The Faithful Church Opposed Hitler

 

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The Lie:

Christians supported Nazism and even Hitler was a Christian.

The Truth:

Hitler did not serve the Christian God and Bible-believing Christians of the “Confessing Church” formed the only internal organized opposition to Hitler and Nazism.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”—Colossians 2:8

Unfortunately, at the same time evangelicals were going out into the world to serve as missionaries, bringing the Good News to people of all tribes and nations, at Tubingen University in Germany one of the most destructive movements to ever come against the Bible would be birthed.  A movement, known as the “historical critical movement” would spread like a wildfire across the world. Wherever advances in science, history, and archaeology seemed to conflict with the biblical record, many Christians would concede to the “facts” and toss aside the Bible. This was the beginning of modern liberal theology.

Historical Criticism

Before the historical critical movement, Francis Bacon’s scientific method was traditionally applied to the study of the natural world. The empirical pursuit of truth in areas such as biology, chemistry, and geology had long been established, but the German intelligentsia thought they could apply the same standards and methods of research to the study of history or sociology. This was how the term “social sciences” came into being.

Since science led to the discovery of empirical reality, if scientific methods could be applied to the study of history, for example, the truth of history would be more likely to be found. Thus, historian Leopold von Ranke claimed they were more likely to uncover history “as it really was” in a scientific sense.  Archaeology grew in importance, records were combed, artifacts were gathered, and museums were created to house their discoveries.

This method of discovering historical truth would even be applied to theology. Frederic Schleiermacher and other scholars would now employ “scientific” methods to try to determine the truthfulness of the Bible. Instead of believing and trusting in the content of the Bible, the historical critical movement would expose the scriptures to the scrutiny of the new scientific methods.

The historicist concept of discovering history “as it really was” would be applied to the biblical text, each verse being tested in a way that only that which could be proven historically would be accepted as the truth. No longer was the Bible to be trusted as the truth. Instead empirical science was the plumb line of truth that the Bible was to be measured against, so if portions of the biblical text couldn’t be proven through archaeology, or confirmed by other ancient texts, for example, then the authenticity of that portion of the Bible would come into question.

Alister McGrath, the church historian, explained how this led to the historical critics’ abandonment of the Word as a source of authority:

Liberalism’s program required a significant degree of flexibility in relation to traditional Christian theology. Its leading writers argued that reconstruction of belief was essential if Christianity were to remain a serious intellectual option in the modern world. For this reason, they demanded a degree of freedom in relation to the doctrinal inheritance of Christianity on one hand, and traditional methods of biblical interpretation on the other. Where traditional ways of interpreting Scripture, or traditional beliefs, seemed to be compromised by developments in human knowledge, it was imperative that they should be discarded or reinterpreted to bring them into line with what was known in the world.[1]

Because of the popularity of Darwinian evolution, in particular, many Christians felt they had to synthesize the faith with modern knowledge. Since traditional biblical doctrines (such as the belief in six days of creation) were outmoded, Christianity could no longer be looked at as a religion of truth; it had to be reinterpreted to become a religion of human experience whose ethical teachings would be used to propel humanity forward towards progress and prosperity.

Two of the Tubingen theologians who had the most influence were Ludwig Feuerbach and David F. Strauss. Strauss argued in his Life of Jesus that the supernatural elements of the Gospel were myths and that Jesus was just a good teacher. Feuerbach taught that God is merely an expression of the mind of man. In other words, we created God out of our own desires, wants, dreams, and wishes of what we wanted him to be.

Basil Malof, an evangelist to Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, met Leo Tolstoy, the author of the great classics, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, and explained the sad impact that the new German theology had on the great author, who spent his entire adult life struggling with his faith:

Under the influence of the writings of some German “New Theology” or modernistic writers of the Fifties and Sixties of the nineteenth century, Tolstoy had come to reject the doctrine of atonement by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, inspiration of the Bible and other fundamental evangelical doctrines, and when Pastor Malof referred to the New Testament the novelist said, “My New Testament is much shorter than yours. I reject a great deal of that which you accept.” In fact, he had compiled a New Testament of his own, cutting out all the miracles and the resurrection of Christ. “By what authority?” demanded Pastor Malof. “Ah!” replied Tolstoy, “by the authority of my own reason.”[2]

In the Gospel in Brief, Tolstoy explained that the only words in the Bible he could trust were the words of Jesus. All the other words in the Bible had a pall of doubt cast over their authenticity. This view could have come from the historical critic, David F. Strauss, and it haunted Tolstoy his whole life. He was tossed about by the influences of philosophy, experience, reason, historical criticism, and the religious ritualism found in the Russian Orthodox Church. At times he wished he wasn’t educated and could have the simple faith of a peasant. He longed for God, and felt joy when he simply acknowledged that He was real, but then because of what he learned from liberal theologians he would go back into despair:

Not twice or three times, but tens and hundreds of times, I reached those conditions, first of joy and animation, and then of despair and consciousness of the impossibility of living. I remember that it was in early spring: I was alone in the wood listening to its sounds. I listened and thought ever of the same thing, as I had constantly done during those last three years. I was again seeking God.

“Very well, there is no God,” said I to myself; “there is no one who is not my imagination but a reality like my whole life. He does not exist, and no miracles can prove his existence, because the miracle would be my imagination, besides being irrational.”

“But my perception of God, of him whom I seek,” I asked myself, “where has that perception come from?” And again, at this thought the glad waves of life rose within me. All that was around me came to life and received a meaning. But my joy did not last long. My mind continued its work.

“The conception of God is not God,” said I to myself. “The conception is what takes place within me. The conception of God is something I can evoke or can refrain from evoking in myself. That is not what I seek. I seek that without which there can be no life.” And again, all around me and within me began to die, and again I wished to kill myself. [3]

Karl Marx was also influenced by Strauss and Feuerbach. He rejected Christianity because of Feuerbach’s view that humanity created God out of their own mind. Future Marxists would use these beliefs to discredit and persecute believers in the communist world. Richard Wurmbrand, founder of Voice of the Martyrs, says this was the precise argument used against him while he was in a communist prison. Describing attempts to brainwash him, he says that a communist official began to “attack religion. Christ, he said, was a fantasy invented by the apostles to delude slaves into hopes of freedom in paradise.”[4] This could have been Feuerbach speaking.

Pastor Malof prophetically saw a link between sound doctrine and a good society, and that spiritual rebellion ultimately led to political rebellion:

Here was noticeable the destructive results of the poison of the early German modernistic teachings upon the Russian mind which later with such terrible results spread in the theological schools and universities of Great Britain and America. The New Theology . . . like a terrible octopus of hell spread its poisonous tentacles over the thinking of . . . students and professors and preachers. Modernism in religion is the same revolutionary process as bolshevism and anarchy in politics. No more does the infallible and holy God decide, but the fallible human reason. Modernism, just as communism, is an uprising against authority.[5]

The German church was compromised by the claims of the historical critics. The Word of God was no longer trustworthy as a source of truth. Now that the scriptures seemed to have been discredited, there were few authoritative voices that could rise up against the false teachings of the philosophers, scientists, and politicians. The church would now succumb to Utopian optimism, arrogant philosophy, and/or any ideology that had the stamp of scientific approval.

Much of the church had fallen away–and all of this happened in the same place that Luther started the Protestant Reformation! Since there was no plumb line for truth in many of the German churches, a monstrous blob of ideology began to take shape which would find a resting place in the mind of a self-righteous young man with great skills as an orator—Adolf Hitler.

Hegel

One of the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth century was Wilhelm Georg Hegel. He influenced both Nazi and communist ideology. Neither of these political views adopted Hegel in whole, but each of them were influenced by part of his philosophy. Marx incorporated the views of the “Left Hegelians,” while Hitler incorporated the “Right Hegelian” views.

Hegel’s philosophy developed at a time when there was a backlash against deism and the Enlightenment philosophers. After the failure of the French Revolution, which was a secular protest against the ancien regime of the church/state union that ended in mob rule and the guillotine, many philosophers were looking for an alternative answer to the question of how to design a happy society.

Many young thinkers thought they might be able to come up with the answer. For example, Friedrich Schlegel thought that some sort of synthesis of thought was the answer, so he united Goethe and Fichte. Another person tried to unite Kant and Spinoza. Another idea they had was to unite the best of ancient (classical Greek) and modern life.

Hegel decided that he would try to unite the philosophy of Immanuel Kant with the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder. He chose Immanuel Kant because his “categorical imperative,” as described in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, argued that morality had to be separated from pleasure. It must be motivated purely by duty, and any action taken must be based on reason alone.

Herder had developed a view that cultures were an expression of God, and He was only able to express himself through communities, rather than individuals. Each nation had a “Volksgeist” (or national spirit) that inspires its people. For example, the Athenians of Greece produced the Parthenon, democracy, and great philosophers. The Egyptian community produced the pyramids, hieroglyphics, and mummification. Each society had a different personality or way of expressing themselves, which Herder would claim was that community’s expression of God in the physical realm, and no other community could replace the other’s contribution.

Hegel’s Utopia (his ideal state) was a community made up of individuals whose morality has been developed through the use of reason, and whose existence was merely part of an organic whole through which God was expressing himself. (I’ve included a description of Hegel’s philosophy of history, including an explanation of his popular “dialectic,” in the appendix of this book.) Hegel also adopted Nietzsche’s idea of “ubermensch”—a belief that some people were types of supermen who could come on the world scene and make a heroic impact.

The biggest complaint Marx had against Hegel was that it was merely theory. He believed philosophy had to become practice, not just a contemplation of ideas. Perhaps this is why Marx’s tombstone is engraved with the phrase: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.”

Marx believed he could truly design Hegel’s “ideal state,” but because he rejected God, he didn’t believe in Herder’s Volksgeist . . . but he did adopt the Nietzschean/Hegelian idea of the “superman.” Marx thought this man was an engineer who could look at society in the same way that a master builder looked at a blueprint.

Hitler believed in the “ideal state” also, but he accepted Herder’s idea of “Volksgeist.” Hitler didn’t reject God, but his idea of God would be foreign to most of us. Perhaps it’s easier to understand this paragraph from Mein Kampf in light of an understanding of Herder’s philosophy:

Everybody who has the right kind of feeling for his country is solemnly bound, each within his own denomination to see to it that he is not constantly talking about the will of God, merely from the lips, but that in fact he fulfills the will of God and does not allow God’s handiwork to be debased.  For it was by the will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties. Whoever destroys His work wages war against God’s creation and God’s will. [6]

Hitler believed in Herder’s view that each culture was the expression of God on earth, therefore if any culture was corrupted by outside influences, God’s “handiwork” was being “debased” and the perpetrators were actually waging war against God. This, Hitler believed, was what the Jews were doing because they were dispersed among all the nations of the earth in 70 AD as a judgment for rejecting Jesus. (Unfortunately, Martin Luther’s writings about the Jews encouraged this view.)

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism (as discussed in the last chapter) would provide one scientific basis for Hitler’s racism, but it would be combined with another scientific theory of race put forth by the French social theorist Joseph-Arthur Gobineau, whose “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races” claimed that there was a hierarchy of the races, each with very different qualities and characteristics.

This idea fit in well with Herder’s “expressivism,” since each race and culture could still be an expression of God. But in keeping with the science of social Darwinism, that is, that the darker races were less evolved than the lighter races, Hitler also adopted Gobineau’s idea that the most developed and creative race is the white race, and the most highly developed of the white races were the “Aryans.”  He even called them the “master race.”

The Hindu scriptures teach that the highest castes are the descendants of the Aryans, who refused to mix their blood with racial inferiors. Gobineau developed a theory which claimed that there was once a great migration of the Aryans to the Germanic lands. This led Hitler to believe that the Aryans were the founders of German culture (which included a peasant lifestyle, the Reformation, and great scientists and philosophers). He thought the Aryan Volksgeist contributed to the great creativity of German art, music, literature, philosophy, and political thought.

The Jews, on the other hand, were destroyers of culture. Thus, to Hitler, good and evil were determined by whether or not the highest image of God was preserved through German culture. Therefore, the worst sin against God was that of racial interbreeding. Perhaps this paragraph in Mein Kampf is easier to understand now:

In this part of the world, human culture and civilization are inextricably bound up with the presence of the Aryan element. If it died out or went under, the black veil of a cultureless period would once again descend upon this globe. To anyone who views the world through nationalist [Volkisch] eyes, any breach in the existence of human civilization effected by the race which maintains it, would appear in the light of the most accursed of crimes. Whoever dares lay his hand on the most noble image of God is sinning against the kindly Creator of that marvel and lending a hand in his own expulsion from paradise.[7]

Hitler also dabbled in other popular ideas from his day. One of them was a theory adopted by the musical composer Wagner and his English son-in-law H.S. Chamberlain, whose Foundations of the Nineteenth Century had a great influence on Hitler and Nazi ideology. Chamberlain argued that the foundation for all the great achievements of the nineteenth century (in economics, science, and technology) were the work of the Aryan race.

In contrast to the Aryans, Hitler believed (as a result of the influence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), that the Jews were involved in a conspiracy to take over the world through the press and the world’s economies. The Jews became the scapegoat, not only for the defeat of Germany in World War I, but for the humiliation at Versailles because, according to Hitler’s beliefs, both Jewish capitalists and Jewish communists were in a conspiracy to destroy the German nation.

Hitler adopted the Nietzschean/Hegelian view of the superman also. He believed God was working through the “hero” to bring about progress, and that only the superman could do what was best for the German people. (Dictatorship, he reasoned, was necessary because if there was a democracy, and Jews were given the right to vote, they would be a destructive and undermining force, like a parasite or a leach, in the political process.)

Hitler was influenced by science and philosophy more than he was by any biblical doctrines. His ideology was a cobbled-together hodge-podge of ideas, cut and pasted into a monstrous whole. He held certain cultural viewpoints about God, but Herder’s “expressivism” was a human construct, not a Christian one. And his beliefs on race, gathered from popular scientific views, had no foundation in Christian orthodoxy.

Perhaps the genius of Hitler was his ability to reach the German people through the Hegelian-like attempt to unify romanticism and science. His assertion that the Germans deserved “lebensraum” (living space) to further the Aryan race because the German culture was the highest expression of God on earth, was easily blended with nineteenth century scientific views on racial superiority. Hitler was merely immersed in the popular philosophical and scientific thoughts of his day.

His words fell on ears that were accepting of his views because the German people had heard them in their universities, their churches, and their popular culture, and due to the historical critical movement, there was no longer any standard of truth, so the German people were spiritually compromised and easily given over to strong delusion. Destruction and suffering followed quickly after that.

The Confessing Church

Members of the Confessing Church, led by Martin Niemoller (founder of the Pastors’ Emergency League), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth, joined together to write the Theological Declaration of Barmen: An Appeal to the Evangelical Congregations and Christians in Germany. Written in May of 1934, they saw far ahead of time that Germany was heading toward disaster, and tried to warn Christians to not be a part of it. They encouraged Bible-believers and said that since the church was taking their “stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God.”

The signers of the Barmen Declaration opposed the “German Christians of the present Reich government.” They declared that “Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life,” and they rejected . . .

. . . 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 God’s revelation.[8]

Theirs was a declaration of faithfulness to the Word of God, rather than to philosophy or men. They also argued that the church was not an organ of the state, that they weren’t willing to submit to anyone other than Jesus as their Lord, and that the church wasn’t subject to any prevailing ideologies, but instead had a timeless message of “faith, hope, and love.”

All three of the writers suffered as a result of their stand. Martin Niemoller was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years and narrowly escaped execution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in a concentration camp, and Karl Barth was arrested by the Nazis and sent back to his home country of Switzerland.

In the Barmen Declaration they reminded their flocks that Jesus would never leave them, nor forsake them. Therefore, they encouraged their followers with the words of Jesus:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”—Luke 12:32

They were able to be heroic because they were committed to something higher than themselves and they had a hope for a future beyond this world.

There were many individual heroes who acted valiantly during the Nazi era. Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews in their home and ended up in Ravensbruck prison camp as a result. Pastor Von Bodelschwing, head of the charitable community at Bethel-Bielefield “barred with his body the efforts of the Nazis to remove deformed children from his institution in order to exterminate them.”[9]

Hans and Sophie Scholl, calling themselves the “White Rose,” opposed the Nazi regime in Munich. Brother and sister, both in college, they were both inspired by their faith to oppose Hitler’s tyranny. They distributed leaflets which read:

Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached one true God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil . . . We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler . . . we will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.[10]

Hans and Sophie were arrested, interrogated, and beheaded for opposing the Nazis. But they were faithful to God and his Word . . . as were countless other believers. Even people who had no outward expression of faith, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, were heroic in their kindness to the Jews, but most of the religious community failed and went along with Nazi ideology.  They had no defense. They were drowning in the quicksand of compromise with no solid doctrine on which they could stand.

For skeptics to insist that Hitler was a Christian because he mentions Herder’s conception of God, or because liberal churches were infused with Nazi symbolism, is a shallow understanding of history. Skeptics such as Sam Harris, or even the liberal Christian, Chris Hedges, imply that fundamentalist Christians were purveyors of fascism and Nazism, but this is an absolute perversion of the truth. Nazism was brought about by leaving the fundamentals of the faith—and those members of the Faithful Church who believed that the Bible was the Word of God, even if it cost them their life, formed the only internally organized opposition to Adolph Hitler and his evil Nazi regime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Alistair McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 232.

[2] Oswald A. Blumit and Oswald J. Smith. Sentenced to Siberia: The Story of the Ministry, Persecution, Imprisonment and God’s Wonderful Deliverance of Pastor Basil A. Malof, Russian Missionary, 6th ed. (Wheaton, IL: Mayflower Publishers, 1943), 73-74.

[3] Ibid, 233.

[4] Richard Wurmbrand, In God’s Underground, ed. Charles Foley (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1968), 239.

[5] Oswald A. Blumit, Sentenced to Siberia, 75.

[6] Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, Project Gutenberg, Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200601.tt (accessed 02/08/2009).

[7] Adolph Hitler, My Battle (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Co., 1998), 154.

[8] Arthur C. Cochrane, “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” The Church’s Confession Under Hitler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 237-242.

[9] Robert Ellsburg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2005), 205.

[10] Robert Ellsburg, All Saints, 88.

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