Hitler’s military was one of the strongest forces in world history. The National Socialists were one of the most well-organized political parties Europe had ever seen. But at the heart of Nazism was bad theology, and Norway’s pastors knew it. Hitler’s troops had taken over Norway with ease in 1940. Over the next two years, the Nazi puppet regime swallowed up all government departments—including the national church.
On Easter Sunday, 1942, the moment of truth arrived. Ninety-three percent of the clergy resigned from the Church of Norway in order to fulfill their oaths of ordination and serve the people whom God had entrusted to their care. In its outward appearance, the church looked dead; but, like Christ within the tomb, His bride, too, sprung back to life. Norway’s underground church was born that Easter, and it left in its wake a testimony for Christians of all times.1
The ordination rite of the Lutheran Church of Norway had left no room for doubt. To be a pastor meant to swear in God’s name an affirmative answer to this question:
Dost thou…promise me…that thou wilt apply the utmost diligence, to the end that the heavenly doctrine, embodied in the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures and the Confessions of our Lutheran Church, shall be taught thy hearers faithfully…that no frivolous or offensive departure from the usages of the church be permitted; that thou wilt not only shun and abhor doctrine which is contrary to the divine word, but that thou also, as much as lieth in thee, will contend against the same and rather shed thy blood than consent to false and fanatical teaching…so as never willfully to dishonor God or thy holy and exalted office…?2
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had already sounded the alarm in Germany: Hitler’s expulsion of Jews from civil service—which led also to the removal of ethnically Jewish Christians from the clergy roster—violated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, by which all people, whether Jew or Greek, become one in Christ (cf. Galatians 3:26-28). Moreover, in Norway the National Socialists were forcing a new Sunday school curriculum that featured the swastika in place of the cross. Public school teachers were required to teach a Nazified curriculum. Parents were given three weeks’ notice to enroll their children in Norway’s version of the Hitler Youth. Leading theologians in Germany said all was well, that Romans 13 requires every citizen to obey the state, yes, even Hitler’s state. Few had the insight of Bonhoeffer, and even fewer had the courage.3
The Bishop of Oslo, Eivind Berggrav, was Norway’s Bonhoeffer.4 He fought off the Nazifiied church’s theology with his “Luther arsenal,” some seventy-five pages of quotations by Luther concerning the proper relationship between the church and civil government. Inspired by Berggrav’s example, a group of Norwegian mothers drafted a model letter to send to the National Socialist regime, reducing the matter to one powerful sentence asserting the rights of conscience. Under Berggrav’s counsel, five out of every six teachers refused in writing to implement the new curriculum, two-thirds of all parents signed a letter of conscientious objection, and hundreds of pastors read in unison these words from their pulpits on Easter Sunday 1942:
We declare, therefore, that it is our highest duty before God and before man—fully and fearlessly—to proclaim all God’s Word…without hesitation for whom it might displease. Here we stand under God’s command….
No earthly power or authority can impose unchurchly conditions upon the permission to conduct Christian work or to serve as a preacher….
It is, therefore, intolerable for the church that someone in power—for political, worldly reasons—deprives an ordained man not only of his office, but also of his mission to minister with Word and Sacrament.…5
Alluding to the Nazi youth movement, the pastors’ confession, published under the title “The Foundation of the Church,” continued:
The church would be remiss in her duty of Christian upbringing if she silently observed a worldly authority arrange the moral upbringing of children and people, independent of Christian views. Parents and teachers must not be sought out and driven, contrary to their conscience, to surrender their children to child educators who want to “revolutionize their minds” and induct them into a “new worldview” that feels foreign to Christianity.6
In the years that followed, many pastors were arrested, tortured, or even executed for their confession. Other men replaced them, subscribing both to the Augsburg Confession and to the Foundation of the Church, as they pledged ordination oaths during clandestine ceremonies in remote locales. Those who remained “above ground” boldly persisted in the old liturgy, which in the Prayer of the Church pleaded for God’s blessing upon Norway’s king—who, while exiled in England, never abdicated the throne; for refusing to substitute Führer Hitler for Haakon VII in that prayer, some lost their lives. The faithful recognized that everything hinged upon a single adjective in Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession: “lawful civil ordinances.” Anything less was tyranny, and to pray for God to bless a tyrant’s ambitions was unconscionable.
When it comes to the intersection of theology and politics, this was confessional Lutheranism’s finest hour of the twentieth century, resonating powerfully with the Magdeburg Confession of 1550 and the writings of Luther that had preceded it: yes, civil government is God’s good blessing; yes, citizens ought to honor the government; but, no, the government should not set itself above either the church or the family, and insofar as any government ever does so, no citizen is obligated to submit to it. Such a tyrant has removed himself from God’s Fourth Commandment office as established in Romans 13; such a tyrant has instead commingled church and state into the twin beasts of Revelation 13. Clear as Easter’s sunrise, fidelity to Christ necessitates resistance to the Antichrist.
Unfortunately, Norway’s pastors did not get everything right. The generation preceding World War II had been struggling against modernism and liberalism, somewhat parallel to what was happening in American church bodies at that time. Berggrav himself, though correctly perceiving the theological threat of Nazism, had ecumenical tendencies toward compromise in other matters, rather than a strong confessional commitment to orthodox Lutheranism. The postwar generation would witness a declining belief in miracles, a growing acceptance of women’s ordination, doubts about the reality of hell, and—worst of all—a departure from the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ. By the century’s end, the Church of Norway would become more of a social institution where people enjoyed a sense of community and belonging, and less of a preaching station for Law and Gospel, for confession and absolution.
Prudent Christians make the most of history: celebrating Berggrav’s stand against Hitler’s heresies, while also discerning that no hero of the faith deserves to be emulated in every respect. In a parallel fashion, Lutherans do not copycat Martin Luther the man, but rather commit themselves to the doctrine that Luther and others confessed. Lutheranism is not a cult of personality, but a confession of Christ. Like John the Baptist of old, the Augsburg Confession deserves our appreciation as a document that cries out “behold the Lamb of God” and points unwaveringly to Christ. In like fashion, the Foundation of the Church, that Easter 1942 confession boldly professed by the clergy of Norway, bears testimony to what the church of all times must believe and teach concerning the proper relationship between the ecclesiastical and civil realms as well as the primacy of the office of fatherhood in the upbringing of children.
Norway’s pastors spoke in earnest, knowing that people’s lives—people’s spiritual lives—depended upon it. If their example cannot cure cowardice in our own day, then who can imagine what would?
1 Torleiv Austad, “Church Resistance against Nazism in Norway, 1940–1945,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 28, no. 2 (2015): 278–93; Arne Hassing, Church Resistance to Nazism in Norway, 1940–1945 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).
2 The Liturgical Service of the Lutheran Church, ed. John Dahle and M. Casper Johnshoy (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1922), 31–32 (English translation), 54 (Norwegian original).
3 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001); Lowell C. Green, Lutherans Against Hitler: The Untold Story (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007); Michael P. DeJonge, Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
4 Edwin Robertson, Bishop of the Resistance: The Life of Eivind Berggrav, Bishop of Oslo, Norway (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000); for week-by-week details, see also Hassing, Church Resistance.
5 Kirkens Grunn: En bekjennelse og en erklæring (“The Foundation of the Church: A Confession and a Declaration”), Easter 1942, quoted and translated in Ryan C. MacPherson, “Political Resistance in Lutheran Theology: The Lawful Authority of Romans 13 versus the Two Beasts of Revelation 13,” in My Savior’s Guest: A Festschrift in Honor of Erling Trygve Teigen, ed. Thomas Rank (Lake Mills, Iowa: Thomas Rank, 2021), 127–47, at 140.
6 In MacPherson, “Political Resistance,” 140–41.