Pr. Gene Brueggemann
Heresy is a teaching which has the venom of the Serpent in it to poison the wellspring of the church’s teaching and life: the gospel of God’s gracious redemption of humankind revealed most clearly and convincingly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh. Luther and the Lutheran Confessors of the sixteenth century were judged as heretics by the papal church for teaching the primacy of this gospel, and they, in turn, denounced the Roman doctrine of salvation by works as heresy.
One of Lutheranism’s bedrock principles is that God’s word alone establishes doctrine, contra Rome which put tradition on a par with Scripture, and contra the Reformed theologians who rationalized that the bread and wine in the Eucharist are only symbols of Christ’s body and blood. The Lutheran Confessions define the doctrines drawn from the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures and shaped by the gospel–following Luther’s dictum that doctrine must conform to the gospel of Christ (was Christum treibet).
Old Lutheran Orthodoxy reinforced that principle with the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Bible. The Roman Church believes that the Bible is divinely inspired, too, but it added the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 to make the point once again that theirs is the only church which is able to define doctrine correctly. The term “infallible Scripture” gained widespread acceptance among conservative Reformed and Lutheran churches. The high-water mark of its ascendancy in the Missouri Synod was the phrase in Franz Pieper’s Brief Statement (1932) that the Scriptures are the infallible truth “also in those parts which treat of historical, geographical and other secular matters.”
Christian theologians had been fighting a defensive battle ever since the Age of the Enlightenment dawned in post-Renaissance, post-Reformation Europe. Unquestionable deference to the Bible was out and the rational quest for truth was in. Philosophers and theologians began in earnest to deny or modify traditional Christian teachings. American-Lutheran theologians like Walther and Pieper were well equipped to match argument with argument in the struggle to maintain orthodox Christian belief in the nineteenth century.
Then came Darwin and the massive assault on the scriptural account of creation. Pieper and his theological successors to this day assert as a matter of faith that the science of evolution is contrary to the Bible and hence wrong. Pieper can be excused for his Brief Statement assertion that the scientific and historical references in the Bible are infallibly true. He was a man of his age with only a smidgeon of knowledge about the revolutionary discoveries in geology, biology, anthropology and astronomy which would follow. It takes a generation or two to modify or change the corporate mind of the church or any human institution.
And that’s what happened. By the mid-twentieth century some prominent Missouri-Synod professors and pastors felt constrained by the evangelical spirit to publish A Statement in 1945 which challenged some of Missouri’s orthodoxies regarding fellowship and the interpretation of Scripture. New faculty additions at its St. Louis Seminary began to use the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation as a way to open the inspired Scriptures for a better understanding of their message and meaning.
A controversy ensued, however, and at its New Orleans Convention in 1973 the Synod judged that the St. Louis Seminary’s use of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation was heresy.[i] That convention action was clearly a violation of Article VIII of the Constitution, but the leadership had the will and the power to enforce it. In the view of some 55% of the convention delegates the Seminary’s use of the historical-critical method denied the authority of the word of God. The overwhelming majority of the Seminary faculty held that the tools of historical research made the message of God’s inspired Bible clearer and more faithful to its divine author’s intent. Every board and committee which investigated the matter prior to the convention found no heresy there. They did judge that some in the faculty had been careless and confusing in their writings and teaching.
All of which is background for this commentary on President Matthew Harrison’s recent words and actions regarding the teaching and writing of Valparaiso University Professor Matthew Becker. President Harrison, visibly angry at the result of the synodical procedures dealing with the charges of heresy against Professor Becker — he was found innocent! — pronounced him guilty and pledged to have the Synod at its next convention support his presidential judgment.
Prof. Becker was a rostered clergyman teaching at a university founded by Missouri Synod laymen but not controlled by the Missouri Synod. Through most of its history Valpo has been attacked for allowing evolution to be heard or (tell it not in Zion!) taught in its classrooms. Prof. Becker teaches theology, not science, and believes that the science of evolution can be understood in ways that are faithful to the biblical witness to expand our understanding of creation and increase our praise and thanksgiving of the Creator. He has also spoken and written – with many others — about expanding women’s service in the Synod to include the pastoral ministry, an opinion which Pres. Harrison also condemns as heresy.
Prof. Becker’s name has now been stricken from the roster of Missouri’s pastors. Many people in the Missouri Synod and beyond thank God for Prof. Becker’s faithful witness and trust God to use him to bless Valparaiso University and the larger church for years to come.
The point of this article is that if heresy is exposed in this episode of Missouri’s history, it is not the heresy of denying God’s word in Holy Scripture, but rather the heresy of denying God’s word to us in the natural world he created. It is ignoring this word from Scripture: The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard (Psalm 19). This is a clear biblical witness, which is reinforced by other psalms, the Book of Job, and St. Paul’s reference to the natural knowledge of God in the first chapter of Romans.
The church has always believed that nature reveals God. We stand in awe and wonder at the scope and beauty of creation and confess in the First Article of the Creed that God, the Father Almighty, is the creator of heaven and earth. How did he do it? Scripture says by the word of his power, which is as true now as when it was first written. How the word of his power accomplished the indescribable work of creating the universe is the issue persistently raised in the Age of Science. The Bible used the literary form of ancient narrative from pre-historic times to reveal the doctrine of creation. The creedal statements of the church confess the Who and the Why of creation. They are drawn from the Scriptures and define our faith. They are not in dispute. The Creeds and Confessions do not address the How of creation. The How is the issue now.
It’s true: God spoke and it was done. His creation continues to speak to us in the natural sciences to detail how that powerful word of God worked the miracle of creation then and now. Natural scientists have always been treated as heretics by traditionalists in the church: Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Darwin, Einstein, and so forth and so on. The principle of sacred tradition which was denounced by early Protestants has been passionately defended by conservative/fundamentalist Lutheran/Protestant theologians in a vain and futile attempt to win the battle of the Bible. It’s a phony battle. The Bible is not a textbook on science and history. God did not reveal E=mc2 to Moses as he wrote Genesis One. God has humbled himself throughout sacred history to reveal the truth in ways and means which are contingent on limited human understanding in every age.
The traditional interpretation of Genesis One and Two has been a blessing for centuries. Unfortunately, the findings of the natural sciences have been used to mock the simple but true biblical account. Their use can be good or bad. So they can be used to detail the How of creation and be a blessing to the church. This is what Prof. Becker was inviting the church to discuss. To insist on denying the word from nature is increasingly a skandalon, a stumbling block to faith.
The attempt to limit God’s revelation to the pages of the Bible amounts to putting God in a box which we can control. It also pushes science and scientists out of the orbit of the church with its saving gospel of a gracious God, a new creation and a Spirit-filled universe. We don’t want to constrain the Spirit who uses even the eyes and mouth of an ass to get his message out (Numbers 22:28). The men and women of faith who interpret God’s natural world to us are gifts to be celebrated, not false teachers to be rejected. The proper response of the church to the findings of natural science should be one of praise and thanksgiving to God the Father Almighty for revealing more and more of the immensity of his power, wisdom and beauty in universes beyond our imaginings, in the proximity of a drop of water and in the infinity of outer space.
The unfortunate – even tragic – result of regarding scientific discoveries as hazards to the faith is that students in synodical high schools and colleges are confronted with the heresy of a false alternative: What do you believe? The Bible or science? Biblical creation or evolution? It’s as if salvation depended on the answer. (That, I believe, would be heresy.) Who knows how many students have abandoned the church to its folly of a false gospel of a Bible which is without error even when natural science and ancient history is involved?
Enter, by the grace of God, teachers like Matthew Becker who labor lovingly and faithfully to integrate the scientifically observable and provable process of evolution with the biblical witness to God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, so that students can grow in faith and not be scandalized by those who insist on denying basic facts discovered in God’s creation. Jesus spoke once of the punishment deserved by teachers who offend the young; he said a millstone should be hung around their necks and they should be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Offense here means doing or teaching something which causes the young to lose faith.)
Was Matthew Becker’s effort to correlate biblical teaching about creation with scientific knowledge (e.g., the modern scientific consensus about evolution) a good one? Did it honor God, advance the gospel of Christ, and reflect the wisdom of the Holy Spirit? Did he enable students to appreciate the blessings of both science and the Bible? Matthew Harrison, the President of the Missouri Synod has answered with a thunderous “No!” to those questions when he judged that Matthew Becker is a heretic, insisted that the subject is closed, and that the church must be protected from a re-examination of this issue. This judgment is wholly consistent with the letter and the spirit of the New Orleans resolution which found the majority of the St. Louis seminary faculty guilty of heresy for their use of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. Prof. Becker was aware of that. He was even more aware of his responsibility to teach students how to evaluate and integrate the natural knowledge of God with the revealed knowledge of God. In this he was supported and defended by the members and officers of the Northwest District.
God have mercy on Missouri! The Christian mission is difficult and challenging at best, dedicated as it is to the proclamation and implementation of the gospel in the face of the principalities and powers which oppose God. That gospel frees and empowers us to challenge and change church traditions and doctrinal positions when they impede the free course of God’s Word. To shut the eyes and ears, the mind and heart, to God’s word in the natural world is to cripple the mission of the church and limit the power of the Word when it is proclaimed in the world we inhabit today.
[i] Ironically, the 1967 LCMS in convention had encouraged the use of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation! It “commended” a CTCR document that set forth “the basic and legitimate elements of the historical-critical method.” This same method of biblical interpretation was “commended” again at the 1969 LCMS convention.