ESTEEMED MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF OUR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD: GRACE AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND FROM THE LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
One would expect that a book entitled “Vivacious Daughter” would be a story about the escapades of some lively teenage girl struggling to cope with life in the modem world. It is, however, quite something different. It is the name given to our church body by the Rev. Herman Amberg Preus as he sought to describe the young synod to the forefathers in Norway, and is the title of a book by Prof. Todd Nichol which deals with this description.
Since we are approaching the 75th anniversary of the re-organization of our synod permit me to make some historical references leading up to the theme of this discourse.
Herman Amberg Preus was born in Kristiansand, Norway, on June 16, 1825. He was a grandson of a bishop of Kristiansand and nephew of distinguished Norwegian clergymen. His father was a schoolmaster and through his mother he was related to several of Norway’s leading academics. He attended Kristiansand’s cathedral school where under the influence of Ole Christian Thistedahl he was trained in a “strenuous biblical literalism, and a strict Lutheran orthodoxy.”1 He entered the University in Oslo in 1843 where he studied under the famous Carl Paul Caspari and where he took courses under the well known Gisle Johnson. After graduation in 1848 he taught school for three years and then accepted a call from three immigrant congregations in Wisconsin. He left Norway together with his wife “Linka” on May 24, 1851, and after a journey of more than two months he arrived at Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, in August of 1851. It is now therefore 140 years since his coming to Wisconsin to begin work amongst the immigrants.
Preus immediately became involved in church life and helped organize the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, later known simply as the Norwegian Synod. This organization took place in 1853, after the first church body organized in 1851 was dissolved, in order to make certain necessary changes in its constitution. Preus served as a member of the church council from 1853 until 1894; as editor of its church periodical from 1861 to 1868; and as its president from 1862 to 1894. Prof. Todd Nichol describes him as a biblical literalist and a confessional purist, unbending in defense of what he took to be the dictates of Scripture and confession. He was said to be “orthodox to his very fingertips.”2 One contemporary of another church body describes him in these rather glowing terms, “His noble and symmetrical physique, his fine abilities, and varied acquisitions will always secure for him the high respect of every intelligent mind. In disposition he combines gentleness with a certain resoluteness and inflexibility, characteristic of his nationality, which rarely fails to influence those who approach him. He is strictly conscientious even in apparently minute matters, and as a pastor he has ever been rigid toward himself, full of sympathy for the poor, the sick and the suffering, and totally forgetful of himself, when he heard the voice of duty.”3
It was out of concern for the welfare of the immigrant church here in America that Preus traveled to Norway in 1866 for the purpose of appealing to the church there to send pastors to help care for the flood of immigrants coming to America. At the time of the founding of the synod in 1853 seven pastors were serving forty congregations. When Preus made the trip to Norway about thirty-eight pastors served about 200 congregations, numbering about 70,000 souls. Some pastors served as many as 13 to 16 congregations, some of which were 300 miles apart and they could only be reached by horse and wagon.
Preus therefore made an urgent appeal to the church in Norway to send pastors. He did this in the form of seven lectures delivered in the winter of 1867 in Christiania, which is now called Oslo. These lectures have been translated into English by Prof. Todd Nichol of Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary and have been published, along with an excellent historical introduction, in a book entitled “Vivacious Daughter.” Reading these seven lectures helps us gain a deeper understanding of the character of our synod today.
Preus began his remarks about the immigrant church with a plea for sympathy: “Forget that, like a more vivacious daughter, she may not be as demure and considerate as her mother. . . My friends! She is still the inwardly beautiful bride of Christ whose life is hidden with Christ in God. That you, too, may hold her dear I intend in these lectures to show you this bride of Christ in her true light.”4
After 140 years of existence in this country we perhaps are a bit old to be called a daughter of the church in Norway, especially since we are now thoroughly Americanized and composed of many nationalities. It is not inappropriate, however, to refer to our roots, especially as we approach the 75th anniversary of our re-organization. We therefore think it is quite fitting to ask the question:
CAN OUR SYNOD STILL BE CALLED A VIVACIOUS CHURCH BODY TODAY?
According to Webster the term “vivacious” means 1) having vigorous powers of life; 2) lively in temper or conduct; 3) a bright noonday song, full of health and assurance. Let us see whether or not any of these attributes can be applied to our Evangelical Lutheran Synod today.
We can only be vigorous and strong when we realize that of ourselves we are weak and helpless, yea, by nature dead in trespasses and sins. We therefore have no power to come to Christ at all. to believe in him, to be converted or to be made members of His kingdom. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (I Cor. 2,14) Nowhere in Scripture is it taught that some men have a better attitude towards God than others, or that some have only natural resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit while others have both natural and willful resistance. No, the Word of God says, “Ye were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2,1)
Our election by God from eternity and our conversion to faith in Christ is therefore due solely and alone to the power and grace of God who works faith in our hearts through the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit. “God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace are ye saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2, 4-6) We confess with Luther, “I believe that I cannot by 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.”
Any vivaciousness or vigorous power in the spiritual sense that we might have is due to God’s grace alone who has called us from the darkness of unbelief and made us children of light.
All our knowledge, sense, and sight
Lie in deepest darkness shrouded,
Till Thy Spirit breaks our night
With the beams of truth unclouded.
Thou alone to God canst win us,
Thou must work all good within us.
(Lutheran Hymnary #34)
In the outward, physical sense we likewise would not be looked upon as having any power in Lutheranism today. With other church bodies numbering in the millions we surely appear as but a small dot upon the ecclesiastical horizon.
There are other factors, however, that must be taken into consideration when attempting to describe a church body. Dr. F. Bente in his introduction to the Book of Concord writes, “The Lutheran Church differs from all other churches in being essentially the Church of the pure Word and Sacraments. Not the great number of her adherents, not her organizations, not her charitable institutions, nor her beautiful customs and liturgical forms, etc., but the precious truths confessed by her symbols in perfect agreement with the Holy Scriptures constitute the true beauty and rich treasures of our Church, as well as the never failing source of her vitality and power.” In other words, it is the “precious truths” which a church body confesses that are a source of her vitality and power. What are, after all, vast numbers and grand institutions if the truth is lost or compromised.
By the grace of God our Evangelical Lutheran Synod still holds fast to the truths which our spiritual forefathers confessed. Prof. Nichol describes this heritage in “Vivacious Daughter” in these words, “Life on the American frontier, in turn, only confirmed these pastors in a passionate commitment to the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture and its literal inerrancy. … Free of European precedent, they took as their motto a single Greek phrase: Gegraptai, “It is written.” The conviction that Scripture, verbally inspired and literally inerrant, was the touchstone of Christian life and practice lent a consistent integrity to the life of their church. It was on the basis of this belief and the collateral conviction that the Lutheran Confessional documents are a true interpretation of Scripture that the pioneer pastors of the Norwegian Synod worked out a sense of denominational identity in the United States.”5 He also writes that “commitment to doctrinal purity was for its leaders the essential factor in the determination of the Norwegian Synod’s identity.”6
This then is, first of all, what gives real power or vivaciousness to a church body: acknowledgement of our total dependence upon the grace of God for our faith and spiritual life; total commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the verbally inspired and inerrant Word of God, and to the Lutheran Confessions as the correct exposition of that Word.
In the second place let me state this truth: A CHURCH BODY RETAINS ITS “VIVACIOUSNESS” ONLY SO LONG AS IT CONTINUES TO PROCLAIM LAW AND GOSPEL FROM ITS PULPITS, IN ITS CLASSROOMS, AND IN ITS WRITINGS. As soon as one or the other is omitted or the two are confused our preaching and teaching will lack spiritual power. Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.” (Rom. 16) Our Lutheran Confessions state that the distinction between the Law and Gospel is an “especially glorious light that is to be maintained with great diligence in the church.” (SD V 2)
Our primary mission as a church body is to bring people to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to preserve them in that faith unto eternal life. This can only be done by leading people to a true knowledge of their sins by the preaching of the Law, and then by leading them to a true faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour from sin by the preaching of the Gospel
Souls must, first of all, be made aware of their sins and be driven to despair by the Law before they become hungry and thirsty for the Gospel. But then what a serious obligation we have to declare every Sunday from the pulpits of our churches the gracious forgiveness of sins won for us by the Lord Jesus on the cross. The holy apostle Paul writes, “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Cor. 2,2) And again, “Yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel.” (I Cor. 9,16) Pastors should check and recheck their sermons to see if they are setting forth the Law and the Gospel in each sermon. Some poor soul may be in church for the first or last time during his earthly life. He needs to hear the blessed message of sin and grace so that he may be brought to faith in the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, faithful Christians may be bearing a heavy load of guilt and be weighed down with trouble, doubt and fear. How they need to hear, for example, the good news as stated in our Lutheran Confessions, “We also believe. teach, and confess that, although the genuinely believing and truly regenerated person. retain much weakness and many shortcomings down to their graves, they still have no reason to doubt either the righteousness which is reckoned to them through faith or the salvation of their souls, but they must regard It as certain that for Christ’s sake, on the basis of the promises and the Word of the holy Gospel, they have a gracious God.” (SD V, 9).
This is what it means to be a vivacious church body, namely, to continue to proclaim the blessed Gospel in all of its truth and power. That Gospel is the “bright noonday song, full of health and assurance.”
But it is not only the confessional position of the synod, nor is it solely the pastors proclaiming the Gospel that lend vigor and power to a group of God’s people It also involves the members themselves and their own personal commitment to these truths. The Lutheran Reformation has been called the greatest laymen’s movement in the history of the Christian church. Take for example that great confessional statement of the Lutheran Church, the Augsburg Confession. Yes, it was written by theologians, yet the men who submitted that confession at Augsburg were laymen. A layman read the document to the assembly. Laymen risked their lives and fortunes in adopting this confession as their own. One author put it this way, “No movement of the last four hundred years can even distantly be compared with it. Laymen of all future ages may draw enthusiasm for the cause of the Gospel and inspiration for the public confession of their faith from the stand which the Lutheran Laymen took in 1530.”7
A church will grow in vigor and strength in proportion to the laymen’s devotion to the scriptures as shown in personal Bible reading and devotions. We have chosen as our theme for this year’s convention the words of Jesus, “Search the Scriptures.” The reason for this is that we may all be encouraged to read God’s Word for ourselves, and to be thoroughly acquainted with its teachings. “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” Cot 3,16, writes the Apostle. One of the things that saps our strength, weakens a church body, and allows Satan to enter in is the lack of commitment to personal Bible reading. May the essay at this convention fill us with renewed zeal to get back to our Bibles. Let us remember the words of Joshua, “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein” (Joshua 1,8).
We go on to point out another characteristic of a church body that might be described as being alive and vigorous. It will surely be a church that is firmly committed to the two primary elements of the Great Commission: MISSION WORK, AND CHRISTIAN EDUCATION.
Can a congregation be considered alive and healthy if it is not concerned about spreading the Gospel beyond its own community? You have all probably heard the illustration about an artist who was asked to paint a picture of a dying church. He might have been expected to portray a decrepit building about to fall down. But the artist had a different and more pertinent picture in mind. He painted a beautiful, large gothic structure. But in the corner on a table stood a box labeled “for missions.” Covering the box was a huge and tightly woven cobweb. No contributions had been given for the spreading of the Gospel. This was his conception of a dying church.
A mission-minded congregation will be a lively congregation. One of our young pastors put it this way, “The light that shines the farthest shines the brightest at home.” If we are busy “sending out the light” to those who do not know Christ, if we care about the work of home and foreign missions, if we recognize the importance of providing Christian education at all levels we will be showing forth the marks of spiritual life and vigor. We recognize that many of our congregations are small and have difficulty supporting their pastor and paying their bills. But it has been proven time and again in small and large parishes that where there is interest in bringing the Gospel to others far from home, the work on the local level will prosper.
Our home and foreign mission programs should be on the hearts and minds and agendas of the local congregations. Rescuing poor Peruvians from the darkness of superstition and unbelief, giving Bibles and presenting the Gospel to souls who have lived for forty years under godless communism, and knowing that young people are daily learning the Word of God at our Bethany College should fill us with zeal and desire to do all we can that the work may go forward. How exciting it will be next year when three or four native Peruvians are ordained into the office of the holy ministry! What a milestone this will be in the life of our mission in Peru! These men will then be added to our force of five missionaries who are laboring on the field. That pastors are being trained here at our Bethany Seminary should be a personal matter for the congregations. Here they are assured that when the time comes that they again need a faithful shepherd one will be available.
In order to carry out the great work of preaching and teaching the Gospel by doing home and foreign mission work, operating a college and seminary, and all the other manifold tasks involved in church work, about 125 congregations have banded together to form our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Preus in his seven lectures sets forth seven reasons why such a union of congregations is beneficial and necessary. We list them here so that we may be reminded of just why we belong to the ELS. They are still pertinent today even though they were written 124 years ago.
1) Our congregations of the Lutheran faith are often located far from each other and surrounded by all kinds of sects and those who spread false doctrine. To strengthen the orthodox faith, to preserve unity in a pure confession with respect both to defense against false teachers and to protect against separatism and sectarianism—to achieve all this—an external union and association is very serviceable and a relative necessity according to God’s Word (Ephesians 4:3-6; I Corinthians 1:10; Romans 16:17).
2) According to God’s Word it is our duty to extend the Gospel and the kingdom of God as far as possible by all means available for its promotion. Individually the congregations, especially the small ones, can accomplish nothing or next to nothing toward this goal in comparison to what, with God’s blessing, they can accomplish by joining forces and collaborating in the establishment of schools; in the publishing of Bibles, hymnals, confessional writings, school books, and devotional books; and in home and foreign missionary endeavors.
3) For the healthy growth of the congregation it is of the utmost importance that the ordinance of the Lord with respect to the office of the ministry be preserved and that the public servants of the Word not be restricted in the prerogatives and duties granted them by the Lord. It is equally important that they not encroach upon or interfere with those prerogatives and duties with which the congregation is endowed. By virtue of human weakness it is easy enough for the congregation and its pastor to become isolated. In contrast, a connection with other congregations of the same faith and confession will secure and protect the prerogatives and duties of the congregation as well as the pastor.
4) Just as they often require advice, encouragement, and correction, congregations as well as pastors as a rule require supervision to see that everything is done according to God’s rule. This happens only rarely and with difficulty when congregations do not unite to render each other such assistance. If they do, they can establish a supervisory office among themselves if it is found necessary and the requisite gifts are at hand.
5) Sometimes particular gifts are found and put to use in one congregation that are lacking in another. It is the Lord’s will that the diversity of gifts be demonstrated as far as possible for the common good and the edification of all (I Corinthians 12:4-31). This is best and sometimes only done when the congregations walk together with each other in external unity.
6) Uniformity in ceremonies and liturgical customs is not, to be sure, necessary to preserve unity in faith, but it is indeed edifying, while diversity in ceremonies often fosters deplorable antagonisms and the cooling of love. On the other hand, the inward bond and collaboration between congregations can be promoted by the greatest possible uniformity in liturgical customs and church order.
7) Finally, we would add that even the apostolic church gives us an example and prototype of a connection and collaboration between individual congregations (Acts 15:1-31).8
The more we then realize the benefits and necessity of working together as a synod the more we will have that vigor and vivaciousness which is pleasing to God.
Finally, permit me to refer to one more sign of a healthy church body. It is the fellowship which we enjoy right here at this annual synod convention. Listen to this description given by H. A. Preus of the fourteen-day sessions held in the days of the old synod.
The synod manifests itself and executes its work chiefly during the synodical meetings held every year or every other year. Even disregarding the specific actions taken by these meetings and the directives drawn up at them aiming at the benefit of the whole church body, it is difficult to overestimate the blessings attendant upon these meetings. Representatives elected by the congregations—generally from among their finest, most devout, best informed men—gather here from the farthest reaches of the church body. During fourteen days together they learn to know and love one another as brethren in faith; they tell each other of their experiences, struggles, sorrows, and joys; they are instructed and strengthened in the faith they share; they are cheered on and strengthened to zeal in a shared task, to courage in a shared struggle, to patience in shared suffering. That is why pastors and laity alike meet with tears of joy at these assemblies of the synod and part with pain, although they give thanks to God and to the brethren for encouragement, strengthening, and fortification in the truth.9
If we as a synod still hold these doctrinal convictions, if we still have the zeal for the Lord’s work and treasure our membership in our church body, if we still gather as did our forefathers in a blessed, loving fellowship, then we may continue to be described as a vivacious church body, having vigorous powers of life. Then the bright noonday song of the Gospel, full of health and assurance, will continue to ring out in our midst.
Soli Deo Gloria
George M. Orvick, president
1 Todd W. Nichol, Vivacious Daughter, The Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, MN, 1990, p. 4.
2 Ibid., p. 6.
3 Ibid., p. 7.
4 Ibid., p. 4.
5 Ibid., p. 12-13.
6 Ibid., p. 203.
7 Theo. Graebner, The Story of the Augsburg Confession, p. 67.
8 Ibid., pp. 48-49.
9 Ibid., p. 50.