Charles Porterfield Krauth’s Three Steps to Doctrinal and Ecclesial “Nihilism”

In an excellent paper by Rev. Prof. David  Jay Webber,   Charles Porterfield Krauth: The American Chemnitz, Prof. Webber gives a concise history of Rev. Krauth and his immense contribution to the true Evangelical Lutheran Church and as it is truly relevant to our time.  I think it is a must read. The following quote is the basis of the title of this piece and speaks to us:

 One great fallacy which underlies the whole argument and comes to the surface in a great variety of phases is, that Lutheranism is not a system of doctrine, but merely one of the rules of Hermeneutics; not a result, but a process, – or, rather, a theory of process. This process, according to Dr. S[chmucker], goes on indefinitely; and the results may vary according to the time, place, person or church which uses the process. Lutheranism may successively mean everything and anything which the craziness of an abuse of the right of private judgment may cover with the pretenses of Protestant investigation. Lutheranism may be Unitarian, Pelagian, Calvinistic, Baptist, Arminian, as the current shifts. Provided only that nothing in the way of “writings or creeds of men come between them and the examination of the Bible,” twenty men may reach twenty different results, and all be equally good Lutherans. A man may have twenty different phases of credence, and be equally Lutheran through the whole. The Lutheran Church may have a new set of doctrines in every generation, and teach the children to deride the faith, and trample on the teachings, of their fathers and mothers. … It has hitherto been supposed that the Lutheran Church owed her being to her having “proved all things,” and having by this process found that which is good, holding fast to it, and to this very end embodying it in her Confessions. But it seems this was a mistake. It is not what she finds, but the way she hunts for it, that gives her [her] character. She is to assume that the proving is never done, but always to be done, and three centuries after her credulous profession that she has the truth, is to go to work  seriously to find it… Poor, fond, old mother! She thought her merchantman had found the great pearl at the  old Wittenberg long ago, but it seems that it was but paste. … The fact is that these principles root up the faith utterly. They ignore the divine origin, perpetuity, and heavenly guidance of the Church, they put the teaching power of the Bible and of the Holy Ghost, below that of an ordinary arithmetic and of a country schoolmaster. It is too mild to call such views Latitudinarianism; they are logically Nihilism. They do their work so effectually that they would not only leave no Lutheran Church, but they would leave no Church at all. (emphasis my own)

Rev. Prof. Webber footnotes the following  quote from Krauth’s magnum opus, The Conservative Reformation, in which  Rev. Krauth elucidates the 3 stages of doctrinal devolution towards “Nihilism” and finally no “Church at all”. This is the basis of this posting.   Rev. Prof. Webber points out that the emphases in the text are original.

 “When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of the others. The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions. Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are two balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between  them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the church. Truth and error are two co-ordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them. From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and then only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it. Their recommendation is that they repudiate the faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.”

 The three stages of tolerationequal rights-supremacy to doctrinal and practical Nihilism, and it’s causes, are clear and as Prof. Webber writes that Rev. Krauth addresses the “limping Lutheranism” of our day:

 Genuine Lutheranism is firm, over against all vacillation, all temporizing, lowering of principle, and abasement before the idols of the hour. It is one of the greatest sins and calamities of the Church of our day that there is widespread and utter carelessness in regard to doctrine, or a fixed aversion to it; in some a contempt for it, in many ignorance or an ignoring of it. Men sometimes array the Gospel against itself by urging that they “want the Gospel,” they “don’t want doctrine”; as if there could be any real Gospel which is not doctrine, or any Gospel in its totality,     which does not embrace all the doctrine of the Gospel. It is as if they said: “We want nourishment; we don’t want food”; “We want warmth; but none of your fuel and clothes for us.” Whether the laxity of the time helps men toward the extreme [of] pseudo-ecclesiasticism or the extreme of unionistic sectarianism, the beginning of the healing must be a Bible estimate of the indispensable nature of Bible doctrine. Our Church, once chosen of God to lead His people back to the pure faith, must realize that none can take her  vocation from her. The front of the host is still her place, if she is faithful to the Captain of her salvation, and she can do now no work more characteristic of her,  and  more  worthy of  her  great name and  responsibility, than to help in awakening the mind of Christendom to  a consciousness of the disastrous tendency of the time.

I opine that the ELCA and other Liberal Protestant church bodies are in the third stage.  It only takes a look at an ELCA seminary web-site to actually read Krauth’s assertion that error, “…puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it.”

My question:  where is the LCMS in those 3 stages?  My conjecture is she lies somewhere between stages 1 and 2, or even in stage 2.  I hope I am wrong.

But my central and crucial question is:  What of the response?  Rev. Krauth states the way through this dark night with the conditional clause, “…if she be faithful to the Captain of her salvation.”  One way is prayer. This is His response.  Our Captain commands it, gives us His Words to pray and Himself intercedes for the saints.

It was an inestimable blessing to me to have been part of the Society of the Holy Trinity since it’s founding.  I think that the central and crucial part of the Society’s Rule has been and is the Chapter retreats and then and there the blessings of His Word flow.  In the Society, a chapter is to meet for prayer four or so times per year for at least a 24 hour retreat.  The retreats’ main agenda items were: a. Pray the Daily Prayer offices, b. Learning and c. Gemütlichkeit .

The precise agenda usually was:

First Day:

Noon: Arrival and Lunch

Afternoon Suffrages

Learning session (either a pastor in the chapter or a guest presenting a paper for further conversation and discussion)



2nd learning session


Gemütlichkeit:  drinks and refreshments, yes, a personal favorite. 🙂

 Second Day:



Learning session/chapter business


Departure at Noon

Reminder: the Daily Prayer offices of the Church are fundamentally a way of praying the Psalter. One way we can be faithful to the Captain of our salvation is for the pastorate of the LCMS, in every circuit in every district, to so join together in retreats praying the daily prayer offices three or four times a year.  I am no at all suggesting as part of the Society.  I know as a Lutheran pastor that we tend to be a loquacious lot and that’s okay.  But is also good to be still and pray together in the Godly order of the prayer offices.  In this moonless night, it makes no sense to be bumping in the darkness when we are holding a flashlight: Prayer and Scripture and the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.  Those Society chapter retreats were never, and I repeat never, a “mountain top experience” but I know I was fed the Word proceeding from the mouth of God.

I conclude with the conclusion of a Paschal sermon by Rev. Prof. Johann Gerhard on the Road to Emmaus text: 

Just as these disciples, when they felt the power of Christ’s Word in the heart, prayerfully reached out and begged Him (since it was evening) to remain with them and come in with them, so also when the fire of the divine Word has properly warmed our hearts and ignited the fire of love in us, we too will beg Christ with sincere, believing prayer that He would remain with us. We will say with Jeremiah, ch.14:8-O Lord, You are the Comfort of Israel and its Helper in need. Why do you portray Yourself as if You were guest in the land and a stranger who abides inside only for the night?

We are in need of the same kind of petition and invitation. For it is applicable:

1) To the “evening of tribulation,” [for) as all kind of dark, threatening clouds of misfortune break forth here, hardly any star shines any more [and) everything is full of tragedy and misery.

2) To the “evening of doctrine.” The divine doctrines are darkened through various errors; Christ, the Son of Righteousness, is almost totally covered over by the thick clouds of false doctrine.

3) To the “evening of the world.” The world has come to its “evening’ and to a dead decline. Thus we do well to petition: O abide with us, Lord Jesus Christ, since it now is evening. But especially when the evening of life comes into play, when things decline into our life’s end and departure, we want to reach for Christ with sincere prayer, asking that He would abide with us, and ignite in us, amidst the darkness of death, the light of comfort and life. In keeping with His precious promises, He wants graciously to fulfill this in us, as we cling simply to Him.  This is the kind of heart He wants to give us by His grace. Amen.


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