XI. The Question Of Lutheran Unity

THIS book has been written with two primary objects in view : First, to see if any new light might be shed on the doctrines in debate ; second, to lead up to some humble, and we hope helpful, suggestions on the burning question of Lutheran unity.

It may be thought by some that, to engage first in a doctrinal discussion, is a poor way to promote Lutheran fellowship and co-operation. That objection, however, would not be well taken. We Lutherans are too much concerned for “the pure doctrine” (die reine Lehre), and rightly so, to imagine we can ever get together with- out a full and frank discussion of our doctrinal differences. To ignore what we hold to be the truth, and make compromises before we see a good and substantial basis for union, would be entirely foreign to the genius of the Lutheran Church. From a Lutheran view-point it would be premature and ill-advised. Such a plan may do for that doctrinally indeterminate and indifferent movement known as the “Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America,” but it is not feasible for Lutherans. By the candid discussion of doctrine, as well as other vital matters, we hope the atmosphere will become more and more clarified, so that we may be brought to see eye to eye. At all events, a mechanical and forced union will not satisfy us Lutherans.

Still another motive impelled us to take up this discussion : we could not, in all good conscience, let Dr. Pieper’s book go unchallenged, as if it were the only view that could be tolerated in the Lutheran Church. Suppose the whole Lutheran Church should, for the sake of union, or for any other reason or reasons, go over to that view, and should put it in a creed or platform; then suppose that by and by, after more thorough investigation of the Scriptures, that view should be found to be erroneous — what then ? No ; it is better not to try to force a union on these deep and difficult doctrines. In the present state of the discussion they should be left in the sphere of Lutheran liberty for still further study. We already agree on all the vital doctrines, as we shall point out a little later, and so can afford to leave some recondite matters to individual judgment.

Our presentation shows, we think, that the truth is not all on one side; that much Scripture can be cited and many sound arguments adduced for the views of election that are held by most Lutherans outside of the Synodical Conference. This proves that it is useless to talk about Lutheran union solely on that body’s conception of the doctrines of election and conversion. And why should our Missouri brethren insist upon their views as the only terms of union? Do not the rest of us have access to the Bible and the Confessions as well as they? We are sure that such insistence on Missouri’s part will indefinitely postpone the day of Lutheran union. Is there not “a more excellent way?”

Take a survey of the situation : The Synodical Conference, the Iowa Synod, the General Council, the Joint Synod of Ohio, the Norwegian Synod, and the United Synod of the South, all accept confessionally the whole Book of Concord ; and they do so sincerely. “What doth hinder” their being united? What do they separate on? Very largely on the doctrine of election and conversion. The Conference insists that her view is the only true and possible one. Her unmovable stand on these matters leads her to exclusiveness and isolation. Why this constant insistence on these refined theological distinctions? We believe that the Lutheran bodies named would be willing to allow Missouri to believe as she pleased on these doctrines, providing she would not make them the condition of fellowship and co-operation. Therefore we fear that the responsibility for the divided state of the bodies named lies largely at the door of the Synodical Conference. In view of all that can be said and has been said on the other side, is she willing longer to carry the burden of responsibility? If Christ wants all His disciples to be one, does He not want His millions of Lutheran disciples to be one?

And why should Lutherans be divided on particularistic views of the doctrines of election and conversion, so long as they all hold to justification by faith alone, sola gratia and universalis gratia? The mooted doctrines are profound and difficult. By their very nature they are so. Election goes back into eternity, and tries to work out the nature of the divine decrees. Is it right for poor, finite mortals to think that they can so define what God did before the foundation of the world as to exclude and un-Lutheranize other Christians who cannot see precisely as they do? The same is true of conversion. All of us believe that men must be converted; that God alone can and must convert them; that they are saved purely by grace. All of us repudiate both Synergism and Pelagianism. Then what causes schism? Why, the attempt to determine that fine line where divine causality and human freedom meet — a line that no man, however incisive, can definitely mark out to the satisfaction of all others. Thus it will be seen that we are causing schism in the body of Christ by wrangling over questions that are too deep for us. From the time of Luther, Brenz, Chemnitz down to the present, the keenest Christian minds have been trying to figure out these profound doctrines ; yet they could not in the past, and they cannot now, see alike. Think of the days that were spent by the Missourians and the anti-Missourians at the conferences at Watertown, Milwaukee and Detroit, in 1903-4, in contending over these mooted doctrines, with theological giants on both sides, and yet no agreement could be reached. Why continue to insist on a particularistic view ? Must every question be a closed question before we can come together in the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace? Even some of the Missouri theologians have had shades of difference among themselves, yet they tolerated one another. Why not just slightly increase the boundaries of Lutheran toleration ?

Let us see why it is neither right nor necessary to divide the Church on these theological subtleties. Both parties are equally sincere and earnest in accepting the Bible as the inspired Word of God. They would make common cause against rationalism and the negative criticism. Both parties are equally devoted to all the Symbolical Books ; both quote them again and again to substantiate their different views. In reading Stellhorn, Jacobs and Pieper we have been much impressed with the fact that all of them quote from the same articles of the Formula. And again there is about equal scholarship on both sides. All you need to do is to note their lavish quotations from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, and other languages, and their copious references to many matters that belong to the domain of scholarship, to be convinced that in the way of cultural training and skill they are protagonists worthy of one another’s steel. Now, under these circumstances, can they not see that the doctrines about which they contend are of too abstruse and academic a character to be made the gravaman of division? Why not agree to differ as brethren of the same household of faith?

Note another matter — how labored and extended are the arguments that each side employs to uphold its views; how winding and intricate are the logical processes, with more than one effort to hang an opponent on the horns of a dilemma ; how much fine and scholarly exegesis must be used ; how many quotations from the learned languages ; pages upon pages of the finest distinctions, amounting in some cases almost to hair-split- ting! Is it right, we repeat, for the dogmaticians to divide the Church, and keep her divided, on such difficult and erudite questions? If the Missourians should say that their theology is very simple; that they just accept the pure, plain Word of God; our reply is: Then why all this labored argument, all these scholastic terms, all these refined distinctions, in order to try to convince the other party? And still they have not convinced their opponents, who accept the Word of God with just as implicit faith as they — the Missourians — do. This very fact proves that these doctrines belong to the subtleties of dogmatics. We do not ask Missouri to give up her views, but simply not to make their acceptance by others the terms of fellowship and union. Cannot Missouri be as generous as the rest of us ?

Another matter worth considering: So many people stumble over what is called rabies theologicorum, the anger of the theologians. Many good people think that the theologians are mostly to blame for our divisions. They cannot understand what all the controversy is about. We have heard more than one layman say that the Lutheran Church could be united but for the theological professors, who, they contend, are engaged in hair-splitting, in trying to make distinctions where there are no differences. Of course, they do not understand our sincere concern for the truth, nor can they always discern the sharp edge of dangerous heresy; just as, not long ago, a prominent university professor scoffed at the Nicene Council for “wasting weeks over the discussion of a word !” He was unable to see that the very heart of the Christian religion was then and there involved. However, we maintain that our Lutheran theologians should give as little occasion as possible for such criticism, and should be more anxious for unity than for particularistic views of doctrine that do not involve the foundations of the evangelical and Lutheran faith.

Anent the present discussion we are sure this criticism will be passed by many sincere and earnest people in the Lutheran Church : that while we Lutherans are spending our time and strength in controversy over the old and always divisive doctrines of election and conversion, some of the denominations are busy doing practical work, gathering people into their folds, and even stealing some of our sheep. Whether the criticism will be just or not, let us reduce to the minimum the occasion for making it. Every time there is a quarrel in the Lutheran Church the proselyting sects rejoice and take advantage of it.

Do not think for a moment that we would want to shut off theological investigation and discussion. That would be inane. Whenever a Church gets to the point that it is indifferent to pure doctrine, gives up depth of thinking, and lightly regards thorough-going scholarship, it will soon become superficial and consequently decadent. Trees that root shallowly are not enduring. Reverent research and exchange of views will lead to still deeper understanding and appreciation of the vast mines of Biblical truth. However, polemics, accompanied by more or less stress of feeling, is not so apt to be judicial and unbiassed. Therefore we believe that, if these divisive questions could be left to individual liberty, and were not placed in the list of essentials, they could be discussed with greater calmness, less heat of controversy, less concern for sectarian victory, and thus the truth itself would have freer course.

In the interest of Lutheran comity, we desire here to insert a remark, which we hope will prove helpful. On page 146 Dr. Pieper says: “To state the matter concretely, that part of the Lutheran Church which has hitherto taught that the converting and saving grace of God is governed by the correct or good conduct of man, and has in such conduct discovered the ground of explanation for the discretio personarum, must surrender that teaching without any reservation whatever. If this is not done, all unity between the parties to the controversy is specious.”

This sounds very like an ultimatum. But we hope Dr. Pieper will not be too rigid and insistent. However, on this particular point he has much truth on his side. Therefore we would venture to suggest and advise some yielding on the part of some of the anti-Missourians. It certainly does seem to be a dangerous mode of expression to say that God has elected any man in view of “correct or good conduct,” or that “good conduct” in any way prepares him for conversion. Whatever the parties who have used this mode of expression may have meant by it, every one can see, after a moment’s attention, that it squints toward work-righteousness and human merit — a heresy that should be rigidly excluded from the Lutheran Church. So let us all agree to avoid and reject this “good conduct” method of expression, and also the thought that it connotes. It is different, however, when you say electio intuitu fidei, for, as we have shown, in faith there is no merit, and it excludes all ideas of merit ; and therefore the doctrine of sola gratia is sacredly preserved. Now, if the one party will give up the term “good conduct,” could not Dr. Pieper and his synodical brethren join them in fellowship on the basis of justification by faith alone, salvation by grace alone, and the genuine offer of grace and salvation to all, with liberty on any peculiar view of election and conversion ? Why not hoist the white flag and declare peace ?

But there are some branches of the Lutheran Church that do not stand on quite the same confessional basis as the bodies previously named. We refer to the General Synod and some of the Scandinavian bodies. What is to be our share and position in the proposed plan for Lutheran unity? We should like to be included in the project. We ought not to be left out in the cold. We might help the good cause along. (Remember, just now we are thinking more of unity, fellowship and co-operation than of organic union). All of us accept, ex animo, the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as our creed — quia, not quatenus — and Luther’s Small Catechism as a book of instruction. Now, since all genuine Lutherans in this country accept the Augustana, would not that be the most satisfactory basis for Lutheran comity and co-operation ? There all could stand. And, after all, the Augsburg Confession contains the seed and essence of the Lutheran faith, all concisely and lucidly set forth ; the other Symbols are only the development of these seminal principles. Why would it not be feasible for all Lutherans to acknowledge all other Lutherans on that platform, and hold fellowship with them? We do not mean that the Concordia Lutherans should give up their confessional basis, nor, indeed, that any branch of the Lutheran Church should surrender her creed or her autonomy ; but how excellent it would be if we could all work together amicably in fellowship and effort on the above basis ! Should the time ever come when, by means of friendly discussion and negotiation, we could adjust our confessional differences, an organic union might then be effected, and all Lutherans could march abreast against the common foe under one flag.

You see, brethren, that the General Synod and the Scandinavian Synods, in accepting from the heart the Augsburg Confession, necessarily accept the true doctrine of justification by faith alone, which carries with it, pure and undefiled, the precious doctrine of salvation by grace alone. If our Missouri brethren could hear the teachers in our General Synod seminaries insisting on the doctrines of grace, and condemning all human merit and work-righteousness, they could not help feeling that we stand solidly on those great basal doctrines. The doctrine most insistently taught by every member of the Wittenberg theological faculty is that the merits of Christ are the sole ground of our salvation, and that those merits are apprehended and appropriated by faith alone. We are sure that all the General Synod seminaries teach the same kind of theology.

Just to venture a little further, hoping we will not be thought guilty of temerity, we think that something like the following might be seriously considered as a feasible platform for Lutheran unification in America: To hold and accept the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as our creed, and Luther’s Small Catechism as our book of instruction ; then to acknowledge the abiding historical, doctrinal, and spiritual value of the Secondary Symbols of the Book of Concord, and to maintain that a thorough mastery of their contents is necessary in order properly to understand and appreciate the Lutheran system of faith. This would give us a fixed and fundamental Lutheran creed on which all Lutherans could stand, and yet would place the development and theological refinements of the supplemental Confessions in the domain of liberty and free discussion. We believe, too, that this platform would not keep before the Church so many questions that gender division.

A supreme argument for Lutheran unity and co-operation in America is the wonderful doctrinal agreement that already exists among. See how we hold in common everything that is fundamental to purity of doc- trine and development in life. There is not an ecclesiastical body in America that is such a compact doctrinal solidarity as is the Lutheran Church. Let us see how true this is.

First, all of us accept the whole Bible as the inspired Word of God. We know of only two men among us who are in the least tainted with the so-called “new” theology and the mutilating Biblical criticism, and they occupy no commanding theological positions in the Church. There is only one other branch of the Christian Church here in America that stands thus united on the Bible; for it is an outstanding fact that most of the denominations are infected, and some of them fairly honeycombed, with the negative higher criticism and the naturalistic views of religion. The Lutheran Church has evidently “come to the kingdom for such a time as this” — to save the Bible and the evangelical faith from the hands of critical vandalism. Oh, that we might cease to oppose one another! Oh, that we might mobilize our forces against the common foe !

A further bond of unity among us is our undivided allegiance to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession. What a solid front that gives us ! No need of further debate about our fundamental and generic creed. Nowhere else will you find such confessional unanimity.

Nor is that all : every Lutheran body in this country joins all other Lutherans in holding the other Symbols in the highest regard, even where they are not adopted officially in the credal sense. In view of so much unity among us, why should we not cease to fight among ourselves? Why not join hands and hearts in advancing the kingdom of God? Why set up altar against altar? We pray that we may all whet our swords, gird on the whole armor of God, unite our forces, and march in solid phalanx against the common foes of our religion. We believe such a sight would be pleasing to Him who said : “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.”

The sectary might raise a fine, technical point just here, namely : You have tried to show that the Missouri Synod has misconceived some parts of God’s Word, and has put the Lutheran regulative doctrine in a subordinate place. Would not these facts logically make you ex- clusive toward Missouri? How can you still be willing to hold fellowship with her ? Our reply is : First, by love. Love is “the greatest thing in the world” (1 Cor. 13:13). “Love suffereth long, and is kind . . . love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up . . . thinketh no evil . . . believeth all things ; hopeth all things ; endureth all things ; love never faileth.”

Secondly, by logical consistency. We agree on all the fundamental matters, Missouri and the rest of us. We are equally sincere and earnest ; with equal fervor we accept the whole Bible as the inspired Word of God ; with no reservations we accept the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and Luther’s Small Catechism; we hold the whole system of evangelical truth, including the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation of the Son of God, the divine-human person of Christ, the vicarious atonement, etc. ; no less heartily do all of us accept our distinctive Lutheran doctrines : justification by faith alone ; salvation  by grace alone ; the universal offer of salvation ; the communicatio idiomatum respecting the natures of Christ ; the real presence of His body and blood in the Holy Supper ; the Word and the sacraments as the means of grace; the regenerating efficacy of child baptism; private confession and absolution (of course not in the sacerdotal sense) ; the universal priesthood of believers. And these are the essential doctrines. A particularistic view of election and conversion is not fundamental in the Lutheran Church, for from the start some of our best and most loyal theologians have held diverse opinions respecting them. The doctrines on which we agree are so much more numerous and vital than those about which we differ that we could easily fellowship with our Missouri brethren, without asking them to accept all our views respecting the matters at issue. This, we maintain, is a consistent position.

An objection may be sprung: All that has been said in favor of Lutheran union might also be said in favor of union with other branches of the Christian Church. The caveat, however, would not be well taken. First, we Lutherans are much nearer together doctrinally than we are with the denominations. Some of the doc- trines that we hold most dear they repudiate. If you think they do not, just spring those doctrines in the presence of their theologians. It would be a long, long time before we could come to an agreement doctrinally with other communions ; and perhaps it could never be accomplished, for we Lutherans could never consent to surrender or compromise our precious doctrines of the ubiquity of Christ’s glorified human nature, of His real presence in the Holy Communion, of baptismal grace, nor could we subscribe to a platform of indifferentism toward these doctrines. Doctrinally, therefore, a general union is not feasible. Let us confine our attention to what is much more practicable, the possibility of Lutheran unity.

Then, the denominations differ so much from us in practice that union with them is out of the question. Perhaps most serious of all is the fact that, with one or two exceptions, the denominations are honey-combed with liberalizing tendencies in theology and with extremely loose ideas of the inspiration, authority and historicity of the Bible. These latitudinarian views are taught in many of their theological schools, and preached in many of their pulpits. Therefore anything like a real sympathetic union and fellowship with them under these circumstances is impossible. With us Lutherans in America it is different. We can say that we are a unit on the doctrine of the Bible. Here we ought to stand together and present a solid front to rationalism, negative criticism and liberalistic theology. Again we say, the Lutheran Church has “come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”

Once more, and this time more of a plea than an argument. Lutherans ought to be willing to overlook some fault in one another. They ought not to be hyper- critical. This is not a world of perfection. They should cultivate the charity that “thinketh no evil.” As far as possible, they should put the best construction on one another’s actions. There are some methods and practices in all branches of our Zion that are not quite to the liking of the other bodies. Most of us can even see things in our own ecclesiastical communions that we should like to see changed. But all of us must refrain from being too severe in our judgments. Nor should we insist on too rigid a discipline in other bodies. For example, to be perfectly frank, it has often puzzled us how saloon-keepers and liquor-dealers could be tolerated in any Lutheran Church of America ; but even here we are not ready to be too condemnatory in our judgment, for we cannot perhaps quite “put ourself in the place” of those who must put up with such men. If a General Synod minister were to go before a State legislature, or a committee of it, and advocate Sunday base-ball, we believe he would be called to account by the District Synod to which he belonged. We know of such a case in one branch of the Lutheran Church ; yet the offender never received a word of synodical rebuke!

Just so other branches of the Lutheran Church should remember the peculiar situation in the General Synod with regard to certain matters — for instance, the lodge question and a little liberalism — that others think ought to call for strenuous discipline. In our branch of the Lutheran Church this gentle principle largely prevails : “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye who are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness ; looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” True, this mild method may be abused ; but it may also be transgressed.

For years the General Synod seems to have been the object of special criticism. Perhaps it has, in a way, turned out for our good. It has lead our theologians and ministers to examine Lutheran doctrine and practice more thoroughly, and thus make sure that they stood for the pure truth as our Church holds it. However, our critics have usually forgotten the peculiar make-up of the General Synod. Ours is the oldest General body of Lutherans in this country, unless the Joint Synod of Ohio should hold that place of honor. The General Synod was organized in 1820. From the start it used the English language almost exclusively. From the start it was necessarily thrown into contact with the numerous Reformed Churches around it. The General Synod therefore, has not been able to build up her constituency as most of the other branches of the Lutheran Church in America have done — very largely out of immigrants from Lutheran countries beyond the sea and from the children of the Church. On the other hand, we have largely gone to the unconverted people of all classes around us, and have tried to win them from the power of Satan unto God, just as we should have done and just as all branches of the Lutheran Church should do. In this way we have gathered much spiritually unformed material into our churches ; many of these recruits had no religious training whatever ; others were brought up in the various denominations around us, but had lapsed into sin. Thus, while we have simply done our duty in bringing sinners from the world to Christ and into the Church, it has given us a heterogeneous constituency ; and it takes time and unwearying patience to mould all this material into a homogeneous Lutheran unity. This is our peculiar situation in the General Synod, and has been all along. It will readily account for the fact that some of our congregations and ministers are not and have not been quite as perpendicular in their Lutheranism as they should have been. If the other Lutheran bodies had been started in the same way, and had set for themselves the same spiritual task, they would have had precisely the same problems to wrestle with, and would have suffered from the same embarassment. While the General Synod has been struggling with her problems, and doing so in all sincerity and devotion, some of the other bodies, not troubled with the same questions, have looked on and have criticized us. For this we do not blame them, for members of the General Synod often did some fault-finding with others, too. But now that we are coming to know one another better, and to understand better the peculiar situation in each Lutheran body, we believe that the time has come for charitable judgment and sympathetic treatment.

The time has come when the whole Lutheran Church must do more home missionary work; when she must not be satisfied only with “gathering Lutherans” and nurturing the children of the Church (noble and paramount a work as this is) ; but when she must go out into “the highways and hedges, the lanes and the alleys,” and bring in the unsaved of all classes and conditions. These people before conversion will not be Lutherans, and many of them will not have Lutheran antecedents ; but they need Christ and the Church ; and after they have been converted, they must be indoctrinated and moulded into good and true Lutherans. When some of our sister Lutheran bodies do this kind of work on a large scale, as the General Synod has done all along, they will have some of the difficult problems to deal with that have tested the General Synod’s skill, patience and strength.

Let it be understood that the mission work which we urge must not be done by the so-called ”revival” method. God forbid ! It must be done according to our sober and solid Lutheran methods — quiet personal work on the part of pastors and people, careful catechization after conversion, and the true preaching of the law and the gospel. When the whole Lutheran Church of America enters this work with sacred earnestness and prayer, much of our controversy will be laid aside.

The General Synod has learned some valuable lessons through her long years of mission work among the unsaved and unchurched. She has learned, and that by not a little bitter experience, that the so-called “revival” system is not the best way to make good and substantial Christians and church members. She has also learned that the only proper way to bring up the children of the church, and as many other children as possible, is by careful instruction in the home, the Sunday-school and the catechetical class. Of course, many of our pastors were sound in their practices along this line from the beginning, but a good many others had to learn by experience and observation. The General Synod has learned, in addition to the foregoing, that even adults should not be received into the church in a promiscuous way, after they have confessed Christ in conversion, but that they, as well as children, should first pursue a course of careful indoctrination in the catechism under the pastor, before they are admitted into full membership. It has not been our fault that we did not know these things by mere intuition, nor has it been to their credit that some other branches of the Lutheran Church have not had to wrestle with these problems ; the whole matter has been due to the peculiar conditions and environments here in this new land of America, where work along so many lines had to be experimental and tentative for a time.

Our task is done. No other feeling than that of love and admiration for our Concordia brethren has actuated us in this undertaking. We have been frank, perhaps a little polemical at times, but always friendly. Our hope and prayer have been that this presentation might accomplish this one object, if nothing more: to make it clear to all parties that no one should be too dogmatic regarding the doctrines in dispute, and especially should not make them the cause of separation and exclusion. May even this humble effort help to make for Lutheran unity and good-will ! And may Christ reign in all our hearts and His Holy Spirit guide our Lutheran Zion into the ways of truth and peace!