The morning mail at 3, blvd Gambetta, Strasbourg, brought the latest issue of the new Lutheran theological journal Dialog. In an editorial entitled, “A Theology of Rediscovery,” Roy A. Harrisville of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, informed readers that the “boredom” of Lutheran orthodoxy was being replaced by a “new posture”—characterized by such views as that “there is a demonstrable parallel between Bultmann’s method and Luther’s concentration of the gospel in the single theme of justification” (Dialog, Summer, 1963, pp. 188–90).

This kind of reasoning was no surprise, for I had encountered similar utterances in earlier issues of this journal which consistently tries to lift American Lutheranism out of its “boring” biblical orthodoxy into the mainstream of “contemporary” theological thought (i.e., that contemporary theology which, with Harrisville, “admits to the discrepancies and the broken connections in Scripture”). What did surprise and amuse me was the assertion that “this concern for the contemporary manifested itself in a streaming to the universities of Europe … One by one, the so-called ‘Young Turks’ went to Basel, to Heidelberg, to Marburg, to Tubingen, to the universities of England and France.” The obvious implication was that merely to drink the heady wine of European theology was to be forever cured of reactionary views of plenary inspiration and Reformation orthodoxy. I found this implication especially bizarre because I was then engaged in writing a dissertation for the degree of Docteur de l’Université, mention Théologie Protestante, at Schweitzer’s alma mater, the historic University of Strasbourg. To suggest that European theological study and historic Protestant conservatism were incompatible seemed a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the European academic atmosphere. This “Young Turk” thus felt a strong desire to dethrone a stereotype by offering a closer look at the European doctoral experience.

Why Europe?

Doubtless theological “boredom” in the States has driven students to Europe. None except the intellectually lazy care for the seminary or graduate school where students must conform to their professors’ views. But where today on the American scene is such orthodoxy enforced? Not, I should say from personal experience, in the doctrinally orthodox seminaries, but rather in the very institutions claiming to offer “theologies of rediscovery.” While serving as a faculty member in a theological school of a large American university, I discovered to my dismay that able doctoral students in that school often spent long years attempting to complete their work, only to be eliminated from the program because their theological “attitudes” did not fit the prevalent modes of thinking or methodologies. Encouragement was ostensibly given to engage freely in “constructive theology,” but such “construction” was not really a “free” activity, because it implied that the great confessional documents of the historic Church, and even the Scriptures on which they are founded, stand always in need of reconstruction. I also noted that at this same university the theological school was often viewed with less than respect by the non-theological faculties, because it was evident that a doctorate in theology meant not so much a superior level of academic attainment as an achievement in learning how to manipulate currently accepted conceptual patterns and “in-group” terminology.

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Faced with such an atmosphere, I took my Ph.D. in a non-theological field and looked to one of my own denominational seminaries as a more satisfactory possibility for the Th.D. However, the latter situation manifested the same kind of “inverse orthodoxy”: to display a non-conservative doctrinal position was to exemplify “academic freedom,” whereas to affirm biblical evangelicalism was to betray “poor scholarship.” After a summer program in which I received professorial criticism for a subsequently published paper asserting the historical as well as theological soundness of John’s Gospel, I determined that a Th.D. from such an institution would represent conformity to a viewpoint rather than scholarly achievement.

At this point, I recalled two or three European theological professors under whom I had studied during their visits to American seminaries; these men differed from their average American counterparts not so much in doctrine as in their attitude toward the nature of theological study. Whatever their personal religious position, they respected the views of the individual student. They demanded of him not conformity to their beliefs but sound scholarship in clarifying and defending his beliefs. This was in refreshing contrast to the approach taken by a professor of church history under whom 1 studied, who began the year by saying, “We are going to remold you here in seminary.…”My thoughts thus turned to Europe. “Boredom” with theological conformity did enter the picture; but it was the exact reverse of the straw-man boredom referred to by Harrisville. I was bored with a conformity imposed by so-called “theologies of rediscovery,” which say in essence: “Be as free in your theological thought as you wish—as long as you don’t try to embrace orthodoxy.” For me a theological doctorate had to represent scholarship and not sycophancy. This was my “Young Turkism.”

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Professorial Tone At Strasbourg

My first insight into the character of a European doctoral program came when I applied for the program. There were no “fill-in-the-blanks” forms, no psychological aptitude tests. Application was by personal letter, accompanied by proof of degrees held and examples of already published works. The Faculté de Théologie Protestante wished to be satisfied on two counts only: first, that the candidate had an original and significant doctoral topic he wished to pursue; and second, that he was capable of pursuing it. Administrative safeguards of course exist: the foreign student must, by French law, evidence academic achievement equivalent to the old licence en Théologie Protestante—that is, he must have the theological competence of the French doctoral student who has completed all course work, written examinations, and the minor thesis for the so-called “state doctorate.” But the entire admissions procedure has the ring of scholarship, not the smell of administrative minutiae. Even the physical arrangements at the university uphold this impression: the secretariat of the faculty, where official inscription is made, is a dingy office in a building separate from the Palais Universitaire, where the attractive faculty offices are situated. How unlike the average American institution, in which the “administration” possesses the visible signs of power while faculty offices display clear evidence of subordinate status!

What were faculty members like? Were they cold, dogmatic rationalists—radical negative critics of Scripture and creeds—promoters of “theological rediscovery”? Doubtless, examples of these stereotypes can be found in European theological schools. However, I had no professor of this kind at Strasbourg. It was impossible to compartmentalize the faculty; no one was a “Bultmannian,” a “Barthian,” or a “Bonhoefferian.” In general, the tone was more Barthian than anything else; but the overriding impression conveyed by faculty members was that the search for theological truth can never be limited to the categories of a single modern school of thought.

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The perspective was thoroughly academic and thoroughly historical. Flanking the entrance to the Library of the Faculty was a glass bookcase containing the publications of its members, which represented a wide gamut of approaches and judgments and testified to the principle that scholarship, not ideological conformity, should characterize the true graduate faculty in theology as in any other subject. The historical emphasis—natural in a faculty out of which the university itself arose during the Protestant Reformation—prevented the substitution of facile novelties for serious analyses of theological problems. The creeds of the Reformation and the work of the Orthodox fathers were listened to—not passed over in haste in an effort to reach the twentieth century as quickly as possible. Dean François Wendel, in a course on the Christology of the Reformation, spent more time in the seventeenth century (the “Age of Protestant Orthodoxy”) than in the sixteenth, even though Wendel is one of the greatest living Calvin scholars. Roger Mehl’s course in the Augsburg Confession frequently pointed out how Barth has to his detriment moved away from Reformation doctrine. I was often reminded of Paul Tillich’s famous remark that the European theologian, unlike the American, when faced with a theological problem asks first, “What has been thought on the question through church history?” Such an approach is a valuable corrective to the popular notion today that nineteen and a half centuries of Christian history have been but an inadequate prelude to the theological innovations of our generation.

The faculty members assuredly did not hold the verbal inspiration view of Scripture, and often it became evident that they confused this position with the Roman Catholic, Tridentine dictation-theory. But never was there the slightest attempt to ridicule plenary inspiration or to force conformity to another view. Indeed, I am firmly convinced that because scholarship and not presuppositionalism is the determinative factor in the theological atmosphere at Strasbourg, its faculty members would be hospitable to the orthodox view if it were consistently represented today by scholarship on the level of that of Theodor Zahn or B. B. Warfield. This is saying a great deal, for few American theological faculties would be psychologically capable of embracing biblical orthodoxy regardless of the force of its presentation, simply because conformity to the prevalent view, not scholarly objectivity, so often seems the overriding consideration.

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A theological faculty usually sets the tone for its students. Have not many of us suffered from the indefinable student tensions in a seminary where the faculty, unsure of itself because of the unacademic nature of much of its work, overcompensates for inferiority feelings through heavy assignments and through preoccupation with the minutiae of course requirements and “hours” for graduation? At Strasbourg, the Protestant Theological Faculty, as the founding faculty of the university and as a faculty comparable to the others in scholarly productivity and academic standards, found no need to question its raison d’être. Therefore the students also could relax and study theology for its own sake—not for the sake of “proving” something by accumulating course hours. Indeed, since there the attainment of degrees is based upon written examinations, the production of a thesis, and oral defense of the thesis, one must think of actual mastery of the subject, not of mechanical acquisition of “grade points.” The program for the present licence (much like our S.T.M., but required of all candidates for ordination in the state Lutheran Church in the Alsace) is thus rigorous, but the students find themselves in such a “permissive” environment that they show few signs of student neurosis. Quite the contrary; I have seldom met a more irrepressible group in or out of theological circles. I remember well the evening we sang Negro spirituals in the single students’ subsidized residence, and the cartoon on the front cover of one issue of the student paper, showing a dancing figure with the caption: “Vive le Yé Yé théologiqueDavid twistait devant l’Arche!”

Granted that many students, especially on the licence level, find it difficult to secure a firm theological orientation in such a non-regimented environment, nevertheless the truly open-minded faculty attitude, coupled with insistence upon a solidly grounded historical program of studies—including mastery of the original languages of Scripture—helps the students arrive at confessional solidity. Certainly no faculty prejudice creates the barrier to orthodoxy that is the most unfortunate aspect of American seminary life. It was evident how much a plenary inspirationist could accomplish on a faculty such as that at Strasbourg; and it is noteworthy that the Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (the French equivalent of IVCF) have a potentially open field among seminary students.

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Because I was encouraged to work in complete independence, I became so engrossed in the subject of my thesis that a three-volume, 950-page work resulted. The necessity of consulting primary documents of the Reformation era led me to manuscript collections in five countries and to conversations with theological specialists such as Heinrich Bornkamm of Heidelberg. On completion, the thesis was presented and defended in a public examination before a traditional jury of three members of the Faculté: Dean Wendel as Président, accompanied by Pierre Burgelin, the Rousseau authority and urbane philosophy professor from Paris, and René Voeltzel, the author of works on seventeenth-century theology and on twentieth-century religious pedagogy. During this three hour French-language defense, two things became evident: though on many theological issues the jury and I disagreed, their concern was simply that I be able to defend the scholarship of my position: and though the four of us did not always see eye to eye, we thoroughly enjoyed the dialogue.

Thus from my European experience I carried home this ideal of true “dialogue,” which by no means necessitates the “theological rediscoveries” of Harrisville’s “Young Turks.” Mention of Strasbourg will always conjure before me the image of its medieval cathedral, rose-pink at dusk, where in the late sixteenth century Jakob Andreae preached acceptance of the Formula of Concord. That orthodox confession, it will be remembered, opens with the words: “We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged.”

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