“The Beloved, Legendary” Piepkorn
Dr. Robert L. Wilken was the keynote speaker at the observance of 25th Anniversary of the Death of Arthur Carl Piepkorn that was held in Immanuel Lutheran Church, 88th and Lexington, NYC, on December 13, 1988. Dr. David Lotz introduced Wilken. Dr. George Lindbeck was on the panel, the members of which each addressed the assembly once. Words in square brackets have been added by the Director where the tape was unintelligible.
Dr. David Lotz, Professor of the History of Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Robert L. Wilken. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Lotz’s remarks, transcribed from the tape recording.
“Tonight we take occasion to recollect, reflect upon, and give almighty God thanks for the life and ministry of the Reverend Professor Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who died exactly 25 years ago at St. Louis on December 13, 1973, at age 66.
“Dr. Piepkorn was a man of small stature, but he was an intellectual giant. For many of us he became a father in the faith. My late and much lamented colleague at Union Seminary, Father Raymond Brown, of blessed memory, often had the occasion to tell me over the years that his first encounter with Professor Piepkorn came in the course of the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues that began in this country in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Fr. Brown said: ‘We Roman Catholics on the Dialogue Committee were not prepared for Arthur Carl Piepkorn. He bowled us over’ – Father Brown’s words’ — ‘not only by his immense erudition, his knowledge of the fathers of the Church — East, as well as West —, with his knowledge also of the medieval scholastics, and not least by the profundity of his churchmanship.
“Now I have no doubt that many of us here gathered, probably most of us, consider ourselves ‘Piepkornians,’ in one sense or another, whether or not we actually met him on any occasion face to face, or had experience of him as a classroom teacher, or professional colleague. And no doubt a goodly number of us would be quite prepared to speak of the particular ways in which our lives have been touched and even transformed by the words and the writings and the on-going witness of this remarkable and ever memorable man, this true servant of the servants of God, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Doctor Piepkorn, Father Arthur, “the Pieps.”
“Let me add, I also remember that in the course of my first year at Concordia Seminary I was considerably puzzled, and not a little irritated, by an assertion made by Professor Piepkorn in one of his courses on the Lutheran Confessions, to wit, we are ‘Catholic Christians first, Western Catholics second, and Lutherans third.’ It seemed to me Piepkorn had that all backwards, at least on the basis of my prior training and experience. but during the course of that first year at Concordia, Robert Wilken and some of his classmates, Richard Neuhaus, and others, managed to set the record straight, or as I think they would say, they shed light from above.”
Dr. Robert L. Wilken. What follows is from the end of the presentation by keynote speaker, Dr. Robert L. Wilken, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Copied from Lutheran Forum, Summer 1999, p. 52.
“But for those who knew him it was Piepkorn the person and teacher and priest and confessor who is most fondly remembered. For he was a holy man, a saint who lived among us, and changed our lives. He embodied the Christian virtues of humility, faithfulness, obedience, love and patience. He loved the Church not as an idea but as a mother that gives life, and he taught us to think of us to ‘think with the Church.’ He was a man of prayer of and from his example we learned the discipline of regular prayer, doing things simply because they were the things one did as a Christian. He once wrote, When our hands our folded and knees bent we learn most efficiently what it means to be a Christian and what the Church has called us to do as Church.’
“He also taught us to love the saints, first of all St. Mary, but also Saints Ambrose and Augustine and Gregory and Perpetua and Athanasius and Bridget and Theresa and Thomas and Dominic and Bernard and Blessed Martin Luther and Martin Chemnitz and John Gerhard, the great cloud of witnesses who send up their prayers and petitions continually to the throne of Grace. He delighted to remind Lutherans that one of the hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal, ‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,’ addresses St. Mary as ‘higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim.’ And as he relished singing a hymn that beseeches the Blessed Virgin to ‘to lead their praises,’ it is only fitting that in celebrating the memory of this holy man, we call on him to join with her in praising God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to pray for us. ‘Sancte Arthure ora pro nobis,’[“Saint Arthur,Pray for us” or if you prefer, ‘Sancte Pieps ora pro nobis.’”[“Saint Pieps, Pray for us.”]
Dr. George Lindbeck, Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology at Yale, made the following remarks, which are transcribed from the tape. 13 minutes.
“I am the member of this panel who had the least personal acquaintance with Arthur Carl Piepkorn. I did not get to know him until — I believe it was 1966, when he joined the American Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue as the Missouri Synod representative, along with Fred Kramer. [Piepkorn was at the organizing meeting in 1965.] And then I knew him when he died in ‘73. Everything that you have heard about him is consistent with what I came to know in the Dialogue. But if I had been asked to speak of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, without knowing any of the things, which you have already heard spoken of, it would be a rather different person that you would hear about, not contradictory but different. There would be a few features that would be added, but of course in large part, it would have been the omissions that would make the difference.
“I’m not going to try to communicate the enormous personal impression that he made on myself and the other members of the Dialogue. I am not sure that any of us would have been inclined — either the Roman Catholics or the Lutherans — to have said, ‘Pieps, ora pro nobis.’ For one thing, we’d never heard the word “Pieps.” I never heard the word until after he was dead. We never heard that nickname. And for another thing, while it is very easy to imagine that he was a saint — and I am not the least surprised to hear the kinds of things that have been mentioned as evidence of his saintliness in the rather special sense that it has become in the post-biblical tradition of the church — well, it’s veryeasy to believe that’s what he was. I don’t think I began sensing that personally until just a few weeks, a few months, before his death.
“The last time I saw him was in the summer of ’73 after the Seminary problem, when those issues were reaching a crisis, and I had dinner with him [and was able] to speak with him. And for the first time we had some small conversation, a very discrete conversation and a very gracious conversation on his part, but one in which he failed to conceal what he was trying to conceal, the enormous personal pain that he was under, and at the same time the utterly Christ-like way, so it seemed to me, in which he was bearing it.
“The best thing that I can do, I think, in the very few minutes that remain, and not many minutes do remain, is to try to say a word or two about his historical significance within the context of the seven years that he was in the American Dialogue. The [unintelligible] historical significance of that contribution to the Church’s life.
“First of all, he very quickly established himself as the dominant figure in that Dialogue. And that Dialogue was one which contained the extraordinarily brilliant young biblical scholar, Ray Brown, the magisterial figure of John Courtney Murray, the impressive elder statesmanship of Joseph Sittler, and another younger and thoroughly brilliant Dean – well he wasn’t Dean at that time — professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, Bishop Stendahl, now Bishop Stendahl.
“What I see as the dominant figure — and he did this without anything like personal presence, unusual personal presence. His demeanor was always modest and gracious. One soon discovered that he knew more about a larger number of fields that were pertinent to our work than anybody else did. He knew the Latin and the Greek fathers better than anybody else. We had no Patristic specialists. He knew the Biblical materials better than any of the non-biblical scholars. He was the sort of person that a Ray Brown and a John Reumann — who is the New Testament counterpart on the Lutheran part, as well as Bishop Stendahl – they soon found that here was a non-biblical scholar that they had to speak to as an equal, and they didn’t speak like an equal to any of the rest of us. He knew Denziger better than any of the Catholics who were present — that’s the compendium of official statements. And of course he knew the Book of Confessions better than any of the Lutherans. He taught it more. He had studied it more carefully. And he had a better memory. He could quote it in German and Latin and English, sometimes, it seemed, simultaneously.
“And so he was a person that one turned to as a resource. When one wanted to know something about almost anything, one asked Piepkorn. In addition he had a fluency of thought, a rigorousness of thought, and when the occasion for it, an eloquence that was as great as that of John Courtney Murray, one indeed magisterial. And, this was not resented. That’s one of the lesser [?] elements that showed that he was singular. Everybody liked him and came to appreciate him enormously. So he became a rather legendary figure in that small group of dialogue, in that Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue. The beloved, legendary figure.
“Now, just a word about what difference his ideas, which Professor Wilken — Robert Wilken — has so well laid out, may make. In some respects not very much difference — I’m not sure that the Dialogue would have been in any of its basic features any different, if Arthur Carl Piepkorn had never been with us. And in a way that’s not [suprising]. After all the Dialogue had started before he entered it. The basic patterns had been laid down already by the dialogue in Paderborn in Germany, and had continued then under Professor [Skiisdorf] before the Second Vatican Council with the participation of people like Peter Brunner and Edmund Schlink. And it continued at the Vatican Council. And the general pattern of procedure was the one that Arthur Carl Piepkorn approved of, the sort of position that he held: Lutheranism is a reformed movement in the Catholic Church of the West. Rome and the Reformation’s authentic original character are two forms of western catholicism, which have mutually suffered from their separation. The “mutually suffered” must be emphasized. The Catholics in this post-Vatican period were very, very open and insistent on the enormous damage that the division of the church had done to the Roman Catholics, and of course, Piepkorn and the Lutherans were equally insistent on the damage that was done on the Reformation side. There was in that period a kind of, I don’t know what to call it, moral equality in the way in which the two groups were talking to each other about each other, which looks in retrospect as unrealistic. He confirmed, however, made stronger, made clearer, directions which had been established and which continued, after his death, in basically the same lines particularly here in America, apart from his influence. And for that, for that for reasons which I will not further discuss, I and the other participants in that Dialogue, all of you, of us, and our churches should praise and thank God, while we ask for the prayers of all the saints. Amen.”
Here is another statement by George Lindbeck, from an article he wrotein the Journal of Ecumenical Studies,:
“Some Lutherans took their role as catholic reformers very seriously and were at times better informed than at least some of their Roman Catholic counterparts about aspects of Catholic teaching. This could be embarrassing when someone like Arthur Carl Piepkorn, whose reading and memory were prodigious, would outquote Denziger (in Latin) against a powerhouse such as John Courtney Murray when both of them were on the North American dialogue before their untimely deaths.” –George A. Lindbeck, Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology at Yale. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 41:3-4 (2004).
“Arthur Carl Piepkorn, a Saint?”
In his introduction of Dr. Robert L. Wilken at the observance of the 25th Anniversay of the death of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Dr. David Lotz said that Piepkorn “transformed” our lives.
At the end of his of his keynote address, Dr. Robert L. Wilken ritually invoked “Saint Arthur.” (see above)
When John Hannah took the podium to introduce George Lindbeck, he said in his remarks: “Dr. Wilken assured us that he was a holy man. This is most certainly true. Arthur Carl Piepkorn, ora pro nobis. He does, This is most certainly true.”
Dr. George Lindbeck, responding to Wilken’s address, said that Piepkorn “was a holy man, a saint who lived among us, and changed our lives,” and that he “embodied the Christian virtues of humility, faithfulness, obedience, love and patience.” And so, Lindbeck added, “it’s very easy to believe that” Piepkorn was a saint in the meaning that the term has acquired in the post-Biblical tradition of the Church, and added, “I don’t think I began sensing that personally until just a few weeks, a few months, before his death.”
Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, said in his remarks, “It is my privilege to respond to my dear friend Robert Wilken’s winsomely personal and theologically incisive reflections on our revered teacher. It is also a measure of Robert’s sense of security in his ecclesial home that he feels authorized to beatify and canonize. This is not an act of presumption, however, if we recall that [the process of canonization?] by the universal church almost always begins with a more local devotion. And I am pleased to join Robert Wilken in proposing the cause of Arthur Carl Piepkorn. I don’t know how that will be received in Rome. But while on earth, in the words of Vatican II, he was “in true but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church.” And where I trust the Pieps is now, is in communion with Christ and therefore where all our [unintelligible] is perfected. I suppose we will have to leave it to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints to work out the implications of that happy thought.”
Comments by the Center Director on the above:
The second stanza of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” is included in TLH 475, LBW 175, and ELS 424. The editors of LW 308, probably under pressure from an unconfessional dogmatics, omitted the second stanza, but it was restored in LSB 670.
Father Piepkorn delighted in pointing out to his students that the invocation of St. Mary in the second stanza of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” is not the “novel” (or “ritual,” a term Piepkorn also used) invocation of the saints that “has neither a command nor a promise nor an example” in Scripture, and is both “unnecessary” and “dangerous” (Apology 21.7-10).
While granting with the Apology that “blessed Mary” is “worthy of the highest honors” and, along with the saints prays “fervently for the church in general,” Piepkorn stated that the invocation of Mary in “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” — in keeping with the practice of the “ancient Church” — is “rhetorical” (or “apostrophic,” another term Piepkorn used) Apology 21.9f; 13.27.
He thoroughly agreed with the Apology that since we cannot be certain that the saints in light can hear our prayers, we ought not to invoke them in the “novel” or “ritual” sense in prevalent use in Roman Catholicism, since prayer must come from faith and faith cannot be based on uncertainty (Apology 21.10f).
We do not have a formal process in the Lutheran Church for canonizing saints, which the Augsburg Confession and the Apology say we should honor with thanksgiving, the strengthening of our faith, and by imitation of their faithfulness and other virtues, which each should imitate in accordance with his or her own calling.
Father Piepkorn told his classes “Any good I have done, I attribute solely to the work of the Holy Spirit within me.” He routinely used the word “Blessed” before the names of persons such as Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. I recommend that, following Piepkorn’s practice, we use the adjective “Blessed” of him, too, for after all, the meaning of the word in the Beatitudes is “blessed [by God],” and he truly was.
Robert Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus, both former students of Piepkorn, left Lutheranism to join the Roman Catholic Church.
–pjs All Saints Day, A.D. 2007