32 Theses against Unevangelical Praxis

          One of the theological gems from the history of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is a set of 32 theses against “unevangelical praxis” that was prepared for the 1862 Convention of the Central District of the LCMS. Unfortunately the original document has never been translated completely into English–until now.

          These 32 theses are just as relevant today as they were in the midst of the US Civil War. One would be hard-pressed to find a more apt description of the current LCMS than what is found in the twenty-fifth thesis. But each thesis is important, provocative, and insightful for contemporary theological discussion, even if some of them would have to be re-written today to reflect changes within the Synod since 1862.

32 Theses against Unevangelical Praxis[1]

 by Heinrich Christian Schwan[2]

 Translated and annotated by Matthew L. Becker

1. Evangelical praxis[3] does not consist in merely dealing only with the gospel and nothing but the gospel; rather, it consists in this, namely, that one treats everything evangelically.[4]

2. This means that because one expects justification before God, the renewal of the heart, and the fruits of the Spirit only through the gospel, one keeps this one thing in view above all, namely, to bring the gospel into play.

3. For this very reason, in evangelical praxis, the law is not set aside nor is it made dull through an interference of the gospel. Rather, it is set forth with all the more seriousness in its full sharpness, but in an evangelical way.

4. The law will then be used evangelically if one uses it solely to prepare the ground for the gospel and to hold up that divine plumb line to the evidences of the new life that freely grows from the gospel. The gospel will then be used evangelically if it is offered to all, unconditionally and unabridged.

5. It is not evangelical praxis to cast the pearls of the gospel before the swine, but it is even less evangelical to keep them in one’s pocket.

6. Evangelical praxis does not set aside one tiny letter of that which God demands, but it demands nothing other or more than faith and love.

7. Evangelical praxis demands proof of faith and love with the soul’s salvation, but it gives no command about the individual proofs of these in terms of their purpose, amount, and manner.

8. Evangelical praxis demands fulfillment of even the smallest letter in the law, but it does not make the state of grace depend on the keeping of the law.

9. By means of the law evangelical praxis seeks indeed to prepare for the working of the gospel, but it does not lend a helping hand to the law. And because evangelical praxis expects the fruits of the Spirit to be produced solely by the gospel, it is willing to wait for them, too.

10. Evangelical praxis considers everything that does not grow from the gospel, that is, from faith, to be of no essential benefit. Therefore it bears with all manner of defects, imperfections, and sins rather than to remove them merely in an external way.

11. Evangelical praxis limits pastoral care[5] to the special application of the law and the gospel; the investigation and judging of the heart it leaves to the One who is expert in the matters of the heart.

12. Evangelical praxis pays heed to good human order, but it is much more concerned with Christian freedom. For that reason it lets adiaphora[6] remain truly adiaphora; that is, it leaves the decision concerning them ultimately to the conscience of the individual.

13. Evangelical praxis is faithful in little things, but it is indeed more concerned with keeping the big picture in view than dwelling on the individual details.

14. To be wise as serpents; to redeem the time; not to let Satan gain an advantage over us; to become all things to everyone in order that by all means some might be saved—these are also parts of evangelical praxis.

15. Evangelical praxis is as far removed from antinomian[7] praxis as it is from legalistic praxis.

16. Evangelical praxis should indeed flow from evangelical knowledge and attitude, but this seldom happens and only slowly at that.

17. We generally remain stuck in legalism or we fall into antinomian laxity. The gospel is so foreign to our disposition.

18. There is danger in both directions. Up to now the greater danger for us is still in the legalistic direction.

19. Leaving aside the natural inclination of the old Adam and our origin in Pietism etc., our present situation and the necessary reaction against the prevailing lack of discipline in doctrine and life lead us toward legalism.

20. Or how many are there among us who have not been secretly more afraid to give the blessings of the gospel freely to an unworthy person than to deny or curtail the same to a poor sinner? Whose conscience is not hindering him to follow the example of Paul and to become all things to all people? But where this is the case, there one surely still finds legalistic praxis.

21. Legalistic praxis does not consist in treating only the law and nothing but the law. It consists in treating everything in a legalistic manner, that is, in such a way that one’s main aim is to see to it that the law gets its due and that one tries to accomplish through the law or even through laws what only the gospel can accomplish.

22. In addition, the more the driving force of enthusiasm strikes (as is often the case where the inner driving force really still is the law)—an enthusiasm that does not even once allow love to remain the queen of all commandments; which scorns wisdom as its counselor; and which, even when it appears merely to teach, to reprove, or to admonish, in reality applies coercion and indeed the worst kind, namely, moral coercion—the more unevangelical our praxis becomes.

23. Unevangelical-legalistic praxis is found not merely in the governance of churches and congregations, but also in the governance of church-schools and homes, as well as in our fraternal interactions.

24. The examples of unevangelical-legalistic praxis that are still most common in preaching, pastoral care, and the governance of the congregation are perhaps the following:

a) In preaching:

–thorough chastising of individual sins, evil situations, or perhaps even matters that one personally disapproves;

–portraying well-known sins of well-known people instead of exposing the bitter root out of which all evil fruits grow;

–merely doing so-called “testifying,” without real instruction and admonition;

–offering unnecessary or premature or unedifying polemics;

–admonishing repentance and faith instead of preaching that which produces repentance and faith;

–classifying the hearers in a pietistic manner;

–distorting the gospel;

–describing faith predominantly in terms of its sanctifying power;

–proclaiming the grace of God solely in order to build demands immediately upon it.

b) With respect to Confession and Holy Communion:

–demanding as a condition for admission to Holy Communion more than is absolutely necessary for its salutary use;

–undertaking school-wide catechetical and inquisitorial searching of hearts;

–holding back castigation until the time of registration for Communion or Confession;

–threatening to refuse a person Holy Communion by making it a means of coercion, terror, or discipline;

–refusing admission to Holy Communion for reasons beyond proven impenitence.

c) With respect to Baptism:

–absolutely refusing to baptize children of unbelievers or the ungodly, who nevertheless still live within earshot of the Word, even when there is no infringement upon someone else’s official ministry; or baptizing such children, but only on the condition of certain human guarantees;

–putting the approval for baptismal sponsors on the same level as the admission to Holy Communion.

d) At marriages:

–fundamentally refusing to marry children of unbelievers or the ungodly who are outside of the congregation, even if they do not appear to be ungodly;

–scrupulously attending to a certain form of parental consent and of engagement.

e) At funerals:

–absolutely refusing in every situation to bury children of unbelievers or the ungodly who did not somehow belong to the congregation but who nevertheless sought a visit from the pastor;

–being obedient to the principle that one must publicly bear witness at every funeral to the salvation or non-salvation of the deceased, that one must castigate their sins, and that the occasion must be used to jab at the sins and shortcomings of the hearers.

f) In pastoral care:

–constant “sanding and polishing” everybody until everything is in perfect shape;

–accepting every tittle-tattle of gossip;

–mixing into other peoples’ family matters, their home and marriage, when there is no public sin involved;

–making judgments about matters of the heart on the basis of a few words and deeds;

–applying moralistic coercion through overstatement, etc.

g) In congregational government and church discipline:

–making exaggerated demands upon new members at the time of their being received into membership;

–denying—or making peremptory time limits for—participation in the spiritual blessings of the congregation for the guest, especially his participation in Holy Communion;

–imposing an equal amount of mandatory dues or coercive taxes on the individuals;

–applying church discipline against matters that are not publicly-demonstrable mortal sins or against self-initiated sins that one provokes in others;[8]

–treating someone as already convicted in his own mind—someone who nevertheless resists maliciously against that conviction because he is not able to say anything more against the arguments and reasons presented against him, or even assents to them;

–having more concern for the correct form of the process than for reaching the goal of the discipline;

–demanding that every public confession be made in the same form and to the same degree of publicity as every other;

–striving to make the chasm between those who are in the congregation and those who are outside of it really wide, instead of building bridges for the opponents and those who are on the outside.

25. Legalistic praxis in itself makes the gospel into law and the law into a taskmaster (but not unto Christ); it makes confession into torture, pastoral care into slipshod work, the Sacrament into a testimony and seal of approval that one is acceptable to the pastor; it makes Christian liberty a sham, and it makes church discipline into an oppression of consciences. It makes the people petty, scrupulous, and zealously Pharisaical. It turns the church into a police state.

26. Only for the blind does legalistic praxis have the appearance of greater conscientiousness, valor, and quicker outcomes. Looked at carefully, though, it lacks true courage to allow God to reign and his Word to work. Its conscientiousness is that of an errant conscience and it is in itself one of the greatest hindrances to the working of the law as well as of the gospel.

27. No other church considers legalistic praxis to be so nauseous as does the Evangelical-Lutheran.

28. To maintain that the fine regulations and liturgies of the churches that were established long ago must be the decisive norm for the church that is being planted now—that is not Lutheran.

29. There are enough things that we cannot hinder that lead a person to be offended by us; let us not give any offense by unnecessary severity in our praxis.

30. Let us courageously make an end to all unevangelical praxis. But let us not forget: from legalistic praxis to antinomian praxis is merely a little jump.

31. Antinomian praxis itself wants to be on guard against legalism and to straighten everything out merely with the gospel. But because it lacks the severity of the law, it also lacks the warmth of the gospel. Thus, its consequence is a lax, undisciplined life.

32. Where one falls from legalistic praxis into antinomian praxis, there evil becomes more mischievous.


[1] The original German theses appear in the Bericht über die Achte Jahresversammlung des Mittleren Districts der deutschen evang.-luth. Synode von Missouri, Ohio, u. a. Staaten A. D. 1862; nebst Anhang, enthaltend einige Schriftstücke von der Siebenten Jahresversammlung obiger Synode vom Jahre 1861 (St. Louis: Synodical Publisher [Aug. Wiebusch and Son], n. d. [but presumably 1863]), 10-14. [Report of the 8th Annual Convention of the Central District of the German Evangelical-Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States A. D. 1861; in addition to a Supplement containing a Document of the 7th Annual Convention of the above-mentioned Synod from the Year 1861.] According to the Report the presenter was only able to set forth the first 24 theses. “Time ran out for the treatment of the remaining eight theses.” An English translation of most of the first 24 theses was published in the Concordia Theological Monthly XVI, no. 5 (May 1945), 289-93. The bulk of this translation was done by P. T. Buszin. Unfortunately, he did not translate every statement in the first 24 theses nor did he include a translation of the final eight theses from the original report. Buszin’s incomplete and occasionally inaccurate translation of the theses, augmented by a translation of the final eight theses, is included in Matthew Harrison’s At Home in the House of My Fathers: Presidential Sermons, Essays, Letters, and Addresses from the Missouri Synod’s Great Era of Unity and Growth (St. Louis: Cncordia Publishing House, 2011). What follows here is the first English translation of the complete theses.


[2] In 1862 Heinrich Christian Schwan (1819-1905) was the President of the Central District of the German Evangelical-Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. He was later elected the Fourth President of this Synod (1878-1899). That he was the sole author of the 32 theses is not certain, since the report about the 1862 Central District Convention does not identify the author(s). The report does contain, however, a synodical address and the annual report of the District President. Only the latter identifies its author: Schwan. It is not clear who delivered the synodical address, since the author is not identified and the President of the Synod at the time, Friedrich Wyneken, who was present at the convention, was sick and unable to give the sermon at the opening divine service. Did he also have to forgo giving the synodical address? It seems so, since the address itself contains language that indicates someone other than Wyneken delivered it. Did Schwan give this address? While one cannot be certain about this, it seems likely. The presenter refers to “offering” the theses to the Convention. Other sentences indicate the presenter of the synodical address is the author of the theses. It is possible that the theses and the synodical address were a joint effort of Wyneken and Schwan, but that Schwan delivered them. Wyneken, after all, was the uncle of Schwan. They could have worked on these documents together. Ludwig Fuerbringer, who knew Schwan personally, indicates in his memoir that Schwan was the author of the theses. See Ludwig Fuerbringer, 80 Eventful Years (St. Louis: Concordia, 1944). For background on Schwan, see Everette Meier. “The Life and Work of Henry C. Schwan as Pastor and Missionary,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 24 (October 1951):132-39; 24 (January 1952):145-72; 25 (July 1952):72-85; and 25 (October 1952):97-121.

[3] The original German word is “Praxis,” which is often translated as “practice” or “usage” or “exercise.” I have left the word as is, because it applies here to more than a mere practice or custom or action. In this context, Praxis involves the entire process by which a theological understanding and teaching, whether correct or false, is enacted, practiced, embodied, and realized.

[4] The term “evangelical” (evangelisch) and its cognates have the meaning that Dr. Martin Luther intended for them, namely, “having to do with the good news or good message (the evangel) about Jesus the Christ.”

[5] The German word is “Seelsorge,” literally, “the care of the soul.”

[6] The German word, “Mitteldinge,” literally means “intermediate things” or “things in the middle.” Here it refers to “indifferent things” (adiaphora), namely, matters that are neither clearly commanded nor forbidden in the teaching of the prophets and the apostles. These include matters that are ambiguous and not clearly settled in Scripture. They are thus matters about which Christians can legitimately disagree.

[7] Literally, “against the law.” “Antinomian praxis” disregards the severity of the divine law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and how that divine judgment condemns all who remain sinners unto death. Such praxis rejects the law as a necessary preparation for the gospel and it fails to acknowledge the power of the law to serve as a “a plumb line” alongside “the evidences of the new life that freely grows from the gospel.” See thesis 31.

[8] The German is “selbstprovocirte Sünde.” Buszin translated this neologism rather literally as “self-provoked,” as in “self-caused.” The word is likely based on the Latin term, “provoco,” which means “to call forth” or “to call out.”

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