History of the Bethel Confession
The Bethel Confession was authored by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hermann Sasse, and others during August 1933, in order to oppose the false teachings that were flooding the German protestant church after the victory of the German Christians at the church election of July, 1933.
 Concerning the History of the Bethel Confession
|This text, authored by Carsten Nicolaisen, has been graciously provided to Lutheranwiki by Augsburg Fortress Publishing House (P.O. Box 1209 Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209), and soon will be published in Berlin 1933, the forthcoming Volume 12 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition,translated by Isabel Best and edited by Larry Rasmussen. Unless specifically noted, no part of this text may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishing.|
Because some of the pertinent source materials contradict each other, the origin and editorial history of the Bethel Confession cannot be determined definitively. Nonetheless, we do know the following concerning Bonhoeffer’s participation and his ultimate rejection of the changes subsequently made to the “August-version.”
The initiative to formulate a confession came from the Young Reformation Movement, which after the victory of the German Christians in the July 27, 1933, church elections resolved to “confront the new church leadership and the movement of the German Christians—the latter of which is determinative for the former—with the confessional question” and to clear up the situation with a “timely confession.” We can no longer determine for certain how and through whom Bonhoeffer was invited to work on what became known as the “Bethel Confession.” On the one hand, he already knew before July 26, 1933, that he would be traveling to Bethel; on the other, the recommendations from Berlin theologians to Friedrich von Bodelschwingh to enlist Bonhoeffer and the Erlangen church historian Hermann Sasse to compose the text of a Lutheran confession date only from July 31 and August 1, 1933.
Bodelschwingh, Bonhoeffer, and Georg Merz, one of the lecturers at the seminary in Bethel, met in Bethel for a preliminary meeting on August 5, the results of which Bodelschwingh then summarized on the same day in a letter to Georg Schulz, the Barmen pastor and head of the Sydow Brethren: “The wish has repeatedly arisen to work out |504| a position statement concerning current questions from the perspective of the Lutheran confession in order to establish a firm basis within these disputes that might also provide support for lonely warriors [ . . . ]. We agreed that first a smaller circle of theologians [namely, Bonhoeffer, Merz, Sasse, and Schulz] meet here to begin this work”; the envisioned time period was from August 15 to 20, 1933.
The first two versions of the later Bethel Confession were then worked out between August 15 and 25 in Bethel under the patronage of Bodelschwingh himself. Contrary to earlier scholarship, which considered the draft of the Bethel Confession to have been authored only by Bonhoeffer and Sasse, the source materials as well as the text itself clearly show that Merz (but not Schulz) intensively participated. Merz had already participated in the preliminary discussion on August 5; on August 16, 1933, immediately after the work began, he wrote to publisher Albert Lempp that “Mr. Sasse and Mr. Bonhoeffer, who have been here since yesterday to contribute to this theological endeavor, will be working with me this afternoon,” and at the annual conference of the German pastors ministering to foreign congregations in Great Britain, which met in Bradford/Yorkshire on November 28, 1933, Bonhoeffer himself related that “at the beginning of September [he must mean: August], Merz, Sasse, and I worked out a confession.” Those participating in the editorial work leading to the “August version” also included the Bochum pastor Hans Fischer, Bodelschwingh’s colleague Gerhard Stratenwerth, and Wilhelm Vischer, an Old Testament scholar at the Bethel seminary.
On August 31, 1933, Bodelschwingh sent the text to “an extended circle of about twenty brethren with the ardent request to examine it and offer suggestions” and with the urgent summons to “get the corrected or expanded texts back to me by September 15, after which work on the final version will begin so that we can present that version in October.” It is possible that Bonhoeffer pushed for an earlier conclusion to the work so that the final version might be presented to the national synod on September 27, 1933. On September 15, 1933, however, Bodelschwingh had to tell Karl Barth, who had just been solicited for an opinion as well, that those working on the “August version” had “in the meantime become convinced that it was just not possible to conclude the work as quickly as originally hoped,” and that he thought the second editorial conference might be held at the beginning of October. This date also fell through, and the second editorial conference did not begin until the last ten days or so in October, when Bonhoeffer was already in London. Before leaving for England, however, Bonhoeffer apparently returned once more to Bethel, where he worked together at least with Fischer on the “August version” in light of the solicited opinions that had arrived in the meantime. This conclusion can be drawn from Fischer’s own copy and is commensurate with his later recollection. When Eberhard Bethge was preparing the publication of the Gesammelte Schriften and queried Fischer about his recollections of the work on the Bethel Confession, Fischer remarked on December 18, 1956, that “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and I spent several days cloistered in Bethel”; Fischer also recalled the “sovereignty with which he examined and worked through the criticisms offered by those whose opinions had been solicited.” Nonetheless, even before he had seen the changes made to the “August version” by the second official editorial conference, Bonhoeffer complained from London in a letter to Barth on October 24, 1933, that “the Bethel Confession, into which I truly had poured heart and soul, met with almost no understanding.” On November 6, 1933, Merz then related to Bodelschwingh that the editorial work had been completed, but that he nonetheless felt it “urgently necessary that before publication the final version be sent to Bonhoeffer in London and to Professor Sasse in Erlangen [ . . . ] Because both have participated since the very beginning, we really can’t send this out into the world without considering their opinions once more.” Finally, on November 24, 1933, Merz sent Bodelschwingh Bonhoeffer’s response to the “November version”—a response that has unfortunately been lost—adding: “`No mere trifle, but rather a catastrophe.’ Or what else can we say about the cover letter of our friend Bonhoeffer? I can at most say that, in a way, I saw it coming and that throughout the meetings I could never rid myself of my apprehensions. I will say, though, that it’s Bonhoeffer’s own fault for having gone at this thing too precipitately and for having tlet go of it too hastily. Nothing good can come from such treatment. But we won’t be able to make this clear to him because he is simply too young and slipped into academia too early and too one-sidedly.” For his own part, Bonhoeffer reported on November 28, 1933, at the pastoral conference in Bradford that “the intent of the confession “was spoiled by attempts to thwart it and by the strange course of action taken by Bodelschwingh. It is now being published, after having the (original) intent spoiled by a few pastors.” These remarks may refer especially to the fact that Stratenwerth, in concurrence with Bodelschwingh, had on September 14, 1933, added Adolf Schlatter to the circle of those whose opinions were being solicited, and that Schlatter’s doubts were indeed then reflected by subsequent editorial changes. In a missive to Stratenwerth on November 30, 1933, Bodelschwingh also mentioned that Bonhoeffer rather harshly rejected the editorial changes that had been made in the meantime, and on December 5, 1933, Merz related to Martin Niemöller that “Bonhoeffer has resolutely rejected the reworked version and opposes it being published in the present form. Although I’m very sorry about all this, he is not entirely without blame himself, since after his initial stay in Bethel he was no longer able to work on it, a situation which may well have been justified.”
On the copy dedicated to Julius Rieger of the version that was published at the turn of 1933/34 with the title The Confession of the Fathers and the Confessing Church. Presented for your consideration by a circle of Protestant theologians and published in their name by Martin Niemöller, Bonhoeffer ultimately wrote: “Too many cooks spoil the broth. An anonymous co-author. D.B.”
- ↑ Cf. in this regard GS 2:80-89; DB-ER, 300-3; G. C. Carter, Confession at Bethel, 61-148; C.-R. Müller, Bekenntnis und Bekennen, 13-21 (cited hereafter as: Müller); C. Strohm, Theologische Ethik, 205-27; for a critical summary, see M. Lichtenfeld, Theologie.
- ↑ Cf. M. Niemöller’s theses “Die Jungreformatorische Bewegung und die Kirchenpolitik” on July 30, 1933 (JK 1  101).
- ↑ Cf. I/75.
- ↑ Cf. I/77 and I/79.
- ↑ Müller, 196f.
- ↑ Cf. also I/86.
- ↑ Concerning the specific participation of Merz in the composition of the draft and the additional editorial history of the Bethel Confession, cf. M. Lichtenfeld, Theologie; Lichtenfeld also discloses various formulations and lines of thought from Merz in the text of the confession.
- ↑ Müller, 19.
- ↑ DBWE 13:47; in GS 2:87, the final word in the citation incorrectly reads “finished” (fertiggestellt).
- ↑ Bodelschwingh’s cover letter already dates from August 26, 1933 (GS 2:90f.; Müller, 199 [who does not, however, make it clear that she is reproducing the draft of the letter which Bodelschwingh himself altered]); Müller, 194, also includes a list of those solicited for an opinion.
- ↑ Cf. in this regard DB-ER, 302f., and Müller, 45f.
- ↑ Cf. I/96f.
- ↑ Müller, 200.
- ↑ Cf. in this regard Müller, 70.
- ↑ Cf. in this regard also I/100, footnotes 3 and 5.
- ↑ HA Bethel, 2/39-20-9,17.
- ↑ GS 2:83.
- ↑ DBWE 13:23; cf. also GS 2:86 and 132.
- ↑ Müller, 204.
- ↑ Müller, 205; although GS 2:86 cites instead: “Bonhoeffer rejects the changes made to the first draft,” this passage does not occur in the source itself.
- ↑ DBWE 13:47.
- ↑ HA Bethel, 2/39-96,24a-c; cf. also Müller, 47.
- ↑ Müller, 47-49.
- ↑ Müller, 206.
- ↑ GS 2:86.
- ↑ NL-Bibl. 11,4.