Inerrancy: Forde and the Luther College Walkout (1961)

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Upheaval or Walkout

In 1961 all but one member of the religion faculty in the “Department of Bible” plus the campus pastor resigned “following an upheaval in the religion department.”[1] They had issued an ultimatum: Either Jenson goes or we go. In the end, they walked out.

Incident or Earthquake

What kind of “upheaval” was this? Was it a quirky incident or a defining moment? To be sure, personalities were a factor (colorful professors). And there were faculty follies and the usual Scandinavian reticence about tensions.[2]

Nevertheless, this upheaval was not a tempest in a teapot. Rather, it “reflected a broader unease in the church at large concerning theology.”[3] It was an earthquake, a revolution in theology. Major issues were at stake: evolution, third use of the law, inerrancy and the proper use of scripture.

Inerrancy or Law/Gospel 

For Gerhard Forde, who taught at Luther College for two years following the “upheaval,” it was a question of method: What is the Word of God and what makes it authoritative?

In a symposium at Luther College in the Fall of 1962 and then in print, Forde described the errors in inerrancy and the verbal inspiration method:

I am in effect saying to God that unless he provides me with the kind of guarantee which I expect and want, I cannot believe. Then I am in a very dangerous position because I am dictating to God the conditions under which I will believe. It is dangerous because it might just be that God has not in fact provided us with that kind of guarantee.

In the final analysis the verbal inspiration method is based on a theory—a human theory about the nature of the Word of God. Now the test for the validity of any theory is how well it explains the facts, and one can only say that this theory does not explain the facts very well. It is based on human logic and once its logic is broken the entire position collapses all at once.[4]

The walkout was an earthquake because the rediscovery of Luther’s original methodology meant overthrowing an erroneous methodology:

These two methods are quite different and there has existed, I believe, an unresolved tension between them. It is the main contention of this essay that Lutheran theology does not need the verbal inspiration method because it always has had, at its best, a method quite its own which is better and more in accord with the scriptures themselves. Furthermore, I believe that what we are witnessing in the church today is a recovery of this original methodology.[5]

Moreover, there is no big tent that can embrace both methods. One must choose, as Forde writes:

Finally, what is at stake in this conflict over method? Must we make a choice between them today? If so, why? I think we must….We are fighting for the restoration of the gospel.[6]

Early Forde/Late Forde: The plumbline holds

Did Forde become more biblicistic as battles changed? No. As he said in 1990:

Disenchanted Lutherans today are attracted by both possibilities….When free-choice pietism has lost its moorings in the external Word, the only way to get it back in line is by turning to authority structures with the clout to do it.  One can find that either in Roman-type hierarchicalism or in Biblicism. In either case, satis est non satis est. The gospel and the sacraments are not enough. They never are when they don’t bring the eschatological end and new beginning.  An authority structure above and beyond the gospel must be added – a kind of substitute eschatology to assuage our impatience!

Do these hermeneutical alternatives define the parameters of our fate today? Are these the only possibilities available to us? I believe not. But I do think that if there is any fire left now, it will have to come more from Luther than our Melanchthonian tinged pietism.[7]

See also Forde’s theological autobiography (1997):

The surrender of biblical inerrancy to various versions of “truth as encounter” and other existentialist ploys seemed to lack the bite of the older views of biblical authority. Perhaps it was that something of the offense was gone. Yet there was no way back. Older views of biblical inerrancy were not an offense, they were just intellectually offensive.[8]

“Doing the text”

Forde’s directive: “Do the text”[9] – may seem like a formula for a simplistic use of scripture. When preaching, retell the text with enthusiasm, throw in a few anecdotes, and end with a performative utterance like: “I forgive you all your sins for Jesus’ sake.”

Using the Bible is not like using a Ouija Board: The preacher simply “does the text,” and then the Lord does the rest. That is not what Forde means by “doing the text.”

Consider Forde’s sermon, “On Death to Self.”[10]  He takes the text’s major theme of dying to self. But he doesn’t “do the text” if that means preach it. Rather, he turns the text into a second use of the law. In short, this is not the “literal” original message of the text, but it is the gospel.

Necessary consequences

Election and being a theologian of the cross have necessary consequences, according to Forde. As he wrote after the 1962 Luther College walkout: Law/gospel, rightly understood, is incompatible with the older verbal inspiration/inerrancy method of using the Bible and preaching.

The dilemma for Fordians today is the same. The problem is not about patching together a “bigger conservative Lutheran tent” or pretending no choice is needed because “time will tell” if a new configuration of Lutherans will work.

In a way, it’s 1961 all over again. The same-old problem is back. It’s a matter of salvation. And that demands “the absolute,” certainty, assured faith. This is what the Reformation was actually about. As Forde writes: “We are fighting for the restoration of the gospel.” [11]

For this reason one cannot claim Forde and add “inerrancy,” or a vague “high view” of scripture.  Or even infer inerrancy with the new slogan: “Just preach the Word.”


[1] Quoted in Marianna Forde, Gerhard Forde. A Life (Minneapolis; Lutheran University Press, 2014) 37 from Gerhard Forde, “The One Acted Upon” [Theological Autobiography], dialog 36/1 (Winter 1997): 33.

[2] Jonathan Preus, “Fall 2009 Class Agent Letter,” Luther College.

[3] Marianna Forde, 37.

[4] Gerhard Forde, “Law and Gospel as the Methodological Principle of Theology,” A Discussion of Contemporary Issues in Theology by Members of the Religion Department at Luther College. (Decorah, Iowa; Luther College Press, 1964) 56-57. Emphasis in the original. This seminal piece is available here under “Proper Use of Scripture.” It is not found in the Lutheran Quarterly collections of his writings.

[5] Forde, “Law and Gospel,” 52. Emphasis added.

[6] Forde, “Law and Gospel,” 67. Emphasis added.

6 Forde, “Satis Est? What do we do when other churches don’t agree?” Unpublished lecture given to ELCA Teaching Theologians’ Conference (August 1990)11-12. Emphasis added.

[8] Forde, “The One Acted Upon,” dialog 36:1 (Winter 1997) 57-58.Emphasis added.

[9] Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982) 96-97; Forde, Christian Dogmatics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 2:462-63; Forde, Theology is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 155-58.

[10] Forde, “On Death to Self,” The Captivation of the Will, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 108-11.

[11] Forde, “Law and Gospel,” 67.