Saturday, July 30, 2011

Thoughts on the Legacy of Loehe

Living in Ft. Wayne means enduring terrible Ft. Wayne winters and long, marriage-required pilrimages to IKEA. But there are some perks. One of them is proximity to CTS and easy access to various programs there. Thus I have just returned, after having not left, from the International Loehe Society's conference hosted by Prof. John Pless. I know you're jealous. Sorry. In order to spare your feelings, I'll try not to also bring up my smoking hot wife :).

It is hard not to leave such an excellent conference without a lot of colliding thoughts and impressions. Here are some of mine, in no particular order.

1. The cordiality between the ELCA scholars and LCMS scholars was admirable. But the theology that came through in the ELCA presentations left no doubt that the Lutheraness of the ELCA is radically different than ours, and Luther's and Loehe's. They are more interested in Luther's and Loehe's processes than in their content. Their Lutheraness is that they share a spirit of reform with Luther. They honor him and his ideas in their original context, but dismiss them as inappropriate, if not right out sexist and ignorant, for our own day. Dogmatics is not a confession of faith for them, but a historic record of what good and pious people once believed. They were very drawn to Loehe's idea that the Church's confession is every imperfect and growing on this side of glory. They were very impressed with early American Lutheran unionism as "generous." They were sad that when the emergency situations passed the unionism slowed or stopped.

2. Loehe's mission and theology is mainly misunderstood - even by the presenters. The difficulty we have in reading the histories of the LCMS and Iowa synods, etc, is that we fail to place them into the context of German migration. We know about it. It is mentioned. But we fail to see the signifigance. We are so impressed by the rapid and zealous growth of the church and of Loehe's accomplishments that we can't help by look for models that we can reproduce. It is mentioned, again and again, that the Indian mission in Frankenmuth and in Iowa were, humanely speaking, failures. They were also a very small part of what the Franconians and Iowans were doing.

3. The Gesellschaft in Neuendettelsau may have the more Loehen view on this than us. All the institutions Loehe established, the deaconess house, the school, and the immigrant communities as Gemeinde, grew directly out of immediate needs of the people. The young women who were too poor to marry needed to be rescued. He established deaconesses for the deaconesses more than he established them for service to the Church. They served the Church, to be sure. But the first order was to rescue them. Then he put them to use. The Germans were immigrating to the US for cheap land with or without Loehe. Mostly they were going and losing their religion, being swallowed up in the new land by the Methodists. They needed pastors to preach and provide the Sacraments. That was the main purpose of the emergency workers he sent and the main request of Wyneken. The outer mission of reaching the Indians was almost and afterthought. The school provided for the needs of the children and also of the deaconesses. There was a lot of talk about inner and outer missions. But it felt to me like the Americans were mainly interested in trying to recapture the outer mission success of Loehe's heirs in America.

The Gesellschaft can come off a bit arrogant to an American mind. They are the mother. We are the daughters. We owe them everything. They have no intention of reaching out and evangelizing Bavaria. But they will continue to send missionaries around the world and we can all sit at their feet in wonder. At the same time, what need is there to evangelize Bavaria? If were looking for a model, perhaps there is one in Loehe: stop evangelizing America and reach out to those already baptized. No irishmen or Italians or Indians or African slaves joined the Iowa synod. They probably didn't have more than a handful of lost Norwegians and Swedes either. They were fully, almost exclusively, German. The Indian failure was never meant to be integrated in any case. In this, at least, the Gesellschaft does seem to be faithful to Loehe's program. Loehe didn't engage in what we would recognize as Evangelism. Nor did he send missionaries to the lost. He sent pastors to the Baptized.

What is the model then? Meet the financial needs of our people. What would that look like? Setting up factories with chaplains on staff? I don't know. I am not the visionary that Loehe was. But isn't the world in a financial crisis as severe as that of Loehe's day? Perhaps we should send pastors to India to minister to the American engineers.

4. Loehe's greatness. It seems to me even more unfair to Loehe than it is to Luther to try and systematize his works and theology. He was a parish pastor. He had no advanced degrees. He had a few kooky ideas. They weren't the prevalent or dominant mark of his theology and preaching. He changed his mind about this, probably forgetting his earlier opinions. He responded to the needs and pain of the people with the Gospel. He preached. He prayed. He taught. His emphasis upon the Holy Communion was not a dogma or an exegetical opinion. It arose from his service in the Office. The same is true, I think, of his pseudo-charismatic views. Dr. David Scaer makes a great joke by constantly claiming that the Holy Spirit came upon him. I've only recently realized that it is not completely a joke. Those who serve in the Office where the Holy Spirit works, those who breathe Him out as He has been breathed into them in preaching and the Holy Absolution, become aware of His presence and inspiration. Loehe's theology grew naturally from the prayers of the Church. Thus also, his so-called "high view" of the Office.

5. Walther can't help but look bad in comparison. The comparison may be unfair, but there it is. Walther's context is different. So is his work. It is terribly unfortunate that his letter criticizing Loehe was published and also that he was unable to bring these to Loehe face-to-face when he had the opportunity. It was, however, an unequal relationship. Walther had nothing to give to Loehe. Loehe had already bestowed great, financial gifts upon Walther. So also, Walther was younger and had been quickly forced into a fledgling bureaucracy. He was not as immersed in the Predigamt as Loehe was. He was looking for answers to questions that probably didn't even make sense to Loehe. I don't think anyone, Walther included, fully understood how completely different society and the State were in the US and how that must impact the Church. To his credit, I think Walther probably had the firmest grasp upon this of anyone at the time. It is more than the separation of Church and State, though that is critical. It was also the pluralistic and diverse culture of all aspects of American society, the impending loss of German, the intermarriage of Germans and other ethnicities and also of diverging Faiths. I am not sure Loehe even had to face the Reformed in Bavaria. But if he did, that was it. There were only two flavors of "protestants" and there was Rome. The government kept things in control. I think, though I may be wrong, the union pressure was mainly in Saxony. In any case, yes, Walther looks bad. I think that is unfortunate. In fairness, we all look bad compared to Loehe. He was truly a great man. Walther has his weaknesses but also had incredible gifts and he also deserves his due.

I hope you find these quick reflections of some interest. Please remember that they are not fully formed thoughts, just general impressions. I mean no offense to the ELCA, or Waltherians, or Loehe men. I am open to correction. I am simply trying to put these things into perspective and think about Loehe's legacy and example.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. would have like to have been there. I wanted to remark on a popular error: the supposed "union pressure" in Saxony. The truth is that there wasn't a big "union pressure" in Saxony if for no other reason than that Saxony didn't want to be Prussia. The problem in Saxony at the time was an aggressively rationalistic consistory.


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