In commemoration of Wilhelm Loehe’s birth on February 21, we’ve posted below an excerpt from his biography, The Life, Work, and Influence of Wilhelm Loehe, 1808–1872, originally written in German by Erika Geiger and translated by Wolf Knappe. A pastor in nineteenth-century Germany, Wilhelm Loehe became a father of confessional Lutheranism in North America and founder of the deaconess movement in the Lutheran Church.
“Zealous for Lutheranism”
About mid-1835 Loehe took a step beyond the Revival Movement. He studied Luther’s doctrine of justification intensively and came to this realization: Faith cannot rely on feelings but on the Word of God, the redemption through Christ which happened “outside of us” and is not conditioned “by our moods and feelings.” Decisive is the “total faith without feelings”—that means faith that is not dependent on feelings—“which clings only to the Word.”
This faith experience Loehe found affirmed in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, especially the three Old-Church confessions or “symbols,” namely the Apostolic, the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds, also the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Small and Large Catechism and the Formula of Concord of 1577, which permanently defined the teaching of the Lutheran Church and distinguished it from the other denominations. From this time on, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church and its confession became more and more important for Loehe. In comparison to other denominations, the Roman Catholic and the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church seemed to him to be the “unifying middle of the confessions,” a “fountain of truth,” because it “keeps Word and Sacrament in its pure confession.”
Several friends of Loehe among the Erlangen professors followed a similar path from the Revival Movement to confessional Lutheranism, especially Karl von Raumer who changed his membership from the Reformed to the Lutheran Church. The same was true of Adolf von Harless, a friend of Loehe’s from the days of his youth. Soon the concept of “Neo-Lutheranism” made the rounds in Erlangen.
“Three Books about the Church”
How can Loehe talk about the Lutheran Church as the “middle of the Confessions?” For instance, consider the Lord’s Supper, which is of central importance for Loehe. The Lutheran Church teaches that “body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present and are truly distributed and received with the bread and the wine.” According to the teaching of transubstantiation of the Roman-Catholic Church, bread and wine lose their substance and are changed “into the body and blood of Christ” when the priest says the words of institution. The reformed teaching of Calvin finally emphasizes that “bread and wine are received with the mouth, but the body of Christ is received only spiritually through faith.”
For Loehe, it became clear that “in the Lord’s Supper of the Romans the heavenly good displaces the element” (the bread and wine). “In the Lord’s Supper of the Reformed the element displaces the heavenly good. But in the Lord’s Supper of the true Church both appear in beautiful union, as Christ has instituted it.”
Loehe put down his thoughts about the Church in the important work “Three Books about the Church” which appeared in 1845.
“Man has been created for fellowship,” Loehe explained, “but the fellowship which has been determined by God” is the communion of saints. It is “the Lord’s most beautiful and loving thought.” This fellowship is not limited to this world. Once more Loehe used the picture of an uninterrupted procession of pilgrims that moves toward Mount Zion. On its summit shines the heavenly city Jerusalem. Here on earth is the church of pilgrims, the church militant. There in eternity is the church triumphant: “Therefore there exists one eternal Church—partly here and partly there.”
The Church is one, gathered from all nations . . . the universal, truly Catholic Church—it is the great concept that is still being fulfilled . . . the concept which must permeate all mission, or it does not know what it is and what it should do. For Mission is nothing but the one Church of God in its movement . . . the realization of a universal catholic Church.
Thus the task of missions is to gather the one Church out of all nations.
One Church—and yet there are many “particular churches,” each one having its own “jewel.” They are different in their understanding of the Word and in the administering of the sacraments, and therefore in their Confession.
Which church possesses “the greatest truth?” The criterion has to be whether its “Confession is according to the Scripture.” And here Loehe wanted to “present the laurel wreath” without reservation to the Lutheran Church. The only thing that bothered him was the name “Lutheran,” because it is not appropriate to describe the “great work of the Church” with the name of a human being. In reality it is the old Christian Church of the apostles. Luther had restored its pure confession against the “innovations and misuses” of the Roman Church. Therefore the Church would have to be called “Christian, Catholic, or Apostolic,” were it not for the fact that other Partikularkirchen (individual churches) have usurped those names for themselves.
“The true Church calls itself Lutheran for the time being until it is given a better name. But in heaven it has always carried the better names and still carries them.”
What do all these insights mean for the work of missions? If the Lutheran Church possesses the “true teaching which flows out of the Confession” it must carry “the torch of truth to all nations” by itself and has to begin mission work among the heathen. But that does not mean that it should exclude others: “We will never interfere with or destroy the good deeds of other confessions among the heathen. But we will do our part, as much as possible, to see to it that the purest doctrine will demonstrate and prove its power to save.”
From Wilhelm Loehe 1808–1872, pages 85–87; English translation © 2010 Wolf Dietrich Knappe, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.