“If the Trumpet Sounds an Indistinct Call . . .”
“IF THE trumpet sounds an indistinct call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8) Could the indifference shown by German Lutherans—soldiers of the church—be because the church is sounding an indistinct call? Consider the evidence.
An Identity Crisis
Over the past 200 years, claims Lutheran deacon Wolfram Lackner, Protestantism has progressively abandoned its original confessions of faith. So German Protestantism now “finds itself in a critical identity crisis.”
This identity crisis became more apparent in the 1930’s, as William L. Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich explains: “The Protestants in Germany . . . were a divided faith. . . . With the rise of National Socialism there came further divisions . . . The more fanatical Nazis among them organized in 1932 ‘The German Christians’ Faith Movement’ . . . [and] ardently supported the Nazi doctrines of race and the leadership principle . . . Opposed to the ‘German Christians’ was another minority group which called itself the ‘Confessional Church.’ . . . In between lay the majority of Protestants, . . . who sat on the fence and eventually, for the most part, landed in the arms of Hitler.”
Actually, some of Luther’s teachings played right into Hitler’s hands. Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine, arguing that God rules the world through both secular and church authorities, encourages strict submission to civil officials. Thus, the Lutheran publication Unsere Kirche admits that “the greater part of German Protestantism . . . celebrated the end of the Weimar democracy with great enthusiasm and cheered the new dictator.” In view of Luther’s strong anti-Semitic sentiments, the church did not find it difficult to bar from the ministry persons not of Aryan descent.
But what about the “Confessional Church”? In 1934 it adopted the Barmen Declaration, which expressed opposition to National Socialist ideology. A Berlin exhibition about Protestantism during the Third Reich recently revealed, however, that only a third of the Protestant clergy supported the “Confessional Church.” And not even all of that third actively opposed Hitler. The opposition of those who did was apparently misinterpreted by Hitler to mean opposition by the church as a whole. The book Der deutsche Widerstand 1933-1945 (German Resistance 1933-1945) contends that thus was imputed to the Lutheran Church a position of political opposition that it itself did not choose.
After Hitler’s downfall, the church was in shambles. Which of the opposing factions had mirrored its true identity? Why had its trumpet call been so indistinct?
To clear up these questions, 11 leading Protestant clergymen, including Gustav Heinemann, later to become president of the Federal Republic, met in October 1945 to draw up the so-called Stuttgart admission of guilt. Despite their opposition to the Nazi regime, they said: “We accuse ourselves for not having been more courageous in confessing our convictions, more faithful in saying our prayers, more joyful in expressing our faith, and more ardent in showing our love.” These clergymen hoped that this declaration would be a distinct trumpet call to action, triggering a fresh start.
A Religious or a Political Trumpet—Which?
Possibly embarrassed that their church did so little in opposing Hitler, many German Lutherans today are quick to attack governmental policies. Lutheran clergy, for example, were among the early organizers of Europe’s antinuclear movement. In 1984 a group of North German Lutheran pastors began urging men of draft age to refuse military service. The church condemned this action, however, saying it showed “considerable political intolerance for the feelings of Christians who think otherwise.” At its 1986 general synod, the church defended its right to discuss political issues and then did so. It expressed disappointment at the results of the superpower summit in Iceland and debated at length government policy on refugees, unemployment, and nuclear power plants.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this political activism. Luther, were he alive today, would surely condemn it, according to Professor Heiko Oberman, an authority on the Reformation leader. And Rolf Scheffbuch, Lutheran deacon, complains that nowadays the genuineness of Christian faith is too quickly measured by one’s attitude toward apartheid or missile deployment.
It is obvious that political differences are dividing the church. It is also obvious that the “longtime love affair” between Church and State is showing “signs of fatigue” and is getting “rusty,” as Bishop Hans-Gernot Jung recently expressed it. This explains the reprimanding words uttered by a ranking German politician in 1986: “When dying forests are discussed at greater length than Jesus Christ, the church has lost sight of its real commission.”
Protestantism, as its name indicates, arose from a desire to protest against what had gone before. Thus, from its founding, Protestantism has tended to be liberal, receptive to new ideas, open-minded in its approach, willing to adapt to the norms of the moment. Nothing illustrates this better than Protestant theology. With no final authority to rule on doctrine—such as the Vatican in the case of Catholics—every theologian has been permitted to blow his own trumpet of theological interpretation.
Discordant Theological Trumpeters
This has resulted in some very strange sounds. Time magazine reported an example in 1979: “Do you have to believe in God to be a Protestant minister? The answer, as in so many cases these days, is yes and no. Germany, in particular, has been a veritable font of Protestant doubt for decades. But last week, deciding it had to draw the line somewhere, West Germany’s United Evangelical Lutheran Church . . . unfrocked the Rev. Paul Schulz for heresy. . . . Since 1971 he has preached that the existence of a personal God is ‘a comforting invention of human beings.’ . . . Prayer? Mere ‘self-reflection.’ . . . Jesus? A normal man with good things to say who was later glorified into the Son of God by early Christians.” Indicating that “Schulz’s notions are not new, or even rare” was the fact that during the hearings he “played to a sometimes cheering gallery of theology students.” And despite its action, “the commission insisted that it still favors ‘a wide spectrum’ of individual interpretation.”
Pointing to this wide spectrum of individual interpretation, a newspaper editorial says that Protestant theology lacks “conceptual clarity and theoretical exactness” and calls it “elementary hodgepodge theology that comes across no less sterile than stale dogmatism.” A Swiss Protestant newsletter adds: “The ‘either-or’ of Christian perception” has been “replaced by a ‘this as well as that’.” No wonder theologians disagree!*
Is Luther’s House Heading for a Fall?
The crisis in the church is in reality a crisis of faith. But can faith be developed in persons nourished on “elementary hodgepodge theology” and guided in a wishy-washy, “this as well as that” direction? Can Protestantism expect to motivate its troops into Christian action with such an indistinct trumpet call?
As far back as 1932, theology teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer complained: “It [the Lutheran Church] tries to be everywhere and thus ends up being nowhere.” Is it too late for the church to find its identity? Most church officials agree that the usual methods of revitalization will not work. Something new and different is needed. But what? Retired Bishop Hans-Otto Wölber says: “The future of the church is not a question of methods, but of contents. . . . It is the message that matters. . . . In other words, we stand and fall with the Bible.”
Karl Barth, one of this century’s more prominent Protestant theologians, reportedly described some of fellow theologian Paul Tillich’s theories as “abominable.” He also violently disagreed with theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who questioned the literalness of some Bible accounts.
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Who Sounded a Distinct Trumpet Call for Christian Neutrality?
“We still know very little about the fate of World War II conscientious objectors; until now only the following is known: Among Lutherans, Hermann Stöhr and Martin Gauger uncompromisingly refused military service . . . Seven names of Catholics can be mentioned . . . German Mennonites, traditionally pacifistic, did not choose to ‘exercise the principle of nondefense’ during the Third Reich, based on a decision made by a meeting of elders and ministers on January 10, 1938. Two Quakers in Germany are known to have refused military service. . . . Seven members of the Seventh-Day Adventists can be named who refused to swear the oath of allegiance . . . and were put to death. Jehovah’s Witnesses (Bible Students) mourned the largest number of victims. In 1939 there were about 20,000 persons in the ‘Greater German Reich’ belonging to this . . . religious organization. It is estimated that in Germany alone some 6,000 to 7,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to do military service during World War II. The Gestapo and the SS therefore gave this group special attention.”—Sterben für den Frieden (Dying for Peace), by Eberhard Röhm, published in 1985.