Lessons From History

Whilst considering my position within the Church of Scotland regarding the ordination of practicing homosexuals I re-read Barth’s Theological Existence Today, one of the undervalued wee masterpieces of 20th century theology. In it Barth deals with the situation confronting orthodox Christians in the face of the rise of the Nazis and the German Christians.

I will comment on the theological similarities between the two situations later, but first some reflections on the historical lessons to be learned from the Confessing Church, those who held out against the revisionist majority German Christians.

Such is the passion aroused by this issue that although I have no intentions of doing so I am bound to be accused of comparing present day progressives with Nazis, this is what happened to Ian Watson a couple of years back. Despite the risk I would maintain that there are similarities between the position of the orthodox then and the orthodox today because there are similarities in the position of the progressives today and the German Christians yesterday.

The German Christians arrived at their theological and political position by reinterpreting the Bible so that it fitted in with the prevailing culture. To do so they had to insist that some scripture was less than the Word of God, for them that meant the ‘Jewish’ bits. They also claimed that they were awake to new revelation, that God was speaking to them afresh in and through the new Germany. They thus vigorously promoted the cultural and political values of their time and place; nationalism, anti-Semitism and a Christianity that fit snugly into their cultural  milieu.

Likewise the Progressives of today have on the whole done more than reinterpret the Bible, insisting as they do that some scripture texts are not useful or relevant or are essentially the human product of a now discredited world view. They then refer to the new thing that God is doing, or to God’s continuing revelation in and through society. This ‘new revelation’ naturally enough sits comfortably with the prevailing morality of western culture.

There are lessons to be learned.

The Confessing Church in Germany lived in hard times. Even a cursory glance at Church history reveals that there is nothing new or surprising about this. Here in Scotland the Covenanters had to struggle, far more than we do, against the intolerance of the majority in the Church.

For the pastors and elders of the Confessing Church who had to face hostility within their own denominations and rejection by their local population their ordination vows as well as the Bible and the Confessions were foundational. Perhaps a re-reading of our ordination vows occasionally would be no bad thing.

The pastors made the situation abundantly clear to their parishioners. Those who had the support of their people were in a much stronger position than those who stood alone. Your congregation cannot help if they don’t have a clear understanding of what is at stake.

Do not disparage fellow orthodox who stay in a compromised denomination, you have no idea how God is dealing with them or will use them. Likewise do not disparage fellow orthodox who choose to leave, you have no idea how God is dealing with them or will use them. Whatever happens they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Confessing Church not only worked within the politics of their ecclesiastical situation, they not only supported dissenting pastors in practical ways, they did the real heavy duty theological work of exploring what God was saying in their situation. Just think of the Barmen Confession. We have thinkers of genuine ability, let us use them.

Above all our present situation should drive us to prayer and the nurturing of our own devotional life. We will inevitably be driven into situations of conflict. There will be misunderstandings, some of them deliberate. Harsh words will be spoken, hurts will be caused, risks will be taken, friendships will be broken. We cannot stand in the midst of the coming struggle in our own strength. If we are to act graciously in the midst of conflict we need grace.


2 thoughts on “Lessons From History

  1. At the beginning of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Dsicipleship, his brother-in-law, Gerhard Leibholz, writes: ‘Both modern liberal theology and secular totalitarianism hold pretty much in common that the message of the Bible has to be adapted, more or less, to the requirements of a secular world. No wonder, therefore, that the process of debasing Christianity as inaugurated by liberal theology led, in the long run, to a complete perversion and falsification of the essence of Christian teaching by National Socialism.’

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