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: Following is the second and last part of a reprint of 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). Punctuation has been left as published throughout.
The Message Of The Wauwatosa Gospel
We deliberately call it the “Wauwatosa Gospel.” That is precisely in keeping with J.P .Koehler’s conception of the task of the entire theological enterprise. Theology for Koehler is not one interesting and stimulating intellectual discipline among other disciplines. It is not religious speculation and as such the task of academic theologians who by virtue of their profession enjoy the leisure to cultivate their interest in religion. Neither, however, is the primary task of theology the construction of an impressive and compelling system of pure doctrine. Theology, rather, exists solely to assist the Church in its proclamation and pastoral ministry. It is faithful to this task only when it is listening to that message which is always God’s message rather than man’s message. When John Philipp Koehler joined the faculty of the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary at Wauwatosa in the fall of 1900 he was, furthermore, destined to become the father of a theology which was dedicated to thoroughgoing reform and renewal. The bad fruits of past mistakes were seen in almost all areas of the life of the Midwestern
synods. The Election Controversy had merely dramatically demonstrated the extent to which a faulty tradition and its approach to profound Biblical material had acted as a ball and chain. American Lutheranism needed to get beyond the grammar and syntax level. The
Wauwatosa Theology was to make an effort to return to the fundamental genesis of Luther’s theology in order to recapture Luther’s insights and apply them to the new historical situation. This would compel the Wauwatosa men to study the Scriptures directly and thus to elevate exegesis and history in the effort to return to the primary sources of Christian faith-life.
Koehler had joined the Wauwatosa faculty in 1900. August Pieper was installed in 1902, and in 1908, Koehler and Pieper were joined by John Schaller, who became the successor to Adolf Hoenecke as the professor of dogmatics. Pieper and Schaller joined Koehler in an attempt at new beginnings.
With the Old Lutherans of the 19th century it was different. Its sources were the 17th century fathers of Lutheran dogmatics and the confessional writings, and the struggle was directed against the Prussian Union (whose supporters, surely, were not without faith and Christian knowledge). In going back to those secondary sources, the Old Lutherans not only took over the forms of organization and worship, but also the intellectualism which was just as much the mentality of the 19th as the two preceding centuries. Whatever obtained in the 16th and 17th centuries, was considered the Lutheran idea and was reintroduced. This was not always prompted by the freedom of the Gospel but by the lack of discrimination of this Romantic period and by dogmatic ideas . . . . So there was no one in those days . . . to pose the question whether or not the forms of the 17th century were suited to the 19th century. This question and its correct answer were imperative . . . . A further important question, of course, would have been whether these forms even in the 17th century were an adequate expression of the great truths of the Gospel.
August Pieper was born at Carwitz, Pomerania, in 1857. He was educated at Northwestern College and
Concordia Seminary, from which he graduated in 1879. During his pastorate in Milwaukee he became recognized as a theologian and leader, and in 1902 was called to Wauwatosa to teach Old Testament. He continued in active service until 1941, and died in 1946. He was a younger brother of Franz Pieper and a brother-in-law of Georg Stoeckhardt. In point of view August Pieper had more in common with Stoeckhardt than with
John Schaller was born in St. Louis in 1859, the son of Gottlieb Schaller, a professor at Concordia Seminary. J. Schaller graduated from Northwestern College and from Concordia Seminary. In 1881 he was ordained and eight years later was called to teach at Dr. Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota. In 1908 he moved to Wauwatosa. He died in 1920. Both Koehler and Pieper were sons of the Wisconsin Synod, while Schaller was a Missourian by birth.
The three Seminary colleagues, though of about the same age, gifts, schooling, spirit, and aims, were not by any means built on the same last or repetitions of any model. The fact that each stood on his own feet was calculated, on the one hand, to make for mischief and lead to disagreement; on the other hand, it was an earnest that under God they should stand so much more firmly shoulder to shoulder. Their
Seminary association was marked by both.
John Schaller’s main area of teaching was in dogmatics. His major publication was his Biblical Christology (Milwaukee, Northwestern, 1919). The book presents doctrinal theses in logical sequence, supports each with relevant proof passages, and further discussion of the particular thesis follows. The plan follows the traditional method. However, Schaller, while not an exegete, employed caution in his use of proof passages and tried not to tear them out of context. In this respect his work is more impressive than that, for instance, of Concordia’s Franz Pieper or that of the Norwegians’ Elling Hove. In his polemics too Schaller is cautious and evidences a desire to understand contrary views. In general, however, one gains the impression that Schaller’s approach remained conventional. On the other hand, he was willing to accept the new status assigned to dogmatics at Wauwatosa. That Schaller was not blind to the dangers of traditionalism is best indicated by his position on the doctrine of Church and Ministry. In this instance he lent his support and helped to contribute to a position that was contrary to his own former position. Schaller’s support of Koehler in this instance indicated a flexibility that is not always characteristic of the dogmatician. Although his Quartalschrift contributions are by no means as impressive as those of Koehler and Pieper, his addresses at the beginning of each school year (all printed in the Quartalschrift) indicate a deeply evangelical perspective. It is this perspective that must have come across to his students who held him in high regard, as did also his two talented colleagues.
August Pieper was an original thinker with a charismatic
personality. A study of his writings as well as interviews with a goodly number of his former students leave the distinct impression of an erratic genius. He was a
dynamic teacher with a forceful and unusually alert mind. Koehler, although well aware of certain less than admirable character flaws in Pieper, had high admiration for him and says that “he would have made good in any situation, by virtue of his abundant energy and stamina.” Pieper, unfortunately, also had a tendency toward superficiality. This generalization can be challenged by an examination of his Jesaias II (Milwaukee, Northwestern, 1919). This study of the last twenty-seven chapters of Isaiah is evidence of Pieper’s first-rate ability as an exegete. When one compares the quality of this exegetical work with what was passing for Old Testament exegesis at other orthodox Lutheran seminaries of the same period, one is doubly impressed. Pieper otherwise did not live up to the promise of his Isaiah volume with its magnificent translation into German meters of the Hebrew of Isaiah II.
Pieper was a heavy contributor to the Quartalschrift. Between the years 1910 and 1920 he wrote a number of essays on Church and Ministry and consequently is sometimes thought of as the author of the “Wisconsin Synod position.” He was not its author but rather its popularizer. The view itself grew out of Koehler’s historical work and its protest against any legalistic mentality which looks for permanent rules of church organization within the New Testament. Koehler asserts that the particular forms of Church and Ministry which we have inherited (focusing as they do upon the local parish and the parish pastor) were themselves historical developments and must be assessed as such. Koehler sought then not to establish a new dogma but rather to indicate that there is no such thing as one divinely established form for either Church or Ministry. He intended to emphasize the freedom of the Gospel to create its own forms in keeping with its historical situation. At the same time, any form if it serves the Gospel is of divine institution. Koehler’s position is distinctly charismatic rather than juridical. When reading Pieper on the subject one cannot help but be bothered by a tendency which appears like substituting one dogmatic position for another. What is even more unsatisfactory is Pieper’s preoccupation with suspension and excommunication. He is inordinately concerned with establishing that synodical suspension may also be genuine excommunication. Pieper was
giving a distinctly legalistic twist to a view that meant precisely to protest all legalism in its distinction between function and form. Later the new view of excommunication was to be used in the Protes’tant Controversy to mean that suspension was in every sense
It would, however, be unfair to imply that Pieper had no conception of Koehler’s perspective or to dismiss him as a legalist. There are undeniable legalistic overtones in his work. On the other hand, he waged unrelenting war against everything that appeared to him as legalism. If he sometimes missed the mark, overstates his case (and, to say the least, he was given to exaggerated statements) and fell into what he himself condemned, it remains true that at his best he could articulate very well the intentions of the Wauwatosa Theology.
Pieper was strongly interested in and had a flair for involvement in the practical life of the Synod. He was not primarily a reflective thinker and his writings are many of them of a practical nature. The best of them applied concretely what Koehler was teaching and writing in his impersonal and low-keyed style. There was in Pieper’s writing a freshness of viewpoint, a criticism of traditionalism and a continuous emphasis upon reform. He knew very well that the possession of “pure doctrine” is no guarantee of healthy life. And Pieper, more pointedly than his colleagues, criticized the tradition
August Pieper, however much he differed from his brother, Franz, was like him preeminently a polemicist and critic. Neither was moderate or cautious in his polemics. Both tended to be given to extravagant generalizations. Franz saw “false doctrine” all around him and polemicized accordingly. August was preoccupied rather with the dangers of legalism, formalism, and dead orthodoxy. These he saw as the dangers to which his type of Lutheranism was especially vulnerable. Typical of A. Pieper are such statements as the following:
We are spiritual mechanics, agents of prefabricated and assembly-line products. All that remains of our sermons is a rehashing of the same old, stale stuff. We add nothing new to what we once learned, the same treadworn speeches and phrases Sunday after Sunday, year in and year out. We have reached the bottom of our barrel, we find no pleasure in our own thoughts, they have long since become boring to us. At that, the machine purrs smoothly, the people even compliment us, which places the final seal on our spiritual stagnation.
We have already begun to make of our whole Christianity and Christian life, a matter of form, inherited with no effort from the fathers, and are about to keep the shell and to lose the kernel.
We preach the pure Word, do not shy away from reproving sin, and add no qualifications (Wenn and Aber) to the Gospel. We uphold discipline and order in the parish. We hold pure against the lodge. We insist on confessional announcements and the parish school. We visit the sick, are punctual and conscientious in the exercise of our calling . . . Now we need only add, “All these things have I kept from my youth. What lack I yet?” and we have the rich young ruler before us in life size.
Patristic theology draws the curtain of Moses over the face of the Holy Scripture so that we, satisfied with the originally acquired theological fund, really no more go to the Scriptures in original study, don’t really get to be at home in them, do not progress in knowledge, at conferences and Synod meetings only rehash the dogmatical capital brought along from school . . . and in the pulpit ride the same empty phraseology, exhaust our reserves, get fed up on our own stale thoughts, and bore our audiences,
In his polemic Pieper was applying the motifs that ran also through Koehler’s work, although Pieper’s form of expression was in sharp contrast to that of Koehler. It is significant that when the Protes’tant controversy erupted, a major bone of contention became a conference paper read by Pastor William Beitz in September of 1926. This became known as the “Beitz Paper.” Beitz himself had been something of a protégé of Pieper’s, and his paper was in point of fact strikingly similar in content to numerous things written by Pieper. Beitz, although not a careful polemicist (as Pieper was not either) was attacking the same kind of formalism which Pieper had consistently attacked. Even the phraseology was consistent with Pieper’s almost to the point of plagiarism. For it Beitz was charged with false doctrine and judging of hearts. It is ironic that Koehler, who was hardly happy with Beitz’s mode of expression, was compelled to defend him against heresy charges, while Pieper bitterly repudiated him. Nothing in the controversial Beitz Paper, certainly not its sharp criticism of formalism or its so-called “judging of hearts,” should have been shocking to a synod which for years had been listening to August Pieper and smarting under the critique. However, in the particular situation of the later 1920’s within the Wisconsin Synod the type of critique represented by Beitz could no longer be tolerated. It is also significant that after this time August Pieper no longer engaged in his earlier style of writing. As one tries from the vantage point of later history to analyze Pieper’s violent charges against the Beitz Paper and his ruthless repudiation of Koehler, one is at a loss to find any rational explanation for Pieper’s behavior. The course of events must finally be judged on the basis of the documents themselves. And at all events the record of Pieper’s earlier attempts at reform and renewal remains unimpaired. He was a significant molder of the Wauwatosa Theology.
John Philipp Koehler, like August Pieper, was primarily an observer and commentator on the empirical life of the Church. Unlike Pieper, who was not an historian and who was preoccupied with his immediate context and reacted accordingly, Koehler was a more reflective
student, broad in his perspective and cautious in his interpretations. In personality the two men contrasted sharply. Koehler was disinclined to take an active part in the political life of the Synod and he avoided associations that might involve him in any special interest groups. He was unfitted by temperament and opposed by conviction to influencing his associates except by means of impersonal and open testimony. By his own description he was something of a “lone rider” and “lacked the technique for popular teaching.” It would appear that he was neither understood nor appreciated by the rank and file of his students. Such influence as he did exert was felt through his classroom teaching, his public lectures and synodical essays, his Quartalschrift and Faith-Lifearticles and his published works. Since he was a voluminous writer it is an obvious impossibility here to deal with any representative number of specific writings. Many of these have been translated and published in Faith-Life and the Protes’tant Conference is diligently continuing to make them available in English.
Our primary interest here is to look at the Wauwatosa Theology with its emphasis upon the historical—
exegetical method and its call for church renewal within the context of Midwestern American Lutheranism. The emergence of the Wauwatosa Theology must, by any responsible assessment, be viewed primarily as the story of Koehler’s efforts and attainments. Reference has already been made to the theological atmosphere of the Midwestern synods and the extent to which this atmosphere had been shaped by a dogmatic tradition which was both a-historical and exegetically inadequate. It was, furthermore, a tradition which was seriously deficient in self-criticism and had proven its bankruptcy as a tool for bringing doctrinal controversies to any conclusion.
J.P. Koehler, who had come to maturity at the time of the Election Controversy, was thoroughly convinced that the disastrous effects of that controversy as well as the subsequent inability to overcome these effects themselves constituted concrete proof that new beginnings were necessary. The simplest problems could no longer be brought to any adequate solution and the Gospel message itself had become distorted into an eccentric and legalistic formula. Essentially Koehler wanted to insist that the way to unity is through exegesis (“Schriftauslegung”), history, and critical self-analysis. He insists too that any methodology whether in areas of doctrine or practice which produces “cocksureness” or forces one to be on the defensive for his own previously established position will inevitably make for tyrannical legalism and divisiveness. Above all it hinders the work of the Holy Spirit and produces hardening and judgment. The alternative is for faith as it seeks for knowledge to be informed and disciplined by history (which, for Koehler, includes exegesis).
All learning in the world is essentially historical study, also theology . . . .
Every other field of knowledge must receive its material from history, that is, the historical point of view . . . . In opposition often to this are the systematic disciplines; in secular sciences, philosophy; in theology, dogmatics. If philosophy attempts to create something positive which can conclusively settle the account of the past and give direction to future action in an absolute sense, it goes beyond its ability
. . . . The same applies to the work of dogmatics. The proper task of dogmatics has been treated correctly in theory in Lutheranism but not in practice. Theoretically, dogmatics should organize the material which has been gained in the history of the church through its historical-exegetical study. It should both cleanse theology from the rubbish of false and obsolete ideas and retain an open mind. . . .
This is important. Cocksureness which has everything all figured out and had thus settled all issues, is not the conviction of faith, neither in its method nor its reliability. It is selfish and loveless in its subjective assuredness, and lacks, at the same time, inner moral stability, and thus collapses in the face of an unexpected assault. Real conviction of faith, on the other hand, is a firm conviction which is built and grounded in a peculiar message of God’s grace. This faith is coupled with a humble knowledge of its own insufficiency both in perception and comprehension. Confessional firmness is not to be minimized, but if it is motivated by faith it is at the same time open to discussion with other believing Christians. To a certain kind of logical temperament this combination of firmness and openness is paradoxical. Of course, it is paradoxical, but then all of life is a paradox, our Christian life itself because of the duality of our total existence under sin and grace.
Koehler’s writings, emphasizing as they did Kulturgeschichte, were generally not of an academic nature and almost never deal with abstract definitions. Rather, his writings consisted largely of an analysis of life under the scrutiny of the Gospel. The positions he took grew out of his preoccupation with exegesis, cultural history, music, art, and literature as expressions of life, and here he was motivated by the strong conviction that a person sees all truth and judges all life from the perspective of his innermost convictions rather than by an abstract intellectual process. Thus too any theoretical conception of free will is deceptive.
Men do their thinking and living by force of the innermost instincts and motives of their souls, and these determine their emotions, their thoughts, their will and action. In their secret souls, or more or less subconsciously, men have a more or less complete vision, an all-around idea (video and idein), a general way of seeing or viewing all things that gives them their conceptions of right and wrong, of what is useful or harmful, beautiful or ugly, of what they want or don’t want; and this idea may become more clearly defined or it may undergo changes according to the inward and outward experiences of their lives. But when men think that they have composed this picture by impersonal reasoning, they deceive themselves. Not according to rules, theses, or dogmas does life proceed, but according to instinctive ideas, which are bound up with their whole personality, bound up with what they are with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their strength, with all their mind.
Koehler then was informed by a strong opposition to all intellectualistic theology whether that theology be traditional orthodoxy or sophisticated modern theologies. This does not mean that he was anti-intellectual but that he was emphatically anti-intellectualistic. The function of the academic theologian, as also that of the parish pastor, is to cultivate the life of faith and to develop a thoroughly Christian Weltanschauung. Expression is given to this position and to the corresponding emphasis upon historical study in the opening pages of Koehler’s History of the Wisconsin Synod under the heading “Materialism and Christianity.” Historical study is not one option among other options.
The Christian who would understand the history of the Church must give his attention to these things
. . . . It won’t do for a Christian to withdraw himself, satisfied with his personal faith, and let the world go by with the dictum that the world has entered the church, or that the church has become worldly-minded, without pondering how that has come about. Whoever strikes that pose, has failed to recognize his calling . . . does not understand his environment, and least of all himself and his own part in the judgment.
In exegesis, Koehler insisted on the study of Scripture as a coherent whole and in terms of context, historical background, and over-all message. Koehler’s best exegetical work is represented by his commentaries on Galatians and Ephesians. His clearest statement of hermeneutical methodology is to be found in his article “Die Analogia Fidei,” Koehler’s first article for the
Theologische Quartalschrift. It takes us back to the turn of the century and the intersynodical meetings conducted
by representatives from the synods which had been
involved in the Election Controversy. At the first of these conferences in which Wisconsin Synod men participated (April, 1903, at Watertown, Wisconsin), one of the Ohio Synod men objected to a point made by Franz Pieper and injected the term “Analogy of Faith” into the discussion. It became obvious that the participants did not agree on what the Analogy of Faith was. Franz Pieper, for instance, regarded it as the doctrine of
Justification, with which every other doctrine must be in agreement. Not all present agreed with this. However, no one thought of carefully examining the concept itself or the passage from Paul (Romans 12:6) on which the concept had been exegetically based. The expression had been used for over fifteen hundred years as a technical principle of interpretation. The Lutheran dogmaticians took over the principle also, and thus established it, together with its supposed exegetical foundation, for the Lutheran dogmatic development. Because the principle as such was simply assumed although there was little clarity regarding its content, it also followed in rather typical style that the discussions at the Watertown meeting were based on the various statements of the dogmaticians and an interpretation of these statements. While two contending parties emerged, as earlier in the argument regarding Election, the speakers did not question the concept of Analogy of Faith itself as a dogmatic hermeneutical principle. Koehler, on the other hand,
entertained doubts about the entire Analogy of Faith tradition. He was convinced that in listening to Scripture one must scrupulously question any abstract principle which encourages a tendency to determine ahead of time what the Biblical material may or may not say, as though there is a simplistic hermeneutical key to unlock Scripture or to explain away those materials which are embarrassing to the theological system. Neither is it the theologian’s task to create a neat and logical structure of separate truths tied together by one doctrine at the top. The very concept of Analogy of Faith appeared to
Koehler as a construction of dogmatics. As such it confused and obscured rather than clarified the historical-
exegetical task. His “Analogy of Faith” article protested then a tradition which held exegesis captive to dogmatics. Thus too it was an attack on traditionalism as it attempted to cut the ground out from under the premise on which much of orthodox system-building had rested.
Koehler illustrated first of all that there was no warrant whatsoever for using the passage in Romans as a rule for hermeneutics. The passage states only that a Christian should exercise the particular gifts he has as a believing member of the Body of Christ and for the
edification of the entire body. The passage contains nothing which has anything to do with a rule of interpretation. Koehler went on to a lengthy study in the exegesis of Christ and the Apostles to show that they knew nothing about any dogmatic control of exegesis. He points out that even the New Testament quotations from the Old do not determine what the original passages meant in their own situations. They appear in the New Testament to give force to the proclamation and to point to Christ as the ultimate meaning of also the Old Testament, but do not necessarily reflect the original context. Here Koehler breaks sharply with his tradition as he treats Scripture historically and sees progressive development. For orthodox dogmatics, on the other hand, Scripture was essentially a static store-house of timeless propositional truths. Such concepts as “resurrection” and “justification by faith” had always, even in the earliest chapters of Genesis, been taught and believed as explicit doctrines. Koehler likewise attacked the use of a passage which had long been considered analogous to the Romans passage. In 2 Timothy 1:13 Paul says, “Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me.” Here Koehler says there is no “direction for what might be called scientific exegesis in accord with the analogy of faith.” Certainly there was no support for Franz Pieper’s conjecture that perhaps Paul had given Timothy a brief digest of doctrine which the latter carried around on his trips and against which he could check himself.
Koehler’s most controversial point is developed in his discussion of the regula fidei (“rule of faith”). Behind this term lay a particular understanding of the Greek word for “faith.” It had been maintained that the word is used both subjectively and objectively. Subjectively it refers to the trust by means of which one believes in an object (fides qua creditor). Objectively it refers to “the faith which is believed”(fides quae creditor), that is, to a sort of compendium of doctrine. Koehler not only
asserts that “faith” as used in the two passages of Paul under discussion is subjective, but that the word is always used subjectively in the New Testament. Koehler’s point is that the New Testament is not constructing a doctrinal system but proclaiming God’s acts in man’s behalf. Paul and his contemporaries were not dogmaticians but preachers.
The entire tradition of an objective use of faith lay behind the regula fidei. This paved the way for the slighting of exegetical work in the preoccupation with a doctrinal position. Among other things, this also caused exegesis to proceed atomistically and non-historically, since passages were used largely as proofs for doctrinal theses that constituted the separate parts of the doctrinal
edifice that had been constructed. Already in the ancient Church this had begun to develop, and quite naturally. As early as the third century Irenaeus and Clement of
Alexandria were speaking of the regula fidei, although the stress was still on faith rather than rule. Then the North Africans and Romans, who were gifted in
neither exegetical nor speculative theology, in their “practical nature” needed and emphasized correct “church doctrine.” The great St. Augustine (for Koehler, as for Luther, the greatest of the church fathers) was not an exegete either but had mainly a dogmatic-
polemical interest. He thus needed an authoritative “church doctrine” and helped to firmly establish in the West the wrong idea of the Analogy of Faith, which then became authoritative for the Middle Ages and in a somewhat different form lived on in the Lutheran
After the Reformation the Lutheran dogmaticians
discarded with vehemence the regula fidei in the sense of the doctrine of an infallible church. They did not, however, drop what was behind it, the adherence to a simple, fixed, and coherent doctrinal system. And thus Koehler observes that by the seventeenth century and culminating in Johann Gerhard, the stress was again on the regula fidei, making “the doctrine of the church
under the name of analogy the norm of interpretation.” By this time the confessional writings and the fathers constituted the chief sources; dogmatical development was practiced instead of real exegesis, and the analogy of faith took the place of clear wording even more so than in the early Church (where things were more fluid), and certainly more so than in the period of Luther.
Koehler also, however, registers his dissatisfaction with what appeared to be the more progressive and emancipatory concept of the “whole of Scripture.” The Iowa Synod people had been influenced by J.C.K. von Hofmann and especially by his emphasis upon the study of Scripture as a coherent whole and as salvation history. Nevertheless, the insistence upon the “whole of Scripture” could easily produce effects similar to those of orthodoxy in so far as the immediate context of a text and the meanings of its words could be minimized or misinterpreted by virtue of a superimposed criterion which determined what could be said by the text under consideration. In this procedure, as also in the orthodox procedure, “language and history are subjected to a mighty process of forcing the meaning.” Koehler wants to avoid any method which forces meaning or requires special pleading. He wants the common sense meaning to be allowed to stand in Biblical interpretation just as in the interpretation of any other work of literature. He calls for a “return to the simplicity of the method as it is found in the self-evident, unbiased, general art of interpretation which everyone applies when he hears or reads another’s words. Not a “key” to Scripture but “clear wording” must be cultivated.
A passage is clear to me if I know what the words wish to say in their grammatical and historical sense and in the context of the passage. This is clear wording. For this it is not necessary that the logical and theoretical connection with other passages is clear to me as far as there is a system of thought. For if this were the meaning one would have to surrender claim to all communication.
A passage or a group of passages may be clear in their wording, and yet an obscurity may remain insofar as I am not able to bring them into agreement with others. This is, e.g., the case with the passages with which a century ago the rationalists concerned themselves . . . . And as far as this is the case, the exegete had nothing to do with it. The apologete may attempt solution . . . . However, I have no right in this case to call one passage clear or obscure, in contrast with another . . . . The wording may be clear in both cases.
The fact that Koehler’s findings were not to the satisfaction of either of the contending groups in the inter-
synodical conferences is indicated by the fact that the article received sharp attack including a formal protest, later ambiguously withdrawn, from the Faculty of
Concordia Seminary. The opponents of Missouri were no better satisfied.
In concluding the analysis of the “Analogy of Faith” article at least three items need to be clarified: (1) Koehler’s demand for exegetical objectivity, (2) his emphasis upon “clear wording,” and (3) his position on the reliability of Scripture.
(1) When Koehler asks for a hermeneutical method-
ology that attempts to divorce exegesis from dogmatic presuppositions, he is not so naïve as to believe that such a things as a completely presuppositionless approach is either possible or desirable. He understands that no person can divorce himself from his environment or tradition. In fact, just because he believes that everything a man thinks and believes is bound up with that man’s whole personality, he so sharply attacks what he regards as the myth of impersonal objectivity. In his attack on intellectualism and in his conviction that what a man loves, hates, wants and does not want, etc., are to a large extent conditioned for better or worse by influences over which his intellect has little control, Koehler, in fact,
denies any autonomous objectivity.
What is more, he does not believe that pure objectivity is even desirable. The interpreter as a believer is doing his work in the Church and in the service of the Church. As such he is not a tabula rasa but is with his whole being involved in the life of faith grounded in the objective message of God’s grace. The believer never, so to speak, steps out of his baptismal covenant. This is what
Koehler means by the recognition of a valid sense in which to speak of the regula fidei, and this is why he defends the original meaning of that expression regardless of its danger and what it tended to develop into.
(2) Koehler’s insistence upon “clear wording,” his insistence that the exegete should simply study the words of the text, and his repudiation of Analogy of Faith,
applied as an interpretational principle, might appear as a rationale for literalism. In point of fact, he protested any method which might engender literalism. Thus he voiced his appreciation of F.A.G. Tholuck’s principle that the sense of a passage must sometimes be derived not from the verbalized expression itself, not by pressing the Wortlaut, but by an interpretation of the words according to the sense. More precisely, he repeats that one must always, and especially in controversy, strive to get at what the other person intends with his perhaps unsatisfactory words.
This must be observed above all. . . Fairness demands that we seek to understand our opponent not as his words can or even must be understood, but as he wants them to be understood.
(3) Koehler’s position against a “whole of Scripture” principle resembles much in contemporary Biblical hermeneutics, where diversity and multiple theologies are taken for granted. This makes Koehler come out very modern. So also his polemic against the dogmatic tradition in exegesis has a contemporary ring. It should be said to make the record accurate, however, that
Koehler was in no sense inclined to distinguish between canonical Scripture and the Word of God. The Bible which the unsophisticated Christian reads can and should be trusted as God’s gift. He was not caught up in the doctrine of Verbal Inspiration and was highly critical of the legalistic intellectualism which accompanied it. Nor was he much interested in any particular theory of Inspiration and insisted that the character of Scripture is its own witness to the man of faith. The Bible as such does not teach a doctrine of Inspiration. At the same time Koehler had no doubts whatsoever but that canonical Scripture in its totality is inspired. He stood firmly for its
“givenness.” He simply insisted that a high doctrine of Scripture does not call for the a-historical, atomistic, proof-text
methodology which accompanied it. This methodology was a product of the dogmatic tradition and not of any high view of Scripture as God’s inspired Word.
Over twenty-five years after his original Quartalschrift article Koehler would apply his hermeneutical principles to an analysis of the controversial Beitz Paper and thereby also find himself to be in trouble.
Koehler’s consistent application of his hermeneutical method is apparent in all his exegetical work. Coupled with this is his insistence upon historical consciousness. Biblical truth, even in its original context, was historically formulated. These same truths as expressed in the empirical life of the Church down through the centuries are always historically conditioned. Thus also the theologian even when following theoretically correct methodology is influenced by his own history. Only with difficulty can one separate the essence of a thing from the historical form in which it finds its expression. Form and content tend to become one. Because this is true there is always the tendency to absolutize and read back into Scripture what were only historical developments. All this is illustrated in the doctrine of Church and
Ministry where what had in fact developed historically was treated as though the forms themselves were
absolute and valid for all times and in all situations. The Church and Ministry issue becomes an excellent example of the Wauwatosa’s historical-exegetical methodology in practice. It is worth noting that on this specific issue Koehler’s position was eventually adopted by the Wisconsin Synod. Nevertheless, it might also be suggested that even here what was important—the historical consciousness and the emphasis upon evangelical freedom—was not so well absorbed. In any event the new position on Church and Ministry was later used
precisely in order to justify synodical power in a way that the earlier position could not have been employed so easily. That, however, is part of a later story.
The Wauwatosa Theology at its best was always interested in applying the fruits of the historical-exegetical method also to the contemporary task of self-analysis, criticism and reorientation. Mention has already been made of August Pieper as a critic of church life. Koehler’s style was very different but his intention also was that of reform. That meant for him first of all reorientation in his own denominational household. He read all church history in the light of the Law-Gospel dichotomy. He was well aware of the great gulf that may lie between profession and practice and knew full well that the formal creed may have little to do with the actual life of a group. “Pure doctrine” is no guarantee of healthy life. He had a strong loyalty to Lutheranism, the Synodical Conference, and his own Wisconsin Synod. His loyalty was to a remarkable degree combined with a profound sense of the defects in his group. He was notably free from synodical chauvinism. The theologian must exert a conscious effort to cut through surface manifestations in order to get at the actual influences that are molding the essential character of a group.
Koehler’s critical attitude frequently was poorly received. Although he avoided petty gossip and discussion of personalities, his direct manner of address won him a gratuitous reputation for censoriousness. One example will suffice. At the 1908 Synodical Conference convention in New Ulm, Minnesota, Professor Franz Pieper of Concordia Seminary read a paper on unity. He pointed out the precariousness of such unity and then in thoroughly typical style enlarged on the disturbances to unity as they come from the Romanists, the Reformed, the General Synod, the Iowa and Ohio Synods and the heterodox in general. Koehler disliked this recurring habit of investigating evils outside the orthodox pale. Judgment, he insisted, must begin from within. Thus he commented on factors at play within an institution’s life as a more immediate threat to what the New
Testament means by unity. Astonishment was expressed at the thought that such things were actually going on. Koehler pointed out that much happens within a group which is inspired by “party spirit” and which is motivated by lack of faith and love. Pure doctrine may, in fact, act as a soporific. The analysis was illustrated by actual facts presented impersonally. It was objected that to say that such things were commonplace within the group was equivalent to judging hearts. Then it was moved and seconded that Koehler’s remarks not be recorded in the minutes. “What the writer did not know until the report appeared in print was that the Eastern Synods had, at the same meeting, been charged with the same kind of politics to which he had reference . . . . The charge against outsiders was not suppressed.
J.P. Koehler’s “Gesetzlich Wesen Unter Uns,” written in 1914, deals concretely with the life of the empirical denomination under the factors of sin and grace. It
becomes a witness to his evangelical spirit and his deep ecumenical interest and perspective. The essay had its genesis in some remarks made by Koehler at a pastoral conference, where his references to “gestzlich Wesen unter uns” (“legalism in our midst”) were either not understood at all or understood as though he were directing attention to some lack of distinction between Law and Gospel. This only pointed up the tendency to
assume that legalism could occur only where doctrine was unsound. Thus Koehler was obliged to elaborate on his theme and narrow it down so as to discuss not legalism in general but legalism as it could permeate a group with the background, make-up and theological orientation of the Wisconsin Synod. The result was one of Koehler’s major essays.
The essay defines legalism as consisting primarily in taking one’s motivation and forms of life from the Law rather than the Gospel. Life is ordered by rule and
coercion rather than by faith issuing forth in love. All this proceeds from the flesh and to some extent permeates every act of the individual Christian as well as of the corporate Christian group. It has little to do with formal doctrine. One might know well the whole
orthodox system of dogmatics with its vehement protest against work righteousness; one might confess the doctrine of Justification by Faith and yet be a practicing legalist. Precisely the false idea that having the right profession of faith and the right technique of applying this profession to pastoral situations according to rules drawn from general principles somehow guarantees sound practice signifies that the sound profession has become a soporific.
The activities growing out of faith, love, hope, quelling forth from a real, true and living fountain, are for that reason original, forthright, naïve and natural, real and true; the doings of legalism, on the other hand, are mechanical and formalistic, shallow, proceeding from ulterior and mixed motives, opportunistic, makeshift, spurious and untrue.
Individual Christians and Christian communities engage in both these forms of activity, since “an element of sin insinuates itself into every manifestation of life, even together with faith, hope and love. Worst of all the Christian is seldom existentially aware of this paradoxical character of his action. In the corporate life of the Christian community the ambiguity is perhaps even more pervasive and takes very different forms in different groups depending upon each group’s particular orientation and historical precedents. At all events it is not as helpful to see how legalism permeates groups in general or other Lutheran groups (those which can be dismissed as
“heterodox”), as to analyze legalism’s mode of operation “among us.”
In the Lutheran Church this characteristic manifests it-
self primarily in the noisy self-satisfied to-do about pure doctrine. Paralleling this is a clamorous insistence on sanctification that exerts itself especially in church-
government regulation. As a reaction, a fussy insistence on sanctification develops that, as among the pietists, rebels against all external discipline in doctrine, but nevertheless makes its legalistic presence felt just as energetically by a consciousness of greater piety.
The danger in the Wisconsin Synod, however, did not lie in the direction of pietism.
We Lutherans quite properly lay greater stress on doctrine, purity of doctrine. Legalism obtrudes itself here in the form of harping on orthodoxy. Hereby is meant the insistence on the “right faith” where the emphasis has shifted from “faith” to “right”. . . . This noisy ado about orthodoxy flourishes on petty parochialism which is opposed to the ecumenical spirit. For that reason it clings to the lees of the letter instead of living in the facts. The end result is traditionalism, which has lost the spirit of language, the spirit of the gospel.
He continues the critique by pointing out the legalistic potentiality of the traditional “knowledge, assent, and confidence” formula.
The main emphasis is placed on the intellectual understanding instead of on the conquest of the innermost heart . . . . One wrestles with words instead of abiding in living issues . . . . A new law is laboriously fashioned for which intellectual assent is required.
Mention has already been made of Koehler’s discussion of the concept of Verbal Inspiration which, as it progressively developed, became static, intellectualistic and a tool for legalistic thought modes. In the same connection he again discusses the “pure doctrine complex.” This complex vitiates the ecumenicity inherent in evangelical proclamation. That, however, is also legalism and an instance of improvised opportunism which in the interest of easy unity manifests itself in a cavalier
indifference to doctrine and in a characterless readiness to make common cause with those who deny elements in the faith which are precious to one’s convinced understanding of Scripture. Koehler, for instance, had little sympathy for any external unity which was indifferent to honest doctrinal wrestling. This indifference to doctrine, in Koehler’s estimation, however, posed no threat to the Wisconsin Synod. Wisconsin, like Missouri, was threatened by the opposite tendency.
Under ecumenicity of the evangelical proclamation, I understand this, that one nourishes the appreciation for the one true, invisible Church . . . . It consists in my rejoicing that another, whether from Jerusalem or Samaria, on the road to Damascus or at Athens, has come to faith . . . . To this I give expression by emphasizing those things that unite us . . . . It goes without saying, however, that evangelical sense does not sacrifice truthfulness. Therefore, criticism will not be ruled out, but it will be colored by the Gospel.
Koehler’s History of the Wisconsin Synod constitutes irrefutable evidence that he highly appreciated the men who had been responsible for the development of high confessionalism within the Wisconsin Synod. It documents, too, Koehler’s sympathy with the intentions of C.F.W. Walther and the Missouri Synod. At the same time, however, he points out how often the Confessions have been used in a way that contributes to legalism and parochialism rather than to the encouragement of an ecumenical spirit.
What is meant here is the party spirit that stresses the external crowd of confessionalists over against the other. When our doctrinal discussions are carried on in such a tone that we are out to show the
other: you are wrong, your position is incorrect, ours is correct, when correcting holds the spotlight and the regard for the growth of the unifying bond of faith is crowded into the dim background, then. . . there is present an intermingling of law and gospel. . . The dogged insistence on the correct dogma finally causes the controversy to degenerate into a quarrel over the externals of self-interest, that slights the ecumenical church but guards the advantages of a certain
Exactly this syndrome, combined with a faulty theological technique, had helped to make futile the controversies
and discussions among the Midwestern Lutheran synods, and had prevented any problem from being brought to any conclusion but mutual recrimination. It had meant, too, the steady growth toward sectarianism. This accounts also for Koehler’s appreciation of Adolf Hoenecke’s remark way back in 1879 that there seemed to be “something sectarian about the Missourians.” Neither Hoenecke in making the remark nor Koehler in reflecting upon it intended to fault the doctrinal position of the Missourians but both rather had reference to a certain mind-set. The mind-set of sectarianism, Koehler concluded, whether orthodox or heterodox, leads to “spiritual paralysis.”
The article closes with a call for repentance and the sober suggestion that orthodox Lutherans (specifically Lutherans of the Synodical Conference) analyze all life critically, honestly and boldly from the Lutheran
confessional principle itself that all of life is to be the life of faith and evangelical freedom. Too often has this been little more than a dogma. A reorientation that will avoid the snares both of orthodoxism and latitudinarianism seems called for.
There is an approach which takes not, as it were, the middle road, but operates on a level completely different . . . . The spirit of our Christians will be introduced into challenging fields where its elasticity may be exercised, having become tired out and weakened by the old battles, which by themselves were
incapable of furthering new thoughts. The Gospel brings new vigor. . . it brings greater joy of faith, it will then, too give the power to overcome the decay of spirituality of our time.
The Protes’tant Controversy and the Parting of the Ways
Our primary concern has been with an analysis of the Wauwatosa Theology. While this writer consistently uses this term and defends its use he would at the same time question the premise that there ever was such a thing as a Wauwatosa Theology with a distinct program and approach to theology in the sense of a unified and well thought-out school of thought. In the first place, what can be called the Wauwatosa Theology never comprised a program of thought or action intellectually conceived and as such to be put into operation. Any such program would have immediately contradicted J.P. Koehler’s entire approach to historical work. The Gospel alone is a once-and-for-all message. How this message is to be proclaimed and how it must express itself at given
moments of history must grow out of the historical
situations themselves. The problem with the tradition of Lutheran orthodoxy lay partly just in its disposition to cling to modes of thought and practice which while perhaps adequate to one historical time were sadly inadequate when applied to others. Any “school of thought” runs the risk of abstractionism, formalism and legalism. Furthermore, theology always speaks to and partakes of the cultural situation of the moment. Cultural baggage inevitably attaches to it. This need not be detrimental provided one is aware of it and knows that cultural baggage is untransferable. One dare not grant any absolute value to cultural baggage, since even at best it reflects a particular historical period. Forms and expressions helpful at one time may prove positive hindrances at another time. This understanding has always formed a principle of Lutheran theology but frequently it too has been only a dogma rather than a living reality. The Church and Ministry problem, for instance, is only one case in point. The Wauwatosa Theology was not then a doctrinal system or even a hermeneutical methodology and certainly not an attempt to replace old forms with new forms. At its best it was rather an attitude and a style.
In another sense also the premise that there existed an entity such as the Wauwatosa Theology, if this were to imply a viewpoint which permeated and characterized one synodical group during a certain period of time,
remains something of a myth. There is little to indicate that the life of the Wisconsin Synod as such was in any significant sense determined by the Wauwatosa Theology. What this writer would have to regard as the positive achievements of the Wauwatosa Theology and the style that distinguished it from other ways of doing theology is ultimately not so much identified with any synodical movement, not even with a triumvirate of men, but with one man. Some will disagree with this assessment, but this, nevertheless, is the conclusion to which a careful examination of the evidence would lead a disinterested scholar. This is not to say that Koehler’s two colleagues were devoid of talent or that they made few significant contributions. By no means! There is no question but that August Pieper was often an effective popularizer of the Wauwatosa Theology. On another level his study of Isaiah stands out within the context of conservative Lutheran Biblical exegesis as a first-rate piece of work. John Schaller, likewise, deserves to be remembered with respect. Not only was he a faithful teacher and remarkably willing and able to appropriate to himself and his work those things that were true and beautiful and new, but he also served as a stable balance wheel within the faculty at Wauwatosa. There was nothing mean or petty about Schaller and had he lived it might just be that the later history of the Wauwatosa Theology might have been different.
It would appear, however, that the most that can be said without forcing the evidence is that during a certain period of time there existed within the Wisconsin Synod and its Wauwatosa Seminary a situation which allowed John Philipp Koehler the freedom to develop and set forth an approach to theology and church life which differed notably from prevailing trends in the Midwestern Lutheran environment. During a good part of that time Koehler happily found himself in association with colleagues who shared something of his vision and aims. And there were at least some students who were willing to listen and learn. Beyond this the evidence will not support many claims. There is much to indicate that the Wauwatosa Theology never struck root within its denomination. Certainly it never exerted an influence comparable to that of the “St. Louis Theology” as fathered by C.F.W. Walther. This is only to state the historically obvious.
It is necessary if one wants to be faithful to the
historian’s task to offer some record and analysis of the repudiation of Koehler and to indicate in what sense this repudiation also represented a decisive parting of the ways. The story of the Protes’tant Controversy and the removal of Koehler from office is not a pleasant story and it cannot be made pleasant. Far from insignificant, it represented much more than a minor skirmish. An historical event characterized by tragedy and crowded with emotions, the telling of it for purposes of this essay required the discipline of as objective an analysis of the documentary evidence as is possible and a minimum
interjection of value judgments.
Not all the material relating to the Protes’tant Controversy is available. There are, for instance, minutes of committee and board meetings which are not accessible. Most of the men directly involved in the conflict
are no longer living. Nor has the story, from the
Wisconsin Synod side, ever been told. The Synod history, Continuing in His Word (Milwaukee, Northwestern, 1951), offers only a very brief summary and one which is basically unfactual. An abundance of material, however, is extant. The papers of J.P. Koehler, only discovered in 1970, will mean that much that transpired in board and committee meetings will be available for
examination. The two most controversial documents (The “Beitz Paper” and the Synod’s Gutachten) are available in several sources. The other major documents are also accessible as well as the reports of the Synod and its constituent districts. A large number of Wisconsin Synod documents are also printed in the Bericht der Dokumente und Korrespondenzen der Beiden Extra Synodal—Versammlungen des West Wisconsin—Distrikts (Milwaukee, Northwestern, 1930). Faith-Life itself has constituted an exceptional documentary source for a wealth of material not otherwise available. Thus, although Faith-Life as the organ of the Protes’tant Conference has never hesitated to make clear where it stands, it has provided a remarkable documentary coverage of both sides to the conflict. Of particular interest both for interpretation and documentary coverage (including countless letters) are the individual “case histories” in Faith-Life. The most complete of these is Paul Hensel’s “Why I am a Protestant,” which was carried as a supplement to every monthly issue of Faith-Life from
February through December, 1934. At all events more than adequate material is available for anyone interested in making a careful and objective study of the battle. Finally it should be added that this writer’s generalization to the effect that the Protes’tant Controversy represented a decisive break by the Wisconsin Synod with the Wauwatosa Theology need not be accepted on faith. We have already noted the change in the content of the
Theologische Quartalschrift. A study of the journal will tell the reader almost nothing of the controversy. It presents, however, the best documentary evidence for the generalization that the Protes’tant Controversy
represented a decisive transitional stage in the theological witness of the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. J.P. Koehler was gone, August Pieper wrote less after 1930 than in earlier years and what he did write represented different preoccupations and in a different style than before. The symbolic spokesman for the new Quartalschrift became J.P. Meyer, Schaller’s successor as dogmatics professor. Meyer, like Koehler, was a voluminous contributor. There the similarity ends. Even if one regarded the new orientation of the Quartalschrift as an improvement on the old, the evidence from content would compel the conclusion that a decisive transition in fact occurred. Any student interested in analyzing the theological motifs that have been dominant with the Faculty of the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary since the turn of the century is advised then to study the
And so to the rupture itself. Every significant event has its Vorgeschichte (“antecedent events”) and so did the Protes’tant Controversy. Certainly the Wauwatosa
Theology had for years been a bone of contention within the Wisconsin Synod. However, as a specific conflict the Protes’tant Controversy grew out of a series of events between the years 1924 and 1926. These events revolved around what were considered by certain pastors (for which reason they became known as “Protes’tants”) as tyrannical actions on the part of the Synod. The
officials of the Synod were regarded by the Protes’tants as being more interested in the political machinery than in honest and evangelical dealing with the underlying issues involved. Although it is evident from a study of the individual cases and also from subsequent developments that the Protes’tants were by no means in complete agreement among themselves and that they represented no unified party or articulate school of thought within the Synod, they were in substantial agreement on the
crucial charge of tyrannical and legalistic behavior against Synod officialdom. Martin Zimmerman, for instance, reflected one Protes’tant stance when he stated that although he had his reservations about some things also on the Protes’tant side, since “it was a matter of O.K.’ing or not O.K.’ing synod officials’ actions, I was forced to take a stand.”
The “Watertown Case” marked the beginning of the battle. In the spring of 1924 a large number of Northwestern College students were found guilty of stealing in the town of Watertown and were disciplined by the
Faculty. Some were expelled and others were given suspensions or “campus detainments” for the balance of the school year. There was never any argument about the fact of the stealing. The Faculty itself acted with unity. Trouble brewed when the Northwestern College Board interfered. The Board summarily repudiated the
Faculty’s action, claimed it had overstepped its authority, and reinstated the students over the protest of the
Faculty. Subsequently the Protes’tants have always claimed that this destroyed the authority of the Faculty, laid the ground for a collapse of discipline and was in keeping with a strong tendency toward dictatorial
behavior by officialdom. It was suspected too that the reaction of the Board would not have taken place had not the reputation of some prominent families been threatened.
As a result of the Board action two professors, Karl
Koehler and Herbert Parisius, immediately resigned in protest, but offered their services gratis to the Faculty for the balance of the academic year. The Faculty
accepted the offer. The Board then accused the
Faculty of having deposed it and ruled that the resignations must go into effect immediately. On June 12, 1924, a meeting was called for the announced purpose of hearing the Faculty’s side to the story. Professor
Gerhard Ruediger of the Seminary Faculty called the meeting. Faculty, Board and interested persons who attended were among those later identified as Protes’tants. Wisconsin Synod leaders have frequently maintained that this meeting marked the emergence to public view of “a determined and united clique.”
Professor Ruediger, who had arranged for the
Watertown meeting, was consequently charged with responsibility as a troublemaker. It was also maintained that Ruediger had discussed the case in his seminary classes, had made slanderous charges against Synod
officials and had neglected his academic duties. Evidence indicated that Ruediger’s behavior had been less than circumspect. Ruediger later confessed under pressure that he had made mistakes and had made “slanderous” remarks. Following his confession he received a written document signed by three of his four colleagues on the Faculty in which they “absolved” him from guilt. Soon Ruediger’s statement of confession and the “Absolution” of his colleagues were mailed out to every pastor of the Synod. Nevertheless and in spite of the fact that the “Ruediger Case” had supposedly been
concluded, Ruediger was in January of 1927 ousted from his position with the reason given that “confidence in him has been lost.” The Protes’tants maintained that the two documents were mailed out precisely in order to justify Ruediger’s removal from the Seminary.
By the end of 1926 Koehler’s own relations within the Seminary Faculty had seriously deteriorated. He had not yet, however, become conspicuously involved. Regarding the Watertown Case Koehler makes only one brief reference in his writings.
In April 1924 Koehler went on a leave of absence till Christmas, to Germany . . . . In the meantime the so-called Watertown Case, by all-around bungling, had taken on synodical dimensions that, among other things, resulted in Prof. Ruediger’s and the writer’s own removal from the Seminary.
In the meantime the “Fort Atkinson Case” developed. For purposes of analysis this seems the most complicated of the cases and by its very nature highly ambiguous. Gerda Koch and Elizabeth Reuter, parochial school teachers in the large St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, had gotten into conflict with their pastor. The congregation stood with the pastor. Clearly the women by any traditional Lutheran standard exhibited an overt pietism. On some issues (such as “bobbed hair” to which they objected) they took quite legalistic positions. And certainly the women displayed little of the old feminine virtue of “quiet modesty.” In fact they became notable for displaying some of the personality characteristics
associated with the “feminist revolt.” It should be
emphasized, however, the Protes’tants did not defend the views of the women, although one gets the impression that the women may well have felt they had support in their views from at least two of the Protes’tants.
The Protes’tants (not yet, however, a clearly identifiable group) were primarily concerned with the manner in which the case was conducted. Both women were
Wisconsin Synod products, totally educated within its system and had taught exclusively in Synod schools. The Synod which produced these women must be in some sense responsible for what happened. Nor had the
women been dealt with sensitively and with a concern to help them. The Synod officials and the Fort Atkinson pastor, it was claimed, had been preoccupied with
forcing a retraction out of them. Furthermore, J.P. Koehler’s opinion expressed later was that the charges against the women by the local pastor had been on the same level as their charges against him. At the meeting of the Western Wisconsin District in June, 1926, the women were suspended from synodical membership. A number of pastors concerned about the way in which the entire issue had been handled wrote what became known as the Beaver Dam Protest. Fifteen men signed this protest, many of whom had also attended the Watertown Transcript Meeting. The men declared that “our position regarding the entire Fort Atkinson case is this, that we regard it as only one part of a larger question. The Western Wisconsin District empowered its officials to deal conclusively with the signers. Thus began the suspension of pastors. When the first two Protes’tants were suspended it was stated specifically that this was because “they stubbornly maintained their protest against the synodical conclusion of the case.”
J.P Koehler had not signed the Beaver Dam Protest. In fact, he had consented to make an effort to help the women see the error of their ways. Koehler was concerned about evangelical action and had attempted to prevent the impending suspension. As early as April 17, 1926, he had written to the president of the district.
Now the affair is so muddled that no utterances and discussions are of any avail, because all remain one-sided . . . . The Holy Spirit does not operate that way. And suspension or excommunication at this stage is the worst thing possible. Anyone seeking to make such pronouncements must have clean hands. . . . Therefore, Mr. President, only one thing remains: that all of us who have acted in the matter appear before . . . both parties in this action and make a clean-cut unmistakable confession, and advise them to let the matter rest as it is, and to commit it to God in heartfelt confession.
The turmoil growing out of the Watertown and the Fort Atkinson cases was sufficient to cause major synodical repercussions. Soon new fuel was added to the fire.
Pastor William F. Beitz read an assigned paper which he entitled, “God’s Message to Us in Galatians—the Just Shall Live by Faith” to a pastoral conference in
September of 1926. The “Beitz Paper” almost immediately spread beyond the confines of the conference to which it had been read and was circulated both by
supporters and opponents. Some saw it as an appropriate call to repentance while others accused Beitz of false doctrine, “enthusiasm,” and judging of hearts. The
president of the Western Wisconsin District, G.M.
Thurow, requested an “opinion” (Gutachten) from the Faculty of the Seminary. Such a solicitation of opinions from a theological faculty had been common practice among the Missourians. The practice had never been favored by the Wauwatosa theology. Nevertheless, in this instance the request was entertained.
The Gutachten der Theologischen Fakultaet von Wauwatosa was written by Professors August Pieper and J.P. Meyer. On June 7, 1927, it was signed by the
entire Seminary Faculty. By this time Koehler was
already at the breaking point with his colleagues. Nevertheless he signed but with the understanding that in no event would the Gutachten be made public until he had discussed the “Beitz Paper” with its author. He wanted to discuss with Beitz what he meant with his words. This was in full keeping with Koehler’s general hermeneutical principle that in controversy “we seek to understand our opponent, not as his words can or even must be understood, but as he wants them to be understood.” For Koehler this was also only elementary ethics. By the time Koehler saw Beitz the latter already had the condemnatory Gutachten in his possession, since it had been mailed out without Koehler’s knowledge or consent. Koehler withdrew his signature and ordered printed and distributed to all pastors of the Synod the following communication:
Wauwatosa, Wis., July, 1927
My Dear Pastor:
The “Faculty Gutachten” was published without my knowledge and consent.
I had a different conception from my colleagues as to what the “essayist” actually wished to say. Consequently I offered to discuss the contents of the Gutachten and the Message [Beitz Paper] with the essayist and apprised the assembly of the General Committee with this fact.
The publication of the Gutachten acutely disturbed these private deliberations, and in my opinion, as matters now stand, must mislead, agitate and eventually slander. Do your part in helping us arrive at an understanding, which must be our constant endeavor, so that our efforts be not frustrated.
With cordial greetings, John Philipp Koehler
This card in its proof stage was brought to the attention of Koehler’s colleagues. He was taken to task, vacillated, and withdrew the notice. He did not, however, consent to put his signature back on the Gutachten. From this time on he was under heavy and continuous attack.
The Gutachten itself charged Beitz with serious and numerous errors: a slanderous judging of hearts, false doctrine with regard to Repentance, of mingling Justification and Sanctification, of Antinomianism, and of “schwaermerisch” tendencies. At the Western Wisconsin District convention in November, 1927, in a single motion the body accepted the Gutachten and declared the “Beitz Paper” as heresy. All those who subscribed to the “Beitz Paper” were to be regarded as “Those who have separated themselves from us.” It should be noted the double motion meant that in accepting the Gutachten, even its objective doctrine (not really a point of controversy, since there is no evidence of any genuine doctrinal controversy in the entire issue), one was automatically condemning Beitz. This is significant in view of the fact that some of the suspended Protes’tants never were
happy with the working of the “Beitz Paper” but defended it over against the Gutachten, also, in most cases, as a timely and necessary repentance preachment.
Now Protes’tant suspensions on a large scale began. Subsequently anyone who practiced fellowship with a suspended pastor was himself immediately put under discipline and unless he repented was also suspended. Thus, for instance, Professor Elmer Sauer, a member of the Northwestern College Faculty, was ousted from his professorship and suspended from the Synod because he preached in the summer of 1927 at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, of which parish the suspended W.P. Hass was pastor. Sauer insisted that any judgment regarding his action called also for a thorough re-examination of the antecedent events and original suspensions themselves. Sauer’s own case was only part of a much larger case. When Sauer pointed this out the Reverend John Brenner, later the long term President of the Wisconsin Synod, replied that “Die Vorgeschichte geht uns nichts an” (“the antecedent events do not concern us”).
Following the Watertown convention of the Western Wisconsin District in 1927 the first Protes’tant Conference was held at Marshfield, Wisconsin. Under the editorship of Oswald Hensel, Faith-Life began publication with the Easter issue of 1928. Karl Koehler served as its editor from 1929 until his death in the spring of 1948. The Protes’tant Conference itself has never become an organized denomination and has never seen itself as having a mission to become yet another competing
Lutheran synodical group among others. Its mission, rather, has been “to preserve the heritage of the Wauwatosa Gospel: to popularize, unfold and apply the ideals of the early Quartalschrift.”
During all these stormy events J.P. Koehler was moving steadily toward his dismissal. Koehler went to considerable lengths to avoid precipitating a crisis. He even went so far as to withdraw his projected post-card notice concerning the Gutachten. Like many others, and to the end of his life, he remained unenthusiastic about the
“Beitz Paper,” as he must also have been displeased about previous similar preachments of August Pieper. When informed that Beitz would not withdraw his essay or modify it, he went so far as to say that then he could not defend Beitz but must hold him half responsible for the strife. He furthermore, believed that if the “Beitz
Paper” were withdrawn the way might be paved for dealing with the essence of the controversy itself, which was not in Koehler’s judgment really the “Beitz Paper. This only became a symbol for a much deeper problem.
At all events the “Beitz Paper” was not withdrawn and neither was the Gutachten. It is one thing to entertain serious reservations about an essay, to consider it inopportune, carelessly composed and confused in content. It is quite another thing to elevate it to the status of a confessional writing and charge someone with heresy on the basis of it and thereby to avoid coming to grips with what is valid in the preachment. Koehler, for his part, therefore applied to the “Beitz Paper” precisely those same principles which he had consistently advanced, only in this instance to an immediately concrete situation.
(1) Any statement or action of a man or a group must be seen and judged with its historical context. In the case of Beitz the obvious context was the turmoil within the Synod and Beitz’s own troubled reaction to what he saw. In this context many things become understandable.
(2) Any paper must be judged by sound exegetical principles. Unless one wants to ride the bare words (the Wortlaut) in legalistic fashion, one must always try to discover what a man means with his words. Another’s interpretation may not be superimposed on an author. In Beitz’s case even the bare words, although open to misunderstanding, did not constitute heresy. Above all, and especially in controversy, one must read a man as he himself wants to be read. Form and content may not automatically be identified.
(3) Truth is seldom simple and thus no simple solution may be open in a given situation. Sometimes both parties in a controversy must let a matter rest where it is, commit the whole to God in confession, and by all means avoid any definitive and conclusive action such as suspension or excommunication.
(4) All action, even if one were dealing with genuine heresy, must be evangelical. It must be motivated by love and fairness. Legalism immediately invalidates an action.
(5) No evangelical or fruitful dealing with Beitz could be possible on the basis of a document which judges him ahead of time as a heretic and that without any personal discussion with him.
The Gutachten then could not stand whatever were the defects of the “Beitz Paper.” As an interpretation the Gutachten was false. After a second visit with Pastor Beitz, Koehler wrote up and presented to his colleagues his Ertrag. This was a rather mild and impersonal
correction of the Gutachten, demonstrating that the “Beitz Paper” need not be understood as the Gutachten had understood it. Nothing was accomplished. Somewhat later Koehler’s Ertrag found expression in his Beleuchtung. It was made available prior to the 1929 convention of the Wisconsin Synod. In keeping with Koehler’s style and in contrast to the style of both sides to the controversy otherwise, it was calm, objective, remarkably
impersonal and unpolemical.
Koehler’s Beleuchtung was followed by the Antwort of August Pieper and J.P. Meyer. Nothing of the Gutachten was retracted and the Antwort became instead a savage and vindictive attack on Koehler and his “geschichtliche Anschauung” (historical point of view”). The insinuation was plain that Koehler had become something of a relativistic modern theologian. From this time on
Koehler’s days at the Seminary were numbered. Futile meetings were held between Koehler and the Faculty and the Seminary Board. Immediately before the
Synod convention of 1929 and before Koehler had seen the text of the Antwort, he received the following communication:
Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 13, 1929
It is my grievous duty to communicate to you the following dismissal, arrived at by the Board on August 13, after they had read your document [Beleuchtung] and the answer [Antwort] of Professors Pieper and Meyer.
We are unreservedly in agreement on all points with the reply written . . . in answer to Professor Koehler’s ‘Die Beitzsche Schrift und das Gutachten beleuchtet,” and, therefore declare that Professor Koehler cannot continue in office at our seminary and expect God to bless his efforts.
On behalf of the Board W. Hoenecke, Secretary
On August 15 , 1929, Koehler replied with the following letter addressed to convened Synod:
August 15, 1929
Yesterday morning the following letter was given to me by the Secretary of the Seminary Board without further explanation.
Of what nature the Antwort of the two professors might be, I have not the slightest idea. Therefore, the line of reasoning leaves me in the dark altogether as to why the resolution was passed at all, and above all why at this late hour instead of biding the decision of synod on the matter.
The situation is further aggravated by vague rumors seeping into synod, rumors which always accompany a procedure of this nature and serve but one purpose, to distort the facts, prejudice the minds, and make a gazing stock of the victim.
Both of which oppress me, so that I cannot participate in the synodical discussions, which normally would be my privilege. At the same time I desire herewith to call synod’s attention to a matter which every delegate had a right to know before it is consigned to a committee.
(signed) J.P. Koehler
In spite of the Board resolution Koehler was not immediately ousted. He was instead relieved of all Seminary responsibilities for the 1929-1930 academic year. In
September of 1929 Koehler notified the Seminary
Committee which had been charged with further dealing in the case of certain problems which required
attention before any further dealing with him could be productive: (1) the official unqualified subscription to the Gutachten, which stood as slander against Beitz,
(2) the resolutions of the Seminary Board to the effect that he could no longer teach, (3) the subscription to the Antwort on the part of the seminary Board. In the months that followed, Koehler was removed from office and ordered to vacate his house. The rumor circulated and persisted as if it were a fact, that Koehler was dismissed because he had become emotionally unbalanced.
The termination of J.P. Koehler’s classroom teaching
coincided in time with the movement of the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary from its Wauwatosa location to its new campus at Mequon, Wisconsin. The Wauwatosa
period was over. Koehler and his wife then moved to Neilsville, Wisconsin, where he made his home with his son Karl, who served as a pastor there and as editor of Faith-Life. For all practical purposes Koehler’s ouster from the Seminary also terminated his membership in the Wisconsin Synod. His official suspension from the Synod occurred at the Synod convention of
August,1933. It was based specifically on the charge that he was “openly practicing fellowship with those who have severed relations with us.”
Thus the Wisconsin Synod went its own way and J.P. Koehler went his. The course which the Wisconsin Synod has followed since the time of the Protes’tant
Controversy is manifestly different from that which
Koehler had in mind. Neither has the Protes’tant
Controversy ever been solved. That is, thirty-five years after the original suspensions the 1961 convention of the Wisconsin Synod again dealt with the controversy. It was declared at that time that “the action taken on the 1927
resolutions of the Western Wisconsin District at
Watertown was clouded over with uncertainties.” It was furthermore resolved that the Western Wisconsin
District be requested to reconsider its original action. In all events these reconciliation resolutions were abortive and unclear, since they clearly did not prevent further
suspensions from occurring under conditions virtually identical with the original conditions and
mode of action.
J.P. Koehler spent the rest of his days in Neillsville, Wisconsin. He did considerable writing for Faith-Life, attended and spoke at the conference meetings of the Protes’tants, and did pastoral work within the small Neillsville congregation. Quite a bit could be said about his “retirement years,” since the minutes of the Conference are available. These report at considerable length on his remarks and lectures at the various conferences which he faithfully attended. There is also a kind of
daily diary kept by Karl Koehler up to his own death. This included a rather full account of how his father spent his days painting, reading, writing, going for walks and visiting with friends. In spite of all, Koehler enjoyed the tranquility of a sheltered senescence and lived something of the life of a productive country gentleman. To the end he remained a “lone rider.” And since Koehler himself concluded his History with the “Wauwatosa Theology,” we are doing likewise. It remains only to say that he died in Neillsville on September 30, 1951. The simple funeral services were conducted by Pastor Otto Kehrberg, Chairman of the Protes’tant Conference, and interment was made in the Neillsville city cemetery,
attended by a cortege of seven automobiles.
John Philipp Koehler’s consistent charity, his broad
ecumenical concerns, and his affection and concern for the Wisconsin Synod are personified in what he wrote years after his suspension in bringing to a conclusion his History of the Wisconsin Synod.
May God, thru His Holy Spirit, preserve Synod and all who with her call upon the name of the Lord, in that soberness—of which even the old Greeks in their human wisdom knew enough to say: “nothing beyond measure!”—which Paul here in verse 3 [Romans 12] would have applied to the divine gift, and of which he makes application throughout the whole chapter for all the children of God in all their doing, for all time.
The editor is aware that such sentiments, as also the Wauwatosa Theology itself and its provenance and destiny in the lives of men, women and children, must, in spite of extended elucidation, remain a mystery. For some the Wauwatosa Theology was and remains a light shining in dark places. For others it was an object of mockery. For still others it was in a peculiar sense a stone of offence. For all who were involved, including most certainly also its opponents, it was a significant happening.