I have recently been asked on several occasions why I have decided to dedicate the next three years of my life to studying for a Ph.D. focussing the Lutheran State Church under Nazi rule. The question is asked by those who are genuinely curious but mildly incredulous. After all, surely no sane person would dedicate themselves to studying such a brutal and dark period of history? Why not focus instead on something more positive and uplifting? It seems to me that these questions are extremely important and that my response to them will help determine the rationale of the research and highlight the significance of the topic for various issues facing contemporary theological studies. I therefore offer a brief reflection on the reasons why I have chosen this specific period of theological history as the subject of my research.
To begin with, the Nazi-era Church has traditionally been neglected in the sphere of theological study, and it is this neglect which provides a distinct opportunity for the researcher to contribute to a (hopefully) emerging field of study. The majority of the extant scholarly literature relating to this period focusses on the subversive activities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, which is, of course, a much easier historical pill for the Church to swallow. In Bonhoeffer and company, the Church has a moral hero that it can extol as the model Christian who ultimately lost his life by taking a clear stance against the demonic excesses of Nazi rule. As inspirational as Bonhoeffer’s example is, there remains the distinct problem of what the rest of the Church was doing in order to accommodate Nazi ideology. My studies will focus on the theological revisionism of Walter Grundmann’s Institute for the Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life in an attempt to highlight both the levels of ‘Christian’ complicity in Nazi ideology and the specific methods used in order to ‘Aryanize’ Jesus. Despite the existence of some important studies in this area, very few have treated in detail the production of Die Botschaft Gottes (The Message of God), which was a version of the New Testament designed to be the official state Bible under Nazism. My research will delve into this publication and explore the tools and techniques used by Nazi theologians in order to rewrite Christian history and divorce the New Testament from its Jewish origins. As one of the central aims of a Ph.D. is to produce new knowledge, I feel that my research in this area will be able to offer a humble contribution towards the emerging world of Third Reich-era theology studies.
My initial motivation, however, was stimulated by something other than the pure novelty of exploring neglected theological texts. Rather, I feel that the travesty of the Nazi Church contains important lessons not only for the Church today but for political and religious discourse generally. The Church under Nazism felt that the immediate political and cultural context of the day provided the sole lens through which the entirety of Church and theological history was to be viewed. In so doing, Nazi theologians seriously overestimated the importance of their immediate context and ascribed to it a divine revelatory status that it did not deserve. Although it can be tempting to write-off this whole period as an exercise in evil, it must be borne in mind that Nazi theologians believed they were acting from the highest moral and ethical motives. Further, they believed that both the Bible and Church history (especially Luther) legitimised their own anti-Semitism. As inconceivable as this may seem to contemporary readers, I will suggest that the slide into moral and contextual arrogance (as typified by the Nazi Church) is an ongoing danger for the Church generally, and cannot be said to be a sole feature of right-wing or nationalistically informed theologies. The overarching lesson of the Nazi Church is that contextual approaches to the theological task can be used for evil as well as good. In order for contextual approaches to be useful, they must be held in tension with the timeless, transcendent elements of moral and dogmatic theology.