Lutheran Spokesman

"…the Scriptures cannot be broken." John 10:35


John Schaller (1859-1920)

Written by Norman Greve | November, 2015
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When Wilhelm Loehe, a mission-minded German pastor and church leader, heard from America of an urgent need for pastors to lead the many emigrants who had come there, he publicized that need, then approached several pastors about moving to America. Loehe even helped establish an emergency seminary to quickly supply the need. One of those he encouraged was Johann Schaller, a young pastor in southern Germany. Schaller moved to America in 1848, eventually serving in St. Louis first as a pastor and later as a seminary professor. In the St. Louis seminary, he was a friend and colleague of Walther. It was here that his son John was born in 1859 and where John was trained for the Lutheran ministry.

After serving eight years in the pastoral ministry, John was called to teach at Dr. Martin Luther College in New Ulm, a college of the Minnesota Synod. A few years later he also became its president and dean. By then, DMLC had become the teacher-training college of the Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States. Schaller quickly gained a reputation as an able administrator, a solid teacher, and a caring father figure. During his fifteen-year tenure, the college became co-ed, student teaching became a requirement, and basketball was introduced.

In 1908 Adolf Hoenecke died, and the Wisconsin Synod Seminary at Wauwatosa lost its leader and revered dogmatics professor. John Schaller was called to take his place and teach dogmatics, homiletics, and pastoral theology. But perhaps most importantly, he was called to be the seminary president, with the difficult task of keeping peace between his two very gifted but temperamental colleagues, August Pieper and J. P. Koehler. Under his steadying hand, what a mighty trio they became!

At this time the so-called Wauwatosa Theology flourished, with its especial emphasis on a “direct, coherent study of Scripture,” and its suspicious attitude toward a mere “proof-text” dogmatics or “citation theology.” They sought to elevate the study of Scripture itself in its historical setting (exegesis) above the study of dogmatics, and to study the teachings of Scripture as personally as possible and not through the veil of the church fathers. They took very seriously the fact that every generation must recapture the truths of Scripture for itself, and indeed from Scripture itself.

Professor Schaller sought to put these principles into action when he began to write his own textbook on Christian doctrine, beginning with Biblical Christology. His work featured few references to earlier dogmaticians, and he “employed caution in his use of proof passages and tried not to tear them out of context,” as one observer noted, who then added that he succeeded in this better than Franz Pieper. August Pieper agreed when writing Schaller’s obituary, saying, “He acquired . . . a great mastery of exegesis. Especially his choice of proof texts in dogmatics is eloquent testimony of this.” Schaller wrote Biblical Christology in English, noting the growing urgency for English materials both to meet the educational needs of his own church and also to explain his church to the outside world.

He also wrote an introduction to the books of the Bible, entitled Book of Books. This has been updated to take note of the Dead Sea Scrolls and has been made the introductory volume of The People’s Bible series. It makes for accessible reading and well deserves a place in our church libraries.

Schaller’s zeal for Christian education was well known. He asks, “How can one justify it, if we as parents, not only do not do all we can for our children’s Christian education, but if we intentionally expose them to anti-godly influences?” Strong words, but worthy of consideration in our secular world of today.

Perhaps some of the people profiled in this series have seemed to you a little intimidating, a bit stiff and stern, or even forbidding. But no one has ever suggested this about John Schaller. By all accounts he was a cheerful and gentle man. He was called the heart and the soul of the seminary. His company was refreshment. He took delight in simple pleasures: bird watching and piano playing, fishing and playing chess, milking cows and raising chickens and teaching these things to his children. He is described as a “very domestic person, proud of his wife, and pleased with his growing children,” of which he had nine.

He was taken very suddenly. The influenza epidemic still ravaging the world in 1920 also took him. He taught his classes on a Friday, joked around a bit with the other professors before visiting a sick student, and went to bed in good health. But in the morning he was sick and by Sunday evening he was gone. His influence, however, continues on, casting its long shadow also among us. Each of his five sons entered the ministry, and one of them, Egbert, was a charter member of the CLC and a professor in our college and seminary who brought with him much of the learning and spirit of his father.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.

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