Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann (1932-2016)

This past Sunday was marked by the death of Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann (b. 1932), who had served as a professor at and president of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and then later as president of the LCMS (elected to four terms). His funeral service and committal were this afternoon.

For his obituary, go to here.

While many will remember Dr. Bohlmann's role in that church body’s politics and events of the late 60s and 70s, when he sided with the conservative minority against the "faculty majority" at Concordia Seminary and other “liberals” in the synod, I’d like to draw attention to the later Bohlmann that I got to know a little during the late 90s and early 2000s. Any account of his life has to take note of the changed perspective that he underwent between his "early" years and the "later," post-presidency ones. Ralph had changed, as he himself had suggested to me on more than one occasion.

How had he changed? Not in terms of his foundational confessional commitment and the basic theological understandings that he had gained through his studies at St. John's College in Winfield, Kansas, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the University of Heidelberg, and then Yale. The contours of his theology had been profoundly and permanently shaped by such Lutheran luminaries as Jaroslav Pelikan, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Richard Caemmerer, Edmund Schlink, and Peter Brunner. While Bohlmann's fundamental beliefs had already been firmly established through his upbringing and education in the synod, his Heidelberg and Yale experiences deepened his understanding of the Lutheran Confessions and the principles by which he thought those confessions are to be interpreted and applied today. (The influence of Schlink and Piepkorn is particularly evident in Bohlmann's 139-page monograph, Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Lutheran Confessions [St. Louis: Concordia, 1968].)

So if he had not really changed theologically, then how had he shifted? I would argue that this shift involved a temperamental transformation, the adoption of a modified attitude and demeanor, one that could be described as being a little more “open.” I think Ralph had become even more soft-spoken than he had been in the 50s and 60s, and more flexible, especially regarding matters about which the Lutheran Confessions do not directly speak, such as the ordination of women. That latter issue, in particular, he was hoping could be more openly discussed in the synod. The "hard" politics that he had helped to bring into the synod in the 60s had also turned, in part, against him, when he opposed the on-going presidency of Robert Preus at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, and this too had had its effect. Bohlmann had become very dissatisfied with the “right-wing politics” in the synod, something about which he had himself participated and had later come to regret. (For more on this, see James Burkee’s Power Politics and the Missouri Synod, and Mary Todd’s Authority Vested.)

So while there remained important and fundamental confessional/theological continuities between the “younger” Bohlmann and the more mature one--many more continuities than discontinuities--his views about a few issues, including the ordination of women, had changed over time.

I came to learn about this change first-hand, when he reached out to me in 1998. He had learned that I had come under fire for an essay on women teaching theology that I had delivered at a conference in Chicago the previous year. An LCMS pastor who had attended that conference (and secretly tape-recorded my address) brought charges against me, accusing me of teaching false doctrine. Ralph learned about the case and offered to help me navigate the bylaw procedures. So during that year we had several conversations. They weren't all about the synodical bylaws in the synod's Handbook. We also discussed the theological issues involved, and I came to learn that he himself had changed his own mind about women's ordination, at least to the point where he thought the matter was not necessarily church-dividing. (We later also discussed the issue of six-day creationism, which he personally believed and taught. While he disagreed with my critique of creationism, he did not think that what I had written on this topic rose to the level of a matter that required church discipline.)

On two other occasions he let me know that he deeply regretted how "A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles," a document he had mostly written, had been used by Jacob Preus to discipline Concordia Seminary faculty and others, and how his own actions had contributed to the loss of "so many excellent theologians." He also told me at that time that his concern for the future of academic theology in the synod was a further reason he had wanted to help me. He thought the issue of the service of women in the church needed to be addressed more deeply and discussed more openly in the synod than had so far been the case. He was fearful that had the charge against me been successful, it would have further stifled theological discussion in the synod. He offered me a vigorous defense of "the right of dissent" within the synod, which I gladly and freely adapted to my own situation.

I learned later that Ralph’s only daughter had left the LCMS, in part because of what had happened in the 70s but also in part because of the issue of women's ordination, and that she is now an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ. I wonder to what extent her own evolution from growing up as the only daughter of an LCMS seminary professor/president to becoming a UCC pastor did not also contribute to Ralph’s own change of attitude on this issue.

Between 1998 and 2004, when I left for Valpo, Ralph and I had many conversations, usually over the phone or by email but also in person at three different synodical conventions. His knowledge of CCM opinions, his mastery of the etiology and purpose of relevant synodical bylaws and theological documents, and the development of pertinent synodical policies (particularly in the area of higher education) made him especially helpful to a young assistant professor facing off against a number of accusations and formal charges during the LCMS presidency of Al Barry. (When the initial 1998 case essentially ended because of Dr. Barry's death and the election of a new synodical president, I sent Ralph a case of Oregon wine to thank him for his help!)

I especially remember my first lunch with Ralph at the 1998 convention. Over the course of two hours we discussed several theological issues, particularly the ordination of women, the theology of the Lutheran Confessions, and the history of the LCMS, especially during the 60s and 70s. I learned a lot. It was during this lunch that he told me how much the schism in the synod had negatively affected him and his family (and obviously those who had been forced out of their positions), how he regretted some of his own actions during those years, esp. how "A Statement" was later used to discipline and dismiss most of the faculty at Concordia Seminary, and how he wished the theological disagreements at that time could have been addressed differently, less confrontationally and less politically. He seemed to me to be genuinely disturbed by what had happened. (I should add that at that same 1998 convention I had a three-hour lunch with my friend and teacher, Dr. Robert Bertram, who was one of those who had lost his position at Concordia and whose perspective on the events of those years differed significantly from Bohlmann's.)

In August of 1999 I added Ralph to Daystar, an online listserv of approximately 700 LCMS and ELCA clergy and laity (most of whom have had some connection to the LCMS), who were dissatisfied with the direction that the synod was taking under Dr. Barry. This was after Ralph had told me he had wanted to participate in our discussions. Around that same time I invited him to prepare one of the plenary addresses for our first Daystar conference in Portland, a presentation that was well received. That presentation, "LCMS 2000: Advice for an Advisory Synod," can be read here.

The views he expresses in this essay were articulated in the context of Dr. Barry's administration, about which Ralph had some significant concerns and criticisms. For example, just a few months before the Portland conference, Ralph published the following letter in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

A large ad in the Dec. 9 [1999] Post Dispatch and other major newspapers criticizing the international Lutheran-Roman Catholic agreement on the doctrine of justification appeared to speak for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
As the immediate past president of that church body, I want to assure readers that the ad does not present the official position of the church body on that agreement, nor was its content or placement authorized or approved by any official board, commission, council, agency or convention of the church body. In reality, the ad represents the personal opinion of the current president, and it was paid for by a private contribution, not church body funds.
I know of no one in our church body who would disagree with the ad's statement on the Gospel of Jesus Christ or its promise to work toward reconciliation among Christians. However, the fact is that thousands of members and congregations of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are chagrined by the ad, not only because of its misleading statements about the joint agreement as well as the position of the Roman Catholic Church, but also because the ads in the public media are not a helpful way for church bodies to deal with their differences.
To all who may have been offended by this ad, I offer this unofficial but very profound apology and assure you that the vast majority of the 2.6 million members of our church body continue to regard all fellow Christians with friendship and good will, and to rejoice whenever there is progress in resolving the doctrinal differences that have divided us over the years.
Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann
President Emeritus
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

Clearly, in light of his Portland address and the above letter, the Bohlmann of 1999 was at a different spot from where the Bohlmann of the mid-70s had stood. He also made this clear through his comments in the online Daystar discussions.

I last saw Ralph at the 2004 Synod convention. As we had done at the two previous conventions, we once again had lunch together. By that point he knew I was on my way to Valpo, and he wished me God's speed. On that occasion he again asked me when I was going to write “a serious book on the ordination of women." I told him that I needed first to finish my book on von Hofmann (which he kindly read that year and later told me he had liked), and to get into an academic position where I wouldn't face loss of employment for writing such a book! If I ever do get around to writing that book, I plan to dedicate it to Ralph.

Throughout the early to mid 2000s, he continued to participate sporadically in the online Daystar discussions, where some of the unhealed wounds from the 70s have occasionally been manifested. His participation there, too, suggests he had shifted from where he had been in 1973.

I'm grateful that I got to know the "later" Ralph Bohlmann. He became a trusted friend and an important adviser. While we didn't always agree on matters of theology--e.g., he was familiar with my written critique of "A Statement," [which one can read here] and my critique of six-day creationism--we respectfully agreed to disagree. He was always gracious in our conversations.

May he rest in the arms of God's mercy, in everlasting peace, and be welcomed into the glorious company of the saints in light.

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