Friday, August 17, 2007

The Wauwatosa Gospel: Proper Application of Law and Gospel

There is ultimately one characteristic that comes to the forefront when defining the Wauwatosa Gospel, namely, its insistence on properly, that is, evangelically applying law and gospel. Koehler so insisted that the evangelical pastor be “fair” when it comes to applying law and gospel (not wanting to fall into legalism) that some might confuse his logic with antinomianism, relativism or other doctrinal circumvention. Koehler’s hermeneutic principles for dealing with doctrinal controversy give us some insight into his unique and complex application of law and gospel: “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” (“The Analogy of Faith,” The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. I [Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997], 263). He argues that “one may reproach the opponent in doctrinal controversy for his incorrect words, instead of proceeding from the assumption that the other person probably means the right thing, but either expresses himself incorrectly, or even merely expresses himself differently than I, so that with my limited understanding I just haven’t understood him” (“Legalism Among Us,” 243-244).

And how does a Christian, pastor or otherwise, apply law and gospel? “The proper method is the following,” Koehler writes:

“At the apex stands the proposition of the forgiveness of sins. … For me, faith in the forgiveness of sins is the main point. … This faith is produced by the Holy Spirit through the Word about the forgiveness of sins. Faith is created by wooing, not by logical stringency. … Unbelief cannot at all escape from the legalistic, intellectual mental sphere. To such a person I would preach sin and judgment. When that has unnerved him, then, or even already with a hint ahead of time, he would get to hear the word of forgiveness. And now, from this common vantage point of faith one may proceed to all areas of Scripture, and every point would be illuminated and made acceptable by the light of this evangelical truth and really in the whole context of the gospel. The gospel, because it is the gospel, is a reliable word and therefore worthy of all acceptation (1 Ti 1:15), a word one loves instinctively and which therefore offers him confidence. This is the proper approach” (“Legalism Among Us,” 244).
Such an approach also has implications for the believer’s life of sanctification, which is not motivated by the law (or the “hurrah spirit” as Koehler called it) in any way, but instead by the inconspicuous gospel. “Sanctification is the direct opposite of the hurrah spirit. It is an operation accomplished in the quiet, gradual progress of repentance and faith” (“Sanctification Is Not Hurrah,” The Wauwatosa Theology, II [Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997], 399).

Ultimately then, when defining the Wauwatosa Gospel, one is drawn to conclude that what the Wauwatosa Gospel really is and what it really espouses is the evangelical application of historical-grammatical methodology not only to Scripture but to all situations, especially as they relate to the tender care of the soul. To avoid legalism and to promote an evangelical, ecumenical spirit one must, on the one hand, exercise a certain amount of self-criticism with a daily life of repentance and faith. On the other hand, one must cast off preconceived notions and get at the “why” behind something that is said or done before making any conclusions or taking any action. Only after this original work is done can one then proceed in properly applying law and gospel. As my brother Paul once wrote me, this evangelical approach to souls is “exhausting and rewarding. Because it’s applying law and gospel properly, it’s also difficult.” But if it isn’t done, Koehler said, we simply and easily fall into lazy dogmatism and intellectualism, which lead to death.

The Wauwatosa Gospel: Ecumenicity

Ecumenicity is yet another chief characteristic of the Wauwatosa Gospel. This principle of the Wauwatosa Gospel, Joh. Ph. Koehler wrote, is in direct contrast to the slothful, dogmatic ideas of unionism and isolationism. It is not a matter of the mind, but of the heart and is worked only by the Holy Spirit. In his “Legalism Among Us,” The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. II (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1999), Koehler writes:

“The ecumenical spirit accordingly does not consist in our having a doctrine of the invisible church. This is a great gift from God. But we make it into something external, if pondering stops here. Again, however, the ecumenical spirit also does not consist in the unprincipled overlooking of the inner differences, which certainly must divide, if one wants to remain truthful. Such indifference is also of an external, superficial kind.

“By ecumenicity of evangelical preaching I understand that one always fosters the sensibility for the one true invisible church, the communion of those who truly believe in the Lord Jesus, as opposed to the partisanship of the various concrete church bodies in the world who claim for themselves that they are the true visible church. The ecumenical spirit is something internal which belongs to the individual person through the Holy Spirit” (247).

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Wauwatosa Gospel: Self-Criticism

Self-criticism is another essential component to the Wauwatosa Gospel. In his introduction to J.P. Koehler’s History of the Wisconsin Synod, Leigh Jordahl writes, “The Wauwatosa Gospel 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” (xxiii).

Nowhere is this emphasis more evident than in Koehler’s signal essay, “Gesetzlich Wesen unter uns” or “Legalism among us,” The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. II (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997). Koehler identifies instances of legalism as they exhibit themselves both in his own life and in the life of the Lutheran church. Legalism “manifests itself in the Lutheran church chiefly and principally in bravado of orthodoxy” (229). Its main objective is to conquer a person’s mind with intellectual arguments where “the interests of comprehension outweigh the interests of faith … Considering of chief importance the intellectual comprehension instead of the inner conquest of the heart. … Turning the words of Scripture, especially of the gospel, into a law for which one demands rational assent” (241).

“[Legalism] infiltrates among us in the form of bragging about orthodoxy. By this term I understand such adhering to orthodoxy where the stress is shifted from faith to correct faith. … Such adherence to orthodoxy is primarily of an intellectual kind and functions by demanding and with an admixture of consciousness of one’s own being in the right or having everything right. This bravado of orthodoxy feeds on the factious spirit which opposes the ecumenical spirit” (239).

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Wauwatosa Gospel: Originality of Thought

The Wauwatosa Gospel invites an originality of thought perhaps unequaled in the church since the days of Martin Luther, though always, of course, within the parameters of God’s revealed truth. It calls its disciples to throw off the shackles of preconceived notions and to do original work regardless of whether one is working in Scripture or not. All of this is in sharp contrast to the idea of leaning, often mindlessly, upon the work of previous generations.

In his 1904 Quartalschrift article “The Importance of the Historical Disciplines for the American Lutheran Church of the Present,” The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. III (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), Professor John Philipp Koehler comments on the situation of the Lutheran Church in 1904. He writes:

"A degree of mental inflexibility (Geistesstarre) has begun to assert itself, coupled with a hyperconservative attitude which is more concerned about rest than about conservation. This is always the case at the end of a period of mental development. The masses get into a rut which has been worn by what had long been customary. In our case it was dogmatics. This mental inflexibility is not healthy, for if it continues it will lead to death. Both in the mental activity of an individual and of a community, fresh, vibrant, productive activity is a sign of health.

"The inertia of which I am speaking shows itself in a lack of readiness again and again to treat theological-scholarly matters or practical matters theoretically and fundamentally without preconceived notions. This is necessary if we are to watch and criticize ourselves. … And if we do not again and again rethink in detail the most important theological matters and our way of presenting them, it can happen that all of this can become mere empty form without spirit or life. As we practice such self-criticism, we shall find that the divine truths which we draw out of Scripture indeed always remain the same, but that the manner in which we defend them, yes, even how we present them is not always totally correct. Here we can and must continue to learn" (434-435).

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Attempting a Definition

The Wauwatosa Gospel is not easily defined. This much is certain: it is an oversimplification to define the Wauwatosa Gospel exclusively as an emphasis on the historical-grammatical approach to Scripture.

The historical-grammatical approach, in contrast to the historical-critical approach, presupposes the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and makes a concerted effort to allow the history, grammar and words of Scripture alone to determine its interpretation.

While it is true that an historical-grammatical approach to Scripture is perhaps the one place where the Wauwatosa Gospel’s ad fontes (to the source) credo is most readily apparent, to simply boil it down to this one feature – as some in the Wisconsin Synod have been apt to do – is inaccurate.

Professor Martin Westerhaus, in his essay “The Wauwatosa Theology: The Men and Their Message,” The Wauwatosa Theology , Vol. I (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997) asks the question: “Is the Wauwatosa theology alive and well in Mequon [at the Wisconsin Synod's current seminary] today?” His answer: “I would imagine that most Wisconsin Synod pastors would without much hesitation or reflection answer in the affirmative” (82). He goes on to give what I believe would be a typical Wisconsin Synod pastor’s response (“without much hesitation or reflection”) to the term “Wauwatosa theology”: “Today I would venture to guess that all members of our faculty and student body and all our synod pastors would agree that exegesis should be most important among the theological disciplines” (93). While Westerhaus himself may not limit the definition of the Wauwatosa Theology to an historical-grammatical approach to Scripture, it’s my opinion that most WELS pastors would. But even Westerhaus seems to address only this one tenet of Wauwatosa thought (see the conclusion to his essay on page 98: “it is to be hoped that coherent or systematic study of the Scriptures will lay the foundation for whatever efforts are undertaken”). For another example of this inclination see Pastor Wayne Mueller’s dedicatory preface to each of the Wauwatosa Theology volumes: “For these stressful times, God raised up three men whose devotion to the Scriptures continues to define Wisconsin’s approach to change. These three men were Professors J.P. Koehler, August Pieper, and John Schaller – the Wauwatosa theologians. In the first 30 years of this century, these professors at the Wisconsin seminary in Wauwatosa refreshed the church with a direct appeal to the Bible. … The selected writings of the Wauwatosa theologians in these volumes imbue us with an attitude that works directly from exegesis to guiding the church.” Pastor Mark Jeske in his Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Church History paper, “A Half Century of Faith-Life,” answers the charge that Wisconsin has lost the Wauwatosa Gospel in this way: “this writer, as far as he can determine, received a steady diet of studies determined and governed by Scripture alone in his three years in Mequon,” (14-15). Again the emphasis seems to be on historical-grammatical work in Scripture, though elsewhere he does seem to describe the Wauwatosa approach somewhat more broadly (83-84).

Others, particularly those pastors who were ousted from the Wisconsin Synod in the 1920s and 1930s during the Protes'tant Controversy, have maintained that the Wisconsin Synod has not maintained a firm hold on the tenets of the Wauwatosa Gospel, especially after Professor Joh. Ph. Koehler was summarily dismissed as the director of the Wauwatosa seminary (an action that was concurrent with the seminary's move from Wauwatosa to Mequon, Wisconsin). Still others argue that the Wauwatosa approach never did find a home within the Wisconsin Synod as a whole.

In order to discuss and argue these issues intelligently, a person needs to have a working definition of the Wauwatosa Gospel, but a comprehensive definition is both complex and elusive. In the following days' posts I hope to propose a working definition in several parts.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Raison d'etre

The purpose of this blog is to discuss the tenets of the so-called Wauwatosa Gospel or Wauwatosa Theology.

Bewteen 1900-1929, three professors at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, reshaped the theological approach of the Wisconsin Synod, especially through their writing in the seminary's theological journal, Theologische Quartalschrift.

Foremost among these men was Professor John Philipp Koehler (1859-1951). Koehler served at the Wauwatosa Seminary as professor of church history, New Testament exegesis and liturgics from 1900-1929. He also served as the director of the seminary from 1920-1929 until his unfortunate ouster in May 1930, due to his unintended involvement in the Protes'tant Controversy that raged within the Wisconsin Synod between 1924-1936. Koehler was a rather private man but an original and brilliant biblical theologian who maintained that the historical sciences (exegesis and history) were essential to a sound, Lutheran theological approach.

Professor August Pieper (1858-1946) is considered by many to be the popularizer of the Wauwatosa Gospel. He served as professor of Old Testament exegesis and isagogics at Wauwatosa from 1902-1941. He remains a rather controversial figure to this day, as in some respects he put the Wauwatosa Gospel "on the map," while in other respects he seemed to betray some of its most fundamental tenets, especially considering his involvement in Koehler's 1930 ouster from his seminary office.

Professor John Schaller (1859-1920) was called to serve as professor of dogmatics and director at the Wauwatosa Seminary in 1908. His service came to an untimely end in 1920 when he died during an outbreak of influenza. Though not as prominent or original a writer or theologian as either Koehler or Pieper, Schaller lent his gifts of steady leadership and theological clarity to the Wauwatosa faculty.