Gospel Determinism Cases: Paul G. Bretscher, Part 2


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

Lutheran Formulation


In Bretscher’s Lutheran formulation, we see a variant of gospel determinism that uses Luther’s Catechisms as the source of our knowledge of the Gospel. Once we know the Gospel from the Catechisms, we can approach Scripture and all other matters of doctrine and practice. What we see in Scripture and what we adopt in practice will be determined ahead of time by the Gospel from the Catechisms.

Defending the Seminex Faculty

When the 1973 synodical convention formally acted on the Seminex case, Bretscher responded with “The Log in Your Own Eye,” “A Statement and Confessional Lutheranism: The Doctrine of the Word of God,” and other writings. By 1975, he published a book length sequel to “The Log in Your Own Eye” in two editions of After the Purifying.

In “The Log in Your Own Eye,” Bretscher asked, “Are the Holy Scriptures our ‘only rule and norm’ according to the formal principle or according to the material? That is the critical question.”[1] He rated the errors of Liberalism as specks. He rated the errors of those who make Scripture authoritative on the formal or inspiration principle as “the log in your own eye.”

Bretscher believed the action of the synodical convention was an attempt to purify dross from the synod.[2] He believed that dross indeed would be removed. The synod indeed would be purified. But the dross, instead of being the error of Seminex, was the error of the official and traditional position of the synod.

To propagate his idea, Bretscher wrote the trim volume of 108 pages. This book was published in the form of the 32nd yearbook of the Lutheran Education Association. Its point of view is: what does Lutheran education need to be; how can Lutheran education be part of the refining fire to purify the dross from the synod. “Imagine the day when the fire ceases, the cleansing is finished, and all is at peace. What will Christian education be like then?”[3]

The publication of Bretscher’s new book is not just another event in the history of publishing. It is being provided to most parochial school teachers of the Missouri Synod through the Lutheran Education Association. A letter from Donald Kell, the association’s president, states that eight thousand copies have already been sold. A second printing might be necessary. Special rates are making the widest distribution possible.[4]

What is the dross, according to Bretscher? What is the Holy Spirit’s refining fire removing from the synod? The dross is about the Word of God. What is the Word? How is the Word interpreted?

Lutheran education must make it crystal clear what it means by the “Word of God.” The answer to that question is the burden of this book.[5]

Catechisms as Source of Knowledge

Remember from the “Preview” the question:

The throbbing question gospel determinism raises is: How do we know the Gospel?

Bretscher answers this with the following proposition: We know the Gospel from Luther’s Catechisms. Once we know the Gospel from the Catechisms, then the Gospel determines everything else.

In other words, the Catechism rather than the Bible is the formal principle of Lutheran theology. Further, the Gospel as obtained from the Catechisms is the material principle. Knowing this before we even approach Scripture, we know already what Scripture must say. Whatever we encounter in Scripture that does not accord with what the Gospel determines either is not the Word of God, though in Scripture, or is being misinterpreted.

Bretscher continually asserts that his position is based on and upholds the “Word of God,” but he emptied that phrase like a water glass when it is poured out and then filled the glass with “the Word” as revealed in the Catechism. He exposits by a chain of quotations from the Small and Large Catechisms how Luther identifies the “Word of God” with “the Gospel.”[6] The terms “Gospel” and “Word of God” are interchangeable.

It is clear from the Catechisms that in Luther’s mind “the Word of God” is not simply equivalent to the Bible. It stands rather for specific things that God is saying, which He expects us to believe in our hearts, concerning our relationship to him. . . . The Word of God proclaims grace and forgiveness in Christ to the Sinner. . . . This concept of “the Word of God” belongs to what the Confessions and Lutheran theology know as “the means of grace.”[7]

Notice too that for Bretscher, the class “Means of Grace” exists first, and then “Word of God” exists as an instance of that class. Anything that is not a Means of Grace is not allowed to be the Word of God. This implements the Barthian address to man, the encounter between the “Word of God” and man. Until the Scripture does something in man, it is not the Word of God.

Based on “the Word” redefined as something we know before we even come to Scripture, Scripture has authority not because the Holy Spirit inspired it, but only insofar as Scripture accords with “the Word” as identified from outside the Bible. This “Word” is the “Gospel” revealed in the Catechism, and thus the Gospel determines everything.

Identifying the Dross

What is the dross that Bretscher sees being refined out of the synod?

According to this “Missouri” meaning, the Word of God is simply equated with the Holy Scriptures. Scripture is understood to be the Word of God, not by and for the sake of the Gospel, but in its formal totality as a Book. Indeed, when some brethren insist that Scripture is the Word of God according to the “means of grace” (Gospel) understanding of that term, without implying the totality of the Bible as a Book, they are charged with “Gospel Reductionism.” In the Synod’s tradition and piety, Scripture is the Word of God according to the meaning derived from the doctrine of inspiration and certified by Missouri’s understand of the sentence fragment, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16).[8]

Bretscher says the synod’s official and traditional position is dross because,

In that case we have in mind the Bible, with God as the true Author of every word. Our concept of plenary divine authorship immediately reduces the Gospel to only a “part” of the Bible. The Bible now is larger than the Gospel. The Word of God is not only the Gospel and its articles, but also the rest of the Bible.[9]

And again,

The dross, as we have suggested, is rooted in a confusion regarding the term “the Word of God.” In Biblical usage and in Luther’s Small Catechism, God’s Word means essentially the Gospel, conveyed to us in the form of words, by which the Holy Spirit draws us to the Father through Christ and makes us His own. In the prevailing theology of our Synod, however, the Word of God is taken to mean the Holy Scriptures. And Scripture is the Word of God, not because its Gospel is the Word of God, but because God is the true author of every word of the Bible. Anything less is rejected as “Gospel reductionism.” Indeed, if the entire Holy Scripture is not pure and inerrant gold by virtue of its inspired authorship, then even its Gospel ceases to be gold.

This is the rationale of the dross. It follows that critical study of the Bible is the great enemy. People who use or condone the historical-critical method do not respect the essential goldness of the Scriptures, namely, their plenary inspiration, inerrancy, and authority as God’s divinely authored Word. The issue in Synod’s controversy, the dross insists, is not the Gospel. It is rather the goldness of the inspired Bible.

To the dross the Scriptures are gold in their own right, quite apart from the gold of their Gospel. Inevitably, then, the Scriptures are regarded as broader than the Gospel. Beyond their content of Law and Gospel there remains “the rest of Scripture.” The Scriptures contain also “information about other matters.” Christians must also “accept matters taught in the Scriptures which are not a part of the Gospel.” Thus, in the mind of the dross, the message which Christians must accept to be true Christians, is more than Christ alone! It is more than “the Gospel of the gracious justification of the sinner through faith in Jesus Christ.” “Anything and everything that the Scriptures teach” now belongs to our Synod’s faith and confession.[10]

Schizophrenia about “the Word”

So there are two significantly different meanings of the term “Word of God,” Bretscher says, and when members of synod affirm the authority of the Word of God, there are two different groups of members who both believe they affirm the Word, but what they are affirming really is two different things.[11]

We used the term “the Word of God” to mean the Gospel, but also to mean the inspired Scriptures. In our theology we designated the Gospel as the “material principle” and the Scriptures as the “formal principle,” and thought that these terms defined and assured the integrality of the two. An uneasy tension persisted, however, and was never really resolved.[12]

At a practical level, besides there being two pastorates, there are two congregations in many congregations. When a congregation sings hymns such as, “God’s Word is our great heritage,” one congregation is singing about one sense of the “Word of God” and another congregation in the same pews is singing about another sense of it. There is less synod —walking together— among pastors and parishioners than we commonly suppose.

In The Sword of the Spirit, Bretscher expressed the split in stark terms:

We in the Missouri Synod have been trying to carry two incompatible “theologies” at the same time. Our behaviour, in consequence, has been what psychologists would call schizophrenic, and self-destructive.[13]

As David P. Scaer says:

Perhaps Lutheran Orthodoxy has unwittingly prepared the way for Lutheran Barthianism. Both types of theology put the stress on the “Word.” With what seemed to be the same flag for the two opposing sides, no wonder the soldiers became confused.[14]

Applied to Lutheran education, Bretscher says the two different ideas of “Word of God” meant that there could be no unified approach. He cites a decade-long effort of the Board of Parish Education to formulate a clear and unified philosophy. Acknowledging that those who worked on it were many, able, and dedicated, he says the effort was doomed to inevitable futility.

In the mind of Synod the authority of Scripture was a function not of the Gospel, but of its verbal and plenary inspiration. Thus the dross . . . was unwittingly mixed and equated with the gold of the Gospel. Its effect was to set Lutheran education on two foundations, each leading to its own set of consequences. There was no way a single and coherent “philosophy” could do equal justice to both.[15]

If all this was too technical for many, though they were educators, After the Purifying was accompanied by a study guide.

Several cartoons in the guide show the difference between conservative and moderate positions in the Missouri Synod. One cartoon character says, “Because I believe the Bible is inspired, I Believe the Gospel.” The other says in return, “Because I believe the Gospel, I believe the Bible is inspired.”[16]

Scripture as Stumbling Block

Bretscher develops a severe critique against stumbling blocks to faith. Two stumbling blocks are tradition and institutional authority. As bad as those are, Bretscher identifies an even worse third stumbling block: Scripture. “But the dross is still not satisfied. It adds still another stumbling block, the Scriptures!”[17] He recalls the misuse of Moses by the Pharisees and likens the synod’s doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture to the pharisaical error. “The parallel to our own situation seems painfully close.”[18] Finally, as stumbling blocks go, the synod adds a fourth, repression. As an example of repression, he cites doctrinal review, putting that phrase in scare quotation marks.[19] Doctrinal review is cast as pharisaical repression that causes the people to stumble.

But take heart, for Bretscher says, “It is different now. The day of reckoning has come. The Lord’s fire is upon us.”[20] “After the purifying ‘the Word of God’ will have one meaning for us, and not two.”[21] “When the dross has been left behind, Lutheran education will hold to ‘the Word of God’ in a single meaning of that phrase.”[22]

We shall unfold the thesis that the authentic meaning of the phrase “the Word of God” is that found in Luther’s Catechisms. The Spirit speaks the Word of God’s grace to our hearts out of the cross of Christ. By means of that Word He works the miracle of faith. The closest synonym for “the Word of God” is “the Gospel” in all its senses, including also the antithetical “Law.” We shall unfold its content extensively in the next chapter.

Wherever Scripture itself uses the term “the Word of God” or parallel expressions, the content of His Word is consistently God’s communication of Law or Grace to the hearts of men. We honor Scripture as our “only rule and norm” when we take the trouble to examine its texts in order to see what the Scriptures themselves have in mind when they speak of “the Word.” We honor the Confessions when we capture and make use of their insight that the Gospel of justification by faith alone is the key which opens to us the entire Holy Scriptures.

The Word of God, meaning Christ and the Gospel which proclaims Him, is the true glory and authority of the Bible. For the sake of that message it is proper to call the Holy Scriptures “the Word of God.” Biblical texts ascribe to this Law-Gospel “Word of God” many precious qualities. They declare that God speaks the truth and does not lie, that His Word is clear, a light to our path, that His Word is powerful, unique, abiding, alive and spirited.

But if these qualities are ascribed to the Scriptures simply as inspired Book, divinely authored, apart from and larger than the Word of God as Gospel, then they are misapplied. . . . [23]

What is the result of all this for Lutheran education?

The authority of Scripture consists in nothing else than the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ inherent in the golden Gospel which proclaims Him to our hearts. Once the dross is left behind, that authority will be Lutheran education’s single presupposition for the study of the Bible.[24]

With that single, deterministic presupposition, there can be no such thing as doctrinal discipline. “Bretscher argued that the gospel should keep Christian teachers from undergoing doctrinal discipline. Such discipline smacked of rationalism and unfaith.”[25]

As a momentary digression, Bretscher made a similar argument about congregations.

Paul Bretscher argued that the gospel itself was the norm for faith and practice and that law had no place here norming the practice of a gospel-centered church. He complained of the abuse of the synod’s constitution, which enjoined unity in faith and practice in Article II.[26]

Remember from the preview of gospel determinism that it has two elements.

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

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

We see in Bretscher’s knowledge of the Gospel from the Catechism, and this knowledge being the single presupposition for the study of the Bible a case of gospel determinism. The structure of gospel determinism is there. In the first element, he fills the structure with knowledge of the Gospel from the Catechism. In the second element, this pre-knowledge foreordains what we will let our study of Scripture discover in God’s Word.


In the Preview of gospel determinism we saw, “gospel determinism is like a second story, an upper floor of a house with no ground floor. Our knowledge of the Gospel just floats in the air without Scripture as its ground.” Bretscher recounts this view being present expressly in his time. He says those who identified the “Word of God” as the Gospel,

were learning what it means to stand on the Word of divine promise in the Gospel as the one, sure, and unshakeable foundation even of the Bible! Yet in the eyes of brothers who regarded the inspired Bible as the foundation of all faith and theology, this “Gospel” without the undergirding of the Bible would seem to be pure human speculation, detached from history, drawn out of “thin air,” and no foundation at all![27]

Bretscher sets Christ as the Word and Scripture as the Word against each other. He sets the Gospel as the Word and Scripture as the Word against each other. Kurt Marquart summarized these false antitheses on behalf of the Department of Systematic Theology of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, as follows:

Dr. Bretscher’s essay abounds in false antitheses. Complementary aspects of the truth are set in opposition to each other, with disastrous consequences. . . .  This mischievous tearing asunder of what God has joined together appears to be inspired by a tendency to denigrate concrete outward particulars in favor of undefined and undefinable Spirit-absolutes. This spiritualizing tendency – most clearly evident in the fateful cleavage between historical fact and theological faith (After the Purifying, pp. 86-87) – runs directly counter to the central biblical reality of the Incarnation itself. It reveals a mode of thought which is typical not of Lutheran realism, but of Docetism, Nestorianism, Calvinism (finitum non capax infiniti), and Barthianism. It is a species of enthusiasm.[28]

David P. Scaer shares the evaluation that Bretscher has adopted and adapted Barthianism. He says,

Essential to the theology of the very influential Swiss theologian Karl Barth was a peculiar understanding of a concept called “the Word of God,” which was defined as God’s address to men. Barth’s concept of “the Word of God” involved a vertical invasion of God into our world. The Bible was not equated with “the Word of God” but could provide a place where the “the Word of God” could become active, under the right circumstances, in the lives of men. It is hard not to conclude that Bretscher has adopted this totally false and erroneous Barthian view of “the Word of God” and dressed it up in traditional Lutheran terminology to make it digestible for Missourian palates. Bretscher’s case rests on his definition of “the Word of God”; the most common synonym is “Gospel.”[29]

Bretscher’s books After the Purifying and Christianity’s Unknown Gospel both describe and promote the Barthian vertical invasion of the horizontal by the “Word of God” and illustrate it with accompanying graphical images.

“Barth cast a long shadow in the Missouri Synod during the 1960sand 1970s.”[30]

[1] Bretscher, “Log in Your Own Eye,” 666.

[2] Paul G. Bretscher, After the Purifying (River Forest, IL: Lutheran Education Association, 1975), 7.

[3] Bretscher, After the Purifying, p. 9.

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

[5] Paul W. Lange, Chairman of the L.E.A. Editorial Committee in the “Preface” to After the Purifying, v.

[6] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 13-14.

[7] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 14.

[8] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 14-15.

[9] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 17. (emphasis in original)

[10] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 62-63.

[11] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 15-16.

[12] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 98.

[13] Paul G. Bretscher, The Sword of the Spirit (St. Louis: Evangelicals in Mission, 1979), 9.

[14] Scaer, “Law Gospel Debate,” 164.

[15] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 97.

[16] Scaer, “Law Gospel Debate Continued,” 116-117 n. 6a.

[17] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 66. (emphasis in original)

[18] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 67.

[19] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 67.

[20] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 69.

[21] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 18.

[22] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 77.

[23] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 18-19.

[24] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 73.

[25] Murray, “Law and Gospel,” 142.

[26] Murray, “Law and Gospel,” 143.

[27] Bretscher, After the Purifying, 102. (emphasis in original)

[28] Marquart, “Opinion of the Department,” 334. In accord, “The offer of a choice between Christ and the bible is not only misleading–it is downright deceptive. It is certainly not suggested by the Scriptures themselves. . . . No real choice can ever be made between Christ and the Bible, simply because the Bible centers in Christ and he submits himself totally to it.” Scaer, “Law Gospel Debate,” 160.

[29] Scaer., “Law Gospel Debate Continued,” 108.

[30] Murray, “Law and Gospel,” 140.

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

  1. Paul Bretscher certainly affected my congregation. Quite a few years ago our pastor started subtly teaching that the first 3 chapters of Genesis were not factually correct. Turns out that this pastor was a “disciple” of Bretscher. We went through a relatively long (and congregational dividing) process to remove him as the pastor. He was finally was released from the LCMS ministerium. A sad time. He leads a Unitarian congregation now. I’ve read “After the Purifying”. Mr. Halvorson’s critique appears correct.

  2. I am a regular reader of Steadfast Lutherans and I appreciate all the information and articles that are posted. I draw a lot of strength and validation of my faith from all of you. I, too, have been reading Gospel Determinism with great interest. In some ways it has been painful for me to read because Paul Bretscher was my uncle and godfather. I have a perspective from a family member who was with him at the end of his life I would like to share. Maybe I am really writing for therapeutic reasons. Maybe I am seeking comfort because I am still sad not only for myself, but for Paul Bretscher’s wife, children and grandchildren from some events that happened. In case many of you didn’t know, Paul Bretscher did receive a funeral befitting for a heretic. His funeral was planned by a committee seven years before his death. SEVEN years. The service was sent to his wife two years before his death. The title was “The funeral of Paul Bretscher”. With a funeral planned so far in advance and restrictions decided so far ahead of time, it seems to negate the entire process of reconciliation, in other words, “gaining a brother”. The sermon was unacceptable and a misappropriation of the pulpit. There were no words of comfort given to the grieving family. There was no gospel. It was simplistic chronology of Paul’s life that include one last “shot” or final indictment with reference to his last book, Christianity’s Unknown Gospel. The preacher who worked with Paul for 17 years should have remembered that Paul’s wife, children, and grandchildren were sitting in front of him. Words such as “we know we have a loving God”, or “the same Christ who died for us died for your dad”, or “we leave Paul in God’s hands, as we do all who love Him” should have been included. There were no words for the family. I walked away feeling that Heaven was closed to Paul Bretscher. But, we understand that, in the end, God has the final word. And now for the rest of the story…. It was evident to our family that none of the pastors at the church where Paul had been a pastor for 23 years knew Paul Bretscher at the end of his life. None of them heard him in the last weeks, his last days and hours like I did (along with his wife, 11 children and spouses, and grandchildren). None of them heard his final prayers, heard him singing hymns, confessing his faith to the same Jesus to whom we confess. If they had, they would have seen his simple faith, and not have viewed him as a man who wrote a book. We all heard witness of Paul Bretscher and his faithful expressions of his love for Jesus. I heard him pray “Now I lay me down to sleep…”, sing “Nothing in my hands I bring..”, recite scriptures, participate in family devotions, sing “I am Jesus Little Lamb”, to name a few. I am blessed and forever changed as a result of my time with Paul Bretscher at the end of his life. I am confident that Paul Bretscher took Jesus hand with his last breath, because of what I saw, and what I heard from his mouth from the depths of his soul. We all wish he had never written his last book, and at the end, it didn’t matter to Jesus either. When my uncle was dying and for a long time before, he didn’t even know he had written a book. Paul also didn’t remember some of his children’s names anymore. I asked President Harrison (actually one of the vice-presidents answered my letter) if Paul Bretscher could be reinstated as as a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod posthumously because of what his family witnessed as he was dying. That was request was denied. But praise be to God that He decides who will enter the Gates of Heaven- LCMS member or not, and that He loved Paul Bretscher!

  3. Dori,

    What a moving testimonial. Thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute to your uncle. How is it that we as Christians go astray? How is it that we depart from the pure doctrine of the Word of God? I’m conflated and confused at how we as ‘elected and chosen of God’, ‘selected and chosen by Jesus to share eternal life with Him by faith’, can proffer and promulgate false teaching during our time on earth. It is a mystery that only our presence in heaven before the Lord of Glory will reveal. In the meantime and while this earth remains, it is commanded that those who guard over our souls protect the flock and preserve sound doctrine (Acts 20:28-31). While not of salvific ramifications, the doctrine that we espouse, and teach, and write books about, must conform to Scripture in its historical-grammatical interpretation in totality, of which I think your uncle failed to do. T. R. Halvorson is rightly pointing out his failings in this series of posts concerning gospel determinism. While you can rest assured that your uncle is with Jesus, the teachings he left behind are nothing short of failings to fully understand sound doctrine, and it is incumbent that we recognize such and seek to correct it. Blessings to you and your family Dori.

  4. @ Philip Matthew Heady,

    Quite a few years ago our pastor started subtly teaching that the first 3 chapters of Genesis were not factually correct. Turns out that this pastor was a “disciple” of Bretscher.

    Such is the dangerous nature of trying to accommodate the opinions of man to the Word of God. That you removed him and he is now Unitarian is quite telling.

  5. >>none of the pastors at the church where Paul had been a pastor for 23 years knew Paul Bretscher at the end of his life

    I am curious if they were notified of his failing condition, requested to visit him, etc.? Some of his writings have a bit of an “edge” that makes me wonder if at some point while he still had his faculties he had demurred having them minister to him. In his final days he seems to have returned to the simple faith of his youth, over which the angels rejoice in heaven and we all should too.

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