What is the distinctive function of confessions with the churches of the Reformed tradition?
The confessions state what counts, what supports us, what is truly at stake in life and in death. They state this in order to make clear that this is what the church is founded on. They state what is therefore obligatory in the church: not the propositions as such, but the One whom they confess. They repeat, in their own words and in a particular situation and application, Peter’s answer to the question directed to him by Jesus, the question Peter himself did not think up: “Who do you [plural] say that I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:15f.). They make no independent amendments to Holy Scriptures, but rather point to the light in which the Scriptures are to be read and proclaimed in the church of the present. They do not force upon Christians in the name of God something which one group among them finds desirable, but rather they encourage Christians in the name of God to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) — remembering that Christ himself is the one who ignites that light.
What does status confessionis signify for Reformed churches?
It has been integral to the Christian church from the beginning that there are within it varying views about the understanding of the biblical message and about the right way to live, that may and will often lead to discussion and even dispute. But the differing sides are not allowed to take leave of each other, knowing that they all belong to the Church of Christ. Even when it is an effort for them to acknowledge each other mutually as its members, they should make that effort for the sake of Christ’s love.
It is another situation when an error penetrates into the church that is so great that through it the church of Jesus Christ denies itself. Then there is a status confessionis (stance of confessing), that is, the hour of confessing has come. In such an hour, the church does not merely dissociate itself from the views of “others.” In this hour the church is in great distress about its very self as a whole. In this hour the church repents of an error that has become dominant in it, an error that obscures all three articles of faith. In this hour, the church goes through a profound conversion so that, through hearing God’s Word in a new way, it can confess anew that it is the Church of Jesus Christ.
In a status confessionis, there will be divisions in the church for the sake of the truth without which the love of Christ cannot be love. This can lead the confessors into isolation as they receive resistance rather than applause. The criterion for whether this division is divinely commanded or is merely arbitrary will be whether or not the Confessing Church will be bold enough to say that it is not only one but rather the Church of Christ, and on the other side, regardless of how it appears, there is Non-Church. Thus the appeal is made to the other side not simply to accept an opinion but rather to return to the Church of Christ.
What happens in the hour of confessing, therefore, is that the church no longer merely wants to say something. What happens here is that the church, or a group in it which acts in the name of the one Church of the triune God, must confess. Its back is against the wall so that it betrays its very existence if it does not speak now, whether one likes it or not. In November 1933, Martin Niemoller wrote regarding the so-called Aryan question: “Now we have to confess, although it goes against our will.” This is how the church speaks when it is in the status confessionis.
What is the difference between a confessional church and a confessing church?
A confessional church has a confession. A confessing church lives with it. To have a confession is a good thing. The confession points in the direction in which the host of Christians is to move. But that good thing becomes questionable when it resembles a banner that remains back in the barracks when the troops march out. Usually a confessional church renders honor to her confession. She quotes it, especially at major celebrations and in important publications.
But a confessing church does not celebrate her confession. She tries and tests her confession practically in concrete challenges. She uses it as a light in order to see where she should remain silent and not swim with the current, or where she must speak and act, even if it means swimming against the current, because she takes sides for a forgotten minority against a majority, or for a forgotten truth. She confesses. She confesses the God of the Bible in word and in deed, his comfort, his commandments, in the real distresses and obscurities of the time. Thus she does not try, as does the confessional church, to protect her confession from the changes of time and against its destruction at the hands of critics. The confessing church is completely absorbed in actively doing her witness to the Christian faith so that it may be for people like a lighthouse above the churning sea.
Why did the German churches that publicly resisted Hitler in 1934 call themselves a “Confessing Church”?
I think that the situation was actually the reverse. Most of the Christians in Germany in 1933-34 hadn’t the slightest intention of resisting Hitler publicly (one must in fact accuse them, in this situation, of sleeping when they should have remained awake). But what happened was that the churches began to defend themselves against a few heresies that were surfacing within their ranks, opposing things like the removal of the Old Testament from the Christian Bible or the isolation of “Jewish Christians” within the Christian congregation. Then some began to grasp that in these heresies the very substance of the Christian church was at stake. Some now understood that it was important for the church to take very seriously in new ways the fact that according to the First Commandment we are to have no other gods than the God of Israel and Jesus Christ testified to in the Bible, that we cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time, that we must obey God rather than men, and that we must seriously reckon with the claim that Christ has all power in Heaven and on Earth.
Wherever this was acknowledged, there we had “confessing church.” It was not a political movement that sought a theological argument for its cause after the fact. It was a churchly renewal movement in which at least some people began to grasp that if the church truly takes seriously the First Commandment and the Lordship of Christ, then the state’s totalitarian claim encounters its unconditional boundary in the church. Then the church concretely confesses God, his gospel and his commandment over against the powers of the age. In so doing she spoke out against their godlessness and inhumanity.
What are the lessons from the German Confessing Church movement for Reformed Churches today? Under what circumstances would it be appropriate to declare a “confessing church” within an already existing church — based on our history in the ’30s?
When Martin Niemoller was thrown into prison by the Nazis, as the story goes, a pastor visited him and asked, “Brother, why are you in prison?” And he answered, “Brother, why are you not in prison?” One can have a similar experience when dealing with the German Confessing Church, that is, that it suddenly and bluntly asks us, Are you then a confessing church? And if not, why not? We are a confessing church when we, in our way and in our particular places, come to understand the confession with which the church at that time became a confessing church: The Theological Declaration of Barmen, of May 1934.
Its six theses state that:
o The only thing binding upon the church is the Word, to which God in Christ bound himself according to the biblical witness.
o This Word is both our entire comfort and the guidance for every area of life.
o The church, in her message, her order and her form, is the witness to Jesus Christ;
o Which she carries out in such a way that all her members are responsible for the ministry of witness.
o This selfsame Word defines the church’s relationship to the state’s task of caring for justice and peace.
o And the selfsame Word, not bound to our standards but the Word of God’s free grace that the church is to proclaim, is the liberating Word for all.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the Barmen Declaration as one of her confessions. Thus, she “has” a confession that is a constant impetus to her to become a “confessing church.” The fact is that there will probably be various groups within her that will work towards this end, not to form a “confessing church” as a special group within the church, but rather to form the entire church as a confessing church. The further fact is that these groups will do this in such a way that they move ahead of their fellow Christians in this process, as an inviting model. As one example, they will move beyond the intractable dispute about “blessing” homosexual couples toward the fundamental question about how Christian couples participate in the witnessing commission of the church in the midst of a humanity today characterized by war, hunger, exploitation, racism, hostility towards enemies and destruction of the environment.
What was Karl Barth’s particular role in that movement? How does his theological understanding of confession instruct us today?
I see Karl’s Barth’s particular role in the Confessing Church of the 1930s along the lines of the old prophets. This means, on the one hand, that like the authentic prophets he did not proclaim some new and special doctrine, did not announce some new “paradigm” from which today we would take our leave as we announced an even newer “paradigm.” In an age of enormous confusion in the church, he pointed very simply and unerringly to what every confirmation student would and should have long since learned in his Lutheran or Reformed catechism, as he put it in June of 1933. He did not say something “new,” but rather the one old message that is always new in the Christian church.
On the other hand, there was no lack of confessions at that time. Almost daily various groups and movements in the German church were elevating their well-intended views, concerns and interpretations of the day into confession-like propositions. The texts fill many books today. In the midst of this real flood of confessions — this also reminds us of the ancient prophets — Barth, initially as a lonely voice, called out for a fundamental conversion of their entire way of thinking: The issue was not to have God affirm retroactively opinions to which we had already come. Rather, the issue was to listen to the Word of God as though one had never heard it before, in order to ask what it means for everything one does. Revelation is not to be interpreted in accordance with our situation as we view it, but rather our situation is to be interpreted in accordance with the revelation of God. And thus it is not the task of the Word of God to state what we consider to be good and necessary, but rather we must state and proclaim what the Word of God holds to be good and necessary in our age and our place. Through this conversion of her thought the church will be freed to see dimensions of both divine truth and human reality to which she was previously blind, and she will be freed to say and to do what is good and necessary. The Barmen Declaration, which was largely written by Karl Barth, declared that this conversion of thinking was binding on the church. That is, briefly put, Barth’s contribution to the understanding of the confession.
EBERHARD BUSCH, Karl Barth’s last assistant at the University of Basel, is the author of of Barth’s biography and a major interpreter of Barth’s theological legacy. Among his many articles, essays and books are (in German) an introduction to the theology of Barth, a major study of Barth and the Jews, and an introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism.
Related guest viewpoint:
Confessional Witness and Its Challenge by William Stacy Johnson
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