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.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

The last day of this month marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic act, posting 95 theses for debate on the campus of the University of Wittenberg in Saxony. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Reformation (aka the Lutheran Reformation or the Protestant Reformation). One of the most interesting facts about this event is that Martin Luther, when he wrote his 95 theses, was not yet “Lutheran.”

Luther’s theses were written in response to an Indulgence being sold in the area (although not in Wittenberg itself). Indulgences were receipts for money given to the Church as an act of Penance. Penance was an idea rooted in early Christianity, from the days when the Roman government was persecuting Christians. During a time of persecution, some Christians would drop out of the Church and act like their pagan neighbors. Faithful Christians risked imprisonment, torture, and even death for denying the many pagan gods and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. When the time of persecution ended, some of the drop-out Christians would return to the Church expecting forgiveness for their sin of denying Christ. When reminded that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father,” these sinners would remind Church leaders that the Church is about the forgiveness of sins, and that even Peter had denied Christ but had been restored to the Church. As a compromise, Church leaders agreed that the drop-outs could return, but only after they had shown that they were truly sorry for their sin. Their acts of sorrow—almost an initiation back into the Church—were called Penance.

The new teaching of Penance raised a question about what happened to Christians who died before they completed their Penance—were they saved or lost? Church leaders acknowledged that they were forgiven for their sins, but they taught that Penance could be completed after death in a place they called Purgatory. (The Italian poet Dante located Purgatory on a mountain in the south Pacific, directly across the Earth from Italy.) When persecution was no longer a problem for Christians, the ideas of Penance and Purgatory were extended to all sins. A Christian confessed his or her sins, was absolved (promised forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice), and then was assigned Penance to complete the process of forgiveness. During the Crusades, fighters who went to battle the Muslim Turks were promised a Plenary Indulgence, meaning they would not have to spend any time in Purgatory. People unable to go to war were promised a similar Indulgence for contributing money to the preparation of a warrior. Following this procedure, Indulgences became a way for the Church to raise money for various projects. The Indulgence which Luther protested was granted by Pope Leo X to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk; he was also a Doctor of Theology who taught in the University of Wittenberg. He was disturbed by the claims of John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who was selling the Indulgences and exaggerating their importance. Tetzel claimed that the Indulgences he sold could free deceased relatives from Purgatory and that they provided forgiveness for the most vile of sins. At this time, universities had not yet established football and basketball teams, but they competed in debate. Luther hoped to prompt a debate regarding Indulgences and about the general ideas of Penance and forgiveness. He could not have anticipated the enormous results that his 95 theses would produce.

As I wrote above, Martin Luther was not yet “Lutheran” when he wrote his 95 theses. He still accepted without doubt the existence of Purgatory. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope as head of the Christian Church on Earth. Most significantly, Luther still approved of the teaching that penalties must be paid by sinners to complete the process of forgiveness. In the 95 theses, Luther distinguished between penalties assigned by Church leaders, which they could then revoke, and penalties assigned by God, which Church leaders could not revoke. Only later would Luther understand that all penalties for sin were paid by Jesus Christ on the cross and that no penalties remain for those who trust Christ’s promise of forgiveness.

Among the 95 theses, Luther wrote, “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences… Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.” He went on to suggest that, should the Pope wish to remove souls from Purgatory, he should do so out of love and not for the sake of money.

Luther did not intend to create a division in the Church; he wanted instead to unite Christians around the true teachings of the Bible. By 1519, Luther’s writing showed a full understanding of the completeness of God’s forgiveness, made available through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He was unafraid to challenge any Church authority that placed doubt on God’s forgiveness. In his secular trial in 1521, Luther demanded to be shown from the Bible where he had erred. He would not consent to be instructed by popes and church councils, as he declared that they had contradicted one another and were sometimes mistaken. Luther had a prolific career of writing, teaching, and preaching. He also made mistakes, and no one considers his writings inspired as the apostles and prophets were inspired. Yet Luther’s affirmations of the Bible’s doctrines about forgiveness, spoken in opposition to Church traditions and teachings, started a Reformation movement in the Church that is still profoundly important five hundred years later.

When Lutherans list the important writings about the Bible that define their understanding of Christian doctrine, they do not include Luther’s 95 theses. For that matter, when Luther commented about which of his writings he considered worth saving for future generations to study, he did not include the 95 theses. Instead, Martin Luther and Lutheran leaders after him selected the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, both published in 1529, to be Luther’s most important work. The Small Catechism was written to teach children the key doctrines of the Church. The Large Catechism covers the same doctrines, but does so at a level for adults to read and contemplate.

In the coming weeks, as time permits, I plan to share and comment upon selections from Luther’s Small Catechism. Those words, rather than the 95 theses, are the best way to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. J.