13 October 2008

Still Learning from Löhe Again

Pastor Grobien and I had the privilege and good pleasure of attending the Wilhelm Löhe Conference at Concordia Theological Seminary this past weekend. Kudos to the folks in Fort Wayne for putting it together and hosting such a worthwhile gathering. It was one of the best conferences of recent memory, and surely one of the best I've attended at the seminary over the past many years. I loved the Friday evening / Saturday morning schedule, which worked well and made it very feasible to attend. As with the St. Michael's Liturgical Conference at Redeemer a few weeks earlier, I was surprised and disappointed to see so few (if any) of the Fort Wayne pastors in attendance. It's a shame, because, in both cases, the streamlined schedule, edifying papers, and reasonable cost were a bargain and a real benefit. I'm very grateful to have gone.

Wilhelm Löhe will always be one of my heroes of the faith, and a hero of the pastoral office in particular, even though he lived and worked on the other side of the world and died a century before I was born. He wasn't much in vogue for much of the time that I was at the seminary as a student, but of course he did come up in the history of the Missouri Synod. Sadly, even the sainted Dr. Barry used to mention Löhe's name in the same breath with Grabau's as opponents of C.F.W. Walther and proponents of heterodox teaching on the Church and Ministry. I'm not convinced that Grabau was as mean or mistaken as he has often been characterized, but I am quite certain that Löhe has been unfairly lionized within the LCMS, both in his own day and in the not-so-distant past. In my generation, I believe it was especially the Reverend Dr. Kenneth Korby who did more than anyone else to rescue the legacy of Wilhelm Löhe among us; not only in memory but in practice. Dr. Korby's contributions were strongly in evidence at the conference last weekend.

In my first year at the seminary, a requisite missions course instilled in me the strong impression that one had to choose between sound doctrine and the work of missions. That notion played into a larger perception within the Missouri Synod, that one is either liturgical or evangelical, either confessional or mission-minded. It was not until several years later, in the context of an STM missions course with the Reverend Dr. Gregory Lockwood (from Australia), that I was rescued for a proper understanding of these things. Dr. Lockwood encouraged my interest in the example of Wilhelm Löhe, and the research paper I did for that course, focusing on Löhe, opened my eyes to an entirely different perspective than I had previously been given. Here was a man, staunchly conservative and confessional in his theology, renowned for his liturgical scholarship and practice, yet as zealous and proactive as anyone in the world has ever been in both evangelical missions and genuine works of mercy. For Löhe there was no conflict or competition in any of this, but the greatest and most natural harmony. The Church lives from the Liturgy into the world with the Gospel.

The paper that I wrote on Wilhelm Löhe was published by the seminary student association. The cover featured a portrait of the great man, which my graduating class commissioned from a local artist and presented to the seminary as part of our class gift. I'm told that it now hangs in the conference room at the library. In retrospect, I think the publication of that paper and the presentation of that portrait were a bit daring for the day; because, as I have said, Löhe was not held in such high esteem. I'd like to believe that my paper helped in a small way to reawaken an interest in him, not on account of my work, but simply by calling attention to his contributions. His legacy speaks for itself, compellingly, when it is allowed to speak.

Anyway, the papers presented at the Wilhelm Löhe Conference this past weekend were a refreshing review for me. I was very glad to be reminded of those very things that so impressed me and invigorated me, now more than fifteen years ago. I also enjoyed the perspectives of the four presenters, each of whom did a fine job. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite of the four, but I was very pleased to hear from a fellow parish pastor, the Reverend Mark Loest of Frankentrost (one of the original colonies established in the Saginaw valley of Michigan with the assistance, encouragement and guidance of Löhe). I learned more new information from Pastor Loest's paper than any of the others, and I appreciated the genuine passion for his topic that was so evident in his presentation. But all four of the papers were quite good and really helpful. For someone not already familiar with Löhe, it would have been a veritable tour de force.

One of the things that struck me throughout the conference, most especially in Professor John Pless's paper on Löhe's pastoral theology, but also in each of the other papers, was how similar Löhe's aims, emphases, efforts and tangible accomplishments were, in comparison to recent discussions of an evangelical "rule" or "canon" here on the Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds blog. I've previously noted Löhe's example in this regard, but to hear the descriptions and discussions of his work and his contributions solidified that point. He instructed and inspired; he organized, encouraged, supported and assisted; he learned from the past and wrote for the future; he lent his knowledge and energies to the good ordering of pastoral preparation and practice, liturgical administration and prayer, congregational formation and protocol, inner and outer missions. As the paper by Dr. Wolfgang Fenske demonstrated, Löhe did much to establish and foster forms in service and support of substance. He thus exemplified the benefit of an evangelical "rule" for prayer, pastoral care, and public profession of the faith.

There was one point in Dr. Fenske's presentation that I regretted somewhat. He emphasized the centrality of the Lord's Supper in Löhe's theology and practice; not only in his liturgical theology, but in all of his pastoral practice. Life for Wilhelm Löhe was lived to and from the Sacrament of the Altar; everything that he and his congregation did were offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the One who feeds His Church with His holy body and precious blood. This point I do not regret, but greatly admire and appreciate. In connection with that sacramental emphasis, it is also true, there was a shift in the liturgical practice that Löhe advocated and emulated, in which the sermon was no longer understood or undertaken as the dominating center and highest peak. Dr. Fenske described this as an intentional downplaying of preaching, and it was that point I regretted. It gives the wrong impression, in my opinion. Löhe's goal was not to downplay preaching, but to recover a truly evangelical and liturgical preaching that would bring the congregation in repentance and faith to the Sacrament. He viewed the sermon and the Sacrament as the two mountain heights of the Liturgy, the second of them higher, yes, but the two of them together fundamental to the Divine Service.

Another pastor at the conference posed the question: How was it that Wilhelm Löhe was able to accomplish so much within (and from) his Neuendettelsau congregation? How was he able, for example, to lead the people from the practice of having the Lord's Supper twice a year (once in the spring, and once in the fall) to having the Lord's Supper every Lord's Day, and then, finally, every day of every week? And how was he able to restore such a lively practice of Individual Confession and Absolution within his congregation? The answer given to these questions was a good one: patience and steady teaching. It took decades to accomplish these developments, and Löhe was always teaching, catechizing, writing. He used the means available to confess the faith, and he did so faithfully over the long haul of thirty-five years in his parish.

All of this is meet and right. However, I would make the case that Löhe's preaching was fundamental to everything else. Professor Pless made that point, for example, in noting that Löhe regarded preaching as the primary place of ordinary, ongoing pastoral care. So, too, the preaching is the primary place for ongoing catechesis. It was for his rich evangelical preaching that people flocked from miles around to hear Löhe, to receive the Gospel from him, to be cared for by such a good shepherd. I believe it was Dr. Detlev Schulz who shared the anecdote, at the beginning of his paper, that Löhe had once begun preaching at 1:00 p.m. and was still preaching when the people needed to light the lamps in the early evening. It is an example of what we Lutherans confess: nothing holds the people like the preaching of the Gospel. Nothing cares for them and enlivens them like the preaching of the Gospel. Nothing else will be possible or matter, finally, without that steady preaching of the Gospel.

It was Löhe's faithful and conscientious preaching, I maintain, that led his people in faith to the body and blood of Christ at the Altar; and his preaching that led the people in faith from the Altar out into the world, to Christ in their neighbors near and far. It will be such preaching by which we also are best able to serve and support the people of God entrusted to our pastoral care.

1 comment:

Christopher Gillespie said...

I agree with your assessment. My first exposure to Löhe was the badgering of a certain internet email list, with claims of "sacerdotalist". Thankfully, I was able to learn the real history first hand while at Frankentrost on vicarage.

After hearing the multiple papers, I'm struck how much of an influence Löhe had on early Missouri and how quick many have dismissed him over the Grabau incident.

Löhe is an odd one. We're used to our historical figures (especially Luther) improving with age. It seems Löhe channels early Luther but then departs from Luther with age. But even his controversial Aphorisms rely on Scripture (Acts) for their primary proof. Its not a flawless approach. I would prefer concentration on the mandates. But compare that to Kirche und Amt with its derived method.

In the end, perhaps we should take a step back and look at him not through the lens of Buffalo but more broadly and with greater emphasis on his earlier writings.