WALTHER’S LAW AND GOSPEL
One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application
of the Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work
The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel is the basis for this two-year series.
Most Christians around the world have heard of Martin Luther, the German theologian who took a stand against the Roman Catholic Church and ushered in the Reformation in Europe. Three centuries later, another German theologian, Dr. C.F.W. Walther, led in the development of confessional Lutheranism in the United States. The Lutheran Spokesman is beginning a two-year series on the book for which Walther is chiefly known, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. Although it was published over 130 years ago, it may be even more important today than it was then in helping people to understand the two great Bible doctrines. It is our hope that the study of this work will be a blessing in your faith walk.
Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in Langenchursdorf, Saxony, in 1811. The eighth child of his parents, he came from three previous generations of Lutheran ministers. Despite being raised in a God-fearing home, later in life he confessed that as a boy he was uneducated in Scripture and likely not a Christian. He studied theology with his brother Otto at the University of Leipzig. While there he contracted a serious lung disease that laid him up for six months. During that time, he read the works of Martin Luther and found himself in agreement with him on doctrine. He was ordained as pastor in Braunsdorf, Saxony in 1837.
Because the philosophies of Rationalism (Biblical truth subjected to human reason) and Unionism (overlooking doctrinal differences for the sake of outward unity) had infested the local university and government, Walther joined a group intent on gaining religious freedom by emigrating to the United States. Led by Martin Stephan, about eight hundred Saxon Lutherans arrived in New Orleans in early 1839. The group soon headed north and settled in both Perry County, Missouri, and St. Louis.
In 1841, Walther married Emilie Buenger (1812-1885). The couple was blessed with six children. That same year he accepted a call as pastor of his late brother Otto’s congregation, Trinity Lutheran, in St. Louis. He participated in the Altenburg Debate, in which he was able to convince the Saxon Lutherans that their church was legitimate, which prevented disorganization and division amongst them.
Like Luther, Walther wore many hats and seemed to be involved in everything. He was the pastor of four congregations. He helped found Concordia Seminary in 1839 and later relocated it to St. Louis. He was a founder and first president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 1847. He served in that capacity twice (1847-1850, 1864-1878). He was a professor and president of Concordia Seminary from 1850-1887. In 1872 he played a key role in the development of the Synodical Conference, a group united in doctrine composed of the Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Norwegian synods.
In his writing, Walther vigorously opposed non-Lutheran doctrine. He dealt with several doctrinal controversies both in Germany and the United States, including pietism and the doctrine of election. Taking a Biblical stand did not always make him popular. He was responsible for the creation of two influential Lutheran periodicals, Der Lutheraner (1844) and Lehre und Wehre (1855). He established Concordia Publishing House in 1869. He even dabbled in poetry and music, composing the text and tune of the Easter hymn, “He’s Risen, He’s Risen.”
Many of Walther’s books were published posthumously, including his most well-read book, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. On Friday evenings at Concordia Seminary, Walther gave lectures on a variety of religious topics. These lectures were very popular with seminary students as well as the public. The lectures he gave in 1884-1885 were focused on the doctrines of Law and Gospel. Walther developed twenty-five theses on the topic, which he presented over the course of thirty-nine lectures. Each thesis was defended by extensive Scriptural exegesis. These lectures, as recorded in the stenographic notes of Rev. Th. Claus, were first published in German in 1895. The English version is W.H.T. Dau’s translation of the German.
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
[To read Walther’s Law and Gospel for free on-line, and to access related Bible class materials, go to www.ilc.edu/Walther]