Review of Eberhard Busch, The Barmen Theses Then and Now

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011

Review of Eberhard Busch, The Barmen Theses Then and Now (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), ISBN 9780802866172.

By Matthew Hockenos, Skidmore College

Eberhard Busch, a Reformed theologian and pastor as well as a former student and assistant of Karl Barth’s, is perhaps best known in the English speaking world for his colorful biographical study of his mentor, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (1976). In this text, still the best introduction to Barth’s Lebenslauf, Busch introduces Barth’s role on behalf of the Confessing Church and in particular his leading role in drafting the Theological Declaration of Barmen in May 1934. Now, in the volume under review, Busch provides a detailed analysis in just over 100 pages of each of the six Barmen theses and a brief introduction to the historical context in 1933 and 1934. The seven chapters are a revised and expanded version of the Warfield Lectures Busch gave at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2004. In addition to his close relationship with Barth, Busch has another personal connection to the Barmen Declaration—his father, a pastor, attended the Barmen meeting and voted for the declaration.

The Barmen Declaration consists of a preamble, six theses, and a conclusion. Each of the six theses begins by quoting Scripture followed by an explanation of the passage and a condemnation of error or damnatio.  The theological committee designated to draft the declaration for the Barmen synod consisted of Karl Barth, the relatively unknown Bavarian Lutheran churchman, Thomas Breit, and Hans Asmussen, a pastor and theologian from Altona near Hamburg.  Although Asmussen was a Lutheran, and after the war a rather conservative one, he was sympathetic to Barth’s theology during the church struggle. Despite the presence of two Lutherans on the theological committee, there is no question that Barth was the principal author of the declaration. According to Barth, while Breit and Asmussen took an afternoon nap he wrote the six theses. As Barth described it, “The Lutheran Church slept and the Reformed Church kept awake. …The result was that by the evening there was a text. I don’t want to boast, but it was really my text.” Although a Reformed theologian wrote the text, Busch emphasizes that not only did Lutheran and United churchmen accept it at the synod but that many of the churches within the EKD continue subscribe to it or recognize its importance.

The primary significance of the Barmen Declaration for Busch is that the Lutheran, United, and Reformed Protestant churches of Germany confessed together at Barmen that the churches had lost sight of the First Commandment when they applauded Hitler’s rise to power and the consolidation of his rule. Busch points to a veritable explosion of confessions in 1933 in which “the confession of faith in the triune God was rather glibly connected, even mixed in, with the confessional commitment to the German people and its special history, to its authoritarian form of state, its Fuehrer, and its German race.” The Barmen Declaration broke with this tendency. The preamble makes clear its purpose is to confess evangelical truths in light of the errors of the German Christians and the Reich Church government that were devastating the church.  “Its strength,” Busch writes, “is that it guides the church in a very particular situation to listen solely to the Word of God, trusting it alone, and obeying it alone.” However, the Barmen Declaration is in no way bound to the situation in which it arose; it is relevant and meaningful today to many churches outside of Germany.

In his analysis of the first thesis Busch addresses the criticism of Pinchas Lapide and Eberhard Bethge that its emphasis on Christ as the “one word of God” and as the one entryway to God and therefore salvation separates the church from the synagogue and has the potential to incite anti-Semitism. Busch respectfully disagrees. He acknowledges that the first thesis and the declaration as a whole failed to state that the church “stands and must stand in an essential bond with the Jews.” Nor did the Barmen Declaration forthrightly condemn anti-Semitism. This, however, was not because the declaration itself was anti-Jewish. In fact, its emphasis on the fundamental importance of the First Commandment “you shall have no other gods before me” and its rejection of a second source of revelation in the German Volk, undermined the anti-Semitism of the German Christians and gave the true church unlimited resources in the Scriptures to rebut anti-Semitic propaganda. If the emphasis on sola scriptura is recognized in the first thesis, “then the exclusive character of the statement that there is one Word will be understandable to Jews,” Busch believes, “as the acknowledgment of the exclusivity of the first commandment.” (32) Jesus Christ then becomes not a wall of separation but “a bridge built by God” between Christians and Jews. Busch provides plenty of evidence that this was the way Barth understood the first thesis but it seems quite likely that German Protestants, perhaps even some of those present at the synod, would have read it not only as a rejection of the German Christian heresy but also of the Jews.

Busch emphasizes the confessional unity around Barmen and its unanimous acceptance by the Lutheran, United, and Reformed churchmen present at the synod. For him the Barmen Declaration is a bridge connecting Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches.  There was, however, a group of powerful and highly respected Lutherans who believed strongly that the theological consensus reached at Barmen was an unacceptable dilution of Lutheran theology. The number of critics in fact increased when the German Christian threat diminished after 1934 and especially after 1945 when confessional unity was no longer an urgent necessity.  Some Lutherans, like the Erlangen theologian and church historian Hermann Sasse, opposed Barmen because he believed its theological content clashed with the traditional Lutheran Confessions. Sasse asserted in 1936, “He who recognizes the Theological Declaration of Barmen as a doctrinal decision has thereby surrendered the Augsburg Confession and with it the confession of the orthodox Evangelical Church.  What is pure and false doctrine, what is and is not to be preached in the Lutheran Church can only be decided by a synod which is united in the confession of Lutheran doctrine, and not an assembly at which Lutherans, Reformed, Consensus United, Pietists, and Liberals were all equal participants, as was the case in Barmen.” Others, such as Paul Althaus, a professor of systematic theology at Erlangen University, seemed more agitated by what they believed were Barmen’s political implications, particularly a curtailment of the state’s authority in thesis five.  And Bishop Hans Meiser of Bavaria exemplifies those who voted for the Barmen Declaration primarily to register their opposition to the German Christians—not because they held the declaration itself in high esteem. Fortunately, these objections and reservations did not impact the vote at the Barmen synod.

The publication of Busch’s Warfield lectures in an expanded and revised English edition provides an outstanding resource for students and scholars of the Barmen Declaration, the Confessing Church, and the Church Struggle. Nowhere have the six theses been so lucidly, insightfully, and fairly analyzed in so few pages. Busch’s astute theological analysis of Barmen is refreshingly accessible for non-theologians because he brings to it his many years of committed pastoral and ecumenical service.