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Is there room for a Bible school in the Lutheran Church?

Martin Luther famously declared that the simplest Christian layperson, equipped with Holy Scripture, was better armed for battle against the forces of darkness than any prince or priest. Luther’s followers have been trying for 500 years to honor the Reformation’s “sola scriptura” (the Word alone) principle. The results have been mixed.
Unlike many Protestants, Lutherans insist on sermons based on Scripture. And yet, biblical knowledge is often accidental among lay Lutherans. One church member cheerfully reported, “I can’t make heads or tails out of the Bible. I thought we paid our pastors to be the experts in that department.”
That wasn’t exactly what Luther had in mind. And his spiritual descendants have tried to overcome biblical illiteracy in myriad ways. Aids for Bible study have proliferated among Lutherans in North America. Two such comprehensive courses, designed for adults, have been around for decades. Many Twin Cities area Lutherans have participated in the Bethel Series and Crossways. Recently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) launched a “Book of Faith” initiative, designed to get church members back into Scripture. Both the ELCA and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) have, within the past two years, published their own versions of a “Lutheran study Bible.”

The archway of the building at 1619 Portland Avenue in Minneapolis still bears the name of its original inhabitant, Lutheran Bible Institute. Metro Lutheran Photo: Ryan Cosgrove

Arguably the earliest comprehensive and intensive attempt to help North American Lutherans understand the Bible arose as World War I was winding down. Its most energetic advocate was Samuel Miller, a pastor in the Augustana Lutheran Church, the synod founded by Swedish Lutheran immigrants. Believing a Bible school would be a good way to keep young adults from drifting away from the church (especially if the classes were offered in English), he began — in the basement of First Lutheran Church in St. Paul — what grew into the Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI).

Samuel Miller believed a Bible school would be a good way to keep young adults from drifting away from the church.

Ten years later, LBI had its own building, at 1619 Portland Avenue South in Minneapolis (the structure still stands) and enrolled 226 students (160 of whom were young women). The idea was to teach young adults in the Augustana Synod the basics of Bible content and, more importantly, to accomplish what Martin Luther said all of Scripture was intended to do — create an encounter with the living Christ.
There were plenty of Bible schools on the American scene in those days. Except for LBI, none were Lutheran. And that caused skepticism in some church quarters. Some clergy worried about a training school that would set a lot of marginally-trained lay people loose with just enough Bible knowledge to get them into trouble. Others, especially in the academic community, accused LBI of anti-intellectualism. (Miller frequently fretted, aloud, about secular education and how it was, he thought, leading impressionable young adults out of the church and into unbelief. He was especially outspoken in his view that scientific evolution would be the church’s downfall, and used LBI to rail against it.)
Still others worried that LBI would compete with Lutheran colleges, which by 1930 were all struggling to pay their bills as the Great Depression descended on the land.

The Lutheran Bible Institute through history

Remarkably, LBI — which may have reached its apex in the late 1950s — appears to have vanished into the mist, leaving nothing behind for posterity to see. That’s probably an overstatement. The building on Portland Avenue was sold decades ago, although it still bears the name “Lutheran Bible Institute” on its exterior. A later attempt in 1967 to reinvent LBI as Golden Valley Lutheran College ended in disappointment, when costs escalated, enrollments fell, and the leadership voted to close it in 1985.
So, what’s left of LBI today — and how likely is it that the movement might come back to life?
One sign of continued vitality is a reunion of LBI alumni, July 18 at Calvary Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Golden Valley, Minnesota. A pair of alumni are helping to put the event together. Ingrid Johnson, former registrar for LBI (and later for Golden Valley Lutheran), is working with Larry Boatman, who was vice-president of the LBI class of 1965.
According to Johnson, “There were city kids and farm kids who came to LBI. They used their training for spiritual enrichment as adult church members. But a lot of young men who ended up as pastors or missionaries took LBI training as well.” Johnson’s memories of LBI are all positive. “It was a great school. There was a wonderful spirit,” she remembers.
Boatman echoes that. “The two-year LBI program was the most accepting and supportive educational environment in which I have ever participated. The friendships formed during that time were, and still are, deep and lasting.”

LBI teaches Bible, builds community

Why did LBI decline? Some would argue that the ministry was doomed from the start. Many in the Augustana Lutheran Church favored the LBI concept, but at least as many seem to have opposed the idea. The Rev. Claus Wendell, pastor of Grace University Lutheran Church (on the campus of the University of Minnesota) helped organize LBI, but then spent a decade in spirited — and often public — disagreement with its dean, Samuel Miller, over methods of biblical interpretation.
A member of Wendell’s congregation, George Stephenson, was a science professor at the U. of M. He grew to detest what he perceived to be the “anti-intellectual” tone of LBI and, over time, became one of its harshest critics. Stephenson was a thorn in Miller’s side for decades. It was a poorly-kept secret in the Augustana Synod that Stephenson would have been happy to see LBI disappear altogether.
Then there was Virgilius Ferm, a clergyman in Augustana — and later a religion professor and respected church scholar —who wanted Lutherans to expand their horizons. Ferm was convinced that LBI was backward-looking and seemed to feel it was an embarrassment to Lutheranism.
Another nail in LBI’s coffin was the gradual acceptance among North American Lutherans — those groups which eventually became the ELCA — of European Scripture scholarship, particularly approaches that cast doubt on simpler, more pious ways of doing theology.
And, finally, a deep suspicion grew among Lutherans in North America of the pietistic approach to church life. Pietism favored a personal encounter with God, advocated for a warmly converted heart, and tended to encourage believers to regard Jesus as one’s “personal savior.” Some within Lutheranism have always felt this approach leads inevitably to unhealthy outcomes — including an unthinking, uncritical reading of Scripture. (Miller himself asked his students to “surrender the intellect” to faith when approaching Bible study.)
At its zenith, LBI was enrolling hundreds of students in four locations — Minneapolis, New Jersey, Seattle and Los Angeles. None of these sites survived as originally planned. Like Minneapolis, the Seattle branch eventually became an actual college. It continues today as Trinity Lutheran College. The Los Angeles branch has become a house of studies on the campus of Concordia University, Irvine, California. The New Jersey branch became “Lutheran Bible Ministries,” and no longer has a campus.
LBI also operated Mount Carmel Camp, which was eventually sold. Interestingly, the daughter (the camp) may become the caretaker of the parent. There is some serious talk these days about the possibility of reopening the LBI day school in conjunction with Mount Carmel, which continues as a healthy Lutheran ministry — including camping and retreat opportunities — at Alexandria, Minnesota.
For more information about this month’s LBI reunion, visit or call Larry Boatman, 651/494-2417. Whether you ever attended LBI or not, you would be welcome to attend.

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