Are some of you still wondering about the relative influence of 1517/2011 Legacy’s Steve Pauslon—who, again, confesses that Christ committed sin—in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (the LC-MS) (not to mention smaller Lutheran groups like the NALC or LCMC)?
If so, why in particular, are you hesitating?
What I presented in part 2 in particular and at the beginning of part 3…certainly compels and concerns me, convincing me we can’t let up…
How much evidence do you need of his heresy? What will be enough for you?
And how can I prove to you his influence?.
Like I noted in part 3, people do in fact change all the time. Pastor Wilken is one. Gene Veith is another. After I told Dr. Veith that the above quote from him about Paulson could be found on the LCMS website, he told me to share the following:
It was in reading your critiques of Paulson, Forde, and the “radical Lutherans” (as well as those of Pastor Cooper and others) that I became aware of their teachings on the atonement and other issues. I was not aware of those before! So, no, I don’t agree with these people anymore. Where is that quote from me on the LCMS website?!
There is so much I wish you, like Pastor Wilken! like Gene Veith! could see…
My view is that of John Warwick Montgomery’s back in the mid-1960s about the impending “Battle for the Bible” (“Seminex”):
“Only an inebriated mole would claim that the Missouri Synod is not in theological ferment.”
We in the LC-MS have some waking up to do… Of course the past, to no small degree, has shaped and will shape our future (see my writings on Werner Elert). And our challenges probably aren’t going to be getting any easier either…
…but we, by God’s Spirit, can call one another to repentance… to perpetual repentance… to strengthen what remains!
There is much work to do. In this series of course, we are talking about Steve Paulson’s teaching and influence in particular.
And really, I don’t think that his kind of theology, carrying on the legacy of Forde’s “Radical Lutheranism,” is going away without an ongoing fight – even if his “brand” were sufficiently damaged that fewer people would feel free to be so open about their appreciation and love for it.
I wish that it wasn’t necessary at this point, but let me say a bit more about why I am as concerned as I am:
Paulson is a very impressive, compelling, and likeable figure.
I myself have admitted on this blog, in the past, “I… am quite easily taken by the man… he is also a very interesting writer, to be sure, and I often find myself—against my better judgment, I think—wanting to agree with him…”
This is, in fact, the man who spoke at the LC-MS theological seminary in Fort Wayne a few years ago and received a standing ovation for a speech talking about some of the themes from his 2011 book, Lutheran Theology. As a friend put it “For a guy with such heterodox understandings, he’s really got Confessional Lutherans’ number.”
Here is something I said on my Facebook page not long ago to a man I had previously identified as firmly in the tank with the Radical Lutheranism (and who pleasantly surprised me, giving me his ear):
The influence of a man like Paulson is not in question. CPH has published his work. His books and/or articles are read in the seminaries. An Amazon review for the book containing the error says “I highly recommend this book. It also comes highly recommended by many highly respected Confessional Lutheran theologians as well, and was posted as a great introductory boom to Lutheran theology on the LCMS web site.” [This alone speaks…] to the overall prevalence of this teaching in LC-MS circles. It’s pretty systematic really. See this from Kolb: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/lutheran-theology/ ([the] citations at the end). The 2011 book mentioned above was popular for several years before I even heard about some of the horrible things it contained from other concerned pastors and laypersons: https://www.patheos.com/…/problem-steven-paulsons…/
Again, many more theologically-inclined pastors in the LC-MS know that “Radical Lutheranism,” a term coined by Paulson’s revered teacher, the late Gerhard Forde, has been a staple in the LC-MS colleges and seminaries for upwards of the last 30 years… (and see part 3 again as well)
One man, in fact, described his recent LC-MS seminary experience this way:
“’Radical Lutheranism’ to me is like a mind virus. Especially for the more academic inclined. I’d say the largest influence is probably the Systematics core courses (at least as I experienced them). The younger profs, in the rush to kill [Francis] Pieper, grabbed what was ‘hot’ at the time – Forde. Specifically the Heidelberg Disputation. And there are parts of it that are useful and can be taken in a pious orthodox way. In small doses maybe. But if you marinate in it. It you want the “radical” label. That is where is becomes dangerous. It is the radical label that moves to a lutheran strain of liberation theology. The LQB (Lutheran Quarterly Books) are easy to grab and use. I had several already on the shelf from sem. They are more serious than your typically American Evangelical fluff, but they are usable. They are aimed as parish bible studies. And they are all law/gospel as marxist dialectic. https://amazon.com/s?i=digital-te “
May it never be!
But it is.
Other pastors will tell you the same about what seminary taught them and also what vicars they have trained were taught… Forde, Forde, and more Forde (and Paulson carries Forde’s mission forward)!
As one put it: “There was a definite aversion to any 3rd use of the Law preaching. Don’t tell people how to live, trust the Gospel…” Nevermind that nothing squares with Paul’s epistles and the preaching of Luther, Gerhardt, and Walther! – if you have the nerve to care about sounding like the Apostle Paul in the latter half of his epistles, you are practically crazy and trying to “save the law”.
No. You will, must, conform to their method, and hence learn to be comfortable with seemingly reasonable-sounding false dichotomies like the following:
- God’s law is not a window through which we inspect other people’s sins, but a mirror to reveal our own.
- You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior
- Martin Luther believed that the Old and New Adam, or Eve, are clearly bound in a life and death struggle within each person…
Note in that last one how even the fact that Christians are saints and sinners at the same time is being abused, as a theology is now emerging which is applying it to human beings in general (and not just by Nadia Bolz-Webber):
And we saw Steve Paulson do this application of “the Simul” to Christ himself in part 2 — Christ not just as the one who becomes a sinner by the imputation of our sin but by committing his own actual sin.
In the LC-MS Reporter article “ELCA’s Paulson to speak at Ft. Wayne seminary,” Dr. John Pless has said of Dr. Paulson that he “is an outstanding theologian with a deep grasp on insights from Martin Luther for contemporary Christians.”
And, as David Scaer reports, in 2018 Dr. Pless also wrote an article titled “Twenty-Five Titles in Twenty-Fives Years,” that touts Paulson’s 2011 Lutheran Theology book: “Paulson’s Lutheran Theology is listed by Logia as one of the twenty-five best books in the last twenty-five years” (in Scaer, David, “Is Law Intrinsic to God’s Essence?”, p. 11).
We have some big problems here.
Or do we? Remember how I started parts 1 and 2 of this series with this statement?: “I firmly reject as extremely wrong and unhelpful the notion that any severe criticism of Steven Paulson is alarmist and divisive.”
There is a good reason for that.
In spite of men like Brent Kuhlman, Paul McCain, Jordan Cooper, Eric Phillips, Mark Surburg, David Scaer, Christopher Jackson, Peter Scaer and Todd Wilken sounding the alarm, few seem to want or be willing to make a huge stink about this issue…
So… how bad can it really be? Just one little popular pastor teaching that Christ committed His own personal, actual, original sin?
Indeed, some proponents of Forde and Paulson might try that route (“It is only a few who are mildly protesting this…”), or, even say the following: “Shouldn’t pastors be exposed to this stuff? Shouldn’t they understand what the best inerrancy-denying (or inerrancy-de-emphasizing) theologians are able to pull off in the secular academy? What better place to do all of this than a seminary?”
One pastor, for example, said this to me:
“It shouldn’t be an ‘either/or’ but rather a ‘both/and’. I remember when the new ELCA dogmatics came out way back when I was at [LC-MS] sem[inary]. We spent some time comparing and contrasting it with [Francis] Pieper and [John Theodore] Mueller. It was quite helpful to see both, side-by-side, and has proved to be an invaluable endeavor in being able to show lay-folk the differences, succinctly….”
“Of course. At the same time, there is only so much time for reading. And you know the story about the [government agents] who study the real money so they immediately know the fake money. If we are taking so much time to read the unorthodox and even heretical, there is less time to devote to the reading of very good books and to lay a firm foundation. Those book Kolb recommends in his article should not be at the top of anybody’s list. [And, also,] to the best of my knowledge, th[e] kind of comparison and contrast [that you are talking about] is not happening today. Nor are false teachers who are being read being primarily identified as false teachers. Again, see Kolb’s recommendations above. See any caveats? No. And this is the way it usually goes. Names could be named, but because those in the know know who these persons are, it is not really necessary to do so on this public forum. For now, [I want to] deal with the influence of Paulson.”
Because of all of the things that I have presented in parts 1-3 and in this post, I recently came to the realization that all my own efforts to kindly and patiently persuade Radical Lutherans were not having the needed effect.
It was a particular event that pushed me to mention on Twitter that I wouldn’t be talking to Radical Lutheran friends until they emailed Paulson.
I started being even more aggressive in my attacks on Radical Lutheranism, and on Good Friday, I posted the following on my Facebook page early in the morning:
And, very interestingly, on the face of it, I appear to have gotten what I wanted shortly after I posted that meme (at least that is when someone tipped me off).
Steve Paulson responded to one of his friends–another 1517/2011 Legacy pastor Craig Donofrio–who asked him at my prompting about his teaching that Christ committed sin.
Paulson responded (his response was in part 2 also) and Pastor Donofrio posted the following in the Lutheran Facebook group that he runs:
It is my prayer that this will put the controversy regarding the theology of Steve Paulson to rest. In keeping with the 8th commandment, I approached Dr. Paulson directly – like a grown-up and in an attempt to avoid gossiping.
I received an answer from The Rev. Dr. Steve Paulson regarding that article on Patheos which takes him out of context. If any of you are in touch with Nathan, please share this with him at will.
I asked Dr. Paulson what he meant by Christ sinning and if Jesus actually committed sin or if he was referring to the imputation of our sins to Christ’s account even as Christ exchanges and imputes His righteousness to ours.
This is his response in his own words…
“Craig, the sins are really ours and never Christ’s, until he takes the sins, and becomes sin. He is innocent, sinless. Yet became sin.
We can understand this a little, since even now others can take our sins in their bodies, but not each and every one. And then not only took them, but became them. Who can believe that?
But what people really can’t believe is that there and then the law ended. But that is what faith is, which is faith in Christ, not law. I hope that helps, especially when you are defending me out there. But it is more important to defend Scripture.
Now may we never heard disparagement of this man or any other again. If someone seems to be at odds with the Gospel, please approach that person directly and with humility that we might reason together and come to the joy of God’s grace and mercy for sinners as one.
God’s Peace be with you all!!!
The question I would have for people who were upset with me about pressing this issue the way I did during holy week and finally on Good Friday is this:
Do you think I should be satisfied? Are you? Again, like I said at the end of part 2: “eventually, you have to take men’s words — yes, in their full context — seriously…
And you will need to decide.”
I understand that Pastor Donofrio, who is LC-MS, thinks that everything is just fine (just like John Hoyum, and presumably Caleb and Scott Keith [see parts 2 and 3]).
In fact, before he even posted that response from Dr. Paulson, he warned me and those sympathizing with me about my persistent posting and vigorously defending my posts in his group:
So, what can we learn from posts like part 2,3, and now part 4? It is pretty obvious, isn’t it? The attitude seems to be:
“Be assured that I am a Förde and Paulson fan and will defend them (knowing a problem or two in them, to be sure) to any audience, anytime, anywhere. If LCMS folks see that as somehow ‘confused,’ I don’t care! I will not be an un-loving meanie like you!”
(in other words, we can learn nothing from presumably narrow-minded pastors Mark Surburg, Brent Kuhlman, Paul McCain, Jordan Cooper, Eric Phillips, David Scaer, Christopher Jackson Peter Scaer and Todd Wilken about what it means to be the body of Christ)..
After Pastor Donofrio posted this, I asked the following:
Pastor Donofrio, I interpret this to mean that you don’t think my recent posts here have been particularly helpful. I can try, I suppose, to better regulate the meat and milk I try to bring. If you would though, please let me (and others) know where you stand: if a pastor teaches that Christ committed sin, is that Lutheran? If I as a very concerned layperson insist on calling attention to this fact — and insist on telling those who appreciate and love said pastor (and want to defend him) that I won’t speak with them until they contact said pastor themselves and ask for clarification — *is that beyond the pale for this group?* Furthermore, if I continue to bring up this point from time to time and in less bombastic ways — and am nevertheless hounded about doing so — will I be allowed to defend my position (and sometimes my reputation) so long as I do not resort to name-calling?
I was then banned from the group on the basis of the rule about being a jerk.
I do want to point out that I had joined the group by the invitation of a friend and had been under the impression the group would be favorable to the kinds of matters I was bringing up.
Honestly and truly, it is not my nature to go into people’s China shops like a bull…
But what is done is done.
So, what, ultimately, should we think about all of this? In my mind, this shows what happens when the “missional” impulses of the church overwhelm the “confessing” impulses…
In truth though, there is no need for contradiction here.
If you are concerned what the world thinks—and let us admit that all of us should and must be to one degree or another, in one context or another—note that even many more clear-headed people in the world will certainly will have no respect for you if you as a Christian won’t even fight back against a fundamental doctrine like the sinlessness of Jesus Christ.
If that is your orientation, why should they ever take you seriously? And why, even more importantly, would your own people?**
Is not the sinlessness of Jesus Christ at the absolute heart of the Christian faith?
I don’t know how many times in the past I have heard 1517/2011 Legacy’s grandfatherly Rod Rosenbladt say that his approach is to begin with the most central truths of Christianity, and to work outward from those (going then to specifics about creation through eschatology, inerrancy, etc.).
Evidently then, either Daddy Rod does not know what Steve Paulson really teaches or, alternatively, has very little influence in the organization his son Ted founded!
In any case, whatever your view of the church’s public relations vis a vis proclamation (and the sadly necessary task of heresy-hunting*), of course we can’t be satisfied with the explanation Dr. Paulson has offered, which is no explanation at all (again, see part 2 if you want to dig very deeply).
I gravitate towards pastor and professor Peter Scaer’s very direct and honest approach, and it seems like I am not the only one!:
That is the kind of bold and joyful leadership that I–and I know many others–will follow!
Again, what can I do to convince you that this is no small issue?
See here again, from part 2, for a piercing theological critique of Steve Paulson’s book from Dr. Eric Phillips.
Or see here for my own personal efforts to understand and talk with Dr. Paulson.
This issue can’t go away…
The voices of great saints like Ignatius, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine Cyril, Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard, and Walther will continue.
The remnant, much to the disdain or “modernizing theology,” will indeed live.
But what kind of “confessional Lutheran” LC-MS church are my kids going to know? What kind of tradition will they receive? Legacy inherit?
Paulson and 2011 Legacy are basically doubling down on the teaching that Christ committed actual sin.
And the “clarification” we saw Paulson issued is anything but.
Let’s be honest: everyone can see that. To not see that is to not show his own words, born of his own serious convictions, the proper respect.
And so, why play games?
I’m not OK with anyone saying my Lord committed sin.
I don’t care how popular or charismatic, compelling, creative, or even compassionate—in the world’s judgement—you are. I don’t see how pastors can want to be associated with that kind of a teaching, by being unwilling to make an issue of it.
Or anyone, for that matter.
Anyone who knows and loves our good and innocent Lord who took our own punishment on Himself!
In the event that this issue seems to have gone away, ending with a whimper, you will know that church bodies like the LC-MS have hit the road of no return, and that you will need to look elsewhere to nourish those you love with the pure milk of God’s Word…
*”Heresy-hunting” – what does this mean?:
I’d say the goal of the heresy-hunter is to hunt down and kill the heresy…
This does not mean that the heresy-hunter has to look very hard or that others don’t see the job that needs to be done. It is just that others are unwilling to do it, perhaps for the reasons given in my original post and re-iterated here by me recently. It’s not really anything like a full-time job that anybody wants or should want. So the heresy-hunter then is very unlike the inspector  whose job it is to go into a building and find something wrong that no one else can see. Rather, he is willing to be persistent in fighting, through a variety of methods and means – perhaps some respected by wider society and some frowned on by society (and perhaps depending on the nature of the heresy hunted and also the amount of Christian influence in society) — what others all see but do not address.
In my view learning God’s truth more leads to a greater appreciation of the same and a desire to fight against forces that would mean to undermine the Word of God, particularly from within. This is done first and foremost by confessing the truth which gives us life but also by recognizing error and countering it.
You will have nothing to give if a foreign disease penetrates the body and kills the organism.
One may become a reluctant heresy hunter. For example, one attempts to have such conversations and really does have some such conversations for years. And one sees that conversation doesn’t help much, either because the one trying to start the conversation is resented, seen as being an annoyance, not really having the place to question them, etc, or, alternatively, because it becomes more clear how deep the rabbit hole goes, and how deeply the heresy is held….
And then, it dawns on them that the heretic has really been quite clear all the long! And all this talk about conversation, following Matthew 18, etc, while well-intentioned, is really not all that helpful. It would have been more helpful if, right from the beginning, you had enough respect for the theologian to take his words seriously. To believe of the heretic-theologian that they said the words they said and meant what they said because they have a very well-developed theological outlook, even if they are not John Calvin. There are very good reasons why they said what they said.
And what they said, again, on the face of it, was clearly heretical. And now, like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one is saying much about it, and people are letting it slide because of power, position, charisma, indifference, apathy, whatever.
And the heresy hunter is born… Why must I do this? Why must I defend my Lord in this way?
And wait… I can’t say that. I can’t make myself out to be the victim! I just must do this. I just must see this as a strange honor, as something that perhaps I should do. I now must fight. Until the scourge is removed.” (originally posted on the ALPB Forum)
** I am encouraged rather, by the comment of my friend Keith Horrigan, who said: “As a layperson, it is actually comforting for me to know that even among the academics there are conflicting opinions being worked out among you…”