Saturday, February 5, 2011

In Defense of Werner Elert (1885-1954)

It is rather commonplace within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to hear and read people who blame the Lutheran theologian, Werner Elert (1885-1954), for the problems that led to the schism of that church body in the mid-1970s. I have never understood this criticism, most recently set forth by Prof. David Scaer (Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne) and his student, Scott Murray (now one of the vice-presidents of the LCMS). For my critical review of Murray's shallow and mistaken study of the divine "law" in 20th-century American Lutheranism, see

With the recent publication of James Burkee's excellent analysis of the LCMS schism, Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity (Fortress, 2011), once again there have been accusations leveled against Dr. Elert for his supposed negative influence on the LCMS through its seminary faculty at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. The majority of that faculty was fired for insubordination amid accusations of "false teaching." The 40+-person majority faculty later formed what was called "Concordia Seminary-in-Exile" or "Seminex," for short. (For my review of the Burkee's dissertation, go to

Elert has often been identified with "the Seminex theology," whatever that is, as if some forty-plus different faculty members could be so neatly labeled and lumped together. More recently, Elert's theology has been closely tied to Seminex prof. and friend, Ed Schroeder, whose Crossings website and materials often make positive use of Elert. Not too long ago I was invited to speak about Elert at a Crossings conference that included several participants,  Robert Schultz and Ed Schroeder among them, who had actually studied with the Erlanger.

After graduating from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (sometimes called "801," since a new seminary began to operate at the address, 801 DeMun Ave., in 1974) in 1988, I took courses at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago while I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. These were the years 1988 to 1995, when several Seminex faculty had been deployed to LSTC. Since that time I have continued to have contact with faculty and students from "Seminex," including those who taught at LSTC.

The main theological currents in those years at LSTC did not include Elert or reference to him. Rather, the main foci were liberation theology, feminist theology, political theology, deconstruction, quotas and inclusivity, inter-religious dialogue, historical-critical interpretation. The main Protestant male theologians were Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg, and the male liberationists, all of whom received far more attention and support than did little Werner Elert, who probably wasn't known, let alone read, by anyone among the students at LSTC, save for those of us who studied in Robert Bertram's seminars. Carl Braaten, of course, knows Elert, too, but largely dismissed him in favor of Barth and Pannenberg (and the occasional reminiscence of his Doktorvater, Tillich).

As far as I can recall the only LSTC faculty member who utilized and engaged the thought of Elert was Bertram, who had us read Elert's early, little "dogmatics," Die Lehre des Luthertums im Abriss. It is clear from this little book that Elert, like Luther, thought that the law of God (both in its eternal and historical aspects) has a two-fold function, also in the life of the Christian believer unto death. This position is expanded in all of the major studies that Elert conducted.

Elert's problem is that the little bit of his writings that has been translated has not been translated well, save for Ed Schroeder's Facet translation of the tiny chapter from Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade. Most of Elert remains terra incognita for those who can't read German or who won't take the time to work their way through his large corpus.

What made Elert an interesting theologian for someone like J. Pelikan, back in the late 1940s and early 50s, was the fact that he was a conservative (theologically and politically), confessional Lutheran who was not hung-up on a supposed verbal inspiration or inerrancy of the Bible, was facile with historical-critical methodology, and was engaging the post-kantian, post-Schleiermacherian theological world on the basis of a creative re-statement of the evangelischer Ansatz, best summarized, I suppose, as the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. (Elert thought C. F. Walther's treatise of that title was the best theological work to come out of America in the nineteenth century.) If you want to blame an American Lutheran for the influence of Elert on at least a few Americans, then blame Pelikan, whose intro to the first volume of Die Morphologie captures nicely what is important about Elert. (Significantly, the second volume of that project, the one that sets forth the history of Lutheran ethics in a much more comprehensive and persuasive manner than the disjointed, Barthian-influenced Ethik of Bonhoeffer, was never translated into English and has probably only been read by a handful of us alive today.) Pelikan directed a significant number of American Lutheran students to Erlangen, as did other Concordia and LCMS faculty in the early 1950s.

Elert was a member of an intact, confessional church, the Bavarian Lutheran Church, which remained largely unaffected by the Nazified "Deutsche Christen" (those German Christians who wanted to change the doctrine and practice of the Protestant churches in Germany to fit and support Nazi ideals). Elert nevertheless took seriously Luther's explanation to the Fourth Commandment as it applied to civil government, and he was a committed constitutional monarchist. Still, he opposed the formation of the Reich church and he opposed the Deutsche Christen. He was not a member of the Nazi Party. He did what he thought was best for his university, his theology dept., his church, and the Bavarian state in which he lived. He later acknowledged his errors of judgment regarding Hitler's regime (like many politically conservative Germans, Elert viewed Hitler, at least early on, as the next best thing to a Kaiser), and he repented of his sins vis-a-vis Hitler's government. BTW, both of Elert's sons died as officers in hand-to-hand combat at the eastern front.

My treatise on Elert, which was published in Lutheran Quarterly 20 (Autumn 2006), 249-302, refutes false readings of Elert that have been put forth by Scaer, Murray, and others, and sad-to-say, even by better theologians such as Profs. Paul Hinlicky and Robert Benne.

Yes, we should cut some slack for friends and teachers Schroeder and Bertram, given what they had to face in the Preus era, but we should also cut some slack for Elert, who died in 1954. If the ELCA has theological problems, don't blame him for them. He's not your culprit.