Welcome to Day 8 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.

Christian confessions have recently entered the American political sphere. In August 2017, a conservative branch of siblings in Christ penned the Nashville Statement. Shortly after, siblings from all branches rooted in Christ criticized it.[1] Two issues arise, immediately, from this. First, out of all forms of expression why draft a confession? Second, what makes a Christian confession Christian? To address these questions, I will introduce some thoughts from German theologian Eberhard Jüngel, found in his little book Christ, Justice, and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration.[2] With his thoughts in mind, I hope to encourage a fruitful online dialogue with the Nashville and Denver statements, and Boston Declaration.

Eberhard Jüngel interpreted the 1934 Barmen Declaration as a status confessionis.[3] Since the twentieth century, the Latin phrase status confessionis has become a technical term meaning “a binding doctrinal stance on sociopolitical questions.”[4] The sociopolitical question that gave rise to the Barmen was the ascendency of Hitler’s National Socialism. Hitler’s tactics, called Gleichschaltung, unified all German institutions under the control of his Nazi party and propagated false teaching, as evidenced in its Aryan legislation. This law legalized removing Jews, even if they had converted to Christianity, from their jobs. Out of this situation, some German Christians gathered to declare their opposition.[5]

There were other forms of opposition during the German church struggle, one easily thinks of the attempts to assassinate Hitler, yet Jüngel argued that God has appointed the church to “make its request in Christ’s place.”[6] The power of the church is not a violent force, but preaching evangelical truth. The falsehoods of National Socialism, a threat to both church and state, roused theologians to proclaim truth through a specifically churchly document. The state under Hitler blurred the lines separating the divine distinction between church and state. In order to protect both, the entire Barmen was written, but specifically its fifth thesis concerned the church-state relation.[7] Jüngel highlighted its critique as a “false, religious self-understanding by the state” as well as a “false, political self-understanding by the church.”[8] In these dark times, light was needed. Confessional documents are the way the church speaks to itself and witnesses to the world, in extraordinary circumstances. Not many movements impede the church’s task of proclaiming the gospel, yet when the church recognizes a false gospel in the state or church it must address it.

Jüngel, nor the Barmen, opposed praxis during this time, yet a call to action would have been foolish since many German Christians believed that the spirit of Christ supported the Aryan paragraph. This leads into our second question. How does one locate the Christ’s spirit in confessional documents, or why was Christ not “in” the Aryan clause? Jüngel’s analysis of the Barmen provides us with three criteria to assess confessional documents. They are: locating the historical situation, discerning its theological foundation, and accepting an appropriate separation between a confession and the Bible. I address these in turn.

One item in Jüngel’s criteria of confessions was a dialectic of past events and present exigencies in the life of the church. Jüngel claimed that confessions “[wish] neither to be celebrated in retrospect nor inherited, but [desire] rather to continue on in our own decision-making… ‘a call forwards.’”[9] It seems obvious that confessions are historically bound, yet in evaluating them does that impact our criticism? Thus, in order to better understand the document’s significance beyond its time, he provided a historical and critical reading of it. He tried to read for the original intent of the theses so as to differentiate what were mistakes and what were good theological moves. Between these five decades, Jüngel argued that certain aspects of the Barmen were open to change whereas other elements continue unabated. The change in context affected his reading. On the one hand, the Barmen addressed the National Socialist tyranny, the government of the Reichskirche, and a theology of the German Christians (pro-Hitler). Around the writing of the Barmen, many in the Confessing Church (anti-Hitler) were perceived as rebels. Writing in 1984, Jüngel was located in the Federal Republic of Germany and did not encounter the same perception, rather he declared “the present is not a time of church struggle.”[10] Because of this, central notions like state, justice, war, and peace received new meanings foreign to 1934. Even though the historical difference necessitated some developments, as regards the fifth thesis Jüngel wrote “there is nothing to be added to that today.”[11] The historical setting is not enough in evaluating a confession, for that would be mere historicism. These confessions claim to speak on behalf of God, and so theological categories must criticize these documents.

Jüngel’s main theological criterion are truths grounded in the promise of the gospel of God’s coming kingdom and liberating power in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This humanity of God shatters or upholds confessional claims. Within the tradition of the Reformation, the two solas he highlighted were solus Christus and sola scriptura. These principles mutually determine one another, for the scriptured Christ informs the church’s proclaimed Christ. From God’s Christ the Barmen developed a “christological foundation of the state.”[12] The state was appointed for certain purposes and is accountable to its Lord, Jesus Christ. Instead of only drawing off of portions of Scripture that explicitly dealt with politics, e.g. the locus classicus Romans 13, the Barmen developed its account “‘out of’ the fact that Jesus Christ is the Word of Power by which God maintains all things and therefore also the state.”[13] Because the church has someone to proclaim, it is also theologically important, according to Jüngel, that the church’s affirmations precede and fuel its negations. If confessions were only to contain negations and not to mention who the church affirmed God to be, Jüngel observed that “the negation of those ‘church-destroying’ errors would in itself be groundless, weak-hearted, and (since it would be without substance) ultimately ineffectual as well.”[14] The “no” received its negation from what the “yes” affirmed, and Jüngel saw that as one of the lasting contributions of the Barmen. As he wrote, “we must learn never to speak a ‘No’ without grounding it in a ‘Yes’.”[15] Because the church confessed that Jesus Christ is “the one whom alone one can trust unconditionally, both in life and in death,” it denied the Führer that power, and all subsequent claims to that ability.[16] Implicit in this criterion is the distinction between what Christians confess and the Bible, which is the third and final criteria.

The relationship between the Bible and a confession was not explicitly outlined in Jüngel’s work. However, some way of parsing their difference emerged. When he wrote “…biblical truth encounters the situation, which is brought to expression in the six articles of Barmen…” this was the closest he came to articulating their relationship.[17] A confession’s goal is to repeat the evangelical truth within any historical situation. Moreover, the words of Scripture beginning each thesis of the Barmen address the listener, whereas the confessional points demonstrate how the authors repeat what they heard. Both of these aspects demonstrate a hierarchy: first between the Bible and the confession as well as listening over repeating. In order for any confession to succeed this proper order must prevail. A Christian confession, then, speaks to and within its own time, because it’s authors were first spoken to from the Bible. I judge this a criteria, for some Christians sacralize confessions almost to the point of the authority of the Word of God. However, confessions only have authority in that they repeat the Word’s evangelical truth for today.

Aided with these thoughts from Jüngel, which are open to criticism as well, let us charitably and Christianly evaluate the Nashville and Denver statements.


[1] Both statments can be found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/. Many other reactions can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nashville_Statement. Here is a link to the Boston Declaration: https://thebostondeclaration.com.

[2] Jüngel, Eberhard. Christ, Justice, and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration. Translated by D. Bruce Hamill and Alan J. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992.

[3] Ibid., 55.

[4] Hinlicky, Paul R. “Status Confessionis.” In Encyclopedia of Christianity Online. Accessed February 2, 2018. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2211-2685_eco_SI.75.

[5] For more on the historical situation of the Barmen Declaration, I recommend Hendel, Kurt K. “The Historical Context of the Barmen Declaration.” Currents in Theology and Mission 36, no. 2 (April 2009): 133-36.

[6] Jüngel Christ, Justice, and Peace, 77.

[7] Access to the Barmen Declaration can be found here: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_barmen-declaration.

[8] Jüngel Christ, Justice, and Peace, 55.

[9] Ibid., 93.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid., 65.

[12] Ibid., 60.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid., 17.

[16] Ibid., 11. Much more could be said about how the Führer was perceived during this time. Give the parameters of this paper, one example from Jünge’s text suffices, “the Führer who by virtue of his leadership is the sole architect of justice as its highest judge… From the leadership flows justice,” ibid., 67. Jügel here cited a National Socialist document.

[17] Ibid., 12