Bread of Life from Heaven: The Theology of the Means of Grace, the Public Ministry, and church Fellowship, Gaylin R. Schmeling. Mankato, MN: Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary Press, 2009. 391 pages.
Gaylin Schmeling currently serves as the president of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s (ELS) seminary, Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mankato, Minnesota. He has served in this capacity since 1997, and also teaches systematic and historical theology. Prior to this calling he served congregations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He received his B.S. from DMLC in New Ulm, and graduated from Bethany Seminary with his M.Div. in 1978. He holds an S.T.M. from Nashotah House Theological Seminary located in Nashotah, Wisconsin.
Dogmatics has a critical place in the training of future pastors. However, it also serves the busy parish pastor well because dogmatic reading collects and connects many passages on a given subject, always reminding the reader of Scripture’s unity. The main textbook for teaching dogmatics at Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary remains Christian Dogmatics by Franz Pieper, which is supplemented with Hoenecke’s Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics, as well as the works of Luther, Chemnitz, and Johann Gerhard. Schmeling’s purpose in this volume is not to replace these works for study, but to provide additional material concerning questions that have arisen since the printing of Pieper’s and Hoenecke’s works (7). In American Lutheranism it has been a rare pursuit to see quality dogmatics—let alone a tome written by an orthodox seminary president which covers many of the debated issues within the Lutheran Church.
Schmeling’s book contains eight chapters. The first focuses on the life-giving Word of God. He writes, “This proclaimed and written Word is the primary means of grace, the chief thing in both the Sacraments” (16). He clearly confesses Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, sufficiency, clarity, and all the good things we would expect from a Lutheran seminary professor. He also includes many practical insights, such as the need for a personal devotional life, the benefits of a Lutheran elementary school, and personal evangelism (32-33).
The second chapter is closely tied to the first, since it deals with typological interpretation of the Old Testament. He discusses what typology is and what it is not—specifically what separates typology from allegory or direct messianic prophecy. He points to the typological understanding of men, like Samson, which has been a common theme in the history of the Christian Church. Schmeling states, “For homiletical purposes the Bible student may see many more types in the Old Testament than those specifically identified in the New” (43).
The following chapters deal with Baptism, the theology of the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Supper as a feast of salvation, the Church and her ministry, men and women in the Church, and the theology of church fellowship. Some highlights from these sections include a brief history of baptismal practices and even a caveat against practices involving oil in the baptismal service, as were reintroduced with the Lutheran Book of Worship (99). There is also a thorough discussion of the Scriptural and confessional teaching regarding the moment of the real presence in Holy Communion (137-149). The reader will, in addition, find seven useful addenda (174-188) relating to the Sacrament of the Altar.
The chapter on the Church and her ministry gives a concise summary of the Bible’s teaching on both topics. Schmeling writes, “While there is no divinely instituted external form of the church, the local congregation is the most comprehensive form of visible gatherings, just as the pastoral ministry is the most comprehensive form of the divinely instituted office of the public ministry” (233). It is during this exposition that Schmeling restates the sola Scriptura principle of the Reformation. He says, “We do not base our doctrine on the fathers (Väterstheologie) but on the Word of God. Confessional Lutherans do not mine the Lutheran fathers for quotations to establish a doctrine. Quotations from the fathers are an affirmation of our exegesis of Scripture. All doctrine and teaching in our church must be based on the inspired and inerrant Word of God” (247). With regard to church and ministry he also includes seven more addenda, discussing Walther’s view, women in the public ministry, ordination, official ELS statements, and more (247-288). Each one is worth digesting.
The following chapter on men and women in the Church examines the sedes doctrinae for this touchy, 21st century issue. His exegesis provides exactly what we would expect. He ends with the statement adopted in 1990 by the ELS regarding the roles of men and women (309-312). His final chapter on Church fellowship articulates the unit concept of Church fellowship. He explains from Scripture that fellowship is a unit both in respect to the doctrine of Scripture and in respect to various expressions of faith (329). He includes a defense against those who would call the unit concept a new theology (332) and an examination of the unscriptural “levels of fellowship” view some Lutherans put forth (340). This was an encouraging chapter because the Evangelical Lutheran Synod stood with us in the break from Missouri (even suspending fellowship before WELS did), and that stand remains to this day.
Schmeling covers a wide range of material in an engaging and concise manner. Keeping in mind his purpose to supplement the good Lutheran works available, he accomplished his goal. He doesn’t cover everything under these articles of faith, but he does apply his broad knowledge of Scripture, the Confessions, and church history to provide the Lutheran Church with a true gem. This book has many uniquely ELS elements, such as the doctrinal statements of the ELS regarding the Lord’s Supper, the Church, the public ministry, and the roles of men and women. Such things are important for WELS pastors to read and digest, just as I hope ELS pastors find joy in our statements. There are certain points that may strike us in new or unusual ways, particularly his use of Old Testament typology. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to read a doctrinally sound book from our own fellowship, and you can weigh his conclusions for yourself.
My advice to any WELS pastor would be to purchase this book. It has simple divisions, if you’re writing a Bible class or looking for some light dogmatic reading. Don’t let the 391 pages scare you off, because it is also a quick read. The pages have wide margins for taking notes. It’s not often that men from within our WELS/ELS fellowship produce dogmatic works and this volume certainly reminded me of the blessed fellowship we enjoy. Schmeling quotes Luther, “Whoever really regards his doctrine, faith, and confession as true, right and certain cannot remain in the same stall with such as teach or adhere to false doctrine” (333). We in WELS can be glad we are in the same stall with our ELS brothers and sisters.