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Christian Ethics, Part 34: Final Examination


Christian Ethics Pt 34 The Final Examination


Rev. Jim Craig, Message: September 14, 2014

Theme: Christian Ethics, Part 34

Title: Final Exam

Text: The Bethel Confession of 1933 (selected portions)

From David Jay Webber

In Germany, in 1933, it was perceived by many that a time for such a weighty Lutheran statement, over against the heresies of the day, had once again come.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse were at the center of this effort.

Both came to embrace a more distinctively Lutheran form of faith.

Both lived and studied for a time in the United States.

Both were early and vocal opponents of the Nazi ideology.

And both declined offers of teaching positions in the safety of America, as Germany was about to inaugurate a new world war.

They each believed that their place as theological and pastoral leaders at that moment of history was with their countrymen, during the time of trial that the Christian church in Germany was facing.

In 1933, as they each looked at the situation that Christians in Germany were facing – with a Nazi take-over of the state, as well as a take-over of certain levels of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy nationally and regionally by the Nazi-inspired “German Christians” – they joined together as the primary participants in the preparation of the “Bethel Confession.”

A preliminary meeting, ...was held at the Bethel human care institution in Westphalia, on August 5, 1933.

Bonhoeffer was the driving force behind the Bethel confession project... in order to establish a firm basis within these disputes that might also provide support for lonely warriors.

Bonhoeffer wrote (to his grandmother):

“We want to try to make the German Christians declare their intentions. I rather doubt we shall succeed. ... The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better.”

Bonhoeffer was doubtful that the confession would be able to energize enough Christians to be able to take back control of the ecclesiastical structures of German Protestantism – especially since the civil government could be counted on to support and sustain its religious allies in such a struggle.

But Bonhoeffer sincerely believed that it would at the very least go forth into the church as a faithful testimony to the truth of God, as that truth was specifically being challenged and rejected by the Nazis and the “German Christians.”

Bonhoeffer was truly surprised and dismayed...the document that he, Sasse, and others had produced was soon gutted of its most significant elements.

When it was then released to the church – unenthusiastically and uninfluentially – it was a mere shadow of what it had been.

Bonhoeffer angrily rejected the final version out of hand and privately circulated a copy of the earlier version.

Bonhoeffer had also expressed his disappointment with the way it had all turned out in a letter to Barth, saying that “the Bethel confession, into which I truly had poured heart and soul, met with almost no understanding.”

Barth himself did understand it, but as a Reformed theologian he did not like it.

He considered it to be “too Lutheran,” and was glad to see it go by the wayside.

What eventually came to replace the Bethel Confession as a would-be rallying point for the anti-Nazi Christians in Germany was the Barmen Declaration.

But the Barmen document was inferior to the Bethel document both in the way in which it was produced, and in its content.

Unlike Bethel, ...Barmen was essentially the work of one man, Barth... reflecting the personal theological interests of Barth.

The Barmen Declaration...avoided explicit mention of the specific problem of Nazi racism.

But Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the “Confessing Church” movement as a whole was so strong, that he did ultimately remain associated with those who had subscribed the Barmen Declaration.


The Bethel Confession of 1933


On the Holy Scriptures

The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the sole source and norm for the doctrine of the church.

They constitute the fully valid witness, authenticated by the Holy Spirit, that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, is the Christ, Israel’s Messiah, the anointed King of the Church, the Son of the living God.

All church doctrine must be measured solely by the Holy Scriptures and be revealed as pure doctrine through it alone.

Everything the church does in God’s service must take place in obedience to Holy Scripture and in relation to it must prove itself to be in agreement with God’s will.

The Holy Scriptures alone witness to the divine revelation.

The church can proclaim God’s revelation only by interpreting this Word which bears witness to it, and the church is able to do God’s will only in obedience to the command of Scripture.

The Holy Scriptures constitute a whole.

They have their unity in Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, who speaks throughout the Scriptures.

We reject the false doctrine that tears apart the unity of Holy Scripture by rejecting the Old Testament or by even replacing it through non-Christian documents from the pagan early history of another nation.

Holy Scripture is an indivisible unity because it is in its entirety a testimony of and about Christ.

The entirety of the Scriptures as they have been collected in the canon brings us Christ.

But the Holy Spirit may reveal Christ to us anywhere in the Scriptures and at any time.


On the Reformation


As the congregation of Jesus Christ, it is and remains just as fundamentally church, and is to be distinguished from the sort of Protestantism that equates the church with any national, cultural or religious movement.

The essence of the Reformation is consciousness of the Holy Scriptures, submission to the Holy Scriptures.

He (Luther) fought against blind overestimation of human reason, and rejected as a temptation of the devil the human delusion that one could come to God through one’s own spirit, without the divine Word.

The Scriptures testify that no one comes to the Father except through Christ (John 14:6); no one comes to the Son unless drawn by the Father (John 6:44); no one can say that Christ is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3); no power of human reason is able to solve this mystery of God’s self-revelation as the Trinity.


On Creation and Sin


Faith in the Creator and natural knowledge

Pious natural knowledge is able to comprehend neither God as the Creator nor the world as creation in accordance with the witness of Scripture.

The natural, pious knowledge never knows God as the living Lord who calls and summons man in his thinking, willing, and doing.

The natural pious knowledge knows God only as exalted, enigmatic, dark, or terrifying.

The fall into sin separates us from creation.

Not only God’s blessing, but also his curse is active in man’s life and in history.

Not only does God’s grace create and order our life, but God’s curse also is revealed in every instance of man’s godlessness and injustice and in all of the world’s lacking redemption.

We reject the false doctrine that we can know God the Creator and Father without Christ; for outside of Christ the Creator must become an angry despot for us.

All trust in the ruler of all who is kind to all remains limited to the natural content of life and is a hope without certainty and without object.

We reject the false doctrine that this world, as we know it, corresponds to the original creative will of God; that it gives us life and that it therefore is to be affirmed in an unbroken manner.

For this means, in contradiction to the bible, that sin is not deadly and that our world has remained undamaged by it.


On the Orders


The church teaches according to Scripture that God the Lord commanded man before the fall to be fruitful, to hold dominion, and to work; that God created man as male and female; that man gets his food from nature by means of his lordship over nature and the service of his labor; that man cannot live in isolation but only through the community; and all this creatureliness ordered for man.

To preserve man from their unbridled selfishness and keep them from destroying themselves, God imposes firm orders upon human life.

Every order which is not defined and sanctified by God’s law, must again and again fall to the devil.

Thus God keeps man alive through his life-creating word in these orders and gives him in them life and salvation through Christ.

The orders do not have any value in themselves, but only live from Christ, the Word.

Yet this means that they exist as orders of preservation only for the sake of Christ’s future and for the sake of the new creation.

This is, then, their ultimate and deepest meaning and their limitation: that man may and should live in them until redemption.

The orders are valid orders of God; therefore they are not indifferent matters, but they are also not final orders of God.

The orders of preservation have the unconditional value of being divine institutions, and their transgression makes us enemies of God and closes access to the Christ. At the same time, however, they are cancelled and overcome from Christ and his future.

The orders that we have been given are those of gender, marriage, the family, the nation, property (work and the economy), vocation or trade, and government.

Man cannot escape from any of these orders, nor can any of them be transferred or transformed into another.

Marriage remains marriage, the nation remains the nation, government remains government.

Because of the demands of the various orders, man find themselves in a continuous tension.

This tension is for us the most highly visible proof that the world is in need of redemption.

Worldly authority has the responsibility for resolving the world’s tensions, and it alone defends its legal system by the sword.

According to Luther’s teaching, human society is indeed ordered, but in such a way that the same person belongs simultaneously to various orders or groups.

To say that a certain historical form of society is based upon natural law and is therefore an ultimate order would be to fall back into Catholic social teaching.

We reject the false doctrine that makes obeying the orders dependent on the Christian faith of the person representing these orders.

What obliges us to obeying the person is not that he is Christian or heathen, but that he rightly carries out the duties of his office.

“The gospel ... commands and wants to have it that we should obey the laws and the authorities under whom we live, be they heathen or Christians”.

“Accordingly Christians are obliged to be subject to civil authority and obey its commands and laws in all that can be done without sin.”

But when commands of the civil authority cannot be obeyed without sin, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)”.

We reject the false doctrine that holds that we ourselves are able to restore the orders of creation, which have been destroyed by sin, to their original purity.

Only in Christ can the world be restored; not until the new creation will it again stand in visible purity before its Creator.


On the Law


The orders preserve the world for its end according to God’s will.

The orders are equally well known to both heathens and Christians.

They are to be distinguished from the commandment of God.

In the commandments, God speaks through revelation to each man personally.

It represents God’s claim to be Lord among mankind, in which we are called to offer up our complete devotion and love for God and our neighbor.


On Sin


The church teaches that man, fallen away from God by freely transgressing God’s law, is in the misery of sin and in the destruction of death with all his nature and all his deeds, that he also lost the image of God.

It teaches “that nothing sound or uncorrupted has survived in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers.

We reject the false teaching that sin is moral failure or imperfection or ignorance, which one gets rid of by doing better the next time around.

Christ bore our sin to the cross, and only by Christ’s death sin is forgiven.


On Christ


The church teaches: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Adam’s Son, David’s Son, true God and true man, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, the Sinless One in the flesh of sin – he is the only salvation of man.

Those who reject him lose their life and remain under God’s wrath.

Christ is the end and the fulfillment of the law, the forgiveness of sins, the victory over death, the Lord of the congregation.

We reject the false doctrine that the appearing of Jesus represents a flare-up of the Nordic nature in the midst of a world tormented by corruption.

He is the splendor of God’s glory in the world (Hebrew 1:2).

He was humbled to be born in a human nation.

According to his birth, he is a member of the Israelite nation from the family of David, sent not only to the sheep who remained with the Shepherd, but also to the lost sheep of Israel.

We reject the false doctrine that says we confess Jesus as our Lord because of his heroic devotion.

He is our Lord only because he is sent by our Father, the Son and Savior crucified and resurrected for us.

With the confessions we hereby reject the error of the new Arians, “that Christ is not a true, essential, natural God, of one divine essence with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, but is merely adorned with divine majesty and is inferior to and beside God the Father.”

We reject the false doctrine that would make the crucifixion of Christ the fault of the Jewish people alone, as though other peoples and races had not crucified him.

All races and peoples, even the mightiest, share in the guilt for his death and become guilty of it every day anew, when they commit outrage against the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29).


On Justification, Faith, and Sanctification


The church teaches that godless man finds a gracious God only by faith in Jesus Christ who as Mediator was crucified and rose for him.

The Holy Spirit gives this faith through the word concerning Christ.

Against reason, against the pride of the flesh, against erring conscience, faith clings only to the biblical word promising God’s grace.

It is this faith alone that justifies.

When the gracious God is gracious toward a person and reveals him his grace in his word, so that the person realizes that Christ is the crucified and risen one for him in particular, then the person is called by this word to new obedience.

“Since faith brings the Holy Spirit and produces a new light and life in our hearts, it is certain and follows necessarily that faith renews and changes the heart.”

And the prophet shows what kind of renewal of hearts this is when he says (Jer. 31:33): ‘I will put my law into their hearts.’

In the miracle of love God gives the joy of obedience and the strength to fulfill his gracious will.

The heathen who trusts in god understands god as an anonymous power to which one must submit, that is, as fate.

The believing Christian knows God as the living, holy, righteous, and merciful

Father and Lord who reveals himself in Christ alone.


On the Church


The church is the body of Jesus Christ.

The Crucified and Risen One is the Lord who created and continues to create his people.

His people is the church.

It is present wherever people are called to repentance and faith and are connected to each other by him in the word of the gospel and in the sacrament.

This is how the church becomes the communion of “saints.”

Its members are not holy because they are without sin.

Their holiness is not the fruit of human efforts; it rests in God’s active call alone.

These godless individuals in the church become God’s children only from God in his forgiving justification which seeks and saves and makes alive those who are lost.

We reject the following false doctrines:

• that the state government as such has the right to govern the church; that it especially has the right to install and depose ecclesiastical office holders and to make laws which directly or indirectly affect the doctrine of the church;

• that the church will be absorbed into the state and must more or less give up its independent existence as a publicly and legally recognized corporation (idealistic liberalism, religious socialism);

The church of Christ never floats above the nations.

It lives in the nations.

The nations are not the church.

Yet the members of a specific nation, who are at the same time members of the church living in this nation, are inextricably connected to both.

They participate in the glory and guilt of their nation and in the promise and guilt of their church.

We reject the false doctrine, in whatever form it may appear, concerning a naturally Christian soul of certain individuals, nations, or races.

We reject the false doctrine that the existence of the nation is a presupposition for the existence of the church, or that the existence of the church is a presupposition for the life of a nation.

The church can live even where there is no nation, for “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matt. 18:20].

A nation can live and have a grand history, even where there is no church.

Nations live within the natural world and have incurred the law of death that reigns over all creation.

This is why a nation as a whole cannot be redeemed, for redemption is always God’s act upon an individual.

However, the church, grateful to God, always lays hold of the assistance offered to it in the nation or other natural orders for the execution of its commission.

We reject the false doctrine that the church belongs to the nation, or that it exists for the nation.

The church does not belong to the nation, but to Christ.

He alone is its Lord.

We oppose the teaching that it belongs to the essence of the church to be a national church.

The church is free to be national church, so long as this form is a means to carry out its commission.

Church can never be absorbed into worldly authority.

It always remains “opposite” to every worldly authority due to the content of its proclamation.

Worldly authority is above the church insofar as the church stands in the order administered by worldly authority.

The church is above worldly authority insofar as it delivers to it the claim which God has over it in the execution of its office.

Here the church serves the state by keeping the man under state authority safe from the devil’s deception, which would urge them to worship the state as the unlimited giver of life and of salvation.

The church and the authorities come into conflict first of all when the church misunderstands its service as that of a state within the state, seeks to be a factor with political power, if the former, e.g., wanted the latter to make membership in the church (baptism) a prerequisite of citizenship.

When church and worldly authority carry out their office rightly, that is, according to God’s order, then they are genuine help and genuine protection for each other.

To him, however, be glory and praise, who was, and who is, and who comes.

Christ the Lord.


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