The Influence of Higher Criticism on German Protestant Churches and Their Response to Nazi Ideology

The Influence of Higher Criticism on German Protestant Churches and Their Response to Nazi Ideology

In the 1930s, Germany witnessed a profound transformation within its Protestant churches, influenced heavily by theological liberalism and higher criticism. This shift had significant implications for how churches responded to the rise of Nazi ideology. The mainline liberal churches, which embraced higher criticism and rejected traditional Christian doctrines, largely conformed to the prevailing cultural and political currents, including Nazi ideology. In contrast, confessional or evangelical churches, steadfast in their adherence to traditional doctrines, mounted significant resistance against these ideological pressures.

The Rise of Higher Criticism and Theological Liberalism

Higher criticism, emerging in the 19th century, sought to analyze the Bible through the lens of historical context, literary forms, and human authorship. This method often led to questioning the inerrancy of Scripture and traditional doctrines, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. German scholars like Julius Wellhausen and Rudolf Bultmann were prominent figures in promoting higher criticism. Bultmann, for instance, advocated for demythologizing the New Testament, interpreting supernatural elements in existential terms rather than as historical facts.

This academic trend profoundly influenced the theological training of many German Protestant clergy. Seminaries and theological faculties incorporated higher criticism into their curricula, producing a generation of pastors who viewed the Bible more as a historical document than as the inerrant word of God. This shift laid the groundwork for theological liberalism within the mainline churches, characterized by a more flexible approach to doctrine and an openness to reinterpret traditional beliefs in light of contemporary knowledge and societal values.

Mainline Liberal Churches and Conformity to Nazi Ideology

The theological liberalism fostered by higher criticism led to a significant number of German Protestant churches aligning with contemporary cultural and political ideologies, including those of the Nazi regime. The Deutsche Christen (German Christians) movement exemplified this alignment. This movement sought to reconcile Christianity with Nazi racial and nationalist principles, advocating for a version of Christianity that supported Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitism.

The Deutsche Christen pushed for the removal of the Old Testament and any Jewish elements from Christian teachings, reinterpreting Jesus as an Aryan figure and aligning church doctrine with Nazi ideology. Their willingness to adapt or abandon traditional Christian doctrines in favor of political expediency is indicative of the liberal theological approach they adopted. This doctrinal flexibility allowed them to conform to the cultural and political demands of the time, ultimately leading to the church's complicity in supporting Nazi ideology. The Deutsche Christen prioritized political alignment with the Nazi regime over maintaining theological integrity. This political expediency is more characteristic of liberal theological movements, which may be more inclined to adapt their beliefs to align with broader social and political trends.

The Confessing Church and Evangelical Resistance

In stark contrast, confessional or evangelical churches (Bekennende Kirche), which held firmly to traditional Christian doctrines, provided a significant source of resistance against Nazi ideology. The Confessing Church movement, led by figures such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, emerged as a response to the theological and political compromises of the Deutsche Christen. These evangelical leaders emphasized the authority of Scripture, the centrality of Christ, and the inviolability of core Christian doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible and substitutionary atonement.

Karl Barth's "Barmen Declaration" of 1934 was a pivotal document in this resistance, rejecting the Deutsche Christen's attempt to align Christianity with Nazi ideology. The declaration affirmed that the church's allegiance was to Jesus Christ alone, and not to any worldly power or ideology. This stance reflected the evangelical commitment to doctrinal integrity and the belief that the church should not conform to the culture but rather stand as a witness to the truth of the gospel.

Theological Integrity and Cultural Conformity

The divergent paths taken by the mainline liberal and confessional evangelical churches in 1930s Germany underscore the impact of theological commitments on the church's response to cultural and political pressures. The mainline liberal churches, influenced by higher criticism, displayed a readiness to adapt their doctrines to fit the prevailing ideology, leading to their alignment with Nazi principles. This conformity was a direct result of their departure from traditional Christian beliefs and the embrace of a more flexible theological framework.

On the other hand, the evangelical churches' resistance to Nazi ideology was rooted in their unwavering commitment to traditional doctrines and the authority of Scripture. This doctrinal steadfastness provided a foundation for opposing the moral and theological distortions promoted by the Nazi regime.

Lessons for the Contemporary Church and Pastoral Advice

The historical analysis of the German Protestant churches during the 1930s offers several vital lessons for the contemporary church. The willingness of mainline liberal churches to conform to Nazi ideology, influenced by higher criticism and a rejection of traditional doctrines, stands in stark contrast to the confessional evangelical churches' resistance rooted in doctrinal steadfastness. This dichotomy underscores the importance of maintaining theological integrity and the dangers of compromising core beliefs for cultural or political expediency. Based on these conclusions, the contemporary church can draw the following lessons and pastoral advice to navigate current challenges.

Lessons for the Contemporary Church

  1. The Importance of Theological Integrity:

    • The unwavering commitment to core doctrines, such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the centrality of Christ, provides a solid foundation for resisting cultural and political pressures. The church must hold fast to these foundational beliefs to maintain its witness and faithfulness.
  2. Vigilance Against Cultural Conformity:

    • The church must remain vigilant against the temptation to conform to contemporary cultural trends that contradict biblical teachings. This requires discernment and a commitment to uphold biblical standards even when they are unpopular or counter-cultural.
  3. The Role of Scripture as Authority:

    • Scripture should remain the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice. Higher criticism's impact on the German churches serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of undermining the authority of the Bible. The church must prioritize scriptural teaching and ensure it guides all aspects of church life.
  4. The Need for Confessional Commitment:

    • Confessional documents, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, can provide valuable guidance and clarity on doctrinal matters. These confessions help maintain doctrinal continuity and integrity across generations.

Pastoral Advice and Practical Steps

  1. Strengthening Doctrinal Foundations:

    • Pastors and church leaders should emphasize teaching core Christian doctrines, ensuring that congregations understand and can articulate their faith. This can be achieved through regular preaching, Bible studies, and catechism classes.
  2. Promoting Biblical Literacy:

    • Encouraging members to engage deeply with Scripture is crucial. Churches should offer programs that foster biblical literacy, such as systematic Bible studies, scripture memorization, and expository preaching that covers entire books of the Bible.
  3. Encouraging Discernment:

    • Equip congregants with tools for discernment to navigate contemporary issues. This includes teaching on how to apply biblical principles to modern ethical dilemmas and fostering a critical awareness of cultural influences.
  4. Maintaining a Prophetic Voice:

    • The church should maintain its prophetic voice, speaking truth to power and addressing societal issues from a biblical perspective. This involves standing firm on moral and ethical issues, even when facing opposition or backlash.
  5. Fostering Community and Accountability:

    • Building strong community ties within the church can help members support one another in maintaining doctrinal faithfulness. Accountability groups, mentoring relationships, and small group fellowships can provide mutual encouragement and correction.
  6. Engaging in Cultural Dialogue:

    • While maintaining doctrinal integrity, the church should also engage thoughtfully with the surrounding culture. This involves understanding contemporary issues, responding with biblical wisdom, and demonstrating the relevance of the gospel to all areas of life.
  7. Praying for Wisdom and Courage:

    • Regular corporate and individual prayer for wisdom, discernment, and courage is essential. The church must seek God's guidance in navigating cultural challenges and standing firm in the faith.
  8. Providing Pastoral Care:

    • Pastors should offer pastoral care that addresses the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs of their congregants. This includes helping individuals understand and apply biblical teachings to their personal lives and providing support during times of doubt or struggle.


The historical example of the German Protestant churches during the 1930s underscores the critical importance of theological integrity and the dangers of compromising core beliefs for cultural conformity. The contemporary church must learn from this history, prioritizing doctrinal faithfulness, promoting biblical literacy, and maintaining a prophetic voice. By strengthening its doctrinal foundations, encouraging discernment, and fostering a supportive community, the church can navigate contemporary challenges with wisdom and courage, remaining faithful to its calling in Christ.

- Jacob Watson


Related Reading

Historical Context and Analysis:

  1. "Theology of Crisis" by Karl Barth:
    • Barth was a leading figure in the Confessing Church and a primary author of the Barmen Declaration. His works provide insight into the theological stance against Nazi ideology.
  2. "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy" by Eric Metaxas:
    • This biography details Bonhoeffer’s role in the Confessing Church and his resistance against the Nazi regime.
  3. "The Third Reich and the Christian Churches" by Peter Matheson:
    • This book offers an analysis of the relationship between the Nazi state and the Christian churches in Germany.

Higher Criticism and Theological Liberalism:

  1. "The History of Higher Criticism" by Michael J. Gorman:
    • A comprehensive overview of the development of higher criticism and its impact on biblical studies.
  2. "Biblical Criticism in Crisis? The Impact of the Canonical Approach on Old Testament Studies" edited by Mark G. Brett:
    • This work explores the effects of higher criticism on theological scholarship.

The Deutsche Christen Movement:

  1. "The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-1945" by J.S. Conway:
    • A detailed account of how the Nazi regime attempted to control and influence the churches in Germany.
  2. "Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich" by Doris L. Bergen:
    • An in-depth study of the Deutsche Christen movement and its theological and political implications.

Confessional Evangelical Response:

  1. "The Barmen Declaration: In Defense of the Church" by Arthur C. Cochrane:
    • An exploration of the Barmen Declaration and its significance in the Confessing Church’s resistance.
  2. "Ethics" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
    • Bonhoeffer’s own theological reflections during the period of Nazi persecution.

General Historical Context:

  1. "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany" by William L. Shirer:
    • A comprehensive history of Nazi Germany, providing context for the actions and reactions of the German churches.
  2. "Hitler’s Cross: The Revealing Story of How the Cross of Christ Was Used as a Symbol of the Nazi Agenda" by Erwin W. Lutzer:
    • A study on how Christian symbols were co-opted by the Nazi regime and the response of various Christian groups.

Articles and Academic Papers:

  1. "The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust" by Franklin H. Littell:
    • An article examining the theological and political struggles of the German church during the Holocaust.
  2. Journal of Ecclesiastical History:
    • Various articles providing scholarly analysis on the period and its theological implications.

These sources offer a comprehensive understanding of the influence of higher criticism, the theological and political dynamics within the German Protestant church, and the resistance efforts by confessional evangelicals during the 1930s and 1940s.