Justin A. Petersen
1938 Synod Convention Essay
“He that believeth shall not make haste,” says the Word of God. Is. 28:16. And in the blessed economy of God’s grace we have evidence abundant of that divine truth. It was not a self-evident truth, but a truth nevertheless, that when faithful Abraham of Ur of the Chaldees, at the age of 75, had to leave fatherland, home, and kindred and set out upon a long journey to a land unknown, he was to be richly blessed and become the source of untold blessings to countless millions. But Abraham was a man of faith.
To those who were anxious to make haste in their judgment, there seemed but little blessing in store for those sorely-tried Saxon Lutherans who for conscience’ sake left fatherland, home, and kindred and set out for the comparatively rude and inhospitable frontiers of a western world during the first half of the last century. But these Saxons were spiritual descendants of faithful Abraham. And that their faith was not put to shame has sufficiently been evidenced in the bounteous fruit which has been garnered from the little tree planted by them in Perry County, Missouri, 100 years ago. It is with joy according to the joy in harvest (Is. 9:3) that their children and children’s children are celebrating this event with fitting festivities throughout the length and breadth of our land, thanking the Lord of the harvest for the rich spiritual blessings that have come to them from that planting of faith.
In these festivities we of the Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church join in joyful and grateful spirit. And why? Only because we from duty and desire “rejoice with them that do rejoice”? Yes, that too, but also because of the deep debt of gratitude which we owe these dear brethren of ours from the very beginning, which debt no one would deny who knows anything about the parallel history of these two church bodies—the one large, the other comparatively small. It is eminently fitting that we in convention assembled give thought to
Our Debt, Under God, to Our Brethren of the Missouri Synod.
I. What that debt is, and
II. How we may best repay that debt, in part at least.
The more we study the history of the Missouri Synod, and in connection therewith the history of our own Norwegian Synod, the better will we appreciate the incalculably great benefits and blessings that have come to us through association with our German brethren. We do well in studying and restudying that almost parallel history this centennial year, and we only wish that a concise yet clear summary of these colorful years, packed so full of thrilling drama, could, under an inspiring teacher’s direction, be indelibly stamped upon the impressionable mind and heart of every school-child and youth within the boundaries of our Norwegian Synod. Here we must confine ourselves to the broadest and boldest outlines thereof.
We deem it necessary, however, in just a couple of paragraphs to call attention to a few considerations so essential to an intelligent understanding of those early days. First, we consider the motives that constrained the Saxons to leave their fatherland. Spiritual conditions in the homeland had become well-nigh intolerable. False teachers and false doctrines were being forced upon them both from pulpit and in school room. God’s pure Word, freedom of worship, a good conscience, their souls’ salvation and that of their children as well, were at stake. Something drastic had to be done, and that something very soon, ’ere irreparable damage be done. The only solution that offered itself was to emigrate. And this they did, this bold band of Saxons, men, women, and children, pastors, candidates, teachers, lawyers, doctors, artisans, farmers, day-laborers, but Lutheran Christians all,—not to Australia, as originally planned, but, under God’s Providence, to these our United States of America.
With the Norwegian emigrants it was quite different. They sought these shores, not because of religious persecution at home, not to better their spiritual status—on the contrary, it appeared that they might have much to lose in this respect. No, what prompted them primarily was the desire to carve out a future for themselves and for their children in this new land of unparalleled opportunities. It was rather the material magnet that drew our fathers. This is not an uncharitable disparagement of them, but it goes to show the difference in motives; and this difference again accounts for a number of things not difficult to understand in the light of subsequent development. With the Saxons, we repeat, it was spiritual values and concerns above all. With the Norwegian emigrants it was rather material interests and ambitions, though the spiritual values were by no means lost sight of in their new surroundings, for the Norwegian emigrants, as a class, were not materialistic; on the contrary, they were deeply religious.
We point to another important point of parallelism by way of contrast here. The Saxons had to burn almost all bridges behind them. They had no loving mother-church to cherish in fond retrospect and, in difficulties, to turn to for sympathetic understanding and assistance. They were forced to stand on their own feet. In this respect, too, it was quite different with the Norwegians.
In the beginning both groups met with severe spiritual tests; especially was this the case with the Saxon immigrants. Publicly disgraced by their fallen bishop-leader, a flock for a time without a shepherd, discouraged, disheartened, and deeply distressed, and still further weakened by a deadly fever epidemic that demanded a heavy toll of life—was it strange that even strong men wept, anxiously wondering as they wept: Has it all been a hopeless mistake? Is God’s wrath hovering over us? Are we a Church? Have we a right to administer the Means of Grace? What will become of us? Our children? Our faith?
Our Norwegian Synod fathers did not fare so ill, though they, too, had their trials, physical and spiritual. Surrounded by all manner of aggressive sectarians, beset also by “Lutheran” leaders, Lutheran in name indeed, but with little of Luther’s doctrine and spirit, our fathers heard their pastors branded as false prophets in long black robes, and their doctrine or faith as dead formalism. A few lent an ear to these oft-repeated accusations and joined the flocks of these hirelings. The great majority, however, of deeper spiritual discernment and firmer root, were driven to an intensive study of God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions.
Later, under God’s Providence, these were brought into contact with the Missouri Synod which by this time had become firmly established. How was this brought about? Confronted with the acute need of providing pastors for the ever-increasing stream of immigrants and unable to secure enough pastors from the mother church, the Synod resolved in 1855 to send two pastors, the Rev. J.A. Ottesen and the Rev. Nils Brandt to visit the theological institutions which had already been established at St. Louis, Columbus, and Buffalo. At St. Louis these two men found what they sought—purity of doctrine and unity of faith. To use their own words: “There we rediscovered our childhood faith, our own heart-faith concerning how a Lutheran free church should be ordered.” This committee reported in 1857, and on the basis of this report the Norwegian Synod resolved unanimously to establish a Norwegian professorship at the theological Seminary at St. Louis and to send their ministerial students there. This step marked the beginning of a long association with the orthodox Missouri Synod, an association which has brought untold blessings to the Norwegian Synod. From these early contacts many fine friendships were formed between the leaders of the two Synods, friendships which were touchingly reflected in the correspondence that passed between them.
Now we turn more directly to our theme, namely, our debt to our Missouri brethren. Our main debt to the Missouri Synod is of a doctrinal nature. We would be showing little understanding and lean appreciation indeed of our debt to the Missouri Synod, if we failed to place our doctrinal debt at the very head of the list.
However, without intending for a moment to minimize or discount our doctrinal debt to the Missouri Synod, we would not be fair to the memory of our own sainted fathers, if we failed to call attention to the fact that they, too, possessed the pure doctrine. Here we let Dr. Koren, an outstanding leader in the old Norwegian Synod, now of sainted memory, speak. In describing his impression of the meeting of the Missouri Synod held in Fort Wayne in 1857, Dr. Koren writes in a letter to Prof. Crämer, whose guest he had been during the convention: “We learned nothing new of you; but that which we already had learned by precept in Norway—the two great Lutheran fundamental principles… that we here for the first time saw openly and victoriously exemplified in the life of an entire church body. We saw it exemplified in all seriousness and in child-like joyousness, without a trace of pious pretense, but with a power which under conditions obtaining in a free-church came into evidence in a way which would not have been possible in a state-church without a complete revolution of things there existent. We saw that which we by precept had learned to confess, the well-known glory of our Lutheran symbols, such as we had never seen it before.”
It can be truly and gratefully said that from the Missouri Synod fathers, and especially Walther, our Norwegian Synod fathers learned to evaluate and appreciate their priceless possession of God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine pure all the more. Through their fraternal associations with the Missouri Synod, they were confirmed and heartened in their Lutheran heritage.
We could well classify our doctrinal debt to our Missouri brethren under the well-known watchwords—“The Word Alone,” “Grace Alone,” and “Faith Alone,” but since these three are so interrelated and so conditioned upon one another, we shall concentrate on Grace alone—that doctrine which shines so brightly and brilliantly on the firmament of God’s Word.
As a superscription over Grace alone we place the words of Eph. 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: Not of works lest any man should boast.”
Grace, boundless, full and free, is, as we all know, the same as the forgiveness of sins. “‘And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.’ This one gift is the key to all other spiritual gifts. It opens the vast treasure-house of all the mercies and favors of God. It causes the pearly gates of heaven to swing on their starry hinges, opened wide for pardoned sinners to enter.” (Dr. F. Pieper.)
As a brief, but all-comprehensive, presentation of God’s grace we can do no better than turn to the doctrine of Justification by faith alone, God’s own answer to the terror-stricken sinner’s question, “How can I, a poor lost sinner, be saved?” The doctrine of Justification by faith is the “doctrine of a standing and falling Church,” aye, and a “standing and falling soul.” To this doctrine our Confessions and Luther’s writings assign the central position, and to this doctrine they pay such high and unqualified tribute.
This doctrine also gives the answer to the all-important personal question, “How may this grace, which justifies and saves, become mine?” The answer is by faith alone. To answer otherwise would be to destroy grace. To admit of the slightest merit of man here would do irreparable damage to the very foundation of Christian faith. In the Scripture passage which we placed as an inscription over the doctrine of Grace, we enumerate no less than six phrases which entirely exclude all works and merits of man in his justification before God: “By grace,” “through faith,” “not of yourselves,” “it is the gift of God,” “not of works,” “lest any man should boast.” The plant of faith is a sensitive plant, whose beautiful petals close at the slightest contact with any merit or work of man.
But this doctrine of grace or faith cannot be preserved pure unless one clings tenaciously to the Scriptural doctrine of Conversion, which teaches how a spiritually dead sinner is brought to the life of faith. Here again Scripture teaches that this is the work of God alone, without any cooperation on man’s part. “It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Phil. 2:13. “We believe according to the working of His mighty power.” “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost.” And what is Luther’s classic explanation of the third article but a paraphrase of the above passages? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Oh, if all those who bear the Lutheran name had only clung in childlike simplicity to this clear confession! How much misery could then have been spared our dear Lutheran Church down through the ages!
But the doctrine of Conversion naturally led our fathers to a consideration of the doctrine of Election or Predestination. In close connection with the doctrine of Conversion, the question arises of itself, How is it that some come to faith, or are converted, and finally saved, while others do not come to faith, remain unconverted, and eventually are lost? Why was Saul hardened while David was reclaimed? Why Peter a saint, while Judas a suicide?
Now when these two classes are viewed separately, the answer is plain. Those that are lost are lost solely and only because of their unbelief, stubbornly persisted in to the very end. Those that are saved, on the other hand, are saved solely and only because of the unmerited mercy of God.
But when these two classes are compared in the light of God’s universal grace and universal depravity, then the crux comes. How come? is asked. The one isn’t a whit better than the other in himself, you say. No, because Scripture says so. “For there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3:22–23. But then there must be a dissimilar will in God towards sinners. He must favor one above the other. This is a solution, it is true, but a solution which denies universal grace. No, Scripture emphatically asserts that “God will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” I Tim. 2:4. Well, then, there must be a difference in men then (natural man), a certain something that distinguishes the one from the other, that makes him more pleasing in God’s eyes,—his attitude, his better conduct in some way, his cessation of willful, persistent resistance to the Gospel, call it what you will, but there clearly must be something in the one which moves God to choose him to eternal life in preference to the other. True, this explanation, too, succeeds in solving the mystery, but unfortunately it flies in the face of the truth, God’s holy Word: “God hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose, and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” II Tim. 1:9.
Viewing the two classes, the saved and the lost, Scripture indeed does give us an answer, but not one with which man’s reason is satisfied. “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.” Hosea 13:9. Its answer is: There is an “election of grace” and leaves it with that, warning us not to attempt with our puny minds to penetrate further into the hidden mysteries of God.
Missouri took this warning to heart, placed her finger upon her lips, and said: “We are not God’s counselors, and since it has not pleased Him to solve this mystery for us in this life, we will humbly leave it to eternity’s dawn, when this and every other problem that perplexed us here will be clearly answered. In the meantime we exclaim with the apostle Paul, “O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!”
Having taken reason captive under the Word of God, Missouri realized full well that any man-made solution to this mystery would militate either against universal grace on the one hand, or grace alone on the other—and at the same time deal the Word alone its death-blow. To do so would be to steal from God—terrible thought!—some of the glory that belongs to Him alone for the sinner’s salvation, thus striking a discordant note in the myriad-voiced anthem of the saved saints here and yonder, “Glory to God alone!” To do so would be to rob sinners of complete comfort in terrors of conscience, forcing them to attempt to stand with one foot on the eternal rock of God’s grace, and with the other foot on the quicksands of something in themselves.
No wonder our Confessions state: “Not for a thousand worlds would experienced consciences have their salvation depend upon themselves.” Apology of Augsburg Confession.
No, it was by no means just a meaningless quarrel between stubborn theologians. This matter struck at the very heart of our Christian faith and hope. This our Missouri brethren clearly saw, and therefore they battled so bravely,—so stubbornly, if you please.
Now, many fathers of the Norwegian Synod were for a time bewildered when this question was thrown as a blazing brand into their congregations, so poorly prepared for this controversy. Our fathers were clear on the doctrine of Conversion, but many of them had not as yet made a thorough study of the doctrine of Election. (It is interesting to note, however, that Dr. Koren was clear on this doctrine as early as in ’79, before the strife broke out among us. Koren was in attendance at a colloquium in Columbus, Ohio. The doctrine of a Christian’s certainty of his eternal salvation, a teaching closely related to the doctrine of Election, was being discussed. At the close of the meeting, Dr. Walther said to Dr. Koren, “You are clear on this matter, I see.” “How do you know that?” Koren inquired. To which Walther answered, “Because you use your own proofs.”)
To further complicate matters, certain unclear, unfortunate, and even misleading statements had been employed by some of the Missourians in the heat of hasty battle, statements that unless changed or qualified might lead to false doctrine in the direction of Calvinistic theology. These misleading statements were, however, later properly qualified or entirely retracted. But for a time these things caused our fathers no little distress. In their bewilderment they, pastors as well as lay-people, were driven to an intensive study of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, and as a result were brought to see that the doctrine of Scripture and the Book of Concord and the doctrine of Missouri tallied perfectly.
Here then they must stand, here they would stand, come what might. And what did come? Civil war, the worst kind of war; spiritual civil war, the worst kind of civil war, with brother against brother, father against son, son against father, split congregations, friendships forfeited. But here they did stand, all these things plus public opinion, secular press and many other outward unpleasantnesses notwithstanding.
The die was cast. The place of the Norwegian Synod, now badly split, was alongside the much maligned Missouri Synod. And this post she dared not desert, lest she be found at variance with God’s Word.
What our brethren of the Missouri did for, and meant to, our Norwegian Synod during those years, can with difficulty be fully appreciated by us today. Had not the Head and Lord of the Church led the Saxon emigrants to this country, had not our Norwegian Synod fathers, under God’s guidance, been brought into contact with, and later into fellowship with, these Saxon fathers, God only knows what might have become of the Norwegian Synod. And God only knows in how much sorrier shape the Lutheran Church in America would be today, had it not been for the confessional clarity and steadying influence of the Missouri Synod. How great indeed is our debt to our Missouri brethren, not only with respect to the enlightenment and strengthening given us in the afore-mentioned doctrines, but also in other matters both of doctrine and practice, e. g., the proper distinction between Law and Gospel (with special reference here to Walther’s classic book) separation between Church and State, correct principles of Church government (Walther’s “Frikirken” was often a part of the little library in our pioneer homes), the importance and blessing of parochial schools.
How often have not our Missouri Synod brethren befriended us of the Norwegian Synod both in word and deed! How loyally they stood by us in the early eighties and later during the union movement which culminated in the Merger of 1917. How often have not our Missouri brethren opened their schools and churches, their homes and their hearts, to us of the Norwegian Synod. How great is our accumulated debt, our personal debt, our debt as pastors, teachers, and lay-people, our debt as congregations, and as a Synod to our dear brethren of the Missouri Synod!
How now can we best repay that debt, in part at least?
Honest men want to pay their debts, and in so doing they rejoice. Surely, this should be especially true among Christians.
But here, too, our frail flesh fails us at times, though the spirit indeed be willing. As a consequence our debts do not always concern us as much as they should. At the time when a kind favor has been done us, the heart may be genuinely grateful, but the spirit of gratitude soon languishes. Then, too, human nature is such that we in time commence taking favors and gifts for granted and gradually grow to feel that we have these things coming to us as our due.
Dr. Walther in his Law and Gospel reminds us that Christianity is “the religion of gratitude.” Yet, how rare is this fair flower—genuine gratitude! May it not be so among us!
It was not so among our sainted fathers. Sincere expressions of deep appreciation towards their brethren of the Missouri Synod abound in their writings.
But how about us, just about all of whom comprise the second, third, and even fourth generation, are we duly grateful for the many benefits and blessings that have come to us through past association with the Missouri Synod?
Now genuine gratitude manifests itself not only in words, but also in deeds and so we ask, How may we best repay that debt?
1. First and foremost, by appreciating more clearly and more deeply what a priceless possession we have in purity of doctrine and unity of faith, partly become ours through association with our Missouri brethren; by guarding this treasure most jealously, ready, if need be, rather to shed our life’s blood than to yield, compromise or obscure the truth of God’s Word; by zealously spreading this truth in all our missionary activities; not forgetting, above all, to use this pure doctrine for our individual, congregational, and synodical edification and growth “in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” This will naturally lead to and include
2. The bearing of fruits meet for the purity of the doctrine of grace. God expects, and rightly, more of us than He does of others less favored. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Who should be more humble, more zealous, more fruitful than just we? In the strength of this same grace, we should constantly strive to become ever worthier sons and daughters of the true Reformation church. But is not the danger actual and ever-present to make an idol even out of purity of doctrine and the outward forms of worship, priding ourselves in the possession of the same while we fail to bear the fruits thereof in our hearts and lives? Our own Luther even in his day saw this danger and bitterly deplored the oft meager fruits of faith.
So while we deplore and decry the ever louder-growing slogan “Deeds, not Creeds,” let us beware lest it with us does not become creeds without deeds—thus becoming barren fig trees in the garden of God’s grace.
Our fathers were not blind to the danger here, for looking about them they at times sighed:
“O Father, may Thy Word prevail
Against the gates of hell!
Behold the vineyard Thou hast tilled
With thorns and thistles filled.
’Tis true, Thy plants are there;
But, ah, how weak and rare!
How slight the power in evidence
Of Word and Sacraments!”
But this sad situation only constrained them to pray more fervently:
“O Holy Ghost, to Thee, our light,
We cry by day, by night:
Come, grant us of the light and power
Our fathers had of yore;
When Thy dear Church did stand
A tree, deep-rooted, grand
Full-crowned with blossoms white as snow,
With purple fruits aglow!”
3. By fervently praying for our benefactors of the Missouri Synod, her congregations and pastors, her schools, higher and lower, and her teachers, and not least for her Theological Seminary—for it ever remains true, as Dr. Walther so often said, “Give us pious, able, and faithful pastors, and it will be well with our Church,”—for her policies and plans, and not least for her testimony, private as well as public. This we should do with confidence for “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” James 5:16. Sincere prayer again will naturally lead to
4. A humble, sympathetic understanding of the position and problems of our brethren. We shall be quick to praise, and slow to find fault. We shall not act like little dogs that constantly bark and rant at every shadow. We shall look for the bright and not the shady side. Our very position as members of the Synodical Conference and especially of the Norwegian Synod makes it so easy to develop the holier-than-thou attitude. We should shun suspicion and carping criticism as the devil himself and ever be mindful also in Synodical relations of the eighth commandment which admonishes us to excuse our neighbor, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
5. This does not mean, of course, that we never must criticize, admonish and, if needs be, even rebuke. Such spirit is not evidence of true love. We must not regard the Missouri Synod as an aggregation of saints perfected in themselves—though her doctrine, and our doctrine, is perfect—for wherever you have the human equation, there you have sinners with depraved and deceitful hearts, the fountain-head of all evil, ready to flow over at any time. No, in this sad sense the perfect Church is not here; the perfect Church is yonder.
We must not, therefore, canonize the Missouri Synod, and “make flesh our arm.” That would be making an idol out of her—a spirit far alien to the true Missourian. Not the hosts of the Lord, but the Lord of hosts will we worship.
God bless the Missouri Synod! May she ever remain faithful to God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine pure! May she ever “walk in the old paths”! May she ever hold aloft the banner—the Word alone, Grace alone, and Faith alone! May no strange fires ever burn on her sacred altars!