The editors ofCHRISTIANITY TODAYrecently interviewed Dr. J. A. O. Preus, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which has been in the throes of a major theological controversy. Besides giving his side of the dispute, he put in context some terms like “Seminex” and “moratorium,” now household words to those who have been following the struggle closely. Here is the edited distillation of the exclusive interview, which took place in the Washington offices ofCHRISTIANITY TODAY:
Question. What is the main theological issue in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?
Answer. The authority of the Bible.
Q. Is there more to the difficulties than theology?
A. When people are involved in arguments on any subject, political issues and personality conflicts develop, but these are a result of the main problem. The moderates by their constant discussion of personalities, distortion of the facts, and emphasis on personalities and politics are obfuscating the doctrinal issue.
Q. Who are the “moderates”?
A. The moderates are made up largely of clergy, and primarily of younger graduates of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis who hold to, or are sympathetic or permissive toward, the use of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation.
Q. If schism occurred, what portion of the local congregations do you think would remain within the denomination?
A. We have had three schisms in the last generation, and no more than thirty congregations left each time. I would be very surprised if more than twenty-five congregations would leave because of the present struggle. The synodical structure makes it very difficult for congregations to leave, and the people are loyal to the Missouri Synod because of its doctrinal commitment and its educational program. Our thorough confirmation instruction gives the average layman a strong foundation in Christian doctrine. Most—say 95 per cent—of the laity are satisfied.
Q. Does the Missouri Synod have a ministerial surplus as do its fellow Lutheran denominations?
A. We have fewer vacant parishes than we have had in about fifteen years—about 300 at the present time. Some congregations are calling graduates of the so-called Seminex but the calls and installations of these men are unconstitutional.
Q. What are the requirements for a Missouri Synod pastor?
A. A man must be a graduate of one of our schools under a recognized program established by our Board of Higher Education and must be certified. He is then placed by the district president.
Q. Can those who have left the denomination return?
A. Yes, if they abide by the constitution and bylaws of the Synod. The Board of Control of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis will have to decide about the reengagement of any professors who joined the moratorium and were subsequently dismissed from their positions.
Q. What has caused the slide from orthodoxy?
A. I think the basic cause of Missouri’s departure from its former position is ecumenicity. We moved from isolation to closer relationships with other church bodies. And our men picked up other ideas at non-Missouri graduate schools.
Q. How can this be prevented in other seminaries?
A. We need to establish a recognized orthodox graduate school of theology.
Q. How many students are left?
A. About 200 enrolled for the fall term at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
Q. How about professors?
A. At present the faculty is made up of eighteen men.
Q. Concordia Theological Seminary has had a good reputation, hasn’t it? Was it not the largest Lutheran seminary in the world as well?
A. Concordia Seminary in St. Louis has enjoyed a very good reputation, and I am sure that with the new faculty members they are getting they will have an even finer one. They continue to be accredited by the American Association of Theological Schools and, while they are no longer the largest Lutheran seminary in the world, I am confident that within four or five years they will be back to their former large position. At present our seminary at Springfield, Illinois, is the largest Lutheran seminary in the United States and probably in the world.
Q. What really happened last spring? Could you give us your own version of the big showdown?
A. The events of last winter and spring go back a long way in history. Both of my predecessors in office, Dr. Behnken and Dr. Harms, attempted over a very long period of time and with great efforts to try to stem the tide of liberalism which was arising at Concordia Seminary. They were not successful. I inaugurated the Fact Finding Committee as a way of trying to get a fair evaluation of what the situation actually was. The Synod convention in 1971 upheld my efforts and, when I gave a report to the church of what the situation was, I think the overwhelming majority of the church supported the doctrinal position of our Synod and took the position that they did not want theological liberalism and the use of the historical-critical method in the Synod. They spoke very loudly concerning this matter at the New Orleans convention. The liberal element of the Synod, under the leadership of the St. Louis faculty majority at that time, took very strong exception to the actions of New Orleans, with massive protests at the convention, protests following the convention, and the organization of ELIM (Evangelical Lutherans in Mission), which has been recently cautioned by the Board of Directors of the Synod as being a church within the church. All kinds of political actions also took place.
Then in January of 1974 the Board of Control, after very careful study of all aspects of the matter, suspended Dr. John Tietjen, the president of Concordia Seminary, on charges of false doctrine and malfeasance in office. This was followed the next day by a “moratorium” of the students and then the following day by a moratorium of the faculty. After many efforts by me, by the Board of Directors of the Synod, and by the Board of Control to bring about a resumption of normal academic activities on the campus, the Board of Control on February 17, after giving the faculty full information and warning of its intentions (to which there was no reply), dismissed the faculty on the grounds of breach of contract.
This resulted, shortly thereafter, in the creation of Seminex, the term being a shortened form of “seminary in exile.” Seminex made use of a consortium arrangement with Eden Seminary of the United Church of Christ and the St. Louis University Theological School, which is under the direction of the Jesuits. Thus accreditation of a kind and a place for meeting were assured.
The faculty were finally asked to vacate their homes because housing was a part of their salary and they were no longer in the employ of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The students of Seminex were permitted to live in their synodically owned homes and also had the use of the gymnasium, dining room, and library of Concordia Seminary.
Finally, in June, Seminex was incorporated under the laws of the State of Missouri with seven professors serving as the members of the Board of Directors. It started as a closed corporation: no parish pastors, no lay people, and no students on the Board of Directors of the institution. About 385 students eventually joined Seminex.
In the meantime, the theological issues that brought about the whole matter are no closer to solution than they were before. In a letter of June 5, 1974, the faculty indicated that they stand exactly where they did doctrinally before the New Orleans convention. Efforts have been made by the Board of Control and others to bring about a rapprochement, but no meaningful theological dialogue has been held in order to try to resolve the doctrinal impasse. Several professors have indicated they do not even wish to return to Concordia Seminary.
Difficulties also came with the placement of the students for a year of pastoral internship, and a real constitutional impasse was reached when Seminex graduates who were not properly certified by an official of a recognized seminary of the Synod attempted to push their way into the ministry of the Synod in an unconstitutional way, often with the cooperation of certain district presidents. This has produced another serious and unnecessary crisis.
Q. Is it true that Seminex is not allowed to recruit seminarians from the Missouri Synod college in Fort Wayne, Indiana? Have these students caused trouble?
A. It is true that Seminex is not allowed to recruit on the campus of Concordia Senior College at Fort Wayne, but a great deal of unofficial and underhanded recruitment has gone on.
Q. What will happen to the seniors of Seminex? Will they be placed?
A. Yes, but only in accordance with the constitution.
Q. How is that?
A. The final arrangement was that each graduate of Seminex could be certified for the ministry if he would have a half-hour interview with the faculty of Concordia Seminary. Up to this point very few students have come over from Seminex to be properly certified. The issue is the recognition of the Seminex faculty. Seminex appears to be operating either on borrowed money or on a shoestring. It did receive a large amount of money from a donor in Indiana and also, of course, received in excess of $150,000 in tuitions for the spring quarter. Even in the Colorado district, which supposedly favors Seminex, only 100 out of 40,000 members donated anything.
Q. Has there been an infringement upon academic liberty at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis?
A. We don’t tell our professors whether to vote Republican or Democratic. We didn’t tell them how to stand on the Viet Nam war, and we don’t tell them how to stand on civil liberties or the Equal Rights Amendment, but when we get to things taught in the Bible, we are talking about something else. To demand adherence to Scripture in the context of a Bible seminary is not to defy academic freedom.
Q. How does this battle affect Canadian and European Lutherans? Will it cause problems for the mission department?
A. I have been in many of our foreign mission fields very recently. Efforts have been made to inject our American problems into some of our sister churches, and I think this is immoral. While the relation between the Mission Board and some of our missionaries is not cordial at the moment, partly because of the seminary matter, I do not believe that very much of a problem will be caused in our overseas sister churches, unless Americans do so deliberately.
Q. What is the constitutional situation with regard to elevating your doctrinal statement to the Book of Concord?
A. At the Milwaukee convention we passed resolution 524, stating that the Synod has a right to speak on doctrinal issues and pass resolutions that become the official positions of the church. Now the so-called Preus statement was not an attempt to say anything except what the Missouri Synod was teaching in all its congregations. I received 10,000 letters, 90 per cent favorable. Hundreds of congregations passed resolutions endorsing it. But the critics are noisy. The resolution says that any documents agreeing with Scripture could be accepted as statements of the church. The whole thing is political because my name is associated with it and because it represented the conservative victory in New Orleans.
Q. Who drafted the statement?
A. Dr. Ralph Bohlmann of our Commission on Theology, now the acting president of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, was very helpful in the production of it. The vice-presidents of the Synod also gave many helpful suggestions.
Q. Would you say that the statement was not in any disagreement with either of the Lutheran confessions?
A. It mentioned some things that the Lutheran confession doesn’t. For example, it had a great deal to say in a systematic way about the doctrine of Scripture, biblical authority, and inerrancy, things that weren’t issues at the time the confession was formulated.
Q. Isn’t it true that the LCMS has always believed in the infallibility of the Bible?
Q. If you had it to do all over again, what would you have done differently since 1969?
A. I think I probably would have talked less. Diplomatically, I should have kept a little lower profile. My reports to the church would have been the same, though.
Q. We hear two views of Missouri: Preus calls the shots, plans programs, and stuffs boards; or, the conservatives who were voted in at New Orleans perhaps are right of Preus and are going farther than he would have gone. Is either view right?
A. I would lean toward the second one. I don’t really call as many shots as some people think I should. In fact, a lot of things are done without my even knowing it. For example, when the Board for Higher Education came under some fire last spring I was not even informed or consulted about its resolutions not to allow dissent from the “Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles.”
When the faculty and the students left the seminary, the initial reaction was total shock. Our Board of Directors met the week following, and the only question was: “How do we get them back?” I was part of that. Well, as time went on a second question emerged: “Do we want them back?” But the Board of Control took close to two weeks to realize that the faculty actually was gone and that there was a simple way to solve the entire problem—by bringing in the Missouri corporate law, which says if you are not here you are no longer on the payroll. Nobody had really thought that through. Nobody had really asked what we would do if a walk-out occurred. The Board of Control only wondered how to cope with the doctrinal problem.
Q. Over and above passing strict resolutions, how is it possible to ensure that there will not be a gradual deterioration of theological faculties such as there has been in Germany?
A. As theological education goes, so goes the church. If the erosion was to be stopped we had to do it at the place where the pastors are educated.
Q. Isn’t it unethical to teach something other than what one professes to believe?
A. Yes, but not all would admit it.
Q. Can you offer any suggestions to other seminaries or church bodies that might be drifting from orthodoxy?
A. Our battle has been fought largely on the basis of the relation of the seminary to the church and to the bylaws of the constitution. Our seminary, for example, is owned by the church. Its Board of Control is elected by the church. In a certain sense, despite our difficulties, I think we’ve had it much easier than would a decentralized group like the Baptists. A church must devise ways to get control of the seminary. You need to know the individual structure of each church in order to answer that question.
Q. Has Tietjen’s popularity affected the problem?
A. Tremendously. There are students in Seminex calling themselves conservatives who probably would have no theological problem with the doctrinal position of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But they feel sorry for Tietjen.
Q. If the liberals come to power, would you be part of a conservative walk-out?
A. If the liberals win, which they are seeking to do, I think there could be a major split the other way, much larger than any we’ve had. Four hundred delegations at the Denver convention in 1969 were ready to walk out because we went into fellowship with the ALC. I calmed them down. This could happen again. As far as I’m concerned I do not want to take part in any effort to split the church. I would not be party to any effort to split the Missouri Synod or lead any dissident group.
Q. What is your evaluation of the media’s role in the coverage of Missouri Synod problems?
A. I think the news coverage has extrapolated the problem, confused the lay people, and made a brotherly solution to the problem quite difficult. I would have said this is an issue we ought to settle in our own house. But the seminary used the secular press to promote its position. Naturally, conflict makes for interesting reading, and the media didn’t have to be begged to get with it.
Q. To what extent is the difference over Scripture a matter of semantics, hermeneutics, and even epistemology? Obviously, the professors who voice a confession, then teach what we regard as contradictory to that confession, do not consider themselves dishonest. How do they justify themselves?
A. Obviously the whole matter of the liberal understanding of Scripture began with the question of epistemology. I do not believe that the differences in the Missouri Synod are any longer matters of semantics. I think we understand one another very well. Our principles of hermeneutics are not really so very far apart, except for the fact that the use of the historical-critical method by a small number of our theologians has given them what they believe to be the right to declare as figurative portions of Scripture that on their face and in their context are obviously to be understood literally. The use of the historical-critical method, which they claim is a neutral tool, opens the door to this kind of problem.
I do believe that there must be some people who are having moral problems over the matter of whether they are being honest with the church. It is very evident that the various statements of the Seminex faculty are becoming more and more revealing and more and more honest as to where they actually stand. This is to their credit, but I think it also points out the fact that the church really is seriously divided theologically and that honesty and integrity would require that those who no longer agree with the officially enunciated position of their church, a position clearly drawn from the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions, really ought not to continue to disturb a church that in extremely clear language has stated both what it believes and what it does not believe.
There may be efforts to overturn the decisions and actions of the convention at New Orleans, but I challenge these people to do so on a purely doctrinal basis. They can talk about personalities, power politics, and all kinds of matters that only obfuscate the issue, but I would challenge the dissident element in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to engage in an honest, straightforward discussion of the doctrinal issues. This they still are unwilling to do.
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