In the October 25, 1974, issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY we published an interview with President J. A. O. Preus of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Some Lutherans asked for a presentation of the other side of the dispute, and in this issue we publish what is, in effect, a rejoinder by John Tietjen, the former president of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. And, as a church historian and a long-time observer of the Missouri Synod scene, I here add my own evaluation.
Two major denominations in the United States that escaped the effects of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy earlier in the twentieth century were the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention. Now both are embroiled in a struggle similar to that which took place in the other denominations decades ago. The Missouri Synod battle is reaching a climax sooner; the Southern Baptists are some years behind.
In all the denominations the outcome of the struggle between the modernists and the fundamentalists was the same: the fundamentalists lost; the “broadening church” concept prevailed. These denominations, including those now known as the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Churches, the Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church, and the United Presbyterian Church, became inclusivist bodies with theologically mixed constituencies that hold and proclaim varying and even conflicting views. Today the mainstream denominations include people whose theological views range from fundamentalism on the right to sheer humanism on the left. The breadth of the theological spectrum and the distribution within it vary considerably from one denomination to another.
In the Missouri Synod today, the familiar battle is being restaged, although the theological diversity is not as pronounced as it was among the Methodists, Congregationalists, and Northern Baptists.
Dr. Tietjen says in his article in this issue that “the authority of the Bible is not at issue in the Missouri Synod” and that “the issue of biblical authority has been manufactured and manipulated in the interest of power politics.” It is true that whenever theological issues come to the fore, personalities clash, and there is a battle for control of the ecclesiastical machinery. This happened in Luther’s time also. Today the “conservatives” are in control of the Missouri Synod; the “moderates” are on the outside looking in, and they want to oust the “conservatives.” What basic issues divide the two camps?
I remember reading Missouri Lutheran theologian Theodore Engelder’s book Scripture Cannot Be Broken back in 1946. He presented the case for full biblical inerrancy. I also recollect the action of the Centennial Convention of the Missouri Synod in 1947. At that time it reaffirmed the Brief Statement adopted by the Synod in 1932, which said in part:
We teach also that the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures … is taught by direct statements of the Scriptures.… Since the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God, it goes without saying that they contain no errors or contradictions, but that they are in all their parts and words the infallible truth, also in those parts which treat of historical, geographical, and other secular matters, John 10:35.
From its beginnings the Missouri Synod had stood resolutely for an inerrant Scripture. Preus and those who stand with him think that this is the crucial issue. The faculty of Concordia Seminary in Springfield, Illinois, also consider this the crucial question, especially in regard to that seminary’s more prestigious sister seminary, Concordia in St. Louis. Moreover, some members of the St. Louis seminary faculty also thought that biblical inerrancy was the key question. But Tietjen and others maintain that “interpreting the Bible is an issue,” not biblical inerrancy. The relation between interpretation and inerrancy is such that certain interpretations can in effect deny inerrancy.
If the real problem is simply a matter of differences of interpretation, it would have been simple for the moderates to go on record in support of the 1932 platform and the belief that the Bible does not err in any of its parts, including “those … which treat of historical, geographical, and other secular matters.” This they have not done and are extremely unlikely to do. A number of their adherents are on record as espousing views that contradict the 1932 statement. Martin Marty, for instance, who is a Missouri Synod minister, forthrightly espouses a theological position that is miles apart from the 1932 statement. The Missouri Synod problem did not come into being when Preus became president in 1969. It existed long before that. Oliver Harms, the former president, was well aware of it, as was the former president of Concordia Seminary at St. Louis, who bent protocol by getting Tietjen elected as his successor before his own term of office expired and before Preus assumed his presidency.
Another question is, Does interpretation become theologically important so that one’s interpretation can be a denial of biblical inerrancy? The answer, obviously, is yes. In the November, 1972, issue of the Concordia Theological Monthly, an article by Paul G. Bretscher entitled “The Log in Your Own Eye” said in part:
Suppose, for example, that in the earnest search to understand what God is really saying to us in the account of the Creation and Fall, a student recaptures the mind of the original writer and in the process is persuaded that the creation accounts in their original intent belong to a category called “wisdom literature” and were never designed to be a flat “history of origins.” The log [the “formal principle” that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God] will suffer great pain, of course, and is bound to cry out in terror and anger. But the Bible has not been despised, or its authority compromised [p. 682].
However Bretscher defines “authority,” it is obvious that if this interpretation of Genesis is true, other parts of the Bible are false and contradict it and therefore inerrancy is not possible. Not only in Genesis does Scripture teach that Adam was a historical person, the first man, and progenitor of the human race. The genealogical tables in First Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 specifically identify Adam as a historical personage and the father of the human race. Luke and the author of First Chronicles obviously believed this. If Genesis is figurative, then these other inspired writers are wrong. Biblical inerrancy cannot then be sustained. But if Luke and the writer of First Chronicles are right, then the hypothetical interpretation of Bretscher is ruled out.
Moses gives us the names of Adam’s sons and his age at death. Similarly, in the New Testament Paul witnesses to the historicity of Adam. The statement in Romans 5:14 that “death reigned from Adam to Moses” makes no sense unless Paul believed in a literal Adam from whose transgression death comes. If there was no literal Adam and the Genesis account is “wisdom literature,” then Paul gives us a statement that is false.
I cannot but conclude that the interpretation of Scripture in many instances is dynamically related to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy so that they cannot be kept apart. And I disagree with Tietjen: I think that the Missouri controversy is a dispute between “Bible believers” and “Bible doubters.” It seems inescapable to me that the question of biblical inerrancy lies at its heart. Other denominations resolved the problem by deciding that inerrancy was untenable; people were free to accept or reject statements in Scripture as they saw fit. Up to now the result of this has been that sooner or later such denominations permit persons to remain in good standing while denying cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.
We now have before us the case of the Missouri Synod. Which way will it go? Will it continue to uphold its traditional commitment to an inerrant Scripture, or will it become a “broadening church” like others before it? Only time will tell.
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