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Franz Pieper (1852-1931)

Written by | April, 2016
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LUTHERAN LEADERS

AS WE APPROACH THE 500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REFORMATION, WE TAKE A BRIEF LOOK AT THE LIVES OF INFLUENTIAL AND IMPORTANT LUTHERAN LEADERS AND THEOLOGIANS

When C.F.W. Walther died in 1881, Franz Pieper, who had been teaching dogmatics at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri since 1878, took over Walther’s position as a professor of dogmatics and also president of the seminary—positions he held until his death in 1931. From 1899 until 1911 he also served as synodical president, a position which Walther had held twice. Pieper was Walther’s protégée, and historian Carl S. Meyer put it well when he wrote, “After the death of C.F.W. Walther, [Pieper] was regarded as the ‘Elisha’ on whom Walther’s mantle had fallen.”

Franz August Otto Pieper was born on June 27, 1852, in Carwitz in Pomerania in Germany. He was the fourth of seven children. Following the death of his father, Pieper emigrated to America with his mother and three younger brothers. He graduated from Northwestern College in Watertown in 1872, and then from Concordia Seminary in 1875. He served Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) parishes in Wisconsin from 1875 until 1878, when he was elected to the faculty of Concordia Seminary.

Franz Pieper was a prolific author, contributing to the synodical newspaper, Der Lutheraner, the synodical theological journal, Lehre und Wehre (Teaching and Defense), which he also edited, as well as penning essays for district and synodical conventions. In these endeavors, he followed in the footsteps of C.F.W. Walther. This meant that virtually from the synod’s founding in 1847 under C.F.W. Walther, until Pieper’s death in 1931, the Missouri Synod spoke with one voice in matters of doctrine and practice.

Pieper’s greatest achievement was his three-volume Christian Dogmatics, first published in German between 1917 and 1924, and translated into English in the early 1950’s. An index in both German and English appeared as well. One cannot overestimate the impact that this work had on maintaining scriptural and confessional unity in the synod. According to Prof. David Scaer of Concordia Seminary, the “chief topics [of Pieper’s Dogmatics] were Christology and grace as they undergirded justification by faith.” Furthermore, says Scaer, to date “no one has produced another comprehensive dogmatics ” to challenge it. Pieper is also remembered for being the chief author of the Brief Statement, which was first published in 1932, and which the CLC has adopted as one of its confessional documents.

Franz’s younger brother was August Pieper (1857-1946). Like Franz, August studied at Concordia in St. Louis and began as a pastor in the Wisconsin Synod. August, however, remained in the WELS and eventually was called to a professorship at their seminary in Wauwatosa, where he became a proponent of the “Wauwatosa Theology.” There were strong disagreements between the two Pieper brothers on various issues relating to church and ministry. Even though they disagreed, however, it would appear that Franz never publicly criticized his brother or the Wisconsin Synod.

He was not so reticent with everyone. One anecdote from about 1930 tells of Pieper reviewing the lecture notes of the professors at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and then in a faculty meeting remarking that only he and P.E. Kretzmann were not “deviating from the Word of God.” Theodore Graebner stormed out of the room in protest. Graebner’s later writings in the Lutheran Witness, however, show that, among other topics, Graebner had indeed changed his position on scouting and the military chaplaincy, issues that contributed to the breakup of the Synodical Conference.

Franz Pieper died on June 3, 1931.

Steven Karp is pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Hayward, California.