Steadfast Lessons from the Past ““ A Past Steadfast Professor from Concordia ““ Chicago: Dr. Neelak Tjernagel, by The Rev. Walt Otten

(Editor’s note: The Rev. Otten offers a timely post in these days when we struggle with professors at Concordia Chicago who have signed a petition in support of the Marxist-anarchist William Ayers. We thank him for this story of a steadfast professor from the past. You can read Rev. Otten’s other posts in his regular column here on the BJS website.)

“Sic transit Gloria mundi.” “So passes the glory of the world.” To be sure to serve the Lord in His Church can not be done in order to obtain “glory,” but where men have labored faithfully, that is confessionally for their Lord they also ought not be forgotten. But they often are. It wasn’t long ago that this writer mentioned the name of Dr. Theodore Nickel, former District President and Synodical Vice President, to a group of young confessional pastors. They did not know who he, who surely gives us a steadfast lesson from the past, was. But he is not the only one that may today be forgotten. Our attention in this ‘STEADFAST LESSONS FROM THE PAST turns to Concordia Teacher’s College of River Forest, Illinois. It has a different name today. It is now known as Concordia University, Chicago. Dr. Neelak Serawlook Tjernagel, a 1928 graduate of Synod’s preparatory school at St. Paul, Minnesota, a most respected historian and dignified gentleman, was a member of the faculty in the 1950s and 60s. The glory of the world passes quickly and sometimes it gets passed in a brown paper bag. We will return to that below. Here is a brief summary of Neelak Tjernagel’s steadfast work.

In the 60s Concordia Publishing House published two books by Tjernagel: HENRY THE VIII AND THE LUTHERANS and THE REFORMATION ESSAYS OF ROBERT BARNES. Northwestern Publishing House published his work MARTIN LUTHER AND THE JEWS. Dr. Neelak Serawlook Tjernagel’s last name reflects his Norwegian background. His first and second names are probably unique in the Missouri Synod. His father was a missionary to the Eskimos. His first and second names are Eskimo names.

During Tjernagel’s years at Concordia Teachers College, under the administration of Dr. Martin Koehneke, new professors would be added to the faculty where Dr. Tjernagel faithfully and confessionally taught. Many of these men and women, 26 in number, would in the year 1974 on the Day of the Conversion of St. Paul sign a letter addressed to the Seminex faculty. This faculty was majority of the St. Louis Seminary which had very recently been dismissed from their responsibilities at the St. Louis Seminary for failure to teach their assigned classes. The letter of the 26 members of the River Forest faculty included words which clearly aligned them with the Seminex faculty, “We joyfully affirm our faith with the members of the faculty in their published confession entitled FAITHFUL TO OUR CALLING- FAITHFUL TO OUR LORD Part 1. We deplore the action of the representatives of our Synod which sought to declare them false teachers and remove them from the ministerium of our church.” The LCMS in its 1973 convention had declared that FAITHFUL TO OUR CALLING-FAITHFUL TO OUR LORD contained doctrines contrary to the Holy Scriptures.

Dr.Tjernagel had left the River Forest faculty by the time this letter was written, but the seeds that gave birth to this letter were already there during his tenure on the faculty, not only were the seeds there, the fruit was already evident. What was this gentle confessional scholar to do?

In the year 1965 8 essays by current or former members of the faculty were delivered at a “CLOSED SEMINAR IN THEOLOGY.” Dr. Tjernagel attended the seminar. They were entitled, “THE DOCTRINAL BASIS OF THE LUTHERAN CHURCH-MISSOURI SYNOD” by Dr. Ralph Gehrke, “THE FORCES SHAPING CURRENT THEOLOGICAL THOUGHT” by instructor Wesley Wilkie, “THE NATURE AND AUTHORITY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE” by instructor R. W. Uitti, “THE STUDY AND INTEPRETATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT” by Dr. Albert Glock, “THE STUDY AND INTERPRETATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT” by Dr. Richard Gotsch, “JESUS AS THE CHRIST” and “THE LAST THINGS” by Dr. Walter Bouman, and ‘THE NATURE OF JUSTIFICATION” by former professor Frederick Pralle. The papers each included these introductory words, “In view of the nature of this seminar these papers should be considered study papers and therefore should not be quoted without the permission of the authors.”

The papers clearly reflected the theology of the historical critical approach found in the Seminex document FAITHFUL TO OUR CALLING-FAITHFUL TO OUR LORD. One of the papers included these words. “There is little doubt that the New Testament employs a literary form which was widespread in Judaism, known as haggadah. Haggadah has all the literary characteristics of historical narrative. It appears as descriptive narrative, monologue and dialogue. It differs from historical narrative only in the sense that which it describes never happened…One of the examples of this comes from the Baptism of Jesus. In Matthews version of the baptism of Jesus there is a unique narrative of a conversation between Jesus and the Baptizer…It is very probable that this little exchange between John and Jesus is not a reminiscence of an historical occurrence.”

When the contents of these papers were made public there was serious objection by the administration of the school. It was said that they were to be looked upon as study papers given in peer groups, the contents of which were not to be presented in classroom lectures, an activity that many said was called for and granted by the l965 convention of the Synod. Yet a very revealing letter appeared in THE SPECTATOR, the student publication of Concordia Teachers College. Any reading of that entire letter will reveal that the writer was in complete support of the professors who presented the essays. The letter read, “We admit that we’ve been learning some new things here at CTC – not all of which we tell our folks. Fewer of which we tell our pastors. Many of those “secret essays” were pretty well tried out in classes before being presented to the faculty study group.”

Dr. Tjernagel, who as an ordained Missouri synod faculty member and pastor attended the seminar. He knew from his participation in the seminar that what appeared in THE SPECTATOR was indeed true. What was contained in the essays was taught it the classroom. He clearly stated his opposition to the contents of the essays as they were presented. But what more could he do?

Shortly after the seminar was held he was scheduled for surgery. He was to undergo the same surgery that took the life of his father. He brought the essays to the hospital where he would undergo surgery. His pastor visited him the night before surgery. After devotion and prayer he told his pastor that there was a large envelope in the locker of his hospital room. He told his pastor that it contained some very interesting reading, and that is how the article you are now reading came to be.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.

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