Note: This short commentary appears in the 1862 edition of “Lehre und Wehre”, the Missouri Synod’s German language theological journal. Dr. Walther writes about what some in the General Synod (now part of the ELCA) call “Symbolism”. Symbolism means adherence to Symbols such as the Augsburg Confession, the Creeds, the Smalcald Articles, etc. In other words, Symbolism is clinging to “old” Lutheranism rather than the “New Measures” of Samuel Simon Schmucker, Benjamin Kurtz, and others in the General Synod. Dr. Walther’s comments here are still relevant today as they were over 150 years ago. His words should give us pause to consider our practices in the light of sola Scriptura, sola fide, and the doctrine of justification. All errors of translation are mine. Enjoy! DMJ+
“Symbolism” – In the Lutheran Observer of March 21 a writer under the pseudonym “Spener” seeks to prove the barrenness of the so-called Symbolism in the small influence that the same and others has expressed to the German population of St. Louis, Missouri. He writes: “The case in St. Louis is an eye-catching one, because there the old Symbolic system of Europe has been in effect without hindrance and disruption for more than twenty years; and in twenty years it has brought 5,000 into the church from about 60,000 Lutherans from Europe! A sad testimony for Symbolism! – We do not wish to be understood as if we wanted to blame our brethren of the old symbolic party, and especially not of Saint Louis, because after all, what we know of them, they are good, learned and pious men. The system is wrong, and it is the system against which we fight. It is the system that one calls sacramental, specifically in a nutshell: the child is born again through baptism and therefore a member of the body of Christ; and falling from grace, what happens with all, the child is confirmed at the age of 12 or 14, generally without moral qualification, takes part in the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and is thus fed by mouth with spiritual food. In this country, where people read and think they’ll soon see that this is certainly something other than the religion which Christ and his apostles taught, and as soon as they are enlightened by the Spirit of God, turn themselves away from it with disgust and go to other churches where Biblical Christianity prevails. Hence the success of Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and even Congregationalists among Germans. If you want to convert Germans, then you must preach conversion to God and faith in Jesus Christ and not confessional religion, through whose preaching they have been hardened in sin. They have already heard enough of that in Germany. Now this is the system that supports ‘Lutheran and Missionary’. It is true, this symbolic journal is too perceptive to go out boldly and defend such a system that is contradictory to the Bible; it gilds the pill; it has mixed some of the spiritual life and the energy of the other churches in the country with its sacramental religion. But the thing will not take effect; the two cannot go together. Sacramental religion is all or nothing; as a system it will not allow mixing with other systems; like Rome it must stand or fall by its own merits. If it is true that baptism regenerates the child, and the worship of the Church (the Lord’s Supper with included) has the duty to lead the regenerate child to heaven without repentance or faith, then they, who work for the conversion of souls to the biblical way, are great fools. The Lutheran Church has never been with this system and will never be able to provide their children with spiritual food [with this system]. The food that the immortal soul requires is not in this system. The crucified Christ, in all His offices, is what poor sinners need. The Lutheran Church in Germany and in this country needs religious revivals. Nothing else will save them. With the editor of the ‘Lutheran’ I am an admirer of the Augsburg Confession, he must only let me interpret it according to my sense, as I permit him [to interpret it according to his sense]. It is a noble deed, and receives all its moral strength from the Bible and is valuable only because of its conformity with the Bible.” So far the writer in the Observer.
We share this drivel as a means of demonstrating namely what Lutherans born of the General Synod have as ideas about the so-called system of the old Lutheran Church. Because the old Lutheran Church (according to clear word of God) believes and teaches that Holy Baptism is the washing of regeneration, the Lord’s Supper is the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, the absolution of servants of the Church is God’s forgiveness, then those people mean that the old Lutheran Church consequently teaches a salvation “without repentance and faith” through the opus operatum of the use of the Sacraments, through a mechanical efficacy of the Sacraments, as the Papists teach! This is a rather gross misunderstanding. The old Lutheran Church indeed teaches, and we with her, that the Holy Sacraments, along with absolution and the Word, chiefly have not only a significative, but also an equally collative (communicative), as well as effective (bringing forth inner spiritual effects) power. In other words, both are God’s hands that present to us the gifts of grace purchased by Christ alone, as well as to work, awaken, maintain, and strengthen the necessary faith for the apprehension of these gifts of grace as man’s hand. But she also teaches that man can resist the effects of these means of grace, and to the person who does not produce these effects in himself, the sacrament, absolution, Word does not help, yes, it serves to him as an odor of death to death, as a more heavier judgment. She teaches with all earnestness that whoever is not born again through the means of grace can and will not see the kingdom of God, that without a repentance wrought by the Holy Spirit, that without faith in the heart there is no salvation, that Word, Sacrament, and Absolution are not rebirth, are not justification, but they should effect, not grace, but are the means of grace.
The reason why Old Lutherans hold so firmly to the means of grace is not that they would save men without repentance and faith, as one is healed by medicine which only needs to be taken and works even while he is sleeping, but because they firmly hold that a poor sinner is justified before God and saved solely by faith, without works, without his merit, by grace, that is, that his salvation is due not to what he does, works, merits, but to God alone, who offers him full salvation in the means of grace. In that sense we are pleased that our religion is called “sacramental”. Yes, to teach salvation by faith and yet to deny the character to the Word and the Sacraments that they contain and present to us the gifts, that we have to take and appropriate to ourselves through faith, is a contradiction. To teach salvation by grace and yet want to know of no real means of grace is a self-deception. If there are no collative organs of grace, then the entire doctrine of justification of a poor sinner hovers in the air; for faith, which is something relative, lacks its correlative, or the entire doctrine of faith is pure enthusiasm.
Incidentally, from the small number of Germans who have been won here by us to the fellowship of the church, to conclude on the inaccuracy of the system is very premature. This would outright condemn the “system” of the Savior Himself, Who also won only a few by His personal administration of the public teaching office in Judea and Galilee. In addition to this there are several German churches here that follow the system of salvation of the General Synod. From where does it come, then, that these churches neither have been able to bring the remaining 55,000 (not initially Lutherans, but Germans of all types) to the Church? Would this therefore also not be directed to the doctrinal system of the General Synod?