Address at the Opening of the Theological Seminary in Wauwatosa, Wis., on September 5, 1928.

by John Phillip Koehler
translated by Phillip Balge


Johann Philipp Koehler (1859-1951) was a pastor in the Wisconsin Synod. He served at congregations in Hustisford and Two Rivers, Wisconsin, as a professor at Northwestern College, and as a professor and president at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. As president, he oversaw the seminary’s move from Wauwatosa to Mequon, Wisconsin. The following article is an address Koehler delivered at the seminary’s opening service in 1928. The 1928-1929 academic year would be the seminary’s last in Wauwatosa. Koehler, who created the general design for the Mequon seminary, uses construction as an illustration and makes references to the architecture of the new seminary building. The original text was published in the Theologische Quartalschrift, volume 25, number 4.

This year our seminary is under the banner of new construction. Several weeks ago, we laid the cornerstone of the new building. In the course of this school year, we hope that we can move into the new quarters. The building’s dedication will naturally arouse the same thoughts, as were already spoken at the laying of the cornerstone. Therefore it seems fitting to me, to place our entire school year now in light of these thoughts about construction.

There is hardly any other ceremony of the church that does more to highlight the confession of the church than the cornerstone laying or dedication of a Lutheran theological seminary. The seminary is to train young men who proclaim the gospel and defend, protect, and embody it with their entire existence. One ought to express these ideas in the seminary’s art—from its entire exterior down to its separate parts, as much as is possible—and thus be a visible, outspoken confession. Regarding the laying of a cornerstone, Holy Scripture itself suggests this belief.

The Old Testament presents the teaching about the stone which the builders rejected, which then became the cornerstone, and upon which everything that would rise against its building was to shatter. In the New Testament the Savior explained this Old Testament picture concerning the Jews with reference to himself. And then when Peter, speaking for the disciples, made his good confession of Christ, the Savior, referencing this picture, familiar among the disciples, explained his confession as the instrument, with which he wants to build his church. The teachings of Peter and Paul, who reference this picture, amount to the same thought. The former discusses it in his first letter, calling believers living stones with which the church’s building rises above its cornerstone. The latter, in Ephesians, calls the believers the temple of the Holy Spirit, essentially creating a city built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. So let me present this to you:

The good confession of Christ as the foundation and instrument of our church’s construction.

Our Lutheran church, which more than other churches is the church of doctrine and confession, has established several principles. In the course of its history with respect to the tribulations it experienced, it coined three short Latin phrases which express the confession that all believers in Christ have understood through all time. Still, oftentimes many—on account of special outward circumstances—did not have these precise ideas fully or clearly formed in their minds, a comprehension that is a proper foundation for the study of theology, as well as for all the good work in the church. These phrases, which we have engraved on our foundation, and which it should embody for its time and for the duration of the building, are Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide.

Sola gratia: This means that our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Mary, redeemed us lost and condemned people, purchased and won us from all sin, from death and from the power of the Devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. And he did not do this so that on the basis of this grace, we now continue to sin. Instead, we are now his own and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, and thus one day take part in the splendor in which, following his resurrection, he lives and reigns at the right hand of his Father into eternity.

With this confession of God’s grace, we stand against every method of self-righteousness that bases itself on our own actions—not only so far as the forgiveness of sins is concerned, but also on every point of the sanctification of life and work in and for the kingdom of God. Everything is the grace of God: what we are and have and can do and do, in all things and every respect. And this grace of God we praise as the one truth, in which and for the sake of which all things exist, as the one wisdom, which alone creates true understanding, as the one word, which remains eternally, once heaven and earth go under.

Therefore we do not want to hide that with this confession we stand against the entire world, not only against that which is otherwise considered evil on earth, but also above all against all that which is considered wholesome and strong before the world, great and glorious, masculine and able, as noble, good and pleasant; indeed, that we stand with it against ourselves, against our own, innermost feelings, as we have by nature, because with such a confession we must completely and absolutely offer up and surrender ourselves; not only so that, as is so easily done, we call ourselves poor sinners, but also so that we learn the metanoein of Scripture, repentance, not that which only occurs before men, induced by law and threat, but that which, born from the love and grace of God, takes place in the heart and consists of a complete relearning and rethinking of all concepts—even to our innermost feelings—which on earth are otherwise held as the highest.

This confession of the grace of God encompasses the entire gospel, for it is eternal life, says the Savior himself, that we know God and the one he has sent, Jesus Christ. It is therefore also the ultimate goal of the studies of all who work as teachers and students at this theological school, that we proclaim the virtues of him who has called us out of darkness to his wonderful light. We also want it to be our concern to strive with zeal toward the knowledge of grace, and also to keep in mind, that it is grace—a high privilege from God—if we have the opportunity for this study, and that it is a valuable gift when our study is successful.

This gospel of sola gratia we have sola scriptura, by Scripture alone. This Scripture is the word of God’s holy people, who have spoken, moved by the Holy Spirit. That is why Peter calls Scripture a firm prophetic word and urges us to pay attention to it as we do a light that shines in the darkness until the day breaks, and the morning star rises in our hearts. That is also why Paul says that this Scripture can instruct us toward salvation, because it is inspired by God and therefore is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Only in this way can one become a man of God, standing for God as God has stood for him. And only in this way can one then become a proper theologian who is duly equipped, skilled for every good work.

So this Scripture—this Scripture alone—is the foundation not only for our belief about the forgiveness of sins, but it is, precisely because of this belief, the foundation of our entire life, which in all things should flow from faith. Our foundation is not human reason, as it develops in the lives of people and communities and is then expressed in the resulting works of any kind. And it is also not the traditions of the elders, nor even the works of the church fathers, nor even the Lutheran confessions themselves, no matter how highly we regard them which decide for us the questions of salvation. Rather, it is the Word of God alone, as it is given in our Bible for everybody, especially for the simple-minded. Therefore this Scripture is also the ultimate source of study in this school and the standard by which every other writing or human expression is measured.

There is something wonderfully great and holy about this idea of sola scriptura. One only fully understands it when one lives in it completely. Now let us be serious about this thought. We are not such people of letters that we believe that no one could come to faith in his Savior or remain preserved in him without himself having read in the Bible. But it is also not enough to have a merely outward confession of the divinity of Holy Scripture, when one meets attacks against the teaching of inspiration in its finest corruptions with powerful speech. It must get on our nerves to hear praise of the Bible again and again without being able to see behind it a diligent reading of Scripture out of deep interest and understanding.

Especially for us, we who are to preach the gospel from Scripture professionally, it is essential that we immerse ourselves in God’s Word, not only to gain all sorts of knowledge but also to read it as one would read writing that is the highest and most valuable thing to a person. Indeed, here we want to teach and learn to use Scripture like this, so that from it we get all our opinions, thoughts, language and speech, our hopes and desires, our goals and strength of life, without letting this all first be influenced by other sources; so that we do not slip into error and false notions, but instead that the water of life remains unclouded and clear and that we acquire the salvation of God.

And this comes about sola fide, by faith alone. Therefore, we hold, according to Scripture, that we do not believe in our Savior by our own reason and strength—nor are we able to come to him. Rather the Holy Spirit has called us by the gospel. That is to say, he has brought us through the message of sola gratia to faith in the forgiveness of sins and, in this way, has brought us to the church that believes in the Savior. And so he has enlightened us with his gifts and sanctified us in the faith and made us free to do every good work. Likewise, he will preserve us, by richly forgiving us of all sins daily and in this way preserving us as children of God and giving us strength, to become in sanctification ever more complete in knowledge and way of life, until he brings us on the Last Day, glorified, to his heavenly kingdom. If this thought of heart, spirit, mind, and all powers, stand and rise, that is, believe.

With this confession, our seminary should stand against every interference of natural reason into the wonderful message of God’s grace and into the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit, which he alone accomplishes within hearts through the gospel. For this reason, the seminary should stand against every law orientation of any kind, in the freedom and strength of the change, given by faith, which seeks to do the will of God our Father in childlike obedience. With the word of faith, the seminary finally should also stand against every externalizing of Christian living in thoughtless works of word and deed.

This threefold confession is a self-evident expression of our Christian life which the Savior ennobled in Peter and the disciples when they had the opportunity to confess their faith as an instrument to accomplish the construction of his church. With this threefold confession, we want to know nothing other than what the picture of the cornerstone means. As Paul expressed it, the cornerstone is Jesus alone, the crucified Savior from sin on whom God placed everything in heaven and on earth and whom his exalted church will praise as its Lord and master for all eternity. That is why we are placing on the capstone above the gateway arch of the seminary building and at the top of its little tower which adorns the classroom building and chapel, as the coat of arms of all who call Jesus their Lord, the cross in which faith overcomes the world.

Let yourselves by this confession be motivated to good deeds, so that you spend the time given to you well. You will then prove yourselves to be kings and priests before God, which by faith the Savior has made you. Through this now already, you will create blessings and also be blessings, for which the Lord has established his servants. You will also experience the joy and courage, which are a part of faith and are essential to the construction of the church of the Lord. And may God, who works both desire and completion according to his good will, support the work of your hands! Amen.

The opening address for Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary’s final year in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

 Mar 30, 2020