The Protes’tant Conference developed out of a series of controversies within the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States. These controversies revolved around various actions of synodical officials and reached their climax in 1926, with the Beitz Paper, a conference paper in which the Rev. W. F. Beitz protested what he saw as spiritual tyranny and dead orthodoxy in the life of his church. The controversy eventually resulted in the suspension from the Synod of forty pastors. The suspended men, known as Protes’tants because of their protest against conditions within the Synod, organized the Protes’tant Conference in 1927.
Today it is clear that the controversy had been building up for a long time. There were in the Wisconsin Synod two divergent approaches to theology, and the final rupture came because of a rejection by the Synod of the theological viewpoint that had developed at its theological seminary at Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
The Wauwatosa Theology, as it has been called, developed under the leadership of Professor J.P. Koehler whose work was mainly in the direction of historical and exegetical emphasis over against the then dominant stress on dogmatic theology.
Since the turn of the century the Wauwatosa Seminary had been veering away from the dogmatical approach. Koehler pointed out that since the 17th century, Lutheran theology had tended to draw its life from the scholastic method of the orthodox dogmaticians. Thus Scripture was approached with preconceived notions and a methodology that made free exegetical work psychologically impossible. Only when Lutheranism liberated itself from this approach could the life of the church be revitalized and the doctrinal controversies, which had continually plagued American Lutheranism, be transcended.
An earnest attempt was made at Wauwatosa to teach church history in terms of the total history of culture and to bridge the gap between sacred and secular. But what was involved in the Wauwatosa Theology and in the Protes’tant Controversy was much more that a method in theology, viz., a strong emphasis upon self-analysis and self-criticism. The life of the church must in all its manifestations be continuously subjected to thorough analysis. Especially must there be an effort to cut through surface manifestations to understand the influences that are molding the essential character of the church.
The Beitz Paper was a sharp and concrete expression of the self-criticism embodied in the Wauwatosa Theology. It asked the pointed question whether the life of the Synod was not being governed more by the Law than by the Gospel. It did not attack the doctrinal position of the Synod, although the effect was certainly to challenge the prevalent view that evangelical practice is somehow guaranteed by precise and orthodox doctrinal formulations.
The general reaction within the Synod was unfavorable to the Beitz Paper. Charges of false doctrine and slander were leveled against the author, especially by synodical officials. The Protes’tants, on the other hand, maintained that the intent of the Beitz Paper was obvious and contended that it was only part of a much larger question, and that it must be judged in its historical setting. Protes’tants have denied that either Beitz or his supporters were at variance with the objective doctrinal position of the Wisconsin Synod and have insisted that the slander charge was not substantiated.
The officials of the Synod took the position that a paper must be judged by its bare words and not by its antecedents. The Protes’tants’ desire to discuss the Beitz Paper only in terms of the larger issues was denied. In essence that was a repudiation of all the Wauwatosa Theology represented. The Wisconsin Synod suspended Pastor Beitz for false doctrine. All who supported him were likewise suspended, some for false doctrine and others for insubordination. This verdict included also those who protested the action of the Synod. Even J. P. Koehler, although he had been critical of the Beitz Paper and of certain actions by Protes’tants, was ousted from his professorship and from the Synod. In the end the Wisconsin Synod repudiated the total thrust of the Wauwatosa Theology.
The Protes’tant Conference has existed since 1927, as a loose organization of the suspended men. The conference has made no attempt to organize itself as a new Lutheran Synod or to carry on any program of expansion. By means of its [quarterly] periodical, Faith-Life, it has rather sought to preserve, cultivate, and develop the heritage of the Wauwatosa Theology.