Last month marked the silver anniversary of the “retirement” of Dr. Robert Preus from the presidency of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. On July 27, 1989 the Fort Wayne Board of Regents opened its summer meeting with a devotion led by Preus. After the devotion, they dismissed him from the meeting during its executive session, and then notified him that he was terminated. This action was later reviewed by the LCMS Commission on Appeals, which handed down its decision on December 3, 1991 that the “Board of Regents did not properly and honorably retire Preus” (see Commission on Appeals official record, May 31, 1992, p. 12).
After three years, in which some persons in the LCMS tried to expel Preus from the synod, the LCMS Commission on Appeals ruled that “The Plaintiff’s charges against Robert D. Preus, Counts One through Eight, are dismissed. The Decision of the Indiana District Commission on Adjudication terminating the membership of Dr. Preus in the LCMS is reversed and held for naught” (see Commission on Appeals official record, May 31, 1992, p. 56). According to the bylaws in those days, the Commission on Appeals decision was final. So the truth is that Dr. Robert Preus was forcibly removed from his office and call for no just cause, and he was innocent of all charges ever made against him.
Twenty-five years gives a measure of hindsight for all involved. The question that has never been answered is: Why was Robert Preus removed from office? The following is my answer, which historians will be able to test against the record, as it presently exists, and as it will eventually become available through the unsealing of official documents and study of the same.
Robert Preus was one of the “Faithful Five” who cooperated with the synod during its investigation of false doctrine at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis (ca. 1970-1975). The other members of the “Faithful Five” included seminary professors Richard Klann, Martin Scharlemann, Lorenz Wunderlich, and Ralph Bohlmann. These were the same professors who stayed at the seminary when the rest of the seminary faculty went on strike in January 1974 (see Paul Zimmerman, A Seminary in Crisis [St Louis: CPH, 2007], 123). Subsequently the faculty majority formed the “Seminex” seminary, which later became the seminary of the AELC splinter synod.
It is no surprise that, after the “walkout” crisis, the “Faithful Five” had to endure the life-long enmity of the Seminex faculty, their students, and their supporters in the LCMS. The Tietjen-Seminex supporters in the LCMS included not only those Seminex students who were illegally ordained by LCMS district presidents, but also most of the Seminex students who were later accepted into the LCMS by colloquy—as well as over a thousand pastors and congregations who had supported Tietjen from the beginning of the “struggle.”
John Tietjen complained, with a great deal of justification, that 1200 congregations—and their pastors—had supported him in the struggles in the early 1970s, but only 250 left to form the AELC synod (see John Tietjen, Memoirs in Exile [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990], 269). This left 950 congregations still in the LCMS—with their pastors—who were sympathetic to the Seminex faculty, to John Tietjen, and to their quasi-Lutheran theology. These were the same congregations and pastors who had been extremely active in synodical politics in the 1960s and early 1970s. So it would be no surprise if the “Faithful Five,” including Robert Preus, suffered various attacks and reprisal from members of the LCMS throughout the rest of their lives for their faithful and steadfast stand in support of true Lutheran theology.
If the persons who had terminated Robert Preus, and who had brought charges against him, had openly identified themselves as Tietjen-Seminex supporters, then the causes for his removal from office would have been patently clear. But, in fact, one of the plaintiffs in the case against Preus was another member of the “Faithful Five,” President Ralph Bohlmann. So obviously Preus’ removal was not a case of “Seminex reprisals”; or was it?
Even before things started “heating up” at Concordia Seminary in 1970, Robert Preus had made his mark as an indefatigable defender of orthodox Lutheran theology. Because of his deep reading in the orthodox Lutheran theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he knew that one of the most insidious threats to orthodox Lutheran theology was syncretism. While the LCMS was considering church fellowship with the American Lutheran Church, Preus gave a lecture entitled “To Join or Not to Join: A Study of Some of the Issues in the Question of Joining with the ALC in Pulpit and Altar Fellowship” (given at the North Dakota District Convention of the LCMS, 1968). After the LCMS declared fellowship in the summer of 1969, Preus gave an essay asking for reconsideration of that action titled “Fellowship Reconsidered” (given at the Pastor’s Conference of the Wyoming District of the LCMS, April 13-15, 1971; printed by Mount Hope Lutheran Church, Casper, Wyoming). None of Preus’ Saint Louis colleagues warned the synod of this particular syncretistic threat, to this degree.
What is the matter with syncretism? Syncretism happens when a Lutheran church-body is not willing to criticize or condemn the false theology in another church-body, but instead silently approves that false theology by joining in various types of “relationships” or “fellowships” with that heterodox church. The threat of syncretism to the church was clearly stated by the orthodox Lutheran theologians. This can be found, e.g., in Johann Baier’s Compendium Theologiae Positivae, Vol. 3, ed. C.F.W. Walther (Saint Louis: Concordia Verlag, 1879; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Emmanuel Press, 2005), 665-672 [section 37]. The danger of syncretism to the Lutheran faith was reiterated “loud and clear” by Walther (see his Foreword to the 1868 Lehre und Wehre) and by Francis Pieper (see his Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 3 [St Louis: CPH, 1953), 425-427). The same warning about syncretism was part of Robert Preus’ life work, in the tradition of the orthodox Lutherans and Baier, Walther, and Pieper.
In addition to taking a very public stand on the matter of syncretism, Robert Preus also became involved with some of the organized conservative groups in the LCMS. As with many others, he found this to be the only way to counteract the influence of the liberal political groups in the LCMS that were trying to change its theology and practices. He took a leading role in the group known as “Faith Forward—First Concerns,” starting in 1965. He also served for a time as an associate editor for the magazine Affirm, which was published by the organization Balance, Inc. starting in 1971. Both groups tried, with some success, to influence the LCMS so that its orthodox Lutheran theology and practice would be preserved. None of Preus’ Saint Louis colleagues were involved with the organized conservative groups, to this degree.
Why was Robert Preus terminated from his call in 1989? By comparing him to the other “Faithful Five” who did not experience the same reprisals, we can conclude that his “difference” was: 1) his faithful stand against syncretism and 2) his involvement, during a critical time in the synod, with the organized conservative groups “Faith Forward-First Concerns” and with the Affirm magazine of Balance, Inc.. These differences were the reason for his being singled out for “punishment” by the Tietjen-Seminex sympathizers, even though the actual antagonists and plaintiffs against Preus appeared to be nominally conservative.
Is there a lesson to be learned here? I think there are a few. First, the LCMS fooled itself into thinking that the “battles were over” in 1976 when the “moderate” party in the synod left to form the AELC. After the AELC formation, there were still over a thousand congregations and pastors in the LCMS who loved Tietjen and Seminex, and who hated Robert Preus and other conservative leaders. Some of those guys have yet to retire today—almost forty years later. Second, and related to the first, the “taking down” of a conservative leader in this fashion gives evidence that the LCMS was still somewhat moderate in the late 1980s. “Moderate,” at least, compared to the theology and practice of Walther and Pieper.
Third, Robert Preus’ case teaches present and future leaders in the LCMS what they might experience if they publicly and faithfully support the theology and practice of the Book of Concord. They might experience opposition, reprisals, termination, expulsion, and even worse. They may be spared “punishment” like this, but no one should be surprised if it comes. Fourth, divisions in the church that lead to such unchristian behavior, like reprisals and personal attacks, do have a positive role: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Corinthians 11:19).
You can best remember Robert Preus by reading his theological books and articles. If you want to learn more about Robert Preus and his works, you can click on the following links: LOGIA 5 #3 (print for $5; PDF for free: ); LOGIA 1 #1, containing Robert Preus’ sympathetic review of John Tietjen’s memoirs (no print versions left; PDF for free ); 1999 Congress on the Lutheran Confessions, “The Theology and Life of Robert David Preus” $15.95; Preus’ sermons “Preaching to Young Theologians,” $12.95; “Church and Ministry Today,” with Preus’ essay on the doctrine of the call, $16.95; “Propter Christum,” the festschrift for Daniel Preus, which includes an essay about the history of the Luther Academy, which was founded by his father Robert Preus, $34.99, also in PDF for $19.99; “Doctrine is Life,” essays of Robert Preus on Scripture, includes a bibliography of his works, $34.99; “Doctrine is Life,” essays of Robert Preus on Justification and the Lutheran Confessions, $34.99; and other titles by Robert Preus at www.cph.org