Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Some Further Remarks on Dr. Ralph Bohlmann+

My friend and former colleague, Dr. Norman Metzler, with whom I served on the faculty at Concordia University, Portland, shared the following remarks with a few of his former associates after reading my earlier reflections on Dr. Ralph Bohlmann. Norm has given me permission to share his comments here.

“The Prequel to Matt Becker’s Reflections on Ralph Bohlmann”

I very much appreciate Matt Becker’s reflections on the “evolution” of Ralph Bohlmann’s positions and roles within the LCMS, particularly his gratitude to Ralph for assisting him in dealing with accusations and formal charges of false teaching in the late 90s and early 2000s.  Ralph certainly was disillusioned with the right wing politics of the LCMS that drove him out of the presidency of Synod – though those same forces enabled him to be elected following the increasingly “too flexible” stances of Jack Preus before his retirement.

What Matt doesn’t mention and didn’t experience firsthand, as I did (being a considerably older colleague of Matt’s) was Ralph’s relatively “liberal” position on inter-Lutheran matters in the late 60s. Ralph had been my Lutheran Confessions professor at St Louis seminary, and we had enjoyed a cordial relationship during that time. When I decided to do graduate studies in theology at Yale Divinity School following my graduation from the seminary in 1967, it provided an opportunity to connect with Ralph and his family, since he was doing his doctoral studies at that same time at Yale (under the famous, and for the LCMS “liberal,” Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, I might add). My wife and I provided childcare for Pat and Ralph to get away at times, and we occasionally went out to eat together.  I remember sitting over dinner with Ralph, Pat and my wife Mary, after Ralph had recently returned from a Lutheran Council in the USA meeting, asking him how the meeting went.  Ralph very approvingly spoke of the fact that fellowship between the LCMS and ALC was coming soon, and fellowship with the LCA was not far behind.  He also spoke of developments on a common Lutheran hymnal (which became the LBW). In short, it was clear at that time that Ralph was very supportive of the movement toward Lutheran unity, the goal of LCUSA. He betrayed at that time no misgivings about working toward a united Lutheranism in America.

I then left for three years to do my doctoral studies with Wolfhart Pannenberg at Munich, during the fateful period of 1968-1971.  During those years Nixon and the Preus brothers were elected to leadership in the USA and the LCMS respectively, under the banner of “law and order.” Ralph returned from Yale to the seminary, and was next door neighbor to Bob Preus, now on the seminary faculty. When I returned from my studies, the seminary certification committee was still mostly interested in what I had learned from Pannenberg.  But Ralph took me aside and informed me that major changes were afoot in the Synod, and I needed to proceed cautiously if I wanted to have a future in Synod. It was very clear to me that Ralph had made a major shift in at least his public stance regarding inter-Lutheran relations and critical scholarship. Now in his defense, it must be admitted that many thoughtful theological minds, like Pannenberg himself and Pastor Richard John Neuhaus in the LCMS, reacted to the seeming chaos of the late 60s and the Vietnamese War, and came down more conservatively on authority and order.  Perhaps this in part might explain Ralph’s shift. However, I am convinced that the major driver was Ralph’s political ambitions; he envisioned becoming president of the seminary and eventually the Synod, and in fact played his cards  just right to attain both. While we need thoughtful and educated theological leaders in the church like Ralph, I saw him carefully evading the pressing theological issues of our Synod at that time in order to position himself for those presidencies.  He penned the “A Statement of Scriptural Principles” used by Jack Preus against the seminary faculty, and was conveniently away from the seminary with the CTCR when Seminex broke, and he was able to return to serve as president in the conservative rebuilding of the seminary. He stayed on the correct side of the increasingly conservative synodical forces, and was rewarded with the synodical presidency in 1981, unseating Jack Preus – who conveniently “retired.”

When Ralph, like Jack, tried to exercise some “moderation” in his synodical administration, he was in turn driven out by the forces of the fundamentalist right wing, who installed Al Barry as their champion. After working so hard to accommodate those right wing forces over the years to achieve his ambitions, Ralph was understandably disillusioned with their  unceremoniously deposing him. He was bright enough that he should not have been surprised…. When one is trying to be “right,” one is never “right” enough, it seems. Hence his actual “return” to his more natively reasonable, moderate and open stance of the late 60s. Ralph always was too intellectually critical of a thinker and theologian to truly embrace the mindless fundamentalism that has overtaken the LCMS; he simply played them (and they him) for his politically ambitious purposes.  His support of Matt and expressions of dissent from the LCMS in his later years attest to what I knew to be the intellectually “real” Ralph Bohlmann.

Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler
Professor of Theology Emeritus
Concordia University, Portland

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