Where is Waldenström?

by Elder M. Lindahl

For only the second time in the history of the publication Pietisten, Tommy Carlson's Paul Peter Waldenström’s column has not appeared. The Summer 1997, number went to press without Waldenström! The Editor tells me the absence was due to Tommy's trip to Europe and scheduling. Do you know who PPW is? Did you miss his column?

July 14, 1997, marked the 80th anniversary of the death of Waldenström. In his almost 79 years on this planet, he had profound influence on the Swedish State Church and the mission churches as pastor, author, congressman, reformer, and teacher. He received the Ph. D. from Uppsala University in 1863 and was ordained in the State Church the same year. Judged a radical by many, his understanding of God stood in sharp contrast to the theology accepted in Sweden in that day. The impact of his life and work on our denomination is immeasurable. The Covenant would not have come into existence without his challenge to the established Swedish church and his support. Waldenström was an intellectual and spiritual giant, an editor of the original Pietisten from 1868-1917, and an important leader in defining the character of the Church on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a member Parliament from 1885-1905.1 As early as 1910, he argued for the separation of church and state in Sweden. Now, ninety years later, in A. D. 2,000, the reality of that proposed separation will finally occur. Needless to say, we are happy to see him back this issue of Pietisten.

Actually, the question in the title of this essay points to a larger issue, namely, the dearth of WaIdenström’s theology in Covenant churches today. In our denomination, of course, one can find whole gamut, from those churches where a picture of PPW might grace the wall of the lower auditorium and people generally know something about his thought, to those churches where neither memory of the man nor his ideas are in evidence. I have attended some Covenant churches that are Covenant in name only—No blue hymnals, no enthusiasm for North Park University or Theological Seminary, and little interest in traditional music or our immigrant tradition.

Superficial as that sort of evidence might be, it does raise a serious question about the presence or absence of the theology which gave birth to our denomination. State church theology, in which PPW was trained and expert, held that God was a strict, austere Being who brought judgment on every sin, misdeed, transgression of His Divine Law. His wrath against human their iniquities had to be satisfied and appeased. Jesus, by his suffering and death, paid the price, and changed his Father's disposition. In sacrificing himself to a ruthless Father on the cross, Jesus atoned for sin, making it possible for a wrathful God to accept sinners.

An immigrant Covenant Pastor, John J. Daniels, put that theory to verse:

Good works I ought to do are done
On my behalf by Christ, God's Son,
And all my guilt on him was laid,
And on his cross my debt was paid.

In wrath, Jehovah swung his rod
And lashed his Son, the Lamb of God,
And when the Son in anguish died,
Jehovah smiled—satisfied. 2

About the angry God atonement theory, PPW asked, "Where is it written?" What he found when he studied the Biblical texts was an entirely different understanding of God. Nowhere was the idea of the reconciling of God in Christ found in either the Old or New Testament. He found that our Heavenly Father was never ill-disposed toward us, was not cruel, did not want to punish us, and did not have to be reconciled to us. Rather, God was always and forever kindly inclined toward us. God's love is eternal, God's very nature is love. Though we may turn our backs and reject Him, He never turns His back on us. We have to be reconciled to God, not He to us. Jesus on the cross fought evil in our place, but never to appease an angry God.

In Sweden, as in the early days of the Covenant in America, there was much interest in PPW's atonement theory. In many of his 90 publications, PPW defended his theory forcefully, with little regard to the antagonism it created among those who continued to defend the traditional satisfactio vicaria theory of the state church. G. E Hedstrand, then editor of The Covenant Weekly, says that Waldenström was "a happy warrior and able debater who knew how to defend his position."3 PPW published a sermon in which he summarized his complex theory in Rosenius' Pietisten in the March and June issues of 1872. George Stephenson summarizes that unpreached sermon in these words:

“The fall of man had occasioned no change in the disposition of the Creator, and it was, therefore, not the wrath of God that blocked the way of salvation but the sinful nature of man. In consequence it was man who needed reconciliation, but not a reconciliation for the purpose of propitiating God and making him once more merciful; on the contrary, the supreme sacrifice of Christ had cleansed man of sin and presented him acceptable unto God.”4

The next year, a pamphlet, "Om försoningens betydelse" (On the Meaning of the Atonement) expanded the arguments of that sermon, and was published both in Sweden and America. Waldenström’s name became a household word and the ensuing atonement controversy shook the Swedish religious world. People discussed his atonement theory on street comers, at the market, and on trains. According to Pastor Henry Ek, "From this time on, Dr. Waldenström was everywhere to be reckoned with, and his opinions taken into consideration among all classes of people, from the tiller of the soil up to the ruler of the land...."5

Although many agreed with PPW, opposition to his atonement theory was not uncommon in America as well. Lutheran pastors generally disagreed with him, some labeling him a heretic. Carl G. Lagergren, an Uppsala trained Baptist clergyman criticized him sharply. Methodists tended to hold the older theory against Waldenström.

Dr. R. A. Torrey, D. D., Dean of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, was strident in his opposition to PPW. Covenant Pastor, Axel Mellander, a North Park Seminary teacher, on February 8, 1922, wrote to ask Torrey about a statement—“Those who do not believe in the substitionary death of Christ are followers of AntiChrist”—which he allegedly made in a sermon at Moody Bible Institute. Melander also inquired: “Do you consider the Mission Friends who hold the views (Waldenström’s) expressed above followers of AntiChrist?” Torrey writes back in less than a week, on Valentine’s Day:

I am familiar with Dr. Waldenström's theory of the stonement (sic), as I have his books, and am confident that in this matter, though he was an excellent Christian man in some respects, he was aiding the work of the Antichirst, and in that matter was a follower of the Antichrist, and that the doctrine of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is so fundamental that there can be no union between those who believe in it as it is taught in the Word of God and those who deny it. Dr. Waldenström’s doctrine of the atonement as quoted in this letter (Mellander's) will not stand the test of careful Scriptural examination .... I have many excellent friends ... in the so-called "Mission Friends," but in so far as they accept this view of the atonement, they certainly are doing the work that the Antichrist desires to be done, and aiding and abetting him to that extent in his work.6

Torrey told Mellander he would send him a copy of the new tract he had written, "True Christian Union and the Devil's Counterfeit." Also, Torrey referred Mellander to his book, What the Bible Teaches. For Axel’s enlightenment and edification, no doubt! It is not clear whether Mellander, a scholar for whom the North Park Theological Seminary Library is named, read either piece before his death on Nov. 27, 1922.

And what about Waldenström’s fate in the Covenant? Covenanters, generally open to PPW, came to be known as "New Lutherans" or "Waldenströmians" in their verbal wars with the Augustana Synod. In 1925, Pastor Henry Ek notes that the Evangelical Mission Covenant, with 43,000 members at the time, adopted Waldenström’s doctrines, used his textbooks, and considered him an authority for its beliefs. By 1937, however, Editor Hedstrand, is disappointed to find that the springtime and summer of Waldenström’s generous and happy Gospel are passed, and the chilling spirit of the fall and winter has come. PPW's theory, controversial from the start, had to establish itself against an entrenched atonement viewpoint. I recall the heated discussions of Waldenström's atonement theory by Swedish immigrant members of Mission Covenant Church, (now Grace Covenant) of Stambaugh, Michigan, in their Bible classes in the late 1930's and early 40's. It has become clear to me since then, that, after all the debate in Church history, there are finally but two Christian atonement theories—one focuses on punishment, and the other on forgiveness, Anselm's and Waldenström's.

From my wanderings in and about Covenant Churches today, I find that substitutionary atonement theory is still widely held. Have we, despite PPW's influence, returned to the older State Church theory? Why is it that Waldenström’s enlightened, logically-clear, Biblically-based, and insightful understanding of God's reconciling work is missing from many Covenant Churches?

For one thing, the countervailing influence of the fundamentalist theologies of American and Swedish conservatives—T.N. Hasselquist, R. A. Torrey, David H. Johnson. Gustaf F. Johnson. Paul W. Rood, et al, continued strong despite the clarity and relevance of Waldenström’s views. Substitutionary atonement, which PPW opposed, became a fundamental doctrinal statement in the creeds of Bible Colleges and Seminaries like Moody's, Dallas, Trinity, and others. Hell-fire preaching, based on the older theory of an angry God whose justice needs to be satisfied, struck fear in immigrant hearts and brought sinners to repentance. Waldenström’s name became more a symbol of State Church defiance than that of a great theologian whose views one ought consider and respect. He was a hero, it seems, because he challenged the authority of the established Lutheran church, celebrated communion in the Mission House in Uppsala, and opened the possibility of personal, conventicle experience.

For another thing, Waldenström, it appears, appealed to the ordinary person more for his revivalist preaching than for the atonement theory on which it was based. According to Pastor August Skogsbergh, the "Swedish Moody," PPW, a highly educated person with a complicated atonement theory, preached so simply that the common person could easily grasp the Good News. Skogsbergh likens him to Luther.7

Also, people generally, in whatever day, are neither knowledgeable nor concerned about atonement theories. Practical matters in the church-attendance, finances, program, evangelism strategies, music, liturgy, etc.—are demanding. Use the theory that works best?

In any case, we are happy that PPW is back in Pietisten—he most definitely belongs here. Would that his presence were experienced more in our sanctuaries as well. I'm not suggesting that you hang up his picture, nor sing his praises, but if some preacher says that Christ was a shield against God, a lightning-rod who gives you protection against God's wrath, remember WaIdenström’s decisive word: "God is love from everlasting to everlasting, perfect love."

1. I M. KarIgren, in an anecdotal book, P.W. I HeIg och Söcken (P W. On Sundays and Weekdays), 1925, speaks of PPW as a political maverick. He notes that a Stockholm newspaper reported, in jest, that there are four parties in the lower chamber: The Old Agrarian Party, The New Agrarian Party, The Center Party, and Waldenström. p. 13

2. John J. Daniel's, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, WaIdenström vs. Anselm, p.5.

3. Axel Andersson, The Christian Doctrine of the Atonement according to P. P. Waldenström, Trans. by G. H. Hedstrand, Chicago: Covenant Book Concern, 1937.

4. George M. Stephenson, The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1932, p. 108. 5 Henry E. Ek, Dr. RR Waldenström’s Theory of the Atonement, 1925, p. 50.

6. Covenant Archives. My thanks to Dr. Philip J. Anderson for making me aware of this exchange of letters.

7. E. August Skogsbergh, "Upplevelser och Berattelser," I Forna Dar, edited by G. E Hedstrand, Chicago: Covenant Book Concern, 1926, p. 42.

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl