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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pericope of the Week: H. v. Campenhausen on Church Order

As readers of my blog know, I'm currently editing and co-translating the theological writings of Edmund Schlink, who taught historical and systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg in the middle decades of the last century. One of Schlink's closest friends was his colleague, Hans von Campenhausen (1903-89), who taught church history there. Indeed, both of these men helped to rebuild that university, the oldest one in Germany, in the wake of Nazism and the Second World War.

Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen
In order to gain insight into Schlink's intellectual context, I've been reading works by v. Campenhausen. Earlier today his essay on the problem of order in early Christianity and the ancient church served as part of my daily devotion. I here share a few paragraphs that will serve as this week's pericope:

"The concept of order, taxis, is extremely rare in the initial period of the church. It occurs and is stressed on only one occasion in the entire New Testament [1 Cor. 14.39-40].... Thus a decorous, orderly mode of divine worship and of conduct generally is presented as the obvious form in which the spiritual life within a community should develop, always provided that liberty in the stirring of their faith and action be not suppressed, the Spirit not 'quenched' (1 Thess. 5.19).... Peace with God and the peace that comes from God--this is what designates the true essence and power of the new thing that determines from within the church in the process of its building up and in the joint action of all its members; it is the power of love and the working of the Holy Spirit who is given by Christ and has taken possession of Christians in their wills and their being. This unique and determining element must be, above all, the main issue in the church and in preaching to those outside. All the rest becomes manifest of itself, when viewed, and only when viewed, from this standpoint.

"This indicates the point from which our problem must be viewed once and for all, from which alone it can rightly be grasped and discussed. The church does not originate through order nor live by right order, but solely in the Spirit of Christ. If, however, it lives spiritually, then it is in order and attains to order, then, through the Spirit of peace, it also sets right order in its midst, without becoming a slave to this order....

"From this standpoint we can see that it is no accident that, not only in Paul, but, as we have said, in the whole of early Christianity, so little is said about order as such or even about order for its own sake--in fact, apart from a single letter of Clement of Rome, we may confidently assert that no mention is made of it at all. There were more important, more imperative subjects of preaching, and it was realized that the preaching of Christ was the actual determinate factor. Accordingly, questions of church order only gradually, as the occasion required, and in a quite secondary manner, claimed any considerable attention.

"The main thing is that the church lives by the word, the Spirit and the peace of God, and from thence--as Paul claims--it derives and determines its order. Further, either of itself or with the help also of conscious, calm and objective reflection, it continues in order or arrives at it. The constant danger of a Catholic, or near-Catholic approach to the question of order is that of making this an absolute over against the spiritual source of life and even against the ordered life of the church, of viewing 'right' order itself as an essential thing to hold on to, and of making it, independently, part of doctrine. This produces the opposed danger of a distorted Protestantism, which thinks to serve the Spirit by minimizing order, seeing it as a matter of indifference, or even destroying it. The consequence of such a negative approach is, ultimately, a like state of dependence on a human conception of order, to which far too much weight is attached, and which is fatal to the church. There is only one power from which the church draws its vitality, namely the preaching of the word and of the truth, which brings forth faith and, through faith, the will to right action; and this in turn comprises right order. Order, like good works, always comes in the second place, and can be rightly achieved only when what is first, the unique thing (and in this sense also isolated) is asserted and willed above all else. This is the fundamental principle of the gospel, which must work itself out in life as well as in doctrine, and ensures that order is neither idolized nor rejected...."

----Hans von Campenhausen, "The Problem of Order in Early Christianity and the Ancient Church," in Tradition and the Life of the Church: Essays and Lectures on Church History, trans. A. V. Littledale (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 123-26 [trans. slightly modified].