The acute controversy in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is here confronted with admirable candor by the president of the communion. The text is taken from the report of the president to the forty-ninth convention of the Synod, held this past summer in Milwaukee.
God’s Word says: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:12, 13).
As Paul points out, the message of the cross must be preached in all its purity, for the church’s message is not the message of man or the wisdom of man, but the wisdom and the oracles of God. Therefore we can never become indifferent to the doctrine which is taught in our schools and proclaimed from our pulpits. We cannot act as if truth and falsehood are the same, or as if truth is only relative and can never be stated correctly and categorically. We simply must be and remain concerned about pure doctrine.
It is no secret that in our time we have certain doctrinal problems within our church. A person would have to be blind to deny it. On the one hand it can be pointed out that doctrinal controversy is the sign of a living and concerned church. It can also be said that no church is ever totally free of doctrinal controversy. Yet as Paul says, “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). As church leaders, we are all stewards of this Word and must constantly strive for faithfulness to it.
As we consider this matter which has received so much attention in the overtures brought before our convention, we need to make certain basics quite clear. In the first place, we must maintain with Luther in the Smalcald Articles that “the Word of God alone should establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel” (S.A. II 2, 15). No church or synod creates or establishes doctrine. Only the Word does this. Dr. C. F. W. Walther in his presidential address to the Synod in 1848 made this point clear beyond debate. The Word alone establishes our faith.
In the second place, we must address ourselves to the relationship between Article II of the Constitution and the status of doctrinal statements and resolutions adopted by the Synod. The problem really boils down to our understanding of the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution states in simple language what “Synod and every member of Synod accepts without reservation”: namely, “The Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice” and “all the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God.”
But some seem inclined to believe that the Synod must hold the Lutheran Confessions to be in effect an exhaustive, and in fact comprehensive, list of the Articles of Faith. Some specifically suggest that the Augsburg Confession prescribes a quantitative total of articles of faith which Lutherans must accept. According to this view, Lutherans are not bound by anything that Scripture teaches unless it is at least implicitly taught in the Augsburg Confessions or the Book of Concord. However, it is very clear from the writings of Dr. Walther that the actual intent of Article II is that the Synod holds Scripture to be the only rule and norm of faith and practice, and therefore the Synod accepts only what Scripture teaches, but also everything and anything that Scripture teaches. Moreover, the Synod holds that the Lutheran Confessions are a faithful and correct presentation of the teachings of Scripture on those articles of faith which the circumstances of the time made it necessary to treat. Therefore the Synod endorses everything the Confessions say on these points as a correct exposition of Scripture, without in the least implying that in the Confessions there is a deliberate silence on certain doctrinal matters in order to leave such areas open for latitude and diversity and that consequently Synod may never adopt a firm position on any matter which is not already settled in the sixteenth-century confessional writings.
Such an understanding of our confessional commitment is radically different from the intention of Article II of our Constitution. It is ironic that some of those who accuse the Synod of “traditionalism” are in a sense promoting it by elevating the Confessions above the Scripture. For it is “traditionalism” of the worst kind to ask merely whether a teaching is contained in the confessional writings rather than whether it is taught by the Scriptures. Such a practice is contrary to our confessional position itself that only the Word of God can establish articles of faith. Moreover, it is an improper use of Article II of the Synod’s Constitution, because it allows paragraph two of Article II (which deals with our confessional commitment) to nullify paragraph one (which expresses our commitment to the Scriptures). In other words, this argument permits the Confessions to muzzle the Scriptures.
Actually, this problem is not a new one. One hundred years ago, many Lutherans contended that all matters not settled by the Lutheran Confessions must be considered open questions. Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the president of the Missouri Synod, vigorously opposed this notion. In 1868 he wrote a lengthy scholarly article entitled “The False Arguments for the Modern Theory of Open Questions” in which he emphasized that nothing taught in Scripture on any matter can be considered an open question whether it is treated in the Confessions or not.…
Dr. Walther’s words of wisdom can guide us today in our own understanding of the role of synodically adopted doctrinal statements and resolutions. On the one hand, he reminds us that we do not establish doctrine but merely confess the faith taught by the Scriptures. On the other hand, we learn from Dr. Walther that we cannot be bound only by that which is explicitly stated in the Confessions. The Confessions provide invaluable service as they focus on the central aspects of our faith, namely, sin and grace, Law and Gospel, and the person and work of Jesus Christ. They give us a correct and proper interpretation of Holy Scripture on all doctrinal matters which they treat. But our confessional commitment does not mean that only in the Confessions do we have what is truly doctrine—and that therefore all other matters taught in Scripture are open questions or matters which might not become divisive of fellowship.
In the third place, we must continue to emphasize the fact that the Word of God rules in our church; that the church can confess its faith on the basis of the Word of God; that the church of today, as in the days when the great creeds and the Lutheran Confessions were formulated, can interpret the Scriptures and expect its members to hold to a particular interpretation of the Scriptures. The creeds and confessions are interpretations of Scripture which we believe to be correct, as for example in their statements regarding Christology, the Trinity, the Lord’s Supper, and justification.
Today in the church there is confusion and controversy concerning many doctrinal matters, including the doctrine of Holy Scripture itself. If we are to be faithful to our confessions, our church needs to confess its faith on these matters with clarity, and with the conviction that what we are saying is based on the Word of God. Furthermore, we have a right to expect our professors, pastors, teachers, and congregations to teach according to our understanding of the Word of God. Such a concept grows right out of the Confessions themselves, and, far from making us a sect, it is a way of demonstrating that we are truly a confessional and confessing church. Any other kind of “confession” by a church which subscribes to the Lutheran Confessions could only be arbitrary, subjective, and ultimately self-defeating as well as untrue to the Lutheran Confessions themselves.
It needs to be understood that the contemporary church must also confess its faith in order to be completely faithful to the Confessions’ own understanding of the nature of confessional subscription.
Furthermore, Lutherans subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions because they agree with the Scriptures. The Lutheran Confessions see themselves not only as confessions of faith but as expositions of Scripture. The claim, therefore, that it is un-Lutheran to insist on unity in the interpretation of any Scripture passage is not only contrary to the Confessions themselves, but would in practice amount to a vitiation of the very essence of confessional Lutheranism, namely, that doctrine—pure, immutable, clear doctrine—can be drawn from the Scriptures and formulated in confessional statements and unanimously subscribed to by Christians. In the Lutheran church, all doctrine, of necessity, involves exegetical conclusions, for any teaching not based on Scripture cannot even be considered a “doctrine.” An evangelical church, if it is to be faithful to Christ and his Word, must be able to express the teachings of God’s Word to its own day, and to do so in the spirit of the Augsburg Confession when it says, “Our churches teach with great agreement” (cum magno consensu). This conviction, which serves as a powerful antidote to doctrinal latitudinarianism, has characterized our Synod since its founding in 1847. It is this kind of thinking that underlies Article II of our synodical Constitution.
In the fourth place, we can see then that Article II, far from prohibiting us from adopting doctrinal statements as a Synod and asking our people to adhere to them, actually compels us to adopt such statements as the course of events and the needs of the church develop. We must assert more than that doctrinal statements adopted by the convention merely “reflect how successfully a delegate convention applied the doctrine of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions to issues and problems of the day.” This really says very little.
Moreover, this assertion appears to reflect an inaccurate understanding of the nature of a synodical convention. Our synod, as an organization composed of pastors, teachers, and congregations, can legislate only through representation. Since the size of our Synod makes it impossible for every member to participate in a convention, or even for every congregation to be represented by at least one of its members, the synodical Constitution provides for delegates elected by groups of congregations. When these representatives meet in a regularly called convention, they, in effect, are the legislative body of the church, and the resolutions adopted by these representatives, even though they constitute only a small group in proportion to the total membership of our church, must nevertheless be considered as the expression of the church body and must be regarded as valid and binding unless they are in conflict with the Word of God.
Nor is it adequate to assert that honoring and upholding our doctrinal statements and resolutions involves no more than studying them to see how well they apply the Gospel to contemporary problems. A person who does not agree with the Synod’s doctrinal resolutions or statements does not and cannot honor and uphold them, and he can hardly conceal this fact by claiming that he is merely testing the Synod’s ability to apply doctrine. In her doctrinal resolutions, the Synod is confessing her faith; and one either approves and accepts her confession or he does not. There is really no middle ground.
In the fifth place, to regard our synodically adopted doctrinal resolutions and statements as having binding force does not add to our doctrinal standards, the Scriptures and the Confessions. Our doctrinal statements merely agree with those standards by drawing out their implications, explaining them when there is misunderstanding or controversy, and interpreting them for a modern situation. If synodically adopted doctrinal statements do in fact set forth the teachings of Scripture, then they are most certainly “included in the Synod’s confessional commitment,” for the Synod is confessionally committed to everything taught in Holy Scripture as the only rule and norm of faith and practice. To honor and uphold the doctrinal declarations of the Synod is an act of love and fidelity which is both biblical and evangelical.
We are all agreed that our Lutheran symbols are the permanent pattern for doctrine in our Lutheran churches, and according to the symbols themselves they are to remain so until the return of Christ. But such claims in our Lutheran Confessions do not prevent the church which subscribes to the Lutheran Confessions from formulating new doctrinal statements which are binding precisely because they conform to the Scriptures and the Lutheran pattern for doctrine. Rather, such claims in our Confessions imply that such statements, responding to the challenges of a future time, will be forthcoming. The Confessions do not “close their own canon.” They merely demand that all new doctrinal statements, whether they be elevated to the status of a new symbol (which has not happened since 1580) or whether they merely serve in a temporary or local situation (for example, Walther’s Thirteen Theses on Predestination or the Wittenberg Concord), conform to the Lutheran doctrinal standards, which in effect means that such statements, whatever their status or function, be Scriptural. It is as simple as that. In no way does such action place the synodical convention or majority rule above the Word of God.
To be sure, synodically adopted doctrinal statements and resolutions do not have the same status among us as the Scriptures and Confessions; this, too, needs to be clearly understood. Our pastors, teachers, and professors do not formally subscribe to such resolutions when they are ordained or installed, nor do our congregations ordinarily acknowledge such statements in their constitutions. Moreover, we readily admit that synodical conventions, like church councils, can and do err. We make no claims in advance for the absolute infallibility of our doctrinal statements, and have given evidence of this fact by establishing procedures for dissent. (I am referring to the action of previous conventions in asking dissenters to discuss their differences with their colleagues and share them with our Commission on Theology and Church Relations.) Those who disagree with a doctrinal statement adopted by the Synod have every right to follow such established procedures in an effort to convince the Synod it has erred. But it needs to be emphasized that the burden of proof is with the dissenter and that no member of the Synod has the freedom to disregard or contradict such statements in his public teaching until it is proven that they fall short of or go beyond that which Scripture teaches. We are a synod of brethren linked by our common confession of faith. To disregard the voice of the Synod is a loveless and divisive act and may well reflect a lack of fidelity to our confessional commitment.
The basic question we need to answer once again at this convention is simple and unbiased: Does an evangelical and confessional church body such as ours have the right and duty to adopt doctrinal statements which are in complete conformity with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions—and then expect her pastors, teachers, and professors, out of faithfulness to Scripture and the Confessions, to believe, teach, and confess according to such statements? In the past, the answer has been a resounding “yes.”
Why is this matter of so great importance, and why has it been given so much attention at this point? There are two reasons. In the first place, there is a theological reason, namely, that our church must remain faithful to the Word of God. The church lives by and out of and with the Word. We have no other purpose than to proclaim the great message of reconciliation. This is not a man-made message. It is a Scripture-based message, a message that we have pledged ourselves always to proclaim. The one task of the church is to preach Christ, and we do not know Christ apart from the Scriptures. When the Scriptures are obscured, Christ will be obscured. We have, therefore, a very great theological reason for insisting on sound doctrine.
There is also a second reason. That is an ethical and moral one. The members of our church have been brought up to believe that our pastors are truly faithful to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions. They read synodically adopted doctrinal resolutions and expect their pastors, teachers, and professors to teach in harmony with them. Our people expect that our future pastors and teachers will be taught according to the doctrinal position of our church in our seminaries and colleges. They expect their pastors and teachers to preach and teach according to the official position of our church. They expect their servants in administrative offices or staff positions to produce materials and carry out their duties in harmony with the Synod’s official position. Our people have a right to expect this of their pastors, teachers, professors, and officials. In the overwhelming majority of cases, such expectations are not disappointed, for God has blessed our Synod with many faithful servants. But it is clearly unethical and unloving for our pastors and teachers to violate the legitimate expectations of our people.
It is imperative that our church settle this question of the status of doctrinal resolutions and that we proceed from such statements of what we believe and confess to a massive ongoing proclamation of this wonderful message to the world. The world will not stand still while we wrangle or halt uncertainly. Let us express our own willingness to stand by the position of our Synod and urge all members of the Synod to do the same. Let not the progress of this great church be held up forever and ever by the doubts, the uncertainty, and the lack of confidence which now exist among us over this question: “Where do we stand doctrinally?”
Earlier in my report, I referred to Dr. Walther’s treatise on open questions. It is very evident that Dr. Walther, the eminent founder of our Synod and perhaps her greatest theologian, did not believe that there was room in the church for open questions on matters which are clearly taught in the Word of God. Today, in dealing with the matter of synodically adopted doctrinal concerns, the Synod must determine whether it still shares Dr. Walther’s position. We must decide how much freedom in biblical interpretation and how much doctrinal diversity our church can permit and still remain under the Word of God.
Permit me to cite several examples of the variations of doctrinal opinion which are current in our church at the present time. You will note that these matters deal with very basic questions. If our church is ready to declare such matters open questions, we will have to interpret our Constitutional commitment to the Scriptures and Confessions in such a broad sense that as long as a man claims to subscribe to them in some form or another no further questions can be asked of him. However, if we determine to understand our Constitution in the way in which it was understood by Dr. Walther and the founders of the Synod, we cannot permit matters such as the following to be treated as mere open questions.
1. Some in our church who claim to accept the doctrinal content of the Lutheran Confessions operate with a very restrictive understanding of what constitutes “doctrine.” For example, they apparently regard the Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve and of the fall not as a “doctrinal” item but rather as an exegetical question or a theological construct, where there can legitimately be a variety of interpretations without affecting what they consider to be “doctrine.”
2. Some hold that our confessional subscription is limited to the doctrinal points at issue, and that it does not embrace doctrinal positions expressed in the Confessions somewhat incidentally. For example, in the confessional statement regarding original sin, some say that the Confessions’ reference to the historicity of Adam and Eve does not bind us, since the confessions merely intended to talk about the fallen state of man.
3. Regarding the inspiration of Scripture, some in our Synod hold that there is no precise and uniform confessional position. Some believe that the inspiration of the Scriptures is not qualitatively different from the activity of the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the church and in our preaching and witness today. Others hold that the Confessions clearly teach that the Scriptures are unique and different from all other literature in that they are verbally inspired by God so that in all their words they are the Word of God. In this view, both the authors and the words of Scripture are inspired, for men of God wrote the words that the Holy Spirit wanted them to write.
4. There is also a difference of opinion on the nature of biblical authority. Those who broaden the concept of inspiration to include all Christians do not base the authority of the Scriptures on their inspiration, but on the fact that they are primary historical documents written by important officials of Israel and the early church. Some persons in our Synod also state that the Scriptures have their authority only by virtue of the faith they produce through their presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this view, the Scriptures have only what theologians call material, functional, or soteriological authority, rather than formal authority; in other words, the authority of Scripture lies in what they do rather than in what they are. Traditionally we have held that the divine authority of the Scriptures comes from the fact that God inspired them and that they are his written Word. According to this view, everything in the Scriptures is authoritative and true simply because God said it; the Bible does not first become authoritative through what it does.
5. We have a well-known difference among us on the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. Some hold that the Scriptures are inerrant only in their function, that is, that they faithfully accomplish their purpose of creating faith in man.
6. We also have problems with regard to the relationship between the material and formal principles of theology. The “formal principle” is that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the source and norm of all doctrine; the “material principle” is that Christ and his gracious justification of the sinner is the heart and center of the entire Scriptures. In keeping with our Lutheran Confessions, we have traditionally held to a very careful distinction between these principles. Thus we have held that Scripture is the source and norm of all doctrine, while the Gospel is the chief doctrine and a basic presupposition for the interpretation of Scripture. But today there is a frequent confusion of these principles, with the result that the Gospel, rather than the Bible, is employed as the norm of our theology. This is sometimes called Gospel reductionism.
Those who confuse these principles sometimes reject the factual claims of a given text on the grounds that it does not involve the Gospel. They assert that interpretations of a Scripture passage need not be rejected if they do not harm the Gospel. For example, it is said by some that although the Bible specifically commands women to keep silence in the church, yet since this does not impinge on the Gospel, the matter of ordination of women to the pastoral ministry is a matter of indifference and may be practiced or not according to human convenience. By the same method of interpretation, the fall of Adam and Eve, the universal flood, and other historical teachings of Scripture are not accepted by some as factual because they are considered to be non-essential to the doctrinal lesson of sin and grace. In spite of its obvious confusion, this form of “Gospel reductionism” is often claimed as a truly Lutheran way of interpreting the Scriptures.
7. With regard to miracles, some members of our church, while acknowledging that Christ could have performed all miracles that are attributed to him in the Gospels, claim that it is permissible for exegetical reasons to reinterpret biblical miracle-stories so as to eliminate their reality by regarding them as parables or another type of literary device. According to this view, it is permissible, for example, to deny that Christ walked on water or changed water into wine. Such stories, it is held, were intended to teach something quite different from the performance of a miracle. For similar reasons, some are evidently having difficulty in affirming that there really are angels or a personal devil.
The question that has to be answered by this convention is whether we are willing to allow such matters (and many more) to be regarded as open questions on which we may take any position we wish. If the Synod feels we should be this permissive and wishes to understand Article II of the Constitution in this loose sense, then let us realize that we have departed from the positions maintained by Dr. Walther and other fathers of our church. If we do not want this kind of latitude because we feel that it threatens the faith we confess and the message of reconciliation with which we have been entrusted, let us state clearly to all concerned that deviations from the official position of our church must be dealt with and cannot be permitted.
In keeping with the concern for doctrinal purity which the Synod has always demonstrated, your president embarked on a course of action which created a great deal of discussion in the Synod. It was a course from which he did not feel that he could deviate with good conscience. I have reference to the creation of a Fact-Finding Committee to ascertain the doctrinal position of the members of the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. As many of you know, criticisms and questions have been voiced for several years about the theological position of members of this faculty. I am not here referring to the accusations made in certain extra-synodical journals, but rather to the fact that entire District pastoral conferences and District conventions, as well as other responsible groups and individuals, had expressed great concern about the theological stance of various members of the faculty.
Although such criticisms have been expressed for several years, a series of events which involved members of the faculties themselves occurred in the last months of 1969 and early in 1970 which made it imperative for me to determine what the doctrinal situation at our seminary really was.
Among these events were the following:
1. At a joint meeting of both seminary [Concordia St. Louis, Concordia Springfield] faculties together with the Council of Presidents in late 1969, it became obvious that there were serious disagreements in the way in which members of the faculties understand the authority of the Sacred Scriptures and its implication for biblical interpretation. In addition, a member of the St. Louis faculty stated that the presuppositions with which certain members of the faculty were approaching the Scriptures were not Lutheran.
2. In January of 1970 several members of the faculty in St. Louis were involved in the issuing of “A Call to Openness and Trust,” a document which the Commission on Theology and Church Relations later evaluated as being contrary to the confessional position of the Synod.
3. In February, 1970, the faculties of both seminaries met jointly and discussed an essay by a member of the St. Louis faculty. In this meeting a sharp theological division was evident. The Systematics Departments of both seminaries adopted a resolution stating that the essay undermined the authority of the Scriptures and confused Law and Gospel.
4. In April I received a letter from a senior member of the St. Louis faculty which pointed out theological problems of such a magnitude as to require the resources of the synodical president’s office to effect a solution.
Therefore I did not undertake the investigation on the assumption that anyone was guilty of false doctrine, but rather to find out what the situation actually was. If the President of the Synod could be prevented from asking questions of our professors, who could ever ask them?
… The report of the Fact-Finding Committee has been completed and given to the Board of Control of the Seminary, and to President Tietjen. I plan to consult in the near future with the Board of Control concerning this report.
The Fact-Finding Committee has submitted to me its report of its findings. The report is very complete. It includes a full transcript of the interviews held with forty-five professors. It includes an individual summary for each of these interviews. Beyond this it contains pertinent information based on a survey of theological literature and class syllabi produced by the faculty, observations based on class visits, a study of student periodicals, and to a limited extent a report on interviews with students. In the interest of providing an overview of its findings, the committee has prepared a general summary which gives a picture of the seminary without identifying individuals. This summary in turn was condensed to a tabular presentation showing varying positions held on doctrinal topics.
It is my sincere prayer that the work of the Fact-Finding Committee has been of benefit both to the seminary and to the church. My only desire in this matter had been that the church have full confidence in the doctrinal commitment of the seminary faculty and of the future pastors it prepares.
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