Book review: Surviving the Storms: Memoirs of David P. Scaer

David Scaer is a pastor, professor, and theologian in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Attending Concordia Seminary (St. Louis) in the late 1950s, and then made a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary (then, Springfield, Illinois; now, Fort Wayne, Indiana) in 1966, Scaer has witnessed and has taken part in the theological battles that split the Missouri Synod and that established its contemporary identity. His memoirs bear witness to those turbulent years. Based on his own memory and on documents from those times—some of which confirm his memory and others which provide details he had forgotten—Scaer tells his story and also gives witness to the movement of various powers in the structure of a Synod—divine powers, human powers, and social-historical powers.

(Lutherans are Christians who agree with Martin Luther (1483-1546) in his insistence that sinners are saved from sin and evil by God’s grace alone through faith alone, and that authority over the Church and its doctrine are exercised by God through Scripture alone. Being Bible-based and Christ-centered, Lutherans accept two Sacraments in the Church (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). For the most part, Lutherans maintain the historic worship practices of the Church. Outside of Europe, Lutherans tend to strongly support the separation of Church and State and tend to maintain their organizations in a congregational structure.)

(In North America, Lutheran congregations tended to gather in groups called synods. Some were geographically designated (Buffalo Synod, Iowa Synod, etc.) while others were named for their European origins (Norwegian Synod, Slovak Synod, etc.) Many synods have combined their resources and merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) while others—including the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod—have retained their historic designations. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was one of the few Protestant church bodies in North America that responded to modernist ideas by maintaining its traditional teachings; in most cases, the modernists gained control of the denominational power structure, and the traditionalist, Bible-believing members left to start new church bodies.)

In the 1950s, Scaer was part of a small group of students who saw that their professors at the seminary were accepting the Noe-orthodox ideas of Karl Barth and were interpreting the Bible according to the historical-critical method advocated by Rudolf Bultmann and other European thinkers. Although this was a time when most college and graduate students bowed to authority and did not challenge their professors, these students became aware of the difference between traditional Lutheran teachings and the modernist teachings of these professors. They called attention to the difference, warning both seminary leaders and denominational leaders of what they were hearing, but those leaders were not quick to respond to these warnings.

Brothers J.A.O. Preus and Robert Preus (sons of the twentieth governor of the state of Minnesota and both trained Lutheran theologians) were aware of the problem and eventually responded to it. J.A.O. Preus was president of Concordia Theological Seminary from 1962 to 1969; in 1969 he was elected President of the Missouri Synod, an office he held until 1981. Robert Preus was President of Concordia Theological Seminary from 1974 until 1989.

A great deal has been written about the theological battles in the Missouri Synod. Those battles culminated in a “walk-out” at Concordia Seminary in 1974; professors, students, and congregations that supported the “walk-out” eventually joined the ELCA when it was formed in 1988. Some commentators have claimed that the synodical split was caused more by personalities than by theology, focusing particular attention on the Preus brothers. Others have insisted that key Christian teachings were at state in the dispute. Scaer’s memoirs illustrate the latter position, confirming and amplifying the accounts that address doctrinal challenges and correcting the impressions left by other writers.

Less literature covers the continuing battles within the Missouri Synod after the split was finalized. Concordia Theological Seminary was moved to a new campus in 1976, as the synod struggled to place qualified professors at both seminaries following the 1974 walk-out. Ralph Bohlmann followed J.A.O. Preus as president of the synod in 1981 and actively campaigned to undermine Robert Preus’ position in the synod and his work at the seminary. (Seminary students in the late 1980s joked that salt shakers in the school campus had microphones that were heard in Preus’ office on campus and that the pepper shakers had microphones that were heard in Bohlmann’s synodical office.) Preus was handed his retirement from the presidency by the seminary’s board of directors in 1989; he and his supporters fought to reinstate him in that position until Preus died in 1995.

“Surviving the Storms” contains Scaer’s memoirs. The book was not written to portray the experiences or feelings of any of his peers, mentors, or proteges. At times, Scaer may come across as petty and petulant, detailing the privileges that were denied to him, including automatic pay raises that were granted to most faculty members but excluded from his contract. However, his illustrations reveal the kind of warfare that was been waged behind the doors of the synod during his years of professional service. This book is lacking much of the clever wit and humor for which Scaer is known in the classroom and in public speaking. It also contains little of his theological incisiveness (which is, on the other hand, available in his other published writings). People without a connection to the history of Lutheranism in the late twentieth century might not gain much from reading this book. Those of us who were there, though, can learn much from this additional perspective of the things happening within the Church structure at that time. J.