Second in a Series of Three Articles In the first article of this series (January 17), an effort was made to describe the internal, doctrinal aspect of the current crisis of belief in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Now something needs to be said about the external consequences of this mid-twentieth-century Missouri Compromise: the very real possibility that the July convention of the synod in Denver will declare “pulpit and altar fellowship” with The American Lutheran Church.

“And what could possibly be the matter with that?” interjects the ecumenically minded reader. “Doesn’t the ALC have a similar ethnic background, the same Lutheran confessions, and a tradition of powerful orthodox theology, as represented by the exegetical labor of Lenski and the dogmatic and historical scholarship of Reu? Haven’t joint commissioners of the ALC and the Missouri Synod arrived at common agreements as to fellowship? Didn’t the ALC in its Omaha convention on October 18 declare pulpit and altar fellowship with Missouri? And hasn’t the official resolution of Missouri’s 1967 New York convention stated that ‘the task is not to create or fashion a basis for unity. This Scriptural and confessional basis exists. From this basis the Synod now seeks to move forward with whatever steps are necessary for a full realization of altar and pulpit fellowship’?”

Now it is certainly the case that the ALC has expressed its desire for full fellowship with Missouri. But such an agreement must be bilateral, and Missouri’s final decision in the matter will not be made until its Denver convention. Some feel there are significant reasons why this proposed agreement should not be carried out.

The ALC of today is not the ALC of Lenski or Reu. Can one imagine, for example, Lenski’s participation in the opening communion service of the ALC’s Omaha convention, where the reredos posed the questions, “Whom Shall I Send? Who Will Go for Us?,” accompanied by pictures of four men: Gandhi, who explicitly refused the name of Christian; Schweitzer, who, consistent with his lifelong denial of Jesus’ deity, joined the International Unitarian Association shortly before his death; Martin Luther King, whose Boston University theology was little more than social-gospel humanism; and, inevitably, Martin Luther, who would have felt as uncomfortable there as Lenski, if not more so!

Or take Reu, author of the classic Luther and the Scriptures, which so painstakingly demonstrates from the sources Luther’s conviction that “the Scriptures have never erred” (WA, 15, 1481) and “it is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites” (WA, 9, 356)—can one visualize him working happily side by side with religion professor Paul Jersild of the ALC’s Luther College, who writes: “We who teach at Luther College cannot subscribe to scriptural inerrancy” (Luther, Spring, 1967)?

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The high doctrinal assertions of the ALC—Missouri Synod joint commissioners do not represent what is actually being taught in ALC religion departments and seminaries. My own roommate at Cornell University chose the ALC’s Luther Seminary for his pastoral training so that he would not be subjected to the demise of doctrine at the schools of his own denomination, and then lost his belief in the inerrant authority of the Bible there—principally because of instruction received from Warren Quanbeck. Quanbeck’s activities in ecumenical Lutheranism have resulted in such productions as the weak and muddy “Study Document on Justification” prepared for the 1963 LWF Assembly in Helsinki. Quanbeck holds a thoroughly neo-orthodox view of the Bible, and incorporates into his thinking on the subject the un-Lutheran idea that the finite is incapable of the infinite: “Since human language is always relative, being conditioned by its historical development and usage, there can be no absolute expression of the truth even in the language of theology” (Theology in the Life of the Church, ed. Robert Bertram [1963], p. 25).

“But,” one may ask, “have you not said there are instances of doctrinal deterioration in the Missouri Synod? Doesn’t this indicate that both bodies are more or less in the same boat and have no reason to remain apart?”

To this, two things need to be said. First, systematic efforts are being made, especially on the lay and congregational level, to do something about Missouri’s theological difficulties; but in the ALC little or nothing is being done to preserve doctrinal integrity. The theological deviants in the ALC are “untouchables”—they can write or preach without any fear of being forced to toe the confessional mark. As Klaas Runia correctly noted in a series of articles for CHRISTIANITY TODAY some years ago, the presence of heresy does not make a denomination heretical, but refusal to do anything about it does. Should Missouri join the ALC when, unlike Missouri, the ALC appears to have lost its concern for the disciplined purity of church teaching?

Secondly, there has been greater deterioration on the parish level in the ALC than in the Missouri Synod. In Missouri, theological weakness is still largely confined to particular schools and publications; the grass roots is still (for the present at least!) very solid.

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This is clear from two surveys. Jeffrey Hadden’s study of the beliefs of U. S. Protestant ministers (summarized in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 13, 1967) revealed that whereas 95 per cent of Missouri clergy believe that the Virgin Birth was a physical miracle, only 81 per cent of ALC pastors hold this belief. As to the inerrancy of the Bible, 76 per cent of Missouri pastors hold to it, but only 23 per cent—less than a fourth!—of the ALC clergy regard Scripture as entirely trustworthy (and if only ALC pastors under thirty-five years of age are considered, the affirmations of scriptural inerrancy drop to 6 per cent). The 1965 Glock-Stark survey of lay Protestant convictions showed that whereas 86 per cent of Missouri laymen maintain an unqualified belief in original sin, only 49 per cent of ALC laymen—less than half—do so. On the deity of Christ, only 74 per cent of ALC laymen affirmed it, while 93 per cent of lay Missourians said they believed in it. Missouri laymen were 70 per cent willing to express “certainty” as to religious belief; only 48 per cent of ALCers could do so.

Would not pulpit and altar fellowship with the ALC (a member of the LWF and the WCC, which Missouri has consistently regarded as unionistic) greatly accelerate the synod’s doctrinal decline? Might not such a step put it beyond the hope of recovery? Is not this issue a watershed? These are the questions that will be answered one way or the other at Denver.

President Kreiss of the Missouri-affiliated Free Lutheran Church of France and Belgium surely speaks for many when he says: “For my part, 1969 and the outcome of elections in Denver and of certain issues like intercommunion with ALC and LWF membership will be absolutely decisive. If there is no right-about switch then, I’ll step out.”

(The final article in this series will appear June 6.)

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