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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical


movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 19331935
Jordan J. Ballor
Scottish Journal of Theology / Volume 59 / Issue 03 / August 2006, pp 263 - 280
DOI: 10.1017/S0036930606002262, Published online: 25 July 2006

Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0036930606002262


How to cite this article:
Jordan J. Ballor (2006). The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the
ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 19331935.
Scottish Journal of Theology, 59, pp 263-280 doi:10.1017/S0036930606002262
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SJT 59(3): 263280 (2006) Printed in the United Kingdom 
doi:10.1017/S0036930606002262

The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the


ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on
natural theology, 19331935
Jordan J. Ballor
Journal of Markets & Morality, (161 Ottawa NW Suite 301), Grand Rapids, MI 49503, USA

jballor@acton.org

Abstract
In this article I argue that the essential relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer
and Karl Barth stands in need of reassessment. This argument is based on a survey
of literature dealing with Bonhoeffer and Barth in three basic areas between the
critically important years of 1933 and 1935. These three areas come into sharp
relief given the political background of the German Christian victory in the church
elections of 1933. Their respective positions, both theological and political, on
the Aryan clause differ greatly. For Bonhoeffer, the imposition of the Aryan clause
on the German churches represented a clear status confessionis, and Bonhoeffer
favoured a very public schism. For Barth, while the Aryan clause was certainly
troublesome, it was deemed better to wait for a more central point, namely, that
of the question of natural theology. Barths emphasis on the importance of the
question of natural theology carries over in his position regarding the significance
and role of both the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement. We see
that Bonhoeffer explicitly questions the validity of Barths emphasis on natural
theology with respect to the Confessing Church and to the ecumenical movement.
While many scholars have argued for the basic agreement between Barth and
Bonhoeffer, especially on the question of natural theology, a closer examination
of the two in the period 193335 calls such conclusions into question.

A critical reassessment of the theological affinities between Karl Barth


and Dietrich Bonhoeffer is long overdue. The valid recognition of shared
political opposition to the German Christians, those who favoured closer
affiliation and cooperation with the Nazis, has often been the basis for
asserting similar agreement in other areas, including the foundations of their
respective theological enterprises. But as Bonhoeffers biographer Eberhard
Bethge notes, the period roughly beginning in 193334 is characterised by
noteworthy theological differences, accompanied by a very close alliance in
church politics between Barth and Bonhoeffer.1
1

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, trans. Eric Mosbacher et al. (Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 2000), p. 178. The biography of Karl Barth by Eberhard Busch, Karl
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For some, theological similarities or continuities between Barth and


Bonhoeffer have been overemphasised, skewing or glossing over important
points of difference alluded to by Bethge. This has led to a depiction of
Bonhoeffer largely as a pupil of Barth and particularly in agreement with his
rejection of natural theology.2 And where the differences between Barth and
Bonhoeffer have been examined more closely, the critical points of departure
have often been misdiagnosed. For example, John D. Godsey mistakenly
argues that the fundamental point of disagreement concerns their assessment
of liberal theology and how it was to be overcome.3
This article will highlight important differences between Barth and
Bonhoeffer manifested in the critical developmental years from 1933 to
1935. During these years, Bonhoeffer would leave his teaching post at Berlin,
hold the pastorate of two London congregations for eighteen months, and
bind himself to the Confessing Church in the emerging church struggle. At
issue for us here is the tracing of the complex relationship between Barth
and Bonhoeffer in this period. As Andreas Pangritz notes, On the eve of

Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. John Bowden (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1994) will also be important for the following discussion.
For positions arguing or asserting the basic theological agreement between Barth and
Bonhoeffer, see Charles Marsh, Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1994), p. ix; Shin Chiba, Christianity on the Eve of Postmodernity: Karl Barth
and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Christian Ethics in Ecumenical Context: Theology, Culture, and Politics in
Dialogue, ed. Shin Chiba, George R. Hunsberger and Lester Edwin J. Ruiz (Grand Rapids,
MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 192; Martin Rumscheidt, The Formation of Bonhoeffers
Theology, in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 65; Clifford J. Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of
Sociality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 239; and Stanley Hauerwas, Performing
the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004). For
more specific depictions of Bonhoeffer in essential agreement with Barths rejection
of natural theology, see Benkt-Erik Benktson, Christus und die Religion: Der Religionsbegriff bei
Barth, Bonhoeffer und Tillich, trans. (from the Swedish) Christa Maria Lyckhage and Erika
Goldbach (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1967); Rainer Mayer, Christuswirklichkeit: Grundlage,
Entwicklung und Konsequenzen der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1969);
John W. de Gruchy, Editors Introduction to the English Edition, in Creation and Fall:
A Theological Exposition of Genesis 13, trans. Douglas S. Bax, vol. 3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 1112; Martin Ruter and Ilse Todt, Editors
Afterword to the German Edition, in Creation and Fall, pp. 1701; and Green, Bonhoeffer:
A Theology of Sociality, p. 203. For important dissenting depictions of the relationship
between Barth and Bonhoeffer, see William F. Connor, The Natural Life of Man
and Its Laws: Conscience and Reason in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (PhD
dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1973) and Robin W. Lovin, Christian Faith and Public
Choices (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984).
John D. Godsey, Barth and Bonhoeffer: The Basic Difference, Quarterly Review 7, no. 1
(Spring 1987), p. 18.

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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement

political power being handed over to the Nazis, the fronts are already clearly
demarcated; in spite of Bonhoeffers ethical criticism of Barth, Bonhoeffer
stands unambiguously on Barths side.4 By this, Pangritz is pointing to the
solidarity between Barth and Bonhoeffer in their opposition to the German
Christians and Hitlers assimilation of the German state church.5
Nevertheless, there are critical points of dispute and tensions which
arise between the two men in this period, ones which cannot simply be
ignored by pointing to the broad, general agreement in opposing the German
Christians. This article will trace the positions of Barth and Bonhoeffer on
three key points of difference: the Aryan clause, the Confessing Church
and the ecumenical movement. We will see that on each of these points,
Barth emphasises the importance of the No!6 to natural theology, while
Bonhoeffer differs, sometimes explicitly, from such an understanding. Of
key import for determining the extent of Bonhoeffers and Barths accord is
the Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church, of which Barth was the
primary author and to which Bonhoeffer constantly called the Confessing
Church to remain loyal.
Moreover, the Confessing Churchs relationship to the broader ecumenical
world is of great interest. Given the jaundiced view with which the political
structure in Germany saw the rest of the world, the international character of
the ecumenical efforts cast suspicion on the Confessing Churchs designs to
appeal to the worldwide church for support. It is especially with the German
ecclesiastical situation in view that we must appreciate the increase and
rising primacy of Bonhoeffers ecumenical activities during these years. We
will see that although Barth and Bonhoeffer agree broadly about the central
importance of Barmen and the relationship of the Confessing Church to the
international Protestant community, their approaches differ significantly.
It is in their particular views of the Barmen Declaration that the relationship
between Barth and Bonhoeffer comes to a head. For Pangritz, their mutual
4

Andreas Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. Barbara and Martin
Rumscheidt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 47.
For more specific observations about Barths political opposition to the German
Christians, see James Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology: The Gifford Lectures for 1991 Delivered
in the University of Edinburgh (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). For general conclusions
about the extent of and motives behind such opposition, see Eric Voegelin, Hitler and
the Germans, trans. Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin,,
vol. 31 (London: University of Missouri Press, 1999).
Karl Barth, No! Answer to Emil Brunner, in Natural Theology, trans. Peter Fraenkel (London:
Geoffrey Bles, 1946), pp. 65128. Also important for comparison will be Emil
Brunner, Nature and Grace, in Natural Theology, trans. Peter Fraenkel (London: Geoffrey
Bles, 1946), pp. 1564.
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adherence to the declaration points to a problematic internal to Barths


and Bonhoeffers theology that is related to the political significance and
the societal meaning of the christological concentration as expressed in
exemplary fashion in the first thesis of the Barmen Declaration.7 However, if
we note the broader implications of Bonhoeffers Christology as logology,8
we might begin to see Bonhoeffers initial attempts to reconceive Barths
christocentric focus.
An illuminating context for the examination of the Barmen Declaration
in particular and the Confessing Church in general is the question of the socalled Aryan clause.9 It is in their disagreements about the necessary reaction
to the imposition of this requirement on the German church that we see a
substantive split between Barth and Bonhoeffer. We will then move from an
7

Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 3. The first thesis of the Barmen
Declaration reads, 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. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would
have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one
Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as Gods revelation
(8:118:12), in Arthur C. Cochrane, The Churchs Confession under Hitler (Philadelphia, PA:
Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 239.
See Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, and Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New
York: Harper & Row, 1978). These two texts, when read together, provide a deeper
understanding of Bonhoeffers Christology and its relevance for natural theology,
rooted in Christ as logos in John 1:1. See my Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffers
Preservation Theology, Journal of Religion 86:1(2006), pp. 1317.
Bonhoeffer, The Church and the Jewish Question, in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures
and Notes, 19281936, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John
Bowden, vol. 1 of Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper & Row,
1965), pp. 2219. Paragraph 3, section 1 of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des
Berufsbeamtentums. 7. April 1933, reads Beamte, die nicht arischer Abstammung
sind, sind in den Ruhestand ( 8ff.) zu versetzen; soweit es sich um Ehrenbeamte
handelt, sind sie aus dem Amtsverhaltnis zu entlassen, Reichsgesetzblatt 1, no. 34
(7 April 1933), p. 175; quoted in Carsten Nicolaisen (comp.), Dokumente zur Kirchenpolitik
des Dritten Reiches, vol. 1, Das Jahr 1933, ed. Georg Kretschmar, (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1971),
p. 35. The third thesis of the Deutsche Christen party, contained in The TwentyEight Theses of the Saxon National Church for the internal strengthening of the
German Evangelical Church, is as follows: The National Church commits itself to the
doctrines of blood and race because our people share a common blood and a common
existence. Therefore, a member of the National Church can only be such a person who,
according to the law of the State, is also a peoples comrade (Volkesgenosse). An official
of the National Church can only be such a person, who according to the law of the
State, is fit to be a civil servant. (The so-called Aryan paragraph), Joachim Beckmann
(ed.), Kirchliches Jahrbuch fur die Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland 19331944 (Gutersloh: C.
Bertelsmann, 1948), pp. 302; quoted and trans. in J. S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of
the Churches 193345 (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 3534.

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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement

examination of Barth and Bonhoeffer on the Aryan clause to their positions


regarding the Confessing Church (illuminated by the Barmen Declaration).10
The third section will be a survey of the two men on the importance of the
ecumenical movement,11 and the article will conclude with an assessment
of the relationship between natural theology and the church in light of the
preceding discussion.
The Aryan clause

The latter half of 1933 marked the escalation of the Nazi regime into the
realm of church politics. The status of the German church as a state church
put ecclesiastical leaders in precarious positions. Church pastors and academy
theologians alike were civil employees, under the pay and auspices of the
government. The special implications of this come to the fore in the case of
the Aryan clause, a governmental requirement excluding non-Aryans from
civil service, including ministry.
Early on, Bonhoeffer had decided what the reaction to this imposition
must be. Bethge notes that by August 1933 Bonhoeffer had concluded
beyond doubt that there could be no question of belonging to a church
that excluded the Jews.12 Bonhoeffer and his friend Franz Hildebrandt,
who was personally affected by the exclusion order, were convinced that
the acquiescence of the church to the Aryan clause would usher in a status
confessionis, which should be followed by vociferous and public schism. In this
way, Bonhoeffer and Hildebrandt insisted that an immediate exodus would
not only be more theologically consistent but more strategically successful
than a delay.13 But when Bonhoeffer and Hildebrandt looked for support
for this viewpoint, they were met with little sympathy.
The church election in July 1933 had been a huge victory for the German
Christians, and this party was now in an unquestioningly dominant position
and seeking to impose the Nazi agenda on the church. Bonhoeffer looked
to Barth for support, and the two exchanged a flurry of correspondence
on the matter. In September, Bonhoeffer initiates the contact on this topic,
seeking guidance. He begins, In your booklet you said that where a church
adopted the Aryan Clauses it would cease to be a Christian church . . . Now
10

11

12
13

Sources for this discussion will include Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley
and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. T. Thomson, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956
77), hereinafter CD, and Bonhoeffer, The Leader and the Individual in the Younger
Generation, in No Rusty Swords, pp. 190204.
Bonhoeffer, The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement, in No Rusty Swords,
pp. 32644.
Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 273.
Ibid., p. 308.
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the expected has happened, and I am therefore asking you . . . to let us know
whether you feel that it is possible either to remain in a church which has
ceased to be a Christian church or to continue to exercise a ministry which
has become a privilege for Aryans.14 Bonhoeffer continues, When is there
any possibility of leaving the church? There can be no doubt at all that the
status confessionis has arrived; what we are by no means clear about is how
the confessio is most appropriately expressed today.15 Bonhoeffer favours the
possibility of open schism, but is seeking to enlist the aid of the influential
and elder Barth.
In his immediate reply, Barth also does not doubt that the status confessionis
has been reached, as he writes, I too am of the opinion that there is
a status confessionis.16 At the same time, Barth says that other than public
denouncement of the Aryan clause, I am for waiting. When the breach
comes, it must come from the other side.17 Despite the gravity of the
situation, it could then well be that the encounter might take place at a still
more central point.18 Barth is of the opinion that the best course of action
is to stay in the German church and to call it to repentance from within.
Busch writes, Barth pleaded that people should stay in, so long as they were
not simply excluded. However, they should take the line that to collaborate
now means to protest. Above all, he warned against mere church-political
tactics: We must be men who believe, first and last. That and nothing
else.19 This response is a great disappointment to Bonhoeffer, as Bethge
observes: Even like-minded theologians such as Karl Barth and Hermann
Sasse decided to wait for even worse heresies than the racial conformity
of the Civil Service Law.20
In his reflection on the situation, Eric Voegelin, after noting that
Bonhoeffer is one of the few young church leaders to take a radical stand
against the Aryan clause, sees that the majority of the church in Germany is
slow to act. He writes, So here you have this pattern of social behavior. As
long as the neighbor gets it in the neck, we all happily join in, but as soon
as our own turn comes, then there is resistance. But by that time it is a bit
too late, and naturally the basic rules of humanity were not available when

14
15
16
17
18
19

20

Letter to Barth (9 September 1933), in No Rusty Swords, p. 230.


Ibid., p. 231.
Letter to Bonhoeffer (11 September 1933), in No Rusty Swords, p. 231.
Ibid., p. 232.
Ibid.
Busch, Karl Barth, p. 231, quoting Wilhelm Niemoller, Wort und Tat im Kirchenkampf
(Munich: C. Kaiser, 1969), pp. 701.
Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 325.

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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement

the other was being massacred.21 Later he writes that Bonhoeffer is one
of the genuine victims of resistance; but what is usually called resistance
is a resistance apropos of the threat to peoples own social, material or
institutional interests.22
For Barth, even though he concurred with Bonhoeffers expression that
the Aryan clause brought about a status confessionis, it apparently was not
the full status confessionis or did not have the binding character that later
developments would. When his position as professor at Bonn was threatened
by a requirement to sign a pledge of loyalty to Hitler, matters were construed
somewhat differently. Barth writes in a letter reflecting on these events, From
the very first moment that I heard in Switzerland that this oath was being
required, it was quite clear to me that when the request reached me I would
be put in the status confessionis as specifically and as appropriately as could be.23
The quarrel over the oath would be one of the major instrumental causes
resulting in Barths retreat from Germany to Switzerland in 1935.
Earlier in April of 1933, Bonhoeffer had already directly addressed the
issue in an article entitled The Church and the Jewish Question. After setting
up the questions that can only be answered in the light of a true concept
of the church,24 Bonhoeffer lays out the three possible ways in which the
church can act towards the state.25 The first of these is to ask the state
whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with the character of
the state.26 By this Bonhoeffer means that the church should prophetically
criticise the state and attempt to call it back to its proper role and function. In
the second place, Bonhoeffer writes that the church is to aid the victims of
state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any
ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.27
The third option is the most radical and the option whose validity is most
rare. It points forward to Bonhoeffers activities towards the end of his life.
He writes, The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the
wheel but to put a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct

21
22
23

24
25
26
27

Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, p. 165.


Ibid., p. 174.
Letter to H. von Soden (5 December 1934) and Briefweschsel Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann
19221966 (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1971), pp. 266ff; quoted in Busch, Karl
Barth, p. 255.
Bonhoeffer, The Church and the Jewish Question, in No Rusty Swords, p. 222.
Ibid., p. 225. See also Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, pp. 2745.
Bonhoeffer, The Church and the Jewish Question, in No Rusty Swords, p. 225.
Ibid., p. 225.
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political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the
state fail in its function of creating law and order.28
At the time he wrote this article in April, Bonhoeffer finds the first two as
the only viable options with regard to the specific issue at hand, the Jewish
question. The third option only is available when the state engaged in the
forced exclusion of baptised Jews from our Christian congregations or in
the prohibition of our mission to the Jews. Here the Christian church would
find itself in statu confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating
itself.29 It is not much later, however, before such a state of affairs becomes
manifest, as the state imposes the Aryan clause on the church. It is at this
point that Bonhoeffer seeks the aid of Barth, because Bonhoeffer finds that
the third option can only be decided at any time by an Evangelical Council
and cannot therefore ever be casuistically decided beforehand.30
The disagreement on the wisdom of public schism was to have important
consequences. Bonhoeffer accepted an offer to pastor two congregations,
one Lutheran and one Reformed, in London. He did not seek Barths advice
on this manoeuvre, possibly because he knew Barth would counsel against it.
While Bonhoeffer was away in London, Barth began to have troubles of his
own, as his refusal to resign membership in the Social Democratic party led
to increased criticism of his position at Bonn. During his travels throughout
Germany at this time, Barth ran up against Bonhoeffers absence. Busch
writes, To his regret, in Berlin Barth missed meeting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for
whose clear-sightedness he had such a high regard. Bonhoeffer had retreated
to a pastorate in London for eighteen months.31 What Barth viewed as a
retreat, Bonhoeffer felt was perhaps the only way of publicly acknowledging
the importance of the Aryan clause and remaining loyal to his family and
friends, like his brother-in-law Gerhard Liebholz and Hildebrandt, who were
directly impacted by such laws.
The Confessing Church

What might most often be viewed as the point of Barth and Bonhoeffers
most considerable and explicit agreement (their opposition to the German
Christians) is complicated by the split between Barth and Bonhoeffer on the
reaction to the Jewish question and the Aryan clause. To be sure, Bonhoeffer
was a staunch proponent of the Barmen Declaration and its ratification at
Dahlem. Nevertheless, there seems to be a disconnection between Barths
28
29
30
31

Ibid., p. 225.
Ibid., p. 225.
Ibid., p. 226.
Busch, Karl Barth, p. 233.

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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement

view of his own confession and the view of it taken on by most other people,
including Bonhoeffer.
The central point for Barth in his response to Brunner in 1934 was a
very clear and comprehensive rejection of natural theology. So too was this
rejection the defining characteristic for Barth of the Barmen Declaration.
Thus, when Pangritz makes reference to the importance of the first article of
the Barmen Declaration and its significance for Barths rejection of natural
theology, he is not mistaken.32
With a view of the controlling power of Barths rejection of natural
theology for his view of the church struggle, Busch observes that in the very
first days of the Third Reich Barth gave a lecture on The First Commandment
as a Theological Axiom, the theme of which unmistakably defined what he
believed to be the basic situation facing the church and theology.33 In this
lecture from March 1933, Barth:
detected a danger of having other gods than God in every theological
attempt to connect the concept of revelation with other authorities which
for some reason are thought to be important (like human existence,
order, state, people and so on) by means of the momentous little
word and. And he challenged Christians at last to say farewell to all
and every kind of natural theology, and to dare to trust only in the God
who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.34
As we will see, Barth tends to find the central issue at stake in the church
struggle to be a rejection of natural theology. This will be apparent again later
in the discussion of the Confessing Churchs relationship to the ecumenical
world. At this point, however, we might have some hint of what Barth might
have meant by a more central point in his counsel to Bonhoeffer concerning
the Aryan clause (other than when his own academic position is threatened).
The centrality of the rejection of natural theology not only comes to
expression in Barths lecture on the First Commandment and in his reply
to Brunner, but also follows in his understanding of the significance of
the Barmen Declaration. As Busch writes, For Barth, all possibilities of
resistance in the church struggle depended on this clear no.35 Busch details
the relevance of the Barmen Declaration with regard to natural theology for
Barth. He writes, the text of the Barmen Declaration was important for Barth
32
33
34

35

Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 3. Cf. n. 2 above.


Busch, Karl Barth, p. 224.
Ibid., p. 224, quoting Theologische Fragen und Andworten (Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag,
1957) (collected articles), pp. 138, 143.
Busch, Karl Barth, p. 241.
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because it is the first evidence of the preoccupation of the Evangelical Church


with the problem of natural theology on the basis of the confessions.36 So
too did the declaration centre on:
Jesus Christ, as he is witnessed to us in holy scripture, the one Word of
God whom we have to trust and obey in life and death. It rejected as false
teaching the doctrine that there could be a different source of church
proclamation from this one Word of God and (in the closing sentence
of the Declaration) stated that to recognize the truth and to repudiate
the error was the indispensable theological foundation of the German
Evangelical Church.37
In a very concrete and important way, then, Barth saw the Barmen Declaration
as a sort of confessional companion piece or expression of his position contra
Brunner.38 And it is on this point that he ventures further than Bonhoeffer
in his understanding of the declaration. For Barth, the declaration, taken
seriously, contained in itself a purifying of the Church not only from the
concretely new point at issue but from all natural theology.39
In a broadcast immediately following Hitlers election as German
Chancellor on 30 January 1933, Bonhoeffer examined the Leadership
principle. The broadcast was cut short by the authorities before its
completion, but Bonhoeffer lectured again on this topic later in March. In
this critique of the secularised Leadership principle, Bonhoeffers argument
does not reject all ideas of order or state as does Barth. In the concluding
sections of the work, Bonhoeffer explicitly measures the idea of Leader
against these institutions and orders.
Indeed, it seems as if Bonhoeffer finds at least provisional value in arguing
from some kind of worldly order, as he writes, The Leader must lead his
followers towards a responsibility to the orders of life, a responsibility to
father, teacher, judge, state. He must radically refuse to become the appeal,
the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads.40 Of course,
we must remember that when Bonhoeffer references what he calls here
orders of life, he means what are called earlier in his Genesis lectures
orders of preservation.41 These orders are not ultimate or independent,
36
37
38

39
40

41

Busch, Karl Barth, quoting CD II/1, pp. 172ff (his translation).


Ibid.
Barth makes explicit reference to the German Christians five times in his angry reply
to Brunner.
Barth, CD II/1, p. 175.
Bonhoeffer, The Leader and the Individual in the Younger Generation, in No Rusty
Swords, p. 202.
See, for example, Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, p. 139.

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but have value penultimately and dependently on Christ. Nevertheless, they


are valid for critique of secular ideas of order, such as are expressed in
the Leadership principle or in the Nazi doctrine of blood and soil. For
Bonhoeffer, at issue much more here is the proper circumspection of these
orders rather than a total rejection of all order language. Bethge observes
that it would be a misinterpretation, however, to see his argument as based
upon liberal, democratic ideas. It emerged from a conservative notion of
order that continued to influence him, despite his thinking that was evolving
during that same period about the breaking up of penultimate (as opposed
to the ultimate) orders.42
Thus, Bonhoeffer contends, the Leader must know that he is most deeply
committed to his followers, most heavily laden with responsibility towards
the orders of life, in fact quite simply a servant.43 Indeed, it is the Leaders
relation and orientation towards the various penultimate and ultimate orders
that defines his validity. In this way, Leaders or offices which set themselves
up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him,
and must perish. Only the Leader who himself serves the penultimate and
the ultimate authority can find faithfulness.44 Here we see a depiction of
what an ordering which has closed itself off to Christ might look like, the
institutionalisation of the individual sicut deus. And we see too the hints of
just why Bonhoeffer might later seek to put a spoke in the wheel of such
an institution.
A situation that arose later during Bonhoeffers time at Finkenwalde that
is related by Bethge will shed some more light on Bonhoeffers particular
views of the Confessing Churchs declarations. Bethge writes of Bonhoeffer:
When his students came out with the cliche that liberal Christians ended
with the German Christians and orthodox or positive Christians moved
toward the Confessing church because this was the logical outcome of their
theologies, he objected not only that this was factually untrue but that the
components of the decision being made did not revolve around theology.45
This discussion arose within the context of the examination of the Smalcald
Articles in particular and the relation between declarations of the church and
theologies of individual persons. Bethge writes of Bonhoeffer, In discussing
the question of church schism, he emphasised that the reformers had
confined themselves exclusively here to the Article of Justification as the
42
43

44
45

Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, pp. 25960.


Bonhoeffer, The Leader and the Individual in the Younger Generation, in No Rusty
Swords, pp. 2023.
Ibid., p. 204.
Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 448.
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grounds for disagreement, and he emphasised the exemplary unity that


existed with Catholics in the other articles.46 This emphasis is striking for
Bonhoeffers students, as they were inclined to see the primacy of the Barthian
theological emphasis behind Barmen.
The recognition of the broader continuities between the reformers and the
Catholics is important, and is found in that the ordinands were impressed
when Bonhoeffer, a consistent and unwavering proponent of Barmen and
Dahlem, drew their attention to this point and advised them to remain
moderate here. Their theological education had led them to see a different
spirit at work, rooted in the old schism, that could be detected in each of the
articles.47 Instead of using an interpretive approach which defines Barmen
as a prolonged and constant polemic against Catholicism, the ordinands
were being instructed by someone with a keen awareness of the different
spirit behind all the present-day pronouncements; he taught them that there
was a great distinction between the churchs theologies and the decisions it
made.48
The students confusion is rooted in Barths identification of natural
theology with Catholicism and neo-Protestantism. It is at this point that
Godseys distinction between Barth and Bonhoeffer on the questions of
natural theology and liberalism is incorrect. Recall from earlier that Godsey
holds that the difference between Barth and Bonhoeffer is not to be found in
any disagreement between natural theology but rather in their appropriation
of and reaction to liberal theology.49 Pangritz finds Godseys depiction to be
in danger of bringing about precisely what he seeks to avoid, namely, that
Barth and Bonhoeffer are played off against each other.50 An approach that
pits the two against each other is inadequate for Pangritz, who is much more
inclined to minimise their respective differences.
Nevertheless, Godseys framing of the difference is problematic, and
ultimately untenable, because for Barth natural theology is so fundamental
to both liberal Protestant theology and Catholic theology, while Bonhoeffer
denies such an essential relationship. The basic difference between Barth
and Bonhoeffer cannot be their attitudes towards liberal theology, precisely
because these attitudes are indicative of more basic theological commitments.
For Barth, his rejection of liberal theology is based on his more fundamental
rejection of natural theology.
46
47
48
49
50

Ibid., p. 447.
Ibid., p. 447.
Ibid.
Godsey, Basic Difference, p. 24.
Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 13.

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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement

In his angry reply to Brunner, Barth remarks that Brunner has entered
upon the downward path in Nature and Grace more obviously than in any
previous pronouncement . . . I am no longer able to distinguish him
fundamentally from a Thomist or Neo-Protestant.51 It is their common
basis in natural theology that is the unifying factor in Barths rejection of
both Catholicism and liberal theology. In this vein he writes, The Reformers
did not perceive the extent to which even Augustine, to whom they were so
fond of appealing, has to be regarded as a Roman Catholic theologian, and
the reserve with which he has therefore to be taken.52 In the preface to his
Church Dogmatics, Barth identifies the Roman Catholic doctrine of the analogia
entis with liberal theology, the line which leads from Schleiermacher by way
of Ritschl to Hermann with the analogia entis which is legitimate only on the
basis of Roman Catholicism.53 And here too, Barth views the analogia entis as
the invention of Antichrist.54
Bonhoeffers careful leading of his ordinands through the Smalcald Articles
and his comments about the nature of the relationship between church
decisions and the positions of an individual theologian pivot here on Barths
conflation of natural theology, liberal theology and Catholic theology. As
will be noted below, Bonhoeffer states that the Confessing Church does not
confess against Rome, despite whatever intentions Barth may have had to
that end. As Bonhoeffer writes in August 1935, For the Confessing Church,
Anti-Christ sits not in Rome, nor even in Geneva, but in the government of
the National Church in Berlin.55
The ecumenical movement

The difference in view of the significance of the Barmen Declaration


and the Confessing Church in general plays into the respective views
of the relationship between the Confessing Church and the ecumenical
world. Here, as in his understanding of Barmen, Barth takes his point of
departure on the question of natural theology. By contrast, Bonhoeffer has
different ecclesiological concerns, being much more concerned with issues
of discipleship and church community.
We get a glimpse of the pervasive importance of the answer to natural
theology for Barth in a conversation that took place in October 1933. Busch
51
52
53
54
55

Barth, No!, p. 90.


Ibid., p. 101.
Barth, CD I/1, p. xiii.
Ibid.
Bonhoeffer, The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement, in No Rusty Swords,
p. 338.
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relates that in a conversation with the American churchman and ecumenist


Charles Macfarland, who had an audience with the Fuhrer immediately
afterwards, Barth emphasised that the Anglo-Saxon church should now
support the Confessing Church in one way and only in one way, by showing
theological solidarity with its struggle against natural theology.56 The relation
of the Barmen Declaration to the Confessing Church and the relation of the
Confessing Church to the broader ecumenical world both revolved around
Barths No! to natural theology.
Since in general the ecumenical movement was not to understand its
relationship to the Confessing Church along this line, Barth reflects in 1935
that all in all . . . for the moment this ecumenical business hasnt made
much of an impression on me.57 Indeed, Busch relates that in lectures
delivered in Basel, Barth used the occasion to formulate his view of the
ecumenical problem. The thesis that Barth expounds is strikingly similar
to the language of the first article of the Barmen Declaration. His thesis is that
the question of the unity of the church must be identical with the question
of Jesus Christ as the specific head and Lord of the church . . . Jesus Christ, as
one mediator between God and man, is himself church unity, that unity in
which there may indeed be multiplicity of congregations, gifts, and persons
in the church, but which rules out a multiplicity of churches.58 Here we see
Barths rejection of natural theology related specifically to his ecclesiology.
Thus, in his reply to Brunner, Barth concludes regarding natural theology,
Only the theology and the church of the antichrist can profit from it. The
Evangelical Church and Evangelical theology would only sicken and die of
it.59
Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, views the relationship between the
ecumenical movement and the Confessing Church in a very different
way. This is not surprising given both his greater involvement with the
movement and his diverging understanding of the significance of the Barmen
Declaration. In his enormously important paper from August 1935, The
Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement, Bonhoeffer lays out two
essential questions. The first is put to the ecumenical movement by the
Confessing Church, and the second is reciprocated to the Confessing Church
by the ecumenical movement. Neither question centres around the question
56
57

58
59

Busch, Karl Barth, p. 231.


Letters to E. Wolf (30 July 1935) and to Nelly Barth (1 August 1935); quoted in
Busch, Karl Barth, p. 264.
Theologische Fragen und Andworten, pp. 217, 225; quoted in Busch, Karl Barth, p. 264.
Barth, No!, p. 128.

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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement

of natural theology that is so essential, albeit in different ways, both to Barth


and to Brunner.
The first question brought to the ecumenical movement by the Confessing
Church is whether or not the ecumenical movement is a church. For
Bonhoeffer, the identification of a church centres on a confession, and this
is the unique perspective from which the Confessing Church questions the
ecumenical movement. For the Confessing Church is the church which
would be exclusively governed in all its totality by the confession. It is
fundamentally impossible to enter into conversation with this church at any
point without immediately raising the question of the confession.60 Because
it defines its entire existence in terms of the confession, the Confessing
Church finds a unique position representing vicariously for all Christianity,
particularly western Christianity61 in the church struggle.
Since there can only be a church as a Confessing Church, i.e. as a church
which confesses itself to be for its Lord and against his enemies,62 the unity
achieved in the ecumenical movement must be on the basis of the truth of
the confession. For the question of the truth is none other than the question
of the confession in its positive and limiting sense, the question of the
confitemur and the damnamus.63 The relevance of this becomes clear as we find
that the confession is always a confession that addresses a specific issue or
opponent. The question of the truth does not prohibit the unity of different
denominations because of disagreements over particular doctrines. The unity
of the Confessing Church lies in its transcendence to truth questions beyond
those that divide Reformed and Lutheran. This is because the Confessing
Church does not confess in abstracto; it does not confess against Anglicans
or Free-churchmen, it does not even confess at this moment against Rome;
still less does the Lutheran church today confess against the member of the
Reformed Church.64 This way of understanding the confession is described
as living, which does not mean the putting of one dogmatic thesis up
against another, but it means a confession in which it is really a matter of life
or death.65
And here we come to Bonhoeffers explication of the importance of the
Barmen Declaration. The Confessing Church confesses in concretissimo against
60

61
62
63
64
65

Bonhoeffer, The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement, in No Rusty Swords,
p. 329.
Ibid., p. 327.
Ibid., p. 335.
Ibid., p. 336.
Ibid., p. 337.
Ibid., p. 338.

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the German Christian church and against the neo-pagan divinisation of the
creature; for the Confessing Church, Anti-Christ sits not in Rome, or even
in Geneva, but in the government of the National Church in Berlin.66 Here
we see the switch in perspective between the situation when Bonhoeffer
expounds on the Leadership principle in 1933 and the situation in 1935,
when the order of government has been totally closed to the gospel and
is seeking its destruction. In Bonhoeffers view, the Confessing Church has
entered the stage of the spoke in the wheel.
Natural theology and the church

Pangritz is correct in pointing to the unity between Barth and Bonhoeffer


in their identification of the danger to the church in the German Christian
threat. Barth sums it up well when he observes, from the beginning the
National Socialist policy on religion and the church could only be aimed at
the eradication of Christian belief and its expression.67 Bonhoeffer concurs
in his identification of the National Church government with the Antichrist.
But it is at this point that Bonhoeffer departs from Barth. For Barth, the
Aryan clause, the significance of Barmen and the identity of the Confessing
Church, and the relevance of the ecumenical movement are focused on
his rejection of natural theology. James Barr characterises Barths position
this way: Start along the line of natural theology, he thought, and sooner
or later you will end up with something like the German Christian (DC)
movement. The DC ideas that nation or race or culture were in-built structures
of humanity and that religion must accommodate itself to them were, as Barth
saw it, the logical result of the long compromise with natural theology.68
The occasion for the rise of Barths rejection of natural theology was political,
as it was thus the rise of German totalitarianism, whether rightly interpreted
or not, that brought the issue of natural theology into an absolutely central
position. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Barmen Declaration, which
expressed the dissent of the Confessing Church, was framed in terms entirely
Barthian.69
The differences between Barth and Bonhoeffer on the Aryan clause, the
mission of the Confessing Church, and the usefulness of the ecumenical
movement make any facile conclusion about the agreement between the
66
67

68
69

Ibid., pp. 3378.


Eine Schweizer Stimme (Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1945) (political talks and writings,
193845), p. 258; quoted in Busch, Karl Barth, p. 223.
Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, pp. 1011.
Ibid., p. 11.

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The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement

two, especially on matters of natural theology, unwise. Certainly the close


alignment of Barths and Bonhoeffers political opposition to Hitler and
the German Christians should not be an occasion to downplay points of
disagreement in their respective theologies.
Bonhoeffer is no less politically opposed to the German Christians than
Barth, but, as seen in his explication concerning the Leadership principle,
he does not simply identify the problem with the use of any argument
from order, state or office. Bonhoeffer sees that such an argument is one
weapon against the corruption of natural theology present in the Nazi blood
and soil doctrine. Neither, however, is it the only relevant weapon against
the German Christian heresy. It is here where Bonhoeffer also disagrees with
Brunner, who no less than Barth finds the central issue to be that of natural
theology. Thus, Brunner writes:
a false theology derived from nature is also at the present time threatening
the Church to the point of death. No one has taught us as clearly as
Karl Barth that we must here fight with all the passion, strength, and
circumspection that we can muster. But the Church must not be thrown
from one extreme to the other. In the long run the Church can bear the
rejection of theologia naturalis as little as its misuse. It is the task of our
theological generation to find the way back to a true theologia naturalis.70
In general, Bonhoeffer might find some agreement with Brunner on some
of these points. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer construes the central duty of his
theological generation in a different way.
In earlier dialogues with Barth, Bonhoeffer had consistently called for
more ethical concreteness. He does so between 1933 and 1935 as well.
Rather than relying solely on the resuscitation of natural theology, Bonhoeffer
is concerned with the pure teaching of the Gospel and the correlative call to
obedience. He writes, The Confessing Church takes the recognition of the
Gospel given to it by God through Holy Scripture in the confession of the
Fathers and given fresh today with infinite seriousness. It has learnt that this
truth alone is its weapon in the struggle for life and death.71 From its basis
in Christs presence as the Word of proclamation, the church has been given
a command and a promise what is demanded is not our own realisation
of our own aims, but obedience. The question has been raised.72
70
71

72

Brunner, Nature and Grace, p. 59.


Bonhoeffer, The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement, in No Rusty Swords,
p. 343.
Ibid., p. 344.

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And so too has the question been raised regarding the theological affinities
between Barth and Bonhoeffer. Given the varied disagreements on the
important events between 1933 and 1935, we can say that Bonhoeffer did not
share Barths view on the fundamental importance of the question of natural
theology in the matters of the Aryan clause, the Confessing Church and the
ecumenical movement. Disagreement on these points is reason enough for
a closer look at the complex relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and
Karl Barth.

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