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.


Timothy said...

Peter, I appreciate the opportunity to read what others are thinking in regard to the Wauwatosa Gospel. I have give a lot of thought to this, for thans for the forum.
I too have perceived that there have been those who have used the slogan "Wauwatosa Gospel" to justify laziness in regard to confessional, dogmatic Lutheran theology.
I went to Summer Quarter this summer and sat at Dr. Brug's feet once again as he taught the doctrine of Church and Ministry. I couldn't help thinking: "THIS is Wauwatosa theology." What do I mean? Brug taught on the basis of exegesis of the passages involved, with all the confessional, dogmatical material that was applicable. He led us in a study of the language and terminology of the doctrine in a way that exposed the cultural, historical and linguistic trappings that hinder a perfect understanding of what the dogmaticians have written. He emphasized that the concepts they convey in their original context are more important than the way something may be translated into English, etc. And I came away with an overwhelming sense that to truly be a Wauwatosa theologian, you've just plain got to be PRETTY DOGGONE smart. You need to know the vonfessional languages, you need to understand philology, you need to be VERY well versed in Scripture, you need to be a god exegete, you need to know the controversies that have preceded and the way they have been dealt with. In other words, Martin Chemnitz would qualify as a Wauwatosa theologian, but there is no way every body is going to be equipped to be one--but if there is to be hope there will be some in the future, it will only happen in places like the Wisconsin Synod, if we maintain our ministerial education system. There's no way anyone with the watered down Missouri type system is going to become a Wauwatosa type theologian unless he does a LOT of study elsewhere. Wauwatosa theology involves a combination of Exegetical skills, and being able to "get it" as to what really is at stake. Luther, to speak anachronistically once again, was a "Wauwatosa theologian" --demonstrated so vlearly at Marburg, when on the bais of Scripture and "getting" what was really at stake Law and Gospel-wise, realized and said to Zwingli and his followers "You have a different spirit."

OK. Let me try to distill what I'm thinking. To be a Wauwatosa theologian you need to REALLY study both Lutheran doctrine (with some good German and Latin abilities) and Holy Scripture (with some good exegetical skills). Then you give the nod to Scripture as the final determinant (norma normas).

Peter Prange said...

Thanks, Timothy, for your insights on defining the Wauwatosa Gospel.

Contrary to popular belief, the Wauwatosa men believed that the study of the Lutheran Confessions and Lutheran dogmatics was essential for pastoral training. I'll be adding a post soon to demonstrate this how highly Koehler valued a sound grounding not only in the historical fields (exegesis and history) but also in the area of dogmatics.

I couldn't agree with you more that Professor Brug serves as a wonderful model of the Wauwatosa approach. You're also right in suggesting that to be a "Wauwatosa theologian" requires an enormous amount of energy, study, and knowledge, not just of grammar and syntax but of history, church history, dogmatics, etc. Then, on top of everything else, it requires Spirit-given humility (Ro 12:3).

As far as your last comment goes - on the relationship between Scripture (norma normans) and our Lutheran Confessions (norma normata) - this has been an interesting, ongoing discussion within Lutheranism lately (and for many years, as well): Do we use Scripture to interpret the Confessions or the Confessions to interpret Scripture? Perhaps a future post and discussion on this issue would be enlightening!