Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Lutherans vs. Old Lutherans


You can learn a lot by the mentors a person admires, as well as the historical figures to which one looks for guidance and inspiration. Dr. Matthew Becker, editor of the DayStar Journal and theological voice of a neo-liberal movement in the LCMS, recently wrote a remembrance post of the anniversary of the historical mentor of his doctoral studies, Johannes von Hofmann. Although Hofmann is described as a "conservative Lutheran theologian" by Becker, which is a confusing moniker these days with varying definitions of conservative. In doing a little Wikipedia search on von Hofmann, it was interesting to find his name appear in another article entitled "Neo-Lutherans." Neo-Lutheranism was a so-called "revival movement" within nineteenth century Lutherans in reactions to both theological rationalism and pietism. At this point one might well conclude that we are talking about the forefathers of the Missouri Synod, but you would be wrong. This group actually represented a movement that was in contradistinction to the theological forerunners of Missouri. These Lutherans who held to what is called in this Wikipedia article "repristination theology" (a predecessor to "confessional Lutheranism") are described as "trying to restore historical Lutheranism." While "repristination" often carries the negative image of simply restoring something for the sake of restoring it, the Lutherans of the C.F.W. Walther group should not be accused in this way. Their interest was in returning back to the roots of the Lutheran church and recapturing its convictions, not in merely recreating an historical moment in time for purely ascetic reasons.

The "Neo-Lutherans," on the other hand, held to what is called the "Erlangen School," a movement that included von Hofmann among its ranks. This group, according to the article, wanted to combine Reformation theology with "new learning." They wanted a theology that was more "dynamic" rather than "static." Now whether this article is fair to the views of this school may be open to some debate. However, if true, it illuminates well the current differences that also exist between the two competing groups within Missouri. Becker, by an examination of his own writings, betrays a true "Neo-Lutheran" theology, wishing to remain Lutheran in spirit while incorporating aspects of the "new learning" such as the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, evolution, and the ordination of women. He would no doubt see the current confessional Lutheran movement as painfully "static," frozen in time, unwilling to truly learn and grow in a meaningful way, myopic on current struggles, and simply nostalgic for a time that can no longer be recaptured.

The "Erlangen School" of theology did not gain any significant traction in Missouri until around the time of World War II, when some theologians began to secure doctorates from Europe, especially Germany, where this theological orientation would still be quite alive. The ideas of "Neo-Lutheranism" were carried back and an valiant effort was made to have Missouri remade in its image. 1974 was the line-in-the-sand, where Missouri, awakened to the full impact of this movement's goals, finally said "no" and halted its progress. Interestingly, the ghosts of conflicts past still have a way of wandering into the bed chambers of our church, haunting us with warnings of what should have been, what could have been. Right now Dr. Becker carries the public banner of these Erlangen ghosts. How far he succeeds in getting depends again on Missouri's mood to abandon the direction she first charted in the early nineteenth century under C.F.W. Walther. So far it has not worked. This writer prays those ghosts will slip back outside once again.

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