Theological #ThrowbackThursday: Ralph Bohlmann
Last week, during our All Saints Day chapel service on campus, we remembered, among many others, President Emeritus Ralph Bohlmann who fell asleep in Jesus earlier this summer. Just over fifty years ago, this then 33 year-old man was called to join the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He already had both academic and parish experience. Three years later he would receive the PhD from Yale University. A decade after this lecture he would become President of Concordia Seminary and then later President of The Lutheran Church Missouri–Synod.
But in 1965 he was an academically-minded parish pastor addressing his classmates as a new professor. In this lecture entitled “The Language and Concepts of Theology,” Ralph Bohlmann addresses a number of controversial and hot topics of the day. He discusses higher and lower criticism, Biblical theology, the distinction between theology and doctrine, existentialism, historical criticism, hermeneutics, and the labels “conservative” and “liberal.” Bohlmann is a careful scholar and observer of modern movements, but what comes across most clearly in this lecture is Bohlmann’s churchmanship and his earnest desire to be faithful to the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions. He champions a two-fold approach to the language of theology. First, there must be times when the church draws inward around the Scriptures, Creeds, and Confessions to ask what they say and to be shaped by them. Time and again, the church does well to return to traditional theological language, to use the terms that the church has used for ages to confess the faith.
And yet, Bohlmann calls the church of his day (and, through this recording, the church of our day as well) to take up the outward turn toward creatively speaking the Gospel in new ways with new words to a world which continually is changing. Today, his two-fold approach might be characterized as being both “confessional” and “missional.” He starts the lecture by quoting Psalm 137:4 asking “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (ESV). The question for Bohlmann is not whether but indeed how, that is, in what way, is the church called to sing the Lord’s song in the America of 1965. In the last few minutes he answers by giving a thick description of what he calls “relating the Gospel.” Rather than explaining what he means, I’ll let you listen to Bohlmann’s answer for 1965 and discern whether it might be a helpful approach today. As he says at the beginning of the lecture, he is not necessarily giving the final answer to this question but rather desires to engage the church in dialogue. Let us know your thoughts below.
About this series: Throughout history, God’s people have been eager to learn His Word. We have record of this in the biblical writings which were addressed to these people, copied by scribes, and published by printing presses down to the present day. We are grateful that the Holy Spirit used the technologies of the alphabet, writing, and printing to preserve the word concerning Christ and to deliver it anew to each succeeding generation. In addition to the Holy Scriptures, the church has treasured the writings of the teachers of the church, great servants of the Word like Irenaeus, Augustine, Luther, and Walther. Their writings have come down to us also through the pen and printing press. But in these latter days, we also give thanks for sound recordings and videos which deliver the Word of God to His people. Concordia Seminary Library has well over a thousand such recordings on cassettes, CDs, and video tapes. Now, thanks to the Generations Campaign and generous donations which continue to come in, we are able to digitize these historic recordings and offer them to the people of God at no charge. Over the next weeks and months here at concordiatheology.org, we will highlight a few of these treasures of the church and show you where to find gobs more. We’ll hear from Scharlemann, Sasse, Franzmann, Piepkorn, Pelikan, J.A.O. and Robert Preus, Caemmerer, Hummel, Brighton, and Feuerhahn among many others. This will be Concordia Seminary’s contribution to social media’s Throwback Thursday.