Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Further Word in Defense of Werner Elert (Part One)

Several weeks ago my friend Ed Schroeder, a “retired” Lutheran professor of systematic theology--who once taught at Valpo and Concordia Seminary/Christ Seminary-Seminex--alerted me to the Facebook page of Pr. Martin Yee, one of Ed’s former students, who now serves in Singapore. On his blog site Pr. Yee had drawn attention to one of my blog posts about Werner Elert, who taught theology at Erlangen University from the early 1920s until the early 1950s. In that post, which you can read here, I suggested reasons for why we cannot blame Elert for whatever theological and ethical errors might be harming the ELCA today. If anything, a strong case can be made that Elert’s critical investigations into the history of doctrine, together with his own summaries of Christian dogmatics and the Christian ethos, might actually be beneficial resources for renewing contemporary evangelical theology and ethics.

Later, unbeknownst to me, Ed forwarded my original post to several other theologians. These included Ted Jungkuntz (who also taught at Valpo many moons ago), Carl Braaten (with whom I was privileged to study theology back in the late 1980s and who has recently written an important essay on Martin Kaehler that will appear in an upcoming book I am editing on nineteenth-century theologians), and Paul Hinlicky (who has become a friend and theological “sparring partner” in recent years). Ed then shared with me email replies that some of these individuals had shared with each other. So I was brought into that “circle” only after some of them had commented on my post among themselves. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see that the three theologians named above  more or less agreed with the main point I had made in that post: We cannot blame Elert for whatever theological and ethical problems plague contemporary American Lutheranism.

Here is Professor Braaten’s reply.

“To whom it may concern:

“I taught theology for quite a few years in an ELCA seminary (LSTC), and I knew most of the theologians teaching at other ELCA seminaries. I know of not a single one who promoted the theology of Werner Elert, except for the few who were deployed from Seminex. Matt Becker's observations about LSTC are accurate. Bob Bertram was the only one at LSTC who gave voice to Elert's theology, and that was pretty much confined to a small circle of disciples. At that time Bertram was more interested in having his students read Bonhoeffer. One of his disciples, Richard Bliese, wrote a fine doctoral dissertation on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I was pleased to supervise.

“It seems rather odd that Matt Becker feels the need to exonerate Elert from what's been going on in the ELCA from its inception. The only possible connection that I can see is the role that the AELC played not only in the formation of the ELCA but also through a good number of graduates of Seminex who became prominent bishops in various synods of the ELCA.  Perhaps Matt Becker knows how much influence Elert had on these AELC Seminex-educated pastors and bishops. I do not know much about that.

“What I do know is that in making a theological argument to support the inclusion of gays to the ordained ministry [people] appealed to theologians who rejected the third use of the law. Elert was one of them.  But so was Gerhard Forde. Yet Forde himself denied that his rejection of the third use of the law could be used to favor the ELCA's decision to ordain gays. I do not know what Elert would have thought about this. It probably never crossed his mind as a possibility. What he writes about marriage in his book on ethics (The Christian Ethos) does not address the matter of marriage between two persons of the same gender. Lazareth also was not a solid advocate of the third use of the law, but he was vigorously opposed to the ELCA's policy on the ordination of gay clergy. 

“Becker is correct. Elert did not have much influence on the teaching theologians of the ELCA. But Becker does not deal with the role that Elert might have played in the thinking of the Missouri exiles who came into the ELCA via the AELC. Greg Fryer has written extensively on this.  It would be interesting to learn what he would add to this exchange. Pax, Carl E. Braaten”

Dr. Braaten thinks it odd that I “feel the need to exonerate Elert from what’s been going on in the ELCA from its inception.” And yet several ELCA theologians have in fact blamed Elert for what has been ailing the ELCA. See, for example, the 2010 online comment by Dr. Michael Root—who was then an ELCA theologian but who has subsequently become a Roman Catholic:

Be sure to read all the way to the end of that online thread. The final two posts in it are exactly on target. BTW, I don’t know who “Vindicating Elert” is/was, but whoever that person is/was, has a far more accurate understanding of Elert’s theology than Prof. Root! [Update on 9/29/14: I do in fact now know who "Vindicating Elert" is, as he saw this post and sent me an email to let me know who he is.] Ed Schroeder’s online responses to Root’s post and other writings that are critical of Elert (e.g., Bob Benne, Greg Fryer) are also instructive. See:

In part two, which you can read here, I criticize an important essay that misrepresents Elert's understanding of law and gospel.

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