Friday, October 14, 2016

The Word Remains: A Review

by Larry Beane

Emmanuel Press has released another boon to pastors and laity alike in The Word Remains: Wilhelm Löhe: Selected Writings on the Church Year and the Christian Life.

In spite of this book's lengthy title, it is not an intimidating tome.  And this is one of the book's strengths.  It's a paperback pocket book, 140 pages.  This is not an intimidating theological treatise, but rather a delightfully relevant and portable devotional introduction to the works of the Rev. Wilhelm Löhe (1808-1872), an immensely important Lutheran theologian who was first and foremost a pastor: a preacher, and giver of soul-care in a rural German village parish (Neuendettelsau), where he served for 37 years.

Pastor Löhe displayed a blessed combination of theological brilliance and intensity and a pastor's heart and tireless devotion to the Gospel - both in his village and around the world.

The Word Remains is actually a translation from the 2008 German work Sein Zeugnis, Sein Leben - Ein Löhe-Brevier rendered into English by translators Matthew Carver, Janet Frese, Michael Frese, William Staab, and Philip Stewart - no mean feat given Löhe's brilliance with his own mother tongue.

The book begins with a preface to the English edition, followed by a helpful essay by Manfred Seitz entitled "Reading Wilhelm Löhe: A Portal."  This is followed by the bulk of the work: a devotional of excerpts of Löhe's thoughts arranged first by the Church Year, and second by general topics, followed by another topical section of very brief maxims.  The book concludes with helpful background information about Pastor Löhe: a concise biography by Hans Kressel, a chronology, a list of sources, and finishing with an essay "Löhe as Pastoral Theologian: the Discipline of a Shepherd" by John Pless.

The Word Remains is the kind of book that can be read quickly from cover to cover in one sitting, or opened to any random page and enjoyed.  But in fact, the book is best sipped like a fine glass of wine, taken in unhurriedly, and meditated upon.  This book is neither stuffy nor frivolous - but rather profound and yet accessible to the thinking Christian of any vocation.

Manfred Seitz describes the book as a "portal" to the writings of Wilhelm Löhe.  I prefer to think of it as a sample plate, a tapas repast of high delight that is neither filling nor unsatisfying.  Like an appetizer, it leaves the palate eager for more.  Seitz recommends reading the book in a "contemplative" way, "lingering" over the text in the way of the ancients (p. 3).  He elaborates on this kind of reading by appealing to St. Benedict, making a case for renewing this kind of meditation among modern Christians.  Blessed Wilhelm, who saw modern Lutherans in continuity with the ancient church, would most certainly approve.

My impression of Wilhelm Löhe is that he was a man ahead of his time.  He was fiercely devoted to the sacrament of the altar, private confession, the Book of Concord, and the richness of the church's traditional liturgy.  He understood the centrality of mission, and though he never set foot in America, his influence upon American Lutheranism is extraordinary.  He also suffered for the sake of his confession, opposing rationalism and enforcing church discipline, and for his steadfastness was rewarded by being temporarily suspended from office.  He also established and oversaw a deaconess institution, to which the modern LCMS deaconess program owes a debt and bears some similarity.  Löhe saw theology not as a theoretical academic subject, but rather as the living, breathing Gospel of Jesus Christ lived out in the community of flesh-and-blood people.

The Word Remains is inspiring and encouraging, bringing the writings of Wilhelm Löhe to life in our day and age, in our likewise controverted context, in which confessional Lutheranism is, in the words of another confessor, Herman Sasse, a "lonely way."  And yet it is a path of joy, concerning which Löhe writes, "should awaken from suffering, and joy should bloom and flourish despite suffering" (p. 90).

Without sharing too much, I offer a shining excerpt in a beautiful English rendering of Löhe's lyrical reflection on the Lord's glorious resurrection on the day of Easter:
"No other act done by God for the world is as praised and commended as the resurrection of our Lord.  The earth quaked, angels came down, saintly bodies arose, guards fled.  Pharisees and scribes could not conceal what happened with a lie; no veil of darkness could have hidden the splendor of Easter morning.  Where is your denial, O world?  He is risen!" (p. 22).
The Word Remains is a little treasure, a breviary, a portal, an introduction to Wilhelm Löhe's life and work, and an invitation, in the words of Manfred Seitz, "to linger, immerse, yourself in these words, and read with a listening heart" (p. 5).


  1. "[Wilhelm Löhe] was fiercely devoted to... the Book of Concord..."

    Not exactly. In his Preface to The Church and The Office of the Ministry (CPH, 2012), President Harrison states (p. xiv): "Finally, [Wilhelm] Löhe's 1853 letter to G.M. Grossmann has been appended (see below, pp. 439-46) because in it Löhe briefly explains his perception of the strengths and shortcomings of Walther's The Church and The Office of the Ministry. This letter also demonstrates Walther's contention that Löhe held a less than quia view of the Lutheran Confessions and that our great and beloved co-founder of the Missouri Synod--despite his glorious strengths--specifically and knowingly rejected Luther's view of the Office of the Ministry at key points."

    Wilhelm Löhe did not just reject the doctrine of church and ministry as held by the Missouri Synod and C.F.W. Walther in his book, Kirche und Amt. Löhe also stated in an 1853 letter to Georg M. Grossman, "I can pretty well say for certain that Walther in his book has correctly presented the opinion of Luther and those theologians who follow him on this point." And, as for view of the Lutheran Symbols, also states, "The doctrines of the Symbols appears to me not to be finished [fertig]. If it were, I do not conceive how both sides could appeal to them, which has been the case for a long time."

    "Were it otherwise, were the individual-Lutheran [individuell-lutherischen] view fully and purely expressed in the Symbols, only that people like me didn't see it, it is indeed certain that people of my type would not have been tolerated in the Lutheran Church."

    In 1859 Löhe again stated his different path from the Missouri Synod and Lutheran Symbols:

    "The sad experiences which the former Stephanites [the Missourians] had with their hierarch, [Martin] Stephan, have made their hearts very receptive to the doctrine of the ministry held by Luther and subsequent theologians, a teaching also reflected in the Lutheran Symbols, especially since this doctrine not only commends itself highly to the Christian mind but also seems made to order for American circumstances. Conversely, some of us were led by experiences of an opposite and different nature to have an eye for a different conception of ministry and church, a conception which was present already at the time of the Reformation in the church of the Reformers and had been recommended particularly in some parts of southern Germany. Where it differs from the specific-Lutheran and Lutheran-theological course (Richtung), it seems to commend itself by virtue of a more artless attachment to Holy Scripture and antiquity and by greater truth in practice." (Kirchliche Nachrichten aus und über Nord-Amerika, No. 8 [1859]; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, “Do We Draw the Lines of Fellowship Too Narrowly?”, Editorials From “Lehre und Wehre”, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1981, pp. 75-76)

    And in Der Lutheraner (Vol. 17, No. 7, November 13, 1860, 50-1) C.F.W. Walther confirmed Löhe’s heterodoxy regarding the office of public ministry and his abandoning the Lutheran Symbols:

    "From this one can see how grievously and dangerously the Buffalo Synod, Pastor Löhe, the Synod of Iowa, and all those err from the truth who together with them assert that the church or the Christians do not have the keys originally and immediately but through the pastors!... For when Pastor Löhe had in his heart fallen away from the symbols of our church, then he also confessed honestly and publicly with mouth and pen that he could no longer subscribe to the symbolical books of our church unconditionally because he had found errors in them."

    1. Walther's ecclesiology was so low at some points that he argued that laity ought to regularly preach or even preside at the blessed Altar (which IS contrary to the Symbols).

      So Loehe was a Papist and Walther was a Pietist...

  2. Unknown: "Walther's ecclesiology was so low at some points that he argued that laity ought to regularly preach or even preside at the blessed Altar"

    Documentation or references?


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