Thursday, February 10, 2011

Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity by James C. Burkee

Fortress Press sent me a review copy of Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod by James Burkee. The book is very well researched with lots and lots of footnotes. It documents the rise and cooperation of the various conservative parties within the LCMS and how they turned on one another when the liberals were pushed out after the Seminex controversy. The book is full of quotations--the author usually just lets the people speak for themselves. Both the conservatives and liberals are shown to be guilty of duplicity and both sides remain unrepentant for their actions. Both sides used political means to achieve their goals. After the conservatives ousted the liberals through political means they engaged in duplicity with one another and used politics against each other.

The book focuses primarily upon J.A.O. Preus and Hermann Otten. Burkee regards Otten as the single most influential individual in the crisis. Preus would use Otten to do his dirty work. Preus would publicly condemn Otten and privately apologize later. Otten would publish anonymous letters in Christian News but condemn liberal groups for doing the same in their own publications. Otten would condemn liberals who fellowshiped with non-LCMS Lutherans but he would fellowship with non-Lutheran conservative Christians. Otten's means for gathering information was questionable at best.

Burkee successfully compares Preus to Richard Nixon and ties the rise of theological conservatism in the LCMS to the rise of political conservatism in the nation as a whole. Burkee shows that both conservatives and liberals confused political and theological issues. Unfortunately seems to as well. Burkee lumps abortion in with political issues but abortion is not just a political issue--it is deeply theological. Burkee also accuses the conservatives of being racist. I really wish this topic was explored more. It does seem that Otten may have been racist but Burkee doesn't explain what he means very clearly.

Some have made the claim that the laity were responsible for the rise of conservatism in the LCMS but Burkee convincingly argues that this was really a debate among the clergy and that the laity simply weren't that involved.

I wish that the theological issues had been given a little more space. Burkee does provide a very brief explanation of what the conservatives and liberals were debating. The liberals were denying a literal Adam and Eve, teaching some form of theistic evolution, and denying the inerrancy of the Scriptures. The liberals thought that unity could exist among those who believed different things about the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper and advocated open communion. These are all significant issues. I do not see how these differences could have been resolved through conversation or debate. A split in the synod seemed inevitable. The conservatives saw political action as an evil but as a necessary one to oust the professors. I can understand that, but it seems as though it became far more political and far more underhanded than necessary and the whole process snowballed into a lot of unChristian behavior.

John Warwick Montgomery appears to be the only exception in the book. He was honest and forthright. He knew what his position was and was willing to engage in honest debate. He did not distance himself from Otten in public and then apologize behind closed doors. He spoke of Otten's "kookishness" in public and to his face. He was critical of the confusion of theological conservatism with political conservatism and critical of Otten's racism. Perhaps John Warwick Montgomery will author a book on the Seminex controversy. He appears to be the only one in the whole mess with real integrity.

The book does a good job of showing the evil and unrepentance among both liberals and conservatives but doesn't offer much guidance for the future. I'm not really certain what the lesson to be learned is. Don't trust synodicrats? Don't be too happy? Don't send Herman Otten any correspondence that you don't want published?

The book paints a picture of conservatives who believe that the church should only be involved in preaching the Gospel and not be involved in acts of mercy. Perhaps we have learned a lesson from this. Our current synodical president is certainly not opposed to acts of mercy and does not seem to harbor the racism that Burkee associates with the conservatives in the seminex controversy. As far as I can tell he hasn't been going around the country giving contradictory messages to different groups. Kyrie, eleison!


Esteban Vázquez said...

Thanks your review, Charles, and indeed for alerting me to the book, which I shall pick up as soon as possible.

Today I ran across this. Have you seen it, and if so, what are your thoughts?

Chuck Wiese said...

I read the review by Hinlicky prior to reading the book. The review seems to have more to do with Hinlicky's own bitterness than the book. I thought the book did a very good job of staying reasonably objective throughout.

I don't find fundamentalism very satisfying but neither do I find Hinlicky's modernism and elitist mockery of anyone who would dare question the historical critical method. He seems to suffer from the same inability to engage in real debate as those he complains about. Hinlicky is correct that Burkee's book doesn't show that the conservatives had much theology other than being anti-social Gospel but Burkee's book doesn't show that the liberals had much theology beyond being opposed to inerrancy. The fact is that Burkee's book is rather shallow when it comes to the theology, that's not what Burkee's book is about.

For some reason I am supposed to believe that Schroeder was right on all major issues because Hinlicky says so and then in the very same breath accuse the conservatives of gnosticsm. Some of the Seminex folks were denying the bodily resurrection which seems far more gnostic than refusing to adopt the social Gospel. The ordination of women is "a matter of Christian freedom and missiological judgment"? What about the testimony and consensus of the church catholic? I fail to see how a person draws the kinds of lines that Hinlicky wants to in order to avoid the kind of liberalism that Hinlicky doesn't like and I don't see how you remain a Lutheran at the end of the day. Books written by the "conservatives" in the ELCA end up sounding more like they were written by Methodists than Lutherans. Sure, there are a few "Lutherans" like Forde but they are few and far between.

I have no way of knowing what preaching was like in the typical LCMS congregation at the time of the seminex controversy. What I do know is that if I visit a confessional and liturgical Lutheran church today, I am likely to hear the Gospel presented in a confessionally Lutheran kind of way. If I visit a more liberal LCMS church I generally hear the pop psychology and steps to good living that is popular among the evangelical crowd. The same is the case with the publications that these guys put out.

Esteban Vázquez said...

I am much obliged, my friend -- I knew I could count on you to cut to the chase. :-)

And I'm sorry to say that a majority of LCMS churches in this area sadly fit better into the second, rather than the first, scenario your describe. I know, because my family are their hapless victims.