A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 5 Part 4

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In the synod of Walther, Pieper, and Engelder

By late 1961, Scharlemann had received many letters both sup- porting and condemning his views. In the Milwaukee area, widespread rumors had Scharlemann resigning his teaching position in St. Louis. President Behnken wrote Scharlemann “a very kind letter advising and suggesting (not demanding or asking) that he consider resigning his present position,” but Scharlemann did not do so. In meetings convened on September 26th and 27th, 1961, with the synod’s president, vice presidents, members of the Concordia Board of Control, and the seminary’s president and academic dean, it was concluded that Scharlemann was “in full agreement with the teaching of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions” and took “a proper position with regard to the formulations of the doctrinal position of the Synod, specifically the Brief Statement.”

Scharlemann “withdrew” his essays at Missouri’s 1962 convention, apologizing for the disruption he had caused throughout the synod during the previous three years.

footnote: Many in the Missouri and Wisconsin synods, however, doubted that the withdrawal of Scharlemann’s essay resolved the issues his studies raised and wondered whether Scharlemann in fact ever changed his views. end footnote

The convention’s delegates assured Scharlemann of their forgiveness and resolved to demonstrate their forgiveness by prayers, encouragement, and “the request that [Missouri] members refrain from attacks upon him on the basis of [his] essays.” A dozen years later, Scharlemann was among the five professors who remained when most faculty and students walked off Concordia’s campus in 1974.

footnote: At a presentation of the highlights of this dissertation at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, March 22nd, 1999, after the author made a brief reference to the Scharlemann papers, a member of the audience rose to defend Scharlemann, saying that Scharlemann had renounced these views later in his life, and that he—the speaker—while president of Concordia Seminary, had even ministered to Scharlemann on his deathbed in 1981. The speaker was Karl Barth, former South Wisconsin District President and Concordia president. Siegbert Becker, however, who opposed Scharlemann’s views at the 1959 Chicago meeting and for whom the Scharlemann papers occasioned the most traumatic decision in his ministerial career, remained unconvinced that Scharlemann had undergone a change of heart. Becker used to remark, “To the end of his life, Scharlemann was a charlatan.” end footnote

But now it had become clear that scriptural inerrancy, as well as some doctrines traditionally taught in the Missouri Synod, were being openly questioned or disbelieved. Herman Otten, upon entering Concordia Seminary in 1952, discovered that instead of finding professors teaching dead orthodoxy, as he had been led to expect, “there were students and professors at the seminary who rejected some doctrines clearly taught in the Bible.” During the 1953–1954 school year, he and a group of other students petitioned the faculty for clarifications regarding the doctrine of inspiration, but the resulting discussions confused, rather than clarified, the issue. At the end of that academic year, two leading students, Walter Boumann and William Schoedel, denied the traditional formulations of the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, as well as the historicity of the Genesis creation account.

During his last year at Concordia, Otten wrote two articles for the student newspaper, The Seminarian, in which he assessed the changes occurring in Lutheran theology. In “Relativism and Modern Theology,” Otten charged that “the believing Church” was in the grips of a “life and death struggle with regard to holding fast the faith that is in Jesus Christ and His Word.” Theories that “all truth is relative” and that “there are no unchanging absolutes” had affected all of society, including the church. Otten cited Luther that truth is propositional and absolute, then concluded:

It is necessary that we of the Church of the Reformation prayerfully, humbly, yet fearlessly and decisively confront the pyrrhic spectre of relativism and uncertainty; that we tear off unsparingly all its false, deceptively pious marks, vestments, and doctor’s robes; that we refute its errors; condemn all its evil forms before the forum of Scripture and Symbol; and counter its devilish insinuation with the cheerful affirmation of holy faith.

In “The Word of God in Contemporary Lutheranism,” Otten criticized Martin Heinecken for writing that “it is not the person of Jesus that is decisive but only the truth which is proclaimed.” Heinecken labeled several conservative theologians fundamentalists, because they insisted on verbal inspiration and made “the mistake of basing truths of the reason upon contingent historical events.”Even the resurrection of Christ was to Heinecken “not an event which anyone who that day happened to stroll into Joseph’s garden might have witnessed.” Otten countered that Missouri’s Brief Statement “leaves little room for the negative theories of higher criticism or for an ‘open’ attitude towards inerrancy and the historicity of any part of Scripture.”

In these two articles, Otten was careful to avoid directing any accusations or criticisms toward his seminary or his synod. He concluded his second article only with the wish that the Missouri Synod might “retain its loyal attitude toward Holy Scripture, not because of its love for a book, but because of its concern for the salvation of lost souls through the vicarious satisfaction of Christ.”

Otten’s voice was but one among many. In 1955, the Confessional Lutheran publicized an incident actually dating to 1943 in which a student presented a Bachelor of Divinity thesis containing an erroneous position on Christ’s descent into hell. The student was never called upon to correct his thesis or retract his view but instead received a pastoral call. The author of the thesis, Conrad Coyner, retracted “any and all statements contrary” to scriptural teaching on the descent in November 1955. Discussion continued, however, concerning how Concordia faculty members could have granted approval to this thesis.

The January 1956 Seminarian contained an article that proposed a “mytho-poetic” view of Genesis. The student author of the article was allowed to graduate and given a diploma declaring him “fit to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments.” Two months later, he joined the Unitarian church. During the 1956–1957 school year, Otten was asked to state in writing his objections to the teaching of Professor Arthur Carl Piepkorn (ultimately eight students brought false doctrine charges against Piepkorn). President Behnken, discussing the students’ concerns, said he “could not believe that any Missouri Synod professor would deny even such a doctrine as the historicity of Jonah or Adam and Eve.”

In spring 1957, Concordia professor Gilbert Thiele presented in The Seminarian a summary of an essay he had already delivered to Lutheran Church Missouri Synod districts, concerning the immortality of the soul and the resurrection. The concept that man is composed of a material body and an immaterial soul and that at death the soul is released from the body was described by Thiele as “Platonic, idealistic,” and “rationalistic.” This “perversion, understandable and explicable from the Socratic view and the Platonic presupposition,” had become the language of Continental Enlightenment thinkers, Freemasonry, Gnosticism, and Docetism, but it was “unpardonable as either the first or the last word for Christians.” Thiele contended that “neither a separate bodily nor psychic immortality are taught in the Scriptures.” The Job 19:25 through 27 passage

footnote: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me” end footnote

“in all probability does not refer to resurrection or even immortality since it appeals to a vindicator other than God.” It is “out of place” for us to speak of “the chemical, atomic, geographical reconstruction of the flesh of the person who has died.” In the resurrection, “we will be recognizable, if that is of any value and comfort.” Thiele asked:

Will there be some sort of mass peregrination to the throne of God, out of the depths of the sea, out of the innumerable graves, catacombs, crypts, urns, and other places of disposal? We do not know. Important is this: We will be before the throne of God and of the Lamb.

Siegbert Becker took a deep interest in the presentations of Scharlemann and others; their comments reflected what Becker had been hearing from his students for several years. “It is actually being said today in at least one Lutheran college,” Becker wrote in 1966, “that we should no longer sing, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,’ because the Bible might be wrong.” If Jesus really loves us, Becker was told, “we must have far better authority for this assurance than a statement of the Bible.” A fellow Missouri pastor told Becker that Jesus was mistaken in ascribing the first five books of the Bible to Moses, and when Becker countered that this meant Jesus had not spoken the truth, the pastor answered, “Jesus certainly did speak the truth because he was honestly convinced in his own mind that Moses had written these things because that is what everybody at that time believed, and as a child of His time, Jesus did not know any better.” The pastor concluded, “We have a different definition of truth than you have.” To this Becker replied:

One can conclude from this only that a person speaks the truth when he expresses the honest conviction of his mind and heart. Truth, therefore, would seem to be that of which you are convinced and not necessarily that which corresponds to reality. This new approach to truth helps us to see a little more clearly how it is possible for ecumenically-minded Lutherans . . . to listen with respect and consideration to the most horrible perversions of God’s Word as views that have a perfect right to exist in Christendom and in the Lutheran Church. After all, these are the honest convictions of the men who hold them.

These views extended even to the most basic of Christian beliefs. Becker recalled another conversation with a Lutheran pastor who denied the immortality of the soul, insisting that this belief had been imported instead from Platonic philosophy and that the church “in its purest form” did not profess it. When Becker quoted to him Jesus’ words about fearing the one who can kill both soul and body in hell,122 the pastor answered simply, “The Lord Jesus would never have said anything like that. He was much too Christian ever to say anything like that.”

There are “Lutherans today,” Becker observed, who teach that while we believe in the resurrection of Christ, “it is possible that the bones of Jesus are moldering in some unknown Palestinian grave.” Those “Lutherans today” regard the resurrection accounts in the gospels to be “so contradictory that we probably will never know exactly what happened on that first Easter Sunday morning.” One such “neo-Lutheran” had written that the resurrection of Christ “was not the resuscitation or the reassembly of a corpse.” Becker cited the comment of a Missouri laywoman: “I just can’t feel comfortable in church anymore. When my pastor recites the Apostles’ Creed, all I can think of is this, that he does not mean the same thing with those words that I do.”

footnote: Becker’s citation of a “neo-Lutheran” regarding the resurrection of Christ is from Paul Malte, Celebrating Deep. end footnote

In the wake of Scharlemann’s exploratory papers and growing questions about the teaching at Concordia, Missouri’s 1959 convention in San Francisco passed a resolution requiring all Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors and professors to pledge unqualified subscription to the Brief Statement, particularly its views on scriptural inerrancy, inspiration, and authority. The measure provoked spirited dissent and failed to alter synodical thinking.

footnote: Memorials 306 through 310 to Missouri’s 1962 convention urged that the 1959 resolution be rescinded. Memorial 311, entitled, “Declaration of Obedience and Freedom” and signed by the Albany-Schenectady-Kingston, New York Pastoral Conference, referred to the “extensive disturbance” the 1959 resolution had caused within the synod. Memorial 311 stated, “We cannot, for conscience’ sake, agree that any statement, resolution, or document has confessional force and status and is in that sense binding upon our conscience except those to which we have subscribed at our ordination.” end footnote

Soon after the 1959 convention, at a meeting of both factions within Missouri’s leadership, Behnken argued in favor of the synod’s traditional view of biblical inerrancy. One who attended, citing Walther’s long-held dictum that “the Evangelical Lutheran Church accepts no teaching as an article of faith which is not contained in God’s Word,” was asked to produce a convincing proof text demonstrating the Bible’s inerrancy in scientific, historical, and geographic matters. After quoting several passages on inspiration that failed to demonstrate his precise point, Behnken settled on John 10:35. At that point, a “sympathetic and stalwart conservative exegete” said that the verb broken in that verse “does not have that intention and effect.” Behnken asked, “Which texts do prove this doctrine, then?” The so-called conservative exegete replied, “There are none.”

In 1960, Concordia’s faculty released “A Statement on the Form and Function of the Holy Scriptures.” In it, the faculty said:

The Scriptures express what God wants them to say and accomplish what God wants them to do. In this sense and in the fulfillment of this function they are inerrant, infallible, and wholly reliable. Their truthfulness, their infallibility as the only rule and norm of faith and practice, and their reliability are incontrovertible. There is no human or secular criterion by which their truthfulness, their infallibility as the only rule of faith and practice, and their reliability can be made evident.

The American Lutheran called this “an excellent statement” and praised it for its “commendable carefulness” regarding the terms inerrant and infallible. The faculty’s statement could serve “as a manifesto around which our whole Church can rally.” The Confessional Lutheran, however, said that the position of the faculty’s statement was “radically different” from that expressed in the Brief Statement. While the faculty’s statement would “no doubt prove unintelligible to our congregations and to uninitiated pastors,” modernism “can find a shelter within it.”

The same 1962 Lutheran Church Missouri Synod convention that granted Martin Scharlemann forgiveness for his essay “The Bible as Record, Witness, and Medium” reversed its decision on adherence to the Brief Statement. In 1963, Robert Scharlemann wrote that “unless one holds to the word ‘inerrancy’ with a sort of blind dogmatism,” the assertion that the Bible contains no errors “simply cannot be supported by the biblical evidence itself.” In 1964, Richard Jungkuntz, now an Lutheran Church Missouri Synod professor, challenged the traditional Synodical Conference interpretation of John 10:35 and scriptural inerrancy. “For both modern and traditional interpretations this statement is equivalent to ‘Scripture cannot be denied; if Scripture says something, that something is fact.’” A better understanding of the passage should be, “Scripture cannot be undone, cannot be kept from going into fulfillment.”

The term inerrancy, Arthur Carl Piepkorn wrote in 1965, “does not correspond to any vocable of the Sacred Scriptures” nor “to any vocable in the Lutheran symbols.” While the ancient church and early Lutheran orthodoxy affirmed the correctness and adequacy of the Scriptures for being saved and for living the Christian life, and while the Scripture’s “freedom from error” was “largely an unarticulated assumption of undefined scope,” inerrancy was a relatively young word with a limited recent history. After examining actual occurrences of inerrant or terms of similar etymology, and after cataloguing various apparent discrepancies or contradictions throughout both Testaments, Piepkorn wrote:

The truth of the Sacred Scriptures is something to be evaluated in terms of their own criteria and of the qualities which they themselves exhibit. These qualities do not—speaking generally—include great precision in formulation, stenographic fidelity in reporting exact words, prosaic literalism in interpretation, bibliographically accurate citations of author and title, comprehensive documentation, carefully synchronized chronologies, a modern historiographic sense, harmonically consistent adjustment of sources to one another, and meticulously exact descriptions of attendant historical, physical, and other scientific details.

Such a picture of the Sacred Scripture “is likely to be less tidy than a purely theoretical construct” of inerrancy, but “it is also more likely to be more realistic, more correct, and more genuinely truthful.”

To this line of argumentation, Becker replied that the assertion that the word inerrancy was not applied to Scripture until the 19th century and was thus a “new heresy” revealed the critics’ “lack of scholarship, if not their downright dishonesty.” While technically correct, such argumentation fails to note that “the word inerrancy, in the sense of ‘not subject to error,’ was not in use before the 19th century.” One could hardly expect biblical scholars to employ a term that did not exist in current English usage. But “even if the word was not used,” said Becker, “these men surely knew that the thought which it conveys was clearly expressed long before the 19th century.”

footnote: The American Lutheran sought to defend itself against attacks made upon it at this 1961 “State of the Church” conference, reprinting its October 1958 article “Absolutely True, Inerrant, Infallible?—YES.” end footnote

Much of the debate within the LCMS and the Synodical Conference over fellowship issues may have been far removed from the interests and concerns of the laity. But were Adam and Eve real people? Was Jonah actually swallowed by a whale? Could Lutherans still sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so”?—these were questions the masses could understand and become upset over.

Reflecting 20 years after his election as synod president, Jacob A. O. Preus put in colloquial terms what the battle was about.

We began getting some professors here at the St. Louis seminary along in the fifties, with more emphasis in the sixties, who were at variance with the traditional historic position of this church. Now you’ve got to understand this church. . . . This is a very German organization. And Germans are the greatest law and order people in the world. They operate by rules.

The creation account was explained with “Well, it’s just a myth, just a mythological way of describing how man became sinful, but not a literal account.” Favorite gospel stories were brushed aside with the comment that “Jesus didn’t really say or do those things.” When the faithful objected, “But the Bible says right here that this happened,” they were told, “Well, we can’t be too sure.” Preus remembered one professor who “shilly-shallied and backpedaled and fiddle-faddled around” in front of Concordia’s seminary board, until a board member finally said, “Ever since I was born I’ve been praying, ‘Let Thy holy angels be with me that the wicked foe may have no power over me.’ Now do I have to quit saying that?”

footnote: Herbert T. Mayer, managing editor of Concordia’s Theological Monthly, acknowledged that “a gap may exist in a denomination because a seminary faculty has espoused views that are described with terms like ‘modernistic’ and as a consequence has alienated many of its alumni of a former generation.” Mayer admitted that this had “certainly happened” on the St. Louis campus. The Confessional Lutheran responded, “It would certainly be far better for the Church if ringleaders of Modernism on the faculty were to be replaced by men who are sound in doctrine and able to convict gainsayers.” The Confessional Lutheran writer suggested that “men like Pastor Herman Otten” would be “a splendid replacement” for professors like Scharlemann. end footnote

What a surprise for those in Missouri who had imagined “it could never happen here”! Siegbert Becker remembered that, in the late 1930s, Paul Kretzmann had predicted that “the doctrine of the plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible would become a battlefield for the Lutheran Church in America.” Becker assumed the struggle would occur between the United Lutheran Church of America and the Synodical Conference.

Who of us would have believed at that time that in the Missouri Synod itself voices would be raised against this Biblical teaching? . . . Many of us, I am sure, wonder often how such a thing as this could have happened so quickly to a church which had learned its theology from a Walther and a Pieper and an Engelder.

End Chapter 5 Part 4