the congregation rose and sang spontaneously, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Both Barmen and Manhattan recognize “the cost of discipleship.” Both call for the kind of conscientious courage that dares to count the cost of following Jesus Christ along the way that leads finally to the cross.

Pastor Steven Grund, the main figure in John Maarten’s story The Village on the Hill, wrote from his prison cell: “If the church sleeps and her witness is silent, then she will not be attacked and may live in comfort, but she betrays her Lord. But when the church awakes and speaks, then come storms and sorrow and the cross, but the Lord is near.”

This article originally appeared in Beeson magazine. The presentations on Barmen are posted on the chapel archives page. 

Timothy George is founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School.