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date: 29 January 2020

Martin Luther and the Rise of World Christianities

Summary and Keywords

Scholars use the concept of World Christianity both to account for the growth of Christianity beyond Western Christendom and to recognize the changing map of vitality and leadership within Christian churches beyond the European and North American context. Scholars who use this concept have also committed to documenting the history of all of the churches around the world, making special efforts thereby not only to note the contributions of founders and missionary agencies, but also to investigate the important input of local teachers, evangelists, and pastors, so that a more inclusive history may be made available to these faith communities for their own self-understanding and direction. The spread of Christianity beyond the borders of Europe, a subject once envisioned by Kenneth Latourette as the result of the great century of missionary advance, cannot be understood solely as the accomplishment of the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries sent from western Europe and North America. Through all the centuries of Christian expansion and migration, scholars need to document and explain not only the theological foundations of various faith traditions, but also how multiple Christianities have adapted and thrived and become rooted in multiple cultural contexts, and exhibit a special vibrancy today in the postcolonial, post-missionary churches in Africa and Asia. Luther’s influence on the rise of World Christianities is an important element in the vitality of contemporary churches in Africa and Asia, but his theological contribution to Christianity beyond the West awaits a fuller articulation and application to the questions and concerns of these emerging centers of Christianity.

Keywords: Martin Luther, World Christianity, Lutheranism, Pietism, Philip Jacob Spener, Halle, Africa, Lutheran World Federation, osiah Kibira, Anders Nygren

In light of the important framework that the concept of World Christianity gives investigators, the figure of Martin Luther, a 16th-century reformer, may not immediately seem to be of importance to the task of understanding the growth and emergence of churches outside the sphere of western European Christianity, even if these churches can trace their origins to Lutheran missions. Many centuries now separate modern Lutheran faith communities outside of the Western context from the concerns of the early modern period that beset the Reformer. Not only time but also geography constricts Luther’s influence, since he as a man of his time focused his writings almost exclusively on Germany’s challenging political and religious context. Luther made only one trip out of Germany, to Rome, and otherwise his travel was limited to short trips away from his home, as his most recent American biographer, Scott Hendrix, is careful to note in introducing his subject as a typical man of his time.1

The very fact that Luther trained his considerable intellect and verve on restoring the spiritual health of his own church, university, and neighborhood, however, is in fact the reason that his work has continued to be an important source of church renewal. All of his analytical insight and creative interpretation of the religious needs of ordinary people defined a religious solution to the anxieties of a whole population experiencing the changes brought about by technological and economic revolution. Ordinary Christians needed new answers to their questions about their destiny, because the existing answers given by the church no longer addressed their changing needs. Luther’s attention to the particular place and concerns of believers pushed him to make scripture available to them in their own mother tongue, so that in reading and hearing the promises of God directly, believers could gain confidence that God also heard the prayers of everyone. The ordinary Christian was not a spiritual vassal but a responsible person in the eyes of God, who could receive the gifts and promises of God through the gift of faith.

Making God speak German was Luther’s breakthrough, and unlike the earlier champions of the vernacular Bible, Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, he survived to accomplish it. Martin Luther did not live to see how his work and example spread the faith powerfully to new people and places. Nor did he envision the translation of the Bible into the German vernacular, the language of the home, as an indigenization process. Such interpretive use of Luther’s logistical Reformation is the insight of modern scholars aware of the power of language to expand and convey a new idea with familiar terms, bringing the gospel message into a fruitful relationship with a new culture. The insight that a language bears much more than a message can be illustrated very simply by restating the Latinate terms “consolation,” “conversation,” and “commitment” in the more dynamic Anglo-Saxon terms “caring,” “sharing,” and “daring.” They are not exact analogues, but they show in a very brief way that the capacities of each language open up new possibilities. Lamin Sanneh, a pioneer interpreter of World Christianity, used the example of Luther’s translation of the Bible into German to remark not only on his discovery thereby of new theological possibilities, but also on the effect of translation and vernacular literacy as a factor that invigorated German culture, hymns, literature, and education. Applied to the translation and recording in literate form of the many African languages, the model of Luther demonstrated the inadvertent but remarkable cultural development that followed the missionary work to translate the Bible.2 The rise of World Christianities through translation was a cultural as well as a religious reformation.

The work of translation to make the gospel heard by people in their own language is a powerful tool for mission and Christian expansion. Ironically, since mission work among non-Christians was not Luther’s intent, his translation of the Scriptures into what became the standard literary German language was a prototype for the spread of the Christian faith that has taken hold with such power in Africa, and especially in Asia. The specific questions that are then asked by Christians of the biblical texts are questions that come out of their own context. The missiologist Andrew Walls asks Western Christians to understand that it has been the history of Christianity to thrive on the periphery—that new centers of vitality emerge where the challenges facing developing cultures find an answer in the Christian faith.3 The course of Christian history thus mapped out helps us see that the Reformation in 16th-century Germany (and in Scandinavia) became for Lutherans a powerful process of indigenization of their churches and theology, and a spur to creative growth and development. Martin Luther’s intense engagement with answering the questions that pressed on him as his reformation took hold are themselves worth careful study, for they show how he used scripture to new purposes, how he refashioned the understanding of the social order, how governments needed to change, and how law and political power could be addressed by Christians.4 These are all relevant questions today.

The actual content of Martin Luther’s theology, his extensive commentaries, controversialist texts, lectures, and exegetical works, has remained mostly out of reach for Christians in Africa or Asia who do not read German or English, so any engagement with Luther’s theology has primarily occurred among students and pastors who have been privileged to do advanced study and can read Luther in German or English translation. For ordinary Christians, exposure to Luther’s insights has come indirectly though his catechism and his hymns, which missionaries and catechists used from the very beginning of their work in the many areas of the world where European colonial governments made provision for Lutheran churches and mission societies to found schools and preaching stations.

Pietist Missionary Efforts

As early as 1706, a distinctly Lutheran missionary venture began through the cooperation of the Danish king Frederick IV and the Pietist institution in Halle, Germany, founded in 1703 under the directorship of August Hermann Francke. The Halle Institution advanced a Pietist reformation that was implemented through a new educational enterprise that attracted many students from all classes of Prussian society. The Danish East Indies Company had responsibility for providing chaplains to Danish personnel in India, but Frederick IV was convinced that his responsibility also extended to the “heathen” who lived in the territory supervised by the company. Danish clergy did not respond to such requests, but the Halle Institution did, and so the students Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau were sent as missionaries to the region around Tranquebar, on the southeastern coast of India. The Halle Institution also supported the expansion of missionary interest in the churches by consistently supplying educated and adaptable candidates in response to requests from the Anglican Church Missionary Society. Missionary Ziegenbalg translated the New Testament, but he also studied sacred Hindu texts and translated them into German; these were published by the Halle printing press, another of its innovative industries. The cross-cultural orientation of Ziegenbalg represented the progressive and investigative genius of the Halle educational enterprise rather than a strictly Lutheran theological impulse. Similarly, Moravian missions, an outgrowth from Lutheran roots, planted churches that reflected the Pietist ambitions of their day rather than a distinctly Lutheran theological engagement with new worlds and peoples.

Pietism, a renewal movement within the Continental Lutheran and Reformed churches, took shape as an effort to improve the Christian life of communities and youth by drawing on Luther’s reform, particularly on the concept of the spiritual priesthood, or the priesthood of all believers, which Philip Jakob Spener, in his small publication Pia Desideria (1675), used to advocate a much more intense devotional and active spiritual life among ordinary believers. Spener’s followers and admirers advanced their program through newly founded educational institutions like Halle, and through widely circulated publications. Newly devout groups created their own networks, defied traditional authorities, and identified many popular Pietist leaders with different and sometimes incommensurate goals, which together achieved considerable success in diversifying and confusing their followers as well as modern historians, who struggle to define the movement of Pietism to this day. Hartmut Lehmann’s extensive work into the long trajectory of Pietism as both a Continental movement and a vehicle for cross-cultural interaction has made the range of research on Pietism’s role in modernity available to English readers, showing how the locally focused devotional Pietism of Spener became a movement with a much wider horizon, and inspired young candidates like Ziegenbalg and Plutschau who went to India.5 These Pietist missionaries, Lutherans to be sure, advanced the faith as a modern experiment in piety which freely explored possibilities for new spiritual conquests among foreign peoples. Seeking influences from Luther in their writings, however, can be a fruitless exercise, as popular access even in Germany at that time was limited. Devotional study rather than scholarly investigation was the seedbed of the new Pietist insight, and the primary text for understanding Lutheran teaching on salvation was Johann Arndt’s True Christianity, an exacting exploration of the power of original sin and the relief of grace through faith. Arndt had himself been challenged to demonstrate his orthodoxy, and in his second edition he did so by explicitly naming Luther’s two Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles as the framework for understanding true piety. The popularity of this devotional text, which next to the Bible and hymnbook was the most popular book in many an ordinary person’s home, perhaps made Luther’s theology better known in a wider circle than the clergy, and in this way Luther’s theology infiltrated the popular mind through devotional reading.6

Pietism’s friendly attitude toward other devotional reform efforts, such as Puritanism, brought exposure to English devotional materials. From this cross-cultural experience new methods, songs, and literature infused an activist strain into Lutheran church life. As the evangelical revival continued, in a new Pietist awakening in the 19th century in Germany, Scandinavia, and North America, missionary societies emerged where Pietism had once established centers. While the older prohibitions on private devotional meetings, or conventicles, had driven pious dissent underground, mission society meetings, as new ventures, gained approval from the clerical establishment and pushed the churches themselves to promote missionary work. In Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, the creation of multiple missionary societies signaled widespread interest as well as conflicts over methods, theological warrants, and biblical interpretation. The first Lutheran missionary to China, Karl Gutzlaff, received financial support from both Swedish Moravian societies and the Swedish Missionary Society during the 1850s, leading to consternation in Swedish church circles over the perception that their own theological approach to mission had not been honored by this missionary.7

From Mission to Church

The mission debate in Sweden reflected a much larger discussion about the nature of the church which occurred within the several mission societies in Germany and across Scandinavia as a reaction to voluntary initiatives, free-church ideals, biblical interpretation, and the use of lay people in mission work. Thus the kinds of missions planted in Africa and in Asia through these efforts led to a critical theological examination of the missionary movement, and that study itself brought an opportunity to ask whether Luther’s influence led to missionary work. The 19th-century cross-cultural missionary enterprise affected the self-understanding of Lutheran churches, and in that context of reimagining the mission of the church, Luther became a subject of renewed interest on the part of European churches.

While theological faculties argued with mission societies, their studies and discussions did not keep up with the flood of Lutheran churches in Europe and increasingly in North America as well who sent envoys to look for places that they could “enter” and actually claim as their own mission fields. Even new immigrant Lutheran churches in the United States, soon after their founding, began to support missionary work by sending out their own missionaries.8 Thus, the many mission societies in Germany and Scandinavia were joined by a similar multiplicity of sending churches in North America, which sometimes cooperated with European societies but increasingly sought to establish their own distinct missionary work. American Lutherans respected the work of European Lutheran societies, but they also had become more attuned to the American approach to missions and sought to infuse that spirit into Lutheran missionary work in foreign lands. Within Germany, at least, further explorations of Luther’s own writings, and translations of his works and the confessional texts, were thus prompted as a response to the enthusiasm and the perceived success of the Anglo-American missionary movement, and particularly a suspicion that it was too comfortable with activist forms of Christianity.

Differences between English and American approaches to mission and those that came from Continental societies emerged starkly at missionary conferences, where the urgency of American efforts contrasted with the thoroughness of German work. Lutheran missionaries would be thorough. Lutheran missionaries concentrated on the importance of in-depth catechization, extensive theological education of ministers and evangelists, and patience in the cultivation of a deep-rooted piety within congregations. Anglo-American approaches to mission were more practically oriented, setting up schools and clinics first, and placing the preaching and catechetical work alongside work of organizing. These separate approaches to mission are exaggerated here, but it did seem to one German theologian that the urgent “watchword” of the American-based Student Volunteer Movement could be perceived as bent on spreading the English language around the world, rather than the gospel. A famous German theologian of mission at Halle, Gustav Warneck, spoke stern words to an international conference on mission in 1897, almost huffing at the hurry and scurry of missionaries from the Anglo-Saxon world: “Christ said we should ‘go’ into all the world, not fly, tend gardens not build hothouses, and our Lord did not command any to ‘Go ye into the world and teach English to all nations’.”9

By the end of the 19th century, the increasing complexity of missionary encounters on the ground, the multiplication of methods and approaches, and the resulting conflicts had the happy result for missiologists that mission studies could be promoted as a separate academic field within the theological faculties of the universities of Europe and North America. At this point it becomes possible to identify attempts to describe and define the uniquely Lutheran theological approach to mission work, as a response both to the experience of missionaries and to the necessary task of explaining to university faculties and boards why the new field had to be supported. The German mission scholar Julius Richter became an important interpreter of Lutheran missionary theory, and a compiler of the history of German and Lutheran missions and methods; he was an important voice for the small numbers of Lutherans at the famous Edinburgh Conference on World Missions in 1910.

Brian Stanley’s important history of the Edinburgh conference makes clear that the English and American approach to mission study and practice was ascendant at that conference, and also that the diversity present there was remarkable for its time. It made a more prominent impression on viewers through the skillful moderating by John R. Mott, but the small numbers of actual representatives from the missionary churches in India, Japan, and China were mostly supplied through selecting theological students as delegates who were already studying in European universities, and the conference made African American mission society delegates stand in for Africans, giving only a small sense of the potential worldwide expansion of Christianity. Heady stuff, but hardly a substantial or significant theological exploration, nor any satisfactory counterpoint to the activist model of Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon organizers.10

The Edinburgh conference formed a continuation committee to investigate the way that mission societies and the churches could together address the challenges involved in the spread of Christianity around the globe, and this institutional move was widely viewed as having launched the ecumenical movement. The history of the ecumenical movement provides a fruitful place for researchers to examine the ways that these structures for consultation and cooperation served to educate and involve many missionaries and their protégés in the younger churches in Africa and Asia. Conferences and ecumenical gatherings were incapable of solving all of the problems they sought to address, but they did foster ways to educate, to assemble, to communicate, and to inspire missionaries and increasing numbers of students and emerging leaders, who embarked on planning and increasing the capacity of their own churches and people to respond to their own challenges. That these conferences and gatherings happened under Lutheran auspices, attended by missionaries wearing the Lutheran label, became what Lutheranism meant for many believers in what were then called the “younger” churches. Lutheran conferences were places to learn how to become self-sufficient, to strengthen church work, and to increase evangelical effectiveness. In Lutheran mission strategies, capacity building was an important element in their evangelical work. Differences in confessional orientation or biblical interpretation divided Lutherans, but educational structures, diaconal involvement, and organizational approaches were similar.

The crucial test of missionaries and mission boards, and of the emerging local churches, was the training and ordination of African or Asian candidates for ministry, the development of an indigenous leadership for the churches. The painstakingly slow approach of some of the Continental mission societies meant that indigenous pastors did not begin to serve parishes until German missionaries were forced to leave during World War I. The transition to indigenous leadership was a multilayered emergence of the necessary “Africanness” of the church, which began to be voiced by missionaries and by local leaders at conferences already in the 1920s. Dietrich Westermann, a professor at Berlin with long missionary experience in Togo, West Africa, said it this way at a conference in Le Zoute, Belgium in 1926: “African community life is for us the mother soil into which the divine seed is to be sown and out of which a Christian society will grow.”11 The conference gathered 220 participants with experience from all corners of the African continent, but only five of them were blacks, and only a very few women attended.

While conferences provided an important venue for the academic discussion of missionary methods, they also provided, at least in theory, the structure through which a particularly Lutheran approach to missions could be articulated and explored in some depth with an audience of both Western Christians and Christians in Africa and in Asia. Luther’s influence on the rise of World Christianities in these contexts could be explored, when prompted by questions of practice and methodology in teaching and ministry. Lutheran churches in India had been established before the formation of the African missions, but the dominance of missionary leadership there also seemed to stifle the development and maturing of a fully Lutheran and Indian identity. The Lutheran theologian J. Paul Rajashekar writes that the context of religious plurality and the many “Christianities” in Asia makes “the question of denominational or theological identity not always clear or crucial.” A Lutheran identity in Asia thus can mean little more than a “historical or denominational label, and this will not imply any particular theological conviction.”12 The survival of churches in some parts of Asia has been the more crucial question, particularly in China, where missionaries were forced to leave, churches shuttered, and Christian communities forced underground. The reemergence of Chinese Christianity today and its rapid growth have been a surprise to observers in the West, but a strong testimony to the way that Chinese Christians have made the faith their own in the midst of struggle.

Independence and Partnership in International Lutheranism

Facing the world after World War II, Lutheran churches that before the war had participated in the Lutheran World Convention recognized that a stronger federation was necessary. German, Scandinavian, and American church leaders convened to grapple with the challenge of reconciliation among themselves, as they recognized the catastrophe of the Holocaust, the nuclear bombing of the Christian city of Nagasaki, and the refugee crisis in a war-torn world plunged into a cold war. The Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, issued on the part of pastors and churches in southwestern Germany, paved the way for the Lutheran churches to gather in 1947 in Lund, Sweden, to form the Lutheran World Federation.13

The Lutheran World Federation was formed against the resistance of leaders of Continental and Scandinavian churches who argued that a broader ecumenical council of the Christian churches would be a stronger instrument for and witness to peace. American church leaders, especially Abdel Ross Wentz, who chaired the work of drafting a constitution for the Lutheran federation and also served on the committee doing the same for the World Council of Churches, actively argued and forcefully lobbied for a federation of Lutherans that would, on a Lutheran confessional basis, participate in the formation of the World Council of Churches. American and Canadian Lutherans faced the challenge of a broad national Protestant diversity that would not allow a robust Lutheran witness within a World Council composed of a mixed delegation. The national churches in Scandinavia would automatically be Lutheran; in the North American context, they would only rarely include Lutherans. Another important reason for promoting a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) founded on a confessional basis was the hope that the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod might become a partner in international Lutheran work and witness.14 Confessional subscription to the Augsburg Confession today unites the churches of the Lutheran World Federation, a Communion of Churches, but the more extensive subscription to the whole Book of Concord, together with the additional requirement of assent to a statement on biblical inerrancy, separates Lutheran churches in the LWF Communion from the International Lutheran Churches network that has been established among churches that are in fellowship with the United States-based Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

The formation of the LWF has made possible extensive collaboration among the Lutheran churches in the world, and has given attention and support to the Lutheran churches in Africa and in Asia, as well as providing the structure and institutions through which a more representative global Lutheran identity can be fashioned. At the first meeting of the federation, Martin Luther’s unifying role was invoked through the adoption of a banner, a theme, for the work of the LWF. Anders Nygren, bishop of Lund, Sweden, and a theologian who had been an important voice for the Luther renaissance in his university, introduced the theme “Forward to Luther!” as a way to unite the Lutheran churches of the world. Study of Luther would unite the Lutheran churches and better inform their own confessional identity, thus also providing a more concerted witness for the Lutheran churches who joined the World Council of Churches established in 1948. These international channels for the churches became especially important as churches became independent of their missionary sponsors, anticipating the national independence that occurred throughout the world as the colonial establishments were dismantled. Within the context of the LWF, the independent member churches around the world faced the task of decolonializing the theological discourse, leadership ideals, liturgical practices, and diaconal work of the churches. This has at times put into reckoning the theological ideas inherited from Martin Luther. His conception of the Two Realms, or Two Kingdoms, for instance, was used by white South African Lutherans to excuse practices of apartheid as part of “that which does not touch the gospel”—excused as part of the secular realm beyond their control.15

Lutheranism in African and Asian voices

The first All-Africa Lutheran Conference took place in 1955 in Marangu, Tanzania. A number of important discussions were recorded in the official record of the meeting, but stories from that gathering still told today reveal also that Africans themselves found the conference to be a stimulating moment, when new initiatives were taken, when independence spilled over the boundaries of established missionary procedure. One of the principal speakers at that conference was a professor from Uppsala, Sweden, Bengt Sundkler, who had served as a missionary in South Africa with the Zulu people in the 1940s and who had also come to Tanzania during that time to fill in for the German missionaries who had to leave the country during the war, since they were serving in a British colony. In the 1950s, as the churches as well as the colony were preparing for independence, Sundkler knew he was a foreigner, but he was a friend. His talk addressed the important transitions that the African churches were experiencing as they were now challenged to be in their communities as independent, African churches. He provided an image of the nature of the church, and drew from the experience of the people of Israel on their exodus journey. The church, as Luther described it, must preach both Law and Gospel; it was both an ark and a tent, an altar/ark as a place of security and sanctuary, and a tent/pulpit that must also speak and be at home out in the culture, a part of the environment and not separate from the world. The discussion after the presentation brought many comments, specifically about how the church as a tent should incorporate African hymns, worship, rhythm and movement, into the Lutheran church experience. Older translated hymns brought by the missionaries, including of course Luther’s hymns, were not enough for African Christians.

At the communion service held during the Marangu conference, after all had communed, another incident long remembered from the conference still circulates in oral history. The participants from South Africa came forward to ask the presiding ministers from Tanzania if Lutherans always communed together this way, since at home in South Africa communion was given to white worshippers first, and only after they were finished were the black worshippers asked to come forward.16 Learning that Lutherans in other parts of Africa were not segregating their worship moved many hearts and minds to change their churches at home.

The meeting also brought changes for Tanzanian church leadership when young students responded to the challenge issued by the Wa Chagga chief, Thomas Marealle II, who asked the official Lutheran leaders gathered there why it was that the Lutherans in Tanzania did not have bishops. Was it because they did not think that the Tanzanian churches were mature enough for that step? So it was that at the next election of the leader for the Bukoba district, normally an uncontested renewal of the term for their superintendent, became an upset. These students unexpectedly voted for Bengt Sundkler, with whom they had communicated in the meantime. When Sundkler surprised the mission authorities and accepted the offer to come in 1960, he was installed as a bishop according to the Church of Sweden rite, but with the understanding that he would serve only a short while, meanwhile working to prepare the first Tanzanian to become a bishop for that church. Josiah Kibira had been a confirmation student when Sundkler was first a missionary in Bukoba, and Sundkler knew how talented he was and helped him study at Boston University. Sundkler’s strong insistence that Kibira, after two years of study, should not continue with a doctoral degree but instead return to his home church, shows the strong hand that Sundkler wielded in this transitional time. Kibira was also placed through Sundkler’s guidance on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, which helped to groom him for a bishop’s ecumenical responsibilities. When Sundkler agreed to serve another term as bishop in 1963 he requested Kibira as his assistant, and a few months later he returned to Sweden, his assistant obviously ready for the job. Josiah Kibira then became the Lutheran bishop in Bukoba in 1964. In 1977, when the Lutheran World Federation met in Dar es Salaam, Kibira was elected president. In his work as a church leader and ecumenist, Kibira was a solid Lutheran. He forcefully argued that Lutherans needed to make their own theology clear, just as other traditions too must raise their voices. Lutherans do not have the whole truth, but they have their confidence in the key teaching on justification.17

Strong prophetic voices from the churches in the global South were an important part of the developing self-identity of the LWF throughout the tumultuous years of the 1970s and 1980s, when dramatic social and cultural changes brought women’s ordination, the language of civil and human rights, and the political divisions of the cold war into the discourse of the worldwide Lutheran churches. The first meeting of the LWF outside of Europe or North America occurred in 1977 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Evangelization of the churches, Lutheran participation in the ecumenical movement, and the deepening crisis due to worldwide conflict and worsening racial relations were the challenging themes presented to the assembly. To emphasize the inherent way that Lutheran theology supported ecumenical opportunities before the churches, the assembly reflected on Martin Luther’s words on the marks of the church: “Where Christ is, there is the church. Wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, a Christian holy people must be there.”18 In the reports published for Lutherans around the world, English increasingly had become the language understood by most of the church members, and Luther had to be understood in English in order for his message to have any impact.

Missionary efforts by Lutheran churches who are not LWF members have also been important for the promotion of a Lutheran witness in Asia and in Africa. Translation of basic Lutheran teaching texts, the catechism and the Book of Concord have been important instruments to extend Luther’s influence. The work of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod’s Lutheran Heritage Foundation, which has produced 2,000 copies of the Book of Concord in the Swahili language, continues to provide African and Asian churches with these basic confessional texts. The Lutheran Heritage Foundation has received funding from both the LCMS and private donors for new translations and publication of Luther’s catechism into seventy-five languages. Luther’s hymns have also been important ways that Luther’s name has remained present in the worship and praise of congregations.19

Translating Luther

To make Luther better known in the English-speaking world, the American edition of Luther’s Works was created, and the series of fifty-five volumes began to appear in the late 1950s. The LCMS Concordia Publishing House and the United Lutheran Church’s Fortress Press, supported by the National Lutheran Council, collaborated in the effort. The first of its thirty volumes of exegetical writings was issued in 1958 by Concordia, and in 1957 Fortress published volume 31, first in the twenty-five volumes of Luther’s theological and controversial writings. The entire series took nearly twenty years to produce.20 The availability of Luther’s texts in English has made it possible for a much larger number of students and pastors to read Luther’s own theological writings.

The translation of Luther’s works is only a start, and the uses that the churches in Asia and in Africa have made of Luther’s writings reflect the distinct challenges that the churches face. In Africa the issues of cultural identity come to the fore, while in Asia Lutheran churches encounter other religions, and for all of these churches the legacy of colonialism has affected the way that the Lutheran theological tradition will be received.21 Luther’s writings will be useful in Africa to help to adjudicate the role of the church within a context where governments and economies are under great stress and frequently unable to protect or provide security.

For Lutheran churches in Asia, the encounter with other religious traditions will draw on other writings. At a 1986 seminar sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation, the theme of “Religious Pluralism and Lutheran Theology” identified Lutheran principles and paradigms useful for approaching religious pluralism. An affirmation emerged “with Luther” that God is active in all realms of the creation, including religions, must also be joined to a recognition of God’s ways of acting through law and gospel, or God’s work in judgment and grace.22 Seminar participants included professors from Germany, Norway, South Africa, Sumatra, South Africa, the United States, Japan, Denmark, and Finland, and as is typical of such reports, a discussion paper prepared by a theologian was circulated ahead of time. Carl Braaten, son of missionaries in Madagascar, and professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, was not at that conference, but his strongly confessional orientation to the topic was evident already in the reversal of the conference title that he used for his own article. For him, Lutheran theology came first, and he proposed that the main principles of the Lutheran confession apply to a theology of the religions; he noted law and gospel, justification, the three solassola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus—and fideas ex auditu, classic slogans that “stake out the Lutheran position to be worked out within the framework of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.” Braaten noted further that using the slogans in dialogue was not necessary, but “we cannot help but have them in the back of our minds as historically self-conscious heirs of a confessional tradition.”23

Probably the most powerful way that Luther’s impact on the Lutheran churches has been advanced has been through the sponsorship of study and travel both for students and for pastors. The Lutheran Center in Wittenberg, Germany, has since 2000 sponsored special seminars that provide scholarships enabling pastors from Lutheran churches in Africa and Asia to attend alongside participants from Europe and North America. At the seminars Luther’s theology is studied, and excursions to nearby Luther sites provide an immersion in the Reformation heritage. More intense study of Luther’s writings has been possible for more advanced students at the Ecumenical Institute for Confessional Research in Strasbourg, France, who attend summer seminars at the institute and participate in close readings of Luther texts. Key texts that have been used, and eagerly discussed, include the 95 Theses, The Freedom of a Christian, Two Kinds of Righteousness, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and the basic texts in the Book of Concord. These selected texts allow for a strong focus on Christian living and provide for active engagement of contemporary issues of church and state. As the translation of Luther’s writings is still ongoing, these scholars from the global South also are introduced to texts that have not yet circulated so widely in the English-speaking world, including very early writings of Luther, such as his Theses on the Remission of Sins (1518).

The growth of Lutheran churches in Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Tanzania, as well as in parts of Asia, cannot be understood apart from the emergence of spiritual, charismatic movements, especially among young adults. The Pentecostal dimensions of these awakenings bring a new ecumenical horizon to the churches, and for this reason the urgency of providing access to the Lutheran theological heritage in all the languages used by Lutherans is manifest. While the Pietist introduction of aspects of the Lutheran heritage through the missionary movement brought the institutional shape of Lutheran churches to Africa and Asia, the influence of Luther in these churches may exist only as a memory. Historical foundations and ongoing partnerships have, however, established the institutional relationships and networks that have been of tremendous consequence for the churches that are part of the Lutheran World Federation today. The collective memory of Lutheran churches retains a strong place for Martin Luther in the memory and reverence of believers who call themselves Lutheran, and creative possibilities exist for collaborative exploration that can expand on what Luther means today for Christians who live in places with very different worldviews and challenges. The potential for a stronger scholarly and popular engagement in these churches is real and even demonstrable, and such engagement exhibits the enlivening power of Luther’s theology for believers.

Areas of Future Research

Within the Lutheran World Federation’s Office for Theology and Public Witness, Luther studies have been strengthened primarily in response to the theological and cultural disagreements that have arisen in recent years after some member churches in Europe and North America eliminated restrictions on ordination based on sexual orientation. To address what had certainly become a contentious issue, the program on Lutheran Hermeneutics emerged; it represents an important investment in theological education and capacity building for Lutherans around the world. Directed by Kenneth Mtata, the program seeks to “strengthen the capacity of member churches to understand the word of God that comes to us through Scripture and the Lutheran theological heritage that looks to renew church and society.”24 Results from several consultations on reading scripture with Lutheran lenses in light of contemporary challenges are being analyzed and compiled by the department and will be published for the use of researchers through the LWF.

The study of World Christianity today assesses the growth of the Christian faith among communities in the global South, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and recognizes that the dynamic energy in these churches and peoples comes from their intense engagement with the challenges of their own places and cultures. Christianity has grown rapidly as indigenous leadership emerged, gaining new members especially in the time after the missionary and colonial institutions have left the scene. Many churches in Africa, India, China, Japan, and Malaysia trace their founding to missionary societies, or the mission work of national churches in Europe or of denominations in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, but these churches are no longer dependent on or defined by their origins. Rather, they are ready on their own terms to examine the theological heritage that has been shared with them, and to engage their fellow Lutherans and fellow Christians in a dialogue about the meaning of a Lutheran identity in the 21st century. The Lutheran World Federation will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Windhoek, Namibia. Reformation and renewal for the Lutheran heritage will start from one of its new, vital centers.

Review of the Literature

The rise of World Christianity and the Lutheran dimensions of it form a newer topic for scholars of Lutheranism. Theological foundations for the missionary movement that may be detected in the Reformation as a movement, or an established church order, have however been the subject of intense investigation and some conjecture, especially during the heyday of the missionary movement. The early 20th century literature about the missionary movement has thus received attention from Lutherans intent on showing a positive correlation between the missionary movement and Lutheran theological principles, and these discussions surface particularly in the response of German and Scandinavian Lutheran missiologists to the wider, evangelical and Anglo-American approaches to mission. William R. Hutchison’s Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Mission (1987) shows how the missiological debate between Continental Lutheranism and the American and English missionary movement revealed the profound tensions between German and Anglo-American approaches to their role in the world that would soon erupt in a world war.

A useful guide to the more detailed developments in continental Lutheran theology about mission can be found in David J. Bosch’s Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (1999). Bosch gives sustained attention to the impact of Pietism on Lutheranism, and also discusses the way that the missionary movement challenged Protestant churches in particular to examine their ecclesiological foundations. Defining the church’s mission led to a clearer understanding of the essential features of the church present also in the “daughter” churches in former colonial territories.

American Lutheranism derived its understanding of mission theology from the debates that circulated within German and Scandinavian university faculties, but the American context introduced the more activist elements of the missionary movement to the maturing immigrant churches. An example of the way that American Lutherans developed a missionary mindset can be seen in S. Hjalmar Swanson’s Foundation for Tomorrow: A Century of Progress in Augustana World Missions (1960). James Scherer, in Gospel, Church, and Kingdom: Comparative Studies in World Mission Theology (1987), charts the evolving theology of missions in the several churches involved in the ecumenical movement. The reflection by American Lutherans in these years represented a culmination of the results of fruitful ecumenical dialogue with Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, Moravian, Methodist, Reformed, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches, made possible through theological research on an international level and a growing optimism in the pews about the potential for unity.

The process of merger within the American Lutheran context during 1960–1988, together with the development and maturing of the Lutheran World Federation as a confessional communion of churches, created the structure for the partnership among the international Lutheran churches that exists today, and that has fostered the connections among Lutherans around the world that makes possible a retrieval, on an international level, of a new consciousness of Luther’s importance for the churches in the 21st century. The volume edited by Hjelm, Kumari, and Schjorring, From Federation to Communion: The History of the Lutheran World Federation (1987), tells the story of the ecclesiological development of the Federation from a loose cooperative association to a more concerted communion of churches. Differences within the LWF that test its fellowship have been the subject of a series of conferences under the auspices of the Department of Theology, directed by Kenneth Mtata. One can find reports online from these studies in Lutheran hermeneutics.

Further Reading

Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. New York: Orbis, 1999.Find this resource:

Burrows, William, Mark Gornik, and Janice McLean, eds. Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and Work of Andrew F. Walls. New York: Orbis, 2011.Find this resource:

Hendrix, Scott. Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Hjelm, Norman, Prassanna Kumari, and Jens Holger Schjorring, eds. From Federation to Communion: The History of the Lutheran World Federation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.Find this resource:

Hutchison, William R. Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Mission. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Jacobson, Arland, and James Aageson, eds. The Future of Lutheranism in a Global Context. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008.Find this resource:

Sanneh, Lamin. Disciples of all Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Scherer, James. Gospel, Church, and Kingdom: Comparative Studies in World Mission Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987.Find this resource:

Sundkler, Bengt, and Christopher Steed. A History of the Church in Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Swanson, S. Hjalmar. Foundation for Tomorrow: A Century of Progress in Augustana World Missions. Minneapolis: Board of World Missions, Augustana Lutheran Church, 1960.Find this resource:


(1.) Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 6.

(2.) Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (New York: Orbis, 1989).

(3.) Andrew Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (New York: Orbis, 2002).

(4.) John Witte, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Reformation (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(5.) Hartmut Lehmann, “Pietism in the World of Transatlantic Religious Revival,” in Pietism in Germany and North America, 1680–1820, eds. Jonathan Strom, Hartmut Lehmann, and James Van Horn Melton (London: Routledge, 2009), 13–23.

(6.) Mark Safstrom, “Pietism and Social Justice: The Legacy of Johann Arndt’s True Christianity,” Pietisten 22.2 (2007).

(7.) Bengt Sundkler, Svenska Missionsällskapet 1835+1876Ö Missionstankens Genombrott och Tidigare Historia i Sverige (Uppsala: Akademiska Avhandling Uppsala, 1937).

(8.) The Augustana Synod, a Swedish-American immigrant Lutheran Church founded in 1860, established a foreign mission society in 1868, and sent a missionary to India in 1883. See Maria Erling and Mark Granquist, The Augustana Story (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 50.

(9.) Gustav Warneck, address to 1897 Continental missions conference in Bremen, quoted in William R. Hutchison, Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Mission (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 134.

(10.) Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh, 1910 (Studies in the History of Christian Missions; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009).

(11.) Quoted in Bengt Sundkler, A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 633.

(12.) Paul Rajashekar, “Lutheranism in Asia and the Subcontinent,” in The Future of Lutheranism in a Global Context, eds. Arland Jacobson and James Aageson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008).

(13.) Minutes of the executive committee of the Lutheran World Convention, Uppsala, Sweden, August, 1946, Lutheran World Federation Archives.

(14.) E. Clifford Nelson, The Rise of World Lutheranism, An American Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), discusses the American dynamics with the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod and explores the role of Franklin Clark Fry and Abdel Ross Wentz; the more recent history of the Lutheran World Federation, From Federation to Communion: The History of the Lutheran World Federation, eds. Jens Holger Schjorring, Prasanna Kumari, and Norman Hjelm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), gives attention to the ecclesiological developments within the federation itself as it sought and achieved closer communion, made possible after the decision of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod not to request membership.

(15.) Elelwani Bethuel Farisani references the apartheid struggle writings of Manas Buthelezi and Wolfram Kistner, who published a critique of their respective white and black Lutheran churches for the LWF publication Lutheran World, vol. 23, quoted in “The Challenges Facing Lutherans in South Africa,” in Aageson, The Future of Lutheranism, 42.

(16.) The official report of the conference contains the addresses and discussion: Fridjov Birkeli, ed., Marangu: A Record of the All-Africa Lutheran Conference, Marangu, Tanganyika, East Africa, November 12–22, 1955 (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation Department of World Mission, 1955); other stories of the conference were reported to me by Wilson Niwagela during an interview at Makumira Seminary in Tanzania, October, 2005.

(17.) Information about the bishop election in Bukoba from the conversation with Niwagela, a biography of Josiah Kibira.

(18.) Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church,” Luther’s Works 41:150, quoted in “Report of the General Secretary,” [Carl Mau], From Dar es Salaam to Budapest 1977–1984, LWF Report April 1984 No 17/18, 14.

(19.) The Lutheran Heritage Foundation website contains information on their recent publications, donors, LCMS statement of faith, and mission.

(20.) Concordia Publishing House plans continuing the series beyond the original fifty-five volumes.

(21.) Jan Pranger, “Lutherans in the World Church: An Overview,” in The Future of Lutheranism in a Global Context, ed. Aageson, 21.

(22.) J. Paul Rajashekar, ed., Summary discussion, Religious Pluralism and Lutheran Theology, LWF Report 23/24, January 1988, 188–189.

(23.) Carl Braaten, “Lutheran Theology and Religious Pluralism,” LWF Report 23/24 105–106.