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.