The Theological Declaration of Barmen

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The Theological Declaration of Barmen of May of 1934 is considered to be the “Magna Charta” of the Confessing Church. At its core, it consists of six theses – each of which is preceded by Bible verses followed by rejections. Its primary author was Karl Barth, a Reformed professor of theology at the University of Bonn. From the outset, only two Lutherans were involved in the declaration’s creation, Hans Asmussen, a pastor who had been removed from his parish in Altona , and Thomas Breit, the deputy bishop of the Bavarian regional church,.

At the first National Synod of the Confessing Church in Barmen, the text was first reviewed in a Reformed and in a Lutheran meeting and, accompanied by Asmussen’s interpretive presentation, finally adopted unanimously. Only Hermann Sasse, a Lutheran professor of theology at the University of Erlangen, felt unable to give his approval for formal – not substantive – reasons. In keeping with longstanding church tradition, he departed prematurely so as not to jeopardize the unanimity of the synod’s decision.

Confuting the German Christians’ doctrine, the declaration’s central first thesis stresses the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture. Natural theology of any kind, i.e. the notion of God’s revelation in nature, in history or in human “orders” (such as race, state, family, etc.), is rejected explicitly as false doctrine.

The second thesis reflects Barth’s doctrine of the “sovereignty of Christ”, encompassing both the ecclesiastical and civil community (We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ...). A certain tension exists between it and the fifth thesis reformulated at the synod, which basically corresponds to the Lutheran “doctrine of the two kingdoms” (the state has inherent rights but is nonetheless accountable to God).

The third and sixth theses warn the church against ingratiating itself with the particular spirit of the times and against abandoning its commission to deliver the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ's stead ... through sermon and sacrament. The fourth thesis, a response to the dictatorial aspirations of the German Christian Reich Bishop, rejects a hierarchical church structure: Offices in the church are for the exercise of nothing more than the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.

Apart from its very concrete ecclesio-political resistance in the face of the German Christians’ Gleichschaltung efforts, the Barmen Declaration was not conceived to contain any political platform. Resistance or support for the victims of National Socialism did not lie in the horizon of thought of the attendees of the synod, who held predominantly nationally conservative views (Martin Greschat).

Paradoxically, the Declaration’s unquestionable political significance primarily lies in its return to theology in the narrower sense, which is fundamentally critical of ideology, and – as Klaus Scholder formulated it – precisely that the authors did not allow the overpowering political issues of the day to be forced upon them. At any rate and unlike other major groups in society, the Confessing Church effectively managed to resist Gleichschaltung.

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  • ©Evangelische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte München, Nachlass von Soden 7

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