Symposium Introduction

As this is the first symposium under my editorship in this section on pastoral theology, a few words of context might be needed. There is a sense in which the “book review” as a form of academic discourse is what Syndicate Theology is trying to perform and, also, revise. There are popular reviews of intellectual letters that already do this in various ways, but this publication’s particular aim, as I understand it, is to host and sustain a style in the review of academic works of theology that is attentive to the discursive form that builds a “space.” This question of spatial form is, in many respects, a pastoral question, contained and presented in the construction of everything from the digital site to the printed copies of the work itself. In this way, the aesthetics of the review—i.e., the ways an academic space can be curated and constructed—is what “pastoral” adds to “theology.” In other words, in these my first words on this exciting new venture, I would like to emphasize the pedagogical aspects of Syndicate, couched within the spacial aesthetics of form, as the sine qua non of this section on pastoral theology. Pastoral theology must be attentive to the room, the chairs, the hospitality, and the folks.

I mention pedagogy because, introductory purposes aside, I cannot imagine a text more suited to a theo-pedagogical task than Paul Hinlicky’s. The book is a lesson of the best sort, a lesson more about time than space. It is conceived as what appears to be a provocative thought experiment, worthy in itself, but, as we will see, the book is much more than that. Grounded in carefully substantiated and historically attuned descriptions, Hinlicky renders out the imperative implied in the subtitle: Christian theology must learn (which of course includes learning how to learn and unlearn) from Auschwitz. The rationale for this imperative is clear in the introduction where Hinlicky asserts, “in writing this book I assume that Christian theology can and must still learn from experience” (11). In other words, the premise is that the rise of Nazism is part of the human experience, and, therefore, it follows to conclude that Christian theology can and must learn from it.

The next theme brings us to the main implication of the title: the “before” of Before Auschwitz. Hinlicky not only demands that Christian theology learn from the Shoah. He also teaches on what—indeed, on when—one ought to learn about it, methodologically speaking. Hinlicky uses the language of time, “before,” to critique what he calls the “retrospective fallacy,” which he addresses most directly in the third chapter. This fallacy is similar in content and spirit to psychologism, the fallacy critiqued by Frege, James, and Husserl: while the retrospective fallacy is in one sense a historical mistake, it also makes a philosophical category mistake in assuming a false structure of consciousness and intentionality. This critique of critical approaches in theology and elsewhere has wide-ranging applications; especially to something as universally objectionable as Nazism. Hinlicky calls Christian Theology beyond the “post” critical assessment of itself “after” Hitler by going behind Nazism in depth, “before.” Hinlicky calls for a more honest yet more risky learning, with a methodological precision that casts out ideology and leaves us to consider the ontology of history, memory, and counter-memory “as if” we could do it from beginning to end.

The reviewers in this symposium gather a wealth of knowledge of, and exegesis on, Hinlicky’s claims and insights; all the reviewers offer a harmonious expository account of the book. Knut Alfsvåg points to the political theology in Hinlicky’s account, noting especially his attention to Jewish-Christian relations. Lubomir Batka also considers the latter, and muses towards Hinlicky’s next book, rooted in the idea of a “Beloved Community,” speculating on how Before Auschwitz might affect the future. Nikolai Kohler refers to the book as a personal text, built upon autobiographical concerns, paying attention to the ways Hinlicky’s book was used in his classroom, to great effect. Myles Werntz confronts the difficult questions of Christian culpability and the looming absence of the answer of repentance in this book.

As a reader of the book, I found myself in dialogue with a uniquely Lutheran, Reformist conversation that forced me to withhold many of my decidedly Roman Catholic judgments and even use Google more times than I’d like to admit. I cheered during the chapter that devastated all ideas that Nietzsche was himself guilty of Nazism, an argument with profound symmetries to the larger one about Nazism proper. The most compelling aspect of the book for me was that it performs a convincing case for the public and political significance of a chastened but bold Christocentric theology. By forcing Christian theology to consider itself before, through, and eventually after Auschwitz, Hinlicky does not make sense of the unthinkable through the lens of theology. Instead, he challenges the very idea of the Shoah as being entirely unthinkable and out of grasp, through carefully contextualized historical and theological investigations, with very real and sober implications—most of all, that the only way to prevent this in the future will be to face it as it is, by imagining what it was.

This is a very different response than the one Zizek offers in God in Pain where claims,

Therein lies the theological significance of the Shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology that can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of the catastrophe—the fiasco of God is still the fiasco of God.1

Hinlicky’s God is not a fiasco nor does this God reduce human experience to a knot of chaos; but the tension of the great tragic event of the twentieth century does take for granted the historical assumptions of the Reformation itself. Hinlicky’s book is a magnificent treatment of the former, but remains unclear to me in how it might address the latter. Nonetheless, as Kohler notes and as the appendix shows, the matter at hand is not only theology but also a question of the real threats of Bolshevik, Facist, and Hitlerist philosophies reemerging in Europe and the role theology might play in opposing them from an internal position of a non post facto critique.

This is a lesson we must all pay attention to and learn from. I look forward to the conversation.


  1. Slovoj Žižek, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 158.

Nikolai Kohler


The Theology of Adolf Hitler

Understanding the Power of Grounding Beliefs

For Paul Hinlicky, currently the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College (Virginia, USA), Before Auschwitz is a personal book. His father was a veteran of World War II who was led by his experiences in the war into pastoral ministry. Growing up in what Hinlicky calls a “Slovak Lutheran immigrant ghetto” (ix), it at first seemed unquestionable that Christianity had to have been opposed to Nazism. But continually the question how the Holocaust could have come from the land of Luther kept posing itself.

The book then is the result of “a lifetime of meditation” (ix) about this question. He writes with the purpose of heightening the awareness for similar dynamics today and sees a warning for the contemporary reader embodied in the book, altough worrying that it will “fall on deaf ears” (x).

I think it is important to be aware of these preliminary remarks in the preface in order to understand the passionate, concentrated and serious ductus of the book.

Hinlicky engages heavily with all major publications on the topic and adds helpful references to not yet widely known papers. In what follows I will not comment on these, at times review-like, sections of the book.

Instead I will focus on the single point in the argument that by far fascinated me the most and at the same time I deem to be very significant for better and especially more accurately understanding the destructive dynamic of National Socialism: chapter 4, with the quite intriguing title: “The Not So Strange Theology of Adolf Hitler” (99–140).

Before coming to chapter 4 however, I begin by highlighting some of Hinlicky’s remarks on methodological issues. These help to understand his approach in chapter 4.

In the acknowledgments Hinlicky diagnoses a current “rampant theological confusion” (xii), especially concerning matters of method, which is why he begins his discussion in the introduction with the topic of methodology.

Hinlicky criticizes a posture of facile characterizations of the roots of the Endlösung. Oftentimes the criticism of these roots according to Hinlicky is not moving the argument forward and is therefore counterproductive. Where Nazis are, especially in North America, demonized to such an extent that they are understood “as agents of virtually supernatural evil” (2), a better historical understanding of the Nazi evil as a human possibility and therefore a better criticism of it is prevented.

Hinlicky aims to take the Nazi worldview seriously on its own terms for he recognizes the widespread methodological problem of “retrospective fallacy” or “presentism.” The interest of preventing the recurrence of the Nazi atrocities complicates inquiry. Suffering patience and imagination is required. By assuming the common humanity with the Nazi murderers, one moves towards a constructive inquiry. The questioner becomes the questioned and therefore begins to understand deeper than in any kind of polemical historiography. This kind of empathy is not necessarily doomed to historical relativism. The goal is not to excuse, but “to judge precisely and deeply” (3). By resisting the demonization of these past human agents, one is able to hold them morally accountable as human beings.

To learn anything from the moral abyss of Nazi Germany demands the difficult task of not emotionally distancing oneself.

Hinlicky then introduces the notion of “patiency” (4), where he emphasizes that everyone who engages in historical research is himself part of “the wave of history that first forms us and then propels us along” (4).

Any kind of after-the-fact moralizing hence pretends to be a judgment sub specie aeternitatis and contains the danger of perpetuating a vicious cycle of ressentiment. Hinlicky concludes that we have “to allow to voices of the past their own ignorance of the outcome of their actions [. . .] We learn nothing from the past when already we know what ‘they’ should have done” (4).

Writing history retrospectively can become problematic not because one has a certain perspective on the events, but when one absolutizes one’s own perspective in demanding the existence of the same point of view for past actors. Historical judgment has to be by criteria “immanent to the situation, according to possibilties available in a horizon of the past” (5). Otherwise it becomes an “imperialism of the present” (5), where the historian discovers only what conforms to his own image.

Hinlicky’s ethical commitment is to regard himself as being part of the same human family as past actors. His aim to take the Nazi worldview seriously on its own terms is—as I understand him—the methodological base for the inquiry in chapter 4. This then gives some background to what is meant by the first heading of chapter 4: Taking Hitler Seriously.

I will now focus on the content of chapter 4.

The depiction of Adolf Hitler’s system of thought in what follows is mostly predicated upon an interesting publication: Hitler’s Table Talks. The documents were first published in German in 1951 by Henry Picker. The English edition by H. R. Trevor-Roper ensued in 1953. The Table Talks are the transcription of several private conversations and monologues delivered by Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s remarks were recorded between 1941 and 1944 by three different men, which is why there is—its authenticity notwithstanding—until today ongoing debate about matters of edition and translation.

According to Trevor-Roper, Hitler “was a systematic thinker” (99). There was, adds Hinlicky, “method to Hitler’s madness” and it is possible to identify a coherent national socialistic worldview of Hitler. The evolution of these claims leads in an interesting direction. Subsequent to Alan Bullock’s work Hitler and Stalin, Hinlicky speaks of a “positive sense of calling” (100) of Hitler. He had a “higher cause,” which is what “first created Hitler” and in turn lead to an enormous willingness by his contemporaries to follow him (101). Anti-Semitism on this reading is the shadow side of Hitler’s positive sense of calling. For Hitler this sense of calling was highly religiously charged, going back to a visionary experience in Linz, Austria, in 1905 after listening to a Wagnerian opera. Hitler later spoke of this moment, saying, “In this hour it began” (101).

But what exactly was this positive sense of calling comprised of?

Hinlicky goes about answering this question by “sorting out this complex and baffling stew of modernity and its crises” (102). Hinlicky then cites Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich and answers the question of the “metaphysical motives of the Nazi project” with the words of Burleigh: “The ‘glory of the fight and the triumph’ of becoming a Volk by the act of national will constitute the ‘metaphysical motive’ of Nazism” (103).

On the matter of the importance of being aware of these metaphysical motives, Hinlicky presents an equally creative and telling exercise he repeatedly undertakes with his students. The goal is to “wedge open the dogmatisms closing our liberal minds” (103)—to which I can only say: it worked with me. In the exercise Hinlick gives the students a slightly edited text from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which they are to analyze. They are not told who the author is and are then asked to decide whether it was written by a supporter or opponent of the Holocaust. Passages from Mein Kampf Hinlicky presents to his students for this exercise read: “Man has never yet conquered Nature in anything . . . but this planet once moved through the ether for millions of years without human beings and it can do so again someday if men forget that they owe their higher existence, not to the ideas of a few crazy ideologists, but to the knowledge and ruthless application of Nature’s stern and rigid laws” (104, italics mine). In shocking surprise most students think “that the author is a champion of an enlightened scientific worldview and so could not possibly have favored racial or religious intolerance” (104f.). What becomes apparent is the failure to recognize that this “view of reality in which violent struggle is scripted into the deepest nature of things and that this metaphysical violence could readily express itself in racial war as a sacred duty” (105).

Hitler held the belief of the existence of a rigid law of Nature, which man has the ability to discern and apply. To him there is a “real priority of nature and its laws over humanity with its mind and its ideals and sentiments” (105). The “Nazi biopolitical program of eugenics and euthanasia” can then be seen as “political stewardship of the material basis of life” (105). “Ethics for Hitler becomes will, will guided by its intuition of Darwinian reality in Nature’s law” (106). “He replaces Kant’s universal basis for duty in ideal humanity as the bearer of reason with the will to life, the preservation of one’s species, that is, one’s particular tribe in the competition for Lebensraum” (110).

Hinlicky lays special stress on what he calls the “‘modernism’ of the Holocaust” (108). Hitler fully embraced Darwin’s idea and “regarded the Darwinian criticism of the West’s antecedent religious traditions as decisive for their refutation and searched for a new, naturalistic theology guided by the root principle of natural selection, the immanent struggle of life against life” (109). He summarizes Hitler’s theology in the following way: “Hitler’s new theology then would be firmly rational, based on science, with an articulate theological doctrine . . . So Hitler’s theology, divine calling and all, intends to be revolutionary-modern, post-Christian, icily scientific in doctrine” (109).

To have Hitler’s theology summarized in this specific way and for it to be presented as decisive because of the axiomatic role naturalistic, Darwinian concepts played in this “theology” is of great value for better understanding how Hitler’s ideas could find acceptance in so many influential circles of society during his time; and to see the connection between this view of reality and the horrific actions undertaken by Hitler and his followers is eye opening.

What Hinlicky found among his students however was the tendency to underestimate or to even downplay the power and consequences of such beliefs. He writes, “They cannot see the veiled threat in our text in which Indifferent, if not Cruel Nature with its stern laws is the operative deity and war for the survival of one’s genetic population is the moral imperative of life itself” (107f). He pinpoints the underlying reason for such blindness by explaining: “For them too, the mere sincerity of being true to your inner self guarantees that you can’t go wrong when you act in good faith” (108). He calls this phenomenon “lazy complacency of uncritical tolerance” (108). I find this dynamic of complacent underestimation of the power—constructive or destructive—of grounding beliefs a widespread phenomenon in my generation as well. Hinlicky’s exercise exposes this dangerous phenomenon and therefore calls for a thorough reexamination of one’s own position in regards to the estimation of the possible consequences of certain views of reality. This is one point in the book where I deem Hinlicky’s nuanced deliberations to be a highly appropriate and relevant warning to contemporary culture.

  • Paul Hinlicky

    Paul Hinlicky


    Response to Nikolai Kohler

    In the Third Reich, the logic of Christendom was visited back upon itself: as Christianity had superseded Judaism, so National Socialism now supersedes Christianity. In this way, National Socialism became a parody of Christianity, as beforehand Christendom had become the parody of the Spirit’s gospel mission to the nations. The claim entails that contemporary Euro-American Christians recognize themselves in Nazism, albeit in the form of a caricature; that summons to self-knowledge is, of course, galling. Admittedly, it takes something more than mere theological scholarship to make this cup of bitter gall salutary (cf. 2 Cor 7:8–10). Such perhaps is the main lesson to be drawn from my book Before Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Must Learn from the Rise of Nazism.

    So devastating is this encounter with ourselves conducted through the pages of Before Auschwitz that one reader raised the question to me whether the book undermines any effort by Christians to make the world a better place. If many were seduced by Hitlerism, the confused majority paralyzed and even the few opponents finally ineffective, what moral of the story is there other than Christian helplessness? To this not unmistaken objection, however, the alternative the book develops, with help from John Flett, is for Christians is cease hankering after the fleshpots of Egypt and to become again the Spirit’s gospel mission to the nations.

    There is a cost to this transformation. Such re-messianization of the ecclesia is only possible when living Judaism’s unbelief in the crucified Messiah proclaimed in the gospel addressed to the nations becomes a principle internal to Christian theology itself. The biblical basis for this alternative is Romans 9–11, then, as opposed to the tragic Wirkungsgeschichte of Matthew 23 and John 8, texts which turn principled Jewish disbelief in the oxymoron, “Christ crucified,” into a diabolical blindness indicating the irredeemable, something to be quarantined, then, if not eliminated where Christians rule, that is, in Christendom. This is the book’s chief theological thesis.

    Before Auschwitz is fundamentally misunderstood, accordingly, if its inquiry as a book, a radical Christian theology—as such an act of messianic hope in full horror of the Holocaust—is faulted in principle for critically gathering a problem from the work of historians rather than itself doing the work of historians. Historians have accomplished the critical work of debunking some self-serving myths about Christian opposition to Nazism; that historical work constitutes the book’s starting-point. Indeed, the book piles on to the historical-critical disillusionment with a chapter on the peril of conservative apologetics.

    But the theological problems that historians have raised are not such that they can solve. In some cases, indeed, a malice is manifest in writers who do not wish to solve theological problems but rather to problematize Christian theology to the core of its being (e.g., Steigmann-Gall). Historians in any case nowadays are not used to being scrutinized and criticized by theologians. Before Auschwitz executes such scrutiny and critique. That mere act of “theological existence today” (Barth) may offend the uncomprehending reader who makes this category mistake. Hence these prefatory words of warning. All are welcome to enter the fray, if only they will argue as theologians and not hide behind a pretense of disinterested historical objectivity.

    I am very grateful that the respondents to Before Auschwitz in this symposium know how to respond to a theological book theologically. I am also grateful to the editor for gathering a Euro-American cross-section of respondents as befits the strategy adopted in my book. I will begin with remarks on the contribution of our German respondent, Nikolai Kohler.

    Kohler is right to describe Before Auschwitz as a very “personal” book, “passionate, concentrated and serious” because in theology, subjectivity matters. Under the heading of methodology, Kohler like several other respondents discusses this important manner of proceeding hermeneutically in theology, where the cognition involved is knowledge of other persons by a person. In the case of social knowledge, that is a matter of analyzing their worldviews and “metaphysical motives” (Burleigh). In the case of the past, that is a demanding act of interpretation that must avoid the presentism of the retrospective fallacy.

    I should only comment further on Kohler’s excellent summary of the book’s method to head off a possible misunderstanding. One should not go so far as Kierkegaard and say “truth is subjectivity.” That is the fideistic doctrine that led Hirsch and Gogarten down the primrose path into an objectively blind decision for Hitler and, in the end, befuddled the pioneering historian Robert Ericksen; at the conclusion of his seminal Theologians under Hitler, Ericksen too left us with nothing but a leap of faith. But the act of interpretation is always the act of a personal subject knowing a particular object for the sake of a certain audience. Observing this triadic structure of knowledge (subject, object, audience) in theology is imperative. Faith ventures, but not blindly.

    But can theology take worldviews seriously and describe objects of faith objectively? Can God and/or the gods be an object of knowledge? Certainly not apart from the subjectivity—in the Christian’s case, formed by baptism into Christ—of the inquirer. Yet just so a theological subject can achieve from this acknowledged and warranted perspective a measure of illuminating objectivity in description and analysis of things or ways in the world in relation to its particular audience. For such theological purposes, “God” designates the way in which freedom and destiny, action and passion, agency and patiency are conjoined in any worldview. Over against the “lazy complacency of uncritical tolerance,” drummed into us under the hegemony of political liberalism, this conjunction can be known and assessed. And this is a matter of some urgency today as political liberalism unravels before our eyes. The human stakes are very high in the ways we join freedom and destiny.

    So Kohler focuses on the case study in chapter 4 of Before Auschwitz, “The Not So Strange Theology of Adolf Hitler.” He recapitulates from the book Hitler’s “calling” after absorbing a performance of Wagner’s opera, Rienzi; the “metaphysical motive” in Nazism as a process of conversion, Volkswerdung, the fusion of the masses into an organic racial whole; the operative deity of Nature’s stern laws and the mandate for their ruthless application; and the modernist self-understanding of Hitler the theologian who in victorious retirement wanted to return to his origins in the Thule Society to solve the religion problem once and for all.

    Kohler reports being persuaded (“it worked with me”) by the thought experiment I use with students to awaken them from the lazy platitudes of liberalism. If “God” is objectively the conjunction of freedom and destiny, then Hitler’s deity is knowable as Nature’s law commanding knowing obedience of those who would be victorious in the contest of life forms that is their destiny. Theologically, the Holocaust is then to be known as the biopolitical decision to take human evolution into our own hands by way of political sovereignty, for the sake of our tribe in conflict with other genetic populations over limited living space on planet Earth. Jews now appear as a cancer growing on the body politic of the Aryans, as parasites feeding on its unwitting host. The strangeness of this theology, thus known, does not lie in its irrationality but rather in its rationality, given its knowledge of God. One must engage in critical dogmatics, then, to dispute this Hitlerite knowledge of God.

    Kohler recounts this quite accurately and is brave to express his own theological subjectivity in calling it “eye-opening.” Once again, just to fend off a possible misunderstanding: one must not minimize but rather underscore the role that the definite formation of Christianity as Christendom, i.e., corpus christianum in place of corpus Christi, played in setting the stage for Nazi biopolitics. Just so, Nazism thought of itself as fulfilling and superseding Christianity, updating its misplaced, merely religious anti-Judaism with racially scientific anti-Semitism. With that clarification in mind, I am grateful for this German appreciation of my work. But I would like in conclusion to press in turn another lesson from Before Auschwitz upon European Protestant readers generally: the problem of the Volkskirche.

    The Volkskirche ecclesiology—over against the model of the confessing church—expressed perfectly the anti-doctrinal, anti-intellectual, anti-Catholic and anti-confessional populist ecclesiology of the German Christian party, a lesson that is spelled out in depressing detail in Doris Bergen’s excellent work, Twisted Cross. And even more depressing, it was the retention of the Volkskirche model after the war that accounts not only for failure then at truth in would-be reconciliation but also for the shameful rehabilitation of erstwhile Nazi Christians who continued with business as usual in the church of the people, vox populi, vox Dei. I realize that the Volkskirche remains a cash-cow that vested ecclesiastical interests are reluctant to surrender. But, if only for the sake of clarity, let me emphasize that the penitent alternative in Christian theology to the not-so-strange theology of Hitler, Volkskirche included, is to become again the Spirit’s mission in the gospel to the nations. That way of ecclesial existence is not a chaplaincy to the German nation or any other nation; nor is it subject to political sovereignty (even the alleged sovereignty “of the people”) apart from the institution of God. It is certainly not the pretentious silliness of claiming the prophetic mantel as conscience of the nation before empty pews, all the while drawing a comparatively handsome salary collected by the state. (The parallel critique of North American denominationalism as Bonhoeffer’s “Protestantism without Reformation” will be mentioned in the next response).

Lubomir Batka


Transcending Bounds, Uniting Focus

The subtitle of Hinlicky’s book expresses the emphasis of his inquiry on the era before Auschwitz (predominantly the first half of the twentieth century). It formulates the key question of this study: What must Christian theology learn from the rise of Nazism?

What does Hinlicky actually ask here? He is not primarily asking a question about ability: if Christian theology can learn from the rise of Nazism. That is the kind of question that belongs to the introduction (see 1ff.). He is likewise not asking a question about possibility: what Christian theology could learn. Rather, he is making a clear statement about necessity: what Christian theology must learn. But before we speak about the content (what must be learned), a question should be answered: why should Christian theology learn from history? What would happen if Christian theology refused to learn?

Hinlicky’s aim goes beyond Ciceros’s famous sentence: Historia magistra vitae est, aiming at learning from history in order to attain useful wisdom for present days. But, in accordance with the goal of Hinlicky, it can be said: If Christian theology did not learn from the rise of Nazism it would cease to exist. More profoundly, it would cease to exist as both a “Christian” theology and as Christian “theology.” Hinlicky is convinced that theological problems that led to the rise of Nazism were not sufficiently solved after the Second World War church life—due to the wish to end the recrimination, polemic and confusion in the church in Germany—and a portion of this continues “beneath the surface of [theological] scholarship” up to present day (142, 147–51). Above that, there is a more universal reason. The outward political situation in Europe changed fundamentally after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century (cf. 134ff.), and was definitely confirmed in the victory of liberal capitalism over National Socialism in 1945 and Bolshevik Socialism in 1989. This brought, in Hinlicky’s eyes, an indisputable and definitive end of the era of Christendom (extensively from 154 ff.). But this is no reason for mourning. Indeed, Hinlicky does not mourn at all!

On the contrary, Hinlicky (similarly to Bonhoeffer earlier on) sees it as a necessary precondition for the rise of the Christian theology after Christendom. Such a kind of theology is not tempted to make deals with “lords of this world” or with “thoughts of this world.” It can exist as Christian “dogmatics” in the form of “public confession of the teaching of the gospel” and is able to talk again and anew about gospel deals with, “human sinfulness,” incarnation, Christology, or Trinitarian dogma.

An era “after Christendom” brings simultaneously a possibility to regain “renewed” and “purified” (191) Christian theology. Hinlicky—himself a “chastened liberal” along Niebuhrian lines (69)—does not hide his critical distance from liberal protestant theology. In his eyes, Liberal Protestantism, in championing anti-doctrinal Christianity, became less theology, and more ethics, or politics. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, this kind of theology paradoxically remained without the strength to prevent and to resist events leading to the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Behind Hinlicky’s position does not stand some kind of supposing “what they should have done,” and even less some kind of judging “how could they have done?!” Similarly to R. Steigmann-Gall and U. Siemon-Netto, Hinlicky wants to speak openly about the lack of political protest from among theologians in Germany, even about “moral seduction, confusion and discernment” (10). But, even if Hinlicky dedicates the first two chapters of his book to the debate about attitudes and positions of German theologians in the Nazi Reich, he is concerned primarily with our current attitudes in the present era. Understandably, as a professor of theology at a Lutheran college, he is concerned with attitudes of young people and future generations as well.

Now, the question can be asked: What must be learned from the rise of Nazism? From this point of departure, the fifth chapter appears to be the climax of the whole book, presenting Hinlicky’s answer. Nevertheless, it is tied to theological analysis of the “Not so Strange Theology of Adolf Hitler” in chapter 4. From my point of view, there are three key things that stand out from Hinlicky’s thoughts.

First of all, Christian theology must learn to stand on its own feet; or, to say it biblically, Christian theology must learn anew that “it can serve only one Lord.” This grants the freedom to look for a “way forward” (191), between mere apologetics intending to gain privileges, on one side, and radical historical method intending disillusionment on the other (11). What Hinlicky wants to avoid is some sort of “conservative apologetics” (50f.), or a new “systematic apologetics,” because, “systematically pursued, systematic apologetics systematically misleads” (48, see also 97n27). After the example of Melanchthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession, he prefers “ad hoc apologetics” (48–50). Unlike the aforementioned kinds of thinking, “ad hoc apologetics” does not have the ambition of comprehensiveness and does not seek only the vindication of theology. That means a theologian following Hinlicky’s footsteps is not dealing with a defense of Luther, or of Lutheranism, but a way forward to a “reconstruction of Christianity after Christendom” (67).

Christian theology standing on its own feet gains a form of “critical” dogmatics. It should be able to recognize the “spirit of the age” and it should be able to dispute it critically. Hinlicky gave in his book a prominent place to the example of Slovak Lutheran theologian Samuel Šble t Osuskk, who might be unknown to wider audiences but played a crucial role in his own context, and dedicated in memoriam this book to him (cf. 11, 94–98, 193ff.). This is important, because in such a way Christian theology becomes able to teach others. By being critical, one learns that “lazy complacency of uncritical tolerance” (108) to any worldview is dangerous. Critical dogmatics teaches people not to be uncritical in accepting any and all possible beliefs just because other people are sincere about them. The rise of Nazism teaches that “ideas have consequences” and therefore “rational human beings are obliged to think through ideas critically” (112). The reason for that is not only the historical event of the rise of Hitler, but sincere and honest theological conviction about a human world where “Hitlers still can and do arise, devils disguised as angels of light” (183). Throughout his book Hinlicky makes clear that he, as many Lutherans before him, doesn’t share the optimism that human reason and modern science alone can achieve peace and justice in the world.

Hinlicky’s vision in doing theology as “public confession of the truth of the gospel” (149), is the quest for “freedom of Christian theology” practically lived as a form of “theological existence” (180–83). “Critical dogmatics” concerned with the “right teaching of the Gospel” is a way forward “because it starts to do its homework” at the only spot that can really cause a change: “at home.” Such an approach does not shy away from combating all “religious experiences and metaphysical motives that arise within the putative domain of the church other than by death to sin in the cross of Christ and resurrection to his faith, hope, and love” (11).

Theologically speaking, Hinlicky is aiming at a middle road between the Christology of Barth and the Christology Bultmann found in the concepts of Bonhoeffer. Barth’s is a Christology of transcendent deity of the eternal Son exceeding the human being Jesus Christ, the second of “neo-docetism” robbing Jesus of his Jewishness, while Bonhoeffer’s Christology takes seriously the Jewishness of Jesus in one, undivided person of the Incarnate humanity as promised and present in the Word and sacrament (182; see also 63). This is to be mentioned as a good example of the junction of anthropology and Christology in the realm of Christian theology that really matters. This leads to second important point: Christians must learn to coexist with Jews as fellow believers.

“Critical dogmatics” concerned with correct teaching of the gospel leads to a peaceful coexistence of Jews and Christians. Hinlicky follows the way of “combating” Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, as already pioneered by Susannah Heschel (39ff.), because the ambiguity of Jesus’s appearance in history can not be overcome with the research of historical Jesus, or with the neglection of history as irrelevant to faith, or the neglection of gospels grounding the faith on historical evidence (p. 179). The ambiguity of Jesus’ Jewish appearance to his Jewish contemporaries and the claim of the gospel that he is the Messiah and Son of God leave space for faith as freedom of Christian theology in obedience to the external word of the gospel (175) and fosters an open and honest dialogue with Judaism (165f.; cf. 159). This idea is, according to my knowledge of Hinlicky, really a new move and an important contribution in the development of his thinking.

According to Hinlicky, a third important thing that Christian theology must learn is a different form of social existence in the world.

Hinlicky envisions a “Beloved Community,” a notion already expressed in his book of the same title (7–18), inspired by Bonhoeffer’s statement “Christ existing as community” (183). The terminology is important, because is wants to pass between two poles: an unquestionable modern subjectivity and an unquestionable modern collectivity. Christian theology is not just for individuals, nor for collectives, but is confessing faith in the gospel in communal forms of proclamation, liturgy, and “in free sharing of selves . . . in love and justice” (188).

The question here is, if Hinlicky does not throw the baby out with the bathwater when he denounces “Christendom” as unable to modify an ethnic group, or state apparatus or even a cultural tradition (158) and envisions instead a new social group of “Beloved Community” that can be modified by the gospel’s word and sacraments (158). This community is characterized by public confession of the truth of the gospel and resists the temptation of “political ambition for gain and glory” (186; even more strongly in 158n26). In the discernment of how this community can exist in this world, Hinlicky utilizes the Lutheran understanding of vocation (vocatio): as fulfilling “the baptismal calling to self-giving love of neighbor” not only in personal, but also “in the governing and policing offices of the state,” risking “themselves bodily in the same love for neighbors” (186).

Hinlicky’s aim is understandable. “Nazism was not stopped Christianly or theologically” (67); Christian theology can, should and must learn from this. The victorious “liberal capitalism” fosters a secular society with a “multitude of competing aspirations and visions” (157): therefore Christian theology cannot, should not and must not try to develop systematic apology to regain positions it had in the “era of Christendom.” The notion of “vocation” seems very valuable in this situation and it can really work in a secular society as a model of personal dedication and Christian witness. The idea of “vocation” helps to avoid the perception of employment as “only a job for personal benefit.” It dignifies “profession” as “calling” (German word Beruf; Slovak word povolanie).

However, it seems to be unclear if all of this sustains a sufficient basis for achieving justice and preventing great and radical evils. There could be a situation when the secular “post-Christendom post-modern” society moves to positions similar to the “post-Christendom modern positions” of the twentieth century. Is a Christian community in society founded on “vocation” (stemming from right proclamation and teaching of the gospel) rid of contradictions? Should it not be said more clearly that members of the Beloved Community, or “Beloved Communities” as a whole, will have to “risk themselves bodily” not only for “love of neighbors,” or even for “love of enemies,” but primarily for the witness (martyria) of the gospel? To put it in other words: Hinlicky argues that Christendom could not and did not prevent the rise of Nazism. But can the model of Beloved Community really prevent radical evils in a world that does not want to be a Christian world? Is there really not a possibility for Christians to advocate a participation in political life in order to strengthen possibilities for the “service in love to neighbors” and for weakening (I am deliberately not saying avoiding) tendencies leading to inevitable martyrdom? I am touching partly on the difference in approaches to the relationship of state and church among Lutheran and Roman Catholic theology (or even Orthodox theology). But it touches the aim of Hinlicky’s book as well. Should the subtitle of his book have been, What Lutheran Theology Must Learn from the Rise of Nazism? It is obvious that (and even why) Hinlicky did not engage Roman Catholic theology (in Germany) and its role in supporting and combating the Nazi regime. I suppose that in such a case the analysis of the rise of Nazism would appear more complex. The answer about what Roman Catholic theology should learn might appear different. I see this as an open opportunity for the next step of somebody who, perhaps, will be inspired by this book. It would make sense, when the answers proposed in this book aim at a lesson for “Christian” theology. Or, it would make sense to stress more the meaning that appears as an inscription at the back of the book: “What can Christian theology in North America learn from the rise of Nazism. . . .” This was perhaps Hinlicky’s original attempt, and it appears to be a more humble kind of a statement. But there are good reasons for arguing that what Hinlicky proposes is more than a suggestion for Lutherans, or North American Christians, or Euro-American Christians, but for Christian theology indeed and a more profound argument for that appears in the next book to come.

Finally, let some personal remarks be expressed: I have been close to professor Paul R. Hinlicky for two decades now. I think he mastered this topic due to his sharp analytical thinking and a creative criticism. Thanks to his European roots, and several years spend in “post-socialist” Czechoslovakia, he was able to get his information from primary sources. His interest is not primarily a historical one. He is interested in ideas (and ideologies) that formed various historical events.

I am thankful that he widens the scholarly horizon in mentioning the Slovak contribution to the debate about what Christian theology must learn from the rise of Nazism.

  • Paul Hinlicky

    Paul Hinlicky


    Response to Ĺubomír Batka

    My former student, Ĺubomír Batka, has shown himself every bit his old teacher’s equal in putting some probing questions to Before Auschwitz. The questions have traction in light of Batka’s appreciation of the book. Batka rightly sees that the threat that comes from failing to learn theologically from the rise of Nazism on the soil of a modern, enlightened nation with a progressively Christian self-understanding is the well-merited threat of extinction, both of theology as a discipline and of Christian theology as a disciplined knowledge of the God of the gospel. He is right, moreover, to see that Before Auschwitz regards this threat of double loss as a present danger, i.e., not only in the past of Germany in the 1930s, or in today’s Germany, but also in the present of Hinlicky’s North America.

    Bonhoeffer could acutely diagnose American Christianity as “Protestantism without Reformation” in that here a secular faith in progress has operationally displaced the God of the gospel, turning the church into a smorgasbord of popular religiosity packaged in “denominations.” In place of the God who justifies the ungodly in the Spirit’s preaching to the nations, we have to do with, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s still apt characterization, the American “God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” As that form of liberal Protestant accommodation to secular liberalism’s faith in history dies the slow (but now accelerating) death of its own weightlessness, and as the fundamentalist reaction against it no longer has any point, a remnant theology learns once again to stand on its own two feet, which are the gospel and the Scriptures as understood in the church which lives in the Spirit’s mission to the nations.

    Batka is quite discerning in this regard. He detects that by my combination of terms, “critical dogmatics,” I am seeking a way between and beyond Bultmann and Barth, and, further, that I find that way indicated in the christological focus of Bonhoeffer. These are the significant theologians under Hitler who resisted his siren call because they each knew the Reformation principle of the Verbum externum and deployed it against the German Christian enthusiasm. In this united front, Bonhoeffer’s Christological focus located the externality of the Word of God, not in the transcendent deity of the Logos as such, but in the concrete humanity of the Incarnate Logos, the Jew Jesus crucified as a messianic pretender. So the Jewishness of Jesus, and indeed the Jewishness of the title Christ, emerge as the central matter of proclamation and teaching going forward after Auschwitz.

    In the light of the foregoing appreciation, Batka raises a series of critical questions. Fundamentally, he asks, can the vague notion of the Beloved Community really replace the state as an order of creation in the Christian commonwealth? If the state is set free to be worldly, as Bonhoeffer recommends, what is to keep political sovereignty from the self-absolutization seen in Nazism and in Communism, but also, for those with eyes to see today, in political liberalism, where secularism no longer designates the penultimate but is rather made into an ultimate value proscribing transcendence? Is the idea that Christians can make vocations out of their political stations in life adequate to the challenge of increasingly fanatical secularism? If that seems unlikely, can we avoid the suspicion that the too vague notion of Beloved Community reflects a North American parochialism, and thus, really, amounts to a blind spot? Why else does the book ignore Roman Catholic contributions to the rise of Nazism? Does Before Auschwitz falsely claim, then, to speak globally of what Christian theology must learn from the rise of Nazism? Isn’t the book really only about what North American liberal Protestant Christians must learn?

    These are probing questions for which I am grateful. I will respond seriatim.

    First, Beloved Community is the paraphrase of a Christian theological truth nearly forgotten in the Western tradition of theology with its modalist tendency going back to Augustine, as the late Colin Gunton argued. That theological truth is that the God of the gospel is God by way of a dynamic communion of love between persons. As such, for human beings made in God’s image to attain likeness to God is for them to receive and actualize personhood in community, marking a way between Anglo-American individualism and Continental collectivism. And this way is life together in the Spirit’s mission to the nations by the gospel—a politics according to which the communion of the church is the indispensable disruption to business as usual in the now merely secular city.

    Having said that, Beloved Community remains greater than the visible Body of Christ, and is not reducible to it, although the visible Body of Christ is its instantiation here and now and its ordinary agent in the world. It is in this connection that I affirmed in the book that the only social formation that the adjective Christian can modify is the ecclesia called by Spirit through the gospel and sent by the Same to extend its cause. As per Galatians 3:26–28, when class, family, or ethnicity are called Christian an impossible predication is made. Consequently, as history teaches, in such predications the tail ends up wagging the dog. Yet Beloved Community, like Tillich’s Spiritual Community, embraces other than Christians wherever the Spirit of Christ may freely roam and be recognized in his action of sanctifying life. Thus Judaism, for pertinent example, can be recognized as spiritual and kindred in community, i.e., wherever the yoke of the Torah is freely and joyfully assumed as light to the nations.

    Second, liberating the world for true worldliness is anything but abandoning the world to the devil. This liberation has to do with the right kind of public and prophetic proclamation. The false worldliness of contemporary secularism claims freedom from God in order to be responsible for this world, thus making itself God in place of God. The corresponding political theology abuses the pulpit to make partisan interventions amid the quotidian options of “democratic” politics and propaganda. True worldliness, by contrast, has been freed by the God of the gospel to take responsibility for the world before God, in this way becoming a true creature of God. The kind of Christian ethical preaching that effects such true worldliness penetrates the fog and friction of political posturing as usual. It raises questions of conscientious faith that ponders the risks that love must take in venturing ways forward toward the Beloved Community in a world that has become politically hopeless—the dirty little secret of today’s political liberalism in which “change we can believe in” has fast become “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” i.e., nothing but repetition.

    Third, the renewal of the doctrine of vocation, grounded in baptismal conformation to the crucified and risen Christ, is the indispensable alternative to the abject accommodations described above. The Reformation’s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” has been corrupted into the privatized notion that everyone can make up her own religion, when it was meant to indicate that each baptized believer is made a “little Christ” to the neighbor in need, in just this way actively transforming their station in life into a vocation along the lines of Romans 12:1–2. In today’s Euro-American Christianity, the populist notion that everyone is a minister obliterates the precise and necessary differentiation between the ordained service to the Word and sacrament, so that the gospel gets heard in all its creative and formative power when we come together as church, and the diaconal service from the Word and sacraments to the world, so that hopeful works of love in Jesus’ name are done and modelled before others, light on a hill, lamp on a stand. Practically speaking, no other reform of the church’s life today is as important at this one.

    Fourth, it is true that I avoided a discussion of the roles played by Roman Catholicism in Before Auschwitz. And Batka is right to imagine that I am hoping that Roman Catholic readers would be inspired to go and do likewise for their own tradition as I have down in this book for my own. So let me say this much. The fact of fascism in Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and (the Orthodox) Romania, not to mention Nazism’s origins in Munich, indicates a definite relation to what was then called “political Catholicism.” It is also true that in Germany the Catholic Church excommunicated Nazis through the twenties up until the ill-advised and ill-fated Concordat. It is also true that Bishop von Galen publically opposed Nazi racism in the 1930s when it was dangerous to do so. It is also true that the German language encyclical Mit brennender Sorge was smuggled into Germany in 1937 to be read aloud from every pulpit condemning Nazi racism and idolatry. And it is true in the tragic case of Slovakia that it was the intervention of the papal nuncio that persuaded Hitler’s puppet, the priest-become-president, Jozef Tiso, to cease the deportation of Jews to Poland in the summer of 1942. The vulnerability of anti-modern Catholicism to the fascist temptation went together hand in glove with the strength of transnational Catholicism to reject racism’s captivation of the gospel.

    I would certainly like to think that a “more profound argument” in response to Batka’s concerns appears, as he speculates, in “the next book to come” (i.e., my systematic theology, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom). Or course, I must leave that for the reader to judge. I am grateful for his probing questions and the opportunity in this doubtless too brief and unsatisfying way to indicate the lines along which I would answer them.

Knut Alfsvaag


The Rationality of Supporting—and Opposing—Nazism

Paul Hinlicky is an author who in a number of books has studied how classical Christian theology should relate to contemporary challenges. In this book, he asks whether it is possible to learn from history in a way that might better equip us for the task, and what that lesson then would be. He thus presupposes that the Christian church has a specific message to proclaim, that this can be done in ways that are either consistent or counterproductive, and that we by studying the ways this was done under particular historical circumstances actually can learn something useful for our own attempts at presenting the Christian message in our age.

The test case Hinlicky has chosen for this book is the growth of Nazism and the reactions from its supporters and critics. For this to work as intended, it is essential that one avoids what Hinlicky calls “the retrospective fallacy.” In studying the history of Nazism, all of us tend to be influenced by the fact that we know the outcome. This easily skews our evaluations in a way that makes it difficult to take the supporters of Nazism seriously, and thus distracts from our ability to learn from the story as it actually unfolded. Hinlicky’s avowed goal is, however, to study the debate on Nazism on its own terms, thus trying to learn how the different participants in it acted as they did, and to learn from that. By approaching the story from this particular angle, and consistently criticising those who don’t, he succeeds in showing that the supporters of Nazism where not stupid. They had reasons for doing what they did, and the reasons they had might after all not be all that different from the reasons we use for supporting our theological projects. Hinlicky in this way succeeds in making the struggle with Nazism into a test case with relevance.

As his point of departure, Hinlicky presents the arguments of what he calls Hitler’s theologians, under which heading he subsumes both those who tended to evaluate Hitler rather positively (the Lutheran dogmaticians Paul Althaus and Werner Elert, the NT scholar Gerhard Kittel and the Kierkegaard scholar Immanuel Hirsch), and those who actively supported him (Deutsche Christen). These groups, though obviously different, share important characteristics; neither of them are completely uncritical, and both defend Hitler to the extent they find that he corresponds to a necessary need for progress and modernization. This is most clearly visible among the Deutsche Christen, who in Hinlicky’s view defended Hitler from a theological position that has much in common with nineteenth-century liberal theology.

One of the important contributions of Hinlicky’s book is thus that he debunks the myth of a particular relationship between respect for Hitler and theological conservatism, whatever that might be. On the contrary, the most outspoken theological Hitler supporters had leanings in the direction of an undogmatic, liberal interpretation of the Christian faith. There were, however, theologically liberal Hitler critics as well. The conclusion is therefore that a traditional conservative/liberal, right/left dichotomy is not at all helpful in capturing the dynamics of the relationship between the Nazis and their supporters and opponents either politically or theologically. Nazism understands itself as a modern, rational movement and its defenders looked at it in the same way. To support Nazism was to support science and progress.

At the same time, Nazism was supported for more circumstantial reasons, e.g., by the view that if Hitler was bad, Stalin was even worse; this was an important argument for, e.g., Paul Althaus. From the point of view of the 1930s, this is an argument that actually makes some sense, which shows the significance of being aware of the retrospective fallacy. Not all supporters of Hitler from the early 1930s should be charged with the burden of the Holocaust.

The first thing to be gleaned from Hinlicky’s test case is thus that we should be careful with our theological labels; they might easily cover more than they reveal. One could say that as a lesson, this is not entirely new; still, I think Hinlicky is right in maintaining that a study of the struggle with Nazism may deepen our appreciation of the significance of this principle.

That Althaus and Elert, both Lutherans of a fairly confessional orientation and competent Luther scholars, went as far as they did in supporting Hitler has been an embarrassment for later Lutherans. Hinlicky, himself a Lutheran, tries to dissociate his project from the kind of Lutheran apologetics this might lead to. He still maintains, though, that Althaus and Elert did not support Hitler because they were Lutherans, and he does this by referring to the argument of the most prominent Lutherans among the opponents of Nazism: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, Hermann Sasse and Walter Künneth. Among these, it is, however, only Bonhoeffer who took the step to actively opposing Hitler. As Hinlicky presents them, there is a strong, anti-modern emphasis common for both Bonhoeffer and the confessional Lutherans Sasse and Künneth that informs their rejection of Nazism. Bonhoeffer and Sasse at one point actually cooperating quite closely. What is arguably even more interesting, though, is that Bultmann, for all his talk about theology realigning itself with a modern, scientific worldview, was equally staunch in his anti-Nazi attitude, at that point choosing a path very different than that of Hirsch and Heidegger, to whom he in other respects was quite close. This obviously is a topic that does not lend itself to the construction of easily applicable patterns.

The second point to be learned is therefore that what actually is important in struggling with contemporary challenges is the ability to grasp and analyse the underlying principles informing the outlook of a particular worldview, and that the ability to do so might be spread over the plurality of differing theological positions to a greater degree than what one should expect. From one point of view, it is not surprising that staunchly confessional Lutherans like Sasse and Künneth understood early on that Hitler represented a completely different worldview. Though Althaus and Elert, working basically form the same sets of confessional documents, did not, while Bonhoeffer and Bultmann, working from a rather different perspective, did. Bultmann is a particularly interesting case here, himself arguing that theology should take seriously that very kind of scientism that Nazism made its starting point. Still, he was sufficiently informed by his own appreciation of Pauline and Lutheran anthropology to understand that Nazism moved in a direction that was in direct opposition to his own Christian existentialism. Or is Bultmann’s opposition rather related to the fact that he as an existentialist was suspicious of all kinds of political ideologies?

Hinlicky puts the debate in perspective by relating it to contemporary evaluations of Nazism by persons who were not from Germany, a number of whom saw more clearly than the German observers where Nazism was headed. It was obviously possible to see even as it unfolded what kind of ideology Nazism actually was, and this was easier with the perspective that came with a certain distance. The majority of observers Hinlicky refers to are from North America, but he does refer to one European, the Slovak Samuel Štefan Osuský, who is the hero of Hinlicky’s book. He has so far been rather unknown, a situation Hinlicky tries to change by dedicating the book to his memory, by presenting an article he wrote in 1937, where Osuský gives a sharp critique of the anti-democratic elements of Bolshevism, Fascism and Nazism, and by including an English translation of the article in an appendix to the book. This acts as a sort of comment to the “Stalin is worse” argument already referred to; it was actually possible even before the war to understand the profound parallels between the two as representatives of different, but equally dangerous totalitarian ideologies.

What was, then, the ideology Nazism’s German and foreign critics were up against? Hinlicky tries to get a grip on that as well by relying on Mein Kampf and Hitler’s table talks as his primary sources. As Hinlicky presents it, it is a kind of naturalist materialism related both to Darwinism and Nietzsche’s Übermensch philosophy. Hitler had no formal university education, and that was one of the reasons German intellectuals could never bring themselves to taking him seriously. But he was not uninformed, and his thoughts have a kind of fascinating logic to them. His views on race and eugenics were not particularly controversial in the 1930s; in that respect, many among the progressives, and even some of the less progressive, agreed with him on both sides of the Atlantic. The escalation toward the Holocaust, however, which took place after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, still follows its own inner logic. When empathy becomes a problem, painless death may actually appear as a rather humane solution of the problem of the existence of the unworthy.

Hitler was, however, not only a naturalist. He considered himself as the prophet of a new era, the third kingdom, as the eschatological implications of the word Endlösung clearly indicate. Hitler’s philosophical hero Nietzsche was no anti-Semite. But Hitler radicalized Nietzsche’s critique of the Jewish slave morality to a critique of all who suppress nature’s principle that might is right. Religions usually do, however, and the Jews, by means of their seeing themselves, in spite of their powerlessness, as God’s chosen people, are the worst of the pack. In fighting the Jews, Hitler was therefore convinced that he represented progress and science, and he was aware of the religious and eschatological implications of the fight that in his view was necessary for carrying this principle to its victory.

A third point that can be learned from Hinlicky’s test case is therefore the eschatological, and thus theological, character of Nazism as a totalitarian political movement. Even the political is theological, and even more so the more one moves in a materialist direction. Again, the lesson is not entirely new; still, there is no doubt that Hitler and Nazism demonstrates it very convincingly.

Not all who followed Hitler were ideologically convinced Nazis, though; not a few followed him from a sense of obligation. Building on Hanna Arendt’s discussion of the process against Adolf Eichmann, Hinlicky argues that this attitude can be described as a selective use of Kant. It is selective, because it lacks Kant’s universalism, but it is still Kantian in its one-sided emphasis on obligation. Even a humanist like Kant might then be employed in the service of a totalitarian ideology just by emphasizing some aspects of his thought over against others.

What is it, then, that we in Hinlicky’s view learn from studying this particular story? He makes the three observations I have made so far into one lesson concerning the relation between church, theology and politics, and then makes an additional point, rather unrelated to my observations so far. Concerning the political, Hinlicky maintains that the fact that the Constantinian corpus christianum could not prevent Auschwitz point to the fact that its time is over. We therefore need to reorient ourselves according to a radicalized two kingdoms doctrine where the church actually lets Christ govern according to his word. In this respect, Hinlicky argues, we have much to learn from Bonhoeffer and his ability to analyse a contemporary ideology within a meaningful theological framework. The radicalized two kingdoms doctrine Hinlicky advocates should, however, not be interpreted as an appeal to the church to withdraw from the world, but as an appeal to the understanding of the distinction between the political and the evangelical as a distinction between two different kinds of divine power. The church can therefore never rescind its insistence on a theological foundation of the political, and its critique of political movements that get it wrong by misrepresenting the theological.

In addition, Hinlicky argues that the fact that Auschwitz happened within the context of a secularized Christian culture forces us to rethink the relation between Christianity and Judaism. The two are unavoidably linked together and at the same time opposed to each other by sharing a divine revelation that is interpreted differently. The church cannot without abandoning its core message desist from criticising the Jewish rejection of the New Testament. But it should not understand this critique as founded on the alleged legalism of Judaism; this is theologically and historically imprecise. The church should rather maintain an appreciation both of the Jews as God’s chosen people and of their resistance toward accepting Jesus as the Messiah as founded on the offence of the incarnation. Given the presuppositions of Jewish theology, this resistance is consistent, and should therefore be accepted as a necessary reminder to the church of the radicality of her own message. Jews and Christians must therefore agree to disagree in mutual respect. Hinlicky thus, without abandoning the message of the Christ as the Saviour of the world, argues that Judaism still has a positive and theologically legitimate function even as seen from a Christian perspective. The implication of this particular approach for the attitude toward the state of Israel is an issue Hinlicky raises without providing an answer. If the Jews through the establishment of a Jewish state fulfil their God-given obligation of being a blessing for the nations is a question Christian theologians might allow themselves to ask; they should, however, probably refrain from trying to answer it.

The study of the battle with Nazism thus has an important lesson to teach us concerning the significance of the distinction between the ultimate and the penultimate; political movements that abandon this distinction by moving in the direction of the eschatological are always wrong. Theologians should scrupulously maintain this distinction and consistently criticise those who don’t. If the theologians don’t do this, there are no other likely contenders for the task.

  • Paul Hinlicky

    Paul Hinlicky


    Response to Knut Alfsvåg

    Norway, like Slovakia, is a nation in which a Lutheran and churchly resistance to Nazism has gone underreported, evidence that is important for assessing what theology must learn from its rise. I thus regard the reflections of the acute theologian Knut Alfsvåg on my book as particularly valuable. He is too modest to call attention to the Norwegian church’s resistance, for the most part, to Nazism, but I will do so here. I do so in the same spirit in which I lifted up the person whom Alfsvåg calls the “hero” of my book, the Slovak Lutheran philosopher and bishop Samuel Štefan Osuský. As we speak, I am writing an intellectual biography of this extraordinary witness who stood between humanist philosophy and apocalyptic theology. For similar reasons, I venture, we need to know more about the Norwegian resistance during the Nazi occupation and especially its theological underpinnings.

    A “success” of the hermeneutical method of Before Auschwitz, Alfsvåg tells us, lies in exposing reasons for supporting Nazism in the time of its ascendancy that may also be our reasons today in our own theological projects. When in this way the questioner becomes the questioned, the hermeneutical method achieves its intended purpose. A further “success,” according to Alfsvåg, is that such self-critical questioning cuts across the usual binaries, “exploding the myth,” as he writes, of a particular propensity of “conservative” theology for Nazism. The point, to be sure, is not to vindicate the conservatives, but rather to undermine the left-right binary altogether, a self-serving trope in any case.

    One of the most important discoveries made by historical research after Ericksen’s path-breaking 1986 book amounts to a correction of Ericksen’s indulgence in this trope. The subsequent discoveries of the massive fact of liberal Protestant religious support for Nazism are recorded in fulsome and painful detail in the works of Bergen, Steigmann-Gall and Heschel. Moreover, the political support a mediating figure like Althaus lent to the “unknown devil” of the ascendant Nazis is contextualized today by our knowledge of Althaus’s knowledge of the “known devil” of Stalinism. This choice for the devil he didn’t know against the devil he did know, however, hardly excuses the theologian Althaus for his au courant incorporation of race/Volk into the traditional Lutheran doctrine of the orders of creation. Nor does it excuse his “mediating” method in theology (which “mediation” Ericksen in fact quite acutely critiqued, i.e., when Brownshirts are the party to be mediated!). But knowledge of the devil’s choice between Hitler and Stalin does serve on this far side of 1989 to undermine Ericksen’s confident antithesis of “left” and “right.”

    In accordance with the foregoing corrections to the historical record, Alfsvåg draws three lessons regarding what theology must learn from the rise of Nazism, under the assumption that theology has a message, a kerygma, for which it is responsible in the world. The first lesson is that we must be careful with labels that cover as much as they uncover, and in this regard he points in particular to the positive assessment of Rudolf Bultmann (thanks to Forstmann’s research) in Before Auschwitz, even though Bultmann is usually placed in the “liberal Protestant” camp. Bultmann’s case indeed demonstrates the crudity of the left-right binary. The critical questioning that Bultmann advocated, which I endorse, enables for pertinent example Sachkritik, material or content criticism where the theologian must judge the biblical text if and when it strays from the biblical kerygma, as I deployed in my response to Kohler in preferring Romans 9–11 over Matthew 23 or John 8.

    But beyond this in-house work of critical dogmatics, Bultmann asks how the Christian message is to be proclaimed in a world in which modern science informs the auditor’s as well as the preacher’s worldview. The pertinence of this question to the time of the rise of Nazism lies in Hitler’s not infrequent claim that National Socialism is not mysticism but icily scientific in its worldview—the ruthless application of Nature’s stern and rigid laws (and theologically revisionist in just this way). Bultmann’s famous but inadequate answer, that preachers must demythologize the gospel to communicate the essential matter of the decision of faith, lies in the same Kierkegaardian orbit of “truth as subjectivity” as we saw earlier in Hirsch, Gogarten (and ironically enough also in Ericksen) and rejected as fideistic.

    To escape this trap, theology must force on Bultmann a distinction which he does not sufficiently acknowledge, between myth as narrative and myth as objectifying discourse regarding the Unconditioned. The gospel cannot be denarrativized without also de-Judaizing Jesus resulting in a docetic Christology; the same gospel cannot properly speak of God in, with and through the story of the Jew Jesus without qualifying its myth/narrative with an apophatic reserve. Such discriminating criticism of theological liberals (as also of theological conservatives) is what we must all learn today, if we are to go forward together after Auschwitz and not simply perpetuate the inherited, debilitating binaries that prepared the ground for Auschwitz.

    Second, going forward as a form of critical reasoning, theology must penetrate appearances and dig down to the underlying principles at work in a worldview. To denounce Nazism on the basis of liberal platitudes like “tolerance” is damnably superficial, even as real theological support today for morally ambiguous democracy-in-retreat (as in the 1930s!) is hard to come by. The power of a Hitler to seduce—thus also our own vulnerability to seduction—lies in the plausibility of the biopolitical worldview of a naturalist dressed in the figure of a prophet of the new age aborning. Buying into this seduction, there is a logic, fascinating and horrifying, that leads to the decision to kill humanely in state of the art death factories, once the decision to kill life unworthy of living has been made (as Himmler decided after witnessing a brutal Aktion of a SS Einsatzgruppe behind the Russian front). There is even a sense of moral obligation, incorrupt and principled as in Eichmann, to stick with the decision to kill when one could opportunistically bargain with condemned lives for personal advantage.

    Third, Alfsvåg lifts up the “radicalized doctrine of the two kingdoms” that is being proposed in the book, which is precisely not the modern thinking in terms of two spheres of public and private (also Hitler’s version of the doctrine!), but a theological distinction between two kinds of divine power that may be traced to the apocalyptic theology of the New Testament. According to this latter, the “church can never rescind its insistence on a theological foundation of the political, and its critique of political movements that get it wrong by misrepresenting the political.” If “theologians don’t do this, there are no other likely contenders for the task.” Well said. Alfsvåg fittingly concludes his reflections by lifting up the historical catalyst of that theological distinction between kinds of divine power: Jewish disbelief in crucified Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, which is entirely rational on its own basis, since the world remains in the sorrow of unrighteousness. He rightly grasps the proposal made in Before Auschwitz that this particularly Jewish disbelief be received as a principle internal to Christian theology is, as he puts it, “a necessary reminder to the church of the radicality of her own message,” i.e., the Pauline folly of proclaiming the divine power to save in a crucified Messiah. If Christians cannot learn again that kind of divine power, it would be more decent and intellectually honest after Auschwitz to give up on Christian theology and penitently assume with living Judaism the yoke of the Torah. But, with Alfsvåg, I hope that Christians can rediscover the gospel and assemble anew in the Spirit’s mission to the nations.

Myles Werntz


The (N)ever-Penitent Church

Engaging Paul Hinlicky’s Before Auschwitz

Hinlicky’s book is the most difficult kind to assess, not because I think that it is wrong, but in that I think his argument is true. In assessing Hinlicky’s argument to be correct, the reader must ultimately come to terms with the fact that the Holocaust—for all of the resistance to the Shoah from the far corners of Christendom—the logic which created the Holocaust to begin with was deeply—and recognizably—Christian. In some sense, this is not a new argument, but one which has been broached by any number of authors. Where Hinlicky pushes us, however, is to consider that our very ability to judge the Holocaust as an atrocity depends upon our identity with the world which created it to begin with.

The difficulty with critiquing the Holocaust, Hinlicky argues, is that Christians before and after the Holocaust are insolubly unified, insofar as the very phenomenon which produces Christian complicity with the Holocaust is the very phenomenon which enables us to judge it: political liberalism. As Hinlicky rightly points out, Euro-American Christians are bound up with their Nazi predecessors through a common heritage of political liberalism which both explains the movement of both theological conservatives and liberals toward the Nazis, and our abhorrence with the seeming inescapability of such outcomes.1 As such, we can make no judgments about the past that are not also judgments upon ourselves; that which we judge should have been easy to see would, in truth, be no easier for us to see today.

Hinlicky’s intent is, I take it, not to make moral judgment on Christian failures impossible, but to help Christians come to terms with the unseemliness of our culpability with the German Christian failures. There has been a bevy of literature designed to exculpate Christian theology from its involvement, claiming either that the Final Solution was the logical (and foreseeable) outcome to Hitler’s rule, or that Christians who complied with National Socialism were doing so as an extension of Protestant liberalism. Where Hinlicky’s argument presses us further is that those seeking to maintain a conservative approach fared no better, for in refusing the liberal accommodations of Althaus and Elert, the confessional conservatives abdicated speaking into the specific theopolitical challenge proffered by the Nazis. There were certainly exceptions to these strains, as seen in Osusky, Barth, Bonhoeffer, those associated with the Barmen Declaration, and the ill-fated Confessing Church. Henlicky gives little attention to these groups, it seems, in part because the Confessing Church in particular suffered from its own internal fractures and divisions, leading it to little success in opposing the rising tide of the German Christian movement. What is left then? If both conservative confessionalism and liberal accommodation paved the way for the Nazification of German Christianity, could there have been any way forward?

Christians today remain caught between the recurring temptation toward fascism to oppose the various biopolitical challenges to history, and the temptation to simply manage the conditions of our era, which means that nothing new can ever come: either Christians capitulate to the biopolitical conditions of our age, or reverse course into a new, revived (albeit chastened?) fascism. The alternative to these two options, for Henlicky, is to recover true Messianism—not a Messianism which is coterminous with aspirations of a new Christendom, but one which speaks of Christ crucified, the suffering servant who breaks into the strong man’s house to bind up the one who holds us captive.2

Christ’s work, however, does not remove either culpability of our past, or the possibility that this will not happen again. To remove this difficult aspect of Christianity (Jewish unbelief) is to not only turn Christians into Marcionites, but to remove the possibility of infidelity from the Christian vocabulary. Put more simply, if unbelief is no longer an internal principle which Christians must reckon with, then any failure of the church can simply be spoken of as the failure of an “other,” something other than Christianity. In reminding us that Hitler’s theology was “not so strange,”3 Hinlicky brings Christians uncomfortably close to a nearly inescapable conclusion: this intimate alignment of Messianism with culture will happen again, as it happened before Nazism in the forms of international slavery, Native American repression, and colonialism. The question is not then, “How can this be avoided?” for if history is any teacher, this has happened before, but rather “What shall we do when this begins to happen again?” Echoes of Augustine’s non posse non peccarum should come flooding forward at this juncture, as it should become apparent that not only has Christian betrayal of Jesus happened many times before, but it will happen again, perhaps perniciously, but more likely under the auspices of saving the culture from itself.

Historically, insofar as Christians supported the reduction of Judaism to Semitism, Christians turned Jews into “merely a people alongside others with an equal claim to nationalistic self-determination, thus no longer the bearer of that special vocation, the yoke of the Torah with its own claim to truth, in distinction from all other peoples.”4 Having reduced Judaism to a social movement without remainder, the second failure can be undertaken: thinking Christianity as a purely political (and exclusively Gentile) event which can remove any non-Gentile (i.e., unfaithful) elements from its midst. The crux of this failure is that Christians, in making Christianity an exclusively Gentile event, no longer need to take seriously. Jewish unbelief in Jesus the Messiah as an internal aspect of Christian theology and identity. Put differently, having distanced themselves from Judaism, Christians no longer need to take unbelief or turning from the Messiah seriously as something which is already internal to the Christian life, but only as that which those outside the Messiah’s work do.

The specifically Jewish challenge of the Holocaust is what separates this particular failure of the churches from others, and yet, it is through this failure that we come to terms with the bevy of other politically justified horrors of the Christian heritage. It is through the relationship of Judaism to Christianity that we come to see that unbelief is not outside, but within the Christian camp. And by this acknowledgment, Christians can look again at other dark legacies in a new light, that these are acts of unbelief in the Messiah perpetuated by no other church than our own. This is not an argument for fatalism, but an acknowledgment of the intrinsically peccable nature of the Christian life—that attempts to save the world in ways which disavow our fallibility will ultimately remind both Christians and the world of the contrary.

In sum, I would suggest the following: the unwritten chapter to Henlicky’s bracing work must be then “On Repentance,” but not simply as a renunciation of past sins. Rather, Christians are pushed to repentance in a much deeper and more complex sense which forces us to reckon with this internal principle of infidelity that is an ongoing wound within Christianity. Erik Petersen’s post-WW1 argument over the development of Christian tradition, which he depicts as a conscious and missional movement toward the Gentiles in response to the rejection of the Messiah by the Jews, serves as a cogent example here.5 Petersen’s argument, intended to establish apostolic continuity between Jesus’ kingdom of God and the established church, names the apostles in Jerusalem as “the twelve” (and thus, the foundation of the apostolic church) only after they had turned back from Judaism. At one level, Petersen’s work is proto-supercessionist, establishing Christianity as truly Christian only once it moves away from the Jews. But from the perspective which Henlicky provides, Petersen’s work is an example of the refusal to bear with the disbelief of the Jews (and by extension, Christian betrayal of Jesus) as intrinsic to Christianity.

If Henlicky is right, not just about the genealogy of German Christians but about the failure signified by a Christian rejection of the Jews, then there is nowhere for us to flee to from our infidelity, for the failure of the German Christians is recognizable to us only because we share their faults, their reasoning, their vision. But insofar as Christ is the “strong man” who breaks into our darkness and disrupts the futures (and with it, our past), there lies hope beyond, and within, our persistent failures. Repentance, then, is not simply the way in which we confess error, but the way which Christians come to terms with who they are: those whose fidelity lies hand in hand with their betrayal, whose Judases are named among the twelve as much as John and Peter not as an aberration but as the perpetual thorn in the flesh. It is in repentance that Christians open their wounds of both church and history to Christ’s transformative work.

It is in this sense, then, that Christians must recognize the Holocaust as their own work. The attempt to disavow that which cannot be disavowed (the Jews) is the analogue for our attempts to disavow the Christian propensity for betrayal, a propensity which stands side by side with the transformative work of Christ. Such an acknowledgment of our betrayal is not the failure of Christianity, but its great paradox: that God took up sinful flesh, that God remains present to those who perpetually betray their Lord, that God preserves and sustains a world which only persists by the death and resurrection of the One we rejected.

  1. Hinlicky, 6. See also Alasdair C. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame University Press), 392.

  2. Ibid., 192.

  3. Ibid., 99.

  4. Ibid., 164.

  5. Erik Peterson, “The Church,” in Theological Tractates (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 30-40.

  • Paul Hinlicky

    Paul Hinlicky


    Response to Myles Werntz

    One of the subterranean arguments going on in Before Auschwitz that only surfaces towards the end is that political liberalism too operates with a supersessionist logic inherited from the decaying corpse of Christendom. Victorious over its fascist (1945) and bolshevist competitors (1989), liberalism as a form of political sovereignty claims, just as much as Nazism or Marxism ever did, to inherit Christendom’s unfinished business and bring it to completion. In America, “conservative liberals” claim that this was accomplished by the “Founding Fathers” to whom we should return. “Liberal liberals” claim that the American dream of the Founders remains a dream, yet to be fully realized. “Radical liberals” are the libertarians, innocent of history, who want to maximize personal freedom, though they divide into Tea Party conservatives and ACLU liberals. Few realize, or own up to the fact, that this spectacle of competing liberalisms is funded by juggernaut capitalism which is in the process of commoditizing all things, including “democratic” politics. In the process, the commoditization of political subjects erodes the cultural virtues on which representative government tacitly depends. The point of the analysis and argument, then, is that Weimarization can happen here in the now foreseeable events of humiliation in war and economic crisis.

    In this light, the reader can see why I have saved for last a response to my fellow American interlocutor and for a similar reason to the one that he provided at the beginning of his remarks on Before Auschwitz: I too find his words “difficult to assess, not because I think them wrong, but because I find them right.” Like others, Werntz affirms the book’s important claim that the disbelief of Jews in crucified Jesus as the Messiah of Israel must be claimed by Christians as a principle internal to their own theology; indeed, he exposits this thesis robustly and with insight into its applicability.

    But I have specifically in view here Werntz’s paradoxical thesis, as he formulates it, that “political liberalism is the phenomena that both produces the Holocaust and allows us to judge it.” As the paradox here may be somewhat obscure to the reader who has not yet worked through Before Auschwitz, allow me to quote a passage from the book that unveils the connection that, I believe, Werntz has in mind: “Liberal individualism, tolerance, and the separation of church and state may have been born on the soil of Protestantism, but they signal the end of Christendom in the death throes of its own internal contradictions—ironically, the contradiction that Luther first discovered in arguing that genuine Christian faith must be free and cannot in principle be compelled” (157). As is well known, Luther himself, in his vile, late-in-life ranting against the Jews, contradicted his own theological discovery of the freedom of faith.

    The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had rationalized the use of the secular sword against heresy. Luther in his theological way of specifying the necessary freedom of true faith subverted that rationale, even if the consequent mandate to decouple institutionally the two kinds of divine power at work in the sword and by the Spirit in the Word proved too radical for his own day and for Luther himself. But the principle of the freedom of faith, once admitted, could not but destabilize over time every Protestant attempt to reform and revalidate Christendom as a legal order backed by the power of the sword. John Locke’s Letter on Toleration reads as if cribbed from Luther’s teaching on the freedom of faith, rebuking as profoundly anti-Christian the resort to the secular sword in support of faith. Roger Williams’s ecclesiology of pure faith and faith alone led him to a purified church of one (himself!), lest as a preacher he impose faith inadvertently on another free individual. Today’s secularists, routinely rebuking Christianity for hypocrisy in coercing faith or imposing dogma, have merely caught up with Puritanism’s own self-critique in figures like Locke and Williams who, historically speaking, birthed political liberalism.

    But the connection here goes even deeper. As I wrote in the conclusion of Before Auschwitz against the “icy clarity” of Hitler the theologian’s “saving doctrine of the nothingness and insignificance of the individual human being, and of his continued existence in the visible immortality of the nation,” the positive source of liberalism’s exalted individual (Glenn Tinder) is Christianity, which got this teaching from Judaism. We forget this sourcing, when we turn the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness into a “self-evident” truth of nature and nature’s God, as Jefferson did in the Declaration. This forgetfulness of revelation, since exposed as a fiction of natural theology, however, fates today’s ungrounded liberalism to coming apart at the seams into the sibling rivals of Alasdair MacIntyre’s “conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals,” all asserting individual rights in incompatible ways

    Today’s political liberalism is nothing more than a procedure of law for adjudicating endemic conflicts less violently than otherwise; it cannot of itself say why human individuals are endowed with rights without taking partisan sides in MacIntyre’s intramural quarrels. If the state apparatus takes sides, it violates blind justice which is to treat rivals equally according to liberal procedure. It cannot in principle therefore, enunciate any vision or promise of the common good (on which it tacitly depends, going back to the grounding of the exalted individual in Christianity and Judaism). Along comes a Hitler into this spiritual vacuum, then, prophesying a common good (that excludes, so it appears, only at the margins), rebuking the manifest “chaos of parliamentarianism,” speaking to the need for national unity at a time of international crisis and financial distress and . . . Voila! In a return of the repressed, liberalism produces the very nightmare which it also allows us to judge, shocking us back to its forgotten origination as a theological judgment (Locke) against this nightmare of the Leviathan (Hobbes).

    Transposing this analysis back to the German church struggle, Werntz then rightly asks whether there could have been any way forward, if both left and right failed and in failing paved the way for the rise of Nazism. And transiting from there back to contemporary American self-understanding, he rightly asks whether we Americans, pointing our fingers at the German Christians, do not see how “international slavery, Native American repression and colonialism” have not already anticipated in our own backyard what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Christian betrayal of Christ, it seems, is not the exception but the rule. So we complete the circle and return to my reader’s objection to Before Auschwitz that I mentioned at the beginning in response to Kohler: Is there any way forward?

    I am grateful that Werntz sees clearly and lifts up boldly the answer that I try to develop out of the unflinching analysis in Before Auschwitz of our betrayals of Christ, namely, “to recover a true Messianism—not a Messianism which is coterminous with aspirations for a new Christendom, but one which speaks of Christ crucified, the suffering servant who breaks into the strong man’s house to bind up the one who holds us captive.” Our captivity is our “little faith,” if a postmodern theologian may be so childish as to refer to Jesus’s rebuke of those who would not be healed, having no need of a physician. That is to say, as Werntz so powerfully nails it down, “if unbelief is no longer an internal principle which Christians must reckon with, then any failure of the church can simply be spoken of as the failure of an ‘other,’ something other than Christianity.” Yet “unbelief is not on the outside, but within the Christian camp.” Accordingly, “attempts to save the world in ways which disavow our fallibility will ultimately remind both Christians and the world of the contrary.”

    One can, and Christians must, recognize themselves in a caricature. Seeing oneself in a caricature—particularly one as ugly as Nazism—prompts a self-examination that is far from routine and only may prove salutary. What may tip the balance is Christianity’s great paradox, as Werntz writes, “that God took up sinful flesh, that God remains present to those who perpetually betray their Lord”; that paradox is strong medicine, often too strong for Christians themselves. But knowledge of Auschwitz and Hitler’s not-so-strange theology brings us to a fork in the road. That paradoxical medicine tells why the unflinching encounter with our failure before Auschwitz, as also before the Trail of Tears, before the Atlantic Slave Trade, before the Gulag, before Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on and on, “stands side by side with the transformative work of Christ.” Only this severe mercy allows “Christians [to] open their wounds of both church and history” in “repentance,” even as it makes, in view of “the intrinsically peccable nature of the Christian life,” the entire life of the Christian to be one of repentance.

    I spoke politically of a chastened liberalism at the end of Before Auschwitz, insofar as recurring temptations to fascism and communism are predictable, since the current juggernaut is not sustainable, either economically or ecologically. Crisis, if not collapse, is predictable. A chastened liberalism under these conditions is one that has abandoned the false faith in history as progress and sees instead that history is an apocalyptic battle between God who prevails by the folly of preaching and a devil who does not appear twice in the same disguise. I may be criticized here for thinking nothing more can be done politically than “managing the conditions of our era, which means that nothing new can ever come.” To fend off disaster is something politically, not nothing. But I reckon that if anything new will come under our conditions, it will come about from the battle taking places in the churches themselves today for the recovery of true Messianism in the Spirit’s mission to the nation, and the vocations of the baptized within them.