Normally church conventions elicit yawns from editors and journalists barely exceeding their reactions to national parakeet week, but one next month will be different. For in New Orleans in July, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a bastion of biblical orthodoxy whose name has been synonymous with doctrinal strictness for one hundred and twenty-five years, will choose either to continue that stance or join the ranks of America’s permissive denominations.

Why do columnists find this struggle fascinating? Why did the religion writers for the secular news media consider the Missouri conflict the most important story of the year? In part, no doubt, because the journalist’s favorite archetype when dealing with religion is that forever incarnated by H. L. Mencken: the liberal skeptic bursting the balloons of fundamentalist pomposity. In his heart of hearts, the religion writer longs to find himself as the voice of rational sanity in the Neanderthal atmosphere of a Scopes evolution trial.

And so the press has pretty well arrived at its own verdict before the jury comes in: President Preus and his supporters are the “literalists”; they want to force their own hopelessly archaic brand of biblical interpretation down everyone’s throat; they are unloving, intolerant, and representative of an orthodoxy that other American churches mercifully discarded generations ago. The opponents of Preus, by the same token, are enlightened, well educated (Preus’s own Ph.D. is carefully ignored), theologically perceptive, ecumenically open to new truth, and courageously trying to bring a stodgy, midwestern church body into the twentieth century.

Since all of us are influenced more than we realize by the climate of news reporting in which we live, it is very important to cut through the extraneous issues (such as an alleged church power struggle, “academic freedom” at Concordia Seminary, or the beauties of “tolerance”) to the real nature of the July battle at New Orleans. The journalists are right: the struggle is historic—but not for the reason most of them suppose. New Orleans will not be another Scopes trial. The only issue for New Orleans is whether the Bible will continue to serve as “the only true standard whereby to judge all teachers and doctrines” (as the Lutheran Formula of Concord so succinctly puts it).

The faculty of the Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, is the core of the opposition to President Preus. These teachers have striven mightily to convince the church and the general public that they want only to make the Gospel of Christ more real and powerful by removing the impediment of biblical infallibility.

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In the faculty’s recent manifesto, Faithful to Our Calling, variation upon variation is played on the theme that it is “a misunderstanding of the nature of the Gospel” to “insist on a public acceptance of the historicity of every detail of the life of Jesus as recorded by the evangelists, as if that were a test of our faith.” “Our faith,” the faculty declares, “rests in the promises of a faithful God, not in the accuracy of ancient historians.” Therefore the evangelists—and the other human authors of the Bible—are placed on the same level as “ancient historians” in general, with no better claim to precision or accuracy than they. The irony of this attempt to make Christian belief rest on “the promise of a faithful God” and not on a reliable scriptural revelation is, obviously, that apart from the Bible we do not know what God’s promises are.

The thrust of the faculty’s document, and the thrust of the entire “moderate” movement against President Preus, is to eliminate the Bible as a basis for faith in the supposed interests of “the Gospel.” To “begin with the assumption that the doctrine of scriptural infallibility guarantees the validity of our theology,” the faculty tells us, “would not be Lutheran. We, as Lutherans, start with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” But since the only proper source of the Gospel is Scripture, a fallible Bible means a Gospel subject to the very same fallibility.

When the Missouri moderates ask the church to hold an infallible Gospel not guaranteed by an inerrant Scripture, they ask the church to remove the Gospel from Scripture and elevate it to the status of an eternal principle without historical guarantees. This is gnosticism, not Christianity. More specifically, the operation can be termed Gospelism: the creation of a total religion out of a minimalistic statement of the Gospel, whose certainty is assured by inner faith only, not by biblical documents. The Gospel itself is put at the mercy of faith-experience, and why should it be expected to survive any better than the Scriptures, which the Concordia faculty’s criticism has already found wanting in reliability?

The latitudinarian cry of those who would change Missouri’s course is: Believe in an inerrant Bible if you want, but give us the right not to believe in it; after all, the Gospel is the important thing. A fascinating parallel exists in the debates between Lincoln and Douglas on the question of repealing the Missouri Compromise. Should slavery be allowed to spread into Kansas and Nebraska? Douglas thought it ought not to be made a divisive issue; Lincoln held otherwise. At Alton, Illinois, on October 15, 1858, Lincoln declared:

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Judge Douglas … says he “don’t care whether it is voted up or voted down”.… Any man can say that who does not see anything wrong in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it; because no man can logically say he don’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down.… That is the real issue.… It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong.

Precisely. The question for the Missouri Synod is simply: Is it wrong to hold that Scripture errs? If it is wrong to regard the Bible that way, the question cannot be avoided by political compromise. The entire reliability of Holy Scripture is as bedrock an issue for the survival of a Christian church as was the equality of all men for the survival of the American commonwealth.

A few months earlier, on June 17, 1858, Lincoln himself quoted Scripture, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and added the immortal commentary: “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.” Neither can the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod—or any other church—endure permanently divided on the question of biblical authority, for the Gospel is inevitably compromised where Scripture is compromised.

I think the delegates at New Orleans must give the President a firm mandate to clean out the divided house; and if this is not done, the only alternative remaining is the immediate formation of a new church that will not be partially enslaved to an unworthy view of Scripture but will be free to proclaim the whole counsel of God and the unsearchable riches of Christ as declared throughout the plenarily inspired Word.


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