WordAlone - Response To “The ‘Fundamentals’ of WordAlone”
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Response To —“The ‘Fundamentals’ of WordAlone”

by Walter Sundberg Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota

12-14 November, 2006

I wish to respond to Professor Bielfeldt’s argument by reflecting on the first of the “fundamentals” he lists in his shorter version of his paper: "God is real and statements about God are either true or false." Bielfeldt elaborates this assertion in the following terms

WordAlone asserts that God is real, that is, God exists in ways that humans cannot experience or wholly conceive. WordAlone assumes that God exists out and beyond the human mind. Today’s popular culture, however, routinely understands religious and theological statements as either expressions of the self, its attitudes and orientations or as the regulative statements of a religious community. Some in theological circles regularly assume that good theology begins with the idea that God cannot be any kind of real substance. Instead, God is seen by them as an ideal of human reason. WordAlone asserts, on the other hand, that the truth of theological statements is not dependent on the experience of individuals.

I think Bielfeldt has identified in this first of his fundamentals a problem that grips the mainline Protestant church today and is the root cause of its decline since the 1960s. There have been many witnesses to this problem in the church. I would like to call on two: the first an outsider to Christian faith—and all the more a compelling observer because of that fact; the second, a distinguished Roman Catholic New Testament scholar. I have purposely picked two people who are not Lutheran and have no association with the ELCA. I do this for two reasons: first to indicate that the issues we are dealing with are larger than those of a particular Lutheran denomination in America; second, to counter the argument (actually it is a canard) that WordAlone is an insular organization that is unable to see beyond its parochial Lutheran agenda. I will conclude this response essay with observations on Luther Seminary and how it has sought to rise to the challenge of relativism in belief; and observations on the strategy of discerning and confessing "fundamentals" of the faith, which is the subject of this conference. In this regard, it should be understood that "Fundamentals" does not mean "fundamentalism."

The Witness of an Outsider

The outsider is the sociologist Sherryl Kleinman, a Jew by birth, and a self-described agnostic in religion, who in the late 1970s was a graduate student, newly arrived at a large midwestern university. Like most graduate students, Kleinman was interested in finding cheap living accommodations. She was told that a local seminary provided dorm rooms to outside students at reasonable prices. She obtained one, although she was a bit nervous at the prospect of spending time around students dedicated to a religion that she did not share and engaged in the quest for meaning that held no significance for her. She was especially anxious about the prospect of being proselytized. To her surprise, however, she found the seminary students remarkably "unreligious" in their character and concerns. No one questioned her beliefs -- or lack of them. Their talk about faith was, in fact, so secular in content, so strange in its use of language, that it did not seem to her faith at all. Indeed, Ms. Kleinman found her entire experience living in a seminary dorm so unusual, particularly from her viewpoint as an unreligious outsider, that she soon resolved to make "Midwest Seminary" (as she calls it) the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation. The result was an instant classic that made her career: Equals before God: Seminarians as Humanistic Professionals published by the highly prestigious University of Chicago Press in 1984.

Kleinman’s method for her study was as follows. She received permission from the school to attend classes and interview professors and administrators. Accompanied by a trusty tape recorder, she conversed with students in dorm rooms, at the cafeteria, and out on the town. What she found was that the vast majority of seminarians at this mainline Protestant institution were prone to translate biblical ideas and traditional dogmatic language into what she calls "feeling states." For them, the basis for religious reality had become the subjective and interpersonal sphere of human discourse and relationships. The budding pastors saw themselves primarily as counselors, not preachers, facilitators of healthy self-awareness, not deliverers of tradition. The skills needed for ministry were skills that anyone might possess. For example, after spending several weeks at her task of observation, Kleinman was told by a student that she would make a good minister. "Why?" asked Kleinman, absolutely perplexed at the suggestion. "Because you are such a good listener," was the reply. Here the ministry of the gospel was equated with a common characteristic: the ability to be attentive to what others say -- admirable to be sure, but hardly distinctive and without religious content.

In Kleinman's view, this psychologizing and leveling of the pastor's office—which she calls in the book the "new ideology" of ministry—raised serious questions about the professional status of the occupation. Ministers -- at least from her observation of the educational process at "Midwest Seminary" -- had become little more than therapeutic humanists who accommodate religious creed to the conditions of mundane reality and the conventional values of polite society.

In writing Equals Before God, Kleinman had no axe to grind, no theological commitments to blur her vision or tempt her to engage in special pleading. This makes her observations all the more devastating for those who call the mainline church home. She also does not identify the seminary where she conducted her study. (It was not Luther Seminary!) This is just as well. What she describes is not a unique case, but a generic predicament of contemporary theological education that can be traced back to the immediate cause of upheavals in academia in the 1960s and 1970s. What Kleinman saw as something fairly new at the end of the 1970s has only become since then more entrenched in mainline churches. The humanist spirit is now so pervasive, so naturally a part of the modern character that it is in the very air that our seminarians breathe This pervasive humanist spirit has been accompanied by a strategy of accommodation that involves both the translating of doctrine into feeling and the denial of the transcendent sphere as the ultimate referent of theological speech. It is a strategy that goes back to the German Romantic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and beyond him to the Enlightenment. As I said, it is in the air our seminarians breathe—indeed all seminarians and pastors, whether Catholic or Protestant, liberal, evangelical, or traditional. One can’t wall oneself off from it and create a cloistered environment. It has to be faced and answered.

The Witness of a New Testament Scholar

To begin to see at least the beginnings of an answer, I turn to the second witness: the distinguished Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. He speaks from the viewpoint of his particular field of New Testament studies. Johnson declares bluntly and alarmingly that there is "a crisis in pedagogy concerning the New Testament." This crisis "has little to do with constraints imposed on scholars from the outside. It has much to do with the emptiness of biblical scholarship apart from communities for whom these ancient texts have real-life significance and the inadequacy of the historical critical method to meet the questions of significance posed by our culture today."[1] Johnson decries what he calls the "Jesus business in America." An academic cottage industry has developed, exemplified by the notorious Jesus Seminar, which profits by marketing provocative portraits of "the historical Jesus." The keys to its success are the rejection of traditional faith and a preoccupation with the politics of the left. Jesus is redefined as "countercultural sage" (Marcus Borg), or oppressed "peasant" (John Dominic Crossan). He is measured according to various liberationist agendas that treat the church, like all established institutions, with suspicion. Radical biblical scholars make a distinction between Jesus and Christianity that is "ideologically exploited."[2] While Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) may have exposed the intellectual weaknesses of the quest for a culturally acceptable Jesus nearly a century ago, this does not stop the effort today. Controversial "Jesus books" sell. They create favorable publicity and income for the scholars who write them.

Insofar as this type of scholarship has an influence on seminary education and church life, its effect is devastating. This effect is felt most strongly in mainline churches where modern criticism of the Bible carries the most weight. Modern criticism assaults the traditional understanding of the authority of scripture that the majority of active laity hold dear. It makes clergy more beholden to secular opinion-makers than to orthodox tradition. Ironically, the effort to accommodate the Bible to modern notions of truth serves more to drive members away than to make the church socially acceptable:

The result has been paradoxical, although perhaps predictable. The churches representing this stance (mainline Protestants and post-Vatican II Catholics) do not see themselves marginalized culturally or intellectually, but they do find themselves in decline. To the degree that this form of Christianity has assimilated itself to the dominant ethos, reasons for anyone joining it are harder to come by.[3]

This last claim made by Johnson has the support of religious sociologists who have made the decline of the mainline Protestant church in America their focus of study. Since Dean M. Kelley's pioneering study Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1972), it is widely recognized that liberal denominations lack impetus because they deliver a confused message. By contrast, evangelical churches are successful because they are clear. Dogmatic in belief, strict in their demands on behavior, refusing to accommodate intellectual trends, affirming the infallibility of scripture, these churches successfully carry out the indispensable function of religion: to explain the meaning of life unambiguously to adherents. Conservative churches are the primary agents of the growth of Christianity in contemporary culture.

The Scottish sociologist Steve Bruce is among those who have confirmed Kelley's thesis and would also agree with Johnson. He concentrates his study on the predicament of liberal denominations. Bruce identifies liberal denominations by their tendency to regard "human reason as paramount" and to theologize "from the agenda of the secular world."[4] Basic to their belief is the acceptance of modern pluralism. If pluralism is an accepted value, how do liberal churches define their core beliefs and boundaries of membership? The answer is that they cannot. This inability is a serious flaw. It goes against the fundamental nature of religion which "is concerned with certainty. It is about discovering the Archimedean point which allows us to escape the ambiguity and confusion of the mundane world."[5] The "profile" of liberal denominations is hopelessly out of sync with the confession of faith they claim to represent. One cannot sell certainly with uncertainty.

Luther Seminary’s Mission Statement

Realizing this, the faculty at Luther Seminary a decade ago, adopted a non-negotiable mission statement. (The Seminary should have done it sooner. It should not have been so slow and halting. But have mercy on the old school. Remember: "We have this treasure," says Paul, "in earthen vessels" II Corinthians 4.7.) The Seminary adopted the statement after much debate, a debate that served to make the mission statement a matter of self-conscious and deliberate appropriation. The statement reads: Luther Seminary educates leaders for Christian communities called and sent by the Holy Spirit to witness to salvation through Jesus Christ and to serve in God's world.

The key person who helped us formulate this statement was Duane Olson, Professor of Missions, a man deeply respected, who gave an impassioned speech that challenged the faculty to focus the mission statement not on the virtues of critical thought or the doctrine of forgiveness, important as these are, but on that which precedes them both: namely the Lordship of Jesus Christ who calls us in the Great Commission to make disciples. "If it is an authentic mission statement we seek," said Olson, "then it must be grounded unambiguously in the Person and Work of Christ as Lord of all nations." The purpose of a mission statement is mission.

I cannot convey adequately the power of Professor Olson’s testimony at that time and place. Here was a man who dedicated his life and family to serving Christ in Madagascar for two decades. Whatever agendas were present in the faculty, Duane Olson’s witness carried the day.

Seven words became the heart of the mission statement: "to witness to salvation through Jesus Christ." These words emerged as central, not because they are orthodox (which they are), or unusual (which they are not), but because, as I said, they were debated and self-consciously appropriated by vote. It was an instance of an orthodox position not being assumed, but won. What counts about the mission statement is that its core witness is Christological. Missio Dei at Luther Seminary is Missio Christi: John 20:21 "Jesus said to them . . .'As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.'" Whatever role the Holy Spirit may play in the generalized illumination of the divine for all humanity, the Spirit is, first and foremost, the intentional witness to Jesus Christ as Lord; and, lest we forget, the defender of Christ against those who would deny his authority: 1 Corinthians 12:3 "Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says 'Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." The Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the Church. There is no Church except the Church that is identified by the Word of God as the Body of Christ: 1 Corinthians 12:27 "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." That ecclesiology follows Christology is an insight especially relevant for a seminary like Luther that primarily serves a mainline denomination and therefore must confront the missional crisis of membership decline.

Why is there decline in membership? In Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers, Dean R. Hoge of Catholic University of America, Benton Johnson of the University of Oregon, and Donald A. Luidens of Hope College—all professional sociologists—learned that membership decline and reduced levels of active participation and church-going since the 1960s, are directly related to belief in salvation by Christ alone. This belief, this creedal affirmation, is the most important predictor of a person's religious allegiance and practice:

In our study, the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief — orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ. Virtually all our baby boomers who believe this are active members of a church.[6]

Christ alone is the most important of fundamentals.

Observations on the Strategy of “Fundamentals”

Which brings me to the matter of the strategy of "fundamentals" that is the subject of this WordAlone Conference. Nearly a century ago, the Presbyterian Church found itself in the midst of a culture war with the elite academics and bureaucrats of the church over accommodation to secularism and historical criticism of scripture and creed. Their crisis was very similar to our crisis today. It is thus no surprise that Professor Bielfeldt, in the longer version of his paper, refers to the strategy they developed to deal with the challenge they faced. At the 1910 meeting of the General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church passed a resolution identifying what they saw as the five fundamentals of Christian faith: To be a Christian meant that one must unambiguously affirm: 1) the inerrancy of scripture, 2) the virgin birth of Christ, 3) a substitutionary doctrine of atonement, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, 5) the veracity of biblical miracles. Fundamentals two through five represent basic Christian teaching. If they were abandoned, there would be little left of traditional Christian teaching. Fundamental number one uses the English word “inerrancy” (coined in the mid-nineteenth century) to identify the old Protestant doctrine of verbal inspiration. While this way of confessing the authority of scripture may be disputed today, it should not be forgotten that the Presbyterians, in calling upon the doctrine of verbal inspiration, were in the best of company at the time. In 1918, Karl Barth (1886-1968), in his preface to the first edition of The Epistle to the Romans, perhaps the most influential theological work of the first half of the twentieth century, took a similar stand with regard to the authority of scripture in this provocative statement:

The historical-critical method of Biblical investigation has its rightful place: it is concerned with the preparation of the intelligence -- and this can never be superfluous. But were I driven to choose between it and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification. The doctrine of Inspiration is concerned with the labour of apprehending, without which no technical equipment, however complete, is of any use whatever.[7]

It should also be noted that Lutherans in America at the time were in general agreement with this sentiment. In 1919, the National Lutheran Council, under the leadership of Hans Gerhard Stub (1849-1931), President of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, affirmed the “inerrancy” of scripture with regard to “faith, doctrine, and practice” in the so-called “Chicago Theses” of 1919. This way of speaking about biblical authority was reaffirmed in pan-Lutheran gatherings in 1930 (Minneapolis Theses) and 1952 (United Testimony in Faith and Life), and finally in the Constitution of the ALC in 1960.[8]

It is important to note that in all of these agreements, "inerrancy" was defined as applying to "doctrine and life." In the old Protestant Scholastic doctrine of verbal inspiration, scripture was understood as without error in doctrine, life, history, and geography. So, for example, the Lutheran theologian, Johann Andreas Quenstedt (1617-1688), asserts that the Bible contains:

no lie, no falsehood, not even the smallest error either in words or in matter, but everything, together and singly, that is handed on in them is most true, whether it be a matter of dogma or of morals or of history or of chronology or of topography or of nomenclature; no want of knowledge, no thoughtlessness or forgetfulness, no lapse of memory . . .[9]

The Lutherans who from 1919 to 1960 employed the concept of inerrancy to express biblical authority refused to apply it to "history and geography." Hence, theirs was not a fundamentalist position. But it was, in their time, a witness to what Bielfeldt means when he says, "God is real, that is, God exists in ways that humans cannot experience or wholly conceive . . .God exists out and beyond the human mind." This is what the "United Testimony in Faith and Life" (1952) is attempting to give witness to when it says,

We bear witness that the Bible is our only authentic and infallible source of God’s revelation to us and all men, and that it is the only inerrant and completely adequate source and norm of all Christian doctrine and life. We hold that the Bible, as a whole and in all its parts, is the Word of God under all circumstances regardless of man’s attitude toward it. (Article I).[10]

The movement of bearing witness to the fundamentals of faith, begun by Presbyterians in 1910, was thus not confined to "fundamentalism," but had much broader reach and influence. It represented a self-conscious protest to a type of liberal theology that had robbed the faith of its vital core. . . "We live . . .in a time of hostility," wrote H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) in 1935, "when the church is imperiled not only by an external worldliness but by one that has established itself within the Christian camp."[11] Niebuhr's contemptuous dismissal of the church’s tendency to accommodate culture was encapsulated in the most famous line he ever wrote: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."[12] With this negative assessment of the liberal position, the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910, the National Lutheran Council in 1919 and pan-Lutherans statements that followed, including the United Testimony of 1952 and the ALC Constitution of 1960; and the whole movement of theology under the leadership of Karl Barth that came to be known as "neo-orthodoxy" heartedly agreed.

With this in mind, I think it is most fitting in this time of crisis and decline that we consider the strategy of discerning and confessing the "fundamentals" of faith for the renewal of the church.

And what time has there been in the church when there was not a crisis? In every age the earnest Christian has been a malcontent, shifting impatiently in his pew, discontent with the uncommitted layman, the sleepy pastor, the bloated bureaucrat, the seminary professor filled with hot air. As Luther said, and this was, if I remember correctly, a favorite passage of Warren Quanbeck, teacher of many years at Luther who died a generation ago:

We realize that few believe . . .[B] ut this does not mean that the gospel is not true or effective. A king gives you a castle. If you do not accept it, then it is not the king’s fault, nor is he guilty of a lie. But you have deceived yourself and the fault is yours. The king certainly gave it.[13]

The King of Kings and Lord of Lords is master of that magnificent castle, that Wartburg in the sky. It is his Father’s house in which there are many mansions. And he has gone there to prepare a place for you. What greater fundamental is there than this?

Professor Bielfeldt’s contribution to the effort of discerning the fundamentals of faith, under the auspices of WordAlone, is to be commended.


[1]Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, (San Francisco: Harper, 1996) 75f.

[2]ibid., 65; see 39-50.

[3]Ibid., 64.

[4]Bruce, A House Divided: Protestantism, Schism, and Secularization, (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) 102

[5]ibid., 123.

[6]Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald Luidens, "Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline," First Things, No. 31 (March, 1993) 15. This article is a summary of their research for the book. See Vanishing Boundaries (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

[7]Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1933) 1.

[8]It is important to note that in all of these agreements, "inerrancy" was defined as applying to "doctrine and life." In the old Protestant Scholastic doctrine of verbal inspiration, scripture was understood as without error in doctrine, life, history, and geography. The Lutherans who from 1919 to 1960 employed the concept of inerrancy to express biblical authority refused to apply it to "history and geography." Hence, theirs was not a fundamentalist position.

[9]Johann Andreas Quenstedt (1617-1688), Theologia didactico-polemica (Wittenberg: Johannes Ludolphus Quenstedt et Elerdi Schumacheri Haeredes [Matthaeus Henckelius], 1685) I: 77. Quoted and tr. in Arthur Carl Piepkorn, "What does ‘Inerrancy’ Mean?" Concordia Theological Monthly, 26 (1965) 578.

[10]On the matter of Lutherans and inerrancy, see Todd Nichol, "The American Lutheran Church: An Historical Study of its Confession of Faith According to its Constituting Documents" (Berkeley, Cal.: [s.n.], 1988).

[11]H. Richard Niebuhr, Wilhelm Pauck, Francis P. Miller, The Church against the World (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co., 1935) 1.

[12]H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York, Harper & Row, 1937) 193.

[13]LW 40, 367.