Steadfast Lessons from the Past: Is the Book of Jonah Really Historical? by Rev. Walt Otten

(Some of our readers may be unfamiliar with the ‘battle for the Bible” in the LCMS during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Many in the synod, even seminary professors, fell prey to the false teaching that the Bible contains errors and is not entirely, word for word, God’s word. A critical battle ensued. Rev. Otten digs into his past to share this episode from that crucial struggle.)

Pr. Rossow told this writer, whom he addresses with the title “Bishop,” “just look into your files and you’ll find plenty for your column, Steadfast Lessons from the Past

The impetus for this post doesn’t originate from those files. The Old Testament lesson for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany was from the book of Jonah. Pr. Rossow’s “Bishop” should, but does not yet, have the Jonah Commentary in the new Concordia Series. He therefore had to reach for Laetsch’s Minor Prophets. Inside the front cover he found, tucked away, THE LESSON OF JONAH, It is a 15 page essay dated 8-31-65 by Dr. Alfred von Rohr Sauer, a member of the St. Louis seminary, also God-father to a member of this writer’s parish.

Dr. Sauer’s essay was dated 8-31-65. Earlier that same summer the Detroit convention adopted Resolution 2-27. It reads in part, “RESOLVED, That the Synod affirm its conviction that the events recorded in the Book of Jonah did occur as shown by-

  1. historical data in the book itself;
  2. our Lord’s reference to Jonah and Nineveh in the New Testament.”

Dr. Sauer’s 1965 essay, written barely two months after the 1965 convention that affirmed the historicity of Jonah, concludes with a paragraph that begins with the words, “The place of the book of Jonah in the prophetic canon calls for a didactic interpretation.” His essay describes “didactic” with these words, “didactic narrative, they [biblical scholars] point out, is to convey a religious teaching, not necessarily to present history.” He also describes didactic narrative as “a parable or a midrash.”

Dr. Sauer’s paper, tucked away in my Laetsch commentary, was in clear violation of the 1965 convention resolution, and when I gazed upon it again all these years later it did send me to my files. Would I find in those files any response to Dr. Sauer’s paper written by yours truly?

I did find just such a response. My files included a personal letter to Dr. Sauer dated May 13, 1966. After referring to a conversation with him in the Fall of 1965 at Valpo, and telling him that I had read both his paper “THE MEANING OF GENESIS 1-2 and THE LESSON OF JONAH, I wrote

As I read your papers, these seemed to be in direct conflict, not only with the theology expressed in the Synodical resolutions, but even more serious, -and I speak to you as one who learned much from you, who is greatly indebted to you for his understanding of Isaiah and much of the Old Testament, who totally enjoyed his hours as your feet,- these papers express unscriptural teachings.

Earlier in that letter were the words

At the Valpo conference you told me that my reaction was the same as you encountered throughout the Synod. Many of the pastors, your former students, had told you that you had taught them ‘too good’ for them to change. You also told me that it took you a good number of years to change and that I too should not feel that I could not change.

Unknown to many when it adopted the resolution, the Board of Control of the St. Louis Seminary on Feb 28th 1966 took what it called “action” on Resolution 2-27 of the Detroit convention that affirmed the historicity of Jonah. It adopted a statement that called Resolution 2-27 to the attention of the faculty which included the following words,

5. With regard to viewpoints which differ from this expressed conviction [Resolution 2-27 of the Detroit Convention] the following should be observed:

c) When a professor is convinced that a viewpoint which differs from that expressed in the Detroit resolution is tenable, the exegesis on which it is based should be very carefully worked out and adequately presented. Furthermore, the absence of conflict with our confessionally formulated doctrine should be pointed out.

A careful reading of the two page single spaced resolution of Board of Control sent to the faculty through the President of the Seminary, Dr. Alfred Fuerbringer, finds the Board to be ambiguous at best. While the Board does ask the faculty to “honor and respect” resolution 2-27, at the same time it says that if a faculty member is convinced of a viewpoint that differs with resolution 2-27 he is bound only to present careful exegesis for his differing opinion and not the resolution itself.

The details and specifics of the letters that resulted are too many for any sort of summary at this time. There were more letters to Dr. Sauer and the Board of Control. These were followed up with several letters to Dr. Harms, but all with no positive or confessional result. These many letters however do show what Brothers of John the Steadfast, Dr Paul Zimmerman, Pastor Karl Barth and others, who were appointed to serve on the “Fact Finding Committee” of the St. Louis Seminary some years later by President Jack Preus, would encounter in their interviews with the St. Louis faculty.

In the end, thanks to steadfast brothers, the LCMS voted to remain true to God’s word. May we continue that steadfast course until our Lord returns.

(Editor’s Note: Rev. Otten’s columns are archived on the Regular Columns page. I lovingly refer to Rev. Otten as “bishop” because he has been steadfast for so many years and mentored many “young” pastors like me. I have met very few who shepherd a congregation as faithfully as Walter did.)

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