The Synodical Conference: Ecumenical Endeavor

The Synodical Conference: Ecumenical Endeavor by Armin W. Schuetze. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2000. 470 pages. Cloth.

Reviewed by William Hassold

The Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America was a significant endeavor by Lutherans in the United States as they sought to achieve theological and confessional unity in what was for many of them a new homeland. This effort began with high hopes in the middle of the nineteenth century when six synods came together in theological fellowship and joined in formation and tragically ended in the middle of the twentieth century, when the conference came apart in disagreements over a number of issues that were viewed quite differently by synods that up to that point had worked together in harmony but now were destined to go their separate ways.

Northwestern Publishing House, the publishing arm of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, requested the author, Prof. Armin W. Schuetze, to write the history of the conference, of which that synod had been a member for over a century. In his Preface he states:

The history of the church, and any segment of it, is the story of the Spirit at work through the gospel in the world. The Creed, a confession common to all Christendom, gives the Christian historian a unique perspective as he tells the story of what happened in the past. (p. vii)

The author served on the faculty of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, located at Mequon, Wisconsin, from 1958 until his retirement in 1990. His account of the history of the Synodical Conference (SC), as might be anticipated, approaches the history of the SC from the viewpoint of that synod. Nonetheless, the author, as a professional historian, has made a serious effort (which generally is successful) to remain objective in his account, praising where appropriate and criticizing where, from his perspective, things went amiss. He himself admits that he could not tell the story with complete objectivity. An author, as he admits in the Preface, “cannot lay aside his family and educational and religious background, his feelings and emotions, or his Spirit-wrought faith and convictions” (p. vii). These will, he writes, “influence him in what should be told, even in the choice of words used in the telling, certainly in evaluating and making judgments on what has been told” (p. vii).

Schuetze’s account is well-documented, and the footnotes will provide abundant guidance to anyone who wishes to delve more deeply into the historical record. Read critically with this caveat in mind, this work is valuable for anyone who is concerned about sound Lutheranism, since the SC was, as the author’s subtitle for his work has it, an “Ecumenical Endeavor.”

Lutheranism in the United States at the middle of the nineteenth century was represented by the heirs of the Muhlenberg tradition, on the one hand, and on the other hand by a number of synodical bodies that sought primarily to serve newly arrived immigrants from northern Europe who had not yet left behind their linguistic and cultural traditions, though they were now living in a new land. The three general bodies embodying the Muehlenberg tradition during this period were the General Synod, the Synod of the South, and the General Council, all of which were active primarily in the states bordering the Atlantic coast. All of these synods had begun the transition to the use of the English language and had developed a relaxed attitude toward the Lutheran heritage and had been affected in one way or another by various influences incompatible with the Lutheran Confessions.

The synods that sought to serve the more recent immigrants were active primarily in the midwestern states and sought to gather and serve the spiritual needs of immigrants (chiefly Germans and Scandinavians) in their native languages. The SC was organized for the purpose of bringing together Lutheran synods with a firm confessional commitment so that they might work together in carrying out the Lord’s work in a new homeland.

The Ohio Synod made the first move toward the formation of the SC when it adopted the suggestion of its president, Matthias Loy, that “steps be taken toward effecting a proper understanding between the Synods of Missouri, of Wisconsin, of Illinois and our own Synod, which all occupy substantially the same position, and arranging a plan of co-operation in the work of the Lord” (p. 51).

After a series of preliminary meetings the SC was organized in Milwaukee in 1872, and Professor C.F.W. Walther was chosen as its first president. In Article II of its constitution the SC made its confessional position unambiguous. “The Synodical Conference acknowledges the canonical writings of the Old and New Testament as God’s Word, and the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of 1580, called the ‘Concordia’ as her own” (p. 59) The aim and purpose of this new organization, as stated in its constitution, was “to express outwardly ‘the spiritual unity of the respective synods,’ to strengthen one another ‘in faith and confession,’ to promote ‘unity in doctrine and practice and eliminate any actual or threatening disturbance of he same’” (p. 59). The founding members of the SC expressed the hope that through their common testimony “the good leaven of the old Lutheran truth, which is in accord with Scripture and the Confessions might penetrate ever more thoroughly also other synods and congregations who profess to be Lutheran churches and lead them back from their wrong ways and lead them back to resolute faithfulness to the good confession of our church” (p. 54).

Less than a decade after its founding the SC was torn apart by dissension in the so-called Predestinarian Controversy, which ultimately led the Ohio Synod to withdraw its membership completely and the Norwegian Synod to withdraw its membership while still being determined to maintain its fellowship with the SC. In chapter 6 Schuetze recounts the origin and development of this controversy in considerable detail. He seeks to provide an even-handed presentation of the differences between the contending parties but ultimately indicates his conviction that the position that the SC championed was and is in harmony with the Scriptures and the Confessions.

Yet, in spite of the defection of the Ohio and Norwegian Synods the SC survived to be a significant force in American Lutheranism. Three chapters of Schuetze’s account (4, 8 and 9) are devoted to the missionary endeavors of the SC. Already at its organizational convention in 1872 Walther pointed to the importance of home and foreign mission work, as well as the gathering in of immigrant Lutherans, as of prime importance.

In the era following the Civil War, when there was considerable tension between the races, it is important to note that the SC undertook mission work among America’s black population. The SC’s efforts began with great enthusiasm but fiscal realities and seeming lack of results soon led to curtailing these efforts. The effort was started as a “foreign mission” but eventually extended to many cities throughout the United States. Schuetze’s account of the SC’s efforts to work among the blacks reveals how these efforts were tragically marked by paternalism and ultimately failed to reach their potential.

Far more successful were the efforts of the SC at real “foreign missions” as the members worked together in answering “Macedonian calls” from Nigeria, when the Ibesikpo people, who had had valid cause for withdrawing from the Qua Iboe Mission, sent a call to the Missionary Board of the SC. Even though America was still in the throes of the Great Depression, the SC sent Henry Nau as its first missionary, to be followed a few years later by William Schweppe, Vernon Koeper and nurse Helen Kluck. They laid a solid foundation for Lutheran confessionalism in Africa.

The unity that had been forged in the nineteenth century had been shattered by the Predestinarian Controversy, but the SC itself had survived with but four synods remaining in its membership. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were renewed efforts at achieving doctrinal agreement, but they foundered since many of the controversialists of the previous decades were still alive and were participants, and since the positions they had advocated had become set in stone. But even within the SC differences developed. The controversy over church and ministry between Missouri and Wisconsin, for example, showed that Missouri held to Walther’s views while the theological faculty of the Wisconsin Synod seminary, then at Wauwatosa, advocated a differing position. This led to tensions between the two leading members of the SC, tensions that increased during the subsequent decades.

The final third of Schuetze’s account provides a well-documented record of how the three synods comprising the SC began to go their separate ways as they encountered the realities of church life in the twentieth century. Since the SC had been founded on the basis of agreement in doctrine, the preservation of unity was regarded as a serious concern, and any disagreement in doctrine or practice had the potential for shattering the organization.

Though Schuetze does not draw such a conclusion, the reviewer believes that a good case might be made that the SC had within itself a seed that would in the course of time germinate in such a way as to cause its dissolution. That seed is a doctrine of unionism conjoined with an interpretation of Romans 16:17–20 that understands the phrase “contrary to the doctrine which you have learned” as an adjectival modifier of the words “divisions and offenses.” He believes a competent historian would have an abundance of evidence available in Schuetze’s documentation for the final third of his study.

Unionism, as the Brief Statement of the Missouri Synod maintains, calls for avoidance of all who teach otherwise than what is contained in the Holy Scriptures. It states:

Since God ordained that his Word only, without the admixture of human doctrine, be taught and believed in the Christian Church, 1 Pet. 4:11; John 8:31, 32; 1 Tim. 6:3, 4, all Christians are required by God to discriminate between orthodox and heterodox church bodies, Matt. 7:15, to have church fellowship only with orthodox church-bodies, and, in case they have strayed into heterodox bodies, to leave them, Rom. 16:17.

A number of neuralgic issues developed in the early years of the twentieth century. Was it permissible for Lutheran boys to participate in the Boy Scout movement? Might Lutheran pastors serve as chaplains in the armed forces of the United States? Were the efforts toward effecting reconciliation with some of the synods that had withdrawn from the SC during the predestinarian controversy adequate to settle the differences that had separated them? The various synods in the SC came to quite different conclusions.

The history of this period is tragic because efforts toward Lutheran unity faltered as the various synods of the SC moved farther and farther apart. Schuetze provides a well-documented account in chapters 16 through 19 of the efforts that were made to heal the breach and to save the conference from dissolution. There can be no doubt that the various synods were sincere in their efforts to maintain fellowship relations with one another, but it is also clear that the breach was almost certainly inevitable.

Any reader of Schuetze’s work will be confronted with the necessity to evaluate the positions of the various parties in the SC and take a personal stand, whether to agree with the Missourian approach or to concur with the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods in their steadfast rejection of Missouri’s stance.

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