Darrow Miller and Friends

Death of God: Nazi Theology in Gerhard Kittel

The death of God in a society can come from the most unlikely root.

In two earlier posts I wrote about my troubling discovery that a Nazi wrote the leading theological dictionary of the New Testament. I speak of Gerhard Kittel and the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT).

“Evolutionary Theology”

TDNT an unlikely companion to the death of GodKittel and his peers were overwhelmed by the evolutionary “spirit of their age.” This affected their theology. Kittel was a liberal German rationalist, as were most of the 100 German scholars who worked on the TDNT. They approached their work from a naturalistic framework. They denied the authority of Scripture as divine revelation and placed their trust in rationalism – man’s reason alone. They saw the Bible through the rationalistic lens of German higher criticism. For them, the Bible was a product of human processes, a collection of books of religious men searching for God. They argued that the Bible may contain revelation, but it was not in its essence the special revelation of God.

These scholars followed the culture to move from a Judeo-Christian moral and metaphysical framework to an atheistic framework. They were still “religious” Christians: they probably attended church regularly. But their minds were evacuated of biblical thinking. They saw the need to apply science and reason to understand the historical and cultural context behind the words of the scriptures, to find the “source material.”

Of course it’s necessary to bring human reason to the study of scripture. The problem comes when, at the presuppositional level, man, rather than the Bible, becomes the final authority. Is this matter negotiable? Is the Bible the final authority? Or is man?

Confessional (Bible-believing) orthodoxy regards the Scripture as the final arbiter of faith and life. Kittel and his peers abandoned this position and made man the final authority over scripture (the only possibility in a naturalistic universe).

Furthermore, they not only abandoned confessional orthodoxy; they actually opposed it.

As German rationalists, they assumed they knew best. This had consequences for their understanding of everything. They brought to scripture this same set of naturalistic presuppositions. The death of God meant they were not under God’s rule but the rule of man (in this case Hitler). Not grounded in transcendent, moral law, they were free to create immoral laws, to demand arbitrary absolutes. Hitler did this without compunction. He declared Jews subhuman and created laws that reflected this vile lie. It became lawful (but not moral) to exterminate the Jews.

There is a logic that follows naturalistic assumption. The death of God leads to the death of special revelation (a loss of particular importance with reference to man who is made imago Dei—in the image of God). This in turn leads to the death of man. The consequence for Kittel? There was nothing to prevent him from joining the Nazi party. In the same way, there was nothing to prevent the Nazis from murdering millions of Jews and others not worthy of life.” The death of God leads to the death of man.

But they needed a theologian to lend credibility with the Church. Kittel was just the man.

The Nazi Theologian

Hitler longed for the death of GodGerhard Kittel joined the Nazi party in May 1933, the same year that serious work on the TDNT began. In the meantime, something had already twisted in Kittel’s soul. His earlier appreciation of the Jews—God’s covenant people—and their contribution to the New Testament decayed into that animus known as anti-Semitism.

On June 1, 1933, less than a month after joining the Nazi party, Kittel gave a speech on “The Jewish Question” – Die Judenfrage. In this address, later published as a small book for Nazi propaganda, he posed four possible solutions for “the Jewish problem.”

  1. Assimilate the Jews by intermarriage. Kittel rejected this option as it would pollute the Aryan bloodline with “refuse” Jewish blood.
  2. Expel the Jews by sending them to Palestine to form a Jewish state (Zionism).
  3. Demote the Jews by confiscating their German citizenship and granting “guest” status. This would leave them marginalized and disenfranchised. Jews would be prohibited from membership in professional and commercial life. No longer citizens, they would be in their own country.
  4. Exterminate the Jews outright.

Gerhard Kittel’s preferred option was to take away their citizenship. But this more “moderate” position was simply the beginning of what ended in extermination. More “right-wing” Nazis argued for either forced expulsions or murdering the Jews. We all know what happened.

Nazi theologians contributed to the death of GodKittel, the respected Bible scholar, became the Nazi theologian! He rose quickly in Nazi ranks and provided leadership for the Forschungsabeilung Judenfrage– the Research Department for the Jewish Question. The aim of the department was to use science and theology to justify whatever evil solution the Third Reich chose to deal with the Jewish people. As a researcher and theologian, Kittel was imminently qualified for this position. During the intervening years he continued his academic work as editor of the TDNT.

Following the war, in May 1945, Kittel was arrested by the French occupying forces and imprisoned as a war criminal to await trial. His defense? He was a “good German” and a “good Nazi,” obeying the laws of Germany. As Kate Daley-Bailey writes, he testified to his personal friendship with Jews and “enumerated fourteen acts of kindness toward individual Jews.” He admitted that allowing Hitler to beguile him was a moral failure and the “most bitter deception” of his life. He was released from prison in 1946, pending his trial. He died in 1948 before his trial was completed.

  • Darrow Miller

For Reflection:

Where do you observe this slide from the death of God to the death of man as the image of God to the actual death of human beings?

We are transitioning from the modern to the postmodern age. In our day, there are no universal moral absolutes to underpin national laws. The atheistic Third Reich established immoral laws that led directly to the extermination of the Jews. Kittel and other Nazi leaders identified themselves as good Germans who were simply obeying the law. But if there is no God, and no moral universe, isn’t the argument valid? What are the implications of this for modern and postmodern societies?

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2 Comments

  1. Dwight Vogt

    December 12, 2016 - 3:27 pm

    You ask: “Where do you observe this slide from the death of God to the death of man as the image of God to the actual death of human beings?” What strikes me is that we’ve kept God alive while killing the idea of man as the image of God or maybe we never truly bought into this idea because we only see one another through the lens of the Fall.

  2. PHILLIP CUMMINS

    December 14, 2016 - 2:08 pm

    Very, very true when one cuts God out of their heart the only thing left is a broken heart, aka heart failure!

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