For postings today I'm providing a copy of the first chapter of my e-book Hitler's Christianity, which is nearing its third birthday.
Chapter 1 -- Positive Christianity: Doctrines and Background
The fundamental core of our case is that Hitler and Nazi leaders adhered to a cult system called “Positive Christianity.” By defining Positive Christianity as a cult, we are arguing that its beliefs lie outside the mainstream of orthodox Christianity, to the extent that it would be incorrect to define Hitler as a Christian, or to place the blame for Nazi atrocities on the Christian faith as a religion and as a philosophy.
Cults and Heresies
The first step in this process is to ask: What is a cult? The word “cult” today holds sinister connotations of dark-robed figures slitting lizards’ throats in the moonlight, or of murderous, charismatic leaders brainwashing followers into self-immolation. “Cult” brings to mind pictures of the Branch Davidians resisting to the death the forces of the United States Government; or of the followers of the Hale-Bopp comet cult lying dead under purple sheets after ingesting poisoned rice pudding, or of the followers of Jim Jones consuming cyanide-laced punch in the jungles of Guyana. But, from a strictly theological perspective, “cult” can refer to any religious group that is a deviation, or offshoot, from some other major religious group, and which holds to a new or unusual belief or practice that either rejects, or openly contradicts, the beliefs of the parent group. To that extent, it is no longer truly part of the parent group, and becomes properly defined as a new group in its own right.
A related word in this context, which we will also apply to Positive Christianity, is heresy. Broadly speaking, a heresy is any doctrine that is at odds with what is accepted by the mainstream of a parent religious body. Thus, formally, “cult” refers to the group which deviates from the norm, while “heresy” defines the doctrines that cause that group to be deviants from the norm.
Arguably, then, the defining of a group as a cult, or of a belief as a heresy, is a matter of the degree of deviation from a mainstream view: The more radically a splinter group departs from the beliefs and practices of its parent group, the more appropriate it becomes to define the splinter group as a cult, or their beliefs as heresies.
With that, we may now ask: In what way did Positive Christianity deviate from the mainstream of doctrine and enter into heresy? What of its deviations make it sufficient to classify it as a cult?
There are three areas in which Positive Christianity differed significantly from orthodox Christian viewpoints.
Deviation #1: A Bowdlerized Bible
The Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, is widely recognized as the "handbook" of the Christian faith. There are, of course, a range of opinions about its exact role in the Christian life. Some regard it as the inerrant word of God, inspired by God Himself. Some regard it as a human record, but still authoritative in terms of being the key source for Christian doctrine. Some say that its canon is lacking and could stand to add a few books; a few others say there is a book or two that is not as qualified as the others, or could stand to be removed.
Despite these variations in opinion, however, it is generally recognized that there is a certain extent to which one can go that ends up outside the pale of what is historically and theologically called "Christian." A Buddhist who rejects the authority of the Bible, and sees in it nothing more than perhaps a mishmash of history, moral teachings, and the words of sometimes-mistaken men, is certainly not qualified to be called a Christian on those terms. Muslims who regard the Bible as authoritative but corrupted, and in need of the corrections and clarifications offered by the Quran, also cannot be regarded as Christians.
Moving closer to the center of the circle, definitions get harder to apply. Groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, or David Koresh's Branch Davidians, are overwhelmingly denied the title of “Christian” in good measure because they declare that the Biblical record has been either corrupted or badly misunderstood, so that they believe it necessary for there to be supplemental revelation, provided either by another inspired book, or some prophetic revelation. These groups may also boldly declare that they are indeed Christians, and may become quite offended when told that this is not the case. Alternatively, a group may declare that it is they who are the true Christians, and it is others in the mainstream church who are not! [xy]
([xy] I am particularly familiar with this issue where it concerns Mormonism, and attempts by Mormon apologists to claim the title "Christian" for themselves. See on this point, for example, Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks, Offenders for a Word (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1998).
The irony in this is particularly strong, since Joseph Smith himself reported that during his “First Vision” of God and Jesus, he asked them which church he ought to join, and was told that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof’ ”. (History of Joseph Smith, 1:19.) Even more strongly, third Mormon President John Taylor (1808-1887) said, “We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense...the devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (Journal of Discourses 6:167). To that extent, the modern Mormon quest to be called "Christian" departs considerably from the original teachings of Mormonism's founders.
The diversion of Mormonism here noted is of some relevance, since, as we will see, adherents to Positive Christianity also declared themselves to be restoring a more original and authentic form of the Christian faith. Thus, one of the most important reasons they can be denied the title of “Christian” and deemed a cult, is that they denied that title to everyone else, thereby indicating that they were a separate group.)
It is beyond our present scope to discuss these other groups listed, but it is clear that with respect to the Bible and its utility, there is a line of demarcation beyond which one cannot pass and still be acceptably termed "Christian." All that said, where does “Positive Christianity" fit on this spectrum?
The Positive Christian “Canon”
The two divisions of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are regarded as closed collections, or canons, to which nothing can be justifiably added, or appropriately taken away. It is considered a standard hallmark of a Christian cult to in some way change or redefine the contours of these canons, either by claiming that some new revelation has been provided which further defines, or else updates, the prior canon, or else by subtracting from that canon.
Within this understanding, it is not necessary, as a critic might suppose, to debate whether or not the canon of the Bible was the result of divine intervention. Even if the canon had been assembled by completely natural means, it remains the defining “constitution” of the Christian faith. Thus, by definition, any group that performs surgery on the canon is defining itself as “outside” the Christian faith.
Positive Christianity defined itself in terms of a particularly radical form of canonical surgery, one that amounted to removing no less than three quarters of the Bible from the Christian canon, and as much as ninety percent of it, depending on individual variations. The minimum surgery consisted of the complete excision of the Old Testament from the Bible, as a document that was “too Jewish” for their tastes, and at a maximum, disposing of the letters of Paul, who was frequently named as a Jewish “corrupter” of the authentic Christian faith.
In this respect, Positive Christianity imitates a movement widely recognized as heretical by the Christian mainstream. The removal of the Old Testament, as well as select New Testament material, mirrors the actions of the second-century Marcionite heresy, which rejected Jewish influences on the Christian faith. Like the Positive Christians, Marcion rejected the entirety of the Old Testament from his canon. Unlike the Positive Christians, however, his trimming of the New Testament involved keeping Paul rather than rejecting him (all except for the Pastoral letters: 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), and rejecting every Gospel except an abridged version of Luke.
At the same time, the New Testament itself rejects such forced distinctions between itself and the message of the Old Testament. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament clearly quoted and alluded to the Old Testament as historically authoritative, and with great appreciation. They also clearly saw in Jesus an imitation of Old Testament themes and prophecy.
There can therefore be little doubt that on this accounting alone, that of a radically bowdlerized canon, Positive Christianity must be counted as a pseudo-Christian cult.
Deviation #2: A De-Judaized Jesus
If the Bible is Christianity's handbook, then Jesus is Christianity's central figure. No one would say a Muslim qualified as a Christian, not only because of their rejection of the Christian canon as God’s complete revelation, but also in good measure because of their quite different take on who Jesus was, and what he did (or rather, did not do). Any person whose portrait of Jesus departs in some substantial way from the Christian view, also cannot be regarded as a Christian.
Since the Positive Christians rejected the Old Testament for being a Jewish document, and rejected Paul as a Jewish corrupter of Christianity, it will not be surprising to learn that they also made an effort to redefine Jesus. In mainstream Christianity, Jesus is a Jew – a member of a specific ethnic group, born into that group in accordance with promises related in the Old Testament covenant, concerning a coming Messiah. In order to make Jesus acceptable for their anti-Semitic viewpoints, the Positive Christians redefined the ethnicity of Jesus, turning him into an Aryan (a member of the Nazi “master race”) or a Nordic.
Other religions and groups have claimed Jesus and reinvented him into a person that all would presumably agree are not "Christian." One of my favorite examples of this is a book titled The Elvis-Jesus Mystery, by Cinda Godfrey. This amazing book declares that Elvis Presley was the "same soul" as Jesus (and as Adam, for good measure!). I cannot imagine even the most insensate critic arguing that this represents a genuinely "Christian" point of view.
The Jesus of Positive Christianity was perhaps not as radical as Godfrey's. It was, however, a logical extension of their views on the Bible. As Positive Christianity divorced Christianity from the Bible's Jewish elements, it also divorced Jesus from his Jewish heritage.
The question that may arise now is, "Is Positive Christianity's Jesus truly radical enough to disqualify it as a bona fide Christian sect?" For arguably, one can believe, for example, that Jesus had red or brown hair, or was 6 feet tall rather than 5 feet tall, and not endanger being classified as a Christian.
Hair color and height, however, are not essential to Jesus' identity as broker of the Christian covenant. On the other hand, Jesus' status as the divine Son of Man, and as incarnate hypostatic Wisdom (that is, as a member of the Trinity) have been widely recognized as being essential to his identity. Groups that deny such doctrines, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, have been discounted as not being within the Christian fold since the Nicaea Council condemned the heresies of the Arians (i.e., the Jehovah's Witnesses of that day).
Is Jesus' Jewishness no more important than his hair color? Given Jesus’ professions to be intrinsically linked to the messianic promises of the Old Testament, and similar sentiments by the authors of the other New Testament books, it is clear that to turn Jesus into an Aryan, and deny his Jewishness, is to deny a fundamental fact of Christianity. It is also contrary to clear New Testament professions giving Jesus Jewish or Davidic ancestry (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 2:11, 3:23-28; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Hebrews 7:14; Rev. 5:5, 22:16). Jewishness was intrinsic to Jesus' self-identity, and denial of Jesus' Jewishness, as part of the package of "Positive Christianity," puts it outside the pale of historic and theological Christianity.
The nature of this deviance should be properly understood. Critics may charge that many depictions of Jesus in our churches make him out to be a white Anglo-Saxon, sometimes with perfectly “Nordic” blue eyes and blond hair. But this is not done in order to de-Judaize Jesus. Rather, it is because many modern Christians are not aware that Jews of the first century had dark complexions and dark hair. Pictures of Jesus as a typical “white guy” are designed based on the assumption that the Jews of the first century were also “white guys”, and not in order to deny that they were Jews.
Deviation #3: Indifference to Doctrine
The final deviation of Positive Christianity concerns a focus on orthopraxy (right practice) at the expense of orthodoxy (right doctrine or belief). To be a Christian (or a member of any religious group) requires correct adherence to a certain prescribed set of beliefs. Orthodoxy is used to describe one who holds the correct set of beliefs for their spiritual tradition.
In contrast, orthopraxy is used to refer to the rules of conduct that one must adhere to in order to live as a member of a group. Within Islam, for example, there are five pillars, or obligations, each faithful Muslim must perform to be considered faithful to Islam: belief (meaning, orthodoxy), worship, charitable giving, periodic fasting, and a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime. Any Muslim who deviates from this set of duties, without valid justification (e.g., not having the resources to make a trip to Mecca), are regarded as less than faithful to their beliefs.
Within Christianity, New Testament moral admonitions (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) are regarded as guidelines for Christian behavior. Those who deviate from these guidelines are regarded as either failing to represent orthodoxy (their beliefs), or may, in some cases, be regarded as displaying evidence of not holding right beliefs at all. Of course, this is reckoned as a matter of degree, not as a binary equation; a momentary lapse in orthopraxy is not immediately regarded as a sign of failure to be a member of the group. Positive Christianity strongly emphasized works and action. However, in terms of doctrine, it might be well to say that Positive Christianity not only failed to encourage the formulation of doctrine but it ignored doctrine to the point of annihilation. One searches in vain for any comment by leading Nazis on key doctrinal issues like the atonement, the Trinity, or original sin. Steigmann-Gall elaborates on this point, noting of Nazi commentators, [HR86] "[r]arely did they elaborate on doctrinal questions. Seldom did these party members discuss their thinking on original sin, the resurrection of Christ, or the communion of the saints." Though they believed they were following Christian ethics, and though they could accept Christian dogmas and gain inspiration from the Gospels and from Jesus, "In general...most of them were less concerned with the doctrine of Christianity than with its political ideology." He further states:
Positive Christianity was not an attempt to make a complete religious system with a dogma or ritual of its own: It was never formalized into a faith to which anyone could convert. Rather, this was primarily a social and political worldview meant to emphasize those qualities of Christianity that could end sectarianism. [HR84] Beyond this, Nazi commentators "said little or nothing about the Augsburg Confession or other signifiers of theological orthodoxy", and were "generally unconcerned with dogma." Stegmann-Gall goes on to say that in spite of this, they "adhered to basic precepts of Christian doctrine, most importantly the divinity of Christ as the son of God." [HR49-50] Nevertheless, this seeming “saving grace” is insufficient to detract from the lack of focus on orthodoxy in Positive Christian writings, especially given the reason for this lack of focus on doctrine.
Positive Christianity: In the Background
Just prior to the Nazi era, and even outside of Germany, the phrase “positive Christianity” was used to define a form of Christianity in which the believer was encouraged to act upon their beliefs, instead of merely being content to believe intellectually. A 1897 British journal, The Cambrian, in an article titled, “Prof. Richard T. Ely on Christianity”, says:
Positive Christianity having eyes and ears perceives wretched social conditions all about us. It knows what vile tenements signify and is aware of the enormous extent of the housing problem. Positive Christianity sees degraded childhood and lost opportunities on every side. Positive Christianity remembers that blindness is sin, that neglect is sin. “Inasmuch as ye did it not,” is the condemnation of negative Christianity.
Ely’s concern was that “professed Christianity” become “real Christianity” by action. Similar sentiments can be found in other sources of the same period, using the phrase, “positive Christianity.” [xp]
([xp] For example, Charles Abram Ellwood, The Reconstruction of Religion: A Sociological View (MacMillan: 1922) and Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind (A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1907). No doubt unaware of the Nazi connotations of the phrase “positive Christianity”, some modern writers have revived it to refer to the practice of Christianity with a “positive attitude.” For example, Zig Ziglar, Confessions of a Happy Christian (Pelican: 1978).)
There is certainly nothing innately wrong with encouraging orthopraxy. Calling believers to action is part of any healthy system of faith. However, the Positive Christians of the Nazi movement took this a step further, where Orthopraxy was emphasized to the point that orthodoxy was deemed irrelevant. Cults and heresies, under normal circumstances, are termed as such in part because of incorrect doctrine. How much more so should a group be classified as a cult for dispensing with doctrine altogether?
Why Ignore It?
Ely’s expression of “positive Christianity” had as its purpose a call to action on the part of those who professed Christian belief. Certainly, the Nazi adherents to their form of Positive Christianity would argue that such was their purpose as well. However, there was much more to it, and much that was designed to aid the Nazis in achieving a Germany unified under their banner. [HR51] "[O]ne of the very purposes of positive Christianity...was to bridge the religious divide by making no specific references to a particular confessional bias." Germany of this era was characterized by a significant population divide between Catholics (who were approximately one third of the population) and Protestants, who were themselves divided into over two dozen denominations. Positive Christianity, a Christianity of action that had no use for dogma, was intended to appeal to "the commonalities that joined Protestants and Catholics," stop sectarianism, and unify the nation under the Nazi banner.
For this reason, it is not surprising that little or no effort was made to lay out any detailed theology or dogma under Positive Christianity. [HR52] A "generalized and rather diffuse notion of simple Christianity" was best suited for achieving unity, by minimizing potential differences of opinion. Those who advocated Positive Christianity "were particularly unsuccessful in laying out any idea of what the new faith would actually look like; what its dogmas, creeds, or institutions might be, aside from a de facto appropriation of aspects of Protestantism." There was also no evidence that, "they made any particular effort to do so."
Pre-Nazi Positive Christianity
The roots of the German incarnation of Positive Christianity go back into history much farther than the Third Reich, and indeed, into the time even before Hitler’s birth. Part of the genesis of Positive Christianity was a hypertrophic German nationalism (a subject we will discuss further in Chapter 5), and its reaction to the practice of ultra-Montanism – a Catholic orientation which placed a strong emphasis on the powers of the Pope.
An early opponent of ultra-Montanism in Germany was Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), a [CRN20-1] “famed Munich theologian” who viewed ultra-Montanism as “both anti-German and almost pathologically destructive.” Von Döllinger claimed that “God had given Germans in particular the world historical task of reinterpreting Catholic theology for the dawning modern age, and he called on German Catholics to shed the yoke of ultra-Montanism and to assume their predestined role as ‘teachers of all the nations.’ ” In this view, he took for granted the superiority of German “national spirit,” and his views typified a nationalist reaction to ultra-Montanism.
Von Döllinger was not a “positive Christian” in the Nazi sense. However, he was a reactionary against ultra-Montanism, and [CRN33] other Catholic opponents of ultra-Montanism in Munich found their solution in Positive Christianity. At the time, the phrase was “so commonplace in prewar Reform Catholic circles as to require little explication.” It is not difficult to find examples of its use twenty years and more before the Nazis used it in their platform. In these earlier contexts, it was associated with German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and a strong emphasis on moral purity.
There are also indications of the three distinctives we have listed, at this early stage. [CRN37] For example, the cover of the April 1902 issue of the journal Renaissance, featured a “blending of Nordic-Aryan imagery and explicitly Catholic visual references” (including the figure of a muscular titan) and also “visually reinforced the primacy of the New Testament, which is illuminated specifically by the torch of the titan, over the (Jewish) Old Testament, which is pushed far to the margins of the image.” A tablet of the Ten Commandments is also featured toppling off into the void.
Positive Christianity’s “John the Baptist”?
As we move into the time of the Nazi Party itself, there is a leading figure in the Positive Christian movement who can be found to have definitive ties to the Party. [CRN1] In 1918, a Bavarian Catholic, Franz Schrönghamer Heimdal, authored a book titled The Coming Reich, which laid out plans for “the ecumenical yet distinctly Catholic-oriented spiritual rebuilding of Germany.” The spirit of German hyper-nationalism infected Heimdal’s work (e.g., he was unashamedly anti-Semitic, contrasting the purity of Christ with the “materialist spirit” of the Jews). He also [CRN53] claimed that “Catholic revelation and Nordic legend were in perfect God-ordained harmony, and elsewhere, [CRN71] in a 1919 Christmas devotional written for the newspaper that would become the Nazi Party’s unofficial publication, declared that only in Christ could the Germanic spirit “find its fullest expression.” Heimdal’s radical ideas extended even into the physical realm, anticipating another aspect of the future Nazi program: He [CRN2] foresaw Christians bonded in a racial community that was to be maintained via eugenics.
The three distinctives of Positive Christianity are plainly evident in Heimdal’s work. The promise of a bowdlerized Bible is clear in that he saw the heroism of Jesus foreshadowed in the ancient Nordic saga Edda, which he supposed might even be divinely inspired, at least to extent that the [CRN54] “inferior” Old Testament was inspired. A de-Judaized Jesus is already present in his writings: He [CRN56] claimed that Jesus was a “Galilean Aryan from Nazareth whose racial identity stock stood in stark contrast to the racially inferior Jews of Jerusalem.” Finally, the emphasis on orthopraxy [CRN72] is made clear in that the central theme offered in his 1919 Christmas devotional was, “common good before individual interest” a sentiment reflected nearly word for word in Point 24 of the Nazi Party program.
The similarities between Heimdal’s views and Nazi “Positive Christianity” were so obvious that, fifteen years later, in 1933, Heimdal had the courage to openly claim that his book had played a role in the founding of the Nazi movement. In this [CRN74], Heimdal’s estimate of his influence is certainly “overblown,” since the same ideas he promulgated were already widespread in Munich at the time. His claim of direct influence, however, does have a “kernel of truth” to it, to the extent that he was to some degree involved in Nazi affairs, and had the attention of people in the Nazi Party. In 1920 [CRN3] he was the leading writer for the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper, when it was the “unofficial organ” of Nazi movement. He also had two other books that were widely discussed among the early Nazis (in 1918, and 1919), and The Coming Reich earned the praise of Deitrich Eckart, an influential “mover and shaker” in the early Nazi movement, who we will discuss further in Chapter 3. Perhaps, Heimdal’s influence is best summed up by Hastings: He [CRN80] offered the “first programmatic religious statement from a Nazi member following the articulation of Positive Christianity.”
The earliest history of Positive Christianity as a Nazi phenomenon closes with a peculiar note. After his failed 1923 beerhall putsch, Adolf Hitler was compelled to serve time in prison. Prior to his sentence, Positive Christianity among the Nazis was associated with persons who, like Hitler himself, maintained a spiritually tenuous connection to Roman Catholicism. After Hitler’s release from prison, in 1925, there was a re-founding of the Nazi movement, and from then on, as a reaction to growing anti-Catholic sentiment, the [CRN144] Catholic orientation of Positive Christianity was replaced with a Protestant orientation. So it was that after February 1925 [CRN157], aside from occasional references to Positive Christianity and the heroism of Christ, “Hitler was no longer portrayed either as a believing Catholic or as an energetic advocate of Christianity.” From then on, Positive Christianity would become more greatly associated with Protestantism, and the denominational gauntlet would be taken up by a group called the German Christians, whose story will be further told in Chapter 6. For now, we will turn to discussion of the individual religious beliefs of leading Nazi figures, which will first require a diversion to deflate an all too common myth – that of Hitler and other leading Nazis as practitioners of the occult.