“One day it was there, the next it was gone,” writes Curt Gentry in his apocalyptic novel, The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California, describing the effect of a cataclysmic earthquake on “the superlative state”—the state with “all the accoutrements of the ‘good life.’ ” A fictional production, to be sure; and yet the recent earthquake damage in California and the continuing menace of the San Andreas fault have given it a prophetic quality. Uncomfortable parallels exist with that bastion of the doctrinal “good life,” that “superlative synod” of biblical orthodoxy, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The theological seismologist has no difficulty at all observing the deep tremors of this church body, and one need only extrapolate from present conditions to predict an ecclesiastical earthquake of the direst proportions.
In three articles appearing in this column during 1969 (January 17, March 28, June 6), I described the formation and present character of the Missouri Synod’s peculiar San Andreas fault. The intensive strains that may well result in the total fracturing of this church at its forthcoming Milwaukee Convention are caused by (1) an overreaction to the ghetto-like ingrownness of the synod’s early days, such that many in the church are seeking undisciplined theological “relevance” whatever the doctrinal cost; (2) the authoritarian, Germanic tendencies of the synod, which place loyalty to the organization and to its officialdom above virtually all other values, including—on occasion—even loyalty to Scripture and the confessions; (3) the untouchable role of professors at the seminaries, teachers’ colleges, and other educational institutions of the synod, by which in recent years a non-evangelical theology that espouses non-inerrancy has been able to make considerable inroads into the synod’s parishes; and (4) the synod’s latest ecumenical involvements, not with consistently confessional, evangelical bodies, but with the American Lutheran Church (only 23 per cent of whose clergy hold to the entire trustworthiness of the Bible) and the Lutheran Council in the U. S. A. (embracing the ALC and the even less orthodox Lutheran Church in America).
The consequences of this deterioration on the grass-roots level are now appearing. Wrote a Missouri pastor recently in a private communication: “Here briefly is my present theological stance: Christianity is essentially theistic humanism. The Gospel is always good news to a bad situation—therefore the Gospel is always conditioned by the situation. The Church from Paul onward has usually misrepresented Christianity as a Compendium of Creeds and doctrines which must be intellectually accepted rather than a positive force for social and psychological renewal. Genesis 1–11 is poetic myth. I fully agree with O. T. reconstruction, JEPD, Redaction history, etc. Scripture contains the Word of God, but is not coterminous with it. I believe in the afterlife, but have serious doubts about the existence of hell.… I find the people are not as well versed in doctrine and Bible to dispute the discoveries of modern scholarship. I’ve also discovered that people appreciate a ‘breath of fresh air.’ Basically, my theology is an admixture of Job—Jesus—and Kahlil Gibran.”
With “fresh air” like this blowing about the synod, it was not unnatural that concerned laity and pastors elected conservative theologian J. A. O. Preus to the presidency of the church body at its Denver Convention in 1969. The hope was that Dr. Preus would exercise the firm hand necessary to effect a general doctrinal clean-up. This presidential choice left nothing to be desired in either orthodoxy or scholarship (while president, Preus, a Ph.D. in classics, has published a massive translation of seventeenth-century dogmatician Chemnitz’s De duabus naturis—a work that probably no other church president in the world today could read, to say nothing of translating!); but the last two years have shown no significant change in the synod’s condition.
Why? The answer, much as one hates to give it, is the addiction of the president to the besetting sin of twentieth-century administration: politicking. Instead of acting on pure principle—on the clear teaching of Scripture and the confessions—Dr. Preus has allowed himself to be pushed to and fro by real or imagined pressure groups. At the very convention at which he was elected, he had every opportunity to oppose the ALC fellowship resolution. Not only did he neglect to do so, but he has subsequently permitted its implementation on levels where presidential action could certainly have deterred this unfortunate involvement.
When theological liberals in the synod issued their “Call to Openness and Trust” in January of 1970, expressly affirming that differences of opinion should be tolerated in the Missouri Synod on “the question of factual error in the Bible” and “the definition of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper,” President Preus should have immediately disciplined those responsible for violation of their ordination vows. When the American Lutheran Church in 1970 officially approved the ordination of women, contrary to Missouri’s doctrinal stand, Dr. Preus had the right and obligation to suspend fellowship with that body on the ground of de jure and de facto doctrinal disagreement. Nothing has, however, been done on either count; and the highly publicized theological investigation of the central trouble-spot, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, seems to suffer from hopeless political roadblocks. Moreover, why did not the president initiate such an investigation the morning after taking office, and not a year and a half later?
Herman Sasse, doubtless the greatest living Lutheran dogmatician, has recently (25 January, 1971) written from Australia condemning present Lutheran doctrinal indifferentism in America. He points to Missouri’s forthcoming Milwaukee Convention and warns that unless a stand is taken there “Missouri will be swallowed by the great union of American Protestants which is coming”; and he reminds his readers of Tertullian’s observation that Christ has called himself Veritas (the Truth), not Consuetudo (the Customary).
Even now, many pastors and congregations of the Missouri Synod (including the undersigned) are declaring themselves in statu confessionis—in a state of protest against the toleration of error and false doctrine in the church body. Milwaukee appears to be the point of no return. If the president of the synod does not act unequivocally there, an earthquake is inevitable, and the consequence will be either the formation of a new pan-Lutheran body of authentic confessional commitment or the movement of vast numbers of Missouri people to such consistently Lutheran and evangelically relevant bodies as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. In order not to preside over the demise of the Missouri Synod, President Preus has but a few months to move beyond translating Chemnitz to reincarnating him. He has our prayers.
JOHN WARWICK MONTGOMERY
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