Greetings! I am writing out of a concern I share with others about the theological state of affairs within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The situation might be described as one of “brain drain.” Theologians who have served Lutheranism for many years in various capacities have recently left the ELCA and have entered the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church in America. Why?
When Jaroslav Pelikan left the ELCA and became a member of the OCA, I felt it was not terribly surprising. After all, he had been reading and writing about the Fathers of Eastern Orthodoxy for so many years, he could quite naturally find himself at home in that tradition, without much explanation. A short time before that Robert Wilken, a leading patristics scholar teaching at the University of Virginia, left the ELCA to become a Roman Catholic. Then other Lutheran theological colleagues began to follow suit. Jay Rochelle, who for many years was my colleague and the chaplain at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago joined the Orthodox Church. Why? Leonard Klein, pastor of a large Lutheran parish in York, Pennsylvania, and former editor of Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter, last year left the ELCA to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. Why? This year Bruce Marshall, who taught theology for about fifteen years at St. Olaf College and was a long-standing member of the International Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue, has left the ELCA to enter the Roman Catholic Church. Why? David Fagerberg, formerly professor of religion at Concordia College, although coming from a strong Norwegian Lutheran family, left the ELCA for the Roman Catholic Church, and now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Reinhard Huetter, a German Lutheran from Erlangen University, came to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago fifteen years ago to teach theology and ethics, now teaches at Duke Divinity School, and this year became a Roman Catholic. Why? Mickey Mattox, a theologian who recently served at the Lutheran Ecumenical Institute in Strasbourg and now teaches at Marquette University, has recently begun the process of becoming a Roman Catholic. In all these cases the transition involves spouses and children, making it incredibly more difficult. Why are they doing this? Is there a message in these decisions for those who have ears to hear?
All of these colleagues have given candid explanations of their decisions to their families, colleagues, and friends. While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also the push from the ELCA, as they witness with alarm the drift of their church into the morass of what some have called Liberal Protestantism. They are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal protestant denomination. Hence, they have decided that they can no longer be a part of that. Especially, they say, they are not willing to raise their children in a church that they believe has lost its moorings in the great tradition of evangelical (small e) and catholic (small c) orthodoxy (small o), which was at the heart of Luther’s reformatory teaching and the Lutheran Confessional Writings. They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed. Can this possibly be true?
I have decided, without any doubt about it, that I could not re-invent myself to become something else than I was raised to be by my Madagascar missionary parents – an heir of the Lutheran confessing movement. Through theological study and ecumenical engagement I thought I had learned something about what it means to be Lutheran. I have written many books and articles, preached and published many sermons – leaving a long paper trail – over a period of five decades, explaining what it means to be Lutheran. There is nothing in all of those communications that accommodates liberal protestantism, which Karl Barth called a “heresy,” an assessment with which I fully agree. If it is true that the ELCA has become just another liberal protestant denomination, that is a condition tantamount to heresy. The most damning thing in my view that can be charged against the ELCA is that it is just another liberal protestant denomination. Are all these theologians wrong in their assessment of the ELCA? I wish I could deny it. I have been looking for some convincing evidence to the contrary, because I am not about to cut and run. There is no place I know of where to go. I do know, however, that the kind of Lutheranism that I learned – from Nygren, Aulen, Bring, Pinomaa, Schlink, P. Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Pannenberg, Piepkorn, Quanbeck, Preus, and Lindbeck, not to mention the pious missionary teachers from whom I learned the Bible, the Catechism, and the Christian faith – and taught in a Lutheran parish and seminary for many years is now marginalized to the point of near extinction. In looking for evidence that could convincingly contradict the charge that the ELCA has become just another liberal protestant denomination, it would seem reasonable to examine what is produced by its publishing house, theological schools, magazines, publications, church council resolutions, commission statements, task force recommendations, statements and actions by its bishops. The end result is an embarrassment; there is not much there to refute the charge. As Erik Petersen said about 19h century German Protestantism, all that is left of the Reformation heritage is the aroma from an empty bottle. A lot of the pious piffle remains, but then, so was Adolf von Harnack a pious man. All the heretics of the ancient church were pious men. Our pastors and laity are being deceived by a lot of pietistic aroma, but the bottle is empty. Just ask these fine theologians – all friends and colleagues of mine – who have left the ELCA. They are not stupid people; they don’t tell lies; they don’t make rash decisions. They are all serious Christians. What is happening is nothing less than a tragedy. The ELCA is driving out the best and the brightest theologians of our day, not because it is too Lutheran, but because it has become putatively just another liberal protestant denomination. I would think that this is a situation that ought to concern you immensely as well as all the leadership cadres of the ELCA. But might it also be the case that the very persons who ought to be troubled by this phenomenon will say to themselves (perhaps not out loud), “good riddance, we won’t be bothered by those dissenting voices anymore? We wish more of their ilk would leave.”
I must tell you that I read all your episcopal letters that come across my desk. But I must also tell you that your stated convictions, punctuated by many pious sentiments, are not significantly distinguishable from those that come from the liberal protestant leaders of other American denominations. I do not disagree with your political leaning to the left. I am a life-long political liberal, unlike many of my friends. My wife and I opposed the unjust war against Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s, and we have with equal conviction opposed the foolhardy invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration. We also supported the ELCA in its ecumenical actions to re-institute the episcopal office by means of passing the CCM as well as to adopt the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Vatican. But none of that equates with transforming Lutheranism into a liberal protestant denomination, in terms of doctrine, worship, and morality.
When I finished my graduate studies at Harvard and Heidelberg, I was ordained by the ELC and served a parish in North Minneapolis, simultaneously teaching at Luther Seminary. At that time I was instrumental in founding Dialog, a journal of theology, together with Robert Jenson, Roy Harrisville, Kent Knutson, James Burtness, and others, in order to draw midwest Lutheranism into the world-wide orbit of Lutheran theology. We were not ecumenically oriented at the start. At that time no Luther Seminary professors were dealing with the issues posed by Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Barth, Brunner, Aulen, Nygren and many others. Dialog got the reputation of being a journal edited by young upstarts who thought they knew better. It seemed to us then that most of our professors were not very well informed. But they were good Lutherans, not a single heretic among them. Heresy was not the problem at that time. The journal that our group founded in 1961 has now become the voice of a liberal protestant version of Lutheranism. Robert Jenson and I resigned from the journal as its editors in1991 to found a new journal, Pro Ecclesia, a Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology. In the last fourteen years we have published the articles of theologians of all traditions – Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox – exhibiting the truth that we all share common ground in the Great Tradition. The same cannot be said of Dialog anymore. It has become a function of the California ethos of religion and morality, nothing seriously Lutheran about it anymore, except the aroma of an empty bottle. Too bad. I was its editor for twenty years and Jenson for ten years, but now in our judgment it has become, perhaps even unwittingly, the very opposite of what we intended. The journal now expresses its belief that to be prophetic is to become the mouthpiece of the denominational bureaucracy, that is, to attack the few dissenting voices in the ELCA.
One day a church historian will write the history of Lutheranism in America. There will be a few paragraphs trying to explain how the self-destruction of confessional orthodox Lutheranism came about around the turn of the millennium and how it underwent a metamorphosis into a liberal protestant denomination. Recently in an issue of the Lutheran Magazine you expressed your hope that Lutherans could some day soon celebrate Holy Communion with Roman Catholics. My instant reaction was: it is becoming less and less likely, as the ELCA is being taken hostage by forces alien to the solid traditions Lutherans share with Roman Catholics. The confessional chasm is actually becoming wider. So much for the JDDJ! The agreement becomes meaningless when Lutheranism embarks on a trajectory that leads to rank antinomianism.
Where do we go from here? I am going nowhere. Meanwhile, I am hearing rumors about a possible schism or something about the formation of a dissenting synod. None of that will redound to the benefit of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we confess in the Creed. Each person and congregation will do what they deem fitting and appropriate in view of the apostasy that looms on the horizon of our beloved Lutheran Church. My friend Wolfhart Pannenberg has stated that a church that cannot take the Scriptures seriously is no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ. That is not an original statement of his or mine, but one said by every orthodox theologian in the Great Tradition, including Athanasius and Augustine, as well as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Does the ELCA take the Scriptures seriously? We will soon find out. Whoever passes the issue off as simply a hermeneutical squabble is not being honest – “we have our interpretation and you have yours.” Who is to judge who is right? The upshot is ecclesiastical anarchy, sometimes called pluralism. To each his own. Chacun son gout!
I am extremely sorry it has come to this doctrinally unstable situation in the church I was ordained to serve almost half a century ago. My father and two of his brothers served this church in Madagascar and China. My brother and sister served this church in the Camaroons and Madagascar. My cousins have served this church as ordained ministers in this country and abroad for decades. Knowing them as well as I do, I am confident in stating their belief that this church in some of its expressions is not remaining truly faithful to the kind of promises they made upon their ordination to the Christian ministry.
Can the situation which I have described in stark terms be remedied? Have we reached the point of no return? Are we now hopelessly mired in what Karl Barth identified as “Kulturprotestantismus?” I know of about half a dozen Lutheran renewal groups desperately trying to call the ELCA back to its foundational texts and traditions. Would they exist if there were no problem that needs to be addressed? How many congregation and pastors have left or are leaving the ELCA for other associations?
One day we will have to answer before the judgment seat of God as to what we have done for and against the Church of Jesus Christ. There will be no one by our side to help us find the words to use in response. All of us will have many things for which to repent and to implore God’s forgiveness. And we will all cry out, “Lord, have mercy!”