Sometimes reading theology, even on the level of a book of instruction for children, can be like peeling an onion. There are layers upon layers of explanation and interpretation.
Take Luther's Small Catechism, for example. To begin with, the word "catechism" referred to the three basic texts that should be learned by heart by every Christian child and convert: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer.
In 1529 Martin Luther, deploring the ignorance of of both the pastors and the parishioners of Saxony, published this catechism, together with an "enchiridion," or short book of explanation. These brief, simple questions and answers based on the three chief parts of Christian doctrine, plus Baptism and the Lord's Supper, became known as Luther's Small Catechism.
From at least 1615 forward, various authors and committees set their hands to explaining Luther's explanation. Or at least, they added additional questions and answers explaining Christian doctrine in a more "systematic way," and published them together with Luther's Small Catechism. My informant at the Concordia Historical Institute tells me that one can trace a line of descent from Dietrich's catechism of 1615, through the Missouri Synod's German catechism of 1857, Schwan's German catechism of 1896, its English translation in 1912, and synodical updates in 1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938, culminating in the LCMS's adoption in 1941 of the familiar "old" synodical catechism, published by CPH in 1943. This, in turn, was considerably updated in 1985, and again in 1991. For what it's worth.
Koehler was one of the people involved with the revisions of the synodical explanation between 1929 and 1941. A version of the catechism with his annotations was published in 1926. The 1972 book from NPH was apparently a reprint of the 1943 CPH catechism together with Koehler's annotations. And it is from the 1972 edition that I draw the following cautious observations about the theology of E. W. A. Koehler. I hate to ask it of someone whose Summary of Christian Doctrine was required reading in my undergrad religion classes, but...was Koehler really Lutheran?
All right, I'll give him this. On the big questions, such as the the "real presence" of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper, renegerative baptism, and justification, he apparently held to the Lutheran position. But what I'm really asking is whether Koehler basically does theology like a Lutheran, or even (dare I ask) like Luther; and whether it is therefore fair to Luther to filter his thoughts not only through a committee (of which Koehler was a member) but, in addition, through Koehler's own unsparing criticism.
I didn't read all of Koehler's annotations. I skimmed through certain parts where I expected to see red flags popping up, and pop up they did. I looked at the parts of the synodical explanation that explain the Lutheran doctrine of Scripture, Baptism, the Keys, and the Lord's Supper, and at what Koehler had to say about them. Here are some of the things I found.
In the following notes, "Q" refers to the question number in the LCMS explanation, to which Koehler's remarks were addressed.
A. On pp. 26-27, Q. 5, Koehler says: “In the study of Baptism we learn of the covenant we made with God in our infancy.” This is amazing, coming from a Lutheran theologian: a one-sentence summary of the doctrine of Baptism that has nothing to do with what God does.
B. On p. 30, Q. 11, Koehler quotes part of 1 Thess. 2:13 to prove the authority of God’s Word, but ignores its efficacy. He quotes Paul as far as: "We also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God." But he snips off the end of the verse, "...which also performs its work in you who believe." This betrays a different emphasis than Luther had when it came to God's Word.
C. On p. 30, Q. 12, Koehler says the Bible is “sufficient to accomplish its purpose” (that is, no further revelation is needed), “clear,” and “true”; but again, he makes no mention of efficacy.
D. On p. 259-260, Q. 245-B, Koehler rejects the LCMS text that says: “Baptism is not simple water only, because water is applied in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and is thus connected with God’s word.” Koehler’s reason for rejecting this wording is bizarre, and he entirely misses the point that the Triune name connects Baptism with the power of God’s Word. He replaces the offending text with: “...because in Baptism the promise of the Triune God is connected with the water,” and later comments (p. 260): “These words connect with the power of Baptism the most glorious promises.” The difference is, instead of Baptism being plugged into the efficacy of the Word, Koehler’s wording teaches that Baptism is connected to reassuring promises from God’s Word.
E. On p. 260, Q. 248, Koehler again discusses the “covenant relation between the Triune God and us, into which we enter by Baptism.” This sounds just a smidgen synergistic.
F. On p. 265, under the topic of “Blessings of Baptism,” Koehler is (as always) very careful to state that God “offers to all” His grace, blessings, forgiveness, salvation, etc.; but only believers receive them. He reasons: “Since faith is the means through which we apprehend this salvation, Baptism must be the means through which it is offered.” Koehler insists that God’s blessings/gifts are not given, but only offered; faith is required to make the offer a reality for you. This suggests a kind of halfway-synergism – God goes so far, and you meet him the rest of the way (faith).
G. On p. 266, Q. 253-A, Koehler says that in Baptism we get “God’s promise and assurance of forgiveness.” Here (as always) Koehler is careful to say that God promises, assures, and seals forgiveness to us in Word & Sacrament, distinguishing this from actually forgiving us. His reasoning is based on Jesus’ once-for-all atonement, and on Christians being instantly & completely forgiven through faith. This is all true, but because Koehler reasons like a Calvinist, he can’t imagine how it can also be true that God forgives us repeatedly.
H. On p. 266, Q. 253-B, Koehler correctly points out that Rom. 6:3 “does not prove what it is supposed to prove” (the CPH catechism used it out of context.) But he never objected to the way John 5:39 was used (again, out of context) on p. 31, Q. 13. Clearly it bothered Koehler's conscience to use Scripture the way our Reformed adversaries use it (as a compendium of isolated statements that can be used to support anything you choose to prove). If only it had bothered him a bit more!
I. on p. 269, Q. 257, Koehler stumbles on a truth when he says that the power of Baptism is “God acting through His Word.” But he passes rather lightly over this thought.
J. On p. 270, Q. 258, Koehler again hits on the truth when he says: “The Word of God not only puts these great things into Baptism for us to take by faith, but through that Word God also operates on our hearts and works the faith, by which we take these things.” What Koehler says in this paragraph could redeem all his blather about a “covenant relation” and “promises” and “seals,” that seems to leave a great deal up to the believer to accomplish by faith. But this clearly was not the keynote of Koehler’s theology.
K. On p. 278, Q. 270, Koehler comments on Christ giving the Keys to “all true believers,” i.e., “the Christians gathered in a local congregation.” He points out one weakness of defining “church” as “local congregation”: hypocrites who belong to a local church do not actually possess the Keys. Perhaps if Koehler had given this more thought, he would have said Christ gave the Keys to His Church, and that by exercising the Keys each congregation shows itself to be the local embodiment of the one holy Church.
L. On p. 280-281, Q. 275, Koehler’s description of the Office of the Ministry deserves some study. It may or may not have contributed to the WELS-ELS troubles on the Ministry. Koehler does correctly describe how God calls men into the ministry through the local congregation. I also like the way Koehler says: “It is the call and the acceptance of this call that makes a man the minister of a congregation, not ordination and installation, which are not divinely commanded.” But Koehler’s words, “perform the duties of this office in their midst” and “performs the functions of the Office of the Keys,” could be interpreted in light of the “functionalist view” of the ministry.
M. On p. 281, Q. 276, Koehler reasons that the validity and certainty of the Keys is conditional on the pastor being faithful to God’s Word. He actually states that a heterodox pastor’s “teaching and practice is not valid.” Not only does this not mention the efficacy of the Word, but it actually contradicts it. While it is true that the sacraments must be done according to God’s Word, this would have been a good place for Koehler to point out that the validity of the Means of Grace is based on “God acting through His Word." Koehler’s theology clearly does not have much room for the concept of God working through, and hidden within, means.
N. On pp. 287-288, under the heading of “Absolution,” Koehler says the absolution doesn’t actually forgive sins, but “offers, applies, and assures” to believers the accomplished fact of the Gospel. This is more of what I was talking about under F and G above.
O. On pp. 288, Q. 288, Koehler is forced to admit that when pastors forgive sinners, their sins are forgiven. Again, but I think in a correct way, Koehler limits this forgiveness to the “penitent” sinner who “believes these words of absolution.” Luther and Scripture do teach that this forgiveness is only given to the penitent & received through faith. Koehler also helpfully adds that “As our faith often weakens, we should again and again receive absolution to strengthen our wavering faith.” This paragraph may help put faith, repentance, and forgiveness in their proper relationship. But in the context of Koehler's preoccupation with forgiveness being "offered" but not "given" in Word and Sacrament, it might be easy to miss this point.
P. On pp. 297, Q. 301, Koehler throws fuel on the "Loeschmann heresy" that we receive only Christ's body and blood, but not the whole Christ, in the Lord's Supper. Koehler asserts that the Catholics teach that the Lord’s Supper offers “’Christ whole and entire,’ including his humanity and divinity.” He condemns this teaching, concluding: “According to the words of Christ, we do not eat Christ ‘whole and entire’, but we eat and drink only His body and blood . . . ” Koehler asserts this novel distinction without even trying to demonstrate it from Scripture.
In this, Koehler seems to have some support from Luther (LW, vol. 40, p. 221). However, if you read further, you see Luther only condemned the Catholic teaching that, by receiving only the bread, you received “the whole Christ under one kind” (LW, vol. 34, p. 349; vol. 40, p. 173-174), and the Sacramentarian teaching that interpreted “the whole Christ” to mean “the kingdom of God” rather than Christ’s body and blood (LW, vol. 40, p. 220-221). Koehler does not seem troubled by the fact that Luther says quite plainly: “No one can drink the blood of the Son of God without drinking the whole Christ” (LW, vol. 30, p. 223. See also vol. 35, p. 60; vol. 36, p. 340-341; vol. 24, p. 182; vol. 25, p. 238).
Q. On p. 298, Q. 301-B, Koehler throws fuel on the receptionist controversy that divided the ELS in the 1990s. Koehler never clearly says that the cause of the Real Presence is the efficacy of Christ’s Word. In fact, he stresses that the words of institution “do not work like magic, as though by their mere recitation the communion of the bread and wine on the altar were effected with the body and the blood of Christ.” Koehler says “this was done by the words Christ spoke at the first Supper.” Where the efficacy of the Word comes into the Real Presence is not clear from Koehler’s statements. Koehler adds that this communion only applies to the bread we actually eat & the wine we actually drink, not what is spilled or left over. This seems to imply that the Real Presence (a term Koehler doesn’t use; he prefers “communion”) is based in part on the reception by the communicant.
WELS-ELS history would go on to show consequences of this approach to the Lord’s Supper: statements making room for receptionism were enshrined in synodical doctrine, and B. W. Teigen was persecuted for teaching that God’s Word effects the Real Presence. In this way Koehler and WELS-ELS laid out a welcome mat to foes of the Formula of Concord (see Epitome, Article VII, paragraphs 4 and 14), though the synods alone bear the responsibility of waging a polemical and political campaign against the Formula's friends.
R. On p. 303, Q. 303, Koehler rejects the LCMS wording of the answer, which says that God’s pledge of forgiveness is “given” to every communicant. Koehler’s reasoning, again, is that only believers receive forgiveness (see F above), and even to them God only “offers and assures” the forgiveness that they already have by faith in Jesus’ atonement. Again, Koehler’s somewhat Reformed habit of reasoning doesn’t permit him to think that God can actually give forgiveness over and over, or that he can give it to unbelievers whose lack of faith cheats them out of what they have been given. But Koehler does not quite fall into crass receptionism (in which only believers receive the body & blood).
I wish I could ask Koehler, "Which is greater: to say that even unbelievers eat Christ’s body (though it does them no good), or to say that every communicant receives forgiveness (though it runs through an unbeliever’s fingers like sand)?"
S. On pp. 304-305, Q. 315-A, Koehler again says in the Sacrament “full forgiveness is emphatically assured and confirmed to us personally.” As in F & G above, Koehler carefully explains that God really only forgives us once: “Nor do we receive a new supply of forgiveness every time we go to the Lord’s Table; for remission of sins is not offered in parts and portions . . . we either have forgiveness for all our sins, or we have none at all.” Here Koehler shows a persistent habit of using reason to explain away clear teachings of Scripture, Luther, and the Confessions.
T. On p. 305, Q. 315-B, Koehler explains how the Sacrament gives us strength for a holier life. “Being assured of the grace of God, our hearts are filled with gratitude . . . and our spiritual life is invigorated, which gives us strength and willingness to serve God in holy works,” etc. Nothing is directly stated about the efficacy of the Word, or Christ living in you.
U. On p. 307, Q. 317, Koehler throws out a whole Q&A from the LCMS explanation and substitutes his own. He doesn’t like the LCMS’ implication that the Sacrament “imparts” and “seals” forgiveness to communicants, including the unworthy. He speaks of “these blessings,” including “forgiveness, life, and salvation,” instead of focusing on forgiveness. He buries the LCMS’ simple, direct statement that “Christ has placed forgiveness of sins into the Sacrament” in a pile of additional thoughts like “the body and blood being the seal of His promise.” He also waters down the sentence that very clearly attributes the power of forgiveness to Jesus’ Words. So, instead of saying that Jesus’ words “given and shed for you for the remission of sins” give the Sacrament the power to forgive you, Koehler says the power to give you spiritual blessings “lies in” those words, which are a “promise” “sealed” by eating and drinking Jesus’ Body and Blood.
V. On pp. 307-308, Q. 318, Koehler says: “Faith is the hand that takes what the words of Christ here offer.” There’s that semi-synergism again; see F. It’s difficult to see why Koehler has such a problem with the synodical explanation saying “God gives you this and that through Word and Sacrament” when it says, right there in Q. 318, that “We receive this benefit only by believing in these words . . . ” It looks as if Koehler has trouble distinguishing between the gift itself and its use or benefit. It also looks as if Koehler wants to describe faith as a cause of the gift or promise (forgiveness, etc.) being valid.
The problem is, if God offers you something that isn’t real or valid unless you first believe, how can you believe in it? It’s like telling someone on a sinking ship: “If you jump overboard and trust I have sent boat to catch you, it will be there. But I won’t send the boat if you don’t believe.” Would you jump based on a “promise” like that, knowing that until you believe it, nothing is promised? And if you believed, jumped, and were saved, who would you have to thank for it – the person who sent the boat, or yourself for believing it?