The word Bethel comes to us from Scripture. It’s a biblical town, and it literally means “house of God.” There’s a Bethel in Germany as well. It was set up as a center for those who were in need. In Bethel there was a hospital, which moved the German Lutheran church to found a seminary in the area in order to provide opportunities for students to minister to those who were in significant need. As it happens, Bethel was also the site of an important event in the history of the church in Germany.
A young Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in Bethel in the late spring and summer of 1933. This was a time of intense strife and turmoil within the German national church, called the German Evangelical Church, or the Reich Church. The Reich Church had already endorsed the Nazi Party. A minority within the church saw this action as selling the church’s soul, so this minority formed a splinter group within the larger church called the Confessing Church.
Bonhoeffer found himself playing a significant role in this new organization. Though Bonhoeffer was young, he was a very accomplished theologian, and at Bethel he decided that this church needed a doctrinal statement. With the help of a friend, he began to write the Bethel Confession. He wrote the first draft in the summer of 1933 and another draft a couple months later. Unfortunately, that draft would be taken over by a committee, and it was entirely butchered. When he got the draft back, Bonhoeffer didn’t even recognize it as his own. In reviewing it, he said, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
The Scriptures are the unique and authoritative revelation of God, and the cross is the means by which God provides redemption for His people
There are, however, two pieces of the Bethel Confession that are crucial, pieces that were very helpful for the church to affirm in Germany in the 1930s. And if they were helpful for the German church to affirm then—with the specter of the Nazi Party looming—then these doctrines are crucial for the church of any age, and especially for the church today.
The first crucial piece of the Bethel Confession is its doctrine of Scripture. The confession says: “The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the sole source and norm for the doctrine of the church. They constitute the fully valid witness, authenticated by the Holy Spirit, that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, is the Christ, Israel’s Messiah, the anointed King of the Church, the Son of the living God.” This is a clear and powerful statement on the authority of Scripture and its utter and full veracity.
The second crucial piece of the Bethel Confession concerns the cross. There was this idea that Jesus was but a symbol, His death was but a symbol, and the resurrection was but a symbol. “Don’t get hung up on these as historical events; these are eternal symbols that inspire us,” people said. This kind of thinking is wrongheaded and dangerous. Here’s how the Bethel Confession answers such a view: “We reject the false doctrine that the cross of Jesus Christ may be regarded as a symbol for a generalized religious or human truth, as expressed in the sentence ‘The public interest comes before private interest.’ The cross of Jesus Christ is not at all a symbol for anything; it is rather the unique revelatory act of God.” The cross is not a symbol; it is a historical reality of the redemption that Christ purchased for us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Bethel Confession have here provided the church with important tonics to guard against the skepticism and relativism of the modern world. The Scriptures are not merely witnesses to the religious experiences of ancient peoples, and the cross of Christ is not merely a symbol or an example. As Bonhoeffer and his confession asserted, the Scriptures are the unique and authoritative revelation of God, and the cross is the means by which God provides redemption for His people. Without these doctrines, the Christian faith is without hope. May the church continue to hold on to these crucial truths.