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Memoirs in Exile: Confessional Hope and Institutional Conflict
by John H. Tietjen
Fortress Press, 368 pages, $19.95

In the spring of 1969, near the completion of my first year as a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, John Tietjen was named the seminary’s president. Most of the students, I among them, knew almost nothing about him, but he was quickly to become a central figure in theological controversies that were raging within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod—controversies centering especially on the seminary in St. Louis. Those disputes culminated in events that took place early in 1974: Tietjen’s suspension from office, a moratorium (in support of him) by most of the faculty and student body, and, finally, creation of a seminary “in exile.” I have always been thankful that I was gone before those days arrived, but I note here for the record that—while a student—I did not find much to approve in Tietjen’s leadership, and even the bittersweet experience of reading his memoir has not changed my mind on that question.

Memoirs in Exile is not a very well-written book, and it may be rather hard going for anyone not already initiated into the story it recounts. The book moves back and forth between accounts of meetings and chronological detail to a kind of theological interpretation grounded in the Christian language of death and new life. To the interpretation I will return below. The mass of detail I will not seek to summarize or recount—though any future historian who cares to tell the story of this struggle will surely have to weigh other evidence (e.g., of the degree of unanimity among faculty and students; of the reasons why, years later, “Seminex” finally ceased to exist) when evaluating Tietjen’s account. What this memoir does make clear, however, is that the central years of John Tietjen’s professional life were absorbed by this struggle, that he genuinely felt himself called by God to play the role he did, and that this conviction cost him a great deal of ease which might otherwise have been his. It is right that he should tell his story.

What was the controversy about? In the most obvious sense, it was about the Bible—what kind of book it is and how it should be read. The issues here are legion. Missouri Synod theologians had traditionally affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible, and, although such a term can mean many things, in practice it meant certain rather specific things: harmonizing of the various biblical narratives; a somewhat ahistorical reading of the Bible in which there was little room for growth or development of theological understanding; a tendency to hold that God would not have used within the Bible literary forms such as myth, legend, or saga; an unwillingness to reckon with possible creativity on the part of the evangelists who tell the story of Jesus in the Gospels or to consider what it might mean that they write that story from a post-Easter perspective; a general reluctance to consider that the canons of historical exactitude which we take as givens might have been different for the biblical authors.

For at least a decade and a half before the appointment of Tietjen to the presidency of Concordia Seminary, some of its faculty had begun to turn away from such understandings—though without claiming that this turn meant giving up biblical inerrancy. And within the congregations of the synod concern about what was happening at the seminary had begun to grow. (In order even to begin to comprehend this story, one must understand first that Missouri Synod people care deeply about church doctrine, and second that Concordia Seminary in St. Louis—where classical theological training was offered with considerable rigor—had been revered in the affections of Missourians. At its 1962 convention, the synod had received a public apology from Martin Scharlemann, professor of New Testament at the seminary. Scharlemann apologized for troubling the church and withdrew from circulation—though, significantly, he did not retract—a paper that seemed to turn away from the synod’s traditional understanding of the Bible. It is one of the ironies of this story that, a decade later, Scharlemann became one of the five members of the faculty who refused to participate in the “exodus.” He later became acting president of the seminary after Tietjen was suspended from office.)

As expressions of concern increased, they were generally met with soothing, reassuring words: nothing was really changing. Tietjen himself writes, “I did not appreciate what I thought was less than candor in the seminary’s repeated claims that nothing had really changed in C[oncordia] S[eminary] teaching.” Yet, shortly after assuming the presidency, he initiated a research project designed to determine attitudes toward the seminary within the synod. The survey results suggested widespread support but also pockets of concern and opposition, and Tietjen concluded that “work needed to be done in order to reassure the small number of clergy who had reservations about our Lutheran commitment.” But reassurance, in addition to carrying an air of condescension, was simply more of the same old approach, an approach that caused the infection to fester until it could no longer be controlled. What was needed—and what the synod and seminary never managed—was open, honest study and inquiry. Opponents of the seminary, confident that they were in possession of the truth, did not want that. But in many ways the seminary did not either; for truly open inquiry would have made clear that old positions were not simply being given new nuance but were in fact being scrapped.

Within weeks after Tietjen became president of Concordia Seminary, J. A. O. Preus, candidate of the conservative movement, was elected president of the synod. Preus made it clear that he intended to deal with “problems” at the seminary, and, indeed, over the next five years he did just that. The structure of Tietjen’s memoir tends to make the story one of Preus vs. Tietjen. I think this is a mistake, albeit an understandable one. Each man was at least as much mastered by as master of forces at work within the synod. And perhaps the greatest flaw of Tietjen’s leadership was his inability to understand that his quarrel was not simply with Preus but with a sizable segment of the synod. The ultimate consequence of this flaw was the egregious miscalculation of the “exodus,” the walkout by students and faculty. With one stroke the faculty under Tietjen’s leadership accomplished what Preus could not have done within his lifetime: empty the seminary of its troublesome faculty. The miscalculation lay in thinking that the synod would be unable to carry on and would have to seek terms of peace: “Moratorium had to become exile to produce the kind of confrontation that would make genuine reconciling dialogue possible.” In the event, however, all it produced was permanent exile—with Seminex finally being absorbed into various seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (formed in 1988 through merger of the other large Lutheran bodies in this country), from which the Missouri Synod is more and more estranged.

When we look back at the controversy, we can see that it was not only about the Bible; it was about authority within the church. Not about the integrity of any individual’s faith in God, but about the integrity of the church’s public teaching. Within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Concordia Seminary had played a crucial role. There the clergy of the synod were taught and shaped. Questions that raised difficulties within pastoral conferences or districts of the synod would often be referred to the seminary faculty for consideration and comment. The faculty’s journal, Concordia Theological Monthly, guided and shaped theological discussion among clergy of the synod. In effect, the seminary faculty functioned as magisterium within the synod, directing the church’s public teaching. When division within that magisterial voice became evident and pronounced, where could one turn for the authoritative voice of the church in the present moment?

Tietjen’s narrative makes clear how central this concern was for Preus. Somehow, somewhere, through someone, the church had to be able to speak in the present. Who was to determine where this voice was to be found? And how could it be determined? Neither the seminary’s faculty majority nor the conservative movement in the synod ever satisfactorily answered that question. Preus waged the battle in the biennial conventions of the synod, where—having gained a majority of the voting delegates and control of floor committees—his forces could pass doctrinal resolutions designed to express the public teaching of the church.

It had always been the synod’s understanding that matters of doctrine were to be decided only by the Word of God, the Bible. Convention votes, though determined of course by simple majority, only expressed the synod’s understanding of what the Word of God said. I shall not attempt to defend the peculiarities of this notion, which may have the Word of God speaking quite differently every other year. It was, at any rate, an attempt to find a present voice for the church. But it was a very unsatisfying attempt—to have weighty theological questions determined by delegates who came together for a few days with little prior study of the issues, who were sometimes inclined to suppose that such questions admitted of “yes” or “no” answers, and who passed judgment after rather limited opportunity for discussion and debate.

I once tried to explain the system to Julian Hartt, and I allowed that it might well be one of the worst ways to deal with serious theological questions. Methodist that he was, he responded by assuring me that bishops were capable of at least as much harm. Perhaps so. But a church body that professes to take doctrine as seriously as Missouri does was—and is—done no honor by this method of “solving” theological problems. Those who lose the vote rarely feel that their voice has been heard, and they are likely to feel that they are bowing not to the Word of God but to a stronger and better organized political faction.

The position of the faculty majority was not much more satisfactory, however, and it had the added disadvantage of sounding evasive. The faculty was seeking a way to make an absolutely necessary distinction—between what the Bible records and what it teaches. They did this in two ways. First, they held that the Bible’s authority lies in the basic message—the Gospel—that it carries. It is this message that elicits saving faith from human beings, and, hence, must be controlling in the church’s life.

The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that within the Bible this message is filled with purportedly historical content. The Gospel itself may be stated simply: God loves you for Jesus’ sake. One may trust that message and find hope in it without, for example, believing that Jesus was, as the creed puts it, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Conservatives were concerned that some members of the seminary faculty were beginning to affirm a Gospel that was separated from its historical embodiment as witnessed in Bible and Creeds. Such an affirmation, though it might well elicit and sustain “saving faith” in any individual, might not be adequate for the church’s public teaching of “the faith.” This equivocal use of the language of faith never really served well to clarify the faculty’s position, and it almost inevitably seemed to some to evade the issue of authority within the church.

One of the Synod’s clergy—admittedly one who was no theological scholar—once explained to me why he sided with the faculty majority: “I don’t believe in the virgin birth; I believe in the One who was born of the Virgin.” Everything is here concentrated in the affirmation of an individual’s trust in Jesus, but the question of public teaching is avoided. This pastor was not eager to try another formulation—”I don’t believe in the resurrection; I believe in the One who was raised”—but there was no reason he should not have. We face here a very difficult theological issue—at least for a faith that has been grounded not just in metaphysical abstractions but in particular historical claims. Karl Barth nicely formulated the issue:

Why conception by the Holy Spirit and why birth of the Virgin Mary? Why this special miracle which is intended to be expressed in these two concepts, side by side with the great miracle of the Incarnation? Why does the miracle of Christmas run parallel to the mystery of the Incarnation? A noetic utterance is so to speak put alongside the ontic one. If in the Incarnation we have to do with the thing, here we have to do with the sign. The two should not be confused. The thing which is involved in Christmas is true in and for itself. But it is indicated, it is unveiled in the miracle of Christmas. But it would be wrong to conclude from that, that therefore “only” a sign is involved, which therefore might even be deducted from the mystery. Let me warn you against this. It is rare in life to be able to separate form and content . . . . All we can say is that it pleased God to let the mystery be real and become manifest in this shape and form. But again that cannot mean that over against this factual form of the miracle we are as it were free to affirm it or not to affirm it . . . . We perhaps best understand the relation of matter and form, which is presented here, by taking a look at the story, familiar to you all, of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:10): “That ye may know, that the Son of Man hath power to forgive sins . . . . Arise, take up thy bed and go thy way.” “That ye may know . . . ”; in this way the miracle of the Virgin Birth is also to be understood. What is involved is the mystery of the Incarnation as the visible form of which the miracle takes place. We should ill have understood Mark 2, if we wanted so to read the passage, that the chief miracle was the forgiveness of sins, and the bodily healing incidental. The one thing obviously belongs of necessity to the other. And so we should have to give a warning, too, against parenthesizing the miracle of the nativitas and wanting to cling to the mystery as such. One thing may be definitely said, that every time people want to fly from this miracle, a theology is at work, which has ceased to understand and honor the mystery as well . . .

But then, of course, the seminary’s opponents would use similar reasoning to suggest that the church’s public teaching must regard the Jonah story as a straightforward historical account, and soon no distinction at all would be possible between what the Bible records and what it teaches, what is central to the faith and what is not.

Given the difficulties of really working through such an issue within the synod, the seminary faculty took refuge in a second answer to the authority question: What was binding upon the synod’s pastors and theological professors was the collection of Lutheran Confessional writings from the sixteenth century (gathered in the Book of Concord). At their ordination Lutheran pastors vowed to teach in accord with these writings, and the synod’s own bylaws affirmed that the Scriptures and these writings (understood as an accurate exposition of biblical teaching) were the standard for the church’s public doctrine. This meant that resolutions of synodical conventions, while no doubt offering useful direction and guidance, could not be binding and could not be used as a standard for assessing orthodoxy.

As a technical, legal argument this had considerable merit. But as a response to the concern to locate an authoritative voice within the present-day church, it was not very helpful. Moreover, it was difficult to explain why the church could forge new confessions of faith in the sixteenth century but could not do so in the present. How to do so is not easy to say, and, as I noted above, resolutions passed by synodical conventions did not seem a very happy solution. Still, the problem was a real one, and it did not help much to take one’s stand in the sixteenth century and refuse to budge.

These are problems of enormous importance and difficulty for any church body that lacks a clearly defined magisterium, and they are no doubt accentuated by the democratic spirit of American Christianity. Perhaps it is no very damning criticism to note that they were never satisfactorily resolved by the synod. Tietjen’s own account of the governance problems experienced at Seminex makes clear that no real solution was found there, either. The heady days of activism had their effect in producing a “town meeting” system of governance for the seminary in exile. Decisions were to be made only on the basis of procedures aimed at shaping consensus. When Tietjen reverted to thinking of himself as called to administer and direct the affairs of Seminex, he came under considerable criticism for “improper usurping of community power by administrators.” It is hard not to feel sorry for him. The wonder, though, is that it appears never to have made him sympathize at all with J. A. O. Preus’ attempt to find a way to make authoritative decisions within the synod.

Tietjen does draw from his experiences a lesson about what he calls “the paradox of institution.” This is simply the old tension between spirit and structure reasserted in a characteristically Lutheran way. “Institution is essential for the church’s ministry,” and at the same time institution is inimical to the church’s ministry. “Institution requires the compromise of integrity. Everyone has to engage in compromise in order to accomplish anything meaningful . . . but institution asks us to compromise to the point of selling our soul.” “We have to make the church’s ministry our priority and use institution as means to ministry. Then, in spite of our best efforts, we have to acknowledge and confess our sins, knowing that our best efforts will not be good enough.”

I admit to considerable sympathy for such a vision of life, but we can see here why Lutherans have been such poor institution builders. In the heady days of protest the seminary faculty and students could suppose that their movement was free and spontaneous—a supposition that Tietjen, retrospectively reflecting on events, terms a “myth” about the origins of Seminex. But when the heady days are gone and structures are needed to sustain a movement, Lutherans—with their keen sense that structures may commit us to supporting what is less than ideal—are likely to have trouble distinguishing better from worse institutions, so taken will they be by the memory of a moment when the spirit seemed free of any compromising demands of structure. One wonders whether things might not have gone better for both seminary and synod had John Tietjen learned this painful lesson a little sooner.

Both Concordia Seminary and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod had cultivated a kind of family atmosphere, characteristic perhaps of relatively small church bodies with ethnic origins. When the battle broke out, therefore, it had the bitterness and humorlessness of a fierce family quarrel. Two examples will suffice. After the walkout, the reconstituted seminary administration cut off access for Seminex faculty and students to the seminary’s excellent theological library. Whatever events may have made such a move seem necessary, Tietjen notes a “bizarre development” to which it led. Alfred Fuerbringer, Tietjen’s predecessor as seminary president, had supported and joined in the exodus. The library had been built during Fuerbringer’s presidency and named after his father, who had also been the seminary’s president. Yet, even Alfred Fuerbringer was denied admittance to the library. In such action there is something mean-spirited, for which no justification can be offered. Side by side with that kind of story we should, however, place an example like the following. At a point in Tietjen’s account where he speaks of a number of people rallying to his cause, he includes this footnote:

I remember [my wife] Ernestine’s report of her conversation with the Jewish woman who worked in the tailor shop not far from home. I had dropped off a suit to be mended. When Ernestine went to pick it up, the Tietjen name made a connection with the woman. “If only I had known who your husband was,” she said, “I would have said something to him. Tell him: God will take care of him; the truth will come out.” As Ernestine looked at the woman’s wrist, she saw the tattooed numbers from one of Hitler’s death camps.

It is a little disconcerting to think of Tietjen harboring, for better than a decade, this story with its suggestion that his opponents were comparable to Nazis. Here too there is meanness of spirit.

The woman in the tailor shop might never have recognized the Tietjen name, and some of the meanness and lovelessness of the controversy might have been muted, had it not become a media event. The seminary walkout of faculty and students was a carefully orchestrated occasion for publicity in both newspapers and television. I have grave reservations about the wisdom—or the churchmanship displayed—in seeking such publicity, though this is surely a question on which the various participants will never be agreed. If the issues involved in the seminary struggle—how to read the Bible and how to locate authority within the church—continue to trouble church bodies, we do well to consider carefully whether it can be of any benefit to tackle them via the news conference. In our time and place the media will almost always be on the side of those who claim conscientious freedom; they will seldom be able to understand sympathetically a church’s need for a magisterial voice to articulate and sustain its public teaching. Almost never will helpful theological discussion be fostered in this way; almost always the church will be harmed.

In response, of course, we may note that the seminary’s opponents were not much interested in theological discussion. True enough. Nevertheless, perhaps the church may be served best by a willingness to lose—at least for the moment—theological arguments without giving up on each other. Ultimately, we need not expect that the world will be sympathetic to the needs of the church, and we may do each other a disservice when we play by its rules or make appeals designed to elicit its attention and support.

One will look in vain for any shred of humor in Memoirs in Exile, and in this lack it accurately epitomizes the struggle it recounts. Humor requires some distance, some sense of irony, some sense even that we may be mistaken. From Tietjen’s perspective, opponents of the seminary were absolutely persuaded that their cause was righteous, and I know he does not misread them. But perhaps he does not appreciate how much a Missourian he himself remains in this respect. We can see this if we turn, finally, to the interpretation of the struggle that he offers. Memoirs would be a better book if the historian’s interpretation more clearly grew out of the events recounted. It does not; rather, it seems simply to run alongside the mass of detail. But there is, at least, an interpretation offered, and it is theological: God was at work in these events, bringing death to an institution that had outlived its usefulness and working new life beyond that death.

This interpretation is grounded in biblical themes—the vision of the Hebrew prophets of a branch growing from the seemingly dead stump of the Davidic royal line, and, of course, the central Christian affirmation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Concordia Seminary died, but out of that dead stump grew the new and vibrant community that was Seminex. It, in its turn, had to die, but only in order to contribute to the new work of God in creating the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I am a little astonished at the ease with which a man who spent so many years immersed in serious theological dispute should suppose himself able to discern the hand of God at work in our world. When, after the exile became permanent, Concordia Seminary was rebuilt into a large seminary once again, the synod’s conservatives tended to see in that rebirth the hand of God. How to choose between their reading and the interpretation in Memoirs is a fine theological problem. But when each is offered in utter confidence there is little to do except choose.

Would that we could at least learn to choose in the spirit of Gregory the Great, as Dante portrays him in Canto XXVIII of the Paradiso. Beatrice explains to Dante the ordering of the hierarchies of angels in the celestial realm, a question on which there had been difference of opinion. It turns out, as she explains, that the correct view had been that put forward in a work ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite. Gregory’s view, by contrast, had been mistaken. And how did Gregory, arriving in heaven, respond to the sad news that he had been wrong?

When Dionysius with ardent zest
Pondered these orders of angelic bliss,
He named them in this way, the true and best;

But Gregory then differed over this,
And when his eyes were opened on this scene
He smiled to see how he had gone amiss.

Nothing is more serious or worthy of debate than theology. And for just that reason a little proleptic laughter is always in order.

Gilbert Meilaender served on the Editorial Board and as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics and is author of The Limits of Love.