Commemoration of C. F. W. Walther
Today is the day of Commemoration of Rev. C.F.W. Walther who was the first president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and arguably one of the most influential and important theologians of our church body.
Here is a fantastic article about Walther excerpted from the November 2011 The Lutheran Witness. The article is written by Iowa District East President, Brian Saunders. Thought I would pull this article out today and read it again. Enjoy!
C. F. W. Walther: A Man for the Ages
by Brian Saunders
The Rev. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther and the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison have more in common than their love of music and singing. Both have filled the role of president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Indeed, Harrison sits in the same office that was held by Walther in the mid-19th century. It is good that we take this issue of The Lutheran Witness to pay homage and tribute to C. F. W. Walther, a leader who rose from meager beginnings but left behind the legacy of a faithful church body.
The cultural context
The conditions of Germany at the time of Walther’s birth in 1811 were chaotic. The Napoleanic Wars were drawing to a close, and Europe had been devastated by death, plaque and financial hardship due to those wars. By 1813, Napolean had been driven back to France, but the consequences of war had left Europe in ashes. It is amidst these ashes that Walther was brought into this world.
Born at a time of suffering, Walther was no stranger to difficult times and struggles, both in life and faith, for the remainder of his days on earth. From inner conflict with his relationship with Christ to his struggle to defend the orthodox faith from false doctrine and practice, Walther was labeled a “Servant of the Word.” According to LCMS historian August R. Suelflow, “Walther was a devoted scholar of Martin Luther’s writings and had mastered the Lutheran Confessions as well as or perhaps better than anyone in America during the 19th century.” It is as a student of Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions that Walther’s voice articulated the clarity of the universal church here on earth for all the ages, including our church today.
The religious climate
The Lutheran Church in Germany at the time of Walther had many of the same characteristics as the religious climate in America today. The climate was and is a climate of Pietism. Simply defined, Pietism attempts to secure a Christian’s relationship with Jesus based on personal experience or an inner feeling. Pietism claims a dedication to the Bible but does not rest the certainty of salvation on an objective promise of God, such as Baptism, Absolution or the Lord’s Supper. Walther suffered a spiritual crisis in this climate of Pietism. He questioned whether he truly believed in Jesus, and worse yet, He wondered whether God truly loved him.
Walther’s college and seminary training were wrought with teachings of Pietism that eventually gave way to Rationalism. During the prevalence of Rationalism, Christ’s atonement, justification by faith, the fall into sin and related doctrines were rejected. Sermons became mere discourses on current events, science, hygiene and the necessity of planting trees. They were profoundly lacking in the comfort of the Gospel.
Walther found solace at the counsel of the Rev. Martin Stephan, a Lutheran pastor in Dresden, Germany. Stephan pointed Walther to the promise of God and encouraged him to take comfort in the work and merit of Christ for him rather than Walther’s efforts to create and identify an experience with God. This had a profound impact on Walther, such an impact that when a colony of Germans from Saxony, led by Stephan, emigrated to America, Walther sailed across the ocean with them.
But conflict soon plagued this Lutheran colony. When it reached a critical status, Walther was asked to settle the issue with the publication of what would become known as The Voice of the Church on the Doctrine of Church and Ministry.
Walther knew if he was going to produce a document concerning the Lutheran understanding of the doctrine of church and ministry, he could not rely on the scholars of the Americas, perhaps because he realized already what anthropologist Margaret Mead later noted. She characterized America as a place where first-generation immigrants strive to cling to old country traditions, the second generation is compelled to reject the old traditions and the third generation accepts the American way of David M. Potter’s “upward mobility” and “the pursuit of happiness.” Of these, Walther was more concerned about the pursuit of faithfulness to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions. For Walther, it was not about achieving something spectacular but more about being Lutheran. That may very well be our challenge as Lutherans in America and around the world today.
The most important work of Walther was bringing a new understanding of what it means to be Lutheran to America. He located the origin of Lutheranism in the Word and found the explanation of the Word in the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord). In an essay delivered to the Western District Convention in 1858, Walther said:
A subscription to the Confession is the church’s assurance that the teachers have recognized the interpretation and understanding of Scripture that is embodied in the symbols as correct and will therefore interpret Scripture as the church interprets it. If the church therefore would permit its teachers to interpret the symbols according to the Scriptures, and not the Scriptures according to its symbols, the subscription would be no guarantee that the respective teacher understands and interprets Scripture as the church does. (Matthew C. Harrison, ed. At Home in the House of My Fathers, [Lutheran Legacy, 2009], 128.)
Walther was making a point: that the Lutheran Confessions are a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the evangelical Lutheran Church for all time. He was very careful not to elevate the Confessions above the Bible. Instead, he said that whatever the Bible declares to be true, that is truth, even if the whole world would declare it to be false. On the other hand, whatever the Bible declares to be false and erroneous, that is false and erroneous, even if the world would declare it to be true.
At the same time, Walther made it clear that Lutherans understand the Word through the Lutheran Confessions. Walther brought to the American Lutheran scene the ability for the Lutheran Church to say what is true and what is false. That declaration differed from others in his time because it was not founded on contemporary opinion but on the eternal truth given by God to His Church. As Walther once published in the Der Lutheraner, a Lutheran periodical:
The Bible is the question of God to man: do you believe My Word? The symbolical writings (Lutheran Confessions) are the answer of men: yes, Lord, we believe what you say! The Bible is the chest in which all treasures of wisdom and the knowledge of God lies hidden. The symbolical writings are the jewel room in which the church has deposited as in a spiritual storeroom all the treasures which in the course of hundreds of years she has with great effort drawn and dug out of the treasury of the Bible. The Bible with its teachings is the handwriting of God concerning our salvation, which Satan always wishes to falsify and declare as unauthentic. The symbolical writings contain the records which have been laid down, from which one can see how the church has believed these teachings from time to time and has ever held fast to them. (Jan. 23, 1849)
Walther’s ongoing influence
Walther answered that very question in the same issue of Der Lutheraner:
Oh, let us, then be on guard against those who refuse to build on the building of the church’s past but would build something new. Consider what the apostle wrote in Ephesians 4 that there is one body, one faith, one baptism, hence also one true church and one correct doctrine, which does not have need to be found for the first time, but which always was and will continue unchanged until the end of days, so that all new doctrines and new churches are false doctrines and false churches . . . Thus we participate in the victory of all true contenders for the unadulterated Word of God and become fellow heirs to the full blessings of the Reformation.
Walther’s clear thinking and confessional, biblical focus remains vitally important for the church today. The path he followed in a culture that was not sympathetic to a confessional, biblical view also points the way for us.
When a church body such as the LCMS stays focused on Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions on a regular, daily, devotional basis, then a unity of confession is followed by a unity in practice. True unity is found only in the true Word of Christ. It is centered in and predicated on that which does not, will not and cannot change. It is the same in every period of history. Thanks be to God that He raised up a man like Walther whose intense focus on Scripture and the Confessions can continue to guide the church today.
 Lutheran Service Book, page xii. Read more about why we have commemorations and their meaning in the LCMS.