What saved the Russian Orthodox Church from extinction under Josef Stalin?
Sadly what saved the Orthodox Church was the same pattern of collaborating with morally suspect regimes. As repelling the Nazi invasion gave the Soviet Union prestige, albeit at great cost, the Orthodox Church also gained. Stalin was wise enough to meet with the leading bishops to get their support with the war effort. In return, he allowed the extinction of the rival church to the Orthodox, the Renovationist Church, which did start as an attempt to reform the Orthodoxy though it devolved into just another communist propaganda. Stalin realized he was better served by a subservient Church with clout with other world churches. As he began to conquer smaller nations, he replaced their church structure with the loyal Orthodox Church.
Morally compromising so much with such a dictator, one can question whether or not the Orthodox Church was actually saved. It was a shame that not all leaders could stand up to power even when not popular persons such as the British Bishop Bell, who denounced retaliatory bombing against Germany, did so.
In Chapter 23 of Christianity, MacCulloch discusses the German Protestant Church’s involvement with Hitler and Nazism. He highlights two reasons. The first and sufficient cause is summed up concisely in his first paragraph on page 941 where I quote some excerpts:
“Because of its close identification with the German Empire, STATE PROTESTANTISM [emphasis mine] found it very difficult to adjust to the 1918 defeat and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic, which at a stroke dismissed not just the Kaiser but all the crowned heads of the empire, who, if they were Protestant, had also been head of their State Churches. Protestant leaders shared the general sense that an undefeated German army had been betrayed by the enemies of the Reich. They overwhelmingly regarded the foundation of a Republic as part of that betrayal.”
“It has been estimated that when the Weimar Republic came into existence in 1919, 80 per cent of its Protestant clergy sympathized with its enemies, and were monarchists and angrily NATIONALISTS [emphasis mine]. This was not a good basis for mounting a critique of Nazism, which drew on the same anger and turned it to its own purposes.”
Need more be said? In the history of Europe, the Institution of the Church and political secular powers are Siamese twins. The history of Europe cannot be written without both. For me, it is better to view the German Protestant Church’s complicity with Hitler and the Nazis through the prism of the secular, political and economic rather than the religious, spiritual and moral.
Here we see the same old story being played out again. The secular dominating and using the spiritual to its own advantage that went officially back centuries when the ‘Church’ willingly ‘got into bed’ with Constantine and Rome in the 4th century. We are dealing with politicians dressed in clerical clothing. Many were Party Members and State Officials. They seem to be nothing more than ‘political hacks’ by using the Church for their own political and economic gain.
It is a Church Institution based on nationalism and more concerned with political expediency. With respect to the Institution’s support of Hitler and Nazism, the bottom line probably follows the adage ‘the enemy (the Nazis) of my enemy (the Republic) is a friend of mine (the German Protestant Church).’
I am in no way exonerating or excusing Christian participation with and/or support of Hitler or Nazism. Indeed, they are most likely directly responsible for many events. What I am continuing to ask in light of these facts is the question: Are we dealing with the ‘True Church’? Can we distinguish between the Church as an Institution vs. the Church as God’s Gathered i.e. ‘called out Ones’? They need not be the same and seemingly rarely are.
MacCulloch mentions as the second reason for the German Protestant Church’s support of Hitler and Nazism as due to its virile, blatant and rampant ‘Anti-Jewish Sentiment’ (1).
“One of the tragedies of the great tradition of liberal German Protestant theology was that some of its assumptions could turn some of its greatest practitioners into fellow-travelers with Nazi anti-Semitism.” (p. 941)
These scholars and theologians wrestled over an ages old (perceived?) controversy: “…of conflict between Petrine Christians, who wishes to remain close with Judaism, and Pauline Christians, who wished to take it in a new direction.”(p. 941) It was a Law vs. Grace controversy which reduced to Judaism vs. Christianity.
The Jews were problematic for these scholars and theologians. A few even rejected the Old Testament as part of the Christian canon in a resurrection of Marcion’s movement (p. 941). Jesus’ origins were argued to be Aryan not Jewish (P. 942). Most tragically, true Christians who converted from Judaism were expelled from the Church (P. 943).
This ‘Anti-Jewish Sentiment’ issue, while very real, seems to me a bit of a Red Herring. Hitler’s goal was to rule Europe as so many before him, not to eliminate the Jews. If the Jews were politically expedient in his takeover scheme, he would have sought them as allies and gave them favors also. He had no love for the Christian groups either. If he had succeeded, he probably would have eliminated them also.
Remaining questions for me are: Did the Church prior to 1933 support Hitler, that is during his rise or support him only after his 1933 win? Did the Church support Germany’s starting of World War I? (They complain about the consequences of a Republic but hey, they lost. What would they be doing?)
Going further, what as a Church and as an individual do we learn? Are we to support blatantly un-Christian action even if by silence? For example, what is our complicity in the terrible conditions, even apartheid, of the Palestinian people?
What ultimately drew my attention to this topic is that it opens a Pandora’s Box of moral questions for Christians to deal with, especially in a modern ‘enlightened’ era. Maybe long overdue time to face the subject… and the music.
(1) This is my term for what is called Anti-Semitism. I feel it more accurately and boldly defines the issue. At least all of Abraham’s descendants are Semitic, but we are not dealing, for example, with the Arabs. The term anti-Semitism, for me, does not convey the real problem which is ‘hatred’ of the Jews, Jewish influence and Jewish ways.
Discuss the rise of Pentecostalism in America after 1916. What events led to the formation of the Assemblies of God and Oneness Pentecostals? What did Pentecostals have in common with Evangelicals? What were some issues Evangelicals had with Pentecostals? Discuss the development of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ through figures such as Kenneth E. Hagin and Oral Roberts.
So many Christians are confused by the theology and experiences of Charismatic people. They have become so visible because of Christian television, radio, books, and magazines; because their ministries are so aggressive, we all are inundated by them through direct mail. Television, radio and the internet have spread this movement. It has created for them a tremendous platform. In fact, it is probably not far from the truth to say that most people would assume that Evangelical Christianity is what the Charismatic movement represents because it is such an exposed movement.
Fantastic encounters with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are claimed as commonplace. Personal messages from God are routine. Healings of all kinds are claimed. Miracles occur- everything from puppies being raised from the dead, washing machines being healed, empty gas tanks and teeth are filled. Not with the same thing. People are ‘slain by the Holy Spirit’, and people go to Heaven or to Hell, but have come back.
There are some today who even say that the Church can’t do effective evangelism without such phenomena, that is, without such signs and wonders and miracles. The Gospel, they say, is weak without signs and wonders. And this is the emphasis, by the way, of what is called the ‘Third Wave.’ Charismatics say that if you’re not in the movement, you have no right to evaluate the movement.
Howard Irvin, a Baptist pastor, wrote some years ago: “The attempt to interpret the Charismatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit without a Charismatic experience is as fatuous as the application of the Christian ethic apart from the regenerate dynamic. Understanding of spiritual truth is predicated on spiritual experience. The Holy Spirit does not reveal spirits or secrets to the uncommitted.” And there is the ploy they use. But we would expect you to be against it since you haven’t had the experience. That is Gnosticism. That is, believing if you’ve been elevated to a higher level of comprehension in which the uninitiated have no understanding.
Doctrinally, it is almost impossible to define the Charismatic movement. It almost resists theology. It resists categorization because it has such a wide and growing spectrum of viewpoints. If they don’t rightly divide the word of God, they’re not going to come to a proper systematic theology. If they determine what is true because of their own experiences, then there is no limit to the theology, it will take whatever form experience takes and so what you have is a very amorphous kind of volatile changing system of beliefs that ebbs and flows and rises and falls and refuses to find any structure.
Historically, the Charismatic movement is the child of the Pentecostal movement that began around 1900. It went along for about 60 years and Pentecostal churches were primarily the Assemblies of God, the Four-Square Church, and some other smaller groups like the United Pentecostal Church and so forth. But they were basically off to themselves and people used to call them the ‘Holy Rollers.’ They were a kind of unique group that did not mainstream at all in evangelical Christianity because of their strange beliefs.
In 1960, a remarkable thing happened in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California, when Rector Dennis Bennett supposedly got the baptism of the Holy Spirit. What happened was, Pentecostalism jumped out of its own box and landed in Episcopalianism. For the first time, it transcended its denominational definitions. Since that time, it has moved through the major denominations like a flood. It went beyond historical Pentecostal denominations and has continued to do that. That second movement is called the Charismatic movement. They borrowed that concept of Charismatic because it associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the believer.
But the Charismatic movement can’t be defined doctrinally. Why? Because it involves Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, anybody and everybody. So it resists and has resisted any kind of doctrinal definition that is too rigid.
What they all hold in common is an experience which they will call the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ and they, wrongly, define the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a post-salvation experience that adds something to your Christian life that you previously didn’t have and is usually accompanied by signs and wonders, most particularly, with ‘speaking in tongues.’
According to current statistics, there are more than 500 million members of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches worldwide – roughly, one out of every five Christians. So when we talk about a widespread movement, it is indeed the case. They gain about 19 million members per year and they donate about $75 billion to Christian causes. It is a formidable group. The movement now includes 22,000 Pentecostal and 6,000 independent Charismatic denominations covering 7,000 languages and two-thirds of all Charismatics live in the Third World. It is certainly a worldwide movement.
In reality, the rapid expansion of charismatic theology is primarily due to the popularity of the prosperity gospel. It is not the convicting work of the Holy Spirit that is drawing converts, but the allure of material possessions and the hope of physical healing. Though the church has historically repudiated greed and consumerism, this appears to be changing rapidly. Nearly half of American Christians in any denomination and roughly two-thirds of American Pentecostals now embrace the basic premise of the prosperity gospel: God wants you to be happy, healthy, and rich.
In fact the fastest-growing and largest charismatic congregations all preach some form of this message, from David Yonggi Cho in South Korea whose church claims more than one million members, to Bishop Enoch Adeboye of Nigeria, whose monthly prayer meetings regularly draw three hundred thousand in attendance. One Pentecostal historian, Vinson Synan, wrote,
“Generally known as the ‘prosperity gospel’ or the ‘Word of Faith Movement,’ this movement is now an international force that is gaining millions of enthusiastic followers around the world. Led by popular teachers and evangelists such as Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, and Reinhard Bonnke, the Word of Faith Movement has produced some of the largest churches and evangelistic crusades in the recent history of the Church. Their influence is permanently altering the American religious landscape and the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement is now the fastest-growing religious movement in the world.”
Although the development of the ‘prosperity gospel’ has often been attributed to preachers like Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin, much of their theology can be attributed to a Free Will Baptist pastor and educator named Essek William Kenyon who first coined the phrase, “What I confess, I possess.” Though raised in a Methodist household, E.W. Kenyon became a Baptist through the influence of popular evangelist A. J. Gordon. At the same time Kenyon was also exposed to the metaphysical cults of the 19th century, and in particular, New Thought metaphysics. New Thought originated through the teachings of Phineas P. Quimby, a New England philosopher, hypnotist, and healer who taught that physical realities could be manipulated and controlled through mental and spiritual means. New Thought teachings emphasized that a higher intelligence of divine force was everywhere present, that human beings possessed a divine nature, that they could use their minds to alter physical reality, and by thinking correctly they could free themselves from sickness and poverty. Quimby’s ideas were popularized by his followers, including Mary Baker Eddy, who incorporated New Thought teaching into the cult of Christian Science.
Although Kenyon himself was never a Pentecostal, he visited many Pentecostal churches and was a frequent speaker at Aimee Semple McPherson’s famous Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. In his preachings and teachings, he blended core elements of New Thought philosophy with Christian Theology, asserting that people can change their physical circumstances simply by making a “positive confession of the word of God.” For example, to be healed, believers merely need to declare they already are healed. As Kenyon explained it in one of his writings, “Confession always goes ahead of healing. Don’t watch symptoms, watch the word, and be sure that your confession is bold and vigorous. Don’t listen to people…It is God speaking. You are healed. The word says you are. Don’t listen to the senses. Give the word its place.” Only those who make a positive confession can expect positive results. Conversely, those who utter words of pessimism are doomed to failure.
To cite further from Kenyon,
“You will seldom rise above your words. If you talk sickness you will go to the level of your conversation. If you talk weakness and failure you will act it. You keep saying, ‘I can’t work,’ or ‘I can’t do this,’ and your words react to your body. Why is this? It is because you are a spirit being. You are not a physical being. Basically you are a spirit and spirit registers words just as a piece of blotting paper takes ink.”
By emphasizing the creative power of words and the notion that disease is spiritual, not physical, Kenyon provided the basic foundation of what would become the Word of Faith theology.
Kenyon’s teachings also laid the foundation for the emphasis regarding material prosperity. For him, the gospel not only offered the hope of future reward in heaven but also promised material blessing on earth, here and now. Again quoting from Kenyon, “The value of Christianity is what we get out of it. We are Christians for what we can get in this life, and we claim a hope of a world to come…We also demand that the God we serve and worship shall hear our petitions, protect us in danger, comfort us in sorrow.” According to Kenyon, “God never planned that we should live in poverty, physical, mental or spiritual. He made Israel go to the head of the nations financially. When we go into partnership with Him, and we learn His ways of doing business, we cannot be failures…He will give you the ability to make your life a success.” If such statements sound familiar to the modern drivel pumped out by prosperity gospel preachers and televangelists, then you should go read the works of Kenyon.
His novel ideas infiltrated the broader Charismatic Movement following his death shortly after the end of World War II. Numerous Pentecostal revivalists in the 1940s and 1950s began reading Kenyon’s works and began directly quoting him. Faith healers such as William Branham and Oral Roberts laid the foundation of their ministries in which the prosperity gospel might be received within charismatic circles. But it would be Kenneth Hagin, widely known as the “father of the Word of Faith Movement,” who popularized Kenyon’s works, even plagiarizing large sections of Kenyon’s writings in his own books. Other prominent prosperity gospel preachers from Kenneth Copeland to Charles Capps to Benny Hinn have been influenced directly by Hagin.
For a man like E.W. Kenyon, his integration of metaphysical philosophy into Christian theology would be cataclysmic. The Word of Faith teachers who follow in Kenyon’s footsteps owe their ancestry to the likes of Phineas Quimby where their theology incorporates Christian Science, Theosophy, Mesmerism, Science of the Mind, and New Thought metaphysics. The prosperity gospel is essentially a mongrel blend of neo-Gnostic dualism, New Age mysticism, and shameless materialism. Would it be easy to merely dismiss it as a harmless “heresy,” but its destructive influence has left many of its gullible victims in moral destitution and spiritual bankruptcy.
Discuss why some prominent liberal German Protestant theologians sided with the Nazi Party in Germany. What was the ‘German Christians‘ and what were its aims and some theological positions it had? How did other theologians, like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, react toward this alliance between the Church and the Nazi Party? What were the ‘Confessing Church’ and the ‘Barmen Declaration’?
Soon after the end of WWI in 1918, Protestant leaders shared the general sense that the German army had been betrayed by the enemies of the Third Reich. State Protestantism had a close identification with the German Empire and it had a difficult time adjusting to Germany’s defeat. The established Weimar Republic had effectively dismissed the Kaiser as well as all the other crowned heads of the empire, who, if they were Protestants, were also the heads of their State Churches. (loc. 18284) It was estimated that 80 per cent of the Protestant clergy were monarchists and angrily nationalist by the time the Weimar Republic came about in 1919. This would also affect many of Germany’s theologians as well.
Some prominent liberal German Protestant theologians sided with the Nazi Party. They were Lutherans who had assumed Luther’s great theological contrast between Law and Gospel, or Judaism and Christianity. Scholars customarily analyzed the Gospel as the product of conflict between Petrine Christians (who sided closely with Judaism) and Pauline Christians (who wanted to take Christianity towards a different direction). (loc. 18291) One prominent theologian, Adolf von Harnack, rejected the whole Old Testament as being part of Scripture. New Testament scholar Gerhard Kittel supported Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power and expressed his anti-Semitic biases in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament which is still readily consulted today. (loc. 18299)
Soon afterwards, a movement called the ‘German Christians’ was set up with the aim of eliminating any and all Jewish influence in the Church and sought to become the dominant voice of German Protestantism. From its past history, German Protestantism had longed for a reunion among the Protestant Churches; however, this noble desire had been perverted by open racism and the deliberate twisting of Scripture and theology. For instance, to justify their reinterpretation of the faith, German Christians suggested that Jesus had an Aryan ethnic identity by claiming that Galilee had been an enclave for Aryans. They also appealed to a selection of Martin Luther’s opinions that leaned towards more intemperate remarks about Jews, as well as his writings on how the Church should obey its superior powers. (loc. 18308)
During this time, Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian, had become enraged by the German liberal Protestant Church’s subservience to the Nazi Party. He had come from a Reformed Protestant tradition that was not encumbered by German State Lutheranism. He called out the fraudulence in the liberal Church’s tradition, and was particularly critical of Schleiermacher’s theology that emphasized the capacity for human reason to understand the divine. In Barth’s Commentary on Romans, published in 1919, he rebutted the highly influential 18th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s claims by emphasizing that humanity possessed a fallen capacity to reason and could only reach God through divine grace mediated in Jesus Christ. (loc. 18316) Needless to say, Harnack did not take Barth’s criticism lightly.
In 1931, Barth, including the young Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other Reformed and Lutheran Protestants decided to take a stand against the Church’s support of Nazism. In opposition to the racist principles held by the German Christians, in 1933-4 they formed the ‘Confessing Church.’ In May 1934 the Church issued a declaration at a synod in the city of Barmen that presented its ‘Evangelical and Reformed faith against the “destructive errors of the German Christians and the present national church government”.’ (loc. 18325) This Barmen Declaration interpreted obedience under the text ‘Fear God, honor the Emperor.’ (1 Peter 2:17) It took an official stand against racial discrimination via its ecclesiology by refusing to accept the fact that the State could determine Church membership by excluding ethnic Jews who had become Christians. Many Confessing Church members felt that such Christians ought to have their own separate parishes. With all its well-intended efforts, the Declaration omitted any reference to the plight of the Jews, something that Barth would personally regret many years later. (loc. 18332)
Unfortunately, the Confessing Church more or less capitulated in its stance when most of its clergy expressed their desire to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler as Fuher after he annexed Austria in 1938. They, along with virtually every other church under the Nazi regime, were seduced into supporting the Nazis when they did favors for them. For instance, the Nazis ended the old State Church’s discrimination against Methodists and Baptists, and the Third Reich strongly encouraged the promotion of strong family values and frowned upon modern decadence. (loc. 18349) These favors prompted (i.e. manipulated) many of the German Free Churches to lend their support to the Nazis. By the time WWII started in 1939, many Christians both Protestant and Catholic led their support for the Nazi party. (loc. 18353)
This rather regrettable episode in Church history seems all too common now where the Church succumbs to the pressures of the State. Though there will be dissenters here and there, like the Confessing Church, that challenge the status quo, oftentimes, economic and political incentives and self-interest get in the way of combating evil. The actions of the German Church during WWII and their support for fascism in general all across Europe, should serve as a reminder of how vulnerable and susceptible the Church is and how, even to this day, we have failed to understand and grasp Jesus’ message. As Bonhoeffer, who was later imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”