Saint and Heretic: Wilhelm Loehe in German Historiography since 1872

By Blaufuss, Dietrich | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Saint and Heretic: Wilhelm Loehe in German Historiography since 1872


Blaufuss, Dietrich, Currents in Theology and Mission


Loehe is brought home to his church

Wilhelm Loehe died January 2, 1872. Within a decade of his death, in 1881, this statement was inserted into the third edition of the Realencyklopadie (RE), the most prominent German theological reference work: "Wilhelm Loehe is a man of the Church of Bavaria, and that has been fortunate for both this church and Loehe."

Such fortune, however, did not come about without detours. Moreover, one wonders how Loehe can be called there "the great apologist of the people's church [Landeskirchentum]" (RE 8:582.27). (1) Are there not overwhelming references that invalidate such an assertion?

The main objection, but not the only one, is Loehe's seriously intended endeavor to pursue the way of a free church, leaving the chains of patronization and restriction by the state church. This was still a pretty big sour point in 1881. In the decade after his death those who followed Loehe were still told that Loehe had been an opponent of the territorial church and, moreover, an opponent of "everything which is called people's or state church" (578.14). To put it bluntly, he opposed "the territorial church concept altogether" (578.4). How can he be at the same time the "great apologist of the territorial church"? We could ask how, according to the constitution of the church or theologically speaking, Loehe could turn from a "heretic" or at least "schismatic" to a saint. Let us take a closer look.

Paradoxically, his deep insights into the faults of the church were contrasted without interruption with his glowing view of the splendor of the church (578.6-8). This could only be to the disadvantage of the real and visible church. For that church Loehe had great hopes in the year of the 1848 revolution. This revolution raised the possibility that the ties with the worldly authority could be torn asunder. These ties had become ever more intimate since the Reformation but traced their parentage to Emperor Constantine (578.14-16). Not even ten years after Loehe's death, one already had the fitting heresy labels at hand: his views are permeated by Donatism, they show an individualistic disease, and are not without "romanticizing" traits (578.42-43).

Is this the picture of a "great defender of the territorial church"? Hardly! But the line of accusations is not yet complete. The most serious one states that in Loehe one finds "a kind of excommunication of all those who hold views different from his own" (579.54).

Here we are confronted with the central issue for Loehe: the sharing of the Lord's Supper with non-Lutherans, which again was an ecclesiological issue. Repeatedly, Loehe wanted to clarify this issue as late as 1861 (582.37-38). But he did not do it by continuously reiterating his already known standpoint. It is admitted that he had the ability to change, to adapt, and to pursue new avenues of thinking. How can we understand that such fundamental criticism against the existing church can, with some legitimization, be introduced as "the great apologetic of the territorial church"?

There does seem to be an explanation. In 1881 one endeavored to integrate Loehe into the history of the Church of Bavaria. His accomplishments were held too much in esteem, his reputation was too significant, to admit that all of this originated only in contrast to and in conflict with the church or even in spite of the church. No, one was also interested in a piece of hagiography, all critical description notwithstanding. This already had become true for Neuendettelsau, the place in which Loehe lived and worked.

Especially in this lonely and secluded place, Loehe was to bring to
blossom his creative powers in an astounding way. This humble village
has become a celebrity in the kingdom of God. Through Loehe's efforts it
has been transformed into a great Christian colony, into a city on the
mountain. From there, the sanctifying rays of merciful love have touched
two continents. … 

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