Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Arrogance of the Stephan-Haters

Lutheran minister-turned-bureaucrat Paul McCain takes offense at Concordia Theological Seminary's decision to invite a descendant of Bishop Martin Stephan, Dr. Philip G. Stephan, to speak at its annual symposia series.  You can see his nonsensical rant at this link.  His reaction is only natural. After all, there are whole generations of LC-MS men who have been taught to buy into the official history of Stephan.  One simply isn't a good Lutheran, according to a certain logic, if one does not join in utterly trashing the leader of the Saxon emigration which paved the way for what we today call the Missouri Synod.  Philip Stephan's appearance at Ft. Wayne, and the publication of his book, are not what is making the Stephan issue relevant.  It has been a relevant issue for a long time, as court historians have been perpetuating the synod position on Stephan in the seminary classroom, in print, and even on the speaker circuit, where laymen are influenced by trusted Confessional Lutheran scholars.  A fresh voice on this history is exactly what is needed, assuming that it is a real conversation that is desired, and not merely a position paper by our gracious synodical "servant-leaders."  This is not to say that I would endorse everything that Stephan has to say in his book, or in his paper, neither of which I have yet read.

Whatever real objective history might reveal about Martin Stephan's imperfections, bad decisions, and abuses of power, has its validity.  I do not claim to know empirically that Stephan was always above reproach.  What is most relevant, however, is that he was clearly mistreated, denied due process, vilified, and was the victim (and still is the victim) of vicious violations of the Eighth Commandment, all of which was unleashed, by the way, by a blatant violation of the seal of Confession.  Breaking the seal of Confession should have two results: 1. the priest gets defrocked, and 2. anyone who hears what came out of that confession should refuse to entertain it or give any credence to it.  It is in the realm of the rumor, which Luther discusses in the Large Catechism under the Eighth Commandment.  But apparently the Missouri Synod knows better.  Among us, pastors who break the seal of confession (and it does happen) need never fear any punishment, and the rumors become official history, and the case against those who have fallen out of favor in kangaroo trials. 

As I say, I am not uninterested in real, objective evidence from history.  Ernst Keyl's "Confession" hardly qualifies.  First, it is a remarkable example of a confession which keeps hinting at the sins of the one confessing the confession, but ends up spending more energy confessing the wrongs of someone else.  That calls into question the very purpose of his own "confession."  And speaking of hinting, again we have more hinting of Stephan's improprieties than real evidence of them.  Also, not unimportant is that Keyl's leanings were so Pietist that the Pietists in Germany admired his preaching, which Forster tells us was said to have the congregation "swimming in tears."  He may have truly believed the accusations against Stephan, but his perspective is flawed, and we must not discount the fact that he himself was one of Stephan's antagonists even before the emigration.  I am not unaware that Keyl went on to a respected career of pastorates in the early Missouri Synod, including historic Trinity, Milwaukee, and including the presidency of the Eastern District.  There is no need to deny the good that men like Keyl, and Walther, went on to accomplish.  It's not an either/or business.  I have no interest in vilifying anyone.  At the same time, historical theologians ought to be able to see and confess that Keyl, Walther, and others, were wrong in their treatment of Stephan and of the whole controversy.

On top of the undue value he places on Keyl's confession, I find it interesting that, to drive home his case against Stephan (both Philip and Martin, I suppose), McCain makes a point of informing his readers about the sexual orientation of Dr. Stephan's sister.  Maybe that passes for an argument in the corridors of CPH, but not in the world of rational thought. 

I look forward to reading Stephan's book, and seeing for myself what insights might be there to consider.


Rebekah said...

Thank you for the book link. I'm no historian, but this story has always troubled me.

Joe Greene said...

I, too, would like to read Stephan's book., If you get to it before I do please post a review.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

You're most welcome, Rebekah.

And Joe: I shall surely post something after reading Stephan's book. In fact, I have a number of book reviews to blog, when I find the time. They have been piling up on the back burner. I hope I can find more time for real blogging in 2011.

Father Hollywood said...

The "official story" just never added up. Cui bono?

Phil said...

Do you know where I could find Pr. Stephen Wiest's work that Stephan cites? I would like to hear what he had to say.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Dear Phil:

I have not yet seen Stephan's book. But I'm guessing that the reference which you reference is the paper Fr. Wiest gave at Fr. Fritz Eckardt's church a number of yrs ago, for Eckardt's annual Octoberfest conference, at which he has a different speaker every year. It was, over all, a splendid presentation. My documentation of it was lost in the house fire. I suggest inquiring with Dr. Eckardt.