A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 5 Part 3

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Missouri’s official response, however, was that the Affirmation “was not charged with any doctrinal error.” No modification of its doctrinal content was required, although some observers feared that certain phrases of the Affirmation failed sufficiently to exclude doctrinal errors and required clarification.

Wisconsin remained unconvinced that changes in terminology alone would render the Affirmation acceptable. Calling merely for clarifications “seems to be an understatement which will probably convey to the reader the impression that the entire matter was not really as serious as it had at first seemed.” The Affir- mation did not serve as a settlement of past differences. By 1947, it became obvious that the synods would not be uniting on the basis of the Affirmation.

footnote: The American Lutheran Church’s resolution at its October 1946 convention in Appleton, Wisconsin—that failure to formulate a single doctrinal statement “after years of effort” had led them to “despair of attaining Lutheran unity by way of additional doctrinal formulations and reformulations”—effectively terminated the Doctrinal Affirmation. end footnote

A second attempt to draft a single document as a basis for union between the American Lutheran Church and the Synodical Conference appeared in the Common Confession in 1950.

footnote: The Common Confession, Part I was adopted by the Missouri and Slovak synods but was withdrawn as a basis for discussion between the synods at the 1956 Synodical Conference convention. Part II, which appeared in 1952 as a statement “indicative of, and normative for, Christian life in our congregations and synods,” was never formally adopted by any of the Synodical Conference synods. end footnote

Although Missouri’s South Wisconsin District Pastors’ Conference declared the Common Confession “entirely scriptural,” G. Elson Ruff, editor of The Lutheran, referred to the Confession as “the Missouri Compromise.” The document “didn’t try to solve the old problems—it buried them.”

Over the next year and a half, Synodical Conference bodies responded to the Common Confession in predictable fashion, and their responses widened the chasm between them. The American Lutheran called the Confession “complete and well-formulated, neither ignoring nor accentuating the differences hitherto separating the two church bodies.” The editorial writer especially urged “those Lutherans not a party to the agreement” to permit “free expression” on the Confession, “free of innuendo and personal rancor,” and to resist “a modern rehash of all the mistakes or supposed mistakes of the past.” The Confessional Lutheran, however, considered it impossible to accept the Common Confession. John Buenger went so far as to say that those Missourians who could accept the Confession “are evidently in doctrinal agreement” with the American Lutheran Church and should join that church body, calling it “the only honorable thing for them to do.

They should not try to oppress and tyrannize the consciences of those who are firmly convinced that the position and practice to which the Missouri Synod has always adhered in former years was right and Scriptural, and who are therefore for conscience sake bound to continue in the old paths.

Missouri’s 1950 convention thanked God “that the ‘Common Confession’ shows that agreement has been achieved in the doctrines treated by the two committees.” Delegates directed their synod president to “place this matter before the Synodical Conference in order to secure the consent of the constituent synods to the actions outlined in these resolutions.” The Slovak Lutheran Church aligned itself with Missouri, accepting the Confession at its 1951 convention, although pointing to seven places where it felt the Confession required explanation or clarification.

The Norwegian Church (Evangelical Lutheran Synod) unanimously disapproved of the Common Confession in 1951 because it “[did] not reject the errors of the American Lutheran Church” in the doctrines of Scripture, conversion, the church, and last things. Wisconsin’s convention that same summer at New Ulm, though acknowledging “many fine statements of Scriptural truth” in the Confession, declared it to be “inadequate in the points noted” and charged that Missouri’s adoption of the Confession “involves an untruth and creates a basically untruthful situation since this action has been officially interpreted as a settlement of past differences which are not in fact settled.”

Wisconsin’s criticisms of the Common Confession were summarized in the word inadequate. “We are not going to take the position,” Reim explained, “that a confession is wrong simply because it is a new formulation of some old truths.” Restating doctrinal truths in terms faithful to Scripture “is in itself a wholesome process,” possibly even preventing one from adopting “a rigid and mechanical insistence upon the letter of a doctrine” without “getting at the heart and spirit of the matter.” But the Common Confession, as any confessional document, was also intended to serve the negative function of “exposing and ward- ing off the error which the Church is thus forced to deal with.” Because it failed to do that, the Confession was inadequate.

Regarding the doctrine of Scripture, critics in both the Missouri and Wisconsin synods noted the similarity between the wording of the Common Confession and that of the Pittsburgh Agreement. In 1939, Missouri’s Committee on Doctrinal Unity had judged the Pittsburgh Agreement “not adequate” because it contained “loopholes for a denial of the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures.” By adopting the Confession with its “content and fitting word” at its 1950 convention, the majority approved “the very sentence which was singled out for most criticism” in 1939. The Confession failed entirely to address verbal inspiration or inerrancy. It contained “no small amount of ambiguity” that could offer “a convenient shelter for former erroneous teaching.” The article made room “for those who denied verbal inspiration” and permitted error “to stand side by side with truth.”

Part II of the Common Confession did nothing to remove the differences. Noting that the Common Confession “was not originally presented to our synod as Part I,” John Buenger said that Part II dealt “mostly with material which has no bearing on the controversy” and therefore did “not serve to clarify the situation.” It only served to deflect readers from attention to the real issues.

The “most basic difference between the American Lutheran Church and the Synodical Conference” was “a different conception of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures.” It has been “generally known,” Buenger wrote, that the American Lutheran Church “has taught and defended the modern view of the Bible,” that only those parts that deal with Christian faith and life are errorless and inspired, while statements that “deal with other, secular matters are not written by inspiration” and may contain errors. Part II said: “The Holy Scriptures are God’s verbally inspired Word, that is, God moved men to write what He wanted recorded in the words which He wanted employed. They alone constitute God’s inerrant Word to men.” But the phrase “what He wanted recorded” left it unclear whether “all Scripture” was inerrant or only those parts that lead directly to Christ and salvation. “Once a loophole is left open for those who do not accept the whole Bible as divine revelation, even the expression ‘God’s verbally inspired Word’ which is used in this connection is of no consequence.” When large portions of the Bible are “excepted from inspiration,” the Bible “no longer is the Word of God but merely contains it.”

The Scharlemann papers

A 1958 American Lutheran editorial, while maintaining that the Holy Scriptures are absolutely true, inerrant, and infallible, recognized it was not uncommon for Christians “interested in the intellectual implications” of their faith “to become involved in baffling and agonizing difficulties” regarding the doctrine of inspiration.

In almost every case it seemed to us that something like this happened: being brought up in the Lutheran Church, the man in question had for a long time simply taken the Doctrine of Inspiration for granted without giving any serious thought to it. When, very abruptly as a rule, he was brought face to face with facts and suppositions of which he had never heard before—uncertainty of authorship, variations in ancient manuscripts, the ex cathedra pronouncements of higher criticism, the historical development of the Old Testament and the New Testament canons, the endless difficulties besetting the translator, the frustrating speculations of philosophy, the awe-inspiring discoveries of modern science, and the like—all at once the very foundation of faith seemed to be crumbling away, and now a frantic effort was made to discover a sure foundation upon which one’s traditional faith might be securely built. Such a foundation would be the Doctrine of Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures firmly established by incontrovertible external evidences and proofs—the kind of proofs demanded, for instance, by the historian, the mathematician, and the scientist. But look where you will outside the Holy Scriptures, you will find no such proof. History does not provide it, philosophy does not provide it, science does not provide it. Shocked to the very depths of his soul, the honest seeker after truth was now confronted with the question, “How then can I accept the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God?”

To judge by his own words, Martin Scharlemann was concerned about just such uncertainties in the minds of impressionable college students and thoughtful adults, and it was because of that professed concern that he wrote a series of study papers on inerrancy and the Scriptures in the late 1950s. Though not considered the person to initiate the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation at Concordia, Scharlemann’s public presentations made pastors and professors throughout the Synodical Conference aware of its existence at the St. Louis seminary.

At the first meeting he attended as a new member of Concordia’s faculty in 1957, Robert Preus recalled hearing Scharlemann state that the Bible, though true, contained “errors.” Reaction from older professors such as Martin Franzmann, Walter Roehrs, and J. T. Mueller was “almost violent.” Though many faculty members rejected Scharlemann’s position, Scharlemann remained “undaunted and went on and on with exploratory articles,” reflecting his graduate training “but never actually endorsing the method or even talking much about it.” Younger, newer colleagues in time endorsed the method Scharlemann promoted and “brought it into full use at the seminary.”

Scharlemann read his first study paper, “The Bible as Record, Witness, and Medium,” on April 3, 1959, to the Missouri Synod Council on Bible Study; he then repeated it four days later for the Northern Illinois District Pastors Conference. Scharlemann called his paper “the product of more than six years of investigation and reflection.” He did not intend that it be regarded as “the final word on this matter” but presented it to “elicit reaction.” It surely did that. Frederick Danker likened the effect of Scharlemann’s paper on the Missouri Synod to “a fifty car collision on a turnpike with police car flashers piercing through the fog.”

Scharlemann appealed to “God’s undiminished transcendence” to argue that it is impossible for God “to be contained in either place, time, logic, or language.” God’s ways “are never completely captured in a formulation, whether it be a perfect deduction or a neatly structured syllogism.” Biblical revelation “is not primarily a method of transmitting a body of information.” Biblical writers record their understanding of God’s actions, but they do so “from within their own personal limitations in terms of historical, geographical, or scientific information.” Luther, for example, had remarked that “the author of Kings was more accurate than the writer of Chronicles.”

Thus the word inerrancy was “inappropriately applied to the Scriptures,” and inspiration as a description of the Old Testament occurs only once in Scripture. Just as God breathed life into the first human beings at creation, so the Scriptures are “God- breathed.” Each scriptural document “is in some way a record of and witness to the divine revelation which confronts man with the claims of a living God.”

In additional papers, Scharlemann presented more provocative insights. In “God Is One,” in August 1959, Scharlemann argued that Old Testament Israel’s worship “ought to be described as monolatrous rather than monotheistic” because during the years in the wilderness, Israel “came into contact with nations that served other gods, whose existence they did not at first deny.” Only later, by Isaiah’s time, could Israel’s faith be called monotheistic. “The movement toward full and unequivocal monotheism” in Israel, Scharlemann concluded, while not to be considered an evolutionary process, might be regarded as “cumulative, rather than progressive revelation.”

In a third paper, “Revelation and Inspiration,” presented in October 1959, Scharlemann, although acknowledging that the Lutheran Confessions contained no specific formulation of the doctrine of the Word, declared his commitment to the doctrine of verbal inspiration.

footnote: Richard Donald Labore contends that Scharlemann opened the paper with this disclaimer at the suggestion of Concordia president Alfred Fuerbringer, “who, while supporting Scharlemann, was also quite aware of the growing reaction” against Scharlemann’s work. end footnote

Repeating his assertion that “revelation is a self-disclosure of God as a personal being to man,” and “not primarily a body of information,” Scharlemann noted apparent historical discrepancies in the Bible, such as varying accounts of the numbers of exiles returning from Babylon, conflicting genealogies of Jesus, uncertain wording of the superscription on the cross, and differing accounts in the synoptic gospels of what the Father said at Jesus’ baptism.

Concerned that college students have “become almost agnostic” when confronted with such discrepancies, Scharlemann insisted, “If you have built the faith of your confirmands on a theory of inspiration which does not take into full account what the Scriptures say, you have dealt unfairly with that child.” The word inerrant can be “a very misleading term to use of the Scriptures” because it “makes sense only in the light of a false view of inspiration” perpetuated by fundamentalism and contained in Missouri’s Brief Statement. “It is this particular emphasis which has misled many people into believing Christian faith is belief in a book.” While it might be “more interesting” to have a book untainted by human error, “it just doesn’t happen to be that way.”

In a fourth paper, “God’s Acts As Revelation,” reprinted in Concordia Theological Monthly in April 1961, Scharlemann again asserted that “the sacred authors wrote as particular individuals in their own age,” and so their language and method of presenting information differed from ours. Though the record and witness of biblical authors was utterly reliable, Scharlemann agreed with and cited approvingly a statement from the Australian Lutheran that God used the distinctive features of the biblical authors “in such a manner that even that which human reason might call a deficiency in Holy Scripture must serve the divine purpose.”

To synod conservatives, Scharlemann’s papers offered incontrovertible evidence that he was “spearheading a movement to rid the Missouri Synod of the doctrine of inerrancy of Holy Scripture, and, with that, of its Plenary and Verbal Inspiration” as confessed in the Brief Statement. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who comes “to unsuspecting fellow-Lutherans, fellow-Missourians” and tells them “he fully accepts and teaches verbal and plenary inspiration” yet “at the same time points out alleged errors of the holy writers” is doing something “so patently dishonest” that only those who do not want to be treated honestly “can fail to see the fangs of the wolf under the fleece.”

On November 20, 1959, at Old St. Paul’s Church, Chicago, an extended discussion with Scharlemann was held, attended by 116 pastors and professors of the Northern Illinois Pastoral Conference. An 18-page summary of the meeting, “compiled from four separate sources” but “not a word for word account of the discussion,” revealed the widening gap between Scharlemann’s views and that of “old” Missouri. Scharlemann began by emphasizing that he appeared reluctantly to present his viewpoints since this was an exploratory essay, yet he felt compelled to do so because upon arriving at Concordia in 1952, he discovered his students “had a fundamentalistic view of the Bible” and “were fundamentalists and not Lutherans.” Scharlemann also repeated the concern he had voiced in “Revelation and Inspiration,” that when the synod’s “Blue Catechism” stated that “Scripture is without error,” it was doing great harm to confirmation classes that would find this an indefensible assumption when they went on to college.

Objections took various forms. Scharlemann was accused of “misrepresenting Luther,” who insisted that “Scripture cannot err” and that “the Bible did not contradict itself.” Appeal was made to John 10:35—“The Scripture cannot be broken”—which had served as the title of Theodore Engelder’s collection of essays defending scriptural inerrancy.

footnote: Regarding John 10:35, Engelder wrote, “Nowhere does Scripture make a misstatement. If any man dares to eliminate the least statement of Scripture as untrustworthy, he is condemned by this Scripture.” Engelder called it “unworthy of a Christian to refuse to accept any portion of Scripture as the inerrant Word of God.” end footnote

Scharlemann insisted repeatedly that he believed there were factual mistakes in the Bible, that there is a “human side” to Scripture that contains discrepancies, that “inerrancy does not apply to Scripture,” and that “inspiration does not mean inerrancy.” When Scharlemann said “scholars never have the final word” but “they are humble” and “scholarship is not decisive,” Siegbert Becker, professor at Con- cordia College, River Forest, replied:

If I say there is a discrepancy, a mistake, I have made up my mind; I have said, I have so much knowledge that I say, these men made a mistake. I am at least sure of something. I put myself above Scripture and place my words into the mouth of God. Thereby I prejudice you toward believing that Scripture can err. This is a logical fallacy. I am begging the question by assuming that there are discrepancies.

In essays written over the next years, Becker attacked Scharlemann’s arguments. He dismissed Scharlemann’s assertion—that God reveals not things to us but God Himself—as a false antithesis. “While the Scriptures say a few times that God reveals Himself, it says oftener that God reveals things to men.” God’s acts “would often be unintelligible or of doubtful meaning if we were dependent on them.” Referring to one of Scharlemann’s arguments against inerrancy, Becker wrote:

A man said before the pastoral conference of an entire district of Synod that there are manifest mistakes in the Bible, not errors, mind you, but mistakes in fact, and as proof he cited the story of the ascension of our Lord as it is recorded in Matthew and Luke. Luke, he said, tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven from Bethany in Judea, while Matthew says that he ascended from a mountain in Galilee. Even the most cursory reading of the last chapter of Matthew would reveal that Matthew does not even say that Jesus ascended into heaven, much less that he ascended from Galilee. It is very evident who made the mistake here, and a stupid, inexcusable mistake at that.

A more detailed analysis of Scharlemann’s “Revelation and Inspiration,” examining his paper in view of the neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth, acknowledged that “there are still many inconsistencies in Scripture which probably never will be perfectly resolved in this world.” Though these discrepancies “are not nearly so obvious as Dr. Scharlemann would have us believe,” a perfect solution for them remains difficult. Scharlemann’s views on inerrancy and revelation were distressing, yet the report concluded:

We will want to take care as to what attitude we take over against Dr. Scharlemann and others who espouse his or similar views. It ill becomes us as Christians to wax indignant, personal, and vindictive over against such individuals—as though we were so perfect that we could dispense with the quality of mercy in our dealings. Rather, we will want our feeling and actions to be guided by love, humility, and the spirit of longsuffering. For we need the fellowship and admonition of our brethren just as surely as they need ours.

End Chapter 5 part 3