Heresy in Missouri?

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.

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9 thoughts on “Heresy in Missouri?

  1. I greatly appreciate this article by Pastor Gene Brueggemann! As a product of the Synodical educational system (I entered Concordia in Milwaukee in 1961 and graduated from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1969), I really received virtually no education in science during my college and seminary years. As I moved through the years of my ministry, I found more and more that the insights and discoveries of nearly every branch of science simply would not permit a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 & 2 or what is often referred to as “a six day creation”.
    This past Christmas we visited our children in New Mexico and spent an afternoon at the museum of natural history in Albuquerque. (I had not been to a museum of natural history in decades.) There we saw dinosaurs that were 6,300,000 years old and others that were 6,600,000 years old. I, frankly, found myself challenged by what I was seeing in this museum. It made me appreciate all the more the work that people like Dr. Matthew Becker and the late Dr. Harold Roellig (a member of my former congregation in Monmouth, Oregon) whose ministry has been to help us to see God at work in the process of creation that took place not in six days but over millions of years. Harold helped me tremendously when he said to me one day: “Don’t say ‘creation OR evolution’ but say ‘creation AND evolution’.” That little sentence was of great help to me.
    If we do not do this for our youth, then we can be sure that when our LCMS high school and college students study astronomy, geology, biology, zoology, paleontology or earth sciences, they will quickly discover that they must choose between what they learn from science (“The heavens declare the glory of God”) and the rather ill-informed pronouncements of their fundamentalist confirmation class pastors who reject what “the heavens” are teaching them about God. And when they make that choice, they may well end up discarding the Christian message as well.

  2. I very much appreciated this article. Thank you.

    Over time, it is perhaps natural in a fallen world for hierarchical organizations, such as the LCMS bureaucratic apparatus, to grow in strength and purpose beyond its original bounds.

    The Synod’s original, constitutional bounds ‘were’: 1. The Holy Scriptures. and 2. the Symbols. Nothing less nor more.

    In any regard, in the exercise of its function amongst the polity of its members, it is ”Advisory.”

    An advisory role should act within the love, spirit, and countenance of Jesus. We see it is no longer simply advisory.

    We do see over and over again how the goal of purity overwhelms the practice of love. There can never be enough purity. Never. Purity, again, in a world short of the Second Coming, is an impossible goal to pursue.

    Nonetheless, we see in Missouri a pursuit of purity forces one to ‘believe, teach and confess’ ever more and more: Boy Scouts, chaplains, life insurance, and women voters. The lists grows in number; ever more hysteric. The second-class citizenship of penis-less people. Pastors, in a shrinking church to sit like spiders in a web, disparag church growth methods. It does not know what to do with gays and with the overwhelming evidence of science. It seeksthe ‘right’ style of the right liturgical worship. It cannot worship with anyone that differs by one jot or tittle in what it does. It polices thought and conscience, debate, and scholarly work. It has shown an iinability to discuss issues. it shuns and destroys the careers of those that disagree.

    Satis est becomes numquam sati.

    In doing so, the powers that be do not defend (or promote) the Gospel. They do not defend Lutheranism. They do not defend the Missouri Synod brand. They promote only their personal version of Missouri Synod Lutheranism. One that is fundamentalist, narrow-minded, unscientific, misogynistic, hurtful, heavy-handed, and arrogant.

    In Dr. Matt Becker’s case, despite three heresy trials, despite Constitutional procedures—and in contrast to the humble exercise of Christian love, the Synod leadership could not be assuaged. We read passive-aggressive Facebook postings. By its own fiat–that is, not tarrying to wait upon the Synod it ‘advises,’ came an Exsurge Domine.

    There is a refusal, by Synod, to measure the damage the implementation of their singular, ‘righteous’ version does to Lutheranism, to Christianity, indeed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How many souls have they driven away by peculiar, self-imposed concepts of human sexuality, patriarchy, scholarly approaches, history, science and of the Gospel?

  3. Pr. Brueggemenn performs the neat trick of introducing the Anglican third source of revelation- reason- under the guise of natural theology or revelation-in-nature. While I am sympathetic to the ministerial use of reason, Luther had some harsh words to say about those who would use reason or natural theology against something clearly taught is Scripture. In this case, St. Paul (and other witnesses) point out that death is the consequence of sin, specifically human sin. Evolution presumes that death is the means of progress. Scripture sees nature as fallen; evolution incorporating the Enlightenment notion of progress, holds that things were never better than they are now, and we are evolving into a better future. So, instead of moaning about the Missouri Synod, why not join the future, the ELCA, or the Episcopal Church, of the non-denominational mega-church movement? Or doesn’t their future look so bright?

    • Pr. Brueggemann (please note the correct spelling) is a member of the ELCA, but that does not mean he must refrain from criticizing the church body in which he was baptized, confirmed, and ordained, and in which he served faithfully as a pastor for many decades. Your comment about what the Scriptures teach regarding “death” ignores other Scriptural passages, particularly in the Old Testament, which teach that death is a creaturely aspect of every finite life, including that of human creatures. Paul’s teaching about the relationship between sin and death has to be understood very carefully in light of the full range of biblical teaching about “death.”

      The theory of evolution does not presume that “death is the means of progress” or that “things [are] never better than they are now” or that “we are evolving into a better future.” The theory of evolution merely attempts to explain phylogeny and the changes in gene frequencies that produce phylogenetic change over time. I encourage you to become more familiar with the theory, as it is currently understood, since your comments here seem to indicate a basic lack of understanding.

      • I could not help but notice that while you claim that there is a “full range of Biblical teaching about death,” you did not give any examples. One could say, in avery non-Lutheran way, that there is a full range of teaching in the Bible about justification, and that Paul’s teaching has to be understood carefully in light of that. Which is, of course, an attempt to have it both ways, and to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that the theory of evolution is incompatible with Christian theology that takes the Incarnation seriously.

        The theory of evolution is inseparable from the presupposing notion of progress/development as a means of explaining an evolving from a simpler to a more complex creature. You would be wise to admit this.

          • Dr. Becker:

            Thank you for your response, and your link to a comprehensive reveiw of your thinking on the topic.

            I would note that St. Paul, of course was familiar with the many aspects of death, and is regarded as Lutherans (and most Christians) as providing the authoritative interpretation, and therefore cannot be set aside. To set aside the connection that Paul sets forth between sin and physical death implies a separation between the resurrection and physical death (Paul’s very point in I Corinthians 15!), and why not a separation between the incarnation and the physical world? The notion that there is theological truth and scientific truth and never the twain shall meet leads to a gnostic perspective which allows us to have our cake and eat it too, just as Bultmann and others lived and worked in the increasingly secular regime. In the meantime, Pr.Gene Brueggemann uses the concept of heresey to batter the Orthodox!
            You have encouraged me to read some peer-reviewed textbooks on Evolution. Are you failiar with Jim Coyne’s That Evolution is True? You might check out my reveiw in Amazon. Coyne, of course, denies that connection between evolutionary theory and racism, but that is a faith/value that trumps the evidence that Darwin himself adduced and his supporters found so convincing.I do not object to faith/values influencing one’s scientific work, but it is disingenous to claim that you must accept evolution because of evidence and yet reject part of its implications because of values/faith. I made the point earlier, which you seem to have missed that science itself leads to inconsistent theories (in some fields like psychology as many competing ideologies as in theoology) which require us to be tentetive at best in holding them.
            I am disappointed that you cannot, with your acquaintence with the history of ideas, acknowledge the connection between the idea of progress and the increasingly complex structures evolution seeks to explain.
            Going back to the original idea in this thread, tell me again how “heresey” can be applied to 17th Century Orthodox conception of inerrancy, and yet not applied to those who would deny the Scripture’s guidance on gender matters?

          • Pr. Zeile,
            You did not read my blog post very carefully, for I explicitly refer to and amplify the Pauline teaching regarding the connection between sin and death. At no point do I ever refer to a “separation” between sin and physical death or between the incarnation and the physical world. Nor do I ever suggest that “theological truth” and “scientific truth” never meet or overlap. Just the opposite, as I have also made clear elsewhere (e.g., “The Scandal of the LCMS Mind”). I am quite critical of the “non-overlapping” model defended by Gould and others (e.g., by my former teacher, Langdon Gilkey) and generally favor a model of “integration,” whenever possible.

            If you can’t spell the word “heresy” correctly, I have to wonder if you really understand the concept. I would not use the term “heresy” to describe the false teaching of the Orthodox Protestant theologians of the seventeenth century regarding their innovative notion of “biblical inerrancy.” False teaching, yes, but not “heresy” (which should be reserved for those who deny the key dogmas of the church, e.g., the Trinity, the Person of Christ).

            As popular accounts go, Coyne’s book is helpful (please note the correct title: “Why Evolution Is True”), but it is still not a university textbook. You would do well to read three or four recent college-level textbooks so that you get a better picture of the current state of research. I know of no reputable scholar of evolutionary theory today who thinks that this theory necessarily and inherently implies racism. That some have abused earlier understandings of the theory to support their racist ideology does not undermine the valid data and science that support articulations of the theory (all of which are by nature “tentative” [again, please note how this word is spelled], since that is generally how science works).

          • Dr. Becker:
            Earlier you had written-” Your comment about what the Scriptures teach regarding “death”” [St. Paul (and other witnesses) point out that death is the consequence of sin, specifically human sin. Evolution presumes that death is the means of progress.] “ignores other Scriptural passages, particularly in the Old Testament, which teach that death is a creaturely aspect of every finite life, including that of human creatures. Paul’s teaching about the relationship between sin and death has to be understood very carefully in light of the full range of biblical teaching about “death.” Now you write- ” At no point do I ever refer to a “separation” between sin and physical death or between the incarnation and the physical world. Nor do I ever suggest that “theological truth” and “scientific truth” never meet or overlap.” Of what relevance was your comment that there were other aspects of death in the Scriptures if not to counter my objection to evolution because it separates the connection between human sin and physical death? Did my misspellings distract you?
            You do seem to miss the logic inherent in these questions. Your comment- “If you can’t spell the word “heresy” correctly, I have to wonder if you really understand the concept,” is a case in point. You must realize that there is no real connection between understanding the concept and mastering the rules of spelling. But it does serve as a nifty rhetorical device to change the subject and introduce some ad hominem arguments.
            Similarly, you miss the logic inherent in the theory of evolution which leads to classic racism, a logic that is ignored, not on the basis of scientific findings, but of value commitments. Your very words- ” I know of no reputable scholar of evolutionary theory today who thinks that this theory necessarily and inherently implies racism”- betray you, for no scholar who did so would be ipso facto “reputable.” So, if the broader society can massage science to conform to its cultural values, why may not a subculture? This is an issue you ignore. And it goes back to Pr. Brueggemann’s original assertion that God was revealing truth to us through science, only it is, as you say, a “tentative” truth.
            You say that the 17th Century view of inerrancy is a false teaching, though it seems awefully similar to me to the traditional view Aquinas articulates at the beginning of the Summa Theologica. But you would apply the term heresy to denial of the Holy Trinity or Incarnation. Is not our understanding of how God became man in Christ, or the gender of the persons of the Holy Trinity, reflected in our understanding of who may be ordained, or married?
            May I venture a personal opinion? I believe God wants you to be a conservative voice in a liberal denomination, not a liberal voice in a conservative one. I had the honor of representing Concordia Ann Arbor at two Lutheran faculty conferences held at Augsburg and Capital. Each school embraced some aspect of Luther’s theology, primarily that of vocation, but ignored (if not denied) his emphasis on was Christum treibet (quoting our friend Pr.Brueggemann). If God speaks through circumstances, this may be what He is saying to you, exhort these folks back to Christ!. In that work, I wish you every blessing!

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