One of the criticisms being leveled against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by the disaffected and dissidents who are storming the exits is that it has embraced the heresy of universal salvation. “Evidence” for the charge typically cites two sources, a page on the ELCA website dealing with salvation and a footnote on Matthew 28:16-20 in Lutheran Study Bible published by Augsburg Fortress.
An example of the charge can be found here. (Warning: Click that link at your own risk. Viewing the site requires a high tolerance for tiresome alarmism and shoddy theology).
The ELCA web page quotes extensively from Dr. Carl Braaten, who has written very critically of the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly decisions on homosexuality. As I understand Dr. Braaten’s statement, it is a declaration of the universal scope of Christ’s saving act, not an endorsement of a doctrine of universalism. That's a fine distinction. Let me see if I can make it clearer:
You who charge the ELCA with universalism, tell me, did Jesus die for all people or not?
As for the Lutheran Study Bible footnote, it was written by Dr. Duane Priebe of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Dr. Priebe himself gave a lengthy explanation of that footnote on Erik Ullestad’s blog. It is thoughtful and well-worth reading. Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:
Christians have never assumed that only those who know and believe in Jesus in this life will participate in salvation in the next. On the most obvious level, that would exclude everyone in the Old Testament.
For myself, I have a strong commitment to the theology of God’s grace. I believe that Jesus died for all people. All means all, but there is one thing that keeps me from being a universalist. I believe just as strongly in God's sovereignty. I believe that salvation is God’s business, not mine. God can, and will, save whom God desires. I am no more a universalist than the man who wrote:
God forbid that I should limit the time for acquiring faith to the present life. In the depths of the divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future state.Martin Luther, Letter to Hansen von Rechenberg, 1523
I understand that the rhetorical flourish of charging the ELCA with heresy is useful to those who wish to leave the church and take others with them. The charge of universalism, however, is plainly false. It’s time for the disaffected and dissident to adopt a new tactic. Spouting nonsense will not help your cause.
I'm still a big fan of the Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible. I still don't like Concordia's similarly named The Lutheran Study Bible. Don't be confused by the two. Look for the baby blue Bible.