Used by permission. For the complete text of the declaration go to www.pcusa.org/oga/publications/boc.pdf.
Confessions within the Reformed tradition are meant to be used, not to be admired, and certainly not to be taken for granted or buried. As a confessing movement, the Reformed tradition puts believers in a difficult position, however. Confessions place us in the middle of a tension between authority and freedom, a tension we have to endure, but which we try to get rid of all too often. As Reformed Christians, we are not free agents; our confessions claim authority over us, although their authority is not absolute.
What does obedience to Jesus Christ demand from us today? What do we have to do and confess? A confession may be easily written and issued, yet there are many dangers to consider. Are we sure that we are not opening a door for a teaching that would lead the church into a wrong direction? Are we ready to tell those who do not adhere to our conviction that they have turned away from Christ? Are we willing to accept the consequences of a step that might divide the church? Is this God’s call or are we mislead by our own hidden desires and ambitions?
When asked about the background of Barmen, people assume that it was directed against Hitler and his brutal and murderous government; that the church came together to reject this idolatrous regime and proclaim the real truth. Yet the actual story is different. During the first years of the Nazi regime in Germany (1933-34), the majority in the Protestant churches stood behind Hitler, and celebrated him not only as the Führer in the political area, but also as their Führer in the church. The so-called “German Christians” introduced a crude mixture of pagan and pseudo-Christian elements, trying to prove that the Arian race was superior, created by God to rule the world. They rejected everything “Jewish” — whether it was the Old Testament, huge parts of Paul’s theology, or Christian pastors with Jewish ancestors. The latter issue was one of the immediate motivations for the Theological Declaration of Barmen. A Confessional Synod met in the town of Barmen in May 1934, with representatives from all churches that were not governed by the “German Christians.”
The Center and Source of Our Faith: Jesus Christ
The Barmen Declaration’s first thesis leads us to the center of our faith: Jesus Christ. In 1934, the churches in Germany had to hear and confess the word of Christ again, because they were being led astray to trust and obey other “words.” Twenty-first century Christians also have to hear and confess the one Word of God. Barmen defines who we are as Christians, not by naming what separates believers from those who deny the good news, but by stating the good news in an almost classical formulation:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in 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. [8.11]
If we follow Barmen’s lead, we will not identify ourselves primarily by what separates us from others, whether within our own church or within the broader Christian family. The first thesis of Barmen urges us to look first at the Center, to “trust and obey” this one Word of God. Turning from the borders to the center is being obedient, trusting our God who is more powerful in holding us together than we are in separating us from each other.
But of course there is also a rejection within the first thesis. It is easy to identify what the Synod of Barmen had in mind when it spoke about the “other events and powers, figures and truths” that were acknowledged as a source of the proclamation of the church besides the Word of God. It is more difficult to identify the events, powers, figures, and truths that we substitute for the Word of God. Barmen reminds us that the old fight against idolatry, which is a key issue in the Reformed tradition, is not over. Barmen also reminds us that idols claiming our loyalty are not only found outside the church, but in the middle of the church’s life and proclamation. Urged by the sixth thesis, we have to examine continually whether the church “in human arrogance” places “the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.” [8.27]
The Double Grace: God’s Gift and Task for Us
Barmen’s second thesis encapsulates another typically Reformed emphasis that had to be brought back to consciousness of the German churches in the 1930’s: what Calvin had called the “double grace” of God:
As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our life. [8.14]
The Christian life, according to the Reformed tradition, is a life marked by double grace: we are to know and trust that all our sins are forgiven in Christ, and at the same time we are called to live a life in which Christ alone is the Lord. There are no “areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords.” [8.17]
We confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but what this means for us often remains somewhere in the shadows. We continually say, “Lord, Lord,” yet many of us are hard pressed to explain to ourselves and others what consequences Christ’s lordship has for us. Moreover, for some Christians the designation “Lord” describes an omnipotent male ruler who subjects me and turns me into a passive, obedient person. Discomfort with the term “lord” has led many faithful Christians to look for alternatives. Perhaps we can learn something from Barmen that will contribute to this discussion. Barmen describes Jesus Christ as the Lord, the one we have to obey, the one who has a claim upon our life. But this very same Jesus (and this is the twofold grace) is the one who is “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). This Lord is the one who became a slave for our sake, and that can mean only one thing for us: not one single person can claim our ultimate loyalty, not one single person can claim any form of lordship over us and turn us into “slaves.” This is a revolutionary claim; with its understanding of the lordship of grace, Barmen gives us the freedom to criticize every destructive lordship, revealing them as idols.
The grace-filled lordship that Barmen speaks about is costly, not cheap grace, but it is grace nevertheless — a grace on which the ministry of the church is grounded:
The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. [8.26, emphasis mine)]
It is my hope that this brief look at Barmen gives a hint of how enriching and challenging a conversation with the confessions can be. Barmen and the other confessions of our church can indeed guide us in our Christian faith and life. The conversation is not always easy, but there is much to gain for us as individuals and as a community. Not least, the confessions give us a chance to meet the Holy Spirit working through documents of faith. We are given a chance to meet our God, who is our gracious Lord, the Reconciler of all, and the One in whom we can trust. We are given a chance to learn who we are as ones created in God’s image, called to follow Christ. And we are led to give thanks and praise to God.
Margit Ernst-Habib is a Reformed theologian living in Germany, formerly on the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, Ga.). This article is adapted from her essay, “A Conversation With Twentieth Century Confessions” in Conversations with the Confessions, Joseph D. Small, ed. (Geneva Press, 2005).