At Valparaiso University, we occasionally remind ourselves that the Lutheran Reformation grew, at least partly, out of the ferment of learning that went on in a university, most particularly the emperor’s new university at Wittenberg where Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon served as young faculty members. We hope that universities today, including ours, can continue to serve as places where the continual reformation a healthy church requires draws some of its energy. Although Valparaiso University has always been an independent university, not owned or operated by any Lutheran church body, it sees itself as intimately connected to the church. It needs the church, most particularly because its thriving depends in part on having students in whom the church has formed a baptismal identity. Much of the time, however, the churches act as if they do not need a university. While they may need training institutions and programs of indoctrination and professional formation, it often seems they do not want their young people studying where no questions lie out of bounds.
In what ways do Lutherans today see themselves as beneficiaries of scholarship and the scholarly life? In what ways do Lutherans see themselves as free? Do Lutherans who repeat the shibboleth about “faith alone” really live by faith, or by something else? For almost seven decades I have lived among and watched Lutherans closely. The history I have witnessed and shared suggests that we Lutherans have a complex relationship with the rhetoric by which we publicly identify ourselves. Like most others in the world, our walk does not consistently match our talk.
Niedner recalls his time growing up on the prairie with a great deal more disgust than affection. He characterizes Lutherans as a people who are so contentious that they can agree on little or nothing. He remembers all the foibles and flaws and failings of the past but, apparently, none of the grace, none of the blessing, and none of the faith. Perhaps he has been so embittered by the history of Missouri that is all he can see. If that is the case I do not so much condemn him but feel sorry for him.
In particular, he speaks about the Lutheran-ness of Valpo in the same angry terms. For him, training in doctrine is "indoctrination" with the worst of its connotations. For him, the job of the university, even one of the church which Valpo claims to be, to be one of raising questions where the Catechism, the liturgy, the faith, and the Church have given answers -- as if growing up Lutheran were a thing to be undone by academia and not affirmed (sort of like those who think virginity a problem to be rectified and not a virtue affirmed).
I am certainly not ignorant of the manifold ways we have failed to live up to our Confession, of the petty disputes that have plagued Lutheran history (at large and parochially), and of the divisions that have resulted from it all. But I find in Niedner none of the hopefulness, faith, and conviction of O. P. Kretzmann or other giants who have walked the Valpo campus. Does our walk match our talk? No argument there. No, it does not. But we don't need Niedner to remind us of this. It happens every Sunday in the preparation where we confess a sinful nature that has so often and so recently fallen short of the glory of God. But thanks be to God that He responds not with condemnation or bitterness. He comes among us with grace. It is this very grace, rooted in the cross and manifest in the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) that are Lutheran distinctives so severely lack in the present day incarnation of Valparaiso University. I certainly am not ready to take up the cause of making Valpo Missouri but I thought it was inherent in the job of the Lutherans who run the place and, specifically, the Lutherans who teach there to at least make it Lutheran. Apparently, I am asking too much. Niedner seems intent to cast off the very Lutheran identity that has formed this university and made it a once great Lutheran university. It may still be a good university (though perhaps pricey) but it is certainly no longer unashamedly Lutheran. That is the tragedy of Valpo that I lament and many others from all sorts of Lutheran jurisdictions also lament the loss of its Lutheran-ness! Perhaps they need to read again the motto on Valpo's seal.