WordAlone - A Lutheran House of Studies
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Proposal of the:

—Lutheran Theological House of Studies Task Force

By Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt

Date unknown

photo of Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt

Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt


In its 2005 Annual Convention, the members of the WordAlone Network directed the “WordAlone Board to appoint a Task force to develop a plan and proposal to establish a ‘Lutheran Theological House of Studies’ using the gifts of theological teachers employing the scriptural hermeneutic of the Lutheran Reformation.” I was charged to head this effort with an initial task force consisting of President Jaynan Clark Egland, Board Chair John Beem, Director Mark Chavez, and the Rev. Randy Freund. Later, Treasurer Irv Aal joined the group.

Over the last year members of the task force have had conversations with numerous people interested in establishing this house of studies. We have talked to potential teachers, administrators of potential sites, potential supporters, and the WordAlone constituency. We have visited with the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) Board about their hopes for a Lutheran house of studies, and had subsequent discussion with key leaders of that group. We viewed some potential sites. Although we have not yet listened to all of the possibilities, we are reasonably confident that we have had sufficient conversation and reflection now to bring forward to this 2006 WordAlone Convention a preliminary house of studies model that we believe has the best chance of perpetuating a Lutheran confessional witness in North America.


Selecting which house of studies model to implement demands we first know the plethora of options consistent with the initial charge to “establish a Lutheran Theological House of Studies using the gifts of theological teachers employing the scriptural hermeneutic of the Lutheran Reformation.” Should the house of studies be a small group of professors that semi-formally or formally pledges a commitment to solid Reformation teaching wherever they might be, or should it be a faculty with a specific geographical location? Should it be autonomous with respect to a host institution or be freestanding? Should it be a virtual house offering most of its courses on-line or should it be geographically located while yet having an on-line option? If geographically located, should it use single or multiple point delivery (satellites)? Should a house of studies be located at an ELCA seminary? Should the house of studies offer a certification option accepted by the ELCA? Should it offer academic degrees? If so, how might this be done? What should the house of studies’ task fundamentally be? Should it exist basically to train new pastors or rostered lay leaders, to deepen the theological apprehension and acumen of existing pastors, to provide theological programs for interested laity, or to educate future teachers in the ELCA and LCMC by delivering quality graduate education? The possibilities are really quite overwhelming.

In ordering the available options, the task force tried to determine what were really the most significant questions for building the house of studies. We isolated the following:

  • Should the house of studies seek accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the agency accrediting 250 graduate schools offering post-baccalaureate education in the United States and Canada?
  • Should the house of studies have a geographical center, a place of location symbolizing its continuing existence as an option for post-baccalaureate theological education within North American Lutheranism?
  • Should the house of studies be housed at an ELCA Seminary?
  • Should we seek ELCA approval for graduates of the house of studies, i.e., should we ask the ELCA to certify or accept our graduates into its candidacy process?
  • What is a realistic price tag for building such a house of studies?

Why a House of Studies?

The first step in determining the proper house of studies model is to grasp fully the present context to which the house of studies is to respond. What is the current situation of theological education within the ELCA driving the WordAlone desire to establish a house of studies? We believe that there are economic, sociological, leadership, and theological challenges confronting the ELCA and its seminaries, challenges so profound that we think it necessary to develop and implement a bold house of studies initiative.

The Economic Challenge

Because ELCA funding of seminaries continues to decline, seminaries must increasingly rely upon tuitional dollars to fund their educational programs. This economic fact must not be ignored. Seminaries today must offer programs that attract a broader range of students than was necessary in previous generations because attracting these students is requisite financially for seminaries to survive and offer any program at all. This appeal to new constituencies has resulted in a gradual broadening of mission away from the narrow specialty task of training Lutheran pastors and lay leaders, to the broader task of offering graduate theological education to many different kinds of students, some of whom will be Lutheran pastors and rostered lay leaders. This subtle augmentation of mission and constituency has forced seminaries to broaden beyond their traditionally focused and solidly confessional center. Given this context, it is important that our Lutheran house of studies intentionally constitute itself to stay narrowly focused and solidly confessional in all that it does.

The Sociological Challenge

Two generations ago students matriculating at Lutheran seminaries were 22-26 year old males seeking to become Lutheran pastors. This situation has changed dramatically. Increasing numbers of nontraditional, second-career students, male and female, now attend seminary, many of which already have families, and many who find it exceedingly difficult to give up their occupations and move to an ELCA seminary to study. In addition to having to pay for the majority of their seminary education, these families find that they sometimes have to live in expensive areas of the country in order to acquire this education. As many have pointed out, the cost of seminary education is very high relative to the expected financial rewards of becoming a pastor or rostered lay leader. Our Lutheran house of studies must address this problem of high-cost resident theological education by offering flexibility through multi-site delivery options.

The Leadership Challenge

Present leadership throughout most of the ELCA and its educational institutions came of age in the late sixties and early seventies, at a time in our nation’s history where the practical political and social demands of ending civil rights injustices and the war in Viet Nam seemed to trump deep theoretical concerns. ELCA leadership even today tends to privilege praxis over theory, and concrete action over profound reflection. The prospect of effecting political and social change seems, among many, to generate more excitement than penetrating theological reflection and analysis. In a leadership ethos privileging praxis over theory, confessional particularity is correspondingly de-emphasized. Leadership is concerned with “practical” issues of political and ecclesiastical policy rather than confessional specifics. But our Lutheran theological house of studies must take its confessions very seriously, and it must know that responsible concrete political and social action is ultimately grounded in our confessional substance.

The Theological Challenge

The ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson affirmed last year Dr. Craig Nessan’s assertion that there were two irreconcilable yet valid ways of interpreting Scripture in the ELCA, one traditional and the other contextual. There is great irony in his comment, for the necessary condition for saying that there are two equally valid ways to interpret Scripture is to say that the traditional way that sought in Scripture the norm and rule of faith and life cannot be sustained. Clearly, if autonomous human reason has determined that there are two equally valid ways, it has already stepped outside the traditional reformation hermeneutic on Scripture, a hermeneutic that denied that human reason could autonomously apply external hermeneutical forms to Scriptural substance.

If, in fact, Hanson and Nessan are correct and human reason can properly apply different methods to the reading of Scripture in order to get different results, then we are in a position not unlike that of the late Middle Ages when Luther criticized the fourfold method of Biblical interpretation. According to that method, all of Scripture can be read for its literal/historical, allegorical, tropological and anagogical senses. Luther criticized this because it made human beings master over Scripture; it made it the work of human beings determine what a passage really meant or ought to mean. By eliminating all other senses than the literal/historical, Luther allowed Scripture to be its own interpreter. Human beings do not control what Scripture means, only Scripture does. Scripture interprets itself. The Word of God in Scripture is sufficient for its own interpretation through the activity of the Holy Spirit carried upon the wings of this external Word. To the degree to which revisionist ways of appropriating Scripture reject the internal clarity of Scripture, they must be rejected as inconsistent with the hermeneutic of the Lutheran Reformation. Our Lutheran theological house of studies must assume the Reformation hermeneutic of the internal clarity of Scripture, believing that the Word alone is sufficient for its own interpretation.

Concomitant with autonomous reason’s adoption of a revisionist hermeneutic on Scripture, there is a general tendency within the ELCA and its educational institutions to downplay the notion that theological language has truth-conditions, i.e., that it makes definite statements, some of which are true and others false. The dominant theological agenda over the past two hundred years has tried to offer an analysis of theological language that does not assume a realist view of God and God’s relationship to the universe. Oftentimes theological language has been taken to be merely expressive of the utterer or his or her cultural values. Remember, however, that the great theologian Karl Barth once said that one cannot talk about God by talking about man in a loud voice. Our Lutheran theological house of studies must dare to be realist with respect to the semantics of God-talk, and realist with respect to the ontology of the divine.

The Authority Challenge

A related challenge concerns the nature and foundation of authority. Every religious tradition presupposes authority, for without such authority no tradition can survive. Within Christianity historically, the Church functioned as the requisite authority, finally determining what Scripture and Creed really meant. Within the Lutheran tradition, however, Scripture and Confessions have always constituted the final authority for the tradition. But what happens when we are no longer sure what Scripture and Confessions mean? In the ongoing debate within the ELCA on the sexuality issue, it is apparent that people read Scripture in quite different ways. Some say that Scripture proscribes homosexual activity; others say it does not. In this situation, how does one decide who is right? Moreover, how does one choose among vastly alternate readings of the Lutheran Confessions themselves? These are difficult issues. Our Lutheran theological house of studies must find its authority in the Word alone as it confronts us in the Biblical witness, and as it is testified to in the Lutheran Confessions.

The Rights Challenge

Another problem concerns the nature of rights. We live in a time where talk of human rights often predominates in our churches even over gospel proclamation. We deeply believe that all human beings have equal rights. We believe this so profoundly that we worry about offending someone or violating his or her rights when we share our Lutheran-Christian values with them. At all costs it seems, we don’t want to be ethnocentric; we want to avoid claiming that values of our faith tradition are objectively right and true, and that they should therefore be normatively determinative of the values of other cultures. In our rush to avoid any trace of ethnocentrism, we often adopt the problematic view that our values, while “right for us,” are ultimately only one option among many options, no one of which is ultimately more justifiable than another. Accordingly, we often believe that others have the right not to have us proselytize to them. This fear of ethnocentrism and our penchant for rights has adversely affected the logic of Christian mission. It is very difficult to share the Gospel with non-Christians without making a normative claim that the other should adopt the “religious values” of the one doing the sharing. When the Christian story is assumed to be one cultural value among others, the perceived danger of ethnocentricity seems to preclude the very possibility of sharing it. But our house of studies will not privilege the rights of the citizen above the scandal of the Cross. It will steadfastly ground itself on the notion that the Christian story ought to be shared because it is true, not merely because it is or has value for us.

A final challenge exists that we have not yet mentioned. We must always ask in what ways the putative truths of our Lutheran Confessional heritage connect to truths within the other disciplines. There has been an unfortunate tendency within confessional traditions to ignore the difficult task of relating theology to the other academic disciplines, especially the sciences. If theological language is to be true, it must in principle be relatable to the disciplines generally regarded as offering true theories: the natural and social sciences. Part of the apologetic task of our time is not to allow theology to become a marginalized discourse, relegated merely to the valuational margins of our lives. Our house of studies must be intentional in its desire to connect confessional Lutheran theology to the intellectual horizon of our day.

In summary, there is a language challenge, an authority challenge, and a rights challenge within the current ELCA educational context. Coupled with the economic, sociological, leadership and theological challenges already specified, these challenges have resulted in the tendency within ELCA seminaries to lose the cogency of the Gospel message, to manifest a diminished confessional competency in proclaiming that message, and to become unclear about the nature of the religious authority supposedly grounding the proclamation of that message. What is needed is a house of studies that focuses on the Confessions, is competent in relating the Confessions to the world in which we live, and that recognizes that proper authority can be located in the Word alone. In developing a house of studies proposal, we must always take seriously the question as to what such a house of studies is for. If either there is no problem for the house of studies to address or if the house of studies is incapable of addressing the problem, then such a house of studies ought not be established.

Our Proposal and Rationale

The Question of Accreditation

Probably the most important question as to the nature of any educational institution is whether or not it should be accredited. Our task force has concluded that the challenges are so great in the present ELCA educational context that only an institution having strong academic qualifications can address them. It is our sense that we are faced with a “confessional crisis” within North American Lutheranism, and that we owe it to our Savior, and to our Lutheran tradition, to offer an attractive vehicle by which to train future pastors and perpetuate the Lutheran confessional tradition. Accreditation does three things: 1) It provides an external motivation to build academic excellence; 2) It provides increased opportunities for students; 3) It symbolizes to all that taking the Confessions seriously does not mitigate taking academics seriously.

Firstly, the very nature of external accreditation demands that our house of studies will have an adequate research library and fully qualified faculty. While we might have good intentions in building excellence into a non-accredited house of studies, the natural discontinuities of temporal life make it difficult to achieve academic excellence in the long-term without institutionalizing external accreditation demands. Accreditation implements externally our internal demand for excellence and keeps us honest long-term when hiring faculty and acquiring educational resources.

Secondly, being accredited allows greater student flexibility and opportunity. Students can transfer in and out of accredited programs. Each is treated fairly in accordance with objective standards developed and monitored by the accrediting agency (ATS). In addition, accreditation grants greater flexibility for people studying at different schools and seminaries. In accredited programs there can be certain assumptions about standard courses that are not found in nonaccredited curricula. Preparation for becoming a pastor is more “seamless” when there is a general program of preparation clearly defined, whose various parts can, to some degree, be gotten in different places. Moreover, an accredited house of studies allows students to prepare not only to fill pastoral pulpits, but also be educated to be teachers in the church. We wish to nurture an academic competency in teaching and relating Lutheran confessional theology within the marketplace of ideas. It is our hope to offer advanced academic opportunities for highly motivated students. We hope not only to train pastors for the future, but also to train teachers of those pastors. While we could possibly train pastors short-term on a non-accredited basis, we cannot educate teachers of pastors.

Thirdly, accreditation symbolizes the consonance within our Lutheran tradition of confession and academic competence. Lutheran theology was born in the university. The “new theology” at Wittenberg was debated in academic halls and written in scholarly tracts and books. It is a university-bred theology that sought to be captive to the Word alone. We live in a time in which the pastor often serves congregations with members more educated than she or he is. In an environment in which the very plausibility of the Christian worldview is up for grabs, we need educated pastors who know the intellectual terrain of the various disciplines, and who are able and willing to give an account of that which lies within them. Thus it is manifestly important that future pastors have good libraries, great professors, and an intellectually stimulating campus environment, precisely the characteristics of accredited programs.

The Question of Location

We thought seriously about the option of a fully “virtual” Lutheran house of studies. We thought perhaps that such a house of studies could function as a “brokerage house” bundling a number of programs happening elsewhere, and somehow delivering them to those who needed them. However, as we reflected on this, we decided that this could not be our principal approach in the house of studies. We desire to be more than a “brokerage house” connecting confessionally starved Lutherans with already existing programs. We rejected the brokerage house model because we determined that the demands of theological education called for something bolder, something more integrated, something more intense than such a model could deliver. We believe it important for students to actually meet and be mentored by their professors, and we thought that it would not be possible for true theological mentoring to occur in a virtual program. The medieval and Reformation traditions knew the importance of one-on-one mentoring in the perpetuation of a theological tradition. Given the hermeneutical latitude of our time, we thought it unlikely we could develop a truly normative theological position without having a geographical location in which to do it. We need office and classroom space for students to interact with faculty and, just as importantly, faculty to interact with each other.

The Question of Normativity

Early on in our discussions, the question of the deep task of the house of studies surfaced. What is this house of studies to be actually? Should it be a place of increased theological/academic competency over and against many ELCA educational institutions, or should it be a place of theological rectitude? How open ought the house of studies be to faculty who believe that Lutheran theology allows the practice of the Anglican historic episcopate, or who believe that the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification is consonant with the historical conception of justification in the Lutheran tradition? We believe it important that a WordAlone house of studies should assume the theological principles of the WordAlone movement; we believe the house of studies should have a normative edge that defines us theologically over and against the ELCA seminaries.

The Question of Critical Distance

So where would the LHOS locate its accredited program? After much discussion, phone calls, correspondence, and personal visits, we make the following recommendation: The primary site of the WordAlone Lutheran theological house of studies should be located preferably on a seminary campus with a good library, congenial faculty, a Lutheran ethos, and institutional support for the program. It is my opinion, and the opinion of the Committee, that we are best served if we locate the primary site of our house of studies on a non-ECLA campus. Why is this? The short answer is that the Lutheran theological house of studies must have critical distance. In order to offer a prophetic voice within the present ELCA context, the house of studies cannot be institutionalized at an existing ELCA seminary. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The WordAlone Lutheran theological house of studies must never be limited by its institutional affiliation in what it can or cannot say, or in what it can teach or not teach. It must have full curricular autonomy. There must be sufficient academic freedom for it to do the task set before it. The house of studies cannot ever be in a position of having the sharpness of its critique blurred by ecclesiastical politics within the ELCA. Just as the WordAlone movement has been a fully autonomous critical movement within the ELCA, so must its house of studies project be both autonomous and critical.
  • The WordAlone Lutheran theological house of studies will take positions that may sometimes be quite critical of the ELCA or its institutions. Housing such a house of studies at an ELCA seminary could easily cause problems and tensions at that seminary, both among students, faculty and administration. The requisite autonomy of the house of studies could easily be problematic for any ELCA seminary housing it.
  • The WA house of studies should ideally establish its primary location at a place where most of the voices of the faculty are not theologically more liberal than its own confessional witness. Having almost the entire faculty being more liberal than it will lessen the capability of the confessional witness over time. I believe, theologically, that it is easier to start from a more conservative position and move to embrace the Reformation hermeneutic, than to start from a very liberal position, and try to work back to the right.
  • Although we are not trying to establish theological purity at the WordAlone house of studies—we are not trying to establish a “sausage faculty”—we recognize that most of the voices students have been exposed to in their lives are not Scriptural/confessional voices. Therefore, we do not think there is any particular danger in heavily exposing students to confessional theology within the context of their theological studies.

ELCA Endorsement

We take Bishop Mark Hanson at his word when he affirmed that there are two equally valid ways of interpreting Scripture. We believe, however, that the present ELCA seminaries have privileged the revisionist over the traditionalist approach. Because there is no ELCA educational institution wholly committed to or embracing the traditional approach, it is our hope that the ELCA will endorse our house of studies as a place in the ELCA where students will be exposed to the time-honored way in which Christians have historically read Scripture.

A Preliminary Mission

In contradistinction from the prevailing ethos in Lutheran theology since the time of Kant, the WordAlone Lutheran theological house of studies will proclaim the priority of ontology (being) over epistemology (knowing). Being is prior to any knowing of being. Instead of ontology recapitulating epistemology, the house of studies shall tirelessly proclaim that epistemology recapitulates ontology. Accordingly, the house of studies shall be:

  • Realist with respect to the ontology of God.
  • Realist with respect to its semantics.
  • Realist with respect to divine causality.

However, it shall never forget the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity, between human beings and God. It understands the problem of history, and the difficulties attending any effort to invest more in the finite than it can deliver. Accordingly, it is:

  • Aware of the problems of granting absolute certitude to creedal and confessional statements and,
  • Aware of the Protestant Principle, the view stating that all attempts to absolutize the finite are quasi-idolatrous, whether or not these attempts are Biblicistic or ecclesiastical.

In addition, the Lutheran theological house of studies shall be solidly theocentric. It holds that only the divine can save, and that human beings cannot add anything to their own salvation. Instead of the divine being a category in human experience, the human is a concern only for divine experience.

Accordingly, the Lutheran theological house of studies will exist to accomplish the following:

  • Provide solid Biblical foundation for understanding and articulating the Lutheran theological tradition
  • Provide solid confessional basis for understanding and articulating the Lutheran theological tradition
  • Provide the requisite philosophical equipment to understand and articulate the Lutheran theological worldview within the context of the plethora of options for postmodern man and woman.

Price Tag

Because the values of certain critical variables are not yet determined, we cannot at this time offer a detailed business plan or model for our house of studies proposal. However, we do offer the following business sketch.


  • The Lutheran theological house of studies will be connected to a non-ELCA institution of higher learning such that it will use the library of the host institution, and that its accreditation will be obtained in consort with this connection.
  • The majority of courses for the M. Div. can be taken at this other institution.
  • There will be a number of courses specifically constituting the M. Div. that cannot be taken at that host institution.
  • We operate our house of studies at its central campus with three full-time people during the academic year (2 ¾ teachers, and ¼ an administrator), and one half-time support staff.
  • We rotate various professors in and out of our central campus through the summers and for occasional semesters.
  • Student tuition will be paid mostly to the host institution.
Expenses Yearly Cost
Three full-time faculty $300,000 (total comp)
Half-time Support 25,000
Library and Other Associated Fees (e.g. classroom rental) 10,000
Travel Budgets (including visiting faculty) 12,000
Printing and Office 4,000
Promotional Material and Catalogues 9,000
Capital Sinking Fund 6,000
Telephone and Internet 5,000
Utilities 4,000
Hospitality 1,000
Honoraria 2,000
Miscellaneous 7,000
TOTAL $400,000
From Tuition 25,000
From Faculty teaching at Host institution 20,000
From Ongoing Contribution 55,000
TOTAL $100,000
Net Operating Loss $300,000