Gospel Determinism Cases: Paul G. Bretscher, Part 3


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

Anti-Creedal Formulation


In Bretscher’s anti-creedal formulation, we see a variant of gospel determinism that uses the words “You are my Son” as the source of our knowledge of the Gospel. These words are covenantal and they confer sonship on Jesus and on us. Once we know the Gospel as covenant-sonship, 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 of the covenant-word.

Bretcher’s Barthian Experience

In Christianity’s Unknown Gospel,[1] Bretscher describes his own Barthian experience. This experience germinated his gospel determinism. It — his experience — provided him knowledge of the Gospel. Once he had this knowledge, the Gospel determined everything.

This Gospel had been lost not long after the death of the apostles. Consequently, the Gospel had been unknown for most of Christian history. Creedal Christianity had usurped the true Gospel’s place. Through his Barthian experience, Bretscher recovered the unknown Gospel. This Gospel rejects creedal Christianity thoroughly.

The experience happened in 1957. Bretscher was in his ninth year of pastoral ministry. Epiphany fell on a Sunday. He preached on the Gospel text in Matthew about the Baptism of Jesus. He was struggling with the text. During preparation, suddenly the words, “You are my beloved Son,” sounded as if from heaven directly and personally to him.[2] He believed he experienced the same thing Jesus did when Jesus heard those words. In Barthian mode, Bretscher experienced those words as an address to Paul Bretscher and hence as the “Word of God.”

Bretscher heard a Gospel of covenant-sonship. The Gospel is the Word of God that confers sonship.  Sonship itself entails every blessing. With every blessing, the Gospel-word of covenant-sonship accomplishes salvation before and without the cross of Christ. In this Gospel, no sacrifice for sin is needed. Salvation is bloodless.

Jesus was not unique. He was an instance of the case of all Christians. He was only a man. This is good news because we, as only men, can experience the same thing Jesus did. The covenant sonship given in those words grants salvation apart from any incarnation of deity in the flesh, apart from any atoning sacrifice on the cross, and apart from any justification that credits the righteousness of Christ to us. “That revealed-gospel is the founding principle of this book. All else flows from it.”[3]

Once Bretscher had this covenant-sonship principle of the Gospel, then the word Gospel means covenant-sonship wherever we see it in Scripture. Commencing on the first page of the first chapter, Bretscher quotes Jesus as he opens his public preaching following the imprisonment of John, “Repent and believe the gospel.” “What gospel?” Bretscher asks. “It had to be of a sonship, intended by God for all his people.”[4]

No matter where we go in Scripture or the Confessions, this square peg of “sonship-gospel” will be sledge-hammered into all the round holes. Bretscher took being called God’s beloved son “with whom I am well pleased” as the grant of salvation directly at the point of the Word addressing him and having the effect of faith. One with whom God is pleased must be justified. Rather than seeing Christ as the one who has righteousness that his Father could declare and that He could bestow on us, he sees righteousness being granted to Christ by covenant at his Baptism.

Publication and Suspension

The date of the Barthian experience was 1957. That was long before the disclosure of it by the publication of Christianity’s Unknown Gospel in 2001. The experience happened just before Bretscher became a professor at Valparaiso and 10 years before he became a member of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations.

The dust jacket explains how the book was published.

Realizing that no church or scholarly house can publish a work so out of step with orthodox doctrine, and yet of faith, a number of people who have known and trusted Pastor Bretscher’s ministry through the years took on the mission of preserving and making known “Christianity’s unknown gospel.” In 2000 they organized the Dove Group, Inc., registered in the State of Indiana as a non-profit corporation, to publish and disseminate this book.

In the foreword, Theodore N. Strelow says, “If the original gospel had prevailed unobscured, Christianity would not have separated from Judaism or from Mohammed.”[5] Strelow says, “Our heavenly Father is merciful and forgiving by self-definition, [so] that he does not need or require an atoning sacrifice to appease his wrath.”[6]

In the Prologue, Bretscher abolishes the Gospel, saying:

Christianity fell victim very early to another weed. Scholars of Greek cul­ture, not knowing covenant-sonship, took “son of God” for Jesus in their sacred documents to mean incarnate-deity. Miracle stories seemed to confirm it. From this they crafted a theologic about Jesus. He was God-incarnate, sec­ond person of a Trinity, his death God’s atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world, his resurrection the bodily proof of it all.[7]

The book resulted in Bretscher being suspended from the roster of the Missouri Synod. On January 8, 2002, Rev. Timothy Sims, District President of the Indiana District was reported as saying Bretscher’s doctrines varied from the synod on:[8]

  • The inspiration and authority of Scripture
  • The divinity of Christ
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The Trinity

Bretscher denied the incarnation of God in Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the Trinity while claiming to believe the Gospel. He denied these doctrines because the Gospel does not need them and, on the contrary, the Gospel determines that they are wrong. Besides the heresies mentioned by Sims, one’s own reading of the book encounters a complete denial of creedal Christianity. Carried out, this is what gospel determinism does. Give Bretscher credit for facing the implications of his premises.

Gospel determinism is able to set us free from the slavery of “Creedal Christianity” where the creeds “harness majority power once again to enforce the falsity and keep God’s people enslaved” as Pharaoh had enslaved the Hebrews.[9]

Principle of Coherence, Text Criticism, and Hermeneutics

How does Bretscher get from the Barthian experience and the Gospel of covenant-sonship to a thorough rejection of creedal Christianity? What are the steps or the nuts and bolts of how this happens?

In overview, Bretscher’s process is:

  • Establish how the Gospels were formed.
  • Apply principle of coherence.
    • Text criticism of Scripture.
    • Metaphorical hermeneutic.

To trace the process, first we will look at Bretscher’s explanation of how the Gospels of the New Testament were formed.

Once that is established, Bretscher applies a principle of coherence, meaning, coherence to the Gospel of covenant-sonship. This principle governs text criticism of Scripture. It sifts authentic and corrupt text. This sifting deals with source fragments, compilers of source fragments, compiler injections, and copyist interpolations.

After text criticism removes corruptions, the principle of coherence governs the interpretation of the remaining text. A metaphorical hermeneutic repeatedly enforces the discovery of the pre-known Gospel everywhere in Scripture. Scripture has authority because the pre-known Gospel is found in it.

“The Gospels were formed from fragment-libraries of random Jesus-memory.”[10] Various witnesses wrote down fragments. Collections of fragments grew. People organized the fragments into a somewhat smooth but still jumpy order.[11] Once these assemblages were more or less complete, then the era of copying began. The principle of Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it,” was not followed:

That principle failed as the Gospels were produced. Compilers, who arranged the fragment-memories into a progressive story on a scroll, supplied transitions in some cases. It failed also when copies were made. Interpolations at this level may be casual, but can also be substantive.[12]

The covenant-sonship Gospel survived while the apostles were alive and the original fragment-libraries from which the New Testament was being formed still existed. When the apostles died and the original fragment-libraries were destroyed, copyists gained control. They corrupted the text to falsify a doctrine of Christ’s deity. The church fell from the covenant-word to the documentary-word.[13]

The sonship-gospel determines the true text of the New Testament. Interpolations “are detectable by the principle of coherence (Jesus’ own sonship-gospel).”[14] The process involves firstly understanding the meaning of the Gospel and the meaning of the corruptions of the copyists. By those meanings, the text can be critiqued. The critique sifts the text into the authentic Word of God and the corrupted interpolations of copyists.

As a quick illustration, see how Bretscher denies the deity of Christ based on covenant-sonship. Bretscher examines usage of the phrase “my son” in the Old Testament. “This was covenant-language! Jesus must have heard it so! In that case, it cannot have meant ‘deity’!”[15]

What of testimonies concerning Jesus’ “mighty works” or “signs and won­ders” then? Creedal Christianity accounts for these by assuming that the name “my beloved son” or “son of God” for Jesus means deity, and that the power to do “miracles” is evidence of his deity. My principle of coherence does not allow this explanation, however. The name “son of God” for Jesus is a lan­guage of covenant, not of deity. The gospel Jesus preached and lived is the Lord’s covenant-word to his people. Any works of power told in the preserved memory must have been of his gospel, not of his omnipotent deity, because there was no such thing. This is my premise, my principle of coher­ence.[16]

Notice the overt — blatant — gospel determinism. “My principle of coherence does not allow this explanation.” The Gospel does not allow the deity of Christ or any scriptural evidence of it such as miracles, signs, or wonders.

Notice also what this does to Christ. Jesus did not do miracles. The Gospel did.

Based on this principle of pre-determining what God is allowed to say in Scripture, Bretscher delineates various modes of interpolation and identifies many errors in the Gospel texts.[17] For example, one section captioned “Deity Inferences” exposes many interpolations falsely added by copyists to support the deity of Christ.[18] “Jesus exhibits his glory as the son of God by knowing everything in advance and by his almighty power.”[19] In another extended example about the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Bretscher exposes no less than 21 fraudulent copyist interpolations that he says they made to forge a false doctrine of the deity of Christ.[20] He exposes no less than 12 “corruptions in the extant text of John 6 [that] need to be detected and set aside,”[21] because they show a false deity of Christ contrary to the covenant-sonship Gospel.

Apparently, Bretscher does not recognize[22] the circularity of his theory. He begins with the words of the Father to Jesus in his Baptism. From those words he generates his covenant-sonship Gospel. Then he uses that Gospel to edit the text and determine which words are authentic. For example, he can weed out some of Jesus’ words on the cross. He never seems to recognize the issue: if you can weed out some of the words, then how do you know that the words on which you base it all, the words of the Father at Jesus’s Baptism, are not among those that need to be weeded out?

Prologue of John

The prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-18) is an important text revealing the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in Jesus. Therefore it receives repeated critique in Bretscher’s gospel determinism. Take three examples.

The compiler who translated each item into Greek chose this one to begin his scroll. “In the beginning was the word,” it said. Copyists, not knowing “the word” in its covenant sense, took it to mean the pre-incarnate deity of Jesus. They interpolated clarifications then which supported their misconception. …  Pronominal references should say “it,” not “him.” Jesus as “the word made body” does not enter John’s text until verse 14. Any shift from it to him prior to this must have been from copyists.  …  The issue is God’s word and the God who speaks it. From the very beginning God by his word created everything that exists. By his word he created John, and Jesus, and the apostles, and the young church.[23]


Copyists corrupted John’s prologue very early. Not knowing “the word” as God’s covenant-revelation to Israel, driven also by the assumption that “son of God” for Jesus meant deity-incarnate, they mysticized “the word” into a pre-existent deity. Thus a copyist felt it necessary to explain, “and God was the word; he was in the beginning with God.” “Light” and “life” were not of the covenant-word but of the mysticized pre-existent Jesus. That made a reminder of John’s inferiority necessary; “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” Since “word” and “light” were synony­mous with Jesus’ pre-existent deity, another reminder was in order: “and the world was made through him.” Ignorance and unbelief were perceived as di­rected not to “the word,” but to Jesus. “The world knew him not.” “His own people received him not.” “As many as received him.”

This misunderstanding detached “the word made body” from “the glory of grace and truth” in Jesus’ serving to death, then attached it instead to the glory of his deity-incarnate as told in the birth narratives. On that assumption a copyist, intent again on rankings, paraphrased a later testimony of John, “He must increase but I must decrease,” into “John bore witness to him and cried out, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, the one coming after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’” Jesus came after John in time but was before him as “deity.” Jn 3:30;1:15 Another copyist entered this “of whom I said” say­ing into John’s actual preaching. Jn 1:30


It could hardly have happened otherwise, for Greek scholarship had no way of knowing covenant-meanings. Yet the loss was grievous. John’s memoir contrasted the fullness of “the word made body” with the emptiness of temple tradition and law. Christianity, not knowing the fullness either, suffered a deprivation and emptiness no less grievous.[24]

Virgin Birth

As with the prologue of John, the principle of coherence by which the Gospel determines what God is allowed to say in Scripture must sift all texts that reveal the virgin birth of Jesus.

The Gospel of covenant-sonship determines that Jesus need not and must not be born of a virgin. Instead, virgin just means starting over with Mary, cut off from what went before. She is virgin only in that sense. Ahaz and Israel had considered themselves Immanuel, God with Us, but righteousness was not coming through them because they rejected the covenant-sonship Word of God. So the Lord would cut off Israel and start over afresh through a second woman, Mary. Starting afresh with her is the virginity of what the Lord is doing in the birth of Jesus.

To make this work, the covenant-sonship Gospel demands that a great mass of material in the Gospel accounts be reworked. Bretscher deems dozens of features in the story of Jesus to be copyist interpolations and metaphors. He does this with the annunciation, betrothal of Mary to Joseph, Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Elizabeth, the star, Bethlehem, Rachel weeping, Egypt, Nazareth, Simeon, Anna, and Jesus in the temple.[25]

Bretscher’s reworking of the story consumes many pages. Take a couple examples. First, an example about the decree of Caesar Augustus.

Luke’s need for “an orderly account” posed a problem, however. He had written that Mary and Joseph were of Nazareth in Galilee. How could Jesus have been born in Bethlehem, then? They must have journeyed there. But why? To keep his narrative flowing, Luke invoked a census-edict of Caesar Augustus in the era of Quirinius, governor of Syria. “Everyone to his own city,” as he told it, required Joseph, descended from David, to go to Bethlehem and Mary with him—she only “betrothed” to him. Everywhere else in the Bible “the city of David” is Jerusalem, but for Luke it is Bethlehem. Thus his patched account—no room, manger, angels, shepherds—obscures all sense of metaphor. A Greek copyist wondered who might have remembered and reported all this. Borrowing from the incident of Jesus as a twelve-year-old, he attributed it to Mary’s memory. “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Lk 2:19, 51[26]

He would cut the “house of David” off and start over with a woman, as in the garden of old. Gen 3:15 By a virgin and a son she bore, he would revive his people’s “enmity” against their real enemy, the lying snake. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu­el.” Is 7:14; Mt 1:23[27]

Second, an example about Simeon. “Simon understood the ‘virgin’ prophesy from Isaiah as a metaphor of ‘cutting off and starting over.’”[28]

In transcribing this, Luke understood Simeon to have taken up in his arms the literal baby, however. In that case, his parents must have brought him to the temple. To keep his “orderly account” flowing, Luke told of Jesus’ circumcision and naming on the eighth day (parallel to what had been written of John), then had his parents observe the law of purification in the temple thirty-three days later. Lev 12:2-4 His memory-fragment on the long-widowed Anna could follow. The young church in Judea cherished her as an enthusiastic “prophetess” for Jesus within the temple.

Having completed this group of entries in a sequence that seemed reasonable, Luke had the holy family return home to Nazareth.

Copyist Interpolations. A copyist misread Simeon’s song, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace according to your word.” Not knowing “the covenant-word” and its recovery, he supplied what God had said to the aging Simeon: “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” To get Jesus’ parents back into the scene, he divided the song and interpolated, “And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul also.’” This “piercing” predicted her grief at the cross. Jn 19:37; Zech 12:10[29]

Jesus and John the Baptist

One of the consequences of Jesus lacking deity is that Jesus supposedly needed to and did ask questions of John.[30] Another is that Jesus needed to be baptized by John. For Bretscher, John’s words, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me” are a false copyist’s interpolation.[31] “Similar concern to rank Jesus above the Baptist corrupts the prologue of John’s Gospel.”[32]

Transfiguration and Other Mountain Stories

For Bretscher, the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain and his conversation with Moses and Christ did not happen as the Gospels relate. It is a post-resurrection event. The collators of the story fragments got this fragment into a wrong sequence when copying from the fragment to a scroll. Misplacing it as a pre-crucifixion event[33] created problems and copyists tried to fix them.

But more importantly, the false Gospel of Christ’s deity forced many forgeries in the text. “Christianity’s early and controlling assumption that ‘son of God’ for Jesus means deity was tragic. It took Jesus’ own gospel out of circulation and substituted a counterfeit.”[34] The effect of this on the transfiguration is that “Its pristine form is preserved in 2 Peter, not the Gospels.”[35] In the original, there is no appearance of Moses and Elijah. “Moses and Elijah are meaningful additions to the original.”[36] Problems thus produced by the resulting mangled text confused copyists.

Copyists, not grasping what Peter meant, attribute their ignorance to him. Thus, Luke has the entry “not knowing what he said,” and Mark “he did not know what to say.” That Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about his coming death is likewise a copyist’s speculation.[37]

But it is not the church that forced counterfeit proof of deity into the text. It is Bretscher’s gospel determinism that is slicing up the text like coleslaw to force his sonship-gospel onto Scripture. The sonship-gospel determines that the event should end with the declaration from heaven of Jesus’ sonship, so it truncates everything after that and excises anything before that which no longer fits.

Peter’s original witness ended appropriately with the declaration from heaven. The additions in Matthew of the disciples’ falling on their faces in fear and “Jesus’ bidding them rise,” is a copyist’s enhancement. Coming down from the mountain is a transition entered by compilers who, not recognizing the metaphor, took the mountain as literal geography.[38]

The determinism of the sonship-gospel drives not only text criticism that brands much of the text as counterfeit, but it foists onto the remaining text a metaphorical hermeneutic. None of this really happened. It is all just among many instances of “mountain-metaphor.”[39] Gospel determinism decides in advance what could be true, punches holes in the wall by text criticism to force that truth, and then putties in the holes with a hermeneutic of metaphor.

[1] Paul G. Bretscher, Christianity’s Unknown Gospel (Valparaiso, IN: Dove Group, Inc. 2001).

[2] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 10.

[3] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 10. (emphasis in original)

[4] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 13.

[5] Theodore N. Strelow, Foreward in Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 1.

[6] Strelow in Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 3.

[7] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 6. (emphasis in original)

[8] Brian Williams, “Church suspends pastor over book: Retired Immanuel Lutheran pastor to appeal decision by Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod leaders,” The Northwest Indiana Times, January 8, 2002.

[9] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 21.

[10] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 284.

[11] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 65-76.

[12] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 78.

[13] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 82-83.

[14] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 78.

[15] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 17.

[16] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 128-129.

[17] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 78-82.

[18] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 80-82.

[19] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 138.

[20] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 138-139.

[21] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 187.

[22] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 87-89.

[23] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 292-293.

[24] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 296.

[25] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 301-314.

[26] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 311-312.

[27] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 302.

[28] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 302.

[29] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 312-313.

[30] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 104-105.

[31] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 105.

[32] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 105.

[33] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 213.

[34] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 212.

[35] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 212.

[36] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 213.

[37] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 214.

[38] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 214.

[39] Bretscher, Unknown Gospel, 212.

2 thoughts on “Gospel Determinism Cases: Paul G. Bretscher, Part 3

  1. Strelow says, “Our heavenly Father is merciful and forgiving by self-definition, [so] that he does not need or require an atoning sacrifice to appease his wrath.”[6]

    This is what happens when we forsake the opening chapters of Genesis; when we appease our secular culture and don’t preach and emphasize the historical connection starting from the beginning; when we don’t constantly tie things together from what happened in the historical past with Adam and Eve, to the events culminating in Christ.

    Does anyone think that the God-provided animal skins of Gen. 3:21 (and the death and bloodshed of those animals) was not an atoning sacrifice to appease God’s wrath? That the sewing of fig leaves together to make themselves loin-coverings (Gen. 3:7) was not the acceptable way back to God after sin, and only death and bloodshed would meet God’s requirement? And that this atoning sacrifice of death and bloodshed in the Garden does not then precursor all the animal sacrifices God commanded in the Old Testament leading up to the final sacrifice of Christ in death and bloodshed on the cross as the final atoning sacrifice for sin?

    Yes, the blood of bulls and lambs and goats was never meant to take away sin and make perfect those who draw near (Is. 1:11, Heb. 10:4); was never meant to be the final sacrifice culminating in the second person of the Godhead itself, but are we to think that there is no connection to the first sacrifice by God in the Garden?

    When men like Strelow and Bretscher and Barth, and any and all others; who mythologize the opening chapters of Genesis, make claims that God is merciful and forgiving by self-definition and doesn’t need an atoning sacrifice for sin, we should remember on how and where and why they come to this conclusion.

  2. Ultimately, every heresy boils down to Gnosticism: the enlightened elite knowing and educating the deluded rest. Did anyone ever ask Bretscher what evidence he had for his beliefs other than his own imagination? How could he justify his accusations against the “copyists’ in light of the myriad of copies of the Gospels that we have from the first few centuries following Christ?

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