A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 5 Part 5

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“The Grace That Has Spared Us”

Asked in 1997 what indicators of the Missouri Synod’s transformation became apparent to them, one respondent cited Missouri’s toleration of a “liberal interpretation of Scripture,” and another mentioned “the ‘liberal’ theology of many on the faculty of the St. Louis seminary.” Changes in Missouri “came with a growing unwillingness to endure the criticism from less orthodox and unionistic church bodies.”

One Wisconsin pastor, who received part of his education in Lutheran Church Missouri Synod schools, recalled that the faculty of Concordia Seminary in Springfield “respected our Synod’s position and welcomed us from Wisconsin.” In their classes, faculty members “would comment about the liberal, left-ward thoughts and actions of such groups as ‘the forty-four,’ the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, the Atlantic and English Districts, and some St. Louis professors,” and they would note with approval “those who opposed and sought to curb the liberals.” Walter W. F. Albrecht, Clarence Spiegel, and Martin Naumann were remembered for criticizing such trends in Missouri. But there was also “a smugness that took the attitude: ‘We are the Missouri Synod, whatever we do must be OK.’ ”

One pastor, while a student at Missouri’s Concordia College in Milwaukee, recalled reading in The Seminarian about a visit made by Concordia students to a non-Synodical Conference seminary. The article called it “uplifting” to take communion there and to see “the old separations passing away.” The pastor recalled thinking, “If they can print that, I guess the profs there must be in agreement with it.”

footnote: Martin Marty, though not mentioning reception of Holy Communion, commented favorably on the Association of Lutheran Seminarians, through which students could promote “organized communication” and “good and pleasant unity” with other Lutheran seminarians. Meyer recounts the significant role Concordia students played in the Association. Formed in 1946 at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, by representatives of ten Lutheran seminaries, the Association received the St. Louis seminary’s support despite protests from Missouri pastors and a plea that the seminary discontinue its membership. By contrast, Concordia Seminary in Springfield, when invited, gave an “inadequate response.” The Norwegian Synod’s Bethany Seminary offered no reply, and the Wisconsin Synod’s Thiensville seminary considered it “inadvisable” for its representatives to attend. Concordia’s membership in the Association provoked debate at the 1950 Synodical Conference Convention. end footnote

One Wisconsin pastor, a Concordia St. Louis graduate who subsequently changed synods, remembered that “the clouds were on the horizon” when he entered Concordia in 1950 and that “the J. E. D. P. movement and Higher Critical Theory played a large part, since it stemmed from European theologians. European theologians were the rage at the time.” Another remarked, “Their seminaries became too impressed with advanced degrees for their professors rather than sound theology.” Another pastor recalled hearing former Concordia professor Paul Kretzmann remark that the transformation came about as “the result of calling Ph.D.s instead of Th.D.s to the St. Louis Seminary,” and another respondent commented in greater detail:

I believe that the practice of sending promising theological students off to Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, etcetera, led to these men coming back to teach what they were taught. Doctrinal statements were appearing and not being quashed which were certainly not in accord with Missouri’s doctrinal confessions. I had the assignment of writing a paper on [Gilbert] Thiele’s paper about immortality of the soul and the resurrection. Following the lead of [Oscar] Cullmann, Thiele denied any life of the soul between the time of death and the resurrection. His treatment of the Bible and his whole attitude of “prove me wrong” was most disturbing.

footnote: Karl F. Krauss, pastor in Wisconsin’s Michigan District and former first vice president of the Synodical Conference, was often heard to remark, “The Missouri Synod went down by degrees.” end footnote

Still another observed “a growing high church tendency” in Missouri, “which almost inevitably breeds doctrinal indifference.”

footnote: Arnold Sitz cited “the English District, the chaplaincy, the high church party, and, sad to say, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis” as the “chief crevasses through which brackish waters” of ecumenism were flowing into the Synodical Conference. end footnote

Carleton Toppe noted “the growing emphasis on ritual and ceremony under the guise of going back to Luther’s day” when the Lutheran church was distancing itself from many Roman ceremonies. Toppe faulted Synodical Conference churches, where “we hear of perpetual lamps burning, custodians crossing themselves before exhibiting sacramental vessels to visitors, altar boys, marriage communion for the bride and groom, and, in general, the dangerous tendency to crowd out the sermon by expanding the liturgy.” Wisconsin pastor Henry Nitz complained about “certain Romanizing externals” that were “creeping into some Protestant churches,” including use of the term sacrifice of the mass, employing a sanctuary lamp, genuflecting at the altar, and using incense. “We have seen them in Synodical Conference churches!” Nitz warned.

footnote: J. Jeffrey Zetto noted, “Many laypeople, pastors and Synodical officials were upset, especially in the 1950s, by what they felt was a trend toward ‘Romanism’ in the synod.” Edmund Reim commented already in 1947 on liturgical innovations introduced by the Society of St. James. While saying that he “appreciated highly” much that he read in the first two issues of Una Sancta, Reim warned, “We cannot refrain from voicing a vigorous protest against this tendency to reintroduce a terminology and traditions which are reminiscent of Rome.” end footnote

As a young Wisconsin Synod pastor in Crete, Illinois, Paul Eickmann attended one day of the Missouri Synod’s Northern Illinois District Pastoral Conference, on which Martin Scharlemann “delivered a paper on revelation and inspiration.” Eickmann also attended the November 1959 meeting at Old St. Paul’s in Chicago where Scharlemann was asked to discuss his paper further. In Eickmann’s recollection, Scharlemann “distinctly denied the inerrancy of Scripture, while agreeing that it is the inspired Word of God.” When the conference approved by majority vote a motion to thank Scharlemann for his essay and defeated a motion urging that he be disciplined by Northern Illinois District officials, some of the Missouri men present, and Eickmann as well, were “deeply concerned.”

Eickmann wrote a letter of concern to Wisconsin’s seminary president Carl Lawrenz, for two reasons. First, the situation “shows the wisdom of the intersynodical committees in dealing first with the questions concerning Scripture. There are disagreements arising in this area.” Second, the inability of the district and its officials to act on Scharlemann’s paper “casts a definite shadow on our [Wisconsin’s] understanding of the San Francisco resolutions” binding all Missouri pastors and professors to the Brief Statement.

Eickmann sent Scharlemann a copy of his letter to Lawrenz, adding this note: “I hope that I have not misrepresented your position on the inerrancy of Scripture,” but “I consider your doctrine a dangerous false teaching in the Church.”
Scharlemann, on sabbatical in New York, replied to Eickmann:

I am very sorry to receive this letter, because it is a very thorough misrepresentation of the essay . . . and the discussion that followed. I regret that you did not find it convenient to get your facts straight before writing to Proffessor Lawrenz. I think this should have been proper procedure.

I regret that you, too, have been victimized by the half-truths that the Confessional Lutheran crowd peddles. This is certainly one such instance.

My basic contention is that the term “inerrancy” is improperly used of Scripture. And this is quite something different from wanting to throw overboard what we usually think of when we in our circles use the word.

You will do me the favor, therefore, of writing at once to Professor Lawrenz correcting the misinformation you sent him. I should have thought that the very fact of the unwillingness of officials to take any disciplinary action should have alerted you. They realize that this is largely a philological and pedagogical question rather than a doctrinal one.

I should be very happy to receive an apology from you for what is under the most charitable construction improper procedure.

Eickmann replied that he based his remarks on what he had heard Scharlemann himself say. He disagreed that the question was philological and pedagogical rather than doctrinal.

Scharlemann responded that Eickmann’s second letter

confirms what your first letter indicates; namely, a) you haven’t read the essay; b) you couldn’t stay for the whole session in Chicago; c) you haven’t made a study of the problem—and yet you conclude that there is heresy afoot and that the Synodical Conference should do something. . . .

I must say that this is an extraordinary prophetic insight and most irregular procedure. I’ve never quite had the courage to make up my mind so fast on such a flimsy basis. Is it too presumptuous, really, to ask that you make a thorough study of this matter? (The whole question on “inerrancy” was really quite incidental to the main purpose of the essay, but you would never have guessed it from Chicago.)

. . . I’m having that paper [“Revelation and Inspiration”] sent to you. Then make up your own mind. I think it will demonstrate how large a misconstruction your first letter (to Lawrenz) contained.

At about that same time—1959 or 1960—James Schaefer, pastor at the Wisconsin Synod’s Atonement Church in Milwaukee, received a call to teach at Concordia, Springfield. While considering the call, Schaefer met in Springfield with Behnken, who, Schaefer recalled, asked him “a lot of questions about Scripture.” The question Schaefer specifically remembered was whether or not an ax head floated. (Second Kings 6:1 through 7) From there, Schaefer traveled to St. Louis to meet with Martin Franzmann, who had been Schaefer’s teacher at Northwestern College. When Schaefer asked Franzmann about rumors circulating about the Scharlemann paper and about other turmoil at Concordia, Franzmann replied, “All you get from the faculty is a wall of mush.”

In 1958, less than two years before announcing that it had reached an impasse with Missouri regarding church fellowship, Wisconsin joined Missouri, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Slovak Synod to draft what was hailed as an “excellent” statement regarding the inspiration, authority, and interpretation of Scripture. This “Statement on Scripture” was adopted by Wisconsin’s 1959 convention “without a dissenting vote and with the full consent of those present in the convention.” Wilhelm Oesch noted that the first Conclave Theologorum in 1959 “definitely proved that an overwhelming majority in the Missouri Synod” was “not only still conservative in a loose way” but wanted to uphold “the full-orbed, detailed doctrinal position of Synod.” Oesch believed Missouri also demonstrated this resolve in the intense debate at its 1959 convention and subsequent resolution binding all of its pastors and professors to the Brief Statement. Responding to the objection voiced by some Missourians that no new confessional statements be adopted to augment the Lutheran Confessions, Wisconsin said it was not restricted to those doctrines presented in the Book of Concord. “Our Confessions do not have the last word when it comes to determining what we are to teach. That belongs to Scripture.”

Concordia Seminary’s “Statement on the Form and Function of Scripture” was a clear disappointment. The statement’s ambiguity led Wisconsin’s Commission on Doctrinal Matters to report to the synod’s 1961 convention that it was “no longer certain” the two synods were “in agreement on the doctrine of Scripture.” Unless certainty on revelation and Scripture could be restored, “we would have lost the basis for a profitable discussion of the other matters in controversy between us, even if there were no impasse on the doctrine of fellowship.”

Only 13 years later, despite dire predictions that it would soon perish without the support of its big sister, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod enjoyed an unanticipated growth in membership, an unprecedented building boom on synodical school campuses, and an unparalleled burst of new mission church openings around the country. As the synod looked forward to celebrating its 125th anniversary in 1975, Carleton Toppe wrote, “The Grace for which we give thanks” was “a Grace of positive blessings.” The gospel, the Scriptures “as God wrote them,” education, unity of faith, “the means and the men to build a confessional and evangelical church” were just some among them.

Well aware of the turmoil at Concordia Seminary, however, and the circumstances that occasioned it, Toppe added: “We also remember from what that Grace has spared us. We look on with amazement and with heartache at a church body that was once our spiritual flesh and blood being lacerated and torn apart by controversy” only two years after its 125th anniversary in 1972. “What if,” Toppe asked:

• militant members of our Synod were accusing our Synod’s president of holding “new views” when he upholds the theology of Hoenecke and Walther and of the Synodical Conference of old?

• many in our midst rejected This We Believe because it was “being placed alongside the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions,” and we were branded as a sect because we made this contemporary statement of our ancestral faith?

• pastors and professors among us would decry our teaching that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” as a “new doctrine” that destroys the Gospel?

• our Conference of Presidents, in its supervision of correct doctrine and practice, would be accused of being a “corrupt, unethical, un-Lutheran and un- Christian power structure”?

• thirteen professors and 160 students at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary would condemn the Board of Control of the Seminary for “arrogating to [itself] an almost absolutist control” of the Seminary in demanding that the Bible should not be taught by historical-critical methods?

“Who among us,” Toppe concluded, “should not thank God on his knees because we have been spared such anguish in our midst?”

End Chapter 5