NOTE to the justifiably sensitive WELS reader: As a warning to you before you begin, I am very critical of recent WELS scholarship in what follows. Although I state near the end that many WELS pastors are possessed of academic acumen and ability, see through growing controversy and error that results from a culture of sloppy scholarship, and are imbued with a serious passion to so express themselves, I think it it is important to begin this post (a) as I summarize it in the next post, by stating that my comparison of WELS and LCMS scholarship cultures is meant to express my general impressions based on my observations, as I have been exposed to WELS and LCMS scholarship, not as a characterization of every single author, nor as an absolute or “objective” conclusion regarding their character. I know for a fact that there are many individuals in both WELS and LCMS who are very capable, well-balanced, orthodox scholars. But on the whole, based on my exposure to them, my subjective appraisal is as a I express, below. And, (b) requesting that my criticism be taken as it is intended, in the spirit of hoping for improvement, as Rev. Jonathan Schroeder indicated such had resulted in the past, in his 2009 WELS Convention Essay, Our Calling: Christian Vocation and the Ministry of the Gospel, in which he quotes Koehler in calling attention to this fact:
- “‘outside attacks...calling attention to the motley character of the Synod's clergy and their practice, gave emphasis to the project [of establishing a ministerial education program]’ [Koehler, The History of the Wisconsin Synod, pg.119 -DL]... Once we realized, the error of our mildly pietistic Lutheranism, and realized that confessional Lutheranism required a confessional stance and confessional pastors, the issue of schools became paramount.”
Culture of Scholarship: A Subjective Comparison between LCMS and WELS
In my experience since having been brought to Lutheranism by the clear testimony of the Scriptures, having had the distinct claims of Lutheranism validated for me with the help of Heinrich Schmid's Doctrinal Theology, and then having been catechized into confessional Lutheranism by a WELS pastor (see Part V.1 for details), I have observed that most confessional Lutherans at least aspire to the standard of honest Lutheran scholarship exhibited by Schmid. But there are cultural differences among today's confessional Lutherans in America. The two church bodies with whose scholarship I am most familiar are the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). According to my observations, the LCMS, for better or worse, has always been a church body that values academic achievement, and has consistently given a place of honor to those of distinguished or demonstrated scholarship. This can't help but yield a distinction of influence among individuals, and those aspiring to greater influence seem eager to distinguish themselves in this way. But once a particular topic has been exhausted – by previous academics, let's say – how much else is there to say on the matter? This is a problem which leads to a discontentedness with the old, and a desire for innovation, for exploration of new and different ideas. Breaking new ground is always the best way to distinguish oneself, and to feel as if “progress” is being made. However, when the “old” is Scripture and the Confessions, what is “new” often becomes something other than Scripture and the Confessions. And this has been my general observation in relation to scholarship in the LCMS. Often, it focuses on the relation of philosophy, history and/or sociology to issues of doctrine and practice in the Church, which, while not necessarily being unhelpful in and of themselves, if they become the focus and primary interest of Lutheran scholarship, can lead to enthusiasm for and the adoption of ideas that are not entirely Scriptural or Confessional or Lutheran. This has been the pattern in LCMS over past decades, according to my observation of LCMS scholarship as I have been exposed to it. And we see that among a great number of academic endeavors, Scripture and the Confessions are far from view.
This fact becomes all the more stark when one compares these observations regarding the culture of scholarship in LCMS to those of WELS (of which I am much more familiar, and have much more to say). One distinguishing feature of the history and the culture of scholarship in WELS is the distrust for outside scholarship and the near unanimous disapproval of higher-education that is inculcated among its pastors and theologians. Quite literally, they pride themselves in this feature as evidence of Christian piety. Of course, this isn't all bad, since there is much to distrust and disapprove of in upper academia; so such distrust isn't an unhealthy attitude, per se, as it encourages one to be judicious, highly selective and cautiously analytical (or so one would think). Nevertheless, such distrust and disapproval has resulted in a dismissal of academic achievement as a notable basis for relative influence of one person or another. So there is no material payoff for academic pursuit, either. Which, again, isn't all bad – after all, one wouldn't want pastors and theologians actively pursuing academic achievement in order to compete with one another for influence. However, such a culture has led to a noticeable dearth of bona fide academics in WELS. Those who do pursue higher study do so mainly for personal interest, it seems – and there doesn't seem to be very many such individuals.
The primary cultural factor impacting WELS scholarship is its size. It's “small” – not so small that everyone knows nearly everyone else, but small enough that those families who've been WELS for more than one generation are quite likely related to nearly everyone else. I alluded to this in my first post in this series. Moreover, there are certain family lines that are more prominent and influential in WELS than others – and there is a strong current of filial devotion that flows through them all. Nowhere was this on more prominent display than during the 2009 Convention of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, following the paper given by Rev. Jonathan Schroeder entitled Our Calling: Christian Vocation and the Ministry of the Gospel, in which he accurately characterized our Synod's first president, Rev. John Muelhauser, as heterodox – a Pietist and willing Unionist who “saw the Confessions as nothing but paper fences,” and who notoriously boasted, “because I am not strictly [Lutheran] or OldLutheran, I am in a position to offer every child of God and servant of Christ the hand of fellowship over the ecclesiastical fence. ” It was during the Q&A session following Rev. Schroeder's paper that a descendant of Muelhauser (our very own First Vice President, Rev. James Huebner), feeling compelled out of a very apparent sense of filial piety, solemnly approached the microphone, and, being granted the floor to make his statement, announced that Muelhauser was an ancestor of his, and for this reason proceeded to defend his character and make sure that everyone knew that, even following its shift to Confessional orthodoxy under Hoenecke and Bading, WELS still accepted Muelhauser and continued to give him a place of honor among them regardless of his aberrations. Defending the character of one's parents, siblings, children and even grandparents? Sure. But defending ancestors who lived 150 years ago? That just strikes me as a bit odd – and it struck me that way in 2009, as well. One could view the proceedings for himself (here), if only WELS would open up access to view those old convention videos.
As further evidence, one may have noticed the still dwindling number of subscribers on our What We Believe page. A product of a CoP witch-hunt? Maybe, but not so much that I've heard. Rather, “suggestions” and even threats from individuals of more or less prominent families is the story I hear more frequently. One young pastor, apparently drawing his family-name like a sword, is reported to have promised regarding our entire list of subscribers: They will all be dealt with! Just full of vinegar? Perhaps. But I'm not so sure.
So what does this have to do with the culture of WELS scholarship? Plenty.
First, the only real scholarship which is encouraged, to which our pastors seem to be appreciably exposed during their training, and for which they are trained almost exclusively, is the art of Biblical exegesis. Many a WELS pastor has boasted to me, “The only textbooks we have at seminary are our Greek and Hebrew Testaments.” This is a very good foundation, and vitally important. In fact, if one were forced to choose only one thing to study in preparation for the Ministry, that would be it. But the problem here is at least two-fold: (a) consistent with such training, many are convinced that there is no other valid area of scholarship for a pastor, or any other Christian, to explore; and (b) when a pastor does eventually try his hand at it (as reality forces him to), he is totally unfamiliar with the academic conventions and techniques that are involved, yielding amateurish, unconvincing and disappointing results. Most notably in this regard, he is not practiced in the scholarly art of critique, and falls into common errors.
English 101 way back when I was a College Freshman, was a remedial course that all Freshmen were required to take (truth be told, the entire first year was “remedial,” and two years of English were required – only in the second year did we begin to focus on English literature). There was only one Unit in English 101; it lasted the entire quarter. The subject? Critique. It was a remedial course that was required because, in the experience of the English faculty, nobody entering college knew how to do it, nobody had been taught how to parse an author's prose and accept or reject his argument based on the merits of his argument itself. They either uncritically accepted his argument wholesale, or based their opinion of his argument upon their own personal bias! Not even the Catholic girl, who showed up for class the first day proudly wearing her Catholic High-school sweatshirt, had been exposed to the practice of scholarly critique – a fact for which she was endlessly ridiculed by the professor: “So much for Catholic education, eh? You're no better off than the public-school slugs in here” (Yeah, they didn't like Christians on campus back then, either – of course, he was a New Yorker... educated at Berkley in the 1960s... and we were all Freshmen from the upper Mid-west. None of us had a wisp of a chance debating this guy. Despite his dislike for Christians, and his unfair treatment of that Catholic girl, however, this was a superb course – the most interesting and useful course in English I had while in college).
The art of critique is something that is learned through academic experience, and it is eminently useful not only in assessing the arguments of others, but in one's own argumentation, as well.
Second, generally, anything other than the Bible is a prime target for qualification – except for WELS ancestral authors. That includes the Lutheran Confessions, which, if they are quoted at all are most often either formulaically proof-texted or carefully explained so that the plain meaning of the words can be “properly understood” in a different way (i.e., “justification BEFORE GOD is regeneration...” [AP:XII:60; SD:III:19] couldn't possibly mean what it says). I have never seen a WELS author from a previous generation (outside Muelhauser) – who wasn't later kicked out of WELS – quoted in any way other than full and unreserved acceptance. Ever. The result of all this seems to be that the only material one has from which to draw conclusions with any helpful certainty is the Bible, and the repository of WELS scholarship. This is a problem for those who would be scholars because, (a) Lutheran orthodoxy is established – although there is much to be reviewed and to be reminded of, there is nothing particularly new to say about what the Scriptures teach, (b) there is an absence of honest and critical review of ancestral works (which are generally unreviewed outside of the WELS family), and (c) outside works are often subjected to unnecessary qualification and, thus also, unjustified criticism – in some cases, almost as if it is great sport. In other words, everything that the Bible teaches has already been articulated, anything that has been said by WELS authors is ipso facto orthodox – especially after Koehler finally figured out the “true teaching” on Church and Ministry – and nearly every other Lutheran source is either rejected or regarded as unreliable.
This state of affairs leads to two notable, though separate, issues in WELS scholarship: (1) bland regurgitation of Biblical teaching, and (2) envelope-pushing experimentation with historically orthodox positions on doctrine and practice. In the former case, regurgitation is the practice of repeating what everyone knows, what everyone knows that everyone knows, in a manner that unquestionably displays that the author knows that everyone knows that everyone knows what he is repeating, and agrees with everything he states, everyone he quotes and everything he is going to conclude. That's unoriginal, unimpassioned regurgitation, and it leads to horrifically sloppy scholarship. Why should such an author bother to meticulously develop an argument that leads to a conclusion that everyone already agrees with? Why indeed! Instead, casually stated or even implicit assumptions replace what ought to be fully supported axioms (“everyone knows the axioms anyway, knows that I know them, and assumes them right along with me... so why bother?”), massive leaps of logic replace what ought to be several successive, though perhaps minor, steps of reasoning (“everyone knows the development of the next point, there is no need to repeat it fully, or even alert the reader that I am skipping them”), and sources go unattributed (“everyone knows that I am quoting the catechism here, and everyone knows that I am using the sainted Professor Heutenschleutermacher's Third German Edition [revised] with annotations from our seminary dog-notes – I mean, how could they not know?”). I would even go so far as to suggest that the sloppy scholarship learned through the practice of uncritical regurgitation is responsible, at least in part, for the practice of plagiarism that has recently plagued us (“If plagiarism isn't wrong when everyone knows who you're quoting anyway, well then, plagiarism isn't necessarily wrong. And if it isn't necessarily wrong, then it is always okay, unless someone can prove that I am wrong to do so, case by case, whenever I do it.”) Even issues like spelling and sentence structure are not untouched by the careless boredom evident in these works of regurgitation.
In the latter case, experimentation begins when an author finds himself entirely discontented with orthodoxy and with orthodox expression found in the “pattern of sound words” and historic practice bequeathed to us by the Church catholic. This is the same problem identified above, among the malcontents in LCMS having a desire to distinguish themselves through academic achievement. What is old is boring. What is old is irrelevant. What is old is not the reality for contemporary Americans. What is old is no longer fitting. There becomes a palpable desire for something new, and the task of innovation under the umbrella of a closed orthodoxy becomes a tempting challenge for the motivated and the creative – it represents an opportunity to become a famous hero like Martin Luther, only without getting excommunicated. But how does one go about this? Enter the phrase, “It can be properly understood.” Far from the practice of addressing Biblical, Confessional and historically orthodox documents from a didactic standpoint, this is the practice of exploiting weaknesses in their phraseology for the purpose of “finding” (i.e., creating) additional meaning and/or alternate application. The result is the introduction of variance – of uncertainty with the old and thus the possibility of the new.
The undergraduate program in Physics from which I graduated, though not strong in theoretical emphasis, was known nationally among graduate schools as a program that excelled in experimental design and lab technique. As a result, many graduate programs throughout the nation preferred our graduates to their own. The reason: experimentation is the practice of science, and graduate education in science is experimental research. As anyone who is trained in the rigours of the scientific method is aware, variance is a critical factor in drawing conclusions from the scientific method (which is a method of formal induction), and the prime challenge of experimental design is to devise a method that minimizes variance at all levels of investigation, rather than creatively introduce it. Error analysis, as it is called, keeps track of the uncertainty inherent, first at the level of data collection, as a product of the limitations of both the design of the experiment and the measurement tools utilized, and then at the level of aggregation, where statistical processes themselves introduce additional variance which is compounded with the uncertainty introduced at the data collection level; and error analysis continues through the various successive stages of the research as the variance resulting from further measurement and statistical aggregation is compounded and formulaically combined in various ways. Too often, especially in poorly designed and executed experiments, the final conclusion is rendered meaningless, as it is dwarfed by the magnitude of compounded error that results from the variance and uncertainty introduced at each step of the process.
Perhaps it is thought that a clever introduction of uncertainty to Biblical, Confessional and historically orthodox positions for the purpose of creating freedom to derive additional meaning and/or alternate application can be justified, the first time it is applied, if it only results in minor deviation from the original meaning. Perhaps it is thought that it can be justified with each new iteration, as additional, though minor, uncertainty is introduced with each new creative restatement – as long as it can be properly understood, of course. Since the additional variance introduced with each new iteration is only minor, one may be tempted to conclude that no vast departure has been undertaken, especially if he has been fooled into thinking that the variance is isolated, and the resulting uncertainty limited, only to his “new way of saying the same thing.” But this would be a false security, blind to the very real impact of compounded error that iteratively introducing minor uncertainty eventually has – that of dwarfing a conclusion with the magnitude of uncertainty that surrounds it, and rendering it meaningless.
Among the malcontents engaging in experimentation in WELS, this method of introducing uncertainty under the academic rubric, “It can be properly understood”, seems to be most popular among advocates of the Church Growth Movement (CGM), who proudly pat themselves on the back for their orthodox creativity, but whose conclusions are wildly at variance with those of historical and confessional Lutheranism, to the point of being almost unrecognizable.
But there is another method employed by those wishing to practice experimentation on Biblical, Confessional and historically orthodox positions, that would cleverly introduce minor uncertainty to create an opening for additional meaning and/or alternate application: the historical-critical method. This method rejects a didactic approach to historical documents – like the Bible or the Confessions – holding up to question the direct positive statements they contain, and subjecting them to verification, qualification or rejection according to contemporary analyses of the historical contexts in which those statements were thought to have been penned. It is a method invented during the 19th Century as Enlightenment Christian malcontents found that a static Biblical text and a fixed orthodoxy left little room for the sort of innovation that would make Christianity palatable to the World around them – the task of the theologian being, for them, one of cultural leadership and innovation, rather than one of service and strict fidelity to the Word.
We most vividly see this method employed by egalitarians in the WELS, who, in addition to vaulting to the point of qualifying direct positive statements of Scripture the contemporary meaning they derive from reports of ancient Christian experiences, also clearly follow the assumptions of the historical-critical method, which allow them a basis in recent (liberal) Christian hermeneutical practice to consider anecdotal references in this way, as having such authority, to begin with. Such was detailed in our post, Post-Modernism, Pop-culture, Transcendence, and the Church Militant, as we adduced the arguments of WELS egalitarians connected with the sordid, decade-long “St. James Affair,” from the 1980s and 1990s.
We also see the historical-critical method employed against the Confessions, as well – as various perceived historical contexts, unarticulated in the Confessions themselves, nor (in some instances) by the Confessors or Concordists in their other writings, are superimposed over these documents in order that they would mean something other than what they directly say. Tactics employed in the current debate over the doctrine of Universal Objective Justification, for example, are illustrative of this, as it is claimed by some that the Book of Concord fully supports this doctrine, though not in so many words: it merely supports it implicitly. Such claims are based on the absence of any direct rejection of UOJ in the Confessions, and the undocumented historical claim that everyone knew this doctrine, fully confessed and embraced it personally (though failing to mention it in any of their other writings, much less articulate it), and that therefore, the reason it was entirely unarticulated in the Confessions is that no one during the Reformation contested it – it simply wasn't an issue. Such perceptions of history are used to color the meaning of the text in ways that force one to conclude something other than what the words directly say. One could adduce examples where this tactic is employed in positions taken with regard to Church and Ministry, and worship practice, as well.
The tragedy is that in seeking to be “Liberated from the Text,” in their ardent search for the freedom to hold alternative interpretations (though “equivalent,” it is insisted in many cases) and make alternative applications, by struggling to find (i.e., create) additional meaning from a static text, under the umbrella of a fixed orthodoxy, these discontented experimentalists maneuver themselves out from under the authority of Scripture and the Confessions. This is manifested as appeals to Scripture and the Confessions fail to bring about resolutions to competing truth-claims; the result is that human authority must be consulted to resolve them instead – authority from which there is no appeal since the only recognized authorities, the two Lutheran norms, were declared irrelevant by the very act of calling upon human arbitration to settle the matter. We see this with startling clarity in the case of the ELCA, whose errors have compounded over the decades to the point of depriving them of the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures, and forcing them instead under the tyranny of the carnal voting assembly. Our two part series, “Pursuing freedom from Scripture's clear teachings, by arguing for their ambiguity, results only in tyranny” addressed, and warned of, this tragedy directly.
Third, even if a given pastor has the acumen to write with significant academic integrity (and many do), sees through the errors that are compounding through the parroting of sloppy scholarship and the continued experimentation with sound doctrine (and many do see through it), and is imbued with a serious passion to so express himself (and many are), there is still the simplest, though probably most potent, problem of all: given the size and the inter-relatedness of the WELS, it is very difficult for a pastor to be taken seriously. In virtually any assembly of his clergy-peers that he may address, he faces a very certain likelihood that a majority of people there assembled either: (a) were his classmates in Day-school or High-school, or were his classmates in college, or at seminary; (b) know, or are related to, people who were his classmates; (c) were, or are related to, or personally know one of his former teachers or professors; (d) dated or are related to his wife, or dated or married one of the girls he dated while in school; (e) know, or are related to him personally. In other words, they know very well all about his youthful foolishness and hypocrisy, and offer him virtually no credibility as a result. Even Jesus, who, being perfectly righteous, was neither a fool nor a hypocrite, lamented when he was rejected in His hometown: A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house (Mark 6:1-6; c.f. Matt. 13:54-58; Luke 4:16-30). Practically nowhere can a WELS pastor go where he is not among his own “household, kin, or countrymen.” A former WELS pastor of mine commented to me once on this very fact: “Very few men in WELS can get away with a scholarly demeanor. Only the geeks and utlra-straight-laced guys are able to do it and be taken seriously.” Another once told me, “If you want to make waves, you have to be protected by a support network.” Most often, it seems, only the guys who are protected, or who were genuinely pious young men in their youth, can successfully engage in genuine scholarship before their peers.
So what is the result? What I've come to call an “Aw-shucks scholarship.” That is, otherwise capable men reduced to a sloppy, “chummy” presentation of Biblical and Confessional orthodoxy, because that is the best, or perhaps the only, way that his peers will accept him and listen to what he has to say. If he offers anything more serious than this, they'll just laugh at him, as if to say, “Who does he think he is, anyway?”, and dismiss his effort.
Click here to Continue to PART V.3