The Perennial Importance of Piepkorn
In a 2005 renewal appeal to subscribers, Carl E. Braaten writes:
“For thirty years Robert W. Jenson and I took turns serving as editors of Dialog, A Journal of Theology. . . . Twelve years ago we decided to embark on a new and different venture in theological publication. We founded Pro Ecclesia, A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology. We had no quarrel with the worthy idea of dialogue, but times had changed. It became apparent to us that the churches were suffering from amnesia; they were forgetting the traditions which gave them birth. The theological side of the dialogue was becoming thin, leaving the churches defenseless in face of the invading forces of modern culture.
“Pro Ecclesia is unapologetically a journal that aims to retrieve the thick traditions of Christian theology. . . .The journal publishes biblical, liturgical, historical and doctrinal articles that mine the ore of the Great Tradition.”
One effect of the ecclesiastical amnesia that Braaten refers to is the fact that with rare exceptions the Great Tradition is hardly being taught anymore. The result for pastors and laity alike can be expressed by paraphrasing St. Paul in Romans 10: “How can they forget who have never heard?”
Piepkorn was a leading figure in a confessional revival in the Lutheran church after he discovered on his own the catholicity of the Lutheran Symbolical Books while working on a doctorate in Oriental languages and literature at the University of Chicago in the early ’30s.
World War II and a distinguished career in the U.S. Army Chaplains Corp limited his influence until he was called to teach at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1951. The take-over of the Missouri Synod by what he referred to as “the ultra-orthodox”–defenders of a recent, narrow tradition–and his premature death in 1973 further limited his influence.
Four decades later, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of his contributions. The problem is that, apart from a few books, he was primarily an essayist and his 200 plus publications are widely scattered in many different journals, some of which are no longer being published, and many of which are not found in the archives of most libraries.
The Arthur Carl Piepkorn Center is seeking to remedy this by collecting his publications and many unpublished studies, essays, speeches, sermons and letters and make them available in print and on the Internet. As of July 2005, the Director has more than 2,000 photocopies of documents–mostly unpublished– from the Piepkorn Papers in the ELCA Archives. The most recent version of the partially annotated Arthur Carl Piepkorn Bibliography is available via email attachment from the Director, as are copies of his articles not posted on the the Center website. The Director is editing volumes 2-4 of the Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn for ALPB Books of Delhi, NY. Volume 1, The Church is being reprinted by the same publisher.
The Church needed to hear Piepkorn’s witness to evangelical catholicity while he was alive. Anyone who is conversant with what is happening in the Church today, knows that it needs to hear Piepkorn’s witness even more today.
Piepkorn’s witness is also needed in the Church’s confrontation with modernity, about which George F. Will, a Lutheran, writes: “Modernity teaches that freedom is the sovereignity of the individual’s will–personal volition that is spontaneous, unconditioned, inviolable and self-legitimizing.”