Monday, 19 April 2021

Politics and persecution in the patristic period

State-sponsored persecution

Decian persecution (250-251)


While persecution in the first and second centuries persecution was sporadic, localised and sometimes severe.  In the third century persecution sometimes became organised and state sponsored.

One of the things that troubled the third-century Roman world was a pandemic (possibly smallpox).  This plague is often called Cyprian’s plague, as Cyprian (who is one of the church fathers), described what it was like at that time.  Cyprian gave his life in the persecution that followed.

Decius, the emperor, believed that the plaque was the result of the gods being angry.  As a result, he made people sacrifice to the gods.  When you had sacrificed to the gods you were given a libellus (a piece of paper saying that you had done your duty).  The Christians weren’t willing to do this.  The sentence for not being willing to sacrifice to the gods was death.

Decius’s persecution lasted thirteen months and then he was killed by the Goths.  The Christians believed that his death was God’s judgement on him for having persecuted the church.

Valarian’s persecutions (257-260)



The emperor Valarian’s persecutions began in April, 257, and continued for three and a half years.  The tortures and deaths were various and painful. 

Two of the famous martyrs in this persecution were two beautiful and accomplished ladies named Rufina and Secunda.  They were both due to be married.  When the persecutions began these two renounced their faith.  In fact, they tried to persuade other eminent ladies to do the same.  However, the two men they were to marry informed on them, and they were brought before the governor of Rome, who sentenced them to death.

Stephen, the bishop of Rome, was also beheaded in the same year. 

Saturninus the bishop of Toulouse, was fastened by the feet to the tail of a bull.  When the signal was given, the enraged bull was driven down the steps of the temple, and the martyr’s brains spilt out of his body.            

Valarian was defeated and taken into captivity by the Parthians.  The Parthians humiliated him, including the Parthian leader using Valarian as a footstool to mount his horse.  Again, the Christians believed that this was the judgement of God on him.

Restoring those who recanted

The Christians began to wonder what to do about those who lapsed in their faith when they were persecuted.  For example, priests were given charge of the manuscripts of Scripture, so what should you do if those priests handed those manuscripts over to the authorities, should they be allowed be priests again?  Should those who denied their faith under pressure be re-baptised?  Sadly, the thinking of the church was muddled on this issue because of a false belief that it was baptism that made you a Christian, and then they did not know what to do about sins that were committed after baptism.  A group called the Dontists took a hard line towards those who had lapsed under pressure, although the majority of the church looked at the apostle Peter, and how Jesus restored him even after his denials.

Dionysus, who was bishop of Alexandria 248-264, criticised those who took a rigorist view to those who strength had failed under the pressure of persecution, that they ‘slander our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful.’ 

Diocletian’s persecutions (303-312)

In the city of Split (Croatia) you can visit the emperor Diocletian’s palace.  This palace was built at the beginning of the fourth century for his retirement.  The persecution of Diocletian, at the end of the third century, took place over a decade.  These were the most vicious persecutions of Christians up to that date.

It is not entirely clear what sparked these precautions.  One theory is that he saw someone making the sign of the cross as he was sacrificing to a god, and he felt that this brought bad luck.

One interesting thing about Diocletian is the suggestion that his wife (Valaria) and daughter (Prisca) were actually secret Christians.  When Diocletian sought to purge his own household, they were forced to sacrifice to idols.  After Diocletian’s death her adopted son, sought to marry her.  She saw this as the equivalent of incest, and so both women were banished from his dominions.  This willingness to undergo such suffering rather than do what she saw as immoral may suggest that Valeria and Prisca had returned to their Christian beliefs.  About two years later these two women were murdered when Licinius became emperor and wanted to do away with anyone associated with Diocletian’s family.

Constantine



Constantine grew up a pagan.  He was the son of one of the leaders of the empire.  At that stage there were four leaders over the empire (two in the east and two in the west).  His father was one of the two leaders in the west.

Constantine was with his father in battle at York (England) when his father was killed.  The soldiers realised what a good soldier Constantine was and put him in the place of his father.  Apparently, this was not how things were to take place.  Now Constantine is one of the heads of the western part of the empire.  He goes into battle against the other head of the west, in order to consolidate his power.

Constantine later told the great church historian, Eusebius, that the night before that battle he had a dream or vision.  He says that in the vision he met Christ, and that Christ had told him to put the Greek letters Chi and Rho (the first two letters in Christ) on his banners.  He went on to win this battle (the Battle of Milvian Bridge). 

Now, all of a sudden, the church has gone from being a persecuted group within the Roman empire to having one of the empires in its number.  In 313 Constantine and the emperor in the east, Licinius, sign the edict of Milan, which granted full tolerance to Christianity and all religions in the empire.  In 324 Constantine became the sole ruler of the empire.

Constantine spent his later years building the city of Constantinople (or New Rome as he called it) on the site of the city of Byzantine at the point where Europe and Asia meet.

Constantine’s faith is an issue of debate.  He had a wife and son put to death.  He waits until his deathbed to be baptised for fear that he will commit as serios post-baptismal sin.  He was baptised by Eusebius who we know as the great early church historian.

The Council of Nicaea (325)



In 318 a dispute broke out at Alexandra (Egypt) between the Bishop, Alexander, and one of his presbyters named Arius.  Arius accused the bishop of Sabellianism, but Arius was denying that Jesus was fully God.  Arius saw Jesus as being something between God and man.  Arius claimed that there was a time when Jesus was not (i.e. that he was created in time).

Arius’s teachings were spreading.  People could be heard singing a catchy tune that promoted the Arian view: ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’  Arius’s views turned bishop against bishop.  Word reached the recently converted Constantine, who was more concerned about unity than truth.  ‘Division in the church’, Constantine told the bishops, ‘is worse than war.’  To settle the matter, he called a Council.

The Council was held in Nicaea in Asia Minor (now in Turkey).  Of the one thousand eight hundred bishops invited, about three hundred turned up.  They argued and fought and eventually came up with an early version of the Nicaean Creed.  All but two of the assembled bishops signed it.  Arius and those two bishops were excommunicated.  However, as we will see, that was not the end of the matter. 

With all those bishops in attendance, it was convenient to deal with other matters of general interest.  For example, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria were acknowledged as the three leading sees (seat of a bishop), with their bishops being given the title ‘Patriarch’.

Athanasius (298-373)



Bishop Alexander of Alexandria had a deacon named Athanasius.  When Alexander died, Athanasius become bishop of Alexandria.  Athanasius spent his career defending the decision of Nicaea from later attacks.  Athanasius wrote, that “those who maintain ‘there was a time when the Son was not’ rob God of his Word, like plunderers.”

Athanasius’s enemies called him the ‘Black Dwarf’, on account of the fact that he was a dark skinned and short Egyptian.  He was exiled five times by four Roman emperors, spending fifteen of the forty-five years of his time as bishop of Alexandria in exile.  Yet in time his views won out and shaped the future of the church.

But why did Athanasius have to defend the deity of Christ when it had been so overwhelmingly endorsed at Nicaea?

What had happened was that, a few months after Nicaea, Arius’s supporters convinced Constantine to revoke his exile.  Arius even signed a version of the Nicaean Creed, that contained a few private additions.  Constantine ordered Athanasius to restore this former heretic to fellowship.  When Athanasius refused, his enemies spread false rumours about him.   He was accused of murder, illegal taxation, sorcery and treason.   It was the accusation of treason that lead to Constantine exiling him to Trier (now a city in Germany).

Constantine died two years later, and Athanasius returned to Alexandria.  But while he had been away, Arianism had gained the upper hand.  The leaders were against him and he was banished again.   With the complicated political situation of the time, he was banished three more times before he came home to stay in 366.  He was now about 70. 

While in exile Athanasius spent most of his time writing to defend orthodoxy.   He wrote a famous work about a monk that he knew.  This work was called the Life of Saint Anthony.  This work helped shape the Christian ideal of monasticism, was filled with fantastical accounts of Anthony’s encounters with the devil, became a best-seller, and made a deep impression on many people (including being a work Augustine read before his conversion).

In one of his letters to the churches in his diocese, Athanasius listed what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament, "In these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed," he wrote. "No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them."  It was this list that the church eventually adopted as the recognised books, and it is the same as those we use today.

Jerome (347-420)



Down to the middle of the third century the Roman church and other churches in western Europe were Greek speaking rather than Latin speaking.  When Latin version began to appear in Europe they were of questionable quality.  Jerome was commissioned to translate an authorised version.  This became known as the Vulgate (lit. ‘common version’).  The influence of this translation is seen in the fact that at the Council of Trent in 1546 declared the Vulgate to be the one authoritative text of Scripture, to which appeal must be made in all controversy.

Jerome could be rude.  He referred to his critics as ‘two-legged donkeys’ and said they were people who though ‘that ignorance is holiness!’

Monday, 12 April 2021

Early church heresies

Early heresies

The early centuries of the church were troubled by a number of heresies.

Montanism


Montanus was a rouge prophet who travelled around with two prophetesses, called Priscilla and Maximilla.   He believed that he was a mouthpiece for the Holy Spirit.  One of the mistakes he made was to say when Jesus would return.  Of course, when Jesus did not return at that time he was discredited.  Take note that there have been people in very generation of the church who have believed that they know the date of Jesus’ return.  Remember that Jesus says that the day and the hour are unknown to us (Matthew 25:13).  

One of Montanus’s distorted ideas was to break up the Bible into three periods.  He associated the Old Testament with the Father, the New Testament with the Son and now as the age of the Spirit.

Don Carson points out that it appears that the gift of tongues was extremely rare after the beginning of the second century until the beginning of the twentieth century.  However, the gift of prophesy was known and cherished in the church until the rise of Montanism.  He suggests that it is probable that prophecy waned with the rise of Montanism because the church was seeking to protect itself against Montanists extravagant claims.  The Montanists are accused of claiming that their prophecies superseded the writings of the apostles.  Interestingly the allowed women bishops, but made virgin girls wear veils.  

Montanism persisted in some isolated places until the 6th century.

Sabellianism

Sabellianism is a form of modalism.  What is modalism?  Modalism is the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply the one God appearing in different forms at different times.  There is a children’s talk that thinks of God as being like ice, water and steam.  But if we are not careful that children’s talk can sound like it is teaching modalism.  Modalism seems to be taught today in a teaching that is referred to as ‘oneness’ Pentecostalism.  

Gnosticism

Gnosticism comes for a word meaning ‘to know’ (‘gnosis’).  One of the key teachings of Gnosticism was dualism—a sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual.  The material world was seen as evil and the soul was seen as good.  Some responded to this with asceticism—denying pleasures to their bodies.  Although others responded to this teaching by saying, ‘if the body is not valuable, I can do with it whatever I want including any sinful indulgence I want.’

A quote went around Facebook recently which was attributed to C. S. Lewis (although apparently C. S. Lewis did not say this) was, ‘you are not a body with a soul, but a soul with a body.’  Such thinking, however, is dualistic, and is in danger of suggesting that the body is not important to Christians.

Gnosticism also emphasised the idea of being initiated into a secret knowledge.  I think the desire of special knowledge, that makes you feel superior to lesser people who do not know it, lies behind the attraction to many conspiracy theories we have today.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Why study early church history?

 Why study church history?

I would say that we should study church history for love and for lessons. 

We study church history for love because this is our family history.  Many of the people that we shall look at in our studies are our brothers and sisters in Jesus.  We should also study to learn from the past.  It has often been said that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.  We can learn from the triumphs and failures of those who have gone before us.  Sometimes they have worked through issues that arise today, and so we don’t need to start our theology from scratch.

Patristic period

The period of church history before the middle ages is known as the Patristic period.  The word patristic comes from a word for father.  This is seen as the time of the early fathers of the church.  The fathers still have a special place in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  The reformers tried to show that their teachings were sympathetic to the church fathers.  The church fathers are a mixed bag and at times we can feel frustrated that some of their theology seems so off the mark.  The church fathers are divided into western fathers (in the western part of the empire) who mostly wrote their theology in Latin and the eastern fathers (in the eastern part of the empire) who wrote their theology mostly in Greek. 

Important events at the end of the first century

There are a few historical events that took place at the end of the first century that are of considerable interest to Christians.

The fire of Rome



For example, there is the fire of Rome (64).  In Rome houses were built of wood and were close together.  If a fire started it would spread rapidly.  It is not certain how the fire started, but it did suit the emperor Nero’s purposes.  He wanted to clear parts of Rome and build palatial gardens.  But Nero needed a scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians for the fire.  This led to a period of intense persecution.  One of his methods of torturing Christians was to entertain his guests by wrapping Christians around stakes, covering them in oil and burning them in his garden.

Josephus

Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100) was born in Jerusalem and fought in the Jewish War, until surrendering in 67 to Roman forces led by Vespasian.  Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave.  After Vespasian became emperor (69), he granted Josephus his freedom.  He was granted Roman citizenship.  He became advisor and friend of Vespasian’s son Titus, serving as translator when Titus led the siege of Jerusalem.  He recorded history of this time.       

The fall of Jerusalem

In 67 an event occurred that Jesus had prophesied about (e.g. Mark 13).  The Jews rose up against the Romans and were crushed.  This led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

The army were led by Titus, the son of the emperor, who would later become emperor.  The Arch of Titus (81) celebrating the sack of Jerusalem still stands in Rome.

Rebels held out, including a Masada.  In 73 the Romans breached the walls of Masada and captured the for fortress.  The historian Josephus claims that nearly all of the defenders committed mass suicide prior to the entry of the Romans.



Post-apostolic church

We refer to the period immediately after the apostles as the post-apostolic period.  This lasts to around 150.

Clement of Rome

One of the apostolic fathers was Clement of Rome (not to be confused with Clement of Alexandria).  Clement was an associate of Paul.  He wrote to the church at Corinth.  As we know from the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, this was a troubled church.  There troubles had continued after Paul’s time.

Clement has to address the issue of leaders that had fallen into serious sin.  The issue was whether they should be restored when they repented.  Of course, those who are repentant should be brought back into the fellowship of the church (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

Ignatius of Antioch (died around 110)

Ignatius (not to be confused with Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits) was an early leader in the church.  His writings confirm to us that the early Christians believed that Jesus was God the Son.  To the church in Ephesus he writes, ‘There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassable, even Jesus Christ our Lord.’ 

This is significant as some uniformed people may try to tell you that the deity of Christ was not really accepted until the Council of Nicaea. 

The Didache (lit. ‘the teaching’)

The Didache is the most famous writing associated with the post-apostolic period.  It is an anonymous writing dated to the end of the first century.  It deals with issues like baptism, the Lord’s supper and fasting.  Some if the later church fathers actually thought this work should be a part of the Scriptures.  One of the things that I was interested to learn about the Didache was it deals with the issue of abortion.  The Christian opposition to abortion goes right back to the start of the church.

The Diatessaron (a musical term) (160-175)

This is the most prominent of the early harmonies of the four gospels.  Created by the apologist Tatian. 

Marcion (85-160)

In the early couple of centuries there was not a universal consensus on what books should be included in the Christian Bible.  Into this vacuum stepped a troublemaker called Marcion.  Marcion did not like the God of the Old Testament or anything Jewish in the New Testament.  He suggested that the Christian Scriptures should not contain the Old Testament.  The books he considered to be Christian Scriptures were limited to an edited version of Luke (the only non-Jewish gospel writer) and edited versions of most of Paul’s letters.

Marcionism is alive and well today.  I remember hearing a minister in another denomination ask, ‘sure, who preaches the Old Testament today?’  The same minister said that he had not preached from the Old Testament for years.  Similarly, a leader in America suggested that the Old Testament was not helpful in reaching the non-Christian and that we need to ‘unhinge ourselves from the Old Testament.’

Pliny the Younger tells us about what he thought of the Christians

Pliny the Younger (61-113) was a Roman magistrate.  He served under the emperor Trajan (98-117).  As Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus (now in modern Turkey), he wrote a letter to Trajan (around 112) asking for advice on how to deal with Christians.  Pliny saved the letters between himself and Trajan and these are the earliest surviving Roman documents that refer to the Christian community.  Pliny has come across the Christians as a result of anonymous accusations, has interviewed them, and want to know what to do about them.  His letter tells us something about their practices:

‘…They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath … not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food … I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.’

The Epistle to Diognetes (130)

It is not known who wrote this description of the early Christians, but it gives us a great insight into their early practices:

"They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word – what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world."

Exposure

Notice the reference to not destroying their offering.  The life of an infant was not highly valued in the Roman world.  The Romans practiced what is referred to as exposure.  This involved abandoning unwanted infants.  It is called exposure because they were literally exposed to the elements.  Not all these infants died.  Some were picked up by families who wanted an enslaved person.

Exposure was permitted because it enabled poor people get rid of an extra mouth to feed—especially baby girls who would need to come with a dowry if they were to be married.  Infants may have been exposed because they had a disability.  As well as exposure the Romans also practiced abortions.

The poor weren’t allowed sell their babies formally, which encouraged the practice of exposure.  So, the first Christian emperor, Constantine (in 313), authorised the sale of infants in an effort to reduce exposures.  We know that by about 374 it had been legally forbidden.

Polycarp



Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna (now in modern Turkey) and was eight-six at the time he was martyred on 2nd February in 156.

Polycarp had fled from the city at the pleading of his own congregation.  He was tracked down to his hiding place.  He made no attempt to flee.  Instead he offered food and drink to his captors and asked for permission to spend some time in prayer.  He prayed for two hours. 

As they travelled to the city, the officer in charge of him urged him to recant.  ‘What harm can it do,’ the officer said, ‘to sacrifice to the emperor?’

On arrival at the place of his execution Polycarp was roughly pushed out of the carriage and brought before the proconsul in the amphitheatre.  ‘Respect your years,’ the proconsul said, ‘swear by the genius of Caesar … and I will release you.  Revile Christ.’

Polycarp replied: ‘For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my God who saved me?’

The proconsul insisted, ‘swear by the genius of Caesar, I have wild beasts. If you will do not change your mind, I will throw you to them.’

‘Call them’, Polycarp replied.

‘Since you make light of the beasts, I will destroy by fire, unless you change your mind.’

The angry crowd gathered wood for the pile.

Polycarp stood by the stake, asking not to be fastened to it, and prayed, ‘O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you, I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the numbers of you martyrs.’ 

The fire was lit but the wind drove the flams away and prolonged his suffering.   A soldier put an end to his pain with a sword.

Apologists

In the second century there arose criticisms that the Christians had to respond to.  These Christians who defended the faith are referred to as apologists.

Some of these might seem very odd to us.  For example, the Christians were accused of atheism.  How could they be accused of atheism?  Well, in the Roman world people believed in many gods.  To have one god seemed very minimalistic and then there was the fact that this God had no statue with it.  The Christians could have agreed to have a statue of Jesus put among the pantheon of gods in Rome and they would not have suffered persecution.  However, the Christians insisted that there was only one God.  In fact, they said that there is no other name given that people must be saved other than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).  To a people who worshipped a whole plethora of gods the idea of people worshipping just one seemed like atheism.

Another charge that was made against the Christians was that they were cannibals.  This charge was rooted in misinformation about what the Christians did in their meetings.  People heard the rumours relating sharing in the body and blood of Jesus.

Justin Martyr

Justin is the most famous of the second-century apologists.  He is referred to as Justin Martyr because his life ended with being executed with his students for his faith.  Justin grew up as a pagan who grew up in southern Palestine.  He experimented with a number of philosophies but then met a man on a beach who told him that it was Christ that he was looking for.  He went on to be a great intellectual defender of the faith.


Persecution

During the first and second centuries, persecution of the church tended to be localised, sporadic and sometimes intense as opposed to the state-sponsored and systematic persecution that was to come later.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Christianity and the Nazis




Adolf Hitler was hostile towards Christianity.  He openly renounced the Catholicism of his upbringing and came to view Christianity as ‘a fairy story invented by the Jews.’  Yet he also dismissed atheism.  

Positive Christianity

When the Nazi Party was founded in the 1920s it formally adopted ‘Positive Christianity’.  Positive Christianity rejected Christianity’s ethic of compassion and humility in favour of a more ‘heroic’ Jesus.

‘The Jews and their Lies’

Tragically antisemitism in the Christian church stretches all the way back to the Church Fathers.  For example, Tertullian had a particular dislike of Jews and even Augustine felt that Jews should be reminded of their participation in the death of Jesus.

The reformer Luther unfortunately is guilty of anti-Semitism.  In 1523 Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled, ‘That Jesus was born a Jew’, which aimed at winning Jewish converts.  But by 1543 his attitude towards Jews had hardened.  He wrote the pamphlet, ‘On the Jews and their Lies’.  He did not call for genocide, but he did demand that synagogues be destroyed and Jewish property be confiscated.  The Nazis widely published this work.

The following is a quote from ‘The Jews and their Lies’:    

First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. That would demonstrate to God our serious resolve and be evidence to all the world that it was in ignorance that we tolerated such houses, in which the Jews have reviled God, our dear Creator and Father, and his Son most shamefully up till now but that we have now given them their due reward.”

Kristallnacht

Luther’s words have terrible resonance in the awful events of Kristallnacht.  This was a pogrom carried out against the Jews by SA paramilitary forces and civilians on 9th and 10th November 1938.  The German authorities looked on without intervening.  The name ‘Crystal Night’ comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets from the broken windows of Jewish owned stores, buildings and synagogues.     

 

 

Liberal theology

The liberal theology of the early twentieth-century also resonated to anti-Semite thinking.  Miracles like the virgin birth were discounted.  Some suggested that Mary was actually impregnated by a Roman soldier and the ‘myth’ of the virgin birth was an attempt to cover this up.  The respected liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack thought that Christianity went so far beyond Judaism that the Old Testament might not belong in the Christian Bible at all.  Few Christians in the 1920s would have gone this far, but many were downplaying the Jewish origins of their Christian faith.

Aryan Paragraph

In 1933 the ruling Nazi Brownshirts unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic violence.  Hundreds of Jews were murdered.  There was a boycott against Jewish businesses.  The ‘Aryan Paragraph’ was a law that excluded Jews from public office.

New National Church       

When the Nazis took power, the German Protestant church consisted of a federation of independent churches which included Lutheran, Reformed and United traditions.  In 1933 the leadership of the Protestant federation agreed to write a new constitution for a new ‘national’ church.  This would be called The German Evangelical Church.

The church adopted the Aryan Paragraph that effectively defrocked clergy of a Jewish descent and even clergy married to non-Aryans.  

German Christians

The ‘German Christians’ were a group of pro-Nazis in the Protestant Church.  They were sympathetic to the Nazi’s goal of ‘co-ordinating’ the individual Protestant churches into a uniform Reich church.

On 13th November 1933 a rally of ‘German Christians’ was held in Berlin.  Before a packed hall banners proclaimed the unity of National Socialism and Christianity.  Swastikas were also on display.  A series of speakers called for the removal of pastors who were unsympathetic to National Socialism, the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible and the addition of a more ‘heroic’ interpretation of Jesus who should be portrayed as battling corrupt Jewish influences.

The Confessing Church

This movement was primarily religious rather than political.  They were opposed to government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church.

Out of a population of 65 million, 45 million were Protestants.  There were 18,000 Protestant pastors.  In 1935, 3,000 of these strongly adhered to the ‘German Christian’ faction of the church and 3,000 strongly adhered to the ‘Confessing Church’ faction.  In 1933 there were 525,000 Jews in Germany.  There were 150,000 ‘Free Church’ Protestants.

The Barman Declaration of Faith

May 1934.  This was primarily authored by the notable Swiss Theologian Karl Barth with the help of other protesting pastors.  It reaffirmed the belief that the German church was not an ‘organ of the state’ and that state control over the church was doctrinally false.  This declaration became the foundation of the Confessing Church.

In May 1936 the confessing Church addressed a polite, but firm, memorandum to Hitler.   This memorandum protested against the Nazi regime’s anti-Christian tendencies, its antisemitism and demanded that they stop interfering in the internal affairs of the Protestant church.

Hitler’s responded by arresting several hundred pastors, confiscating funds of the Confessing Church and forbidding Confessing churches from taking up offerings.

Some of the leaders of the Confessing Church were sent to concentration camps.  Some risked their lives by hiding Jews during the war.  Bonhoeffer lamented the timid silence of much of the Confessing Church

The Nazis attitude towards the church  

In 13th February 1937 the Minister of Church Affairs spoke to churchmen explaining that ‘Positive Christianity is national Socialism … National Socialism is the doing of God’s will … [Doctor Zoellner} has tried to tell me that Christianity consist in faith in Christ as the son of God.  That makes me laugh … Christianity is not dependant on the Apostle’s Creed … the German people are now called … by the Fuhrer to a real Christianity … The Fuhrer is the herald of a new revelation.’

When the war came in 1939 the German Christians longed to provide military chaplains.  They hailed the war as a great sacrament of blood.  But the Nazi’s were unimpressed.  They limited the number of chaplains and there was even a so-called Uriah Law—where chaplains were sent to the front of combat.  Hitler’s view was that ‘the best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young Confessing Church pastor who saw Nazism for what it was.  He saw the Nazi regime as no longer being a state but as a criminal conspiracy.  He became active in a failed plot to kill Hitler.  In 1945 he was hanged.    He lamented that even the Confessing Church had not adequately stood up to Hitler.  Remember that the Confessing Church primarily had theological rather than political objections to the Nazis.  He explained that when it came to evils done by the state the average Christian scarcely consulted their conscience.  However, when it came to resisting the Nazis their conscience was full of scruples.  While many Christians would not agree with taking part in an assignation plot surely there is a call to stand up to state evil.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

The majority of Protestants sided neither with the German Christians or the Confessing Church.  Many within the Confessing Church did not speak out against the persecutions of the Jews and others.  Smaller churches like the Methodists, New Apostolic Church and sects like the Christian Science seemed concerned primarily with protecting themselves.  The Nazi’s generally left these smaller groups alone.  However, the Jehovah Witnesses did suffer under the Nazi’s.  While their Watchtower magazine explained that they hated the Jews as much as any other religion, they were disliked for being pacifists and they refused to use the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.

But why were so many Christians apathetic towards or even supportive of the Nazis?  Maybe like Cain they felt that they were not their bother’s keeper!  I suggest a few reasons leads Christians then and know to keep their mouths shut in the face of political evil:

1.   Fear:  This has to be the biggest reason for political inaction now as then.  Who wants to put their head up when that will bring them into the firing line?

2.    Pragmatism:  We face a danger of being too political as well as not being political enough.  It is sad to see churches split over legitimate political disagreement.  It is sad to see people put their politics ahead of their love for fellow believers.  But this desire not to rock the boat can be dangerous when the time comes to speak instead of stay silent.  We have to ask ourselves ‘am I prone to being too politically divisive or too unwilling to challenge the status quo?

3.   Ignorance:  Some Christians welcomed the rise of the Nazis because it countered some of the rising secularism at the time.  Some thought that National Socialism would be a stepping stone to national revival, and that when the national revival happened the uglier face of Nazism would disappear.  They were willing to overlook Hitler’s many faults because they thought there were aspects in which he might help their agenda.  Remember that John the Baptist did not think King Herod’s personal life was off limits! 

4.   Naivety:  Some believers told themselves stories of how Hitler carried a well-thumbed New Testament in his pocket.  Even in 1941 a rumour spread that Hitler had experienced a Christian conversion and now confessed Christian faith.

5.    Spite:  The sad truth is that many people approved of Hitler’s anti-Semitism.  It reflected their own tribal hatreds.  A narrow sense of patriotic nationalism is not hard to stoke up in our proud and arrogant hearts.  People like to be told that they belong to a special and superior people.