The LCMS Nestorianism of the Seventies, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(After a brief interlude for commentary on the Harrison paper, Pastor Preus returns to his series on Christology. This is the third post in a series of seven.)

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod expects all its pastors and congregations to subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions and specifically to the Formula of Concord as it articulates the Christology of the bible.

The confession of this article of faith is important because terrible mischief ensues when it is denied. When people do not believe that the seed of the woman contains within himself the full deity they also end up making up a new Jesus. And this new Jesus usually conforms to their particularly doctrine. Nestorianism has been taught in many forms even within our church body. In each case Jesus ends up being something different than the savior you learned to know through the stories in Sunday school. Instead he is morphed into the image of his theological creators.

Let’s look at four ways in which pastors within our synod have taught the false doctrine of Nestorius. In each case they invent a Jesus in their image. This will be the topic of my next four blogs.

First, some members of the St. Louis Seminary faculty of the late sixties and early seventies had Nestorian tendencies. Let me explain.

The Faculty defended the use of “The Historical Critical Method.” One aspect of this method of bible interpretation was a “quest for the historic Jesus.” The “quest” divided Christ into two persons, one, the unknowable Jesus of history (Human nature) and the other the Christ of faith and the church (Divine nature). This approach to the Bible was strongly advocated by the St. Louis Seminary in the late sixties and early seventies. Here are some classical liberals outside of our church who exercised influence over the St. Louis Seminary.

“This Biblical Christ is not, however, the historical Jesus.” (Heinz Zahrnt, The Historical Jesus (Harper and Row, 1960) p. 44)

“The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.” (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London 1954) p. 396)

“So, we may not go behind the kerygma, using it as a ‘source’…to reconstruct an ‘historical Jesus’. This would be precisely the ‘Christ according to the flesh,” who is gone. It is not the historical Jesus but the Jesus Christ, the Proclaimed one, who is the Lord. (Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth (London 1953) p. 41)

Notice that these classical liberal Bible Scholars function as though there were two Jesuses. The one Jesus is God. He is the Christ, the proclaimed one and our Lord. The other Jesus either is a figment of historical imagination or the construction of historians. And the two Jesuses never meet.

The professors of our Seminary were, for political reasons, less forthright in their expressions. But the flavor comes through. For example one of the professors claimed that Jonah was not a real historical person. When asked about Jesus’ assertion to the contrary he explained, “Jesus did hold that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish, but He believed this only as a child of His time. Contemporary Judaism was of the opinion that the prophet really experienced the ordeal of the deep and therefore Jesus as a pious Jew accepted it. This answer would imply that in His humiliation Jesus chose to relinquish His omniscience and that He needed to grow in wisdom and stature like every Jewish lad of His time (Luke 2:52). Such a limitation of His understanding would be inseparably bound up with His incarnation and would verify the fact of His humanity.” Cited by Paul A Zimmerman, A Seminary in Crisis (CPH 2007) 331.    

Another professor said Moses did not write the Pentateuch but that Jesus said he did, because he was “here in that wondrous thing, that state of humiliation where He is a genuine man as we are.” Such a mistake on the part of Jesus, however, constituted to this professor, “no threat to my belief in the deity of Christ or in the trustworthiness of the Word of Judgment and Gospel that He speaks to me.” (Ibid. 330)

So what you have is a Jesus who has not only hidden his divine nature under his humanity, but who apparently does not posses the qualities of the divine nature – such as accurate information about the Bible itself. The divine attributes are not communicated to the human nature. What we end up with is two Christs one who is God whom we trust and the other is an errant genuine man just like you and me. And the two natures have little apparent effect on each other.

Further, the human nature begins to look just like the Seminex crowd – exegetically unable to make assertions about the historical nature of the Bible but perfectly willing to assert its theological nature. You end up having two Jesuses.

This may seem like ancient history until you follow it forward to today. But that is a story for next time.

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.


The LCMS Nestorianism of the Seventies, by Pr. Klemet Preus — 3 Comments

  1. Sasse also held a similar view in 1950 (I believe) with his 14th letter to Lutheran pastors followed by the 16th, then later retractions. The idea is that: just as Jesus has two natures of *human* and *divine*, coupled with the Nestorian view that these attributes don’t communicate, and man is capable of error while the divine is not–then the bible contains error in human terms (history, geography, and recording of dialogue, etc.) but the divine nature makes scripture infalliable ONLY in theological matters pertaining to proclamation (the preaching of Christ). This, I think, led to the ability to discount history entirely and maintain a sterile, ahistorical, allegorical Christianity devoid of the necessary and real history. It should be pointed out: Sasse later retracted this position as “incomplete” and, if memory serves, that retraction came after some sixteen years had passed of debate and clarification.

  2. If we can’t trust what the Bible says about earthly things, why should we trust what it says about heavenly things? I will believe the whole Bible, or none of it.

  3. It sounds to me like the folks mentioned in the second portion of the article held to a Kenotic Christology, rather than Nestorianism per se. To the best of my knowledge, Kenotic Christologies don’t necessitate Nestorianism, but perhaps I am wrong on this point?

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