Barmer Theologische Erklaerung

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 Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler

614 - Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler

Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler
By Jack Forstman
Louisville, KY, Westminster/John Knox, 1992. 261 pp. $23.00.

In our post-socialist era, when the allure of fascism is perhaps greater than anytime since the waning years of the Weimar Republic,

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Jack Forstman's Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler is to be welcomed. In this study of the German theological scene between 1918 and 1935, the author, a professor of theology at Vanderbilt, sets forth his motive and his method in an introductory meditation. Forstman wants to know if Christian understandings "can help one recognize the demonic before it shows itself boldly," and whether Christian faith provides "the courage publicly to name the demonic and to say 'No'."

In search of an answer, he studies six leading academic theologians of the Weimar and subsequent Nazi eras: Paul Althaus, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Friedrich Gogarten, Emanuel Hirsch, and Paul Tillich. Taken together, these figures represent the whole range of Protestant responses to the advent of Hitler. In "fence-posting" fashion, Forstman furnishes biographical vignettes of his thinkers and then exposits their views within the dizzying context of intramural debates and shifting alliances.

When confronted with the enormity of an evil such as Nazism, our first reaction from the standpoint of historical hindsight is to wonder how any Christian who has thought five minutes about the Great Commandment, let alone brilliant men such as Althaus, Hirsch, and Gogarten, could have so joyously embraced Hitler. Forstman asks us to suspend this judgment until he can carefully unpack the theological arguments, all revolving around Volk ("nation" or "people," in the sense of race or ethnicity), that predisposed these three thinkers to Nazism. Hirsch, for example, who once signed a reply to Tillich with "Heil Hitler" and died an unrepentant Nazi, held that Christian faith entailed the rejection of radical individualism in favor of corporate responsibility. For Hirsch, "corporate" did not extend to "universal humanity," a useless abstraction, but denoted a specific, historic people who nourish our identity and thereby our capacity for Christian self-sacrifice on their behalf. Althaus, who spent 1934-1937 opposing the Confessing Church, held Volk to be an "order of creation," an arena of revelation and ethical judgment independent of that confessed in Jesus Christ. In Forstman's judgment, Althaus failed to find in the revelation of Jesus Christ specific criteria for criticizing claims made on the basis of Volk. Gogarten, who defected from dialectical theology and embraced the "German Christians" in 1933, inferred from the Lordship of God over human beings the necessity for an analogous Lordship of the State to restrain selfishness and coerce cooperation for the greater good of the Volk. As Forstman points out, "To affirm Lordship in political life, even when it is not identified with the Lordship of God, is to lose any potential principle of criticism in the political arena." Forstman's very fair exposition of these thinkers who succumbed to Nazism makes his criticisms of them even more telling.

Unfortunately, his discussion of Karl Barth is less balanced both historically and theologically. In light of the unalloyed enthusiasm for

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Barth in earlier treatments of Forstman's period and topic by both James D. Smart and Arthur C. Cochrane, Forstman's relativizing of Barth's importance by placing him on the more level ground of actual debates with his equally brilliant contemporaries is overdue. But can we really take the second edition of Romans, published in 1922, as the normative standard by which to assess Barth's views through 1935? Doing so gives us a somewhat static, Kierkegaardian Barth that belies his complex development during these years. Moreover, can we really characterize Barth's view of biblical authority as "arbitrary and provincial," by expounding it in terms that would be more applicable to fundamentalism? Surely the real event that might teach us something about Christian discernment in the face of fascism is the German Church struggle. But this struggle receives scarcely two paragraphs, framed in the most general terms. The Barmen Declaration receives only passing attention, chiefly as a final exhibit of Barth's theology in contrast to Althaus, but without sufficient elaboration of the Declaration's unanimous and free adoption by the Lutheran, Reformed, and United representatives in the constituting Synod of the Confessing Church. This relative diminishing of both Barmen and Barth creates an artificial vacuum in Forstman's reading of events.

Into this gap, resulting from his own method, Forstman then propels Rudolf Bultmann as the theologian of resistance. Among the six studied, Bultmann is presented as offering the most constructive guidance for us today. One can only appreciate Forstman's respect for the critical witness of Bultmann, a witness that has often gone overlooked or been misrepresented. Nevertheless, the logic of Bultmann's positions was sometimes more ambiguous than Forstman acknowledges.

For example, Bultmann preached in 1938 just a month after Kristallnacht and not far from where the synagogue in Marburg lay in ruin. Forstman quotes from this sermon where Bultmarnn denies that Jewish messianic hope "is essentially foreign to our own way of life." What Forstman omits to say is that Bultmann also claims that this messianic hope "is by no means confined to Israel," as witness the beliefs of the "north Germanic tribes," "the Aryan Persians," or the German poet Karl Immermann. Jesus Christ, he argues, is the fulfillment of this hope. Does Bultmann turn the tables on the Nazis by pointing out the "messianism" of their own ethnic heritage? Clearly. But by arguing that the Old Testament possesses no less saving significance than Aryan myths, he suggests that it has no more. Such a discounting of the Old Testament, especially in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, muffles Bultmann's Christian sympathy for the plight of German Jewry.

Skepticism about liberal democracy, rising anxiety about lawlessness and joblessness, debates over family values, the exclusion of whole classes of persons from civil or ecclesiastical offices, the recourse to race or ethnicity as a theological norm, and the renewal of pagan myth

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in Christian circles are as much issues today as they were "in the shadow of Hitler." Although Jack Forstman renders no explicit theological judgments on these matters now confronting us, his timely historical work points to pertinent resources wherever Christian theology understands itself as a tradition of interpretation-and criticism.

James F. Kay

Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, NJ

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