Review: C.F.W. Walther: Churchman and Theologian

Title of Work:

C.F.W. Walther: Churchman and Theologian

Author of Work:

Christoph Barnbrock


Pastor Christopher Doerr

Page Number:

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C.F.W. Walther: Churchman and Theologian, by Christoph Barnbrock, Thomas Egger, Alfonso Espinosa, Jeffrey Holtan, and Charles Schaum. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 195 pages.

Commemorating Walther’s 200th birthday, this book has been published with three stated purposes:

  1. as a tribute to Dr. Walther;
  2. as a showcase for three entrants of Concordia Publishing House’s 2011
    Reformation Theology Research award;[1] and
  3. as an encouragement to study Walther and other classic Lutheran theologians (vii).

As for the book’s contents, first we read the three Walther essays from the contest.  Then we meet up with a 30-page section focused on two primary sources that give background to Walther’s early years in Missouri.  Then, before the book bids us farewell, it gives us eighty pages bearing the title “Waltherana Research Guide,” a catalog of the Concordia Historical Institute’s holdings of Walther’s writings and correspondence, indicating whether each item has been published and/or translated and in many cases giving an abstract of that item’s contents.

The first essay we read is “C. F. W. Walther and Affliction,” by Christoph Barnbrock, Professor of Practical Theology at the seminary of the SELK in Oberusel, Germany.  Barnbrock’s thesis is “that affliction is a basic experience of C. F. W. Walther’s life as well as an important category of his theological thought, even though this topic is less prominent in some of his publications” (4).  By “affliction,” Barnbrock has in mind specifically the German concept of Anfechtung, which has our English words “temptation”, “trial”, and “tribulation” all rolled into one (4).

I questioned four statements in the essay, two in an extended quote from an article by John Kleinig in Concordia Theological Quarterly and two by Barnbrock himself.

Kleinig says, “In temptation the student of theology . . . experiences the power and strength of God’s word with his whole being, rather than just with the body” (4-5). I don’t understand that.  How does one’s body “experience the power and strength of God’s word”?

In the next sentence, he says, “Temptation is therefore the touchstone for the assessment of any theologian; it reveals what is otherwise unknown” (5).  We make a distinction between natural knowledge of God and revealed knowledge of God, the latter found only in Scripture.  Kleinig’s manner of speaking, however, leaves room also for affliction to give us revealed knowledge of God.

I disagreed with Barnbrock’s listing of the main places you find Anfechtung discussed in the Lutheran Confessions (5).  The German topical index in my Triglot lists 12 references to Anfechtung in Apology Art. III, which Barnbrock fails to even mention, although he does mention Apology Art. XV, for which the index only lists three references. To make his references even more confusing, Barnbrock refers all his footnotes to a German edition of the Book of Concord. This left me unsure how to check his sources.  The question begs to be asked—wouldn’t it make sense for either the author or the publisher to convert these footnotes to references in an American edition of the Confessions, since the book is published in America?

The fourth statement I “really” questioned was where Barnbrock calls it “a really astonishing fact” that he found so many references to Anfechtung in Walther’s unpublished sermons (9).  Then the footnote tells us just how many he found: 32 sermons contained the word itself and three sermons included it in the sermon theme and parts.  The “Waltherana Guide” later in the book says we have nearly 1,000 extant Walther sermons (125).  Thirty-two out of 1,000 leaves this reviewer wondering, “What is ‘really astonishing’ about that?” That figures to about twice a year Walther used the word in his sermons. Here I might mention one more weakness of this particular essay: not one of the several nice footnoted citations from Walther’s unpublished sermons is translated into English for the English-speaking reader.

The strength of the essay is that it raises the question, “Do we modern confessional Lutheran pastors preach and talk about affliction enough?”  I appreciated the reminder that I have a responsibility to help my people see where their faith is under attack.  How many of my people often think in those terms?  It is also my responsibility to train my members to notice and console their neighbors in times of spiritual affliction.

The second essay is “C. F. W. Walther on Sanctification,” by Alfonso Espinosa, a LC-MS pastor and adjunct theology professor, with a Ph. D. in Historical Theology. His thesis is “that C. F. W. Walther in no way compromised the doctrine of sanctification, but much to the contrary, was a faithful and accurate teacher of biblical and confessional sanctification” (28).  Espinosa boils down the entire biblical teaching of sanctification into two summary statements, lists a few Bible passages and confessional citations for each statement, and then cites from a few of Walther’s writings to show that Walther taught sanctification correctly.  Espinosa is especially concerned with responding to charges that, when it came to how he taught sanctification, Walther never
fully escaped the bad influence of his younger days in pietism.

As Espinosa himself admits, his topic is too broad (28).  Readers expecting a thorough survey either of the doctrine of sanctification or of Walther’s writing on the same are sure to be disappointed. With my old Dogmatics notes in one hand and Espinosa’s essay in the other, it was interesting to see how, here and there, he managed to cover at some point, at least obliquely, the majority of the topics embraced by the locus of sanctification.  The one omission that struck me most was the lack of any discussion on Walther’s views on adiaphora. Turn again to the “Waltherana Research Guide”. Read through the abstracts of Walther’s Gutachten, and tell me whether, when it came to adiaphora, Walther “was a faithful and accurate teacher of . . . sanctification,” and “in no way compromised” it, as Espinosa’s thesis states.  For example, see the Gutachten from January 8, 1885, summed up as saying, “It is a sin to enter a marriage with someone who believes differently” (161), or that from January 31, 1865, forbidding life insurance, entitled, “Ein Christ soll keine Lebensversicherung abschliessen[2] (180).  Are these two things sins? Walther said they were. Here, sadly, although ignored by the essayist, is a remnant of pietism in Walther’s otherwise exemplary teaching on sanctification.

The third essay is “Walther’s Theses on Open Questions—in the Light of Holy Scriptures,” by WELS pastor Jeffrey Holtan.  The title might give the impression that Holtan’s essay spends most of its time comparing each of Walther’s 15 theses to Scriptures, reevaluating the theses, and reconfirming their orthodoxy. In fact, more than half of the essay is historical background.  When Holtan does get to the theses themselves, it is, as he promised in his essay’s introduction, only for “a brief review of their content” (52).  The essay concludes with a few thoughts on how Walther’s theses could still give us important guidance as pastors today.

Holtan has very little to say about two theses that this reviewer had hoped to read their scriptural proof: Thesis V and Thesis XV. Thesis V is about how “the Church militant . . . never will attain a higher degree of unity than a fundamental one.”  No Scriptural proof was given for that particular thesis, so I found it in our WELS Theses on Church Fellowship, Thesis B3[3].

As for Walther’s Thesis XV, I’m still not sure how I would prove it from Scripture: “The modern theory that among the clearly revealed doctrines of the Word of God there are open questions is the most dangerous unionistic principle of our day, which will lead consistently to skepticism and finally to naturalism.”  To prove that thesis, one would first have to list at least several of the various “unionistic principles of our day,” and then show that none of them are as dangerous as this one.  What about, for example, the unionistic principle that says outward unity is more important than urging other Christians to hallow God’s name by teaching his Word purely?  That’s a dangerous principle.  How would Walther (or Holtan) prove that his principle is more dangerous?  The answer remains a mystery.

In the end, I found the conclusion of Holtan’s essay disappointing.  He makes it clear that Walther’s theses were used very little during our controversy with Missouri.  When it comes to applying Walther’s theses to our ministries today, he gives no specifics, just generic thoughts about the importance of combating false doctrine.  I was hoping for something like, “Here’s a specific situation in your ministry, in which you’ll want to remember Walther’s theses… Now here’s how they’ll apply….” Unfortunately, I did not find that that anywhere.

Having said all that, I found Holtan’s essay to be the most readable, well-organized, and satisfying of the three essays. I also was impressed that CPH would publish a WELS pastor’s essay on fellowship principles.

Following the essays is a section by Charles Schaum, who was general editor of the 2010 edition of Walther’s Law and Gospel. He introduces and then translates two source documents: the Saxon Parish Order and the letter from Grabau’s Buffalo Synod condemning this Parish Order.

The Saxon Parish Order was the document that the Perry County Lutherans came up with to reorganize their congregations in 1839-1840 after the scandal and removal of their leader and head pastor Martin Stephan. Grabau disapproved of the Parish Order because it didn’t give all the power to the pastors, but instead gave the power in the congregations to the voting members and their church councils. To tell you the truth, I failed to get much out of this section of the book, and I’m not sure what use I will ever make of it.

What about the last part of the book, the “Waltherana Research Guide”?  The bulk of it is already 14-years-old, as it is based on work done in 1998 (123). It spends little time on Walther’s nearly 1,000 extant sermons, but otherwise, it proved to be the most interesting part of the book—very useful if you are doing research on Walther himself or if you want to know where to look in
order to cite Walther for a conference paper on a wide range of doctrinal or pastoral theology topics, especially if you have a little familiarity with German. Did you know Walther wrote about abortion (183)? About baptism (175)? About socialism (180)? About church and state (182)?  About how tobacco smoking was not a sin? After all, he himself was addicted to his pipe (185).

To conclude the “Guide” Thomas Egger, who compiled it, provides closing comments about the plight the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has gotten itself into because over the years, it has strayed from the pure doctrine of Walter and the other Missouri fathers. It is encouraging to hear that kind of synodical self-awareness coming from a Seminary professor in our former sister synod. If only his encouragement to return to Lutheran orthodoxy were widely heeded!

Overall, this book will impress the reader with the fact that, baldly stated, Walther wrote a lot.  Walther worked himself hard to pass on the pure Gospel to his contemporaries and to the next generation of American Lutherans. He could say, like Saint Paul, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27).  Do we have the same zeal for the pure, precious Gospel? Do we have the same zeal to see that Gospel preserved and proclaimed, not just for our own faith or the faith of our own congregation members or prospects, but for our synod, for our sister synods, and beyond?  In this respect, Walther puts most of us to shame.

This book demonstrates how necessary it is that we continue encouraging our ministerial education students to develop and put to use their talents for German translation. After all, only a small fraction of what Walther has to teach us is accessible to the English-speaking world.

In the end, do I recommend that you buy this book?  No, especially not for the $34.99 CPH is asking for it. I think C. F. W. Walther: Churchman and Theologian is really a reference book that will appeal mostly to specialists and translators. I do recommend, however, that on the occasion that you get assigned a conference paper, get a hold of a copy of it from your local library through inter-library loan, and use it to find some juicy Walther quotes to bolster your own faith and the quality of your paper. Until then, I would say your time is better spent reading Walther himself rather than spent reading this tribute to him.

[1] Regarding the essays and the contest, the CPH website explaining the contest, which ended a year and a half ago, is still online, and it says, “$1,200 (USD) will be awarded for the best original research paper, $600 for the second place paper and $200 for the best commemorative sermon and prayer.”  It goes on to say that the book containing the contest winners would “also include the jurors’ list of noteworthy researchers and their research topics so that writers may collaborate for future study.”  I could find no indication in the book as to which of the three published essays won either of the cash prizes.  There is also no indication as to what happened to the $200 contest for a commemorative sermon and prayer, nor is there any commemorative sermon or prayer in the book.  Nor is there a “juror’s list of noteworthy researchers” and their topics.  Perhaps the jurors were constrained to use the following bleak contingency plan, as described on the contest website: “In the event that there is an insufficient number of qualified entries or if the jurors determine in their absolute discretion that no or too few entries meet the quality standards established to award the prizes, CPH reserves the right not to award the prizes.”  At any rate, the discrepancies between the finished book and the way it had been described in advance to contest entrants raised questions for me.

[2] A Christian should not sign up for any kind of life insurance.

[3] The following Scriptural proofs are provided in Thesis B3: Php 3:12; Eph 4:14; 3:16-18; 1 Th 5:14; Heb 5:12; 1 Pe 2:2.