Gospel Determinism Cases: Paul G. Bretscher, Part 1


Previously I presented “Gospel Determinism: A Preview.” Now we move from preview to the first of some cases that illustrate gospel determinism: Paul G. Bretscher.

This case does not fit into one blog post. The article is broken into five parts:

Part 1

  • The Elements in Bretscher’s Thought
  • Significance: Bretscher in the Action

Part 2

  • Lutheran Formulation

Part 3

  • Anti-Creedal Formulation (begun)

Part 4

  • Anti-Creedal Formulation (concluded)

Part 5

  • Reflections
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

The Elements in Bretscher’s Thought

Rev. Paul G. Bretscher, Th.D. (1921-2016) is a significant and instructive case of gospel determinism.

Gospel determinism’s elements in Bretscher take two formulations. The first is a for-public-consumption Lutheran formulation. The second is a simultaneously harbored anti-creedal formulation that he disclosed later.

Among cases of gospel determinism, Bretcher’s is a good place to start. First, both of his formulations exemplify gospel determinism overtly. Because the formulations are explicit — even blatant — illustrating gospel determinism by them is easy. Second, with two substantially different formulations in one man, Bretscher represents two cases. The two cases in one man provide a handy way of showing how two apparently different theologies have the same structure and how structure is fatal in both cases.

Referred to as one of the “moderates” in the Law-Gospel debate and Seminex-related controversies, Bretscher ends at thoroughgoing heresy with expressed denial of “creedal Christianity.”

Recall from the preview of gospel determinism that:

Gospel determinism has two elements.

1. We know the Gospel.
2. Gospel determines everything.

The elements are simple. Together they are total. The Gospel rules all.

The elements spawn their implications in two rounds. The first round is their implications about Scripture. The second is their implications for a host of doctrines and practices.

Variants of gospel determinism may be distinguished in two general ways:

  • In the first element, the source of our knowledge of the Gospel.
  • In the second element, the extent and thoroughness of carrying out the determinism.

In Bretscher’s Lutheran formulation, we know the Gospel from Luther’s Catechisms.

With this knowledge of the Gospel, we can determine issues of text criticism and which pieces of the resulting scriptures are the “Word of God.” We can determine hermeneutics and exegetics. With the Gospel, the Word of God, and interpretation of Scripture in place, the Gospel determines everything else. It determines all doctrine and practice.

Because this formulation takes on coloring from Luther’s Catechisms, the language of Lutheran theology, and the culture of the Lutheran church, it has a familiar and guard-lowering sound. But the authority of Scripture exists only insofar as it affirms the pre-known Gospel. All doctrines are determined not by Scripture alone but by what the pre-known Gospel allows to be the “Word of God” in Scripture.

In Bretscher’s anti-creedal formulation, we hear the Gospel like Jesus heard it at his Baptism when God said, “You are my beloved Son.” The title “Son” says nothing about deity. The divinity of Jesus is a later corruption. His hearing and our hearing of the Gospel of covenant-sonship are the same. The covenant-Gospel creates and delivers salvation existing in sonship before and without the work of Christ on the cross. Sonship, not blood atonement, is salvation.

With this knowledge of the Gospel, we can determine issues of text criticism and which pieces of the resulting scriptures are the “Word of God.” We discern the metaphors in the memory-fragments from which the New Testament Gospels gradually were composed. The metaphorical meaning was lost early on and the Gospel of covenant-sonship has been unknown to the church for most of its history. Bretscher reconstructs the faith — an anti-creedal faith — by coherence to the covenant-sonship Gospel.

In both formulations, Scripture is not the Word of God because the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles. Instead, we can mine out of Scripture some ore of the Word of God. A pre-known Gospel determines which portions of text in Scripture are the Word of God and how those portions are to be understood. Scripture is not the Word of God in the Bible before it has an effect on a person who hears it in accord with the pre-known Gospel. Until Scripture performs in the believer, it is not the Word.

Significance: Bretscher in the Action

In the 1960s and 1970s, Lutheran synods were embroiled in controversies about the Gospel and Scripture that would gain the names Valparaiso Theology, Seminex, the Law-Gospel Debate, and Gospel Reductionism (which is related to but different from gospel determinism). These episodes are part of the story of gospel determinism. Despite his name not being well known today, Bretscher was right in the action and was ranked as important by those engaged in the debate.

Father and Elert

Bretscher was the son of Rev. Paul M. Bretscher (1893-1974). The elder Bretscher was among the American Lutheran theologians who attended the conferences in Bad Boll, Germany in the late 1940s.[1] He wrote the eulogy for the major Bad Ball theologian, Werner Elert (1885–1954).[2] As an illustration of his support of Elert’s theology, Bretscher recommended to David P. Scaer that he study under Ernst Kinder (1921–2016), a protégé of Elert.

With Elert’s death, Ernst Kinder, who had edited Elert’s Der Christliche Glaube, was seen as carrying on this tradition, and for this reason Bretscher had recommended his name.[3]

The younger Bretscher and his siblings grew up on the campus of Concordia Teacher’s College in River Forest, Illinois. He father taught there from 1924 to 1941.

Bretscher graduated from Concordia Seminary St. Louis in 1946. He served as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in New Orleans, Louisiana from 1948 to 1958.


Bretscher authored numerous hymns and articles. He wrote nine books, as follows:

  • The World Upside Down or Right Side Up? (6 eds. 1964 to 1985)
  • The Holy Infection: The Mission of the Church in Parish and Community (2 eds. 1969)
  • The Baptism of Jesus: Critically Considered (1973)
  • After the Purifying (2 eds. 1975)
  • Cain, Come Home! (3 eds. 1976)
  • The Sword of the Spirit (1979)
  • The Mystery of Oneness (1980)
  • The Foolishness of God: A Course for Adults in Thirteen Lessons, Drawn from the Scriptures, and Structured According to Luther’s Small Catechism for Enrichment and Confirmation in Christian Faith and Understanding (6 eds. 1983 to 2000)
  • Christianity’s Unknown Gospel (2001)

Sermons by Bretscher were sent to churches[4] and published in lectionary postils.[5]

Professor and Department Chair

From 1958 to 1969 Bretscher was a professor of theology at Valparaiso University and became identified with Valparaiso Theology. While a professor there, he earned his doctorate from Concordia Seminary St. Louis in 1966. He served as Chairman of the Department of Theology at Valparaiso.[6] In 1968 he became pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Valparaiso, where he served until retiring in 1992.

CTCR Member

Bretscher was a member of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations from 1967 to 1975. The Law-Gospel Debate became serious business of the Commission and Bretscher played a serious role.

David P. Scaer described the Law-Gospel debate of 1971-1972 as a “controversy of considerable proportions” and identified Bretscher as one of three “original and major proponents” of the Valparaiso Theology side in the debate.[7] Bretscher wrote significant articles in the debate such as “The Log in Your Own Eye,”[8] a defense of the Seminex faculty position.[9]

John Montgomery had charged the Valparaiso theologians with Gospel reductionism in the 1960s. The CTCR dealt with this question in a 1972 report called “Gospel and Scripture: The Interrelationship of the Material and Formal Principles in Lutheran Theology.” The report explained that Gospel reductionism made the Gospel the norm for the Scriptures and set up the Gospel as a core from which all other teachings of the Bible are merely deduced. The Synod’s position was that the Scriptures are the norm for the Gospel. The Synod argued that the Gospel as a summary is inseparably united to its source, the Scriptures.[10]

Bretscher and two other members of the Commission voted against approving “Gospel and Scripture.”[11] The next year, the Commission issued “A Comparative Study of Varying Contemporary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation,”[12] Boehme says, “This report is all the more revealing when it is noted that a leading moderate spokesperson, Dr. Paul Bretscher, helped to write the moderate column of this document.”[13]

1973 LCMS Convention

At the 1973 New Orleans convention of the Missouri Synod, Bretscher was a nominee for the office of First Vice President.[14]

The report of the CTCR for that convention promoted one of Bretscher’s books.

Studies in Biblical Interpretation

In an effort to provide study materials for pastors concerning important features of contemporary Biblical interpretation, the commission requested certain scholars from within the Synod to produce exegetical studies of Biblical pericopes. Studies in this series do not necessarily represent the official position of the commission, but are rather provided in the interest of helping the church to study and understand important features of contemporary Biblical interpretation. To date, the following studies have been completed and authorized for distribution to the church: . . .  The Baptism of Jesus, Critically Considered, Dr. Paul G. Bretscher[15]

At the same time, Bretscher’s theology was the subject of many negative overtures. Four such overtures expressly named him.[16] These came from California, Oregon, Ohio, and North Dakota. They called for a purge of everyone agreeing with him and for division of the physical property of the synod. The first recitals of Overtures 3-45A, “To Require Subscription to ‘A Statement’” and 4-12, “To Call for Realignment” were identical (except for citation style), as follows:

WHEREAS, There exists in Synod two incompatible theologies, as indicated by Dr. Preus’ Report on the investigation of the St. Louis seminary, by the faculty’s documents Faithful To Our Calling, Faithful To Our Lord, and as admitted by Dr. Paul Bretscher in his article “The Log in Your Own Eye” (Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. XLIII, November 1972): “We have seen how our orthodox fathers were somehow derailed. Two possible authority principles carried through in the Lutheran Reformation. The one was . . . the authority of the Bible as the inspired and inerrant Word of God. The other was . . . the authority of the Gospel. The Reformation itself did not really sort out the new authority from the old. Somehow it was the old stream which in the end swept orthodoxy with it and supplies the foundation of its theological system.” Dr. Bretscher further admits that the historic position of our church “perverts Scripture and the Confessions, robs Christ of His honor, and seduces consciences with a false comfort” and that the basis of authority for his theology “is not the same authority principle as the traditional one of the Bible’s inspiration.[17]

The resolves also were nearly identical. They proposed what today would be called “The Nuclear Option.”

Resolved, That all leaders and teachers in the church, including all officers, members of boards, commissions and committees, pastors, c.r.m., missionaries, parochial school teachers, professors and instructors be required to publicly profess full and unequivocal agreement with the Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles and “Gospel and Scripture” within 6 months of this convention; and be it further

Resolved, That those who fail or decline to so subscribe to these documents be hereby requested in all honesty and equity to resign from their membership in The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, and in the event of refusal to so resign, the presidium proceed with excommunication ac­cording to Matthew 18; and be it finally

Resolved, That the real property and tangible assets of the Synod and its Districts, and where necessary, of indi­vidual congregations, be equitably distributed on the basis of the communicant membership involved in such division, and this division to be effected by synodical and District boards of adjudication appointed by Synod’s presidium to obviate all appeal to civil courts. All communicant members shall have one year from the time of this convention to file claims to their proportionate assets to be transferred to a Lutheran Synod of their choice.[18]

The convention adopted “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles.”[19] It charged the Saint Louis seminary faculty majority with the error of 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).[20] It recorded charges of false doctrine and malfeasance against the president of that seminary.[21]

Response to Convention Actions

Bretscher responded to “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” in “A Statement and Confessional Lutheranism: The Doctrine of the Word of God,”[22] published in the monthly newsletter of the Lutheran Faculty Federation. Viewed as writing per se, Bretscher’s “A Statement” is excellent. It has all the traits of composition that we were taught in school. It is defined, well-ordered, clear, focused, concise, and coherent. Indeed, Scott R. Murray describes Bretscher as “a writer of extraordinary beauty.”[23]

The two positions were described in Report of the Synodical President to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Report defined the synodical position as follows:

The Scriptures are the only source and norm of doctrine in the church (formal principle), while the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the chief doctrine of the Bible and the heart of the Christian faith (material principle). The Gospel is a basic presupposition for the interpretation of Holy Scripture (that is, one approaches the Scriptures expecting to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and to relate all that he reads there to Him), but it does not determine the meaning of the Biblical text. Whatever the text says is the meaning of the text and is to be accepted as such because it is the Word of God. The grammar, context, and literary form of a text determine if it is to be understood literally or otherwise.[24]

The Report defined the “Other Position” as follows:

The Gospel is not only the center of the Christian faith but the criterion of acceptable Biblical interpretation. Thus no interpretation of a Biblical text need be rejected unless it harms the Gospel. Considerable latitude needs to be given in the interpretation of the Bible in a non-literal, non-historical way, so long as this does not affect the Gospel. For example, the fall of Adam and Eve or the world flood need not be accepted as factual so long as the doctrinal lesson of sin and grace is preserved in the interpretation.[25]

As we will see later, Bretscher’s 1975 book, After the Purifying, “is not just another event in the history of publishing.”[26] Its purpose as a refutation of major synodical resolutions arising from Seminex, its content, its form as the 32nd yearbook of the Lutheran Education Association, and its being sent to 8,000 educators in parochial schools in just its first printing indicate its significance. David P. Scaer sees it as a book-length sequel to “The Log in Your Own Eye.”[27]

Raymond Surburg wrote an article reviewing After the Purifying, setting out some of its errors.[28] Previously David P. Scaer had written an article titled “The Law Gospel Debate in the Missouri Synod.” The publication of After the Purifying prompted him to write a continuation, titled “The Law Gospel Debate in the Missouri Synod Continued.” He explained that it was necessary for him to write a refutation of After the Purifying even though Surburg already had done so.

In a previous issue of The Sprinfielder, my colleague Dr. Raymond Surburg prepared a review article on Paul Bretscher’s After the Purifying. It is not the custom of our journal to review books twice unless there is some special reason to do so. I believe that such a reason exists.[29]

Bretcher’s 1979 book, The Sword of the Spirit, prompted an opinion about its errors by the Department of Systematic Theology of Concordia Theological Seminary Fort Wayne, authored by Kurt Marquart.[30]

By publication of his 2001 book, Christianity’s Unknown Gospel, Bretscher finally revealed openly his second, anti-creedal formulation of gospel determinism. On its publication, his district president announced his suspension from the synodical roster of ordained clergy. By this action, the synod finally recognized what a church secretary had seen nearly 30 years earlier.[31]

For a person whose name is unknown even among LCMS pastors, Bretscher is significant. Bretscher is right in the action of the Law-Gospel debate, Seminex, and Gospel reductionism.

[1] Frederick. E. Mayer, The Story of Bad Boll: Building Theological Bridges (St. Louis: Concordia Publish House, 1949).

[2] Paul M. Bretscher, “Professor D. Dr. Werner Elert, 1885-1954,” Concordia Theological Monthly 26 (1955): 211-214.

[3] David P. Scaer, Surviving the Storms: Memoirs of David P. Scaer (Fort Wayne: IN: The Luther Academy, 2018) Kindle Edition. (Kindle Locations 1436-1439).

[4] For example, his sermon for the Festival of the Reformation was mailed to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Brookfield, Illinois in 1972.

[5] For example, in Augsburg Sermons: Gospels Series B: Sermons on Gospel Texts from the New Lectionary and Calendar (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975).

[6] David P. Scaer, “The Law Gospel Debate in the Missouri Synod,” The Springfielder 36, no. 3 (December 1972): 158.

[7] Scaer, “Law Gospel Debate,” 157-158.

[8] Paul G. Bretscher, “The Log in Your Own Eye,” Concordia Theological Monthly XLIII, no. 10 (November 1972): 645-86.

[9] J. B. Madson, “Gospel Reductionism,” The Lutheran Synod Quarterly XIV, no. 3 (1974): 61.

[10] Donn Wilson, “The Word-of-God Conflict in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in the 20th Century” (2018). Master of Theology Theses, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, 106.

[11] Wilson, “The Word-of-God Conflict,” 106 n. 62.

[12] CTCR Document (n .p.: n.n ., 1973).

[13] Armond J. Boehme, “The Smokescreen Vocabulary,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 41, no. 2 (April 1977): 36 n. 17.

[14] Convention Workbook: Reports and Overtures, 50th Regular Convention, The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, New Orleans, Louisiana, July 6-13, 1973, 395.

[15] Convention Workbook, 1973, 30.

[16] 3-45A, 3-45B, 3-45C, and 4-12.

[17] Convention Workbook, 1973, 129 and 190, respectively.

[18] Convention Workbook, 1973, 129 and 190, respectively.

[19] Proceedings of the Fiftieth Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, New Orleans, Louisiana, July 6-13, 1973, Resolution 3-01, 127-128.

[20] Proceedings of the Convention, 1973, Resolution 3-09, 133-139.

[21] Proceedings of the Convention, 1973, Resolutions 3-12 and 3-12A, 140-142.

[22] Paul G. Bretscher, “A Statement and confessional Lutheranism: the Doctrine of the Word of God,” In Touch, Lutheran Faculty Federation, 1974.

[23] Scott R. Murray, “Law and Gospel and the Doctrine of God: Missouri in the 1960s and 1970s,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2001): 144 n. 67.

[24] Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod., and Jacob A. O. Preus. Report of the Synodical President to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod: In Compliance with Resolution 2-28 of the 49th Regular Convention of the Synod, Held at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 9-16, 1971. St. Louis, MO: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1972, 28.

[25] Jacob A. O. Preus. Report of Synodical, 28.

[26] David P. Scaer, “The Law Gospel Debate in the Missouri Synod Continued,” The Springfielder 40, no. 2 (April 1976): 107.

[27] Scaer, “Law Gospel Debate Continued,” 107.

[28] Raymond F. Surburg, “Paul Bretscher’s ‘After the Purifying:’ A Review Article,” The Springfielder 39, no. 4, (October 1975): 212-215.

[29] Scaer, “Law Gospel Debate Continued,” 107.

[30] Kurt Marquart, “Opinion of the Department of Systematic Theology, ‘Dr. Paul G. Bretscher’s “The Sword of the Spirit:”’ An Evaluation by the Department of Systematic Theology of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana– June 1979)”, Concordia Theological Quarterly, 43, no. 4 (1979): 327-337.

[31] Bretscher’s sermon for the Festival of the Reformation was mailed to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Brookfield, Illinois in 1972. The secretary of St. Paul’s, Mrs. R. Overholt (Audrey), responded to that sermon by letter to Bretscher dated September 21, 1972. Mrs. Overhold is direct and blunt.

Why can’t you be man enough to really bring out the contemporary crisis to which you refer constantly – and name names – rather than the side references to:

– the “debilitating forces among us”

– “honored traditional interpretation” of the Bible

– don’t “try to please God by being loyal to tradition and close ears to fresh words out of those same Scriptures”

– nice words about history – how they are a “distraction from and substitute for the very word of our living Lord”

I am amazed to read a sermon for the Festival of the Reformation to be given (hopefully not in many) Lutheran Churches and not read one word about SOLA SCRIPTURA.

If you wish to push the thought that today’s traditionalists are Pharisees, why didn’t you say so – also saying that you are against the historical, traditional, and formulated DOCTRINE of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It is dishonest to build an army of straw-men in order to equate the TRUTH OF DOCTRINAL RESOLUTIONS with Pharisaical unawareness; and then to put FREEDOM FROM ANY LAWS AND CHISTIANITY together.

Note the date, 1972, while Bretscher was a member of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, before Seminex, and almost 30 years before Bretscher would be suspended for heresy effective December 15, 2001.

1 thought on “Gospel Determinism Cases: Paul G. Bretscher, Part 1

  1. Awesome to see my former member Audrey in the footnotes! Tough as nails!

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