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A great reformer dies

January 1995

With the death of Dr Jacob Preus, one of the great champions of the Christian faith has been taken from this world. Dr Preus received international recognition in the 1970s when he was the president of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, a denomination of 3,000,000 members. Jack Preus led and won the battle to save Concordia Seminary, St Louis, from liberalism. 45 modernist professors and 400 students left the seminary and formed what they called ‘Seminary’ (Seminary in Exile) which met on the campus of the nearby Jesuit Seminary where they were warmly welcomed. 100,000 members and 200 churches left the denomination. Today there are almost a thousand students studying in Concordia. ‘Seminary’ has long closed.

Jacob Preus was born in 1920. His father was governor of the State of Minnesota and founder of a prosperous insurance company. Jacob married Delpha in 1943 and they had seven daughters and one son, also Jacob, who has become a preacher and professor like his father. Dr Preus was the professor of New Testament at Concordia Semi

nary before he was elected as its president from 1962 to 1969 when he was elected president of the denomination. It was at that point that the conservatives gained control of the denomination’s administration. The coalition of liberals and moderates which was running the synod was overthrown. For twelve years he guided these churches insisting that teachers in its most famous seminary adhered to the biblical doctrines and taught the infallibility of Scripture.

Jack Preus did not bring a revolution to the denomination – that happened long before he became president-but a counter-revolution to return the denomination to Christianity. He established a Fact Finding Committee which interviewed faculty members between December 1970 and March 1971. Preus digested their findings and issued a report to the churches in September 1972 which documented the doctrinal deteriorations of the teachers. The seminary replied with a counter-production, Faithful to our Calling, Faithful to our Lord, full of evasions, admissions and omissions. 1973 was full of public controversy monitored in the pages of the weekly Lutheran paper Christian News, which documented the errors of the teaching staff and supported Preus. Its editor was a young evangelical pastor who had himself recently studied in Concordia and knew firsthand what the liberals were teaching. Eventually the President of Concordia Seminary, John Tietjen, was removed from office, and other liberal lecturers began to boycott lectures in protest.

Finally in early 1974 after 18 months, these lecturers could see the writing on the wall and, as they had long planned, walked out of Concordia Seminary, leaving it with five professors and a handful of students. Throughout this time their tactics had been devious. From the late 1950s they introduced the modernistic mode of biblical interpretation, casting doubt on the creation account, the fall into sin, the story of Jonah, certain miracles and statements of Jesus, universalism, etc. When students, pastors and lay people called these divergences to the attention of the denomination’s leadership they were assured ‘nothing has changed’. It was a cover up, demonstrating a serious lack of integrity. One of the Seminary professors later acknowledged this. He said, ‘I’m not sure what our approach is from day to day. One moment we are going to be candid and tell the people exactly what we believe and let the devil take the hindmost. The next moment we are trying to show that we believe the same thing the “old denomination” has always believed about inerrancy etc. Our credibility would have been strengthened by some candour, not by pretending that there were few significant differences.’ In contrast lack Preus never lost his nerve. In 1971 he wrote a book on the inerrancy of Scripture entitled It is Written to show exactly what he believed. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Dr Preus was a church reformer but he was also a scholar and prolific writer. He translated Martin Chemnitz’s The two natures of Christ, and Luther’s Commentary on Romans. His last book has just been published: a biography of his hero, Luther’s great supporter Martin Chemnitz, entitled The second Martin.

One Saturday afternoon last year lack Preus was walking with two of his daughters and their husbands when he fell over and died. Hundreds attended his funeral and mourned his departure.

If there should have been one weakness in Jacob Preus it is that he was a general who won one battle over the St Louis Seminary, but did not follow it up in the denomination, and so many Lutherans feel that the war is being lost today.

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