Why The Doctrine Of Predestination Matters! Exploring The Nineteenth-Century Predestination Controversy And Its Implications Upon The Church And Pastoral Office Today

Why Bother With Predestination?
A Facebook friend once asserted to me that the historical controversies, as well as the present ongoing debates, over the doctrine of predestination are nothing more than opposing sides stirring up trouble by arguing over linguistic nuances; hence, to become engaged in the controversy over predestination is to be pulled into a futile theological war. Is this friend right? While I truly wish I could agree with my friend for the sake of simplicity, I am afraid that he is grossly mistaken on this point. To the naked eye it may seem like a meaningless debate over linguistics or doctrinal emphasis; however, as we will see in the following pages, this debate is over two very different theological positions, views that have profound implications upon the church and pastoral office today. The doctrine of predestination matters! 

The Nineteenth-Century Predestination Controversy
In exploring the doctrine of predestination from a Lutheran perspective one might assume that a logical place to begin would be the theological controversies of the sixteenth-century. It is interesting to note that the doctrine of predestination is discussed within the Lutheran Confessions (e.g., Formula of Concord XI); however, unlike so much of the articles within The Book of Concord, article XI of the Formula is not written in response to a public offense arising within the sphere of sixteenth-century Lutheranism. The introduction to article XI states,
On this article there has been no public conflict among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession. However, because it is an article of comfort when properly treated, it is also explained in this document so that no offensive dispute may arise in the future.[1]
As stated in article XI, the authors of the Formula knew that this article on predestination/election would be needed at some point in the future. That future event would be the nineteenth-century predestination controversy among American Lutherans.

While the nineteenth-century controversy over predestination had several events leading up to its full manifestation,[2] the most visible eruption of this controversy happened in 1872 between C.F.W. Walther of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Prof. Gottfried Fritschel of the Iowa Synod.[3] This great literary exchange between Walther and Fritschel fueled, launched, and garnered a controversy of considerable proportions where pamphlets, sermons, articles, and the like were circulated.[4]

Over the next several decades this conflict continued. As time continued, lines were drawn in the sand as the Iowa Synod and Ohio Synod took very strong stances against Walther and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Despite the strong stances of the Iowa Synod and Ohio Synod, the LCMS found support from both the Minnesota and Wisconsin Synod. Thus, the Iowa Synod and the Ohio Synod were on one side with Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota on the other.

There was another party that did not find residence in either side but was caught in the middle and that was the Norwegian Synod. As time went on though, the Norwegian Synod eventually withdrew its close relationship from Missouri. Even those in the Norwegian Synod, who agreed with the Missouri position, advocated for a withdrawal in the hope that it would lead toward restoration and peace.[5]

Polemically speaking things also took a turn for the worse as large generalizations were placed upon each side. Walther was accused by his opponents of being a crypto-Calvinist, whereas the Ohioans were accused of being synergistic and semi-pelagian. Both sides were obviously heightened with intensity hoping to steer their sphere of Lutheranism away from what they believed to be the extremes of Catholicism/Synergism on one side and Calvinism/Double Predestination on the other side.[6]

Within the Norwegian Synod a group of individuals called, ‘The Anti-Missourian Brotherhood,’ began functioning as a separate entity and eventually formed its own private seminary in conjunction with St. Olaf College.[7] Needless to say, the very name of this group shows the degree and intensity that this predestination debate had come to. The predestination debate would continue for the next three decades into the early 20th century resulting in church splits, withdrawals, and formations of new church bodies.

While the previous paragraphs show the fruits of the debate, the next logical question is, ‘What was the debate and tension specifically about?’  To read more, CLICK HERE.

[1] Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, ed, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 517.
[2] On page 316 of The Lutherans in North America, edited by E. Clifford Nelson (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1980), we read, “The views expressed by Walther had been set forth by him in an article as early as 1863, by John A. Huegli in 1868 at a meeting of the Northern District of the Missouri Synod…”
[3] Carl S. Meyer, “The Missouri Synod and Other Lutherans Before 1918,” in Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, edited by Carl S. Meyer (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1964), 267.
[4] Ibid, 267-268.
[5] E. Clifford Nelson, ed. The Lutherans in North America: Revised Edition, 322.
[6] Ibid, 317.
[7] Dale E. Varburg, Faith and Fellowship: A Look at Lutheran Brethren Theology 1900-2000 (Fergus Falls, MN: Faith & Fellowship Press, 2000), 36.

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