A Portrait of a Heretic

It was originally my intention to comment in this article on the report of a speech by Dr. H. Berkhof which we quoted in the last issue of the Standard Bearer, It is better to postpone this for the time being and devote this column to a report of an interesting speech delivered by Dr. John Tietjen, the ousted president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. The Seminary belongs to the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS). Dr. Tietjen has been touring the country to make propaganda for his cause and for Seminex, the Seminary in exile which he has established along with the professors and students who support him. 

Prof. Hoeksema and I attended this speech and took a tape recording of the speech ,and most of the question hour which followed (until the recorder ran out of tape.) The impression which most strongly emerged was that Dr. Tietjen presented a picture of a typical heretic. 

Dr. Tietjen is, as so many heretics in the past have been, a gracious, urbane, witty and personable man. He is an able and gifted speaker. He held most of the audience in his hand. He laughed easily — even at himself. He took great pains never to speak a harsh word; in fact, he never mentioned his opponents. He was, beyond doubt, influential in persuading many of the rightness of his position. 

His speech proper is not really worth including in the article. As a matter of fact, he really said almost nothing in the twenty-five minutes he addressed the audience. He was very careful to include a personal confession of faith in his speech which sounded as if he were the most orthodox and conservative of Lutherans, but which was sufficiently broad and general and vague that other interpretations could be given to his words. In the speech (and in the question hour) he spoke, e.g., of believing the authority of Scripture, but never explained what he meant by this and in how far he accepted it. He professed faith in miracles, but spoke of the greatest of miracles as being the faith, love and peace experienced by those who are a part of Seminex. He claimed to believe in the historicity of Genesis 2, but said the important thing in that chapter is that you and I are Adam and Eve. There was dishonesty in his speech and in his answers to questions. He described the historical-critical method of Bible interpretation as being nothing more than inquiries into innocent questions of authorship, date of writing, purpose of writing of a particular book of the Bible. This is a falsehood, as Tietjen well knew — although perhaps 90% of his audience did not. 

Although he was careful, he repudiated the confessions. This too is typical of heretics. Historically heretics have always wanted to bypass the confessions and appeal directly to Scripture. This sounds pious, but it is wrong. Tietjen openly advocated this approach, as became evident in the question hour.

We quote the question hour below. There was only a fraction of the questions answered before time ran out; and we did not get the last part of the last question on our recorder. This was unfortunate since, in a way, the last question was the most important of those answered. Here follows our transcript.

Q. Why are you called Modern or Liberal if, as you say, we believe in the Bible in its full purity and truth? 

A. I don’t know why I am labeled Moderate or Liberal, or why some people are labeled Conservatives. I think probably that is a result of an effort of the Press who have tried to find convenient ways to tag people about whom they are writing, so they may describe one group overagainst another group. And they have decided that one group is to be called Conservatives, and the other group is to be called Moderates. Everybody has an idea that when you talk about the Missouri Synod people you have to be talking about everybody as Conservatives. For we all really are that. I consider myself to be a conservative and a confessional Lutheran. If people want to make me a label, I guess there’s not too much that I can do about it. But I am sure I am not a liberal in the sense that I am against any of the teachings of the Church. 

Q. Dr. Tietjen said, “I believe that Concordia Seminary is in trouble because the faculty has taken the Scriptures in utter seriousness and tend to let them speak for themselves in full force.” Would you please explain this statement. 

A. Yes, I think that when I was a student at Concordia Seminary, primarily emphasis of the Seminary was on dogmatic subjects. That is, on the great doctrines as they have been formulated by our systematicians, especially as they were formulated by Dr. Franz Pieper. It’s not that we didn’t study the Bible; we did. But the primary emphasis was on looking at the system of doctrine as it comes to us from the past. And those who did teach us to study the Scriptures had a particular way of going about it. That is, they were the exegetes, as we call them (people who dig out the meaning of the Scriptures). . . . They did the work, and they presented the work to us. And we listened to them, and we absorbed what it was that they had to say. When I got back to Concordia Seminary in 1969, I discovered that things were different. The emphasis was really not on Dogmatics; the emphasis was on the study of the Bible. Those were the major concentration of courses at the Seminary. And even the teaching of the study of the Bible was different from what it was in my time. The basic emphasis of the professors was to help the student become his own exegete so that he would be able to figure out the meaning of the text on his own. And what we have done is to take with utter seriousness that Bible which is out there before us. And we have attempted to find out what it is that God has given to us in His Word. We do that in a variety of different ways. We are concerned to know (and here is where that bug-a-boo phrase that gets everybody worried comes in) the historical-critical method. We are concerned to know about the history that is behind the writing of these books. How did they come to be? It’s important to know when the particular writing was in use so that you may know the purpose; because writings are always written for a purpose, including the writings of the Holy Scriptures. We were concerned to know the particular nature of the material that we were studying so that we might understand its meaning. It makes a difference if a particular portion of the Scripture is history, or if it’s a story, or if it’s poetry, or if it’s prophecy, or if it’s law, or if it’s apocalyptic literature. That’s the whole business of criticism. You have to make a judgment or an evaluation of the nature of the material. And we were concerned by its discovery to help our young men do that work by themselves. And in the process of merely studying the Scriptures on its own terms apart from some kind of traditional understanding, that is, some sort of expectation of what you were going to find when you read a particular section of Scripture; we came to all sorts of new understanding and new insights into the message of the Scriptures. But then, in addition, we went at the Scriptures the way a Lutheran always does: we searched the Scriptures in order to see the message of the gospel that is being proclaimed there. And for that reason we have been called gospel reductionists in the Church, —whatever that ghastly phrase may mean. And so —, but what we have attempted to do is to lay out actual material of the Bible. You know, I had Old Testament courses. But I couldn’t preach on the Old Testament. I preached on the Epistles and the Gospels. Since I have come back to Concordia Seminary, I have learned a great many things from the professors and the students who are there. I now am able to preach on all the Old Testament with great ease and freedom, as a result of their helping me to become a better student of the Bible. And I think that’s probably true for a lot of people in the Ministry.

Here appears a question which was answered by another man, a missionary who had also addressed the meeting. We omit it because it wasn’t really relevant.

Q. If the LCMS is so bad, why don’t you just kindly get out? 

A. Oh yes, I thought about that. That is one of the options that are open to anyone in the midst of a problem, and I realize that it is an option open to me. And I don’t mind telling you that there are a large number of people who have suggested that to me. However, the Lutheran Churches and the Missouri Synod is my Church. I have been brought up in this Church body. It is the Church body that has nurtured my faith and through which I have found my Lord, and in which I have had opportunity to be of service to God in a variety of different ways. Why should I leave my Church just because it made some mistakes? I think that what I should do is to help my Church correct its mistakes. Our Church body is in trouble; that is, it’s in trouble especially at the national, synodical level. I don’t think it is in trouble in the grass roots. I find, as I go around, that there is a great deal that is warm and wonderful and marvelous about the LCMS, and in the people that serve this Church, and in the pastors that are attempting to minister to them. That’s why I am expending my time and energy in talking to pastors and people in the Missouri Synod. Because I think that as we talk with one another and understand what the facts and problems are in our Church, the rank and file of the people in the Church will know how to solve the problems. And I think we’re going to be a better Church as a result. I want to stay here and be a part of it. 

Q. With such deep doctrinal differences between Moderates and Conservatives, is there any hope for the Synod? or is schism the only way? Must we wait for the next Conference for a change? 

A. Yes, there is hope. No, we don’t have to wait for the next Convention for a change. It is a false hope to assume that the solutions lie in Church Conventions, in structure, in organization. This is one of the things that I am trying to say, in what I said. (The reference is to his speech in which Tietjen rejected the authority of church assemblies, H.H.) There is hope, precisely because there is a God, and there is His good news which is the power that makes us one. As we speak His good Word to one another, we can overcome the differences. As I talk to the people of the Church, I find two things about people in the Church. Number one: they are concerned that the Missouri Synod should continue to be a Church that stands for something. They want it to stand on the Bible and on the Lutheran Confessions. They want to stand for the doctrine of the Church. They don’t want a watered-down teaching. And I agree with them on that. The second thing I find as I speak to the people of the Church is that they want an end to the hostility and to the recriminations and to the conflicts. They can’t understand why good people in the Church can’t live together in peace. They recognize very clearly that there have to be some things on which we aren’t all agreed. There is a kind of variety that we have to put up with one another. But we can agree on everything that is essential, on everything that is part of God’s message to us. And we will agree on that, as, whoever we are, whatever our difference is, we get together in honesty, in openness, to talk with one another. The trouble that I see in the Church right now, and that’s the big barrier to reconciliation, is that people aren’t listening. Some people. They’re not hearing what is being said. You know what’s going to happen at the end of this meeting? There are going to be some people who are going to come up to me and are going to say, “Why don’t you believe in the Bible as the inspired Word of God?” They haven’t heard what I said. That’s the trouble. We need to open up our ears and our hearts to one another and really listen. And if we listen and talk and make the Bible the basis for our speaking and praising the Holy Spirit, there is no reason why we can’t overcome the conflicts that we have in the Church. 

Q. If everything that has been done has been purely based on and approved by the LCMS, then why do you have to be acting and teaching in exile? And do you believe that the whole Scripture is inspired? 

A. If everything that you are teaching, . . . what is that? . . . is in accord with what the Missouri Synod has taught, has been based on and approved by the LCMS? And it is based on and approved by the LCMS? You see that’s the problem. The assumption is that there is some kind of an ecclesiastical authority that tells you what to teach, and it does that through its conventions. And I am an employee of the Synod. That’s what I’ve been told. I hate to tell you how many times that phrase has been made plain to me. I get my pay from the Synod. I am an employee of the Synod, and the Synod tells me what to teach. Well, good people, that’s not what it is. We’re called to teach what God tells us to teach. And we find out what He tells us to teach in His Word and we need to be faithful to that Word. There are indeed, differences of opinion among us, about what it is that we find in God’s Word. And we can go into a half dozen of them at this particular meeting. And there are some in our Church who are wanting it to be so, that Church Conventions are the instruments by which to tell us what we are to find in God’s Word. And that’s why we are setting forth that that is the principle against which Martin Luther had to contend at the time of the Reformation. It’s the principle of elevating the tradition above the Scriptures1 It’s the principle of what’s making the Church as an institution above life. And that can be the reason for the problem that we have and why there is a Seminary in exile. 

Q. (The recording was not clear here, but the gist of the question was clear, H.H.) If the gifts which God has raised up among us are not being used to God’s glory must we still use them? And if

Genesis 1 and 2

are not historical writing, how can I believe in Jesus as my Saviour? Seminex students are being taught this.

A. The first part of that question was about the gift of the Spirit not being used to God’s glory. The question is: Is it really so that they are not being used to God’s glory? Is an act of faith and commitment, a confession, a moral stand, something counter to God’s glory, or does it give Him the glory? Now we can be disagreed among us as to the actions of faculty and students. You are entitled to your own opinion about this. But I would hope that you would not sit in judgment on their motive in doing what they did and assume that they had therefore in some way acted contrary to God’s glory. As far as

Genesis 1 and 2

is concerned, as whether it is historical or unhistorical, that’s really a loaded term. It is indeed about what happened.

Genesis 1 and 2 and 3

and following are descriptions of what happened. What really happened. There are many of us in the Church assuming that in telling what happened, history writing is being used. There are many others in the Church who are saying that in telling what happened there is a form of. . . .

Here, unfortunately, the tape ended. The gist of what Dr . Tietjen said, however, was that the important point was what kind of history was given to us (the assumption being that there are different kinds of history), but that we are Adam and Eve. We are sinful. That is the significance of these chapters. In this way Tietjen really committed himself to a view which does not accept the narratives of Genesis as giving us history which is part of the revelation of God. It only teaches us lessons. By this strange double talk, many have left the impression that they accept the narratives of Genesis 1-3 as sober and factual history, but they, at the same time, repudiate it and claim that there are only lessons which are taught to us. 

It is a mystery to me how it is possible that the leaders of the Church (LCMS) can continue to allow men like Tietjen to remain in the Church and spread their heresies and lead many astray. As long as they do this, there is little hope for the LCMS.