Introduction: Walther’s Importance for Lutheranism Today
Lawrence R. Rast, Jr.
As the planning began for the 34th Annual Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions, the choice of the topic was, in some ways, a non issue. 2011 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of a man who is unquestionably one of the most important figures in the history of American Lutheranism, Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther. Not since the Walther anniversary year of 1987 has choosing a topic been such a straightforward matter.
Yet, as was the case in on the 100th anniversary of Walther’s death, the question for the symposium organizers was somewhat more subtle. Walther is the topic, of course, but how to approach Walther demands some careful thought and consideration. That has been our challenge. For at the heart of this symposium is a consideration of the historical circumstances, the theological convictions, and the ongoing impact of a man who, had he been born in different circumstances, might never have set foot on American soil.
Moving is the one of the most traumatic and difficult matters that we experience either as individuals or families. It is unusual to hear of someone pulling up stakes and moving on without giving the whole process some very careful thought. Just take a moment to consider the disruption and stress of simply going on vacation for a few weeks. At least you know that you will be able to return home at the end. But the founders of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod who left Germany for the United States did so knowing full well—in the words of Tom Wolfe—that they could never go home again.
Our Lutheran parents in Prussia, Franconia, and Saxony, Germany, faced difficult times in the early 1800s—conditions totally different from the freedom we enjoy today. The various area governments established what was allowable in terms of both doctrine and practice, belief and worship. Confessional Lutherans were not free to believe and practice the truth as they had learned it in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Rather the state defined the limits of their religious expression.
Theologically, the dominance of Pietism and Rationalism made life very difficult for Confessional Lutherans in the early nineteenth century. Pietists and Rationalists were not willing simply to allow the Lutherans to worship in peace according to their theological convictions. They demanded compromise and conformity. As early as 1798 Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia began to move toward a union of Lutherans and Reformed. On September 27, 1817 he pronounced that there would be only one evangelical Christian congregation at his court—Lutherans and Reformed would no longer be allowed to have separate gatherings. Not yet satisfied, though, in 1830 he issued the ultimatum that the name “evangelical” replace the specific names “Lutheran” and “Reformed.” Finally, Friedrich Wilhelm mandated the use of a common worship service for all of Prussia in 1834. And the confessional Lutherans resisted—not just in Prussia, but throughout Germany.
Did the Lutherans resist because they were a bunch of obstinate Germans? Of course! But not only because of that! Rather at the heart of their resistance to unionism was the integrity of their confession!
In Saxony a group (which included C.F.W. Walther) gathered around the evangelical preacher, Martin Stephan. Stephan later led the emigration to Perry County and St. Louis in 1838-1839. By the late 1830s and early 1840s Friedrich Wyneken was making a Macedonian Call from Northeastern Indiana to Germany for help with in taking the Gospel to the American frontier. In 1845, August Friedrich Craemer guided a group of colonists from Franconia to the Saginaw valley of Michigan where they could use their freedom to proclaim the Gospel to Geman immigrants and Native Americans. They initially founded the community of Frankenmuth, and later added Franketrost, Frankenlust, and Frankenhilf.
But the story of the struggles of the Germans who later founded the Missouri Synod is a story with a point for us because it shows in vivid pictures the life and death struggle of Christ’s church to overcome the temptations of the “Old Evil Foe.” At the center of this story is C. F. W. Walther, along with his colleagues. As the theological heirs of these faithful confessors of Jesus Christ, Satan still means us deadly woe. We can learn a profound lesson from our predecessors in how to proceed. For contemporary circumstances resemble in striking ways the setting in which the emigrants found themselves. They were tempted to compromise their confession so that they would “fit in”—as we are! Yet, as we see the way God remained true to them and strengthened them in their confession, we can expect Him to bless us in the same way.
There are two easy paths that we can follow as we begin this symposium. [2-1] One is simply to uncritically glorify Walther. As Norman Nagel put it some years ago, there is a sense in which Walther carries the burden of his own infallibility, which makes a critical (though not necessarily negative) assessment of his work difficult. To explore more fully Walther’s conclusions, the manner in which he reached them, and the way in which circumstances sometimes drove them can lead some to conclude that Walther is being rejected. [2-2]Of course, this leads us to the second problem, which is an equally simplistic uncritical rejection of all things Walther.
Before this symposium even occurred, there have been commentators who have prophesied what its results will be. One recent internet post summarily dismissed the entire endeavor as “anti-Walther.” In another case an unsolicited newsletter told me that “All participants [at the symposium] will be [Walther’s] apologists rather than be personally objective. “ Since neither of the people who uttered these prophecies will be present these next days, we’ll have to postpone any stonings should their divinations prove to be inaccurate. Just remember—Walther will be watching.
More to the point, what the next two days will offer us is the opportunity to consider Walther, his times, his theology, and his impact. This afternoon we’ll hear about the confessional revival and several leading figures in it who interacted with Walther in significant ways, namely Kliefoth, Grabau, and Loehe. Tomorrow we’ll place Walther in the larger American Lutheran context of the Missouri’s other founders, the Wisconsin Synod and other American Confessional movements, even as we examine his early relationship to Martin Stephan. Finally on Friday, we turn to Walther’s interaction and use of Luther, before completing the symposium with a consideration of one of the great disappointments of Walther’s life, the defection of Eduard Preuss to the Roman Catholic church.
In the past year this seminary achieved a significant milestone in its history—for the first time it received ten-year accreditation from its two overseeing agencies, the Higher Learning Commission and the Association of Theological Schools. The actions of these two agencies in granting this recognition underscore the recognized excellence of this faculty, its board, administration, staff, and, especially, its students. It shows that Concordia Theological Seminary is a dynamically engaged institution that is fulfilling its mission with excellence.
One way we do that is to sponsor these symposia. This particular symposium offers us, I believe, an opportunity for the future—to let the real Walther stand up, as we’ll discuss tomorrow afternoon in panel. But beyond that, perhaps it can drive us toward realizing Walther’s promise for Lutheranism today.
As we now prepare to hear our first lecture, perhaps some words penned by a Fort Wayne pastor some twelve years ago can help frame our consideration and discussion.
Perusing Walther’s enormous bibliography demonstrates that he still has much to say to 20th [and 21st!] century Lutheranism. He wrote eloquently and at length regarding Lutheran-Reformed Union, the necessity of remaining a liturgical church, the dangers of the “new measures,” and on many other very contemporary topics, along with of course, Church and Office. We need Walther. We need the real Walther. And we need to read Walther critically, according to his own excellent criteria.
The Fort Wayne pastor who wrote those words in the January 1999 Concordia Theological Quarterly now happens to be President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Let us take President Harrison’s words to heart as we consider C. F. W. Walther, His Times, His Theology, and His Impact.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Welcome to the 34th Annual Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions.