By Rolf Preus
Author’s note: This article appeared in the Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 1999 issue of Word and Deed: A Lutheran lay theological journal, published by Lutheran Church – Canada.
What is a Missourian? This is not a question about folks who live in the State of Missouri. It is not a question about those who belong to the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It is a question about theology, about a certain way of believing. Every once in a while, God sends to his church a theologian who is able to speak the word of God with particular clarity to the people of his generation. Such a man was C. F. W. Walther. Since it was in the infant Missouri Synod that God raised up Walther as the chief spokesman for confessional Lutheranism in North America, we speak of a “Missourian” – in churchly or theological terms – as one who loves and embraces the old Lutheranism of the Lutheran Confessions and the Lutheran fathers that Walther championed. Many Missourians do not belong to the Missouri Synod. Many who belong to the Missouri Synod are not Missourians. A Missourian is one who holds to Walther’s theology. But more than that, a Missourian is one who loves in particular what God led Walther to love.
Theology is more than answering the questions posed with the correct answers. Theology pertains both to the mind and to the heart. A Missourian not only agrees with what Walther taught; a Missourian agrees with Walther on what is particularly important. A Missourian is persuaded that the theological emphasis of Walther is the same as that of the Scriptures, the universal church, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions. What is that emphasis? What is the very heart of God’s pure and holy truth that God, through Walther, brought to light with particular brilliance over one hundred years ago? That is the topic of this article.
Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born on October 25, 1811 in Langenchursdorf, Saxony. He was ordained a Lutheran pastor on January 15, 1837. His conscience soon forced him to break with the state church into which he was ordained. He became a follower of the maverick pastor and theologian, Martin Stephan, who was preparing to immigrate to the United States. Walther’s decision to join up with Stephan brought Walther to America. It ensured, as God worked things out, that Walther would become the spiritual father of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and other States, later to be known simply as the Missouri Synod. It was as the first president and the theological leader of Missouri during her golden years that Walther became one of the most influential Lutherans of the 19th Century.
Walther’s life testifies to how God uses evil for good. Every Sunday school child knows how God turned evil into good in Joseph’s life. His brothers hated him, but God loved him. It was a sweet divine irony how God used Joseph to bring those hateful brothers to repentance. What a moving story! God repeats that story throughout church history. He uses evil teaching for good as well. C. F. W. Walther was subjected to the influences of rationalism and pietism in his youth. It was his struggle against both of these “isms” that led the budding theologian into a serious study of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.
The Rationalists placed human reason above the Holy Scriptures as both judge and jury over what to believe. Every holy mystery of the faith was subjected to the standard of sinful human “reasonableness”. The effects of rationalism on Germany were tragic. The preaching of the suffering of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins was muted if not silenced. Shallow moralism replaced gospel preaching. The sacraments were despised as having no practical value. Rationalism rejected the divine authority of the Holy Scriptures and replaced this authority with whatever secular standards were fashionable at the time. The evidence of the terrible devastation rationalism wreaked on the church is still plain to see. How many pastors in the old Lutheran churches of northern Europe and North America still hold to the divine authorship of the Scriptures? Rationalism put man’s head over the Holy Scriptures. C. F. W. Walther, as a sheep who listened to the voice of his Shepherd, could not tolerate rationalism.
But he did briefly flirt with pietism. If rationalism puts man’s head over the teaching of God’s Word, pietism puts man’s heart over the Scriptures. It began as a movement to reemphasize Christian devotion. Among the early Pietists of the late 17th Century was the popular Lutheran hymnist, Paul Gerhardt, whose hymns are among the greatest ever written. Gerhardt’s brand of pietism, however, still emphasized sound Lutheran teaching. As pietism developed, it began to denigrate the importance of the pure doctrine. It promoted pious feelings more than the clear and saving gospel. It became more and more legalistic, as Pietists sought evidence in their lives that they were “true” believers. By Walther’s day, pietism had become a serious threat to the sound doctrine. Through a thorough study of Luther’s writings, Walther learned to put his confidence in the objective truth of God’s word. He learned to distrust human feelings, just as he distrusted human reason. He became a scholar of the Lutheran Confessions and the writings of the orthodox Lutheran fathers. He was drawn to the Stephanite immigration out of fierce loyalty to the truth that the state church in Saxony despised.
Crisis in leadership
The followers of Martin Stephan left Dresden in November of 1838 and arrived in New Orleans in January of 1839. While on board ship, Pastor Stephan was elected bishop. Before the newly arrived Saxons could settle in, Bishop Stephan was accused of sexual and financial misconduct and deposed. Every one of the immigrants had heard their leader criticized quite severely before they left Germany. Still, they had trusted Stephan. Even when his actions became more and more authoritarian and high-handed, as he insisted on more and more control over their possessions and lives, the loyal Lutherans had remained loyal to their leader. Now their leader’s reputation was in ruins. They questioned themselves. What were they doing in America? Had they done wrong by leaving Germany? Whom could they trust? They trusted a “bishop” who had deceived them. They had to wonder about the other pastors. Could they be trusted? The bitter circumstances in which the Saxons found themselves required swift action. They were divided. They were angry. They were defeated.
Pastor Walther was not yet thirty years old, but he found himself the theological leader of this group of demoralized immigrant Lutherans. They had left Germany because they could not tolerate the Rationalism of the state church in the Kingdom of Saxony. As they sailed across the Atlantic, they believed that God himself had ordained Martin Stephan as their bishop. They identified themselves with their bishop as Stephan instructed them to do. Now they had no bishop. What were they? Were they still the church? Or should they swallow their pride and return whence they had come? How could they do that? Even if they could afford it financially, how could they become a part of a church that tolerated such gross denials of God’s holy word? But then, who were they to criticize those who remained in Germany? They had foolishly followed a man who had shown himself to be unworthy.
Walther helped them to understand that they were the church, not because they had the correct kind of government, but because they had the divine means of grace. They had the pure gospel. They had the rightly administered sacraments. They had pastors who preached that gospel and administered those sacraments. They were church. They were not a sect. Through Walther’s sound Lutheran teaching and pastoral leadership, they became Missourians.
The Missourians were loved and hated. Friend and foe alike knew them as staunch Lutherans. The fledgling Wisconsin Synod was caught up in certain Reformed errors on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. She welcomed the solidly Lutheran instruction from Missouri and was happy to become devoted to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. The Norwegian Synod, loyal to the confessional Lutheranism that they had learned in Kristiana (Oslo) found themselves in agreement with the confessional Lutheran teaching of Walther. They identified themselves as Missourians, despite opposition from other Norwegians. The old synodical conference was united in true church fellowship.
On the other hand, there was among the pietistic and anti-confessional Norwegian Lutherans a group that actually called itself the “Anti-Missourian Brotherhood.” Imagine that! They so despised the Missourian claim to orthodoxy that they agitated throughout Norwegian Lutheran congregations in America against the Missouri Synod. This author’s great grandfather and great-great grandfather were bodily removed from a Norwegian Synod congregation in Wisconsin on Good Friday, 1883 because they refused to sign an anti-Missouri statement of faith that would have denied the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. (The congregation later repented of their sin.)
What was it about the theology of C. F. W. Walther and the early Missouri Synod that was – and is – so very precious? What was at the heart of the theology that made Walther the spokesman and teacher for Lutherans all over the world? There are two basic elements to this Missourian way of thinking. They belong together. They cannot be understood in isolation of each other. They are first of all, a firm, unequivocal, uncompromising doctrinal assurance and secondly the deep and persistent yearning for the forgiveness of sins that flows from the suffering and death of Jesus into the holy gospel and sacraments.
Doctrinal assurance is not an insistence on being right. It is not a proud, unbending attitude toward others. It is rather a confidence that God has spoken clearly, and that God wants us to be sure of what we believe. This assurance – yes, call it dogmatism if you will, for that is what it is – is always and only for the sake of the gospel. The gospel is a message or a word that brings precisely what it promises. It promises the forgiveness of sins. It promises what Jesus Christ – the Lamb of God – has earned by his bitter passion as the sacrifice appointed by God to bear the sin of the world. This forgiveness is not a potential or “iffy” thing. We need have no doubts at all about it. In fact, we mustn’t have any doubts at all about it. Jesus really did take away the sin of the world, and that means he took away our sins. This is what the gospel tells us; this is what the gospel gives to us. This is that blessed reality to which our baptism binds us. This is the foundation for the absolution the pastor speaks to us. This is the blessing sealed unto us by Christ’s precious body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus puts into our mouths as he assures us that it is given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
For those who don’t like the Missourian way of thinking, it is probably because Missourians, like Walther, love to be dogmatic. “You think you’re so right!” That’s not meant as a compliment; it’s an accusation! Missourians, with one voice, reply, “Why, yes, we do. We surely do. Our doctrine is pure, sound, holy, and without any doubt to be believed by everyone everywhere at all times! Our doctrine is nothing less than God’s doctrine, and we love it! We won’t give it up or ignore it or set it aside or relegate it to books nobody reads. We will talk about it, confess it, teach it to our children, and continue to insist that it is God’s own truth!” This is the Missourian spirit. This is what Walther has taught us. There is pure doctrine and there is false doctrine. One need not wonder which is which. We embrace the pure doctrine and we reject the false doctrine. Consider his words in the third evening lecture at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis on the proper distinction between the law and the gospel.
From what has been said you can gather how foolish it is, yea, what an awful delusion has taken hold upon so many men’s minds who ridicule the pure doctrine and say to us: “Ah, do cease clamoring, Pure doctrine! Pure doctrine! That can only land you in dead orthodoxism. Pay more attention to pure life, and you will raise a growth of genuine Christianity.” That is exactly like saying to a farmer: “Do no worry forever about good seed; worry about good fruits.” Is not a farmer properly concerned about good fruit when he is solicitous about getting good seed? Just so a concern about pure doctrine is the proper concern about genuine Christianity and a sincere Christian life. False doctrine is noxious seed, sown by the enemy to produce a progeny of wickedness. The pure doctrine is wheat-seed; from it spring the children of the Kingdom, who even in the present life belong in the kingdom of Jesus Christ and in the life to come will be received into the Kingdom of Glory. May God even now implant in you hearts a great fear, yea, a real abhorrence, of false doctrine! May He graciously give you a holy desire for the pure, saving truth, revealed by God himself! That is the chief end which these evening lectures are to serve. (Law and Gospel, pp. 20-21)
For the Missourian, God’s teaching is quite literally a matter of life and death. Of course, it was Luther who taught Walther and the Missourians to be sure of having the pure doctrine. In his famous work, The Bondage of the Will, Luther vehemently opposed the doctrinal indifference of Erasmus who had criticized Luther for making so many doctrinal assertions. Luther wrote:
For it is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions; on the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or be will be no Christian. And by assertion – in order that we may not be misled by words – I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering . . . I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings . . . Let Skeptics and Academics keep well away from us Christians, but let there be among us “assertors” twice as unyielding as the Stoics themselves. How often, I ask you, does the apostle Paul demand . . . that most sure and unyielding assertion of conscience? In Rom. 10 he calls it “confession,” saying, “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” And Christ says: “Everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father”. Peter bids us give a reason for the hope that is in us. What need isthere to dwell on this? Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. (Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XVII, Westminster Press, 1969 pp. 105-106)
This insistence on holding to the pure doctrine while rejecting and avoiding all false doctrine is grounded in the teaching of the Bible (Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Matthew 7:15-16; Acts 20:27-31; Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Galatians 1:8-9; 5:9; 2 Timothy 3:12 – 4:5; Titus 3:10; 1 John 4:1; Revelation 18:4).
Grace at the heart
A Missourian loves the pure doctrine, not only because it comes from God and therefore must be precious on that account, but because the pure doctrine reveals God’s love. If Walther’s dogmatic spirit can be traced back to his rejection of rationalism, Walther’s strong emphasis on the gospel of salvation by grace alone was his refuge from the legalism he suffered under pietism. No better reading is available on this topic than Walther’s The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. One can almost feel how Walther suffered under the burden of imposed burden of pietism as he presents Thesis IX, which reads:
In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace. (Page 127)
Any Christian who has been taught that he must look within himself (for the right feelings or evidences of faith) to gain assurance of his salvation should read what Walther writes under this thesis. It is quite timely. While he wrote against the pietism in Germany and the theology and practices of the Methodism he encountered in 19th Century America, his words apply as well to the Charismatic Movement, and the various kinds of revivalistic religion popular today. Walther had suffered spiritual torment. He had listened to the Pietists and had followed their instructions to the letter, but he found no peace. It was not until he discovered the teaching of Luther – who, as we know, underwent his own spiritual pain in search of the ever-illusive gracious God – that Walther found true rest and peace. His dogmatism, his love for the truth, his insistence on doctrinal purity, and his intolerance of false doctrine were for the sake of bringing to the conscience God’s peace.
Walther never tired of preaching and teaching Christ. Christ was always presented as Savior of sinners. Walther never would have endorsed (or tolerated!) the WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”) bracelet fad which has Christian children looking to Jesus as their new and improved Moses. Jesus was for Walther the refuge of sinners. There was no hope, no comfort, no life apart from Jesus. Jesus was to be found only in his gospel and in his sacraments. For Walther, the doctrine of objective justification was essential. This doctrine states that God, for Christ’s sake, forgave the entire world of all its sin when Jesus suffered and died and that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s actual absolution of this whole world of sinners. This doctrine was the foundation for the church’s teaching on the forgiveness of sins. How do we know that the gospel and Christ’s sacraments really do bestow the forgiveness of sins? All sins were forgiven on the cross. That is how we know. This is how Walther put it in an Easter sermon entitled, Christ’s Resurrection – the World’s Absolution.
Since it was all mankind in whose place and for whom Christ suffered, died and made payment, who was it, then, that was absolved in and through Christ’s Person when the eternal Judge set Him at liberty? It was – oh, marvelous and endlessly comforting truth! — it all mankind. . . . Are you saying that God has already in Christ absolved all men, including all the ungodly, all slaves of iniquity, all unbelievers, all mockers, all slanderers? Who could believe that! – And yet it is so, dear friends. Let these thoughts sink deep into your consciousness: It is certain that God has loved the world, the ungodly world, so much that He not only wanted to give His only begotten Son for the salvation of the world, but has already given Him. It is certain that Christ was the Lamb of God who not only wanted to take upon Himself the sins of the world, but has already borne the sins not only of a part of the world, but of the whole world. It is certain that Christ not only wanted to be the Reconciler, the Savior and Redeemer of all men without exception, but is that already as Paul writes: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19a). As certain as these things are, so certain it is also that God the Father, in raising Jesus Christ from the dead, has already absolved all men from all their sins. (The Word of His Grace, Sermon Selections by Dr. C. F. W. Walther, Board For Publications of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 1978, pp. 232-233) [emphasis in the original]
In the second part of the sermon, Walther carefully explained that only those who believed the gospel received as their own possession the forgiveness of sins. Nevertheless, the gospel was true and certain before anyone believed it.
This twin emphasis: a dogmatism that never wavered along with a strong emphasis on God’s grace in Christ for poor sinners defines quite well what a Missourian is. This is no oversimplification. Rather, it is precisely by holding to a firm, dogmatic Lutheranism that is focused on God giving helpless sinners the forgiveness that Jesus purchased by his blood that Missourians can address just about every issue that faces Lutherans today.
Consider, as just one example, the “worship wars” that rage throughout the Lutheran Church (and beyond) as folks argue about the Divine Service. The “Church Growth” enthusiasts insist that the traditional liturgy we have received from our fathers is inadequate to the needs of today’s religious “seekers”. Throw out the traditional liturgical forms! They retard growth. Those who would object are challenged to cite chapter and verse from the Bible that forbids the changes that are proposed. In response to such a disrespectful dismissal of our churchly patrimony, others promote a “liturgical correctness” that becomes more and more exacting, as if God set down detailed rules on how the Divine Service ought to be conducted.
The Missourian looks at the “worship wars” and knows that the issue is not primarily a question of proper liturgical form. The issue is whether or not God – in the here and now – comes to his people and speaks words that impart eternal life. The issue is whether there is any greater need than to receive God’s mercy. The issue is whether or not Christians today need the same kind of well-balanced diet of sound spiritual food that God has given to his people throughout the ages in the historic liturgy of the church. Liturgical correctness or rules are irrelevant to the discussion, as far as the Missourian is concerned. What matters is that God speaks with authority right here on earth to forgive sins through the words spoken by the pastors he puts in office. The Missourian will stay with the historic liturgy of the church (or something close to it) out of a sinner’s need for the comfort of the pure gospel, not as obedience to anyone’s liturgical rules.
The Missourian, like Walther, knows the need for dogmatic assertions that remain forever true. The Missourian knows that these assertions must be centered on Jesus, the Lamb of God, who saves sinners right here on earth through the preaching, the washing, the Supper, and the absolution. As Lutherans all over the world seek to discover what they really are and stand for, a return to the teaching of C. F. W. Walther would be a good start. A sincere love for the truth will not lead to the claim that Lutherans and Roman Catholics now agree on the doctrine of God’s justification of the sinner. Neither will it bog us down in endless wrangling over the “correct” way to do things in areas where God hasn’t spoken. A deep love for God’s grace will see every other issue in its proper setting. The authority of the pastor is the authority of Jesus to forgive sins here on earth (Matthew 9:6), not the authority to impose his will on others. A Missourian wants a pastor with authority, God’s authority, who says what God says and claims that God is saying it! A Missourian knows his need for the gospel will never diminish in this life. This is why he loves good, old fashioned, dogmatic, confessional Lutheranism. Pray God that he will keep the spirit of Walther and Luther alive among us!