Seminex and the Sovereignty of Scripture

Forty years ago, in September 1972, the “sleeping giant” of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod “blew its volcanic top.”  “Tremors, rumblings, and vents of hot air” had warned of things to come for thirty years, but the vast majority of “sleepy villagers at the foot of the mountain” paid no attention.  “Fractures in the mountain” became evident in 1969, with the election of Jacob A. O. Preus II to Synod President, from the right side of the “mountain,” and the appointment of John Tietjen to Concordia Seminary President, from the left side of the “mountain.”

On September 1, 1972, the Synod President’s Fact-Finding Committee published its report investigating the theology of the Saint Louis seminary.  Covered in blue, with 160 pages of small print on 8.5×11” pages, this “Blue Book” proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the majority of faculty at the prestigious seminary did not agree with the confessional article of the synod’s constitution, especially as that pertained to the authority of the canonical Scriptures.

After a year of debates and conflict, the Missouri Synod’s 1973 convention in New Orleans charged the Saint Louis seminary faculty majority with abolishing “the formal principle, sola Scriptura (i.e., that all doctrines are derived from Scripture and that Scripture is the sole norm of all doctrine)” (1973 Proceedings, Res. 3-09, pp. 133-139).  On this basis, the seminary’s Board of Control, fortified with new members from the 1973 convention, received charges against the seminary president at their meeting in August 1973.  After a lengthy process of meetings, and attempted reconciliation, the seminary board suspended John Tietjen as its president on January 20, 1974.

On the day after the president’s suspension, the majority of seminary faculty (45 out of 50) and the majority of students (274 out of 381) held a “moratorium” in protest.  The protesting faculty refused to teach and the protesting students refused to attend classes taught by the five non-protesting professors.  On February 17, 1974, the Board of Control declared that the protesting faculty who did not resume their duties by February 19th were in violation of their contracts.  On February 19th, the protesting faculty and protesting students “went into exile” amid a faux funeral procession and television publicity.  The following day the protesters resumed classes at “Concordia Seminary in Exile,” also known as “Seminex,” held at Saint Louis University and Eden Seminary in Saint Louis.

Seminex became the seed bed for a new church-body.  When eight Missouri Synod district presidents ordained Seminex graduates, and four of them were subsequently removed from office, 250 congregations sympathetic to the Seminex cause started a new church body known as the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (hereafter AELC).  Seminex also soon flew its “social liberal” colors by accepting women students into the M.Div. program for the pastoral ministry.

Seminex became the de facto seminary for the AELC, but there were not enough vacant positions in the new church-body for all of the Seminex graduates.  Some Seminex students and graduates colloquized into the LCMS; others accepted a “worker-priest” ministry in the AELC; while others abandoned the pastoral ministry altogether. The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America merged with the AELC in 1988 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (hereafter ELCA).  Seminex formally ceased to exist with the formation of the ELCA, but its effects are still present in both the ELCA and LCMS today, like white ash drifting out of the sky from some distant eruption.

A recent book by James Burkee from the ELCA’s publication agency, Fortress Press, attempts to argue that the eruption was primarily due to a conservative political reaction of the American public, who were afraid of communism and the political and social agitations of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  At the January 16, 2012 conference of the Lutheran Concerns Association, Burkee’s thesis was solidly refuted by attorneys Walter Dissen and Scott Meyer.  Dissen was a member of the Board of Control of the Saint Louis seminary during the years of its conflict and gave eyewitness testimony.  Meyer is President of the Concordia Historical Institute (a.k.a. CHI, the official historical arm of the Missouri Synod), has received CHI’s Distinguished Service Award for lifetime service to the Institute, and is a church historian in his own right.  Dissen’s and Meyer’s lectures will be available in the 2012 LCA conference videos, and may also be published in the LCA’s Clarion (for more information about the upcoming 2012 videos or published lectures, click here: http://lutheranclarion.org ).

In his Anatomy of an Explosion, Dr. Kurt Marquart of the Fort Wayne seminary argued that the explosion was due both to differences in the doctrine of Scripture and in the doctrine of church fellowship.  In this view, the rupture in the Missouri Synod goes back at least as far as the infamous Statement of the 44, published in 1945.  A historian could also point to the transition from German to English in LCMS congregations, which began in the 1920s; to the synod’s overwhelming desire to call faculty with advanced degrees to its seminaries and colleges, even when such faculty had questionable doctrinal loyalties; to the influence of a liberal faculty at the independent Valparaiso University; and to the synod’s strong desire to be part of the “mainstream” of American Protestantism.

Whatever forces converged on the Missouri Synod in the 20th century to cause its “eruption,” the fact is that the decisive point was what I call the “sovereignty of Scripture” over church life and doctrine.  Accused of being “fundamentalist,” the Missouri Synod’s view of Scripture was actually part of the catholic tradition of the Christian church, reaffirmed by Luther at his trial at Worms. At Worms, Luther quoted Augustine’s letter 82 to Jerome (chap 1,3), where the Bishop of Hippo stated “I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error” (see Luther’s Works 32:11 “Defense of all the Articles”; and 32:118 “Luther at the Diet of Worms”). Without such an unerring-apostolic Scripture, the Missouri Synod would be neither part of the catholic tradition of the Christian church nor Lutheran.

 

 

Bibliography

Adams, James E. Preus of Missouri and the Great Lutheran Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).

Board of Control, Concordia Seminary, Exodus From Concordia: A Report on the 1974 Walkout. (Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1977).

Burkee, James.  Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod:  A Conflict that Changed American Christianity (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2010).

Danker, Frederick William. No Room in the Brotherhood: The Preus-Otten Purge of Missouri (Saint Louis: Clayton Publishing House, 1977).

Marquart, Kurt E. Anatomy of an Explosion: A Theological Analysis of the Missouri Synod Conflict (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1977).

Suelflow, August, ed.  Heritage in Motion: Readings in the History of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 1962-1995 (Saint Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1998).

Tietjen, John. Memoirs in Exile: Confessional Hope and Institutional Conflict (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990).

Todd, Mary. Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000).

Zimmerman, Paul A. A Seminary in Crisis: The Inside Story of the Preus Fact Finding Committee (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2007).  Includes the “Blue Book” in its Appendices: Report of the Fact Finding Committee Concerning Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, to President J.A.O. Preus (June 1971); and Report of the Synodical President of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (September 1, 1972).

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