by Leigh Jordahl
The following is a reprint of the text of John Philipp Koehler’s Introduction to
The History of the Wisconsin Synod, sans footnotes
Editor’s note: Professor Jordahl’s Introduction to Professor J. P. Koehler’s History of the Wisconsin Synod (Second edition, 1981; a publication of The Protes’tant Conference) provides an overview of developments in Midwestern Lutheranism in general and of the erstwhile Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, as these developments relate to the nature and history of the “Wauwatosa Gospel.” This was an approach to Scripture and church life fostered by Professors August Pieper and John Schaller, and above all J. P. Koehler, professors at the Wisconsin Synod Seminary, then located in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. Some attention is given as well to the Protes’tant Conference endeavor to preserve and unfold the Wauwatosa Gospel.
The reprinting of this Introduction may prove a welcome review for some of our readers or for others a useful introduction to the matter at hand. Lengthy though it may appear, it is a concise and balanced portrayal of great events, great issues, and great thoughts. The events were momentous, the issues wide and deep, the thoughts the fruit of great theologians endeavoring to think the thoughts of God and then to infuse these great thoughts into the life and labor of the church.
This reprint will appear in two parts; the second to follow in the next issue.
The Wisconsin Synod has seldom figured prominently in the story of American Lutheranism. People who otherwise demonstrate a fairly complete grasp of the Lutheran story in America frequently know almost nothing of the Wisconsin Synod. What they do know is in keeping with Wisconsin’s description as the “Isolated Synod.” It is perhaps best known for its rigorous doctrine of Unionism, a doctrine concerning the question of when and under what circumstances religious fellowship may be practiced. The doctrine itself was inherited from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It developed out of the Old-Lutheran movement of the early 19th century in Germany. It furnished there an effective weapon in the conservative battle against the Prussian Church Union of 1817. As a rationale for separation from the established church this doctrine saved the seceding group from viewing itself as schismatic. Carried to its logical conclusions (as it was by the Missourians) the doctrine prohibits any kind of religious fellowship, even fellowship, for instance, in joint table prayer, with any person or group with which a synod member is not in total doctrinal agreement. The doctrine was transplanted to America, given fuller and more rigorous definition by the Missourians. Eventually it was passed on to the Wisconsin Synod. Unless very carefully disciplined and seen in relationship to other spiritual issues Unionism as a doctrine carries with it all the seeds for a full-blown sectarianism. The available evidence would indicate that the Wisconsin Synod only very gradually absorbed this doctrine. As an articulated doctrinal formulation it appears only occasionally and incidentally in published documents within Wisconsin until after the Wauwatosa period (i.e., until the 1930’s). Once domesticated, however, the position has since decisively shaped the Wisconsin Synod position. Today the Synod practices no fellowship of any kind with the other major Lutheran groups, not even with the Missouri Synod with which it was in “pulpit and altar fellowship” since the 1860’s and until August 1961. At that time fellowship with Missouri was terminated as a protest against its very obvious changes in doctrine and practice. The Wisconsin Synod has thus maintained and tenaciously defended its self-identity. In the process it has moved in a direction which puts it dramatically at odds with the rest of American Lutheranism. While American Lutheranism has moved to the “left,” Wisconsin has progressively moved to the “right.”
Aside from its theologically isolated character, however, the Wisconsin Synod has also otherwise been isolated. Until the 1960’s it has been wary of innovation, and avoided publicity, and made the transition to English late. Geographically and culturally too it has been isolated. In this respect it differed significantly from the Missouri Synod. Missouri until the 1930’s was even more conservative than Wisconsin. However, it was a national rather than a regional denomination with considerable membership strength in urban areas. Missouri, furthermore, had a genius for innovation and adjustment. This is demonstrated by its extraordinary adjustment to the crisis of Americanization posed most critically by the First World War. The Wisconsin Synod, on the other hand, has really known no urban center except Milwaukee, has had its membership strength in rural and small to medium-sized towns, and has been geographically confined mostly to the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. It cultivated a foreign language longer than any other major Lutheran group. As late as 1955, 184 congregations of a total of 775 continued to employ some German in public services. The former Evangelical Lutheran Church, with a membership that was also heavily rural and representing, like Wisconsin’s, a late 19th century immigration, in the same year listed only a handful of congregations of a total of almost 2,500 that still employed Norwegian.
Within its cultural, geographical and doctrinal limitations the Wisconsin Synod has experienced little rapid growth or inner peace and unity. Since its beginnings it has been plagued by a series of inner strifes. In this century it has experienced two major schisms as well as a sizeable withdrawal of congregations. The Protes’tant Controversy in the years following 1924 led to the suspension from membership of some forty pastors, professors and parochial school teachers, as well as several congregations. The faculties of two of its schools were seriously affected. Moreover, the controversy became violent in the polemics it produced. Then in the latter 1950’s began an exodus of a number of pastors and congregations (or, more frequently, factions of congregations) who believed that the Synod was not taking a sufficiently decisive stand in terminating all fraternal relationships with the Missouri Synod. The doctrine of Unionism became a significant issue in this controversy as it had not been in the earlier controversy. In January, 1961, the Church of the Lutheran Confession was organized at Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. The new denomination included some over fifty pastors, the majority of whom came out of the Wisconsin Synod.
Aside from these violent disruptions there has been a steady pattern of withdrawal going on. Large numbers of pastors and congregations have left to join the more successful and, since the 1930’s, notably more flexible Missouri Synod. Wisconsin’s suspension of fellowship with Missouri (August 17, 1961) merely caused the exodus to gain momentum. The tendency too has been for some of the larger, more acculturated parishes to withdraw. The same tendency of withdrawal has been apparent among Wisconsin Synod men as they go on to graduate work outside of synodical schools. Of the 864 graduates of the Synod’s Northwestern College between 1920 and 1960, at least twenty-six went on to earn Ph.D. degrees. A high percentage of these were also seminary graduates. Only two of them, however, have remained in service within the Wisconsin Synod. Something of the same tendency has been apparent among those who received master’s degrees. The isolated character of the Synod is furthermore evidenced by the fact that the faculties of its two collegiate institutions (Northwestern College and Dr. Martin Luther College at New Ulm, Minnesota) have been recruited almost entirely from graduates of one of these two schools, a high percentage of whom have no graduate degrees. The acquisition of graduate degrees was until recently seen as representing a possible capitulation to secular preoccupations.
All this has no necessary theological significance and says nothing decisive about the health or lack of health of the Wisconsin Synod. It does say a lot, however, about its isolated character. Wisconsin has always been extraordinarily reticent about such things as public recognition and publicity. It has never adopted the American ecclesiastical custom of bestowing honorary doctorates upon its dignitaries in order to enhance their public image. The contrast with its former sister-synod again becomes apparent. C. F. W. Walther (1811–1887) enjoyed parades and pageants, accepted an honorary degree and did not mind using the title. Walther’s affection for such things passed on to the Missourians, who have been intrigued by public relations and a good press. They have been liberal in granting honorary degrees. In so far as Wisconsin had any venerable father it was Adolf Hoenecke (1835–1908). Hoenecke also accepted an honorary degree. However, in distinction from Walther, he was retiring and cultivated an almost stark simplicity coupled with a disdain for flash and forwardness. The Wauwatosa men shared Hoenecke’s aversions and were amused by and scornful of some of Missouri’s ventures into the field of public relations. These became symbols of unfaith and lack of integrity (especially the bargaining for honorary degrees). Koehler, for instance, was offended by the suggestion that Concordia Seminary might bestow a doctorate on him (which offer, incidentally, also included the expectation that Wauwatosa would reciprocate). There has been something attractive about Wisconsin’s traditional modesty, although it has also sometimes produced a mind-set that makes for an almost doctrinaire rejection of innovation as such. All this does point up the fact that Wisconsin had not been taken with much seriousness by the rest of American Lutheranism.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the Synod, at least on the surface, is its development from a loose and theologically formless group to one which today represents the extreme right-wing of American Lutheranism. The Wisconsin Synod’s history otherwise has been lacking dramatic qualities. There is nothing to compare with the exciting and almost incredible success story of the Missouri Synod. Nor did the Wisconsin Synod have any leader of the caliber of Missouri’s Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, perhaps the most significant churchman American Lutheranism had
produced. Almost single handedly he molded a synod with a character that baffles analysis. Precisely because of his genius as a charismatic leader and in spite of
a radically congregational church policy and a striking minimum of juridical centralization, he was able to engender in the rank and file of Missouri Synod pastors and parishes a unity of doctrine and practice, an esprit de corps and a synodical loyalty that were not always distinguishable from chauvinism. He created, moreover, what is by any assessment American Lutheranism’s success story. The Wisconsin Synod, on the other hand, never experienced anything comparable. For better or for worse, there never did emerge any strong man capable of winning undivided leadership. The “strong man” tradition has been lacking. Nor did Wisconsin pastors ever look to Wauwatosa for advice in anything like the sense that Missourians looked to Concordia Seminary at St. Louis, or Ohio men to Capital Seminary at Columbus, or Iowa men to Wartburg Seminary at Dubuque. So also strong esprit de corps has not been a notable feature of the Wisconsin tradition. Even some of the synodical loyalty, such as it was, was as much anti-Missourianism as pro-Wisconsinism.
Things have somehow had a way of going wrong for the Wisconsin Synod. In its early days it operated with an approach, rooted as it was in a pietism that was suspicious of dialectical theology and close doctrinal formulation, which needed drastic reform before it could effectively make for Lutheran self-identity. When Wisconsin did settle down to the task of becoming a confessional Lutheran group it nevertheless continued to lag behind and failed to achieve the self-identity of the other synods. Far into the 20th century and as late as the 1930’s Wisconsin did not quite live up to the orthodox ideals of Missouri. It can safely be said that somehow Ohio, Iowa and most notably Missouri were all of them able to build a tighter ship than was Wisconsin. For this reason too Wisconsin was suspect.
Whatever are the sources for Wisconsin’s particular historical problems, at least one of its historians has seen these as having their genesis in the Synod’s earliest days. In a synodical essay of 1957 (at a time when the Synod was facing an acute crisis) Professor Elmer Kiessling commented on the problem.
It can be proved historically that the early centrifugal tendencies passed away long ago and have no direct connection with those in operation today. But this much can be said: that early history has had its effect in a kind of negative way—not for something it created, but for something it left un-created. It was not our destiny at the outset to come under the influence of powerful forces making for cohesiveness. How different in this respect were the experiences of those early Saxons who became founders of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. …Such experiences were missed in our early history.
The reality to which Kiessling points is obvious whatever its sources—cliques, tensions, schisms, withdrawals, and a general lack of success. Wisconsin has been seen by outsiders as a provincial, backward synod. To the extent that this has appeared to be so neither has Wisconsin been seen as a synod in whose tradition one would expect to find creative or dynamic theological movements, or where one would expect to find any penetrating self-analysis at work. Provincial, ingrown institutions are almost by definition more given to self-preservation than to critical self-analysis.
What one would expect and what has in fact been true are not identical. Whatever might be one’s assessment of the merits of the Wauwatosa Theology it was in any event a happening, and a happening that represented a distinct, articulate exception to what otherwise characterized Lutheran thought of its time and place. The time was the early 20th century in the aftermath of the disastrous Election Controversy of the 1880’s. The context was Midwestern American Lutheranism. The significant actor was John Philipp Koehler and the co-actors were his colleagues on the Wauwatosa Seminary faculty, John Schaller and August Pieper. The story of the life and death of the Wauwatosa Theology is itself a dramatic story of a painstaking attempt to get back to the sources of Christian faith-life in order to renew and reform a Lutheranism that had reached a dead-end in its doctrinal discussions and was apparently settling down to perpetuating the mistakes of its fathers. At least this is the direction things appeared to be moving in at the time the Wauwatosa men began their work.
If, however, the Wisconsin Synod has attracted little attention, the same is also true of the Wauwatosa Theology and most certainly of its most perceptive exponent, J. P. Koehler. The Wauwatosa Theology found expression in the old Theologische Quartalschrift (1904- ) Its heyday was between 1904 and approximately 1925. Even during those years the Quartalschrift had a small subscription and was not much read outside of the Wisconsin Synod. In view of the fact that the Ohio, Buffalo and Iowa Synods, as well as a large contingent of the Norwegians, had broken off fraternal relationships with Wisconsin as a result of the controversies of the previous century, it is not surprising that the Quartalschrift was little read in those groups. Also among the Missourians, however, the Wauwatosa Theology remained terra incognita. There is little evidence that Missouri was significantly influenced by Wauwatosa’s call for reorientation and considerable evidence that it was to the contrary, pervasively dubious of Wauwatosa’s novel approach to theology and life. At all events the synods of American Lutheranism never did discover the Wauwatosa Theology and J. P. Koehler. Thus they went their separate ways independent of any light Koehler or the old Quartalschrift might have shed on their problems. Neither, however, did Wauwatosa mold the future of the Wisconsin Synod itself.
As the Wauwatosa Theology developed it was to protest a methodology pervasive in Lutheran orthodoxy, in which the dominance of dogmatics actually put the historical and connected study of Scripture out of business. Even where Scripture study was practical, it bowed under the tyranny of dogmatics. This methodology led to an unprincipled rummaging through the Bible to find proof passages for positions already determined ahead of time. Such an atomistic proof-text methodology was neither historical in its conception of Scriptures nor did it have any conception of Scripture as a connected history of salvation. Wauwatosa then was to call for an historical study of Scripture and for a study of history that sees it as more than an unrelated chronology of historical facts. The systematic theologian can do his work only on the basis of the materials supplied from history and exegesis. Since this was not the way traditional dogmatics proceeded, Wauwatosa was to express a growing distrust of the preoccupation with dogmatics. Dogmatics was not seen as the queen of the theological sciences but, unless very carefully disciplined by the historical-exegetical method, as a potential mischief maker. What was called for then by Wauwatosa was not so much new doctrinal formulations—the Wauwatosa men remained in basic doctrinal agreement with orthodox Lutheranism—as a complete reorientation in methodology which by recovering the Gospel itself would also make possible a renewal of faith and life.
Within the Wis-consin Synod itself, however, the Wauwatosa Theology was as much a bone of contention as a source for unity. It would appear that a high percentage of Koehler’s students never did comprehend what he was trying to accomplish. What is more certain is that there was within the Synod a vocal “anti-Wauwatosa” faction. Something of Koehler’s status is indicated by the fact that when he was removed from office in 1930, this aroused almost nothing by way of any vocal protest among his former students still in the Synod. His death in 1951 went almost entirely unnoticed and almost the only obituary of significance outside the pages of Faith-Life was that written by Jaroslav Pelikan. The assessment itself discusses Koehler as an historian and says nothing about the price he had to pay for his theology.
Professor Koehler’s interests and accomplishments spanned many fields of human endeavor as well as theology. In the latter area he was particularly given to historical theology and to exegesis, which he regarded as an historical discipline. Viewing the history of the Church within the context of the history of culture, he brought to church history a rare combination of scrupulous scholarship and evangelical insight, which enabled him to evaluate the phenomena of the Church’s past in a light that was true to the best in the Lutheran tradition…
Professor Koehler gave voice to this complex of judgments in his Lehrbuch der Kirchengeschichte(Milwaukee, 1917). In this writer’s judgment, Koehler’s Lehrbuchis perhaps the outstanding work of its kind to come out of American Lutheranism, regardless of synod. It is almost uncanny in its penetration into the way such things as the establishment of the canon, the creation of the episcopacy, the cultivation of the liturgy, the zeal for purity of doctrine, and the Christian ethical concern have become tools for legalistic perversion. With this there is combined a wholesome regard for the good, the beautiful, and the true wherever they have appeared in the history of the Church. Professor Koehler knew well and demonstrated well that in its history the Church has to be ecumenical, never sacrificing confessional loyalty and yet never permitting it to become a legalistic denominationalism…
Throughout Koehler’s conception of history there runs a genetic analogy. There is youth and enthusiasm, maturity and creative productivity, middle age and a living off the fruits of the earlier period, and finally old age, senility and death. This conception accounts in part for the enthusiasm with which he read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Spengler tended to reinforce Koehler’s almost deterministic view of historical development. While not a cyclical historian, Koehler did have a strong sense ofVerstockung(hardening) as a pervasive fact of every organism’s existence. As he advanced in years and out of the reality of his own bitter experience this conviction became stronger. In his old age he applied it also to himself and his own inability to produce anymore any work of art which was not copy work. Given this viewpoint, Koehler was not surprised by the unenthusiastic response to the Wauwatosa Theology nor by what he was convinced was its eventual repudiation. The Wisconsin Synod had had its heyday and the best that could be expected was copy work, if not outright rejection. In all events, Koehler’s influence even within his own denomination was not lasting.
Our purpose, however, is to set the Wauwatosa Theology within its historical context, to offer some analysis beyond what is available in The History of the Wisconsin Synod, and to record something of the story, completely neglected by Koehler, of the Protes’tant Controversy. That controversy resulted in Koehler’s own dismissal and also meant that from the years following the battle (roughly 1924 to 1930) the character of the Theologische Quartalschrift changed substantially. The controversy represented a decisive moment in Wisconsin Synod history. After 1930 Koehler and his synod went separate ways. And whatever may be one’s judgment of the issues involved in the controversy itself, the change that occurred in the content and point of view of the Quartalschrift is perhaps the best empirical documentation that a pervasive change did in fact occur. However, as the 20th century opened and when John Philipp Koehler began his work at Wauwatosa, soon to be joined by two able colleagues, the end was not known. The fact that Koehler and his associates could be as amazingly productive as they were would indicate that they had enthusiasm and some hope that new beginnings might still be possible.
Midwestern American Lutheranism at the Turn of the Century
In keeping with J. P. Koehler’s insistence on the hermeneutical principle that a man’s words must be understood as he intends them to be understood, it is well to define somewhat more carefully how he uses the word “orthodox” and what he means by “Midwestern American Lutheranism.” With the former term he does not necessarily imply “correct.” The word is used descriptively and without any value judgment. He only means to refer to a group which by intention is scrupulously attempting to be faithful to classical Lutheranism. In the context of Koehler’s work this refers to those Lutherans of Old-Lutheran persuasion who attempted to recover and establish classical Lutheranism by using as their sources the orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians of the 17th century. This refers then to a particular methodology (the “dogmatic approach”) and not to any specific doctrinal formulation. We are using the term the same way. We are also using the phrase “Midwestern American Lutheranism” in the somewhat imprecise but generally valid way Koehler used it. He does not have reference to all Lutherans in the Midwest, but to those specific synods with their strength in the Midwest which were dedicated to the preservation of Lutheran confessional orthodoxy. The “orthodox synods” and “Midwestern Lutheranism” are interchangeable terms. Primarily Koehler refers then to the Ohio, Buffalo, Iowa and Missouri Synods. The Norwegian Synod is sometimes also included although Koehler knew well that Norwegian orthodoxy in America never established itself with a strength comparable to that among the Germans. Increasingly as the 19th century wore on Wisconsin belonged in the group, yet, Koehler would maintain, with a difference. The Danish and Swedish Lutherans do not figure in this story. The General Council, although conservative, originated in the East in a point of controversy with the Pennsylvania-based General Synod and a crisis which had developed out of the “American Lutheranism” problem of the 1850’s. Koehler focused upon the groups which directly or indirectly were involved in the Election Controversy. He contended that these synods all stood in the same tradition and that in fact the polemics back and forth among them could be so violent and unproductive precisely because they were carried on by men who employed identical equipment, theological brothers even when synodical brotherhood was put to the test and shattered. However, even when applied to these groups the term “orthodox” was not entirely accurate, for there were differences in motif among the groups themselves. Orthodoxy always ran the risk of degenerating into theological bookkeeping. Iowa with its “exegetical tendency” and its indebtedness to the “Erlangen Theology” possessed something of a corrective. Moreover, in Johann Michael Reu (1869-1943) it produced a theologian of stature, scholarship and originality. It is significant that a student who left the Wauwatosa Seminary in 1929 because of the Protes’tant Controversy transferred to Iowa’s Wartburg Seminary with Koehler’s blessing. For Missouri also, Koehler had deep affection combined with an informed appreciation for the intentions of C.F.W. Walther. This in spite of the fact that Walther’s preoccupation with “citation theology” distressed Koehler, especially as this method found its expression in those who followed after him. The Buffalo Synod was relatively insignificant and according to Koehler was captive to 19th century romantic high-churchmanship (with reference to its conception of Church and Ministry). For the Ohio Synod Koehler had little affection. He was irritated by its “grammar and syntax” approach to “theological bookkeeping.” Already in his student days at Northwestern College he was unimpressed with the grammar-syntax approach to classical literature of his teacher, E.W. Stellhorn, who later became a prominent theologian of the Ohio Synod. Koehler’s relationship with Ohio men otherwise and what he observed as Ohio’s ethos left him cold. Nevertheless, while the Midwestern German synods were not all the same, the continuity among them was more pervasive than their discontinuity. All sought the same goal—to build a solid, confessional Lutheranism on American soil—and in this aim all tended to draw their nourishment from the legacy of the 17th century dogmaticians. And the fact that they were so condescending to the attempts of the Wisconsin Synod only reflected on their lack of historical perception.
Missouri, Buffalo, Iowa had adhered to the Word of God according to their lights, and for that very reason had looked down upon the Wisconsin Synod. In the latter’s meetings and ensuing reports the executive speeches of Muehlhaeuser and Bading [the first two presidents of the Wisconsin Synod] spoke of a “mild Lutheranism.” That expression really had little to do with Luther or doctrine, but was aimed at excessive doctrinal strife, in which the above named synods were more or less engaged. The expression did not convey the real doctrinal position of the Wisconsin Synod, but the other three, while fighting each other, were agreed on this at least that Wisconsin was a unionistic body.
The history of the 19th century Lutheran immigrant groups is above all the history of the “triumph of orthodoxy.” Eastern Lutheranism also was affected, as has already been noted. The “American Lutheranism” of S.S. Schmucker and B. Kurtz, while it did not die out, was ideologically defeated. Any Lutheran movement which did not at least pay articulate lip service to explicit confessionalism found itself out of the mainstream of things. Lutheran orthodoxy not only triumphed in terms of becoming the dominant Lutheran expression, but it also proved in many respects to be a highly successful adjustment to what was called for by the exigencies of a frontier situation in which an alien people were forced to forge a self-identity which would also make possible the planting of a missionary church.
- P. Koehler’s historical analysis can be of help—perhaps of considerable help—in trying to understand something about the complicated and elusive reason why orthodoxy could triumph in American Lutheranism, and why in its triumph it could take a form which represented both a continuation and a modification of the European Old-Lutheran movement. The phenomenon itself is striking, since this form of Lutheranism would appear to have been swimming against the stream. The story of 19th century American religion otherwise is the story of the wholesale decline and repudiation of inherited and transplanted orthodoxies. When a given theology no longer appears to be true to social realities or to the existential psychological situation, then that theology is repudiated, or it becomes merely a formal profession of faith but having little relationship to the real faith of the adherents, or it remains the faith of a “cultural lag” group which must increasingly ghettoize itself in order to maintain a position which in the main-stream social context is no longer credible. Almost everywhere in America a growing affinity for the patterns and thought forms and anti-abstractionism of the American democratic dream resulted in a radical modification of that Calvinism which was, after all, the tradition of American Protestantism. The 19th century has aptly been termed the “Methodist Period” in church history. Charles Grandison Finney personified the movement. Whatever else the movement was, it was most certainly the triumph of a “new-time religion” and the rejection of the old. Of Calvinism almost nothing was left except the dogma of “once saved, always saved.” Even that had been given a subtle anthropocentric twist in that the confidence was not so much in the dependability of God’s action (on the basis of his eternal decision) as in the dependability of the conversion experience itself. The American frontier experience was a loud assertion of man’s potentialities and his freedom for movement together with a rejection of forms carried over from Europe which might limit man’s freedom or self-determination.
American Lutheranism, it would seem, moved in very different directions. It may be, however, that its directions were not as different as they might appear to be. Interestingly enough, the high church notions that went with European Old-Lutheranism were merely discarded. The Missourians, who were the most successful orthodoxists, repudiated all hierarchical notions of Church and Ministry with a vengeance. They absolutized a thoroughly American congregationalism and developed a doctrine of the Ministry (“Transfer of Office”) which was emphatically low-church. So also the most violent controversy in American Lutheranism became the Election strife. The battle centered around the issue of free-will, and even those Lutherans who held out for the “bondage of the will” (the Missourians) became past masters at affirming a doctrine of divine monergism (which might lead to quietism) together with an emphasis upon activism which was not inconsistent with an Arminian conception of man.
Koehler documents the triumph of orthodoxy as it affected his own denomination in its steady movement toward conservatism. He also offers numerous comments on the theological “short-cuts” and improvisations involved. The Wisconsin Synod is a good case study of a group which moves to the right at the same time as it is adjusting to the needs of the societal situation in which it finds itself. The Synod’s movement toward conservatism cannot be explained only in terms of influence from the Missouri Synod. Certainly, Wisconsin came into contact with Missouri and these contacts helped to shape Wisconsin’s articulation of its position. Wisconsin, however, set out on its conservative track at least as early as 1856, when a unanimous stand was taken against the Definite Synodical Platform, sponsored by S. S. Schmucker and B. Kurtz. Among other things it was stated at the 1856 meeting of the Wisconsin Synod that the “Unaltered Augsburg Confession was founded upon the Word of God and that the adoption of the Definite Platform meant suicide for the Lutheran Church. Even after this, Missouri kept up its running attacks against Wisconsin. As late as 1864 Missouri made an especially sharp attack, the sort of attack which psychologically would tend to alienate rather than to influence the Wisconsin Synod. Similar suspicions continued for a long time.
What the Wisconsin Synod development tends to reinforce is the thesis that orthodoxy captured Lutheranism primarily because of the exigencies of the American situation itself. Certainly this is a more tenable thesis than one which would see the orthodox triumph as an example of “cultural lag.” This latter generalization is an oversimplification. If one wants to sustain it he is compelled to do violence to some of the historical evidence. The theory must assume that the Lutheran immigrants brought along with them to America a firm loyalty to confessionalism (as well as a commitment to cultural and religious separatism) as that had found its articulation in the German battle with rationalism, liberalism and syncretism. The point is then made that these Midwestern Lutherans simply brought with them and tenaciously held on to their theology, that they isolated themselves culturally and religiously and thus managed to preserve their self-identity. To be sure, the theory is not without some historical evidence which becomes part of the story. The language problem did immediately isolate these immigrants. The theory can point, too, to the obvious example of the Saxons who made up the beginnings of the Missouri Synod. It can point likewise to the origins of the Buffalo or Iowa Synods. Even, however, with such an apparently obvious case as that of Missouri, the theory is an oversimplification. Missouri attracted the loyalty of large numbers of German immigrants who most certainly did not come here as solidly orthodox and did not, in fact, come here for religious reasons at all. Furthermore, Missouri’s phenomenal success and its uncanny ability to sense what its environment called for are hardly characteristics that normally accompany “cultural lag.” Just as seriously, the theory has to overlook the striking modifications which took place. It overlooks the fact that the Buffalo Synod which rigidly refused to modify its position was a dismal failure. Nor does the theory fit either the Ohio or Wisconsin Synods, both of which became increasingly conservative as they progressively established themselves. Furthermore, the movement toward conservatism among the Eastern Lutherans can hardly be credited to culturally isolated Germans. In Charles Porterfield Krauth, the articulate spokesman for confessionalism in the East, we deal with a man who in no sense fits any theory of cultural lag.
Obviously, there is no one theory to account for the phenomenon. This much is certain, however, that the Lutherans found themselves in a strange and alien culture. The problem of survival and self-identity became severe, especially on the frontier where the form of Protestantism encountered in the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly of a low-church, revivalistic, decision-centered evangelicalism. The cultural situation was different from anything the Lutherans had met before. “Methodism” was its religious expression and extension. Anti-intellectualism, ahistoricism and simplism were pervasive. Nor had the Lutherans ever lived in a pluralistic society with a free-church tradition. And although they later ingeniously managed to construct a rationale for separation of church and state (and eventually even to make an absolute doctrine out of it), the Lutheran tradition as such had no resources for such a situation. The founding fathers were faced in all events with the need to work with speed and dispatch and face the pressing problem of gathering together the scattered, uneducated immigrants and molding them into a cohesive and loyal group. Self-identity and indoctrination became acute needs of the moment. Here, just as in Europe in the battle against rationalism, the need for self-identity could be served by the highly articulate, precise, logical and unambiguous orthodoxy of the seventeenth century. It served also the need for a simple system, although this is not to say that the dogmaticians in their own period had been simplistic. It must also be recalled that the Old-Lutheran movement was part and parcel of Romanticism with its pervasive tendency toward simplistic restorationism. Ready-made answers were provided by an indiscriminate repristination in which for Lutherans the task of theology “took up where Loescher left off.” For indoctrination purposes this made for a system that could be easily taught and learned. The complications that would have resulted from employing the new linguistic, literary and historical tools that were available by the mid-nineteenth century were successfully evaded, even if they were to crop up later with a vengeance as Lutherans in the twentieth century have had to pay a very heavy price for neglecting their homework earlier. Confessional orthodoxy (which may not have been so confessional or orthodox after all) would not have triumphed if it had not been uniquely relevant to the needs of the hour. No “ism” can live if it lacks usefulness. However, properly modified it suited the situation. The notable “Americanists” may well have been the confessionalists who achieved the simple, clear-cut, teachable tool that was called for. This becomes then not “cultural lag” but quite its opposite. The needs of the time called for speed and dispatch and a romantic vision. And so the cultural phenomenon of Romanticism with its pervasive tendency to attempt to recover spiritual vitality by resurrecting some golden age of the past—what school of Romanticism one belonged to: Oxford Tractarianism, or Campbellite Restorationism, or German Old-Lutheranism—was, on the one hand, determinative. This involved a good deal of historical digging. Much of the historicism was, however, basically ahistorical. On the other hand, those inherited presuppositions which conflicted with the American environment were either discarded or modified. Certainly, as Koehler points out, America was the country in which concepts of freedom were invited to thrive. Any conception which appeared to deny the egalitarian impulse or to minimize man’s self-determination faced no future. Thus the notable discarding of all hierarchical high-churchmanship among American Lutherans, as well as the cultivation of a peculiarly un-Lutheran activism. Even when the Old-Lutheran position was modified at specific points (as also it was modified on the issue of Election by Missouri and Wisconsin), this did not result in any fundamental reexamination of the tradition otherwise. Thus the modifications that did occur tended to take on a certain character of improvisation.
It is not fair, however, to dismiss the phenomenon of confessional American Lutheranism as “dead orthodoxy.” It was most certainly not what that much-abused term would imply. No dead forms could possibly have produced the vitality of faith which was so manifestly operative in the life of those Midwestern Lutherans as they labored zealously to build on American soil an authentic Lutheranism. And as elsewhere, one need only speak again of C. F. W. Walther. He used the only tools with which he was acquainted. Those were the orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians. His hobby was the Latin disputation and his method of teaching was to dictate annotations on the text of J.G. Baier’s Compendium Theologiae Positivae(Jena, 1704). In 1879 Concordia Publishing House reprinted the Baier work together with Walther’s annotations. This freed the students from the tedious job of taking dictation and allowed the teacher more class time for commentary. It did not in any way alter the method. Likewise, Walther carried on his theological polemics in the method and categories of the dogmaticians and for this he received his reputation as a “repristination theologian.” Nevertheless, however, hindered he was by his excessive reliance upon the methodology of an earlier period and in spite of the fact that this same tradition went stale and sour in some of his disciples, Walther himself was most certainly no formalist. Nor was he a dead orthodoxist. His primary interest was never in abstractions. He dealt with issues that to him were alive and of critical evangelical significance. This is manifestly true of his famous Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (St. Louis, Concordia, 1897). The theology of Lutheran orthodoxy is here applied to proclamation and pastoral care with warmth and evangelistic fervor. He set a good motif for his contemporaries. And not only within Missouri but also within the other synods one can only be impressed by the remarkable fruits of the pulpit, classroom and pastoral attempts to build up the faith-life of the pioneer Lutherans.
One is also impressed by the almost incredible success of the Midwestern Lutherans. In the face of tremendous obstacles the Lutheran immigrants established synodical organizations that for the most part weathered the tests to which they were put. Parishes were established and churches and parochial schools built. Literature was published, academies, colleges and seminaries were founded. With speed and dispatch and with careful attention to what, according to their own lights, was conceived of by these Lutherans as the necessary equipment for the pastoral task, men were trained for the ministry, ordained and sent to serve on the burgeoning frontier. Nor did the exigencies of a frontier society and an anti-intellectual environment prevent these Lutherans from engaging in intensive theological dialog and study. Periodicals and theological journals flourished. One can be no less than amazed at the energy and productivity of the founding generation.
The failures of Midwestern American Lutheranism were, however, no less notable than its successes. If its intentions were to establish on American soil a thoroughly confessional Lutheran church, it is clear that this intention was never achieved. What is rather true is that almost from the very beginning the Lutheran immigrant groups became involved in doctrinal controversies. These controversies in turn kept the groups embroiled in continuous polemics and step by step spelled doom to any productive movement toward unity. The catalyst of the situation was again C. F. W. Walther. Precisely what form a united orthodox Lutheranism would have taken cannot be said, since it never developed. It is probable, however, that it would have taken a form something along the lines of “state-synods.” Such a conception was in fact proposed at one time. As conceived, all orthodox Lutheran congregations would have been organized into geographical synods. This would have been in keeping with Walther’s own negative attitude toward juridical centralization and his subsequent stress upon localism. There would also have been a larger national federation of state synods as a symbol of their doctrinal unity. The larger federation would by delegated authority have taken care of those tasks, such as foreign mission work, publications and theological education, that could not well be done by the smaller unity. Walther conceived of a large central seminary which would train men for the ministry. The state synods, while retaining a high degree of autonomy, would have been knit together in doctrinal unity by virtue of a common seminary committed to thorough training in orthodox theology. Such a federation never developed and even the formation of the Synodical Conference in 1872, although it involved something of a national federation of autonomous synods (not, however, strictly speaking state-synods) and did give symbolical expression to doctrinal unity, did not result in any effective movement toward unity. It most certainly did not prevent competition even among the synods involved in the Conference.
Accompanying Walther’s fervent desire for Lutheran unity was his equally fervent conviction that any defensible external unity must give expression to complete agreement in doctrine. Thus in season and out of season he labored for the establishment of the “pure doctrine.” In the process he did battle on numerous fronts. He battled the Buffalo Synod and its leader, J. A. A. Grabau. Grabau’s “Romanizing” doctrine of Church and Ministry was the bone of contention. He put strong stress on the “visibility” of the Church and was at least as strict as was Walther about pure doctrine and practice. In his doctrine of the Church he came very close to actually identifying the pure Lutheran Church with the true, visible Church on earth. In this controversy Walther emphasized the “invisibility” of the Church and thereby too insisted that any believer, even if a member of a heterodox denomination, was a member of the true Church. Likewise, on the subject of the Ministry, Grabau’s conception of the Office of the Keys flew directly in the face of Walther’s contention that the ministerial office derives its authority directly from the universal priesthood of believers. The Office of the Keys belongs to the Christian people but is publicly administered through the pastoral office (“transfer of office theory”). The controversy with Buffalo was intense and Walther was the victor in the sense that Buffalo was destroyed as any potentially viable force in American Lutheranism. Given its doctrine and practice Buffalo would probably never have flourished even aside from the controversy. The controversy with the Iowa Synod was more serious and tragic. It alienated two groups that really belonged together and which might well have complemented the other. Both possessed healthy instincts from which the other group might have profited. The genius behind Iowa’s founding was Wilhelm Loehe of Neuendettelsau in Bavaria. The early relationships between Loehe and those Missourians who settled around Frankenmuth, Michigan had been warm and cordial. Loehe, however, had questions about Walther’s doctrine of the Ministry. Walther traveled to Neuendettelsau to iron out the disagreement, no agreement was reached, and in view of Walther’s insistence upon total doctrinal agreement further fraternal relationships became impossible. The break occurred in 1853, and Loehe wrote a touching farewell to the Missourians in which he pointed out their sectarian tendencies with perhaps more charity than the situation warranted. There is no indication that Missouri heeded the warning. The following year Loehe helped found the Iowa Synod.
The Iowa Synod thus began its existence already suspected of false doctrine on the issue of Church and Ministry. Soon disagreements arose between Iowa and Missouri also on the so-called “Open Questions” (Chiliasm, Anti-Christ, Sunday, etc.). Iowa was willing to allow a certain latitudinarianism on certain secondary issues while Missouri again demanded complete agreement. Iowa’s “exegetical tendency” also meant that the two groups employed the Lutheran confessional writings somewhat differently. Both were committed to the whole of the Book of Concord. Iowa, however, preferred in doctrinal controversy to go directly back to Scripture rather than to begin the task with proofs from the confessional documents. Agreement between Iowa and Missouri was never reached and Missouri regarded Iowa as unorthodox.
Between the Missourians and the Norwegians controversies also developed. In fact, the controversies among the Norwegians offer a good commentary upon the ethos of orthodox American Lutheranism. In 1853 the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America (referred to most often as the Norwegian Synod) was organized. Its founding fathers were university-trained theologians from Norway. There they had already been deeply influenced by the Norwegian counterpart to German Old-Lutheranism. They were almost immediately attracted to the Missourians. It is clear today that however successful orthodoxy was among the Germans (and, in fact, it was phenomenonally successful) it failed to catch hold on the grass roots level among the Norwegians. From the very beginning there was a basic suspicion of the alliance between them and the Germans. However, the Synod fathers were determined to build a thoroughly orthodox Norwegian denomination. For them this meant both the alliance with the Missourians (and to a lesser degree with the Ohio Synod) as well as the heavy reliance upon the classical dogmaticians.
Already in 1859 there was debate over “Lay Preaching” and already the Synod line was solidly Missourian. This meant that the position taken appeared to be anti-democratic. During the same period there was discussion about the Christian Sunday. Again the Synod came down orthodox, Missourian, and unambiguously against the Methodistic ethos of American Evangelical Protestantism. On the acute issue of slavery the Synod once more came down Missourian when it declared that “slavery is not in itself a sin.” Certainly, the slavery stand of the Synod caused more than a little consternation among the laity. In matters of practice this same solid Missourian line was apparent as the Synod leaders worked hard and with appallingly little success to establish a parochial school system. By the early 1860’s there was the controversy regarding “Absolution.” Once more the Synod came down orthodox, Missourian and totally objectivistic. The stand meant a solid blow against experiential pietism. More importantly, the argument about Absolution moved directly into the subject of “Objective Justification.” It is clear that the Synod theologians and Walther, whom they were following, meant to affirm as emphatically as possible the objectivity of the Gospel. By Objective Justification they meant that God has in fact, not only potentially, justified the entire world. Every man is objectively justified whether he knows it or not. Faith is not then man’s good deed by means of which he fulfills a condition of salvation (which would quite obviously make out of faith a good work and thereby too would come under Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers in Galatia) but simply the organ of apprehension by which a man appropriates to himself the truth about himself. This is not, however, to imply that Walther and his Norwegian disciples were in any sense precursors of the positivistic objectivism of Karl Barth. They were emphatically not universalists. Justification exists but aside from conversion and faith it is an abstraction that has no relationship to a man’s existence here or in eternity. Hell would be populated with justified sinners. Grace is objective but only faith makes it mine. And so, how does faith occur?
Now we come directly to the old problem of Election. Now too we come to what became the most bitter and divisive and yet also the most theologically significant controversy in the entire history of Midwestern American Lutheranism. The controversy involved not only the Missourians and the Norwegians (although it became by all odds the most disruptive among the Norwegians), but also the Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa Synods. The Lutherans in the East also took sides and the fame of the battle even spread to Germany as a Gutachten was solicited from the theological faculty at Rostock. By the time the controversy was over Midwestern Lutheranism had been disastrously shaken to its very foundations. Walther’s dream of a united confessional Lutheranism had been destroyed utterly beyond repair. What might have become the golden opportunity for theological reorientation became instead a theological impasse. Nor did the trauma of the controversy ever shake the orthodoxists of any of the warring synods out of their comas of doctrinal infallibility. The Election Controversy was fruit of the past and seed for the future. On no side were there clean hands or pure motives. Past controversies and strained feeling had set up a tinder box that was ready for explosion. The pervasive neglect of exegetical work meant that the necessary resources for original exegetical study were lacking. Koehler offers a penetrating analysis of the controversy itself as well as the context within which it occurred.
The upshot of all this unrest and confusion and the forces at work in the Synodical Conference hardly were a credit to any of the embattled parties or to the theology of the day. A mistaken zeal for the house of God and plain partisan policy; high emotion and a certain amount of indifference; intense loyalty to personalities and synods, on the other hand individualism and independence; ruthlessness and ill breeding, intensified by the study of Flacius’ and Calov’s passionate polemics—all were at play more or less according to geographical antecedents, theological training, and personal make-up.
It is neither possible nor necessary here to survey the controversy in detail. The rough outlines of the issue are, however, appropriate to this essay. Historically Lutheranism, in keeping with Luther’s recovery of St. Paul, has tried to take seriously the “Universal Will of Grace,” the radical affirmation that salvation is always gift and nothing but gift. It affirms that the good and gracious will of God covers all men. The Gospel is not only an offer but also an effective good deed. Lutheranism has also, however, and again in keeping with St. Paul, Luther and the Lutheran confessions, taken seriously the doctrine of “Particular Election.” This means to take seriously also the question that inevitably arises if God wills the salvation of all men and if, furthermore, salvation is gift prior to and independent of man’s meeting of any conditions demanded of God, of why some are saved and not others (Cur Allii Prae Alliis?). One Lutheran view simply asserts both the Universal Will of Grace and Particular Election. This is the so-called “First Form of Election.” It leaves the solution to the question as a paradox not solvable through intellectual speculation. This view, although not cast in the identical dogmatic formulation, was the position of Luther and of the Formula of Concord. At its best Election is a way of affirming man’s security before God (which is why in St. Paul it becomes the epitome of the good news which is God’s “impossible possibility”). God has taken care of salvation and if this is so then man can quit his introspective preoccupation about his status before God, the work of religion is done with, and man is invited to rest secure that God can be trusted to fulfill a promise which is always the promise of grace. Man’s vocation then is to live worthy of the vocation to which he has been called and not to speculate on the hidden things of God.
Obviously, however, Election became something quite different from this. It not only became one dogmatic formulation among other formulations but it has also been difficult to avoid the context of the Calvinistic-Arminian controversy in which the whole subject became cast. In all events, the “classical Lutheran view,” as progressively the preoccupation with dogmatic formulae put exegetical study out of business, tended to become an abstraction. Furthermore, the “classical” Lutheran dogmaticians of the 17th century had problems with the “First Form” of Election. This is not surprising given their methodology with its notorious “causa” scheme. They came up with the so-called “Second Form.” Those whom God foresaw would come to faith he also predestined to salvation. This is Intuitu Fidei(“Election in view of faith” rather than “unto faith”). Any trace of Calvinism is rejected and the paradox of the First Form is overcome. However, all the material is also there for a full blown synergistic Arminianism. The implication is obvious—God is effectively gracious if man can come to repentance and faith. It is, furthermore, not Election at all. At best (that is, for those who did not couple this view with an Arminian theology as the Lutheran dogmaticians did not) it becomes only an observation upon God’s foreknowledge and thus an aspect of his omniscience. The Second Form became the dominant tradition of Lutheran dogmatics and as such part of the tradition of Lutheran orthodoxy.
It is hardly surprising that Election became a problem in America where by and large no predestinarian concept, not even one as meaningless as Intuitu Fidei, was compatible with the emerging religious mood. Nor is it surprising that Walther in reasserting the discarded First Form was charged with departing from the “orthodox view.” The blame for the change was partly Walther’s own fault. He, perhaps more than anyone else, had invested the dogmaticians with exaggerated authority. His St. Louis seminary had led the way in its preoccupation with the orthodox fathers and it had hallowed their faulty theological technique. The rank and file of the pastors had been thoroughly indoctrinated in a system of dogmatics of which Intuitu Fideiwas only a part. Nor had the pastors been introduced to any discriminate use of their sources. On the catechetical level the heavy reliance on Johann Conrad Dietrich’s Catechism indoctrinated the people in the same tradition.
One can not say why it was that Walther parted company with the dogmaticians at this point, since otherwise he remained as uncritical of them as did his opponents. Nor can we say with any absolute certainty why he became so preoccupied with the subject of Conversion and Election. We can, however, make an educated guess. Walther and his Lutheran contemporaries did their work, after all, in an American environment which was strongly Arminian and one in which man’s self-determination appeared true to reality. Such an environment was obviously at odds with the original Lutheran understanding of the nature of man and the essential Gospel proclamation. It is clear that Walther regarded any synergistic theology as cruel deception in its refusal to deal with man’s predicament realistically. By the 1870’s Walther was attacking the Second Form of Election. He believed that in America it could not help but support a synergistic doctrine of Conversion. Thus too he affirmed the First Form and asserted that “God has from eternity already elected a number of men to salvation; he has determined that these shall and must be saved; and as certainly as God is God, they will be saved, and besides them none other. In what was certainly one of his most careless moments Walther is quoted as having said that “Many a father is more gracious to one child than to another, because it is more obedient, and gives him more pleasure. …God deals with us in the same way, only he does not even inquire whether we obeyed or not; he simply does as he pleases.”
By 1880 the Election Controversy was raging with violence. Walther’s most articulate opponent became Professor F. A. Schmidt, a Missourian-trained professor at the seminary of the Norwegian Synod. Schmidt, in keeping with his consistent loyalty to the old dogmaticians, was an Intuitu Fideiman, and while, not intentionally a synergist seemed less afraid of synergism than of what he regarded as a dangerous emphasis upon divine monergism. Schmidt was also committed to a form of orthodoxy that was pervasively tempted toward rationalism. Schmidt’s opponents, certainly also Walther, were committed to the identical methodology and their theology was no less rationalistic, intellectualistic or atomistic. It only happened that at the point of Election and Conversion the Waltherians were so careful to protect the absolute glory of God and to reject even the faintest suggestion that sinful man could or needed to cooperate in his salvation that they had to reject the dogmaticians without, however, in any way repudiating their general methodology. Schmidt began publishing his journal Altes und Neuesin 1879, in which he attacked Walther and the Missourians as being both Calvinistic and unorthodox according to classical Lutheran standards. The latter accusation was fundamental to Schmidt’s case, as also to the case of the Ohio Synod which sided with him against Walther. Schmidt fought Walther in order to protect a tradition of Lutheran orthodoxy which Walther himself had so firmly established as normative. This is the irony of the situation. The tragedy is that none of the participants was able to emancipate himself from a methodology that could not but end in an impasse. Lutherans were paying a dreadfully heavy price for their previous delinquencies.
Midwestern American Lutheranism was torn apart. The Ohio Synod broke off relations with Missouri and left the Synodical Conference. Iowa, while less directly involved, was permanently alienated from Missouri. Wisconsin, contrary to what anyone could have expected, took its lead from its able theologian, Adolf Hoenecke, and while repudiating the polemical excesses of the Missourians, nevertheless, stood with Walther. The Norwegian Synod was literally torn to bits as scores of Norwegian congregations experienced violent splits and the Norwegian Synod experienced a major exodus of pastors who rebelled against its pro-Missourian position. Schmidt himself left the Norwegian Synod and remained to the end a foe of Walther’s “novel doctrine.” The controversy was a tragic fiasco.
- P. Koehler was convinced that in this instance the Missourians, supported by Wisconsin and some of the Norwegians, actually transcended their theological method. Walther’s opponents were better followers of Walther’s method than was Walther himself. Koehler points out, for instance, in discussing Schmidt that his procedure resulted not only from personal motives (of which Koehler, like Walther, was convinced), but also from “the theological training of the time in general and that of Missouri in particular.” What the Election Controversy indicated above all was that Lutheranism had to get beyond a dogmatical method which prevented any bold penetration into the world of the Bible itself.
The battle should have paved the way for reorientation all along the line. It did not accomplish that. Neither Walther nor his opponents, most of whom were seriously committed to the task of dialectical theology, were in any productive way able to meet a new situation that might have allowed Lutheran theology to plow new ground with new tools. The inherited hold of 17th century dogmatics hung on as a heavy ball and chain. Walther never did learn to subject his dogmatical methodology to any fundamental criticism. If the Lutheran dogmaticians were wrong at one point might it not just be that they were wrong also at other points and perhaps even in their very way of doing theology? The voluminous work of Walther’s successor, Franz Pieper, is ample evidence that this important question was never asked. The opponents of Walther, and notably the Ohio Synod, remained faithful to the same tradition. The primary difference between the orthodoxy of Missouri and Ohio was, after all, only that the former was so much more successful. Even a cursory examination of the catalogs of the various theological seminaries of the orthodox Midwestern Synods between 1880 and approximately 1930, and even later, is ample evidence that the old tradition lived on with little modification. The theological polemics that continued to pass back and forth evidence the same continuing tradition. Only among some of the Norwegians was there much reorientation, and history will have to decide how sound some of that was. It is true that the Norwegians were furnished with the occasion for a new alignment that had been in the making for a long time. There was among them an emerging Americanism with a growing affinity for the patterns and thought forms of the American democratic dream. Thus among some of those Norwegians who broke with Walther there was also a relatively firm break with the larger tradition. There was a broad churchmanship in the make which found its hopes and ideals more or less personified by St. Olaf College. This was a churchmanship influenced by and oriented toward the democratic ideology. As such it was strikingly reflective of what emerged as the grass-roots faith of the Norwegian immigrants settling down to a permanent place in the new world. On the negative side, it proved a churchmanship incapable of plowing any new ground theologically. It tended to neglect dialectical theology and was thus always threatened by theological formlessness and a captivity to a cultural stance that combined democratic Americanism, Lutheranized Evangelical Protestantism, and chauvinistic Norwegian nationalism.
The Election Controversy might have forced American Lutheranism to address its new situation with a theology that in Biblical categories asserted both the triumph of divine grace and the existential crisis of human responsibility. Yet more than merely a new method of doing theology was needed. Method, while important, in itself is powerless to engender life. It is essential here to recall one aspect of the genius of the Lutheran Reformation. Lutherans alone, of the ecclesiastical movements of the day, refused to absolutize any forms of polity or ceremony. Behind this refusal was the profound instinct that the Gospel’s purpose transcends the creation of particular forms or liturgical rubrics or social conventions or methods. Any forms which make for the free and authentic proclamation of the Good News and which effectively nourish Christian faith-life are useable forms in their own time and place. When a form ceases to serve the Gospel it ceases to possess any usefulness. Consequently theological method proves expendable. Any method which can serve as a productive handmaid to the Gospel is to be cultivated. What the Election Controversy indicated was not that the dogmatic method could not serve as a vehicle for the gospel—if that were so then the entire story of orthodox Midwestern Lutheranism in the 19th century would be a story of futility—but that it was an inadequate and, in many respects, a mischievous method. At all events its end as far as further doctrinal discussion was concerned was a dead end. This lesson was not learned. This is the tragedy of Walther and Schmidt and most of the rest of their company. Even the introduction then of exegetical work at St. Louis by Georg Stoeckhardt in the
1880’s did not serve to overcome the heavy emphasis upon traditional dogmatics. The other orthodox seminaries fared little better. All this only reminds us that traditionalism dies a hard death and that miracles seldom occur in church history. Nevertheless, the task of the Christian community, committed as it is to serious reflection upon the content of
Christian Revelation, is to be ready to hear, to reflect upon, to articulate and to obey when the moment is prepared and waiting for the new leaven to cleanse out the old. Old wine in new wineskins makes for sour drink. A new word was to come. Contrary to what anyone could have predicted it was to come neither from St. Louis nor from Columbus nor from the Norwegians, but from Wauwatosa.