On “Creationist” Discussions in the LCMS

Dr. Norman Metzler

Professor of Theology Emeritus, Concordia University, Portland, Oregon

The defense of the “truth” in the matter of faith and science within the LCMS is certainly alive and well. An article published in the Summer 2017 edition of the Concordia Seminary St Louis Concordia Journal by Prof. John Jurchen of Concordia Seward caused such an uproar that various districts and other bodies in Synod called for the virtual crucifixion of that professor, without even a Pontius Pilate-style trial. Prof. Jurchen’s grand heresy was daring to suggest that one might interpret Gen 1 in a way that might allow for Old Earth Creationism. The beleaguered professor was forced to “recant” his false teaching, and Pres. Harrison of the LCMS found it necessary to issue a definitive decretal on the matter in the official publication of the Synod, the Lutheran Witness, in January 2018. He stated the issue very clearly and succinctly: either the account in Genesis 1 is essentially video-camera verifiable history, or it is a totally fabricated myth. [Lutheran Witness, January 2018, Vol. 187, Number 1, p. 1] There is simply no middle ground. He cites article 5 of the 1932 Brief Statement of the Synod as the only and indisputable doctrinal position of the LCMS.

Most recently, Prof. Charles Arand, Professor at Concordia Seminary St Louis and editor of their Concordia Journal, found it necessary in the Winter 2018 volume to address this synodical uproar over Prof. Jurchen’s article [Concordia Journal, Winter 2018, Volume 44, number 1, pp. 7-9]. Though Arand tries to suggest otherwise, there is no distinctively “Lutheran” character to the LCMS “confessional” position on creation. It is part and parcel of the generally Protestant Fundamentalist “Battle for the Bible.”  It is notable that Arand blames the pre-walkout Seminex faculty for the lack of transparency that caused all of our present synodical troubles. In reality, the journal of the seminary faculty at that time, the Concordia Theological Monthly, was trying in numerous articles to do just what he claims his Concordia Journal is trying to do now, namely to raise up for discussion matters of biblical interpretation. Unfortunately, his equating of exegetical resolutions such as the Brief Statement with confessional subscription severely limits the space for any serious hermeneutical discussions.

While Arand and Jurchen may well be textually correct in questioning the “day-age” interpretation of the word “day” in Genesis 1 [see 2 Peter 3:8] and asserting its literal meaning, they totally miss the context of the term “day” in their interpretation of the style of literature of Gen 1. Taken “ad literam,” literally, according to its letter or literary character, Genesis 1 begs to be read as a metaphorical story conveying significant historical truths regarding God, creation, and humanity within creation. It does so by casting God the creator as a good Jewish worker, and creation within the time frame of a typical Jewish work week, culminating in the appropriate — even for God! — observance of the Sabbath at the end of that work week. (Incidentally, all other biblical references to this work-week imagery do so only to emphasize the importance of keeping the Sabbath, not to support the historicity of the Genesis 1 account of creation).

Contrary to the most natural, literal reading of Gen 1, Young Earth Creationism interprets Genesis 1 in what amounts to a video-camera verifiable scientific account of how God actually created the universe. As the Brief Statement expresses it succinctly, “God has created heaven and earth, and that in the manner and in the space of time recorded in  the Holy Scriptures, especially Gen. 1 and 2, namely, by His almighty creative word, and in six days.” [Concordia Journal, p. 8] In other words, if someone had been there with a video camera, they would have recorded creation “in the manner and in the space of time” described in Gen 1. One must note that the Brief Statement begs the question entirely of the two distinctly different metaphorical images of creation in Gen 1 and 2; in the second account God shapes creation like a potter working with clay, not by speaking, and does so in the time frame of “in the day,” not in six days.) Young Earth Creationism thereby pits so-called “creation science” against otherwise generally accepted natural science. This “defense” of the Bible fails to recognize that modern science per se, including evolution, deals only with penultimate phenomena or matters of “secondary causation” in nature, and begs the question of whether there is a “primary cause” or God in and behind the secondary phenomena which it investigates.

The fundamental misunderstanding reflected in this manner of casting the “battle” is that the truly alternative positions are not faith and science, but theism and atheism. These two faith positions go beyond any scientific or other evidence in making ultimate claims about reality. Theism looks the created order and believes (but cannot prove to the satisfaction of the atheist) that God is the creator, and therefore is able to comprehend scientific concepts such as evolution as God’s means of working out his purposes in and through creation. Atheism looks at the world and believes (but cannot prove to the satisfaction of the theist) that there is no creator god, and therefore claims that everything we observe in science, including evolution, is happening “more or less of itself” (to quote the Brief Statement), with no higher power or ultimate purpose and plan involved. The Brief Statement, and all subsequent LCMS statements regarding creation based upon it, are therefore woefully inadequate and inaccurate regarding this critical distinction between faith and science when they equate the scientific theory of evolution with an atheistic faith position, and therefore find themselves obliged to assert that the Bible in Genesis 1 gives us a scientifically accurate “video-cam” verifiable account of how creation came into being. It could be that Prof. Jurchen in his way was trying to get at this actual locus of the “battle,” the true alternative of theism and atheism, in his suggestion that scientific evidence for an old earth could be comprehended within a theistic-creationist approach to natural science, over against an atheistic approach.

The editorial piece by Professor Arand is noteworthy on two counts. At the formal level, it is sad to see this thoughtful seminary professor and editor reduced to groveling before the “purity police” of our Synod, desperately trying to be reinstated into the good graces of the “neo-confessionalist” base needed for the survival of his more “liberal” and “suspect” of the two LCMS seminaries. It is regrettable to observe Arand having to confess, “our intention was not to provoke concern, especially in a time when our confession of Scripture’s teaching regarding creation if often ridiculed in our culture. I apologize that we were not clearer with regard to the purpose of this issue of the Concordia Journal or the direction of the Concordia Journal when it comes to what we teach, promote, and defend on the doctrine of creation…. knowing this history [that is, of Seminex] it is all the more important to us that we do not lose your trust for the sake of our life together as a church.” [Concordia Journal p. 7] Truth be told, he is also apologizing for the sake of not losing their support, for the sake of his future and the life of the seminary.

Arand does try to make the case that Prof. Jurchen was simply raising an innocent exegetical question in suggesting that Old Earth Creationism might be a “credible exegetical argument.”  Jurchen himself in his letter in the Concordia Journal asserts that in his original article, he did not see the need to clearly state his own exegetical position, which he avows stands in opposition to Old Earth Creationism. [Concordia Journal, pp. 13-14] It seems quite evident in context, however, that Jurchen is backtracking in the face of the vicious attacks on him. In his initial article it seems that he was trying to make room for an Old Earth Creationist option as indeed a “credible exegetical argument,” for those who on the basis of the findings of modern science might have real problems with Young Earth Creationism.

In another brief editorial comment on this matter Arand grovels even more abjectly in admitting his editorial “error. We apologize and ask forgiveness for the confusion this has caused.” [Concordia Journal, p. 11] What pressure this poor fellow professor must be feeling in having to stoop so low to apologize for doing what he is properly called to do as a scholar and editor. Prof. Jurchen likewise is reduced to having to write a letter confessing his grave errors, certainly on pain of losing his position at Concordia Seward. The fear of being characterized as the “liberal” seminary of our Synod is palpable in this particular issue of the Concordia Journal, as reflected in an editorial by seminary President Dale Meyer, a biblical scholar in his own right. Dealing ironically with the topic of “fear,” Meyer reflects his fear of the threats against the seminary over this evolution uproar when he is compelled to caricature the theory of evolution as “enthroning human intellect,” in order to disavow it –even though he surely has a more nuanced understanding of the matter than he reflects in his editorial.

Beyond the formal level, the Arand editorial at the material level does homage to the “confessional” constituency of Synod in the reverence he is obliged to pay to the Brief Statement. What is striking is his virtual equating of this particular exegetical opinion, adopted by the synodical convention of 1932, with the constitutionally prescribed confessional stance of our Synod, to which all members subscribe. Arand apparently feels compelled to assert “we will not promote or advocate or defend any teaching that runs counter to the doctrinal position of the LCMS. This includes the Brief Statement…” [Concordia Journal, p. 8] Following his citation of Article 5 of the Brief Statement, Arand continues “This statement not only provides a clear confession of God as the creator…,” seemingly equating the Brief Statement with Scripture and the Confessions as the doctrinal position of the LCMS.

While Arand’s need to appease his “confessional” attackers is understandable, his virtual equating of the Brief Statement with the confessional basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, to which all members of Synod (congregations and individual workers) subscribe, is contrary to our synodical constitution. Any additional statements/resolutions of the Synod are offered only as advice, and are not of binding force until the given congregation deems such advice to be “in accordance with the Word of God” and “[in]expedient as far as the circumstance of a congregation is concerned,” and therefore adopts that advice as its own.[LCMS 2016 Handbook,  pp. 13-14]  Despite this constitutionally insured advisory relationship between Synod and its members, there is a strong tendency of LCMS  “neo-confessionalists”  to cite synodical resolutions as equivalent to Scripture and the Confessions. These “neo-cons” seek to regularize by inference this elevation of resolutions to “confessional” status.

The addition in 1973 to the Synodical Handbook of a “dissent” process for members who do not agree with a given synodical resolution seeks to reframe the constitutional relationship of Synod to its members. It is true that in the Bylaws of Synod, Paragraph 1.72 “Agreements” does acknowledge the advisory relation of Synod to its members when it states “The Synod, being an advisory body, recognizes the right of a congregation [or worker member] to be the judge of the applicability of the resolution to its local condition.” [LCMS 2016 Handbook  p. 34].  Nonetheless, Paragraph 1.8 “Dissent” [Handbook p. 35] strongly implies a more legislative and compulsory view of its resolutions. It presumes that all members automatically accept as their own position all resolutions of Synod, unless they take specific prescribed steps to register their dissent from a given resolution.

In point of fact, the opposite is constitutionally the case. While a member congregation or worker of Synod,  as part of “walking together” in “Christian love and charity” will generally respect, acknowledge, and take under advisement a given resolution of Synod such as the Brief Statement, the member congregation or worker has no need to register officially its “dissent” from the position of the Brief Statement, for the simple reason that the resolution is not the position of that member until such time as the member expressly adopts for itself that advisory resolution of Synod. The member will in good faith acknowledge that Synod did adopt a certain position, for example on evolution in the Brief Statement resolution in 1932. Nonetheless, a member of Synod has every right and prerogative of stating that it has not adopted for itself that interpretation of Scripture reflected in the Brief Statement resolution.

Such a furor as we are witnessing over a humble professor’s sincere effort to invite discussion regarding how most effectively and pastorally to deal with the evidence of science relative to our faith affirmations regarding creation does not bode well for the future of our Synod and its missional efforts. When agreement with particular exegetical positions of Synod embodied in synodical resolutions is equated with confessional subscription required for membership in Synod, then precious little room is left for honest theological discussion based on Scripture and the Confessions. If membership in Synod is a matter of unquestioning agreement with currently defined “orthodoxy,” where is the room for Gospel freedom and Christian charity for the likes of Prof. Jurchen and Prof. Arand? Or for any of us, inside or outside of LCMS academe? The fact is that Synod in its history has passed resolutions and taken diverse and even conflicting exegetical positions on Scripture, while maintaining consistently its confessional foundation on Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Members constitutionally are held to the same standard and must be allowed the same latitude.

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