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Gospel Determinism Cases: Paul G. Bretscher

Published originally on Brothers of John the Steadfast in five parts
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Note: The entire series has been combined into a single PDF
which may be accessed here.


Previously I presented “Gospel Determinism: A Preview.” Now we move from preview to the first of some cases that illustrate gospel determinism: Paul G. Bretscher. Though you might not have heard of Bretscher, as the case study shows, he was quite significant in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in his day.

The entire case study does not fit into a single internet blog post. Here we give two excerpts from the case study:

  • introductory paragraphs under the heading, “The Elements in Bretscher’s Thought”
  • concluding paragraphs under the headings, “Reflections” and “Conclusions”

The entire case study may be accessed through this link to a PDF document.

The Elements in Bretscher’s Thought

Rev. Paul G. Bretscher, Th.D. (1921-2016) is a significant and instructive case of gospel determinism.

Gospel determinism’s elements in Bretscher take two formulations. The first is a for-public-consumption Lutheran formulation. The second is a simultaneously harbored anti-creedal formulation that he disclosed later.

Among cases of gospel determinism, Bretcher’s is a good place to start. First, both of his formulations exemplify gospel determinism overtly. Because the formulations are explicit — even blatant — illustrating gospel determinism by them is easy. Second, with two substantially different formulations in one man, Bretscher represents two cases. The two cases in one man provide a handy way of showing how two apparently different theologies have the same structure and how structure is fatal in both cases.

Referred to as one of the “moderates” in the Law-Gospel debate and Seminex-related controversies, Bretscher ends at thoroughgoing heresy with expressed denial of “creedal Christianity.”

Recall from the preview of gospel determinism that:

Gospel determinism has two elements.

1. We know the Gospe.

2. Gospel determines everything.

The elements are simple. Together they are total. The Gospel rules all.

The elements spawn their implications in two rounds. The first round is their implications about Scripture. The second is their implications for a host of doctrines and practices.

Variants of gospel determinisms may be distinguished in two general ways:

  • In the first element, the source of our knowledge of the Gospel.
  • In the second element, the extent and thoroughness of carrying out the determinism.

In Bretscher’s Lutheran formulation, we know the Gospel from Luther’s Catechisms.

With this knowledge of the Gospel, we can determine issues of text criticism and which pieces of the resulting scriptures are the “Word of God.” We can determine hermeneutics and exegetics. With the Gospel, the Word of God, and interpretation of Scripture in place, the Gospel determines everything else. It determines all doctrine and practice.

Because this formulation takes on coloring from Luther’s Catechisms, the language of Lutheran theology, and the culture of the Lutheran church, it has a familiar and guard-lowering sound. But the authority of Scripture exists only insofar as it affirms the pre-known Gospel. All doctrines are determined not by Scripture alone but by what the pre-known Gospel allows to be the “Word of God” in Scripture.

In Bretscher’s anti-creedal formulation, we hear the Gospel like Jesus heard it at his Baptism when God said, “You are my beloved Son.” The title “Son” says nothing about deity. The divinity of Jesus is a later corruption. His hearing and our hearing of the Gospel of covenant-sonship are the same. The covenant-Gospel creates and delivers salvation existing in sonship before and without the work of Christ on the cross. Sonship, not blood atonement, is salvation.

With this knowledge of the Gospel, we can determine issues of text criticism and which pieces of the resulting scriptures are the “Word of God.” We discern the metaphors in the memory-fragments from which the New Testament Gospels gradually were composed. The metaphorical meaning was lost early on and the Gospel of covenant-sonship has been unknown to the church for most of its history. Bretscher reconstructs the faith — an anti-creedal faith — by coherence to the covenant-sonship Gospel.

In both formulations, Scripture is not the Word of God because the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles. Instead, we can mine out of Scripture some ore of the Word of God. A pre-known Gospel determines which portions of text in Scripture are the Word of God and how those portions are to be understood. Scripture is not the Word of God in the Bible before it has an effect on a person who hears it in accord with the pre-known Gospel. Until Scripture performs in the believer, it is not the Word.

[ break between excerpts ]


A Tragic End

To read from Bretscher’s body of work is to meet a man of good will. His tone always is kindly. He deals with the material and the topic without veering toward ad hominem or the ascription of motives in his opponents.

Bretscher’s industry is a marvel. He has an immense capacity for drilling down into nearly any aspect of his topics. At times one wonders if he has all 66 books of the Bible in memory. He identifies and uses texts from widely different portions of Scripture that connect to each other and his points. He can sustain extended examinations, comparisons, and exegesis of passages in the original languages. His writings are models of focus and sequencing. Writers who read Bretscher will sense that his works must have been re-edited multiple times before they were published, or else he had a special brilliant gift for design.

Bretcher’s industry is especially evident in Christianity’s Unknown Gospel. He applies his doctrine thoroughly in three dimensions: across every book of the Bible; across every loci and dogma of Christianity; and drilling down into texts and text criticism. I hardly could help but visualize him slaving away at his desk to produce the opus, to re-edit it, and iron out its wrinkles.

While imagining that scene, by the time I reached the end of the book, it looked like Father McKenzie in “Eleanor Rigby.” As portrayed earlier, from the 1960s to about 1980, Bretscher was in the action. He was producing. People were reading him. He was bearing an influence. Somewhere between then and 2001 when he published Christianity’s Unknown Gospel, his gospel determinism ran away with him, he shed the Lutheran formulation, and he lost his audience. He seems to have become like Father McKenzie, “Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.”

Bretscher is a once-great theologian, significant in his time, in the center of momentous action, whose significance now is mostly to show a stark example of where gospel determinism ends.

Harboring Heresies

From 1957 to 2001, Bretscher published his for-public-consumption Lutheran formulation of gospel determinism. He published it in articles, sermons, books, and papers of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations. He maintained a façade of basing the knowledge of the Gospel on Luther’s Catechisms.

Given that his anti-creedal formulation sprang from the words, “You are my son” at the Baptism of Jesus in 1957, one might have thought something of this would appear in his 1968 article “Exodus 4:22-23 and the Voice from Heaven.” But it did not. There were plenty of places where one could be forgiven for expecting to see it. But it is nowhere to be seen until 2001.

The publication of Christianity’s Unknown Gospel in 2001 revealed that all along Bretscher was developing and harboring his anti-creedal formulation. His bloodless, cross-less, Incarnation-less, and Trinity-less theory was hidden. He harbored his true belief that the words “You are my beloved Son” were spoken from heaven directly to him. In those 8,000 copies of the first printing of After the Purifying, he hid what he later revealed in Christianity’s Unknown Gospel. It was not so much Christianity’s unknown Gospel as Paul G. Bretscher’s unknown hidden Gospel.


In both formulations of gospel determinism, Bretscher critiques and rejects the view that Scripture has authority because the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles. He gives the inspiration principle critical names. He calls it dross. Sometimes he calls people who believe it dross. He likens it to Pharisaism. He likens people who believe it to Pharisees.  He posits a dichotomy between the Gospel-Word and the document-word of a sheer Book.

To be blunt, he accuses centuries of Christendom of bibliolatry – an idolatry of Scripture. He claims his opponents have robbed Christ of his glory by giving it instead to the Bible.

But note the irony. In Bretscher’s Gospel, who is virgin-born? Not Jesus. The covenant-gospel is. What is divine? Not Jesus. The Gospel is. Who does miracles? Not Jesus. The Gospel does. Where is the Sacrament of the Altar? Not in the blood of Jesus. The covenant-sonship Gospel saves without sacrifice or blood. What is the resurrection? Not the resurrection of the body of Jesus. It is the resurrection of the Gospel. What saves us from sin? Not the blood of Jesus. The Gospel as an immediate, enthusiastic, Barthian address to, action upon, or effect in man that saves by conferring sonship and with sonship every blessing, with no need for sacrifice or atonement.

If the structure of the inspiration principle warrants it being called bibliolatry, then the structure of Bretscher’s gospel determinism warrants it being called gospelolatry. If the inspiration principle displaces Christ – which I deny, but if, for the sake of argument, it does – it does that incidentally since, in confessional Lutheran theology, it still affirms Trinity, Incarnation, sacrifice, atonement, resurrection, a triumphant descent into hell, ascension, and session at the right hand of God. Bretscher’s Gospel denies Christ all of that. It denies the entire Second Article of the Creed. It expressly rejects “creedal Christianity.” The whole creed is replaced by another Gospel that makes Jesus just one of us. Jesus is one of us, but He is not only one of us. He is the mediator between God and man, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).