Wielding the Sword of the Spirit – Volume Three

Title of Work:

Wielding the Sword of the Spirit – Volume Three: The Doctrine & Practice of Church Fellowship in the Synodical Conference (1877-1882)

Author of Work:

Peter M. Prange


Pastor Jeremiah Gumm

Page Number:


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We love stories with happy endings, but when the stories are about sinners living in a sinful world they do not always end that way. One merely needs to recall Adam and Eve or King David or the early Christian church after Pentecost to find such endings. It is also true of church history. Good things, like peace and unity within the visible Christian church, last only for a moment this side of heaven. 

Such was the case in the heady days after the creation of the Synodical Conference in 1872. The unity of the Synodical Conference was unlike any seen among Lutherans in North America. One could best describe it as a fundamental unity. That unity was built on the basis of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and submission to the authority of Scripture. That unity recognized that an all-or-nothing insistence on complete or absolute agreement on every last detail and phrasing was impossible this side of heaven. That unity was truly evangelical, leaving room for hearty debate and humble discussion on doctrine and practice among recognized brothers in the faith.  

Sadly, that fundamental unity was short-lived. Within ten years, the Synodical Conference was a shell of itself. How did this happen? How did a conference of faithful Christians united around the confessional teaching of God’s Word disintegrate so quickly? In Volume 3 of his Wielding the Sword of the Spirit trilogy, Peter Prange makes it clear that one word sums it up—sin.  

The history of the Election Controversy is rarely clear and often confusing, yet Prange weaves fascinating narrative with readable translations of primary sources to guide the reader through this tragic story. In key parts of the narrative, he provides helpful commentary. For example, he points out the seeds that will later become full-grown discord, and he highlights the lasting impact that loveless words, poor choices, or sinful pride will have long after the combatants are gone. Prange pulls no punches. He makes clear that there were no clear victors or villains in this controversy.  

As with Volumes 1 and 2, Prange utilizes variations of the phrase “wielding the sword of the Spirit” frequently throughout the book. This phrase emphasizes how a church body vigorously carries out the doctrine and practice of fellowship—a task that requires skill and pastoral concern for souls and for the truth of God’s Word. In Volume 3, Prange demonstrates repeatedly that wielding the sword of the Spirit with skill only benefits souls if it is wielded with wisdom and Christlike love. If not, then the sword of the Spirit becomes a means to harm and kill souls.  

To make this clear, Prange uses another analogy—a destructive house fire. From the 1830s to the 1860s, dry kindling was slowly assembled through debates and unclear comments made in sermons and essays. During the volatile 1860s, questions about absolution, conversion, and “the so-called justification of the world” became matches that could light up the controversy, unless handled carefully. “The fact that these teachings are also wrapped in a rather thick layer of divine mystery…requires a theologian to speak and write with even greater reserve.” Unfortunately, “too many American Lutheran theologians in this era attacked these difficult questions in a rather assertive and cocksure way that failed to recognize the necessity of nuance” (54).  

Two of those theologians were C.F.W. Walther of the Missouri Synod and F.A. Schmidt of the Norwegian Synod, who was a former student and colleague of Walther. While people on both sides were at fault, much of the blame for the start of this destructive controversy can be placed at their feet. Walther was the most outspoken voice of confessional Lutheranism in America, particularly as a defender of objective justification through “God’s free, unconditional, complete grace and forgiveness in Christ.” At the founding of the Synodical Conference, Schmidt had joined Walther in championing “the foundational nature of objective justification,” but these allies became bitter enemies (102).  

Much like Luther and his struggles with guilt, Walther’s strong emphasis on objective justification through God’s grace in Christ came from “severe trials of conscience” when he was younger. “The objective certainty of eternal salvation…in Christ alone” filled his longing for certainty (102). This moved Walther to teach that doctrine without compromise. To Walther, “no teaching of Scripture was more objective than the doctrine of the Gnadenwahl, the gracious election, in which God made an eternal decree to save individuals, even before the world’s foundations were laid” (102-103). If God in his grace eternally elects us, then our salvation is entirely in his hands. That gave Walther and others certainty for their salvation.  

Walther taught this without compromise. Yet when pushed for absolute clarity, his arguments occasionally slipped into speculation about a subject beyond human understanding. Unfortunately, Walther’s strongly worded defense of God’s gracious election unintentionally lit the fire.   

In 1877, Walther was asked to publicly present on election by grace (106). Walther spoke so strongly and absolutely in his essay that F.A. Schmidt and others expressed concern that Walther was advocating a Calvinistic determinism that made God out to be a moral monster, because it gave the impression that God chose to elect some and not others. Unfortunately, Schmidt and others responded by speaking too strongly in the other direction and by doing so publicly. Rather than advocating that God is solely responsible for our salvation by grace, they argued that mankind had a moral responsibility. To make their point, Schmidt and his followers used an unclear phrase from the Lutheran dogmaticians—intuitu fidei (i.e., God chose us to be his own “in view of the faith” we would have someday) (126-198).  

Add to all this a personal element between Walther and Schmidt. When there was an opportunity for Schmidt to be elected to serve on the Concordia Seminary faculty in St. Louis in 1878, he was rejected. Some, including Schmidt, argued that Walther had spoken against his election. We cannot know for sure whether Walther did weigh in, but we do know that Schmidt and Walther remained opponents thereafter (131-134).  

In time, their personal conflict over the doctrine of election consumed entire church bodies and tore apart the Synodical Conference. Prange paints a heartbreaking tragedy. Sinful pride and self-righteousness, an inability to listen and speak the truth in love, refusals to step back from speculating, an unflinching desire to be right, and a lack of patience —all of which was evident on both sides—combined to do such harm to the Synodical Conference that we still feel the devastating effects to this day.  

Souls, congregations, and synods were permanently damaged. In 1881, the Ohio Synod was tired of Missouri’s attacks, and broke fellowship with the Synodical Conference in support of Schmidt’s position. In 1882, the Synodical Conference expelled F.A. Schmidt as a delegate. Shortly thereafter, the Norwegian Synod followed him out of the Conference, while trying to maintain fellowship with the remaining Synodical Conference church bodies. Within a decade of its founding, the Synodical Conference was a scorched shell of its former glory.  

Prange’s conclusions in his Epilogue to the series (363-390) are particularly beneficial to heirs of this sad story. No Synodical Conference synod was left unscathed. The controversy sowed seeds of conflict in the Norwegian and Ohio Synods that were later used to push both bodies into today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An insistence on complete unity, where absolute agreement on every detail and phrasing is required, rather than fundamental unity, where one strives to patiently and humbly work with and teach erring brothers and sisters, became a popular approach to applying church fellowship in the remaining Synodical Conference synods. Those who were members of other Lutheran church bodies outside of their fellowship were simply branded as “persistent errorists,” even if people in those synods were ignorant of error or willing to be taught from God’s Word. In time, these seeds grew up and destroyed what was left of the Synodical Conference.  

After the joyous celebration at the founding of the Synodical Conference in Volume 2, reading Volume 3 was like watching a divorce. It was heartbreaking. This story did not end happily. Yet with this trilogy, Peter Prange has done the church a great service. This generation of pastors will find great benefit, including practical lessons and applications as they seek to teach and apply church fellowship themselves. We are called to wield the sword of the Spirit with wisdom, skill, and Christlike love. Praise God that he forgives our sins and will one day bring us to lasting peace with all our fellow believers in Christ in the glories of heaven.  


About the author: Peter Prange serves as associate pastor at New Life Lutheran Church in Kenosha and Somers, WI. He is a 1998 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He has researched and written extensively on the history and doctrine of the Synodical Conference, with a special emphasis on the connection between C.F.W. Walther and the so-called “Wauwatosa Theology” that was the hallmark of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary from 1900-1920. Besides authoring the Wielding the Sword of the Spirit trilogy, he also wrote “The Wauwatosa Spring: The Flowering of the Historical Disciplines at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (1900-1920),” and co-authored Jars of Clay: A History of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (1863-2013).