Bonhoeffer 3: The Confessing Church and the German Resistance

In the late spring and summer of 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in Bethel in Germany. By this time, the German Evangelical Church, or the “Reich Church” had already endorsed the Nazi Party and had begun the creation of a “unique Aryan form of Christianity.” A minority within the church recognized the dangers of this move and formed what was called, the “Confessing Church,” which Bonhoeffer believed to be the true church in Germany that should be recognized as such by the ecumenical movement. The process by which the Confessing Church became a reality was complicated. Initially, what bound participants together was a common concern about “Aryan Christianity,” the anti-Semitism of the regime, and the activities of the Nazi regime to control the evangelical church in Germany. To some, what was needed as a confession that would bind those who opposed the Nazi Regime together from a sound theological basis, something Bonhoeffer always sought in his work.

Bethel Confession

Bonhoeffer was the driving force behind the Bethel Confession and asked to prepare a draft for the Confessing Churches. In response, Bonhoeffer, with the assistance of Hermann Sasse, drafted what became known as the “Bethel Confession.” His draft was later rewritten by a committee, with a result that angered Bonhoeffer. He refused to sign it. In reviewing the revised draft, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” In the end, the Bethel Confession failed to unite the church in Germany. As a result, the Bethel Confession exists in two strands, the original version authored by Bonhoeffer and Sasse (the August version) and a later version heavily edited by, among others, Martin Niemöller (the November version). The earlier version, reflecting Bonhoeffer’s authorship, is much more direct in criticizing the Nazi-inspired ideas of the German Christians. It is the earlier version that Bonhoeffer circulated, but the later version that reflects the comments of Martin Niemöller.

Despite its failure to unite the Confessing Church, the Bethel Confession was important, for Bonhoeffer continued to circulate it in its original form as a potential statement of what the Confessing Church in fact believed.

The details of the Bethel Confession are not terribly important today. What is important is that Bonhoeffer was the driving force behind it and viewed it as a statement of historic Christian faith against the heresies of the German Christian movement, especially the so-called, “Aryan Clause” and the manifest anti-Semitism of the day. Important among its statements is the denial that the Old and New Testaments can be divorced from one another in such a way that pagan elements can be imported into Christian faith:

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. Those who reject the Old Testament and recognize it only as the bible of Jesus and, respectively, primitive Christianity tear this unity apart.[1]

Barmen Declaration

Following the failure of the Bethel Confession to gain traction and unite the Confessing Church, a Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany in May 1934. At Barmen, representatives from all the German Confessional churches approved a common message in response to the temptation of the Church reflected by German Christian movement. This confession was drafted under the influence of Karl Barth. Unlike the Bethel Confession, the Barmen Declaration was not intended as a complete statement of evangelical faith, but as a short document to specifically address heresies in the German Christian movement. The intention was to withstand in faith and unanimity the destruction of the Confession of Faith attempted by the German Christian movement, and thus the destruction of the Evangelical Church in Germany by opposing attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church due to false doctrine. [2] The Barmen Declaration is by far the best-known confessional document from the period of the Second World War and was the defining document of the Confessing Church.

The Barmen Declaration contains six theses concerning Christian faith, which were meant to contest the claims of the German Christian movement. Briefly, these theses can be summarized as follows:

  1. Jesus Christ is the source of Christian faith, and no secular sources can replace Christ as the sole Word of God to the human race.
  2. The Gospel of Christ is the central Christian message, and therefore all of life is belongs to Christ. including the arena of political life and leadership.
  3. Since the Gospel is central to the Christian message, the church is not free to abandon or change it to meet contemporary ideological or political movements.
  4. The offices of the church (and therefore leadership) are not for domination, but for service and ministry to the congregation.
  5. The state has a divine role in providing for peace and justice, but cannot become a single totalitarian order for human life or intrude into the religious arena.
  6. The church has a divine calling to share the Gospel with the world, and cannot be placed into the service of an ideology or secular purpose or plan.

The Fano Declaration

The Bethel Confession and Barmen Declaration are important for understanding Bonhoeffer’s political activities, for by the end of 1934 they constituted the basis of the positions taken by the Confessing Churches and Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the German Christians that reached its climax in a conference at Fano, Norway, later in the year. As a result of Barmen, Bonhoeffer took the position that the true church in Germany was the Confessing Church, which ought to be represented at international gatherings and recognized as the legitimate Christian church. Many people were against this idea, including some of his traditional allies. In other words, Bonhoeffer did not want the Confessing Church to be recognized as “a” free and independent German evangelical church, but as “the” German Evangelical Church, the legitimate form of the Protestant Church in Germany. [3]

In the end, after a time of intense activity, Bonhoeffer was able to achieve a startling victory in the language that the conference used to condemn the Nazi regime. The conference adopted resolutions that centered the mission of the church in the proclamation of the Word of God and condemned the nationalistic principle of the Reich Church and the use of the Word for purely nationalistic aims calling the church to obey God and not men. [4] As one author puts it:

It (Fano) stated the belief of the Council in “the special task of the ecumenical movement to express and deepen the essence of mutual responsibility in all parts of the Christian Church.” It recognized “the peculiar difficulties of a situation of revolution” but went on to declare autocratic church rule, use of force, and the suppression of free discussion as “incompatible with the true nature of the Christian Church,” and asked “in the name of the Gospel” for proper freedom of teaching and life on the German Evangelical Church. It endorsed the action taken by the bishop of Chichester. And most decisively: “The Council desires to assure its brethren in the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church of its prayers and heartfelt sympathy in their witness to the principles of the Gospel, and of its resolve to maintain close fellowship with them.” This represented a major triumph for the ecumenical support of the Confessing Church…. [5]

Fano and Bonhoeffer’s Pacifism

At Fano, Bonhoeffer preached an important sermon on the subject of peace and the obligation of the ecumenical churches to stand on the side of peace. [6] In this address, Bonhoeffer rejected the secular avenues so often thought to pave the way towards a peaceful international order, based as they are on socio-economic factors and the desire for security:

How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through big banks? Through money? Or through the peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look got guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.  Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God.  They are won when the way leads to the cross[7]

This particular speech of Bonhoeffer was much criticized, coming as it did at the time of German rearmament when the nations of the world were beginning to awake to the danger Germany presented to world peace. It has stood the test of time as a call for radical obedience to the Gospel and reflects Bonhoeffer’s inherent pacifism and interest in Gandhi’s form of nonviolence, which in fact he was studying at the time of the Conference.

After the conference at Fano, Bonhoeffer needed to leave Germany and the high-profile position he held for a time. His adamant opposition to Hitler had aroused opposition in both the secular and religious institutions in Germany. His friends did not want him to waste his life and talents as a theologian and pastor in the disputes in Germany, where he might well be arrested. He therefore took a position in London as a pastor of a German congregation there. From that position, he made important friendships in the British Anglican Church and continued to oppose the German Christian movement and its leadership. During this period, Bonhoeffer became convinced that the Christian church in the west was in deep trouble, dying in fact.

As his time in London was coming to an end, Bonhoeffer wrote Gandhi a letter recently discovered among Gandhi’s papers. In the letter, Bonhoeffer asked if he could join Gandhi’s ashram for about six months, not simply to resolve the issue of the efficacy of nonviolence in the German situation but to seek the path by which Western Christianity might be regenerated. [8] Gandhi issued an invitation, but before he could attend, the call to serve the Confessing Church in its need for seminary education interfered. Nevertheless, this part of his journey is illuminating. His study of the Sermon on the Mount, and his interest in Gandhi influenced Bonhoeffer to seriously consider pacifism as an option, and in fact to become a kind of pacifist. Before leaving Britain, and in preparation for his leadership of a Confessing Church seminary, Bonhoeffer visited several Anglican communities in Britain to understand better the kind of community he hoped to create—a community he hoped would model the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.

His continuing study of the Sermon on the Mount influenced him in the direction of pacifism and conscientious objection to military service. While leading the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde, his pacifism became an issue during a time when it was expected that young Germans would serve in the military and support the German government as had the generation that fought in World War I. [9]


By the time Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to lead the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde, he was well-known in the ecumenical movement and had many contacts that might be useful in the future. He was respected by the leading theological figures of his day, even if he was felt to be a bit hard-headed and difficult to see compromise. He had begun the line of thought that would produce his two greatest works, “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together,” both of which would be completed in the years to come. He was prepared not just to write about the Christian life but to embody it in a special and unique way that continues to impact Christian faith and practice to our own day.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Bethel Confession (November 1933 version) “On Holy Scripture” (downloaded September 14, 2022)

[2] Arthur C. Cochrane, “The Theological Declaration of Barmen” The Church’s Confessions Under Hitler (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 237–242.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (Cleveland, OH: Fount Books, 1958), at 278. This work is hereinafter referred to as “No Rusty Swords”.

[4] No Rusty Swords, at 289.

[5] Keith Clements, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 2015), 139.

[6] No Rusty Swords, “The Church and the Peoples of the World,” at 284.

[7] Id, at 285-286.

[8] Graham Davey, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Journey not Made” The Gandhi Way: Newsletter of the Gandhi Foundation at (Downloaded September 20, 2022).

[9] See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 406-411 for a moving and more complete discussion of the impact of Gandhi on Bonhoeffer as it relates to his concern for the church in Europe and pacifism.