Synod Convention Essay Summary, June 19-20, 2018
100th Anniversary of the Reorganization of the Norwegian Synod
165th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Norwegian Synod
A New Frontier
Norwegian Vikings were in North America long before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But the first band of Norwegians to make the trip across the Atlantic in modern times was a group that sailed from Stavanger to New York in 1825. The letters sent by these brave settlers to family members in Norway were published and widely distributed. The letters told of good land for the taking and of personal freedoms unavailable in Norway. More and more decided to chance the long trip to this promising place, and by 1850, nearly 18,000 Norwegians had arrived.
Clergymen trained for service in the State Church of Norway were slower to make the trip. This was at least partly because the Church did not approve of those who were willing to leave behind congregation and family to seek their fortunes in a wild land. It was a valid concern that the emigrants themselves came to understand, particularly when babies were born, young adults wished to be married, and the deceased were laid to rest.
Eventually, pastors did come, but not enough of them to meet the spiritual needs of their countrymen. Those who came recognized the need to coordinate their efforts among the settlers. After receiving input from interested pastors and congregations, “The Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” was formed in October of 1853. This church body is best known by its moniker, the “Norwegian Synod,” and October 2018 marks its 165th anniversary.
Growth and Controversy
At the time of its formation, six pastors and thirty-eight congregations were affiliated with the new synod, an estimate of 11,400 people. Due to dedicated home mission work and the continued migration of Norwegians to America, those numbers steadily grew. In the 1860s and 1870s, the Norwegian Synod encountered various difficulties and controversies, which were provoked by opponents of the Lutheran doctrine and practice of the Synod. Doctrinal statements were adopted to answer such questions as the appropriateness of lay preaching (1862), whether Sunday in particular is the new Sabbath (1863), and whether the power of absolution is found inside or outside the sinner (1874). In each case, the right understanding depended on a proper distinction between Law and Gospel.
The most serious controversy in the old Norwegian Synod was brought about by Professor F. A. Schmidt, who had studied and served in the Missouri Synod before coming over to the Norwegian Synod. In 1878, he took issue with statements made by Dr. C. F. W. Walther in a paper on the doctrine of election. He was particularly offended that Walther called the intuitu fidei (“in view of faith”) approach to the doctrine of election unclear at best. Walther acknowledged that the great dogmatician Johann Gerhard had spoken of election “in view of faith.” But this must be explained carefully. If it is taken to mean that God elects a person to eternal salvation because he believes, this is incorrect. It gives the impression that there is something within a person that causes the Lord to choose him. Prof. Schmidt attributed conversion in some part to a person’s own disposition, which makes salvation not entirely by God’s grace. In 1882, he declared: “When only one of two ungodly men is converted, there must have been a difference in their resistance; for, if not, they would both have been converted.” This idea fits with human reason, but not with the teaching of the Bible.
In 1884, Pastor U. V. Koren of the Norwegian Synod prepared a statement on the doctrine of election called “En Redegjørelse” (“An Accounting”). When it was presented in the fall of that year, eighty-seven pastors and professors signed on to it, and twenty more added their signatures soon after. The line between the official teaching of the Norwegian Synod and the false teaching of Schmidt and his adherents had been clearly drawn.
The controversy picked up steam with each passing year of the 1880s. By the mid-1880s, the Norwegian Synod had reached its breaking point. In 1887, those in agreement with Schmidt’s position withdrew from the Norwegian Synod and officially formed the “Anti-Missourian Brotherhood,” later called the “United Church.” Before this division, there were 193 pastors and 143,885 members in 723 Norwegian Synod congregations. After the break, 138 pastors remained along with 93,891 members in 512 congregations. In just three years’ time, 50,000 people had left the Norwegian Synod.
A New Direction
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the Norwegian population in America continued to grow through immigration. The original Norwegian settlers also began to see the fruits of their hard labor. They and their children were becoming more comfortable with their place in American society. The need to develop worship resources in English was now evident. The Norwegian Synod and United Church started working together to prepare these resources and also engaged in doctrinal discussions to see if their past differences could be worked through. Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, these discussions bore little fruit. Up to his death in 1910, Pastor Koren’s belief was that the Norwegian Lutheran church bodies still remained far apart.
But after new union committees were elected in each church body, they worked out a joint statement on the doctrine of election in 1912 called the “Madison Opgjør,” the Norwegian word for “Agreement” or “Settlement.” This document did not adequately deal with the doctrinal differences of the past and included some unclear if not false statements. The Synod’s leaders now pushed strongly for a union of the Norwegian Lutheran church bodies in America. Their cause was helped by the publication of The Lutheran Hymnary in 1913, a joint hymnbook project of the three main Norwegian Lutheran synods. A group of pastors and laymen in the Norwegian Synod pushed for more clarity in the doctrinal statement, and they were aided for a time by the efforts of Pastor Theodore Graebner, editor of the Norwegian Synod’s Lutheran Herald from 1909-1913.
But the push for union would not be stopped. A special synodical meeting was convened in May 1916 to determine whether or not to proceed with the merger. The motion for union was carried by a vote of 522 to 202. Many who questioned the Madison Agreement decided to go along with the merger. Others let it be known that they could not in good conscience do this. They made plans to continue on “the old paths” of the Norwegian Synod. On June 9, 1917, the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America was officially formed, numbering more than 495,000 people belonging to 3,000 congregations. F. A. Schmidt was among those who entered the new church body.
Committed to the Old Paths
The Norwegian Synod pastors and laymen who resisted the union movement were not blind to the times. They understood the good that could be accomplished by a united Norwegian Lutheran church. They were not against such a union, but only on the right basis. A union with an unclear biblical and confessional foundation was no real spiritual union. A little over a month after the Norwegian merger was carried out, this small Norwegian Synod group started a church paper called Luthersk Tidende (Lutheran Times). In the April 1, 1918 issue, this invitation was published: “Pastors and members of congregations who desire to continue in the old doctrine and practice of the Norwegian Synod will, God willing, hold their annual meeting in the Lime Creek congregation, Pastor H. Ingebritson’s charge, June 14 and following days.”
Between thirteen and sixteen Norwegian Synod pastors attended the meeting at Lime Creek, along with four Missouri Synod pastors and at least 175 laypeople. Following several days of study and discussion, the pastors and congregational representatives in attendance unanimously adopted this resolution: “We, members present of the Synod for the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, ministers, delegates of congregations and members of congregations, join together for the purpose of continuing the work of the Synod on the old basis and according to the old principles.”
Forward on the Old Paths
The official seal of the Norwegian Synod contained the Greek word gegraptai, which means, “It is written.” This phrase has been retained as the motto of the Lutheran Sentinel and is also reflected in the “One Thing Needful” motto of Bethany Lutheran College. Any teaching formulated by human reason is not a Bible teaching and therefore is not Lutheran. Lutheran teaching is Bible teaching. A church body does not deserve the name “Lutheran” if it does not teach the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible, clear, sufficient, and powerful Word of God. By God’s power, we will continue to believe, teach, and confess His truth. To give in to the pressures of the world and to give up what we have inherited from faithful confessors before us is to give up the eternal blessings Jesus won for us, which He wants us to have.
In short, we look back along “the old paths” where we came from, and at the same time we look ahead to where those blessed paths lead by the power and promise of God. This is exactly the purpose and plan Pastor Koren outlined in his 1890 article, “What the Norwegian Synod Has Wanted and Still Wants.” In conclusion he said,
Our heart’s desire is to preserve the old doctrine in which our fathers found their peace, for we have learned to see that this doctrine and this alone is founded on God’s Word…. If we are to be enabled to retain [the Biblical truths], we must in the first place let it become a matter of holy earnestness to preserve God’s Word pure and unadulterated as the only clear light in this world’s darkness, and we must be willing to endure being scoffed at and mocked because of this firm adherence to the Word. Furthermore, we must let it become a matter of just as great concern to lead holy lives according to God’s Word. If we fail to do this, then God Himself has said, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it’ (Matt. 21:43). This we will try to remember every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.
What the Norwegian Synod has wanted, the ELS still wants. God grant it by His enduring grace.
Rev. Peter Faugstad
Chairman, Committee on Worship