Holy Trinity 2008, Volume XVII, Number 3Table of Contents
(Introduction by Dennis Marzolf)
The nineteenth century was a time of dramatic renewal in the Christian church. The sixties and seventies of the previous century had been decades of experimentation. The ideals of an optimistic rationalism gave birth to the revolutionary dreams of the eighties and nineties. In both cases orthodox Christianity seemed to be outmoded in light of a new faith in the rights and possibilities of man. Christian energy, for so many centuries the shaping force in European culture, was eclipsed during the “great upheaval.”
The church, eager to survive within the new culture, conformed her thought and practice to the world. Pragmatism and unionism replaced dogmatism. Truth was experienced rather than known.
This kind of truth is short-lived, however. It is bound to the span of a single life, a single generation. This led to the perennial bloom of the dogmatic church showing itself in various corners of Christendom in the first half of the nineteenth century.Trinitarian orthodoxy blossomed again at Oxford and Solesmes. The invasive weeds of politically expedient unionism and evangelical pragmatism threatened orthodox Lutheranism, but the hearty root would not yield its life and character.
For Wilhelm Löhe true Lutheranism drew its strength from the means of grace. All of mission and preaching and pastoral care had as its goal the encounter with the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar. Löhe knew no greater comfort in this life, and the Supper nourished him in his work as a shepherd. The sweet fellowship of the altar inspired him to explore the rich liturgical heritage of Lutheranism, but his was no empty ritualism. His responsible sacramental practice included sound preaching, thorough catechesis, and a conscientious cultivation of individual absolution, which he viewed as the cornerstone of church fellowship.
Löhe’s work was not just the product of an idealistic Romantic yearning for the warmth of the ancient liturgies and rites of the church. He was a Lutheran who was not ashamed to confess that the brightest light of evangelical catholicism could only be found in a Lutheran Church which knew and confessed its birthright according to the doctrine and practice set forth in the Book of Concord. His personal and public confession of the faith, articulated in “Why I Declare Myself for the Lutheran Church,” was a dynamic Lutheran confessionalism that viewed the Concordia as the basis for a lively, ongoing development of doctrine and practice. This view of the Confessions was a source of tension between Neuendettelsau and other centers of the nineteenth-century Lutheran revival, notably the Saxon immigrants in Missouri. His confessionalism, not strong enough for some, was too strong for many in his own regional church. A study of this is pertinent today as we continue to examine our own confessional relationships in congregations and synods.
Löhe rediscovered the vibrant life of dogmatic Lutheranism, and the fruits of that experience continue to color Lutheranism in the United States and throughout the world. It is hard to avoid overstatement of the case, especially when we consider his work with regard to liturgy, mission, pastoral theology, the diaconal ministry of mercy, and the establishment of institutions of care and education. His pastoral genius continues to be felt in Lutheran ministries of mercy as well as in American Lutheran seminaries and colleges. One can hope that an observance of the anniversary of his birth will encourage further scholarship, especially in English, for the benefit of the English Lutheran Church.
Dennis Marzolf Mankato, Minnesota Guest editor, Trinity, 2008