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The Problem with Poo-Pooing Pieper

April 29th, 2011
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Sadly, it is somewhat “fashionable” to “poo-poo” Francis Pieper and his work on Christian doctrine Christian Dogmatics. Francis Pieper was the Missouri Synod’s greatest systematician, serving as successor of Dr. C.F.W. Walther as president of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis. He also served as president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. To this day, his work on Lutheran doctrine remains influential and for most LCMS pastors, key to their formation as pastors, since it gives them a good, solid grounding in classical Lutheran confessional orthodoxy.

As time went by, and the influence of modernist theology was felt in The LCMS, it became increasingly popular to poke fun of, and dismiss, the great work of Dr. Pieper. Sadly, this continues to this day in some circles.

I am not a person to look down on, dismiss or otherwise put myself in the position of “knowing better than Pieper.” Why? Because I’ve read too much bad theology to do that, and I’ve read too much good theology not to appreciate Dr. Pieper’s fine work.

Francis Pieper is the person most responsible for me being a Lutheran theologian, to this day. I was required to read Pieper’s dogmatics, very, very carefully, for a good number of years at the seminary. I was quizzed over each of my readings for every class I had with Professor Kurt Marquart. I was required to memorize the various Latin terms and phrases Dr. Pieper uses in his work to teach Lutheran theology. And not only to memorize them, but to be able to explain what they mean and why they were important. Doing so equipped me with a helpful “shorthand” for making clear, what are clearly complex concepts. But when you are able to define them and explain them using the classic Latin phrases and terms used for them, they stick with you.

Francis Pieper’s three volume work on Lutheran doctrine is still the best available complete Lutheran dogmatics in English. It was translated from the original German, and in spite of the faults and failings of that translation, and I will the first to acknowledge they are there, it remains to this day the finest work of Lutheran theology for American Lutherans available. Why do I say this?

Francis Pieper was well aware of the advent of higher criticism and the “subjective” theology that has now thoroughly overwhelmed all of modern Christianity. He provides the student of Lutheran theology with a very solid grounding in classic Lutheran theology, and by use of many Latin terms and phrases, he provides the seminarian and future pastor with a vocabulary to understand very complex and highly important theological concepts. If you understand the Latin words and phrases, properly, you will understand the theology faithfully. And, frankly, there is really nothing new under the sun when it comes to heretical opinions. If you understand the doctrine set forth by Dr. Pieper, you are equipped to handle whatever comes down the pike.

I grow increasingly concerned when I hear about seminarians not being required to read and study Pieper, but instead use more modern Lutheran theological works. The precision of the classic Lutheran orthodoxy represented so well by Pieper is not available elsewhere. The other aspect of Dr. Pieper’s work is the wealth of Luther quotes he provides, along with other classic orthodox Lutheran theologians. Neglecting to study, very carefully, the work of Dr. Francis Pieper is a huge error on the part of any Lutheran preparing for the ministry. Neglecting Pieper is akin to a doctor neglecting to study carefully his basic medical texts. You can not read and understand other approaches to theology unless you are thoroughly grounded in good, solid orthodox Lutheran doctrinal theology, and that is what Francis Pieper provides. He provides the tools necessary for any faithful pastor to deal adequately with modern day errors and problems in theology.

All of which is to say, if and when you hear anyone, and I mean anyone, no matter how respected that person might be, be he a pastor or a professor, poo-pooing Pieper, you are hearing somebody saying something very foolish. I was particularly delighted recently to hear this gentleman quoting Francis Pieper:

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  1. Kurt Andrews
    April 29th, 2011 at 05:34 | #1

    hey where’s the rest of this.

  2. Phw
    April 29th, 2011 at 06:34 | #2

    Why bother with Pieper when you have Rick Warren and Joel Osteen running your worship services?

    As a layman, I agree with you on Pieper, although 83 pages on “is” is a tad ponderous to chew through

    • April 29th, 2011 at 07:31 | #3

      Pieper is not “easy reading” necessarily, but keep in mind that the meaning of “is” in the Word of Institution is critical to so much in Christian theology and how won understands that little word reveals volumes about how one approaches the Scriptures themselves, etc.

  3. Greg Smith
    April 29th, 2011 at 09:22 | #4

    I also used Pieper in seminary. Fantastic stuff. I don’t even think he is difficult to read. I still refer to him often and will quote him as often as I can in non-Lutheran contexts just to present his views. But I think there is a desperate need for an updated systematic theology from the Lutheran perspective. Pieper interacts well, as you noted, with the higher critical views of his day. But there are many issues in our day that could be treated in a modern treatise. Postmodernism, the emergent church, the emphasis on social gospel, etc. One of the important things about a good systematic theology is that it interact with contemporary issues. Pieper did this. Now we need something that does the same thing in our time.

    I wish a good Lutheran dogmatician would write a new one keeping the great qualities of Pieper’s work but giving us a dogmatics for our time.

    • April 29th, 2011 at 10:12 | #5

      @Greg: I understand what you are saying, but I find that no matter what the issue confronting us, a solid grounding in orthodox theology, from any good source, like Pieper, really does equip you to respond. to these things. So, while I see where you are coming from, and even understand and agree with you, I do not believe a classic dogmatics text is ever “outdated” and frankly, at this point, I highly recommend Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics at this point as a good supplement to Pieper, not a replacement.

  4. Rev. Michael Trask
    April 29th, 2011 at 09:36 | #6

    I too, had to read Pieper. My time with him was some of the most enjoyable time I spent in seminary. I even studied the the footnotes…that’s where a lot of the best stuff was! Pieper gave me the much needed structure for good theology.

    Before Pieper, things were foggy. After Pieper there was clarity. Before Pieper I could schmooze theological; after Pieper I could actually be theological.

    It is utterly amazing that this man was able to do for us all that he did in those three volumes. He is a great hero! Oh, and then the index, can’t tell you how elated I was when I learned there was an index.

    And the “ich theologians” he was always going on about that everyone dismissed him for? They are still very much afoot. Perhaps that’s the source of the poo pooing

    Thanks for this post!

  5. April 29th, 2011 at 10:57 | #7

    Pieper was required reading for us at sem as well. However, in addition to Pieper we were to read the Confessional Dogmatics Series books as they came out – though these books are not meant to replace Pieper but only to add to and supplement. I very much appreciate his works. The three green volumes and the Index have been very helpful to me in the parish.

    As with any works of such a monumental nature and covering so many topics there are strengths and weaknesses and I dare say many more strengths than weaknesses! One area that I am not as comfortable with is Dr. Pieper’s treatment of the holy Ministry. To me it comes across as rather functionalist. However, all in all, Dr. Pieper’s work is a great gift to the church.

  6. Joanne
    April 29th, 2011 at 11:23 | #8

    Have I heard that a new English translation is in the works?

  7. James Gier
    April 29th, 2011 at 12:33 | #10

    I very much appreciate this dogmatic work and concur with its value today. The matters spoken of are timeless in that they deal with matters the church has always dealt with in one form or another throughout the ages. I do not see a need for another dogmatic as much as perhaps another translation of this dogmatic, perhaps a critical edition – to at least clean up some important mistranslations and excises of text – especially the following concerning Communion:

    Pieper writes, “Auch die apostolische Kirche practizierte nicht “open,” sondern “closed communion.”

    The Translation reads: “Neither did the Apostolic Church practice “open” Communion.” (vol. 3, p. 381). The rest of the statement and the term “closed” were excised out. This is most important in understanding the communion fellowship issues among Lutherans in the latter part of the 19th century and how we in the LCMS have essentially come to abandon (at least in part) Walther’s great work on Communion Fellowship and in essence adopted the Galesburg Rule of the “moderate” General Council. What havoc has this wrought on our communion practice and fellowship today.

    It may seem small, but I had one pastor tell me in a group discussion on the matter that the term “closed” communion was a fabrication of the Fort Wayne seminary in the 1980′s. Clearly it was a term and teaching long before that.

    I only raise up this matter as a concern that we give the best translations we can produce that allow the original writers to be heard, whether critical or not, and CPH has the talent and gifted editors to do just that for this most critical resource for our pastoral training.

    Humbly submitted,

    J. Gier

  8. John Doe
    April 29th, 2011 at 19:41 | #11

    I am no theologian (rather, I’m a business school graduate and an accounting analyst). But I absolutely love Jesus and cannot get enough of the Bible. I thank my God through Jesus Christ for F. Pieper’s three volumes. They have opened the Holy Scriptures to me with such clarity. Pieper has never left me wanting. His comprehensive treatment of the Bible does not only provide answers. His writing also gives me confidence that there are answers both scriptural and reasonable to the questions asked of Lutherans. In the din and darkness of competing theological judgments, the light of scripture shines bright, and Pieper seems always to wield the torch of truth like a true saint.

    To Rev. Trask: those footnotes do hold treasure.

  9. April 29th, 2011 at 20:28 | #12

    I completely concur with your thoughts on the continuing value of studying Pieper, Pr McCain. Not being American, I didn’t go to an LC-MS seminary, so I got nothing but modern Lutheran theology in dogmatics lectures, but I had purchased a set of Pieper before going to seminary, and I read him from “go to whoa”, and have constantly returned to him. I credit his work for giving me a solid foundation in Lutheran theology.

  10. Robert Buechler
    April 29th, 2011 at 22:36 | #13

    I got to read his stuff when I started the process of moving onto the AFLC roster. I realized almost immediately that he was superior in his theological insight to the Braaten and Jensen dogmatics I read at Trinity Lutheran Seminary when I was in the ELCA. He is better than Pannenberg. He is better in two ways (in my opinion). First, he is thorough. Second, he is simple in the sense that he is straight forward and to the point and makes no apologies for standing with Luther and the orthodox faithful. I bought his dogmatics, and got rid of the other less useful dogmatics I had. I have come to realize that when someone does as good a job as Pieper did, you don’t really need to find something “new.” If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

  11. April 30th, 2011 at 12:38 | #14

    My concern with Pieper is a concern that we receive from him summaries, footnotes, or even mere phrases from the orthodox Lutheran fathers and we should spend some time with the sources and not his characterization of them. My beef with Pieper is his receptionism or at least his appearance of receptionism. While I have not read the original, Pieper’s English translation is seriously deficient on this one point. There should not be a choice between Pieper and Chemnitz or Gerhard, for example, and if we minimize a bit of Pieper to include those orthodox Lutheran fathers, that is not such a bad trade off. However, I do not see excluding Pieper for the sake of modern Lutheran dogmaticians.

    • April 30th, 2011 at 12:42 | #15

      Larry, I don’t disagree with you, but Pieper is still the best available basic dogmatics text, and provides a very fine introduction into the larger dogmatics texts of Chemnitz, Gerhard and even Quenstedt. You kind of missed the point of my post, my friend.

  12. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
    May 1st, 2011 at 17:41 | #16

    Over the years I’ve heard more than one proffessor/theologian opine that we needed a ‘new’ Dogmatic’s text. It’s easy to say until one realizes what a herculean task it is.

    • May 1st, 2011 at 17:48 | #17

      When I hear remarks like this…from anyone…I simply say, “When will you be writing one as good as Dr. Pieper’s?”

      That tends to silence the critics, pretty quickly.

  13. Bob Myers
    May 2nd, 2011 at 14:43 | #18

    I was both pleased and concerned upon reading this post last week. Pleased, because our Pastor had recommende its reading, and concerned because I was bidding on volumes 1-3 on eBay and I was concerned your post would drive the price up! Thankfully, they are enroute to the Florida panhandle today.

  14. John Maxfield
    May 2nd, 2011 at 17:40 | #20

    A great post and a wonderful video clip from President Harrison. I hope the comment about not assigning Pieper in LCMS seminary today is the exception not the norm, and I wonder what is being assigned to replace it? Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics is outstanding but was never intended to replace Pieper as the central text for systematic theology. I remember with fondness both Prof. Marquart’s daily quizes on Pieper and the tests on Latin terms, using Dr. Scaer’s helpful glossary. Now when I teach Christian doctrine to undergraduates (Concordia, Edmonton), I’m not using Pieper (too long and too advanced for a one semester course) but am thinking maybe of encouraging its use for students’ deeper research in selected topics. My main text (besides the Bible, the Large and Small Catechisms, and the Augsburg Confession) is presently Robert Kolb’s The Christian Faith: A Lutheran Exposition (CPH, 2003). I wonder what other profs. are using at the undergraduate level.

  15. Bob Myers
    May 2nd, 2011 at 17:53 | #21

    $42.00 for the three volumes. I had priced volumes 2 and 3 used on Amazon at $21.00 each but each time I went to the listing for volume 2 it actually showed volume 3. The only missing volume is the index.

  16. May 3rd, 2011 at 18:13 | #22

    Pieper was my Dogmatics text as well. When I see some of my confessional brethren so ready to dismiss Pieper on the basis of his soft receptionism (one paragraph, people, and in a footnote at that), and his weak presentation on the Ministry (the so-called ubertragungslehre), it saddens me that these men can have such tunnel vision that they cannot see the tremendous work for what it is, nor remember how much it shaped their understanding of the Scriptures, and formed their thought patterns into the Confessional mold.

    Should we now subject Luther to the same scrutiny, and on that basis discount his works? Of course not. How foolish. Just as we do not throw all of John Gerhardt in the trash heap just because of his intuitu fidei view of election.

    Pieper’s work is one of the greatest Dogmatics text of our age. Does that mean we cannot use Chemnitz, or Hoenecke? Of course not, and we would be foolish not to.

    Seriously. If anyone thinks Pieper is that bad, I think it’s time to give him a read-through again. Should only take you a few sittings. :)

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