Studying Luther in Wittenberg 2019

In November, Prof. Theodor Dieter of the Strasbourg Institute along with Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Visiting Professor of the Institute currently based in Tokyo, taught the course Studying Luther in Wittenberg for the 11th year running. This means they have entered their second decade of teaching the class together!

As usual, the participants came from all over the world. Twenty-two pastors, bishops, theologians, and doctoral students arrived in Wittenberg from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ghana, Guyana, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Finland, Germany, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, and the United States. It was the first time the Seminar was able to include people from Iceland, Norway, and Thailand!

The special topic for this year was “temporal authority,” the term used by Luther to discuss political and governmental matters. The choice of topic, which was also covered back in 2014, reflected the unique timing of this seminar: it coincided with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Accordingly, the seminar paid a trip to Berlin on November 9th to see among other things the remains of the wall.

Thus, after covering the foundation of Luther’s theology in the first week with a review of early Reformation history, penance and repentance, the distinction between law and gospel, justification by faith, and the sacraments, in the second week we turned to Luther’s writings “On Temporal Authority,” “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved,” and “The War Against the Turk.”

However, recognizing the enormous historical changes since Luther’s time—such as the technological advent of nuclear weapons and advanced surveillance systems, and the development of political theories ranging from liberal democracy to totalitarianism—the last days of the seminar turned to questions of present-day application, including reflection on modern Lutherans who have addressed just these questions. Two such examples were the Norwegian bishop Eivind Berggrav, who was placed under house arrest by the Nazis during World War II, and bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania whose Bagamoyo Statement from the 1990s challenged government corruption. The seminar discussed the reports of participants about the sometimes very difficult conditions of their churches in Muslim or Hindu dominated countries like Indonesia and India. In addition, an introduction was given into the modern theory of the state with the concepts of sovereignty, legitimacy, separation of powers, human rights, fundamental rights, constitution. The difference between the view in the Reformation period that the order of the state was given by God and the modern view that it was produced by people and therefore particularly in need of justification was reflected in detail.

As always, we enjoyed a lively and engaging group of participants, who brought a wide range of questions and insights from their extremely diverse political situations, from advanced secularization to state persecution of Christian believers. The foundational theological reflection stemming from such texts as “The Freedom of a Christian” and the Large Catechism were further well matched by daily morning prayer in the Fronleichnamskapelle, Sunday worship at the City Church, a visit to local congregations during the week, and a concluding festive service with holy communion. In addition to these highlights were visits with representatives of the LWF, the ELCA, local leaders, and meals cooked by the participants themselves

As always, we are grateful to the Executive Director of the LWF Center, Pr. Inken Wöhlbrand, for her friendly cooperation and organization, as well as that of Pr. Joachim Zirkler, to whom we bid a fond farewell as he embarks upon retirement next year. We are also glad for the always-cheerful presence of Annette Glaubig and all the staff at the Colleg Wittenberg.

Profs. Dieter and Wilson will again teach the course in November 2020 on the topic “Creation, Sex, and Sanctification: Readings from Luther’s Genesis Commentary,” a relatively unknown but immensely rich set of lectures from the last ten years of the reformer’s life. For more information, visit

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