Gospel Determinism Cases, Paul G. Bretscher, Part 5


Previously I presented “Gospel Determinism: A Preview.” Then we moved 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


A Tragic End

To read from Bretscher’s body of work is to meet a man of good will. His tone always is kindly. He deals with the material and the topic without veering toward ad hominem or the ascription of motives in his opponents.

Bretscher’s industry is a marvel. He has an immense capacity for drilling down into nearly any aspect of his topics. At times one wonders if he has all 66 books of the Bible in memory. He identifies and uses texts from widely different portions of Scripture that connect to each other and his points. He can sustain extended examinations, comparisons, and exegesis of passages in the original languages. His writings are models of focus and sequencing. Writers who read Bretscher will sense that his works must have been re-edited multiple times before they were published, or else he had a special brilliant gift for design.

Bretcher’s industry is especially evident in Christianity’s Unknown Gospel. He applies his doctrine thoroughly in three dimensions: across every book of the Bible; across every loci and dogma of Christianity; and drilling down into texts and text criticism. I hardly could help but visualize him slaving away at his desk to produce the opus, to re-edit it, and iron out its wrinkles.

While imagining that scene, by the time I reached the end of the book, it looked like Father McKenzie in “Eleanor Rigby.” As portrayed earlier, from the 1960s to about 1980, Bretscher was in the action. He was producing. People were reading him. He was bearing an influence. Somewhere between then and 2001 when he published Christianity’s Unknown Gospel, his gospel determinism ran away with him, he shed the Lutheran formulation, and he lost his audience. He seems to have become like Father McKenzie, “Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.”

Bretscher is a once-great theologian, significant in his time, in the center of momentous action, whose significance now is mostly to show a stark example of where gospel determinism ends.

Harboring Heresies

From 1957 to 2001, Bretscher published his for-public-consumption Lutheran formulation of gospel determinism. He published it in articles, sermons, books, and papers of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations. He maintained a façade of basing the knowledge of the Gospel on Luther’s Catechisms.

Given that his anti-creedal formulation sprang from the words, “You are my son” at the Baptism of Jesus in 1957, one might have thought something of this would appear in his 1968 article “Exodus 4:22-23 and the Voice from Heaven.” But it did not. There were plenty of places where one could be forgiven for expecting to see it. But it is nowhere to be seen until 2001.

The publication of Christianity’s Unknown Gospel in 2001 revealed that all along Bretscher was developing and harboring his anti-creedal formulation. His bloodless, cross-less, Incarnation-less, and Trinity-less theory was hidden. He harbored his true belief that the words “You are my beloved Son” were spoken from heaven directly to him. In those 8,000 copies of the first printing of After the Purifying, he hid what he later revealed in Christianity’s Unknown Gospel. It was not so much Christianity’s unknown Gospel as Paul G. Bretscher’s unknown — hidden Gospel.


In both formulations of gospel determinism, Bretscher critiques and rejects the view that Scripture has authority because the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles. He gives the inspiration principle critical names. He calls it dross. Sometimes he calls people who believe it dross. He likens it to Pharisaism. He likens people who believe it to Pharisees.  He posits a dichotomy between the Gospel-Word and the document-word of a sheer Book.

To be blunt, he accuses centuries of Christendom of bibliolatry – an idolatry of Scripture. He claims his opponents have robbed Christ of his glory by giving it instead to the Bible.

But note the irony. In Bretscher’s Gospel, who is virgin-born? Not Jesus. The covenant-gospel is. What is divine? Not Jesus. The Gospel is. Who does miracles? Not Jesus. The Gospel does. Where is the Sacrament of the Altar? Not in the blood of Jesus. The covenant-sonship Gospel saves without sacrifice or blood. What is the resurrection? Not the resurrection of the body of Jesus. It is the resurrection of the Gospel. What saves us from sin? Not the blood of Jesus. The Gospel as an immediate, enthusiastic, Barthian address to, action upon, or effect in man that saves by conferring sonship and with sonship every blessing, with no need for sacrifice or atonement.

If the structure of the inspiration principle warrants it being called bibliolatry, then the structure of Bretscher’s gospel determinism warrants it being called gospelolatry. If the inspiration principle displaces Christ – which I deny, but if, for the sake of argument, it does – it does that incidentally since, in confessional Lutheran theology, it still affirms Trinity, Incarnation, sacrifice, atonement, resurrection, a triumphant descent into hell, ascension, and session at the right hand of God. Bretscher’s Gospel denies Christ all of that. It denies the entire Second Article of the Creed. It expressly rejects “creedal Christianity.” The whole creed is replaced by another Gospel that makes Jesus just one of us. Jesus is one of us, but He is not only one of us. He is the mediator between God and man, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).


Boehme, Armand J. “The Smokescreen Vocabulary.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 41, no. 2 (April 1977): 25–40.

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

_____. “An Inquiry into Article II.” Currents in Theology and Mission, October 1974, 42.

_____. “Exodus 4:22-23 and the Voice from Heaven.” Journal of Biblical Literature 87, no. 3 (1968): 301-311. https://doi.org/10.2307/3263541.

_____. “The Baptism of Jesus, Critically Examined,” Biblical Studies Series. St. Louis: LC-MS, TCR, 1973.

_____. “The Log in Your Own Eye.” Concordia Theological Monthly XLIII, no. 10 (November 1972): 645–86.

_____. “Whose sandals: (Matt 3:11),” Journal of Biblical Literature 86.1 (March 1967): 81-87.

_____. “‘Whose Sandals’? (Matt 3:11).” Journal of Biblical Literature 86, no. 1 (1967): 81-87. https://doi.org/10.2307/3263245.

_____. After the Purifying. River Forest, IL: Lutheran Education Association, 1975.

_____. Christianity’s Unknown Gospel. Valparaiso, IN: Dove Group, 2001.

Bretscher, Paul M. “Professor D. Dr. Werner Elert, 1885-1954.” Concordia Theological Monthly 26 (1955): 211–14.

_____. “Review of ‘Bad Boll’ Conference.” Concordia Theological Monthly, (1954): 834–38.

Commission on Theology and Church Relations, Gospel and Scripture: the Interrelationship of the Material and Formal Principles in Lutheran Theology (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, November 1972).

Concordia Seminary, Faithful to Our Calling, Faithful to Our Lord; an Affirmation in Two Parts (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1973).

Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles,” (St. Louis, 1973).

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.

Madson, J. B. “Gospel Reductionism.” The Lutheran Synod Quarterly XIV, no. 3 (1974): 51–69.

Marquart, Kurt E. Anatomy of an Explosion: Missouri in Lutheran Perspective. Fort Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1977.

_____. Anatomy of an Explosion: Missouri in Lutheran Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.

Marquart, Kurt, 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, vol. 43, no. 4, 1979: 327-337.

Mayer, Frederick E. “The Formal and Material Principles of Lutheran Confessional Theology.” Concordia Theological Monthly 24, no. 8 (August 1953): 545–80.

_____. The Story of Bad Boll: Building Theological Bridges. St. Louis: Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, 1949.

Murray, Scott R. “Law and Gospel and the Doctrine of God: Missouri in the 1960s and 1970s.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2001): 127–56.

Scaer, David P. “Missouri at the End of the Century: A Time for Reevaluation.” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology VII, no. 1 (1998): 39–53.

_____. “The Law Gospel Debate in the Missouri Synod Continued.” The Springfielder 40, no. 2 (April 1976): 107–18.

_____. “The Law Gospel Debate in the Missouri Synod.” The Springfielder 36, no. 3 (December 1972): 156–71.

Schroeder, Edward H. “Law-Gospel Reductionism in the History of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.” Concordia Theological Monthly 43, no. 4 (April 1972): 232–47.

Strawn, Paul, “Free to Be,” (Paper delivered at the 20th Annual Minnesota Lutheran Free Conference, Oct. 27, 2005, St. Cloud, Minnesota).

Surburg, Raymond F. “Paul Bretscher’s ‘After the Purifying:’ A Review Article.” The Springfielder 39, no. 4 (October 1975): 212–15.

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

2 thoughts on “Gospel Determinism Cases, Paul G. Bretscher, Part 5

  1. A tragic end T.R.,
    Thank you for the warning and this five-part examination. May we learn from the aberrant thinking of Bretscher and endeavor to stand firm contrary to:

    To be blunt, he accuses centuries of Christendom of bibliolatry – an idolatry of Scripture. He claims his opponents have robbed Christ of his glory by giving it instead to the Bible

    May sola scriptura still and remain and forever be.

  2. ” I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert[a] the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:6-9

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