A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 5 part 1

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The Doctrine of the Holy Scriptures

On the front page of the March 3, 1969, issue of Christian News, Herman Otten, editor and publisher of the unofficial Lutheran Church Missouri Synod weekly journal, reviewed sociologist Jeffrey Hadden’s new book, The Gathering Storm in the Churches. “Many clergymen and laymen within the major Protestant denominations reject central doctrines of historic Christianity,” Otten wrote. “Large percentages of clergymen within six major Protestant bodies denied basic doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the historicity of Adam and Eve, the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, and the physical resurrection of Christ.”

Hadden’s data regarding The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod showed it to be relatively tame compared to some other church bodies. The 895 Lutheran Church Missouri Synod clergymen included in Hadden’s research were revealed to be considerably more doctrinally conservative than, for example, the 908 pastors surveyed from among the American Lutheran Church. Of the Missouri pastors, 90 percent believed Adam and Eve were “individual historical persons”; 76 percent professed agreement with the statement that the Scriptures are inspired and inerrant “also in historical, geographical, and other secular matters”; 95 percent regarded the virgin birth of Jesus as “a biological miracle”; and 93 percent accepted the physical resurrection of Jesus “as an objective historical fact in the same sense that Lincoln’s physical death was a historical fact.” Missouri Synod Lutherans, Hadden concluded, “remain consistently the most conservative or literalist denomination.”

Yet those who remembered the synod’s early motto “God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine pure now and ever shall endure” might still have had cause for alarm. Only 63 percent of Missouri clergymen under age 35 accepted the inerrancy of the Bible; only 72 percent accepted the “historic Christian interpretation” that the Bible is to be understood “literally or nearly literally.

Otten’s front-page citation of Hadden’s book constituted the opening salvo in a huge special issue of Christian News, featuring in bold print an analysis of “Lutheranism Today.” On more than 64 pages of tiny text cribbed into every available corner of his paper, Otten documented the doctrinal decline of American Lutheranism. He devoted most of this special issue to the theological drift occurring in the American Lutheran Church and The Lutheran Church in America. At Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, “the entire religion department appears to be committed to a denial of the verbal inspiration and truthfulness of Scripture.” At Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, one professor wrote that biblical references to science or geography “are not essential” to Christianity, “not relevant,” and in some places “not even correct.” American Lutheran Church president Fredrick Schiotz maintained that “Scripture’s teaching of inspiration does not require a commitment to textual inerrancy” and that inerrancy “does not apply to the texts but to the truths revealed for our faith, doctrine, and life.” To the question, Are there mistakes in the Bible? The Lutheran Church in America’s Elson Ruff replied simply, “Of course.”

But also included was evidence of theological change in Missouri. On February 20, 1969, the Associated Press reported on a three-day student strike at Concordia Seminary, in which students protested what they considered “grievances” on the St. Louis campus. Students were being urged “to concentrate less on preaching the doctrinal content of the church and to engage in community activities more.” Concordia was becoming more and more like other seminaries in which the trend “has been away from teaching orthodox doctrine and sound Biblical studies.”
In a six-page article, “The Doctrinal Situation in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod,” Otten maintained that during the previous two decades, “theological liberalism has infiltrated the Missouri Synod.

There are professors at Concordia Seminary who reject the inerrancy of the Bible, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the real messianic interpretation of various Old Testament messianic prophecies, and the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Two years ago an honest liberal teacher, who is a member of the Missouri Synod, told us at a meeting at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis that what we were saying about Concordia Seminary in CHRISTIAN NEWS was correct. He readily admitted that professors, who formerly maintained the inerrancy of the Bible and rejected such critical views of the Bible as the J-E-D-P documentary source hypothesis, had changed and no longer affirmed these doctrines of Holy Scripture still affirmed by the Missouri Synod.

footnote: J-E-D-P is shorthand for a theory of authorship of the first five books of the Old Testament. The theory, also referred to as “source criticism” or the “multiple source” theory of authorship, suggests that Genesis-Deuteronomy was not written by Moses but that four separate sources, often referred to by the initials of their assumed authors, J (Yahweh), E (Elohim), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly), were woven by later editors into the present books of Genesis–Deuteronomy. Those who espouse the J-E-D-P theory of authorship of the Pentateuch believe that little if any of the content of these books was written by Moses. end footnote

He said that the administration of the seminary was not being quite honest when it tells the officials of the Missouri Synod that all professors at the seminary still affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture. This liberal teacher, of course, thought it was wonderful that the seminary was changing. According to him, the president of the Missouri Synod was rather naive because he never asked the seminary administration just what seminary professors mean when they say they believe the “inerrancy of the Bible.” If such a question were asked, he said, the president would soon discover that many on the seminary faculty reject the real inerrancy of the Bible.

Valparaiso University professor John Strietelmeier acknowledged that “for something like 25 years” following World War II, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod “was controlled by a coalition of Liberals and Moderates.” All that was now about to change. One year after Richard Nixon mobilized the “silent majority” of Americans, who opposed political liberalism, racial unrest, and campus protests against the Vietnam War, to elect him as president, a comparable “silent majority” of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod delegates at Denver in 1969 elected Jacob A. O. Preus as synod president. As Strietelmeier put it, the years of “liberal ascendancy ended suddenly and decisively.” Preus interpreted his election as a mandate to investigate rumors of the denial of Missouri’s doctrine of Scripture at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. In 1973, “against a background of robust hymn-singing and fervent preaching” (as ironic as the baptism/execution scene in the movie The Godfather), Missouri Lutherans were engaged in “the deadliest politico-theological struggle in contemporary American Protestantism.” In 1974, the actions of Preus and Concordia’s Board of Control resulted in the “walkout” of a majority of students and faculty.

Because the fallout associated with the change in the doctrine of Scripture in the Missouri Synod occurred well after 1961, the obvious assumption would be that this dramatic transformation in The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod played little if any role in the exit of the Wisconsin Synod from the Synodical Conference.

footnote: The Wisconsin Synod did, however, express genuine regret at Missouri’s plight in the 1970s. Harold Wicke, editor of the Northwestern Lutheran, wrote in 1972 that “with aching heart and conscious prayer we of the Wisconsin Synod observe the battle raging in our former sister synod.” end footnote

The Wisconsin Synod’s resolution to sever relations with Missouri on August 17, 1961, cited the doctrine and practice of church fellowship as the reason for the break.

Yet many in both synods believed that the change regarding the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures was a significant, if sometimes unspoken, factor in the breakup of the synods.

footnote: The Lutheran, reporting on Wisconsin’s convention decision to sever fellowship, noted that synod president Oscar Naumann accused Missouri’s theological facul- ties of “undermining the authority of Scripture.” end footnote

Former Concordia Seminary president John Tietjen acknowledged in his Memoirs in Exile in 1990 that since the early 1950s, Concordia had been “undergoing a quiet revolution.” Biblical studies enjoyed greater attention and some faculty members helped the seminary and the synod “come to terms with contemporary issues of biblical criticism.” Tietjen recalled a conversation he had as a student in 1953 with Professor Jaroslav Pelikan in which Pelikan predicted serious conflict would occur as Lutheran Church Missouri Synod members “came to terms with the results of biblical research.” Though comfortable within the “protective shell” of his Missourian environment, Tietjen nonetheless realized that he “was already experiencing the tension between traditional Lutheran Church Missouri Synod views on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible and historical criticism.” He was forced to confront this tension in his exegetical studies.

footnote: Pelikan, observed just after World War II that “Missouri has never passed through the higher critical question.” end footnote

Tietjen’s admissions prompted Northwestern Lutheran editor James P. Schaefer of the Wisconsin Synod to remark, in effect, that “we knew it all along.”

The basic issue . . . was opposing views of the Bible. The liberals were convinced, beyond any doubting, that they were moving “away from the legalisms of the past to a full appreciation of the centrality and sufficiency of the gospel.” In promoting this view, extensive use was made of the “historical-critical” method. The conservatives in Missouri charged that the method was a full-scaled assault on the plenary inspiration of the inerrant Scriptures, a radical departure from Missouri’s past. This issue was the centerpiece of Missouri’s civil war.

This basic issue, though not the presenting issue over which Wisconsin exited the Synodical Conference, nonetheless played a key role in the turmoil between the two synods.

Changes in St. Louis

In a letter to the American Lutheran in 1920, a college student complained that “the clergy and the laymen of the Lutheran Church have long been antagonistic towards our universities.” An American Lutheran editor replied that whatever antagonism existed in the Lutheran church was directed not so much at the universities themselves but at “the unwholesome spiritual atmosphere that so often pervades them.” Christian parents feared the faith of their sons and daughters would be attacked by agnostics, evolutionists, and “the rankest kind of materialists” frequently to be found on university campuses. Though conceding that such fears were “by no means unfounded,” the editor defended the Missouri Synod against charges of widespread antagonism toward higher education. The growing tendency for young people to receive university training was being “generally encouraged,” and rightly so, because “a large force of intelligent, university-trained men and women must be of inestimable value to the Church.”

That same year, 1920, Walter Maier received his M.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and had completed most of the residency requirements for his Ph.D. Maier’s St. Louis colleagues marked his progress with a jubilant academic celebration, attended by faculty members, students, and area pastors. When Maier requested a leave of absence during the 1926–27 school year to complete his doctoral dissertation, the Concordia Seminary board, in granting the request, believed that Maier’s studies would “redound to the welfare of Concordia” and his doctorate would be useful in promoting the seminary to those outside the synod. J. T. Mueller and P. E. Kretzmann also earned advanced degrees in the 1920s, Mueller from Xenia Presbyterian Seminary and Kretzmann from Chicago Lutheran Seminary.

Privately, however, opposition mounted over the pursuit of terminal degrees by Missouri pastors and professors. Martin Graebner, president of Concordia College, St. Paul, Minnesota, in a strongly worded letter to synod president Frederick Pfotenhauer in 1927, chastised the “ungodly degrees” of Mueller and Kretzmann. In Graebner’s view, these men were “no longer useful to the Church.” He urged them to resign their calls immediately or at least “return their titles to the heretics who conferred them, and make public apology.” Two months later, writing to Kretzmann, Martin Graebner called his and Mueller’s pursuit of academic degrees “the beginning of the end of our orthodoxy.

When the future church historian will trace the downfall of Missouri Lutheranism he will point to you two. You are breaking down the dividing line between truth and error. It is not possible for you consistently to tell your students that all false doctrine is an abomination before the Lord, a thing they should avoid even to the extent of never attending a Sectarian church service. Our young men will get the impression that the St. Louis seminary is all right in its way, but that for real efficiency one must attend other schools of theology. Even now many of our young ministers are gathering much of their sermon material from other sources than our own, and the St. Louis faculty at this time has no more important work than to combat this tendency by precept and example.

Replying to his brother, Theodore Graebner admitted intense misgiving over the entire matter of terminal degrees because Concordia professors were expected to be not only teachers but “examples of consecrated and efficient workers in Christ’s vineyard.” If students were to conclude that university degrees guaranteed greater success in the church, Graebner feared some students would lose their faith, become “warped” in their religious views, and consider service to their synod “uncongenial.” (Graebner knew of “five or six cases on record now.”) Others would “absorb Modernism” and “gather disciples about them,” thus making modernism an issue in the synod.

Still, the practice continued. George Schick and Paul Bretscher arrived at Concordia with doctor’s degrees. William Arndt and Richard Caemmerer completed them while on the faculty. Between 1921 and 1941, only 6 of 16 men called to the faculty had degrees or earned them during their service; from 1941 to 1954, 13 of 23 possessed or completed doctorates. The widening educational experience of Missouri professors, as well as the synod’s broadened mission program, occasioned more frequent contact with non-Missouri doctrine and practice. This trend “had the effect of introducing exegetical and theological challenges to Missouri’s doctrinal system.” Ironically, the same P. E. Kretzmann, two decades later, criticized the change in position of Concordia’s professors:

How would you feel, as an instructor in our CONCORDIA SEMINARY, if you have to be on the defensive on the doctrine of the Antichrist, on the length of a creation day, on evolutionism, on the sanctioning of the modern dance, and other doctrinal and practical questions, when students blandly inform you that other men on the faculty hold more advanced views? I formerly kept a list of the questions on which opinions in our faculty differ widely from the straightforward teaching of a generation ago, but the subject was too painful.

Kretzmann charged one faculty colleague with being “committed to compromise, expediency, Melanchthonianism,” and called another “erratic to a very extreme degree, eager for the applause of the multitude.”

Officially, Missouri maintained its traditional doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. The first two volumes of the three-volume anthology The Abiding Word, published in 1946 and 1947, contained articles that employed such words as inspiration, verbal inspiration, infallible, inner perfection, perfect and complete agreement and harmony, and inerrant to describe the Bible. Edward Koehler’s Summary of Christian Doctrine, published in 1939 and reprinted in 1952, insisted that “every possibility of error” in Scripture, “not only in the presentation of the fundamental doctrines, but also in such references as pertain to nature and history, was eliminated from the outset.” In the early 1950s, Raymond Surburg analyzed the historical-critical method and hermeneutical issues “with great learning and acumen” before joining the faculty of Concordia Theological Semi- nary, Springfield. Robert Preus cited approvingly 17th-century Lutheran dogmatician J. A. Quenstedt that “in the sacred canonical Scriptures there is no lie, no deceit, no error, even the slightest, either in content or words.” Every word of Scripture was true “whether it pertains to doctrine, ethics, history, chronology, typography or onomastics.”

End Chapter 5 Part 1