"But What Shall We Read?"

David P. Scaer
Tuesday, August 7th 2007
Sep/Oct 1997

A favorite cartoon of mine pictures Moses having come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. The people in the background respond, “But what shall we do?” For us the question is, “But what shall we read?” Avoiding the moral and doctrinal negatives is only half of the equation. Providing positive directives is the other side of the coin. At its inception, Christianity Today provided both the “do’s” and the “don’t’s” for Protestant Christianity which was facing a deceptively attractive neo-orthodox theology. Theologians Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and John Baillie were all the rage. Also part of the theological invasion of America was the demythologizing exegetical method of Rudolph Bultmann. What I should have been learning about these intrusions from my seminary’s professors, I was learning from Christianity Today. The magazine was the step-professor for many budding theologians. Christianity Today, under the editorship of Carl F. H. Henry and then Kenneth Kantzer, gained a large audience among Lutherans. Perhaps our own theologians were ill-equipped to analyze the newer theologies or maybe they wanted to take advantage of the confusion to masquerade these newer views in the dress of traditional orthodoxies. In the midst of chaos, Christianity Today provided guidance. Today, however, an entirely new set of theological and hermeneutical options monopolize the horizon and the problems at mid-century are no more than points in theological history. But I am not sure that any periodical, including Christianity Today, is addressing them the way it once did.

A survey taken in the 1960s among the clergy of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod found that next to the official The Lutheran Witness, Christianity Today was the most widely read periodical. Christianity Today was a factor in breaking the theological isolationism of the Missouri Synod. Theological no less than biological isolation makes the inhabitants more susceptible to infection from the outside. So with the barriers with Europe removed at the conclusion of the Second World War, the Synod found itself unprepared to address theological currents which soon turned into torrents. This flood from the outside led to the resignation of nearly the entire faculty of its Saint Louis seminary in 1974, which was soon followed by the formation of a new church. This was a watershed event, even if the only reason was that the Missouri Synod was the first major denomination to resist being drowned in the swells of mainline Protestantism. Small church bodies held to biblical inerrancy and inspiration, but the really large denominations had succumbed years before.

Future historians may offer another assessment, but Christianity Today was a significant factor for Missouri Synod traditionalists in keeping their balance in redefining their positions over against the new theologies. Editor Carl Henry and Missouri Synod theologian Robert D. Preus became allies in maintaining historic positions on biblical inspiration and inerrancy. In another century, a Baptist-Lutheran alliance would have been strange if possible, but it was now a battle for the Bible. Preus became a household name among conservative Protestants. Even in Europe, his name, which of course was the same as that of his brother, who became Synod president, meant theological solipsism. Christianity Today’s popularity among Missouri Synod pastors was directly connected with what was seen as the “liberal” threat to Lutheranism’s sola Scriptura principle. Those from whom Lutherans theologically and historically have distanced themselves were providing weapons for theological combat. Like Israel’s alliances with foreign nations, though, these alliances did not come without a price. Such Neo-evangelical practices as decisions for Christ, the requirement of “personal faith,” testimonies, and de-emphasis on the Sacraments are more and more commonplace in Missouri Synod congregations. Use of creative liturgies makes some Lutheran congregations indistinguishable from certain forms of left-wing Protestantism. Lutheranism began to resemble a kind of Christianity now often found on the pages of Christianity Today. Ironically, this periodical had nothing to do with these changes. It no longer had a hold on the theological thinking of its pastors.

Before his death, Robert Preus acknowledged that the theological conflict had switched battlefields. Biblical inspiration and inerrancy, whose classical foundations in the seventeenth century he unearthed and so began the Copernican revolution in the Missouri Synod, were no longer the issues. Now at the center of the debate were doctrines of Christ, the Sacraments, and the Ministry, an extremely pungent issue for him, since he had been deprived of the seminary presidency, lost his professorship, and was removed from the Synod. Whatever else his removal from the presidency of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1989 meant, it signaled to him and others, that other theological currents were flooding the Missouri Synod. This time the waters came from an incipient, but persistent Evangelicalism. Except for occasional brief notices, Christianity Today took no note of the turmoil. If the replacement of synod president Oliver Harms by J.A.O. Preus in 1969, and the walkout of the Saint Louis faculty in 1974, were headline material, more recent but equally pungent events received scant attention. Christianity Today stayed on the sidelines, even though Preus had a place on the periodical’s masthead as a contributing editor.

Today, most Christianity Today issues feature personal faith-type articles. Example: its April 7, 1997 issue with articles on underpaid pastors, the private feelings of pastors’ wives, and guilt feelings of mothers who have had abortions. Lutherans do not use phrases such as “personal faith” and do not like this one in particular-or at least they shouldn’t. Embarrassingly, the Synod’s Lutheran Witness offers the same kind of articles. Twenty years ago Christianity Today dared to print opposing articles on Infant Baptism, but even then airing eucharistic differences was taboo. Considering that Lutherans are statistically the largest Protestant segment and that in certain parts of the United States Lutheranism predominates, Lutheran positions and issues should find a more prominent place in periodicals which appeal to a general Protestant audience. For example, why not a thorough examination of the Lutheran alliances with Anglicans in Europe and their Episcopalian counterparts and the Reformed in America? Not since 1830, when Lutheran worship forms were banned in Prussia, has our church come so close to becoming a vanishing minority. In other words, at the beginning of the third millennium, Lutheranism may voluntarily slip away into the history books. Lutheranism will have become “Reformed,” a fact which may delight evangelicals, but would be a disaster of the largest proportions for confessionally minded Lutherans! In our search for common points of agreement, we cannot surrender or compromise the heart of our faith and engage in the doctrinal counterpart of Bultmann’s demythologizing scheme. Call it de-doctrinalization. Conservative Christians in their search for common ground more often than not create a theological homogenization which emits a fog in which the central doctrines of the faith are blurred. Today the issue is no longer only biblical inspiration and inerrancy, but the doctrines of God, Christ, and the Sacraments.

But what shall we read? Nothing has filled the void which Christianity Today has left. The Synod’s own scholarly journals often do not address promptly the pressing theological issues. In addition, their articles may not be direct enough in their approach. Logia is chiefly for conservative Lutherans pastors. The Lutheran Forum with its companion, the chatty Forum Letter, intends to be pan-Lutheran and is obsessed with hanging out the wash of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which it hopelessly believes can be rescued from the Protestant mainstream. Pro-Ecclesia presents a classical Christianity but as a scholarly journal it has a limited audience. Richard John Neuhaus’s First Things presents a core Christianity around which Neo-evangelicals and Roman Catholics have already gathered. It takes conservative stances on social issues and forthrightly points out differences among Christians. Wonderfully, a debate on whether Roman Catholicism is a sectarian form of catholicism was fought on the editorial pages. It targets the financially, academically, and theologically upper crust,if there is such a thing. This and other periodicals do not serve the purpose which Christianity Today adopted at its founding in providing a common theological ground. It is not too late to retake the theological field and even to go further in addressing issues still dividing Bible-believing Christians. Only in squarely confronting differences among those committed to Christianity’s biblical and historical dimensions can the faith be preserved and strengthened.

Tuesday, August 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology