Lutheran Free Conference, Part 1

Ok, so I made my visit; I thought this would be a simple visit to commune a shut in.  Instead I spent four hours with a 95 year old lady and a county sheriff.  I’m too tired to explain that story and I haven’t eaten dinner yet.  So I’m going to write as much about the conference as I can in a few minutes and then go home and eat. 

First of all, for those who weren’t there, I’ll give an overview of what the papers were about, questions that were asked at open mics, etc.  Unfortunately I missed Prof. Brug’s paper on Thrs. morning, as well as Prof. Paulson’s.  However, I think I have their papers.  I was there to hear Prof. Nestingen’s paper, but unfortunately did not get a copy.  I hear that they are posting the papers online though.

After I get done with that I’ll comment, but for the most part I intend to avoid much criticism, especially of presenters that aren’t from my synod.  At this point I think I’m still getting used to hearing other Lutherans talk.  Until seminary I don’t think I had ever met or talked with a member of WELS or the ELS, except once I talked to a WELS pastor on the phone in Seattle.  In seminary I heard a couple of ELCA professors speak at Symposia.  Jim Nestingen came and spoke to us once, and then after seminary in about 2007 or 2008 I started posting on the ALPB forum and became familiar with the perspectives of ELCA dissidents.  A few months to a year ago someone pointed out the Intrepid Lutherans site to me, and that may have been my first significant contact with WELS pastors.  Given the fact that my experience with Lutherans outside the LCMS is limited, it seems inappropriate to begin making a lot of judgments.  I have read some WELS theology–but very little; a smattering of Wauwatosa, and nothing recent.  For that matter I haven’t read much conservative ELCA theology either; a paper or two by Paulson and Nestingen and a book and a couple of essays from Forde.  When I think about it, I’ve read very little by professors from St. Louis over against those from Fort Wayne.  I should probably just admit that I haven’t read very much theology. 

Anyway the point is we often talk about different things.  So until I’m familiar with the concerns that drive WELS and NALC theologians and with their vocabularies it’s hard to form  an opinion.

So on to the first session:

Prof. Mark Braun (WELS, Wisconsin Lutheran College) read an essay by Prof. Mark Noll of Wheaton College which had originally been published a “American Lutherans Yesterday and Today” in First Things in 1992.  Apparently they had wanted Noll to come speak at the conference.  (Interesting sidenote: I went to high school in Wheaton for two years and was good friends with Noll’s son.  I was aware that his dad was a respected intellectual among evangelicals, but I didn’t know how big a deal he was until I went to seminary.  It’s a small world.)

Notes on the Noll Paper:

Lutherans are enigmatic to Noll.  A sentence from his paper that possibly provided one of the motifs of the entire conference: something to the effect of “Lutherans have both easily accomodated to American ways and never accomodated.”  Noll goes on to explain what he means.

Early in American Lutheran history Muhlenberg initially complained about the desire of Lutherans in America to select their own pastors, something he attributed to “American liberty.”  However, he soon accomodated and began to permit congregations to do just that.  Muhlenberg accomodated to American political realities but never (at least according to Noll) to American religious norms, being unwilling to give up the reine lehre.

Schmucker, on the other hand, is the patriarch of an opposite tendency in American Lutheranism.  Schmucker rejects Lutheran christological readings of OT and willingness to allegorize, as well as its willingness to take passages according to the literal sense when the literal sense offends reason.  According to him the bible must be intepreted according to “common sense.”  Schmucker’s revised Lutheranism was successful in making the Lutheran Church palatable outside of ethnic enclaves.

However, the Schmuckerian tendency was rejected.  Krauth and Walther’s move toward orthodoxy or non-accomodationism led to Lutheranism’s lack of connection to the rest of American Christendom until after WW2. 

Noll points out that  the 5 mil German immigrants and 2 mil Scandinavians that came to the US between 1840 and the first world war assimilated into the broader culture following a predictable pattern.  As churches move out of ethnic enclaves, they tend to consolidate (for instance, the synods that eventually came to be the ELCA consisted of Danish synod(s), Swedes, Norwegians, together with already amalgamated American synods).  It is also typical for these churches, as they are assimilated into broader American religious culture, to sacrifice theological distinctives.

For instance the ELCA is completely mainstream and out of the German ghetto.  (One time I did research on my mother’s family tree, and it was amazing how the little town she was from in central Illinois had an entire section of town referred to as “Germantown.”  In that part of town there were two Missouri Synod churches, and they had assigned parish boundaries so that if you lived between certain streets you were required to go to Trinity and to Immanuel if you lived on the other side of town)  The question with the ELCA, which has managed to get out of the ghetoo, is whether the mainstreaming “means the evisceration of the Lutheran tradition itself.”  (Keep in mind this was written in 1992).

On the other hand, the Missouri Synod’s more conservative course seems to have been influenced more by American fundamentalism than Lutheran theology.  In either case a form of accomodation to culture seems to have influenced both synods.  Noll sees Lutheran theology as being a hidden treasure that evangelicals in America could learn a lot from. 

However, it is difficult to tell if Lutherans will be able to repeat Walther’s insistence on pure doctrine–that is, if they will be able to confess unequivocally, so that Lutheran doctrine becomes clear outside of the small circles of clergy and informed laymen that seem to know anything of it now.

Noll seems to wish that Lutherans were theologically distinctive and that evangelicals were aware of what we teach.  However, the evidence shows that the only thing that seems to distinguish average Lutherans is where they live–overwhelmingly Lutherans are found in the great lakes and upper midwest.  In terms of knowledge of the theology of the cross or the two kingdoms, Lutherans are indistinguishable from other Christians.  We tend to be about the same on basic theological and moral issues as Methodists. 

In concluding, Prof. Braun commented that he thought Lutherans were at their best when instead of trying to unequivocally lay down the boundaries of orthodoxy they practice “stealth evangelism”–i.e. living faithfully in one’s vocation instead of stolidly standing on a line drawn in the sand against hetereosy.  Other communions, he said, ask “What must I do?  How must I feel?  What does this mean to me?”  Lutherans are at their best when their question is simply “What does this mean?”  * (I’m not entirely sure what he was getting at there.)


That’s part 1.  Next I’ll summarize Pless’ and Schmeling’s paper and discuss my reaction to all thre papers.

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