J. Michael Reu on the Christian Life

[1] Johann Michael Reu (1869-1943) was born in Diebach, Germany and trained for the pastoral ministry at the mission institute founded by Wilhelm Loehe in Neuendettelsau. He came to the United States in 1889, first serving as pastor at Mendota and then at Rock Falls, Illinois for ten years until 1899. Reu was next called as professor to Wartburg Theological Seminary at Dubuque, Iowa where he taught until the end of his life. Although a self-taught theologian, Reu became a prominent figure who exercised major influence on students at Wartburg Seminary, the laity, and the larger church. One might with much evidence name him the most prolific and renowned professor and theologian in the history of Wartburg Seminary.

What Does J. Michael Reu Have to Say to Us about the Christian Life? by Craig L. Nessan

[2] Over the course of a teaching career that spanned 44 years, from 1899 to his death in 1943, J. Michael Reu taught virtually every subject in the seminary curriculum. Moreover, the range of topics is reflected in an extensive bibliography of books, articles, and reviews (the latter two mainly published in the Kirchliche Zeitschrift). The Reu corpus includes a total of 66 books and a reported 3631 book reviews. As shall be seen, the influence of J. Michael Reu on the formation of pastors and the laity did not end even with his death. His printed lectures continued to be used in the classroom at Wartburg into the early 1960s and his published writings, especially what came to be affectionately called "Reu's Catechism," have continued to draw attention to the present.

[3] There are three distinguishing marks of Reu's theology that forcibly shaped his influence in the first half of the twentieth century and make him noteworthy into the present. His was a Scriptural theology, grounded in Lutheran heritage, and directed toward the purpose of Christian education.

[4] Scriptural theology. For Reu the Bible was clearly the primary source of authority for theology as interpreted through the lens of the Lutheran Confessions. Even the casual reader will note the extensive references to biblical passages and the careful interpretation of particular texts throughout his published writings and printed lectures. Reu, like others shaped by 19th century German dogmatic theology, exuded a profound confidence that there was a unified biblical theology.1 The one God has been revealed over the course of history to have certain durable character traits. The Scriptures testify to the consistent pattern of divine activity in the world. The task of Christian systematic theology is to exposit the themes and knowledge that we have of this God based on what has been revealed through God's Word.

[5] The paradigmatic example of his approach to theology is the method and content of what came to be known as "Reu's Dogmatics," revised and reprinted in numerous editions over the years of his teaching ministry and beyond.2 The organizing idea of the entire Lutheran Dogmatics is "Communion with God."3 Each locus of Christian doctrine is examined and articulated with reference to the interpretation of particular biblical texts. Inadequate interpretations are refuted on the way to constructing a sound dogmatic system, built upon the solid foundation of Holy Scripture. The force of Reu's theology can be appreciated all the more when it is recognized that his successor at the seminary, Emil Matzner, continued to lecture on dogmatics by reading verbatim from Reu's text until 1960, 18 years after Reu's death. For nearly 60 years, students at Wartburg Seminary were formed theologically for ministry by this decidedly Scriptural and Lutheran theology.

[6] Lutheran heritage. The second major characteristic of Reu's contribution to the church and theology was his cultivation of Lutheran history and theology for his own and the succeeding generations. Reu was convinced that the Lutheran tradition was the purest expression of true Christian teaching. He wrote in his Lutheran Dogmatics: "The real nature of the Christian religion is maintained far more genuinely in the faith and confession of the Lutheran Church…"4 Reu produced for his students and for use in the church a host of books that sought to instill appreciation for and appropriation of the Lutheran heritage, for example: Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism with a Selection of Short Scripture Texts, Hymns, and Prayers5; Thirty-five Years of Luther Research6; Life of Luther7; Augsburg Confession: A Collection of Sources with an Historical Introduction8; Luther's German Bible: An Historical Presentation Together with a Collection of Sources9; and The Smalkald Articles.10

[7] The magnum opus of Reu was similarly devoted to the remembrance and value of the Lutheran and Reformation heritage. Over decades he collected a multitude of various editions of the catechism published in Germany during the 16th century. A total of nine volumes were published as Quellen zur Geschichte des kirchlichen Unterrichts.11 The jewel among all the various catechisms was clearly Luther's own Small Catechism. For this project Reu was awarded a doctorate in theology from the University of Erlangen in 1910. Thereby he became "Dr. Reu."

[8] This cultivation of the Lutheran heritage for students and the larger church was a commitment Reu shared with other faculty colleagues, particularly with George Fritschel who also published several volumes dedicated to Lutheran history.12 With Reu as editor, the publication of the journal, Kirchliche Zeitschrift, also demonstrated his constant commitment to reclaiming the Lutheran tradition for the next generation.

[9] Christian Education. The most immediate form of education in which Reu was engaged was the preparation of pastors for service in the church. Reu himself taught not only dogmatics but also courses in homiletics and catechetics, producing major volumes for use in the church on these topics.13 Reu not only produced a theory of catechetics but also prepared teacher training materials and curriculum for all ages that sought to instill throughout the church a love for Scripture and the Lutheran heritage.14 He was deeply committed not only to the Christian education of children but also of adults. Many of his writings are aimed at the education of the laity. Also noteworthy was Reu's initiative in the area of continuing education for clergy. The Luther Academy was a summer event hosted on the Wartburg Seminary campus that Reu, together with President Emil Rausch, founded for the continuing education of clergy in 1937. This is one of the very earliest documented events of its kind and continues to this day as the Luther Academy of the Rockies. Of all Reu's ventures in the arena of Christian education, none was more influential than the wide dissemination and use of "Reu's Catechism."15 This congregational resource was first published in 1906 and went through twelve printings, the last in 1964. This meant that thousands of confirmands into the 1960s and 1970s continued to use Reu's catechism in their Christian education.

[10] What does J. Michael Reu have to say to us today about the Christian life? The answer to this question is grounded in those very things to which he devoted his own life. First, Reu testifies to the foundation of the Christian life which is found in God's Word. Reu grounded his own theology in the Bible and devoted his life to the teaching of a Scripture-based theology to his seminary students and to the laity of the church — those of all ages. Reu interpreted the Bible as he retold Bible stories to convey the basics of what we are summoned to believe and practice as Christian people. God's Word in Scripture is the basis for all Christian thought and action. Reu continues to witness to us about the value of a love for the Bible as the book of faith.

[11] Second, Reu teaches us the value of being grounded in the Lutheran confessional tradition. Like Loehe before him, Reu was convinced that Luther's theology and the Lutheran dogmatic tradition provided the purest expression of the truth of Christianity. While we today know the blessings of an ecumenical movement unknown to Reu, he would nevertheless remind us to stand proudly in the heritage of the Lutheran Reformation and its watchwords: sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola fide. Justification by grace through faith in Christ alone remains the rock upon which we stand.

[12] Finally, Reu would instruct us in the value of the catechism: "All I ever needed to know about God, I learned in Luther's catechism." The very structure of Luther's catechism as well as his explanations to each of the sections grounds the church in what it needs to preserve the faith and live faithfully. Moreover, catechetical learning seeks to correlate the basics of Christian faith with the questions of the times. While the questions change, the wealth of the Christian faith summarized in Luther's Catechism — grounded on the Scripture and preserved by the Lutheran tradition — continues to provide the answers needed for living faithfully in every generation. This is most certainly true!

Craig L. Nessan is Academic Dean and Professor of Contextual Theology at Wartburg Seminary.




1. See, for example, Christoph Ernst Luthardt, Kompendium der Dogmatik (Leipzig: Doerffling & Franke, 1914-14th ed.) 104-131; Johann Christian Konrad von Hoffman, Der Schriftbeweis: Ein theologischer Versuch (Noerdlingen: C. H. Beck, 1857) 4 vols.; and Gottfried Thomasius, Christi Person und Werk: Darstellung der evangelisch-lutherischen Dogmatik von ihrem Mittelpunkte der Christologie aus (Erlangen: Blaesing, 1856-62) 3 vols.

2.See, for example, J. Michael Reu, Lutheran Dogmatics (Dubuque: Wartburg Seminary, 1941-42) 2 vols.

3. Such an organizing principle bears great similarity to the work of other 19th century German theologians, ironically even with Schleiermacher's theme of the "feeling of absolute dependence on God."

4. Ibid., 7.

5. Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1919.

6. Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1917.

7. Dubuque: Wartburg Seminary, 1938.

8. Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1930. For the 400th anniversary of the Augustana.

9. Columbus: Lutheran Book Concern, 1934.

10. Dubuque: Wartburg Seminary, 1937.

11. Guetersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1904-1932.

12. See George J. Fritschel, Geschichte der lutherischen Kirche in Amerika (Guetersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1896); George J. Fritschel, The Formula of Concord (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1916); and George J. Fritschel, Quellen und Dokumente zur Geschichte und Lehrstellung der evangelishen-lutherischen Synode von Iowa und anderen Staaten (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1920).

13. M. Reu, Homiletics: A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Preaching (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1927) and Catechetics or Theory and Practise of Religious Instruction (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1927).

14. See, for example, J. Michael Reu, How I Tell the Bible Stories to My Sunday School (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1918) and the extensive materials published as Wartburg Lehrmittel beginning in 1911 and as Wartburg Lesson Helps beginning in 1916.

15. M. Reu, An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism. Together with Four Supplements (Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1947).



© August 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 8