Friday, September 3, 2021

The Robert W. Bertram Collection

I'm pleased to announce that the Christopher Center at Valparaiso University has finished cataloging books from the library of Dr. Robert W. Bertram (1921-2003). These are materials that I received as a gift from the Lutheran School of Theology in St. Louis, which were then transferred to the Special Collections in Valpo's library. Included in these materials are typed and handwritten notes, letters, sermons, and many books containing Dr. Bertram's marginal comments. 

I am grateful to Cathy Lessmann, who had been Bob's close friend and the administrator of Crossings and the Lutheran School of Theology in St. Louis, who kindly arranged for these materials to be given to me. Years earlier, the Bertram family had graciously donated Bob's library to LST-SL.

I also want to thank Judith Miller and Rebecca Ostoyich, who oversee Valpo's Special Collections and who spent countless hours organizing and cataloguing these important materials. Thank you, Judy and Rebecca! 

My friends and Valpo theology colleagues, Fred Niedner and Jim Albers, also provided helpful counsel and advice about how best to set up this collection, for which I thank them, too.

To learn more about the Bertram Collection, go here.

Dr. Bertram was my teacher at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC) when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School (1988-1993). For several of those years, I lived in LSTC housing, which was more affordable than what the U. of C. had offered me. The trade-off was the requirement that I take at least one graduate seminar per term at LSTC, which I gladly did. That is how I met Bob and got involved in the Crossings Community, which he co-founded with Ed Schroeder.

Bob deeply shaped my own theological orientation and understanding. His theological interests have largely become my own. Indeed, I would not be serving in my present vocation were it not for him, his example, and his encouragement.

After leaving Chicago, I remained in regular contact with him until his death in 2003. I feel a personal connection to his life and work, not merely because I was his student at LSTC but also because of our joint connection to a few other institutions: Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (he graduated in '46; I in '88); the University of Chicago Divinity School (he received his Ph.D. from there in '64; I received mine in '01); and Valparaiso University (he taught here between 1948 and 1963--see the photo above from that period of his life--while I've been a professor here since '04). 

And we both were kicked out of another institution in which we served: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod! In that connection, I don't mind being labeled a "Seminex-er"--maybe the last of them!--even though my path crossed his several years after that seminary faculty and its students had been dispersed.

I hope pastors, theologians, and students of theology will come to Valpo to study these materials, perhaps especially Bob's handwritten notes in the books he once owned. I know there's at least one doctoral dissertation that is waiting to be written about his life and theology! If you are interested in pursuing that project, come and see me. I have some ideas for you.

In the meantime, you might also want to read the chapter on Bob and Ed in a recent book by their former LSTC colleague, Carl Braaten, who also was once my teacher. The title of that book is:
A Harvest of Lutheran Dogmatics and Ethics: The Life and Work of Twelve Theologians 1960-2020 (ALBP, 2021). I'll write more about this book in a subsequent post.

Friday, July 30, 2021

European-Christian Art and Architecture - July 2022

I would like to invite you to join my colleague, Dr. Gretchen Buggeln, and me on a special tour through Germany, France, and England in July 2022. Assuming that travel restrictions will be lifted by then (and all tour participants properly vaccinated), we will depart for Germany on July 17, 2022, and return to the US on July 30. Travelers on the tour will experience the history of European Christianity (early, medieval, and modern), Christian art and architecture, as well as contemporary European cuisine and culture. The tour will visit museums and cathedrals in such places as Cologne, Trier, Reims, Paris, Chartres, London, and Coventry. Along the way, the group will experience a Rhine-River cruise, a visit to a champagne cave, and guided tours of Versailles, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Oxford. Participants will have free days to explore Paris and London on their own. The price of the tour includes roundtrip airfare, ground transportation, lodging in 4-star hotels, all breakfasts, most dinners, local tour guides, all entrance fees, and “color commentary” by Professor Buggeln and yours truly. (Dr. Buggeln teaches art history and the humanities in Christ College, while I teach modern Christian theology and church history in the College of Arts and Sciences.) Each morning of the tour will begin with an optional devotion and “mini-lecture” on a theme for the day.

While the tour is sponsored by the Alumni Association of Valparaiso University, anyone is welcome to join and participate with us.


For more information, go to:


You may also contact me via my university email address:

Monday, May 17, 2021

Bright Stars of Bethlehem

Just when the political situation in Israel seemed like it might be getting better, matters have taken a radical turn for the worse. For insightful analyses, go here and here.

Last week I reached out to Lutheran pastors I know from that region. One of these friends wrote back, “The situation is very critical. Several of our students were detained and injured, and some in Gaza have lost their homes.”

Another long-time Lutheran pastor, theologian, and leader in that region, whose son is a graduate of Valpo, told me last week:

“It is truly a very difficult time. We are watching war erupting. But worse than that, the long years of incitement have caused hatred, discrimination, and racism. It is very worrying to watch that. Thank you for praying for us, our safety, and for justice in Palestine and Israel. This means we, as Palestinian Christians, have a holy task to swim against this wave of incitement and teach to see the image of God in the other. Certainly, the USA has a responsibility to end the occupation and to work for the two-states solution. We want you to promote the role of Christians in that [effort] and to teach that the longer the occupation, the longer the hatred. Freedom and justice are the need of this country.”

In addition to praying for a just and peaceful resolution to this situation of injustice and violence, I encourage you to support Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a non-profit organization that promotes peace and justice in Palestine through Dar al-Kalima University of Arts & Culture "and its initiatives for youth, families, and older adults, as well as public advocacy for basic human rights."

The co-founder of that organization, Dr. Mitri Raheb, is a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Bethlehem. He is a friend who has also spoken on our campus several times. He and the people he serves need our prayers and support!

To learn more about Bright Stars of Bethlehem, go here

Monday, May 10, 2021

An Online Discussion of Bob Bertram's Essay "How Our Sins Were Christ's"

The people at "Crossings" have asked yours truly to lead a free online discussion about an essay by the American-Lutheran theologian Robert Bertram. Dr. Bertram's essay, "How Our Sins Were Christ's," analyzes key emphases in Martin Luther's 1531 commentary on Galatians.

The discussion, which is part of a monthly Crossings series called "Table Talk," will take place on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, at 1:00pm Central Daylight Time. It is open to all.

For a brief "trailer" about this upcoming "Table Talk" and to register for it, go here.

To read Dr. Bertram's essay, go here.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Luther at Worms (at 500)

This week marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous “non-recantation” at the Diet of Worms. His first appearance there, on April 17, 1521, did not go well. Asked if the books on the table before him had been written by him, he answered “yes.” But when he was then asked if he would revoke the ideas they contained, he hesitated and appeared uncertain. He said he needed more time to think about the question. Surprised by this timid reply—after all, could he not have anticipated this move? —the emperor nevertheless granted him a night to further ponder his fate.

The next day, April 18, 1521, Luther was asked the main question a second time: “Will you recant?” 

No longer hesitant or uncertain, he replied at some length in Latin. After stressing that his cause was one “of justice and of truth,” he again took responsibility for the books he had written, but he noted that they were “not all of the same kind.” Some were about basic Christian faith and morals. (What could be wrong with these, he asked.) Other writings did indeed attack the papacy, but to retract these, he argued, would amount to “adding strength” to what he considered to be “the tyranny” of that institution. Still other books attacked individuals. Here, he admitted, he had been “more violent” than either “his religion or his profession” really required. Still, he would not recant these books either, since such a revocation would allow “tyranny and godlessness” to “rule and rage… more violently than before” among the people of God.

Despite his intransigence, Luther confessed that he “was only a man and not God.” He then stressed that if someone, anyone, could teach him his errors, have them exposed and overthrown by the clear statements of the prophets and evangelists (he did not mention Moses or the OT Ketubim), then he would be “quite ready to renounce every error,” and he would “be the first to cast [his] books into the fire….”

After drawing attention to the dissention that God’s own word creates in the world--and after stressing that we all need to fear God--he then concluded: “I do not say these things because there is a need of either my teachings or my warnings for such leaders as you, but because I must not withhold the allegiance which I owe my Germany. With these words I commend myself to your most serene majesty and to your lordships, humbly asking that I not be allowed through the agitation of my enemies, without cause, to be made hateful to you. I have finished.”

But Luther was not finished, for the emperor’s speaker was not satisfied. Luther had not answered the main question: “Will you recant?”

Then came (extempore?) what must be considered among the most famous and consequential words to have been spoken in the history of Western civilization in the past half millennium:

“Since, therefore, your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple response, I will give it in this way, neither sophistical nor pointed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures, or by the evidence of reason (for I trust in neither the pope nor councils alone, since it is a settled fact that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the words of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” (WA 7.838.1-9; LW 32.112-113 [modified]).

These Latin words were followed by a few German ones, perhaps only the final four of them (sotto voce?): “Ich kan nicht anderst, hie stehe ich, Got helff mir, Amen.” [I can (say) nothing else. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.]

Keep in mind that nearly a year earlier some forty-one statements of Luther’s had already been condemned by the pope as “either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, or against Catholic truth.” It didn’t matter that some of the quotations were inexact, and all had been torn from their original contexts. Luther had 60 days to recant.

Of course, instead of recanting, Luther burned the papal bull (document) on December 10, 1520. (I have stood at that very spot many times, contemplating that bold act of ecclesial defiance.) Luther refused the pope’s demands, he didn’t recant or repent, and, as a result, his excommunication became effective on January 3, 1521, just over two months after Charles had been crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Rather amazing were the subsequent actions taken by the twenty-one-year-old emperor. Despite the promise he had made on the day of his crowning—to preserve the Catholic faith, to protect the Catholic Church and clergy, and to show proper devotion to the pope and the Roman Church—Charles agreed to give the excommunicated heretic a hearing. While the pope had already made up his own mind, and the pope’s own representatives had opposed Luther’s invitation to the diet, Charles kept the matter open, at least in principle. (He had to know by that point that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Erasmus had told him as much.) But it didn’t matter. By the end of Luther’s second appearance, on that 18th of April, 1521, Charles was convinced that this lone, renegade monk was in error “in his opinion, which is against what all of Christendom has held for over a thousand years…” “After the impertinent reply that Luther gave yesterday… I declare that I now regret having delayed so long the proceedings against him and his false doctrines. I am resolved that I will never again hear him talk.”

The edict against Luther was formulated on May 8, 1521, and signed by the emperor on May 26, at the end of the diet. Charles’ edict affirmed the execution of the pope’s judgment against Luther, it enjoined all to refuse Luther any “hospitality, lodging, food, or drink,” or any assistance, and it instructed all people to take Luther prisoner so that he could be delivered to the authorities. (It should be noted: no one was authorized to kill Luther. He was simply to be arrested and handed over.) The edict also authorized individuals to proceed against Luther’s friends and followers, to attack them, and to take their property. Of course, Luther’s writings were strictly verboten. Bottom line: Luther and his adherents were not merely heretics, they were outlaws.

At Worms, Luther refused to recant because his conscience was “held captive” by the words of God (notice the plural). “Precisely because his conscience was bound by the words of God, he had to demand freedom, that is, respect for his conscience. But Luther also knew that it was his knowledge of the words of God that bound him, and as a human being he could err. Therefore, he had to be prepared to subject his knowledge to a test. Because no disputation had taken place in Worms, let alone any testing by a group of impartial theologians, no revocation could be expected from Luther. A revocation would have presupposed that Luther had been taught better by scriptural arguments so that he would have been able to correct his previous understanding. This became the standard legal argument of Saxon politics when it later defended Luther’s refusal to recant” (Theodor Dieter, “The Diet and Edict of Worms (1521),” Lutheran Quarterly 35 [Spring 2021], 4). [Other theologians who have been accused of "teaching false doctrines" and have also been expelled from their church bodies might make the same argument. Just saying....]

Perhaps most important in all this, maybe even more important than Luther’s famous testimony in that imperial courtroom, were the actions taken by Luther’s prince, Elector Frederick (the Wise). Not only did Frederick hide Luther at the Wartburg Castle in the wake of Luther's "stand" at Worms, but he made sure that the edict was not published in electoral Saxony, and thus the edict was without effect in the land where Luther lived. The failure to implement the edict in northern, German-speaking territories allowed the Reformation to become more entrenched than might otherwise have been the case. Luther owed much to his local prince. (BTW, the term “Protestant” originated later, in the wake of another diet, that of Speyer [1529], which tried to impose the conditions of Worms upon the estates that had accepted Luther’s reforms. Those estates considered the terms of Worms invalid since they had been passed “against God and his holy word” and were against “the salvation of all our souls and good conscience.”)  And nothing the emperor or the pope did, could put Western Christendom back together again. (Thankfully, ecumenical efforts toward reunification of the Western Church have been afoot for more than a century.)

Luther is not without blame here. In light of his own theology, his denial of conciliar authority presents, at best, an inconsistency. After all, Luther consistently accepted the dogmatic decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils. Luther's attacks on the papacy also seem extreme. (Melanchthon’s position on the Petrine office remains much more ecumenically promising, even if the dogmas of papal  primacy, universality, and infallibility, not to mention the papal promulgations of the recent Marian dogmas, complicate the ecumenical situation further.) A lot of what Luther wrote against the papacy and conciliar authority has to be subjected to sober criticism and viewed in the context of the heat of a most anti-ecumenical moment…. 

Luther’s excommunication and the Edict of Worms remain obstacles to the reunification of the Roman Church and the churches of the Augsburg Confession. If such a reunification remains an ecumenical goal, what are the next steps that need to be taken by both sides (the Roman Church and the LWF) to move closer toward that goal?