Professor John T. Pless’s Trip Report


Teaching Trip to Lutheran Theological Seminary, Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa: 23 February- 9 March 2013


First of all, I am thankful for those whose financial support made this trip possible.  I am grateful to Pastor Gerald Paul and the people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Great Falls, Montana for covering the cost of the airline ticket to South Africa. Without their generosity it would have not been possible for me to travel to LTS for this course. President Timothy Scharr and the Southern Illinois District covered the cost of thirty copies of Letters to Lutheran Pastors by Hermann Sasse which were used as a textbook for the class and distributed to other South African pastors and LTS students and faculty. Pastor Wade Johnston of Magdeburg Press donated ten copies of Then Fell the Lord’s Fire by Bo Giertz which was also used in the class. With funds from several additional individuals and congregations we were also able to purchase copies of Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray and Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilaender to use in the class.

Second, I deeply appreciate the hospitality of Dr. Carl and Deaconess Deborah Rockrohr at whose home I stayed for the first part of my visit. Likewise, I am grateful for the hospitality of Dr. and Mrs. Wilhelm Weber who took me in when the Rockrohrs had to leave Pretoria to be with their son, Ted, who had to undergo emergency surgery. The friendship of all these dear brothers and sisters in Christ is cherished and it certainly is a very positive benefit to my time in South Africa.

I taught an “ordination course” made up of advanced students and LCSA pastors who were able to be with us for all or portions of the course. A total of 16 men participated in the class which met for four hours each day. This course was designed as a “topics” course giving us flexibility to cover a variety of topics:

  • Luther’s understanding of the Catechism as a prayer book
  • The life and work of Bo Giertz
  • Women’s ordination in global perspective
  • The life and work of Hermann Sasse
  • Werner Elert on “Truth and Unity”
  • The life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Biomedical Ethics

The course provided an opportunity to give the students a theological sampler. Some of the most interesting discussion grew out of reading Sasse’s 1951, “Mary and the Pope” in Letters to Lutheran Pastors.  Sasse’s careful parsing out of the development of the Marian cult leading up to the papal declaration of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption in 1950, led to a lively and clarifying discussion of syncretism. Students were fascinated with Sasse’s insights into the way that Mary became a replacement for the female deities of antiquity in such a way that the Marian cult became “A pagan religion in Christian guise” (372). Rome’s assertion of the continuum between nature and grace in contrast to the Lutheran law/gospel approach leaves Rome open to a syncretistic approach to missions. This led to a very fruitful discussion of missions and so-called contextualization.

In the discussion, I posed the question to the African students, “Would it be an opportunity for Christian witness if in an African village in a time of famine or drought, a Lutheran pastor would join with a Roman Catholic priest, an African Independent Church minister, a Muslim cleric, an animist shaman, and an Anglican priest to each pray in his own way for rain or crops at a community prayer vigil?” The students quickly recognized this not as a witness for Christ but a confusion of competing belief systems. Perhaps American Lutherans could learn a few things about the danger of syncretism from our African brothers.

Readings from Sasse nicely flowed into a discussion of an essay by Werner Elert on “Truth and Unity.” We used this piece from Elert to get at issues of church fellowship which of necessity must be fellowship grounded in the truth of the Gospel and Sacraments in the way of Augsburg Confession, Article VII.  The ordination of women into the pastoral office destroys church fellowship. Here the essay by Bo Giertz, “To Believe as the Apostles” led us into a careful study of I Corinthians 14:33-38 and I Timothy 2:11-15. We were able to resource African students for issues that they are even now facing in their own context from the ever-present Lutheran World Federation. The study of these topics might also serve as a catalyst for graduate work. This is already the case with Frank Prince Kaine who is working on a Master’s thesis at the University of Pretoria on “the place of women in the Lutheran Church in Africa.” Perhaps a PhD candidate from Africa might work with the implications of Sasse’s theology for African Lutheranism. This could be a promising topic especially given the influence of F. W. Hopf , Sasse’s friend, on Lutheran missions in South Africa.

With a donation from Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Illinois, I was able to take another batch of books for the growing library at LTS. This time the following volumes were added to the collection:

  • Corzine, Jacob and Wolfmueller, Bryan. Theology is Eminently Practical
  • Giertz, Bo. Then Fell the Lord’s Fire: Ordination Sermons and Essays on Pastoral Theology

And Practice

  • Keener, Craig. Miracles (2 Volume Set)
  • Mextaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, and Spy
  • Sasse, Hermann. Letters to Lutheran Pastors- Volume I
  • Schuchard, Bruce. Concordia Commentary on I-III John
  • Strark’s Prayer Book
  • Vatja, Vilmos. Luther on Worship: An Introduction
  • Walther, C. F. W. Church and the Office of the Ministry

On my last trip, also with funds from Bethany Lutheran Church, we able to complete the library’s collection of Luther, Gerhard, Bonhoeffer, and the catechetical works of Albrecht Peters in English. These books along with the above-mentioned titles are now being processed for the library by our new German volunteer, Tobias Schmidt-Dahl.

The building which houses the library is nearly out of space for additional books. In discussion with Dr. Weber, he suggested that an expansion of the building could be completed for $20, 000. This could be a good project for an American donor. I am suggesting it to the Saint Philip Lutheran Mission Society for consideration.

On this trip as on others, I had the opportunity to consult with LTS students who are working on Master’s theses at the University of Pretoria. This time, it was Eric Macben, a student from Uganda who is preparing a thesis proposal on “Freedom in the Letter to the Galatians.” Eric’s advisor is an advocate of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” so we had an opportunity to work through some of those issues and I provided him with a bibliography to balance what he is receiving at the University . We will also add the Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics and similar titles to the LTS library next trip as the New Perspective appears to be very popular among the Reformed biblical scholars at the University of Pretoria.

There are two LCSA pastors who whose blessing to the church and seminary would be enhanced if they had the opportunity for doctoral work at Concordia Theological Seminary: Rev. Nathan Mntambo and Rev. M. John Nkambule.

In addition to teaching, I preached three times while in South Africa. On  both Wednesdays, I preached for the Confessional Service at the seminary’s Chapel of Saint Timothy. On Sunday, March 3, I preached for the Divine Service at the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Arcadia which meets on the seminary campus. About 150 people were present for the Service of this growing congregation. Included in the congregation are several American families whose work brings them to Pretoria. Rev. Nathan Mntamco of the seminary faculty also serves as the called pastor of the congregation. After the Service I enjoyed a braai at the home of Mike and Cindy Rodewald .  Dr. Rodewald serves as the Area Director of LCMS work in Africa. I appreciate his welcoming me to South Africa and the encouragement which he gives to those who serve here.

On my last evening in Pretoria, I hosted a braai for the students in the course. It is good to have social occasions like this for the students enabling me to get to know them better outside the classroom setting.

Dr. Weber presented me copies with the Setswana translation of the Book of Concord for the CTS library, for Dr. Rast and Dr. Schulz. Published with the assistance of the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, the influence of the Lutheran Confessions in the Setswana language could be far-reaching. The book will be unveiled at a convocation in Pretoria on April 26 and its appearance marks a very significant milestone in the life of the LCSA.  The revised edition of the Setswana hymnal is also now in print. The revised hymnal includes updated hymn texts, new hymns, as well as Luther’s Small Catechism.

While LTS faces many challenges, it remains a very crucial part of a strong, confessional Lutheran witness not only in South Africa but over the whole of Africa. It is worthy of ongoing support by the LCMS and by individuals and congregations in the USA. I am very pleased with the progress that the Saint Philip Lutheran Mission Society headed up by Pastor Jesse Burns is making in developing further financial support. I am honored to have a small part in the work at LTS and I’m willing to make periodic trips to teach there as long as Dr. Weber finds this helpful and funding can be secured.

God willing it, I will return to South Africa in November over our Thanksgiving Break (November 16-29) to teach another short course and speak for the LCSA General Pastoral Conference.

Prof. John T. Pless

3. 10. 2013


About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
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