Great Stuff — Was John Tietjen Right?

Found over on Pastor Lincoln Winter’s blog, Musings of a Country Pastor:


John Tietjen is too depressing. Here is a picture of Doctor Ecclesiae Robert Preus. Without his faithful confession, the battle for the bible likely would have been lost.
John Tietjen is too depressing. Here is a picture of Doctor Ecclesiae Robert Preus. Without his faithful confession, the battle for the bible likely would have been lost.
Of course not. The man was a heretic, and his removal was necessary for the continued faithfulness of the church. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. If Caiaphas in his office could be used to prophecy about Jesus death, even John Tietjen might have said something that was useful to the church.

For those who haven’t picked up your copy of John Tietjen’s book, “Which way to Lutheran Unity”, you are about 50 years too late. But that’s ok, because it’s not that great a book. It is an adaptation of Tietjen’s Doctoral thesis. It is a study of the historic attempts at Lutheran union in America. Tietjen then attempts to chart the future prospects for unity.

The strange thing about his book, 50 years on, is how easy it is to show where he gets the history wrong. When his book was written, primary sources were hard to come by. You needed a library with a decent collection of Lutheran Theological tomes. You would have to go through the card catalog looking for topics, names, organizations. Hopefully, the librarian was competent and the card catalog was at least close to comprehensive. Perhaps you might find something useful after several hours. Now, names, events, topics, or even a small section of quoted text can get you a wealth of information. Two minutes with Google, and I was able to read the official minutes covering the entire history of the General Council. Why is that important? Because the actual records show that his classification of Lutherans is faulty.

The book looks at three synodical organizations of the 19th century. According to Tietjen, the General Synod operated according to “inclusive confederation.” Agreement in principle with the Augustana, if not in doctrinal detail, was all that was necessary. The General Council found unity in “Confessional Subscription.” A formal acceptance of the symbolical books was necessary and sufficient for the fellowship of this group. The Synodical Conference on the other hand, insisted on total unity in doctrine and practice.

The primary-source quotes in the book aroused suspicions in me. It seemed as if he was stretching for easy classification of complex topics. The actual records show that my suspicions were correct.

The General Council was not merely bound by a paper subscription. The head of the General Council, Charles Porterfield Krauth, made statements that in no way support Tietjen’s contention that outward allegiance to documents is sufficient. It was assumed that any disagreements in doctrine and practice could be settled by studying and taking seriously the Lutheran Confessions

It may be that Tietjen’s analysis was the logical, or at least the practical, end of the methods employed by the General Council. But outward paper agreements were by no means the foundation on which they were trying to build. Anyone who has looked at Krauth’s “The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology” knows that his theological outlook was far more nuanced than Tietjen is allowing.

And, as might be expected of the Seminex crusader, Tietjen’s treatment of Walther is unfair. Tietjen’s claim that Missouri insisted on unity in doctrine and practice, although true, is framed in such a way that we know already from the start that those efforts were doomed to fail. Of course, all three groups failed in a quest to unite Lutheranism under one banner. But such was never the goal of the Synodical Conference. Only the General synod ever had that as a driving force. And the very existence of the General Synod indicates that the only way for all Lutherans in America to find unity would be through utter capitulation of any doctrinal distinctives. (A path unknowingly espoused by Tietjen, and openly pursued by the ELCA, but certainly not the path of anyone who takes seriously the words of the Augsburg Confession.). In truth, the different views of doctrinal subscription, as well as the doctrine subscribed to, were what really marked the differences and fated the end of all three organizations. Doctrinal drift over the decades made the oftentimes tenuous unions untenable long term. Tietjen’s framing of the issue says more about his own predisposition for hating the teachings of the church than it does about what was really happening theologically in the 19th century among Lutherans in America.

He does correctly identify a zeal for purity among the Saxon immigrants. But he also seems to blame this not on a love for God’s Word, but on unreasonable expectations of agreement in the Gospel and all her articles. Given the background of persecution suffered by Walther and company for attempting to uphold even the most basic of Lutheran propositions, is their zeal a surprise? Walther and the Missourians suffered much at the hands of the reformed. Is it really shocking that, on arrival in America, they would be suspect of those churches that refused to make a clear and unequivocal confession regarding the Lord’s Supper, etc?

Tietjen’s attempt to chart a path for future unity relies on the theologically bankrupt idea of selective fellowship. According to this theory, local pastors from churches which are not in fellowship may decide to share fellowship between themselves, if they find substantial agreement on fundamental doctrines. This may happen even, and especially if, the church bodies remain separated because of differences in other areas. The flaw is the belief that some doctrinal differences destroy unity of faith, and others do not.

Either there is agreement in the Gospel and all her articles, or there is not. As I’ve noted before, attempts to divide the teaching of the Lord and her church into various subsets such as “Unity of Faith” and “Concord of Doctrine” are nothing more than attempts to bring error into the church. We see this in such bumper-sticker slogans as “Faith Unites, Doctrine Divides.” But, as Luther pointed out so well in the Large Catechism, faith must have an object. It looks to something. And that something must have content. A contentless faith invariably is nothing more than faith in my ability to believe. (Which is actually faith in me – the most basic form of idolatry.)

So, of what value is Tietjen’s work today? Not much. There is no need for a road trip to one of our seminary libraries so you can read what is, essentially, a 176 page complaint against the historic teaching of closed communion. But there is one part of the book that is helpful for today. Though Tietjen’s three-fold classification is historical bunkum, it is a useful thing to keep in mind when approaching matters of fellowship in our synod. I maintain that Krauth would never have admitted that fellowship in the General Council was based only on an outward confessional subscription. Rather, it was based on His belief that the confessions were sufficient to settle any doctrinal differences that might arise. (Sadly, such was not the case.) The disturbing part of Tietjen’s book was recognizing that there are voices in our own synod who sound suspiciously – not like Krauth – but like Tietjen’s unfair description of Krauth.

I have heard some claim that, despite doctrinal differences in our own midst, we areobligated to commune with, and commune, anyone who shares the LCMS, INC. label. After all, we have pledged ourselves to the same confessional documents. Absent a declaration that our fellowship is broken, we admit all LCMS comers to the altar. A milder form of this says that, while we are not obligated to commune and commune with, we certainly are in fellowship, unless and until such time that formal declarations would end such fellowship. The entirely law-based question “What message would it send?” is often heard from such quarters. When you start with Law when talking about the Sacraments… as Dr. Scaer would say, “Finish the sentence.”

For the record, I think that the “obligation” argument is utter hogwash. It is nothing more than Tietjen’s unfair characterization of a synodical conference that the LCMS refused to join, or even enter into discussions with, brought into the 21st century. It is certainly notthe historic position of the LCMS.

As for the latter position, it is merely a milder form of the same argument. And it is also not the historic position of our Missouri Fathers. Not that Walther could not err, and we would certainly not claim that his opinion must always be followed. But even revisionists such as Tietjen would not claim that this is the historic position of Missouri. And I believe that a careful look at the historical record would show that neither is it the position of Krauth and the General Council. Yet this position – that is unquestionably more open in communion practice than our synod fathers, and arguably more open than that of the General Council – is now being taught as the default position for Missouri Synod congregations and her pastors.

This is dangerous ground.

Tietjen’s book is interesting primarily because of the questions it raises regarding the nature and basis of church fellowship in the LCMS. Are we in fellowship only because of our ordination vows, and our LCMS-Constitution-Article-2 subscription to the confessional symbols of the Lutheran Church? Can such fellowship be said to have as its basis unity in doctrine and practice, as it was in Walther’s Day? Tietjen may have presented Walther’s position in a way that was intended to make Walther look like a jerk, but it was not an unfair assessment of the position itself. Unity in Doctrine and Practicewas required. The difference is that Walther would have seen that unity as nothing more than the living out of the confessional subscription, rather than an effort to go beyond it. I would agree with Walther.

We do not need A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles to show that Tietjen and the rest of the faculty (save the five) were heretics regarding the Authority of Scripture. Scripture itself and the Lutheran Confessions adequately demonstrate that. A Statement merely categorizes the errors more clearly. So also with the synodical statements of Walther’s day regarding such matters as the Predestinarian controversy, etc. Our unity of confession, if that confession is truly confessed, will result in a unity of doctrine and practice. In that Krauth is correct. That it does not always have that result is because either some cross their fingers when they take the vows, or they approach the subscription question differently. These are important and weighty matters in the church. And they are questions that must be answered honestly. But I don’t see that simply agreeing to base our fellowship on a vow once taken to uphold certain documents is sufficient. It certainly was not for Walther. I don’t think it was for Krauth either. It may have been for Tietjen. But then, as I noted above, that man wasn’t right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.