They Told What Had Happened on the Road

[1] Raised in a parsonage in Michelsdorf in Germany, situated in the hills of Silesia – the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Silesian pastors, I was immersed in the Christian faith and its proclamation. My paternal, non-theological grandparents had died before I was born. My paternal uncles and aunts appeared only rarely in my life. The maternal grandparents who lived in Landeshut, not far from Michelsdorf, were next to my parents the most important influence on me. My grandfather Georg Kretschmar was the superintendent of the district. Two of my mother’s siblings were important members of my extended family: an aunt, my god-mother, married to a pastor in Landeshut, and an uncle who was himself a pastor in the same district.

School in Silesia
[2] In 1925, when my father was called from his rural parish to Breslau, the capital and largest city of the province, to serve as Sozialpfarrer for Silesia (and as executive secretary of the Silesian Frauenhilfe) I spent six months in Landeshut getting to know my grandparents better and attending a Volksschule. Here I soon discovered that while being a pastor’s son in the first grade might have given me status in Michelsdorf, it made me subject to hazing and beatings in the rough and tumble environment of this urban school, where most of the other children came from what Karl Marx would have called the proletariat. Before I was six I had learned that class and the dialect associated with class was an inescapable reality. I learned to speak two languages: the Silesian dialect on the playground, and the High German expected in school and at home.

[3] After the family moved to Breslau, I finished grade school (i.e., the first four years) in a small private school and entered the König Wilhelm Gymnasium to prepare myself to become a pastor. The Gymnasium taught Latin from the first to the last year (Sexta to Ober-Prima, nine years) and Greek starting at the third year. This emphasis on classical languages and literature – one hour for six days a week for each of these subjects – was eventually very useful to me, though at the time it seemed a meaningless exercise.

The Nazi Threat
[4] The routine of my education was interrupted in 1933 when my father was forced into retirement (zwangspensioniert) as a result of Hitler’s rise to power. At the time 44 years old, he had opposed the rising Nazi tide and was forced to pay the consequences. He decided to leave Germany immediately, convinced that the evil Nazi lunacy would quickly pass. He had to find a job. A Swedish mission society concerned with the fate of the refugees from Germany employed him as pastor and missionary in Vienna. He left Germany in June of 1933. My mother, my younger brother, and I stayed in Breslau until the end of the academic year – which at that time meant until March of 1934 – when we also moved to Vienna.

[5] The change from the upper-class environment of the König Wilhelm Gymnasium, attended by the sons of judges, doctors, lawyers, architects, etc. – the Gebildeten,[1] in Schleiermacher’s phrase – to the Wasa Gymnasium in the ninth district of Vienna was an enormous culture shock. Accustomed to being part of the majority culture I was suddenly a member of a very small minority. In a class of boys and girls who were either Roman Catholics or Jews, the Lutherans had identity problems. (About 18 were Roman Catholics, 17 were Jews, and three were Protestants.) Besides that, I was the only one who spoke with a foreign accent. I was a “Piefke,” a boy who spoke a different brand of German. As a matter of fact, since I moved to Vienna at the age of thirteen and for the next sixty years I hardly ever opened my mouth on any subject without people asking, “Where are you from?” I did make friends among both the Jews and the Catholics, but I had to ask myself rather early in life what it meant to be “Evangelisch, A.B.” (a Protestant committed to the Augsburg Confession).

[6] But while the Christian faith was important in my home, and I went to church and was confirmed, the overwhelming experience in these years was Viennese culture, which I devoured with enthusiasm: from opera to theater, from Austro-Marxism to psychoanalysis. In the background was always the menace of national socialism, which had threatened briefly in 1934. In that summer the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated and the village in Styria where we were on holiday was for a day or so ruled by Austrian Nazi storm-troopers.

[7] While my Catholic and Jewish friends were mostly apolitical, I was aware of the danger especially to me and my Jewish friends. The Austrian government of the time was not devoted to democracy. It practiced its own peculiar brand of Austro-Fascism, claiming to be inspired by the papal encyclicals on social justice. Lutherans were second-class citizens. If a Lutheran and Roman Catholic had married and the marriage failed, the Roman Catholic partner could obtain an annulment from the pope, but since there was no divorce the Lutheran partner remained married to a person who soon might be married to somebody else. The result of all this was a tendency among Protestants to favor liberation from this government through Anschluß to the German Reich. They would not believe that the demonic evils of Nazism far outweighed the very real annoyances of Austro-Fascism.

[8] With the exception of one committed social democrat, my friends hardly ever talked politics. We talked about soccer, art, and music, and went to the opera a couple of times a week in the section for people who were willing to stand, either on the main floor or in the gallery. We visited museums and attended professional soccer games, hiked and skied in the Vienna woods, and actually got along with each other amazingly well. I learned a great deal about Catholic and Jewish culture and the peculiar mixture of both which was the genius of Vienna between the first and second World Wars. In 1937 I graduated from the Gymnasium and began to study theology and philosophy at the University of Vienna. By that time I had decided that in the world in which I lived there were only two options.

Nietzsche vs. Christ
[9] One was the Nietzsche option: The radical rejection of Christianity and with it all the sentimental reductionist alternatives of the enlightenment and liberal protestantism. God is dead and everything is permitted. I gave it some thought. My academic and political environment made it appear attractive. Nietzsche, too, was a Lutheran pastor’s son. He wrote better German than any other philosopher I had ever read. He was free from the cloying religious sentimentality that says all the right things and does nothing about it. Thus Spake Zarathustra was one of my favorite books.

[10] The other option was to serve Jesus, the Christ, whom I had seen as a stumbling block and foolishness to Jews and gentiles but who was the only person to whom I could be completely committed. The example of my parents, who were so obviously engaged in such service – as counselling, feeding, and clothing refugees – made the first option impossible. God had reached out to me and my efforts to establish autonomy were doomed from the start. I had seen Christ at work through women and men of faith. Anything but discipleship to him would be inconceivable.

From Vienna to Philadelphia
[11] I knew, of course, that I would have to get out of the doomed city of Vienna as soon as possible. The plan was to go to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where a Presbyterian friend of my father had been able to obtain a full scholarship for me. The United Lutheran Church in America still needed pastors who could preach in German and was willing to take a chance on some of us who were trying to escape the Nazi war-machine. While the distinguished Norwegian writer Ronald Fangen, whom I once had given a guided tour of Vienna, had also arranged for a scholarship at Uppsala, Sweden, I decided to go to Philadelphia because my grandfather (who had never been outside the German speaking parts of Europe) had told me, “Wolfgang, you can never become a Swede but you may become an American.”

[12] But in March of 1938 Hitler invaded Austria. My plans for an orderly journey to America to begin my studies in the fall of 1938 had to be cancelled. I had to get out immediately. Agents of the Gestapo had been at the office of the mission. My father had not been home; he never went home again but left for Prague. I followed a day later. From there we made our way to Sweden and I tried to obtain my visa to the U.S. My application made months earlier had been lost at the embassy in Vienna. After a short stay in England and France I eventually secured a visa in January of 1939 and began my career as a theological student in Philadelphia.

[13] After Nazi-occupied Vienna, London, and Paris during the Munich crisis of 1938, Philadelphia represented another culture shock. Isolationism was the political mood of the time. The professor who was most kind to me, Dr. Paul Hoh, later president of the seminary, warned me never to make any political comments especially when visiting in congregations with German services. My fellow students, who were extremely kind and supportive to the greenhorn, amused by the way he handled knife and fork, had no interest in foreign policy. Those few fellow-students who were politically engaged were supporters of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Especially my friend and later roommate Morgan Edwards, the son of a Johnstown steelworker who had worked as a butcher in a supermarket before coming to the seminary, introduced me to American politics. He also took me home with him and we visited his father at work in the steel mill.

[14] Theologically I marched to a different drummer from any of my teachers or fellow students. After reading Karl Barth in Europe and especially his small book on the Apostles’ Creed, Credo, I had become a “Barthian.” The theological conflicts at the seminary – and there were very few – were between the “orthodox” and the “liberals,” symbolized by Dr. Emil Fischer, who taught systematic theology, and Dr. O. Frederick Nolde, who taught religious education. Both positions seemed irrelevant to me. The emphasis on higher criticism in the interpretation of the Bible, which seemed daring and progressive to some, appeared obvious and obsolete to one who had been influenced by Barth’s commentary on Romans. I had read the Old Testament commentaries based on Wellhausen – but they seemed to say nothing to the world that was about to burst into flames. While I had little patience with the question-and-answer orthodoxy of some of my textbooks, I found even that more to the point than the talk about progress and progressive revelation by the very decent and well-meaning Dr. Nolde. The war was starting in Europe, and America was going to be part of it; and progress seemed not to be the category which helped explain the situation during my seminary years.

[15] Even before I graduated from Mt. Airy in 1941 my parents, after having been briefly interned in French concentration camps, had managed to escape to America with the help of the Second Presbyterian Church in New York, and arrived in that city in October of 1940. My brother John Gotthold, who had been shipped on the notorious “Dunera” from England to Australia, was eventually allowed to join the Australian army and later studied theology in Sydney. He came to America after the end of the war and served a number of Episcopal churches in New Jersey until his untimely death in 1961.

[16] Upon my ordination I was called to serve two congregations in New Jersey (Wenonah and Woodbury) of the old Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States and to preach every Sunday, twice in English and once in German. The people in my congregations were very good to me and tolerant of my mistakes. They seemed to like my preaching – at least they liked me. They also allowed me to take one day a week – Monday – to drive to Princeton Theological Seminary to do graduate work.

From Barth to Luther
[17] The two most important teachers for me were Otto Pieper and Josef Hromadka. Both were refugees. Pieper had been Barth’s successor at the University of Münster, and Hromadka, a Christian socialist, had been the Czech interpreter of Barth’s theology in Prague. To him Barth had written his famous letter indicating that the Czechs had the duty to resist the Nazis militarily because of the resurrection of Christ. He allowed me to work with him on Luther’s doctrine of the church. I had begun my study of the doctrine of the church at Mt. Airy and had written my B.D. thesis – still required in those days – on Paul’s understanding of the church as the people of God, the true Israel. It seemed a good idea to pursue this idea in Luther. This effort produced eventually my Th.M. thesis for Princeton, called The Reality of the Church as the Communion of Saints. I claimed that Luther, far from being an individualist, believed that God saves us into a community in which we are “baked together” like the bread in holy communion. Here we share all we own and hold everything in common and do not need the services of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy to sell us shares in salvation. Luther rejected the capitalist notion which undergirded the treasure of merits at the disposal of the papacy. All Christians had free access to this treasure because of the death and resurrection of Christ. Thus it was his doctrine of the church, developed very early in his career, which enabled him to stand up against what he considered the pretensions of the papacy. I published this dissertation myself in 1943. But the importance of this study was that it had forced me to read a lot of Luther. The more I read him the more I liked him. It was the reading of Luther which slowly weaned me from Karl Barth.

Union, Niebuhr and Faith Active in Love
[18] In 1943 the United States was at war with Hitler’s Germany. The most eloquent theological spokesman for this involvement had been Reinhold Niebuhr. I had volunteered for the chaplaincy, but as an “enemy alien” I did not qualify. I decided to continue my theological studies with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary. In 1943 this was a daring move, frowned upon by the president of my synod, Dr. Emil Fischer of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, who had moved from the seminary to this position. But I was not to be discouraged and began my studies at Union in the fall of 1943. I received an assistantship in church history and had the honor of working with Robert Hastings Nichols and John T. McNeill, men of faith and great scholarly achievement.

[19] Reinhold Niebuhr was a controversial figure. Some of my best friends would not take courses from him, considering him a traitor to the pacifist cause. I admired him as a lecturer and as a theologian who had applied his theology to the gigantic problems of the day. I thought his interpretation of Luther was wrong-headed and not based on the sources but on Ernst Troeltsch. I wrote my Th.D. dissertation under him, which dealt with Luther’s social ethics and was later published as Faith Active in Love.[2] I received much help from John Bennett and John T. McNeill who served on my committee. I took every course Paul Tillich offered and argued with him from my Barthian perspective, to his amusement and my education. He reported to my father, with whom he was associated in anti-Nazi activities, that I questioned his Christianity, but this did not keep him from befriending me, especially in later years when we taught simultaneously in Hamburg, and still later when we both taught in Chicago in the early sixties.

[20] In New York I met my wife, Elizabeth Rossing, a St. Olaf graduate who was then a graduate student at Columbia, and was very intelligent, beautiful, and kind, and shared my religious and political concerns. We met in January and were married in June, 1945.

[21] It is apparent to me now that Niebuhr exerted a great influence on me. My tendency to combine an orthodox Lutheran theology with a liberal political stance was clearly influenced by him. At the time it was a peculiar combination. When, after two years as pastor at a bilingual congregation in the Bronx, I began my teaching career at Gustavus Adolphus College in 1947, this combination struck my colleagues and students as very odd. At the time, the Lutheran church in Minnesota was pretty much the Republican party at prayer. To be an active Democrat was peculiar and to combine this with serious questions concerning the agenda of theological liberalism was unheard-of. I became active in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, had a public controversy with Senator Joseph McCarthy on the campus of the college, and served as an alternate delegate to the Democratic convention in 1952. After seven years of teaching philosophy and religion at Gustavus Adolphus College I moved to the school of religion at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1954.

[22] It was the year Faith Active in Love was published. In this book I tried to show that Luther was a social activist from the indulgence controversy in Wittenberg to his involvement with the Counts of Mansfeld at the end of his life. The book was well received, especially by Lutherans.

[23] My new position at Iowa meant that I no longer dealt with philosophy but with “religion” and the teaching of religion in a secular university. Iowa had pioneered in this effort and from the beginning had approached it in a multi-religious manner. This was a new experience for me and involved me in the valuable study of non-Christian religions. For years I taught a large course in cooperation with authorities on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism which opened my eyes to the pluralistic world. While I eventually relinquished this course in order to concentrate on the course dealing with Judaism and Christianity taught jointly with my friend Rabbi Jay Holstein, the Iowa experience gave me a much broader context than my days in the parish and at Gustavus Adolphus College.

[24] But while most of my students heard me in these large introductory courses, I continued to teach undergraduate and graduate students in the area of my graduate work – Christian ethics and reformation studies. I believe it was this combination which involved me in the efforts of the Lutheran church to develop an ethical stance in the controversies of the times flowing from confessional authorities of the church of the reformation.

Lutheran Theology in American Culture
[25] It seemed apparent to me that the maintenance of a Lutheran church in North America could not be justified on the same grounds as in Scandinavia or Germany. In those countries the Lutheran church was an aspect of national identity. Practically everybody, including most atheists, would agree that the cultural expressions of the church, the ancient church buildings, the classical music, the rituals marking the stages on life’s way from birth to death, were an inescapable component of being a Swede or German. A similar claim cannot be made in this country. Many aspects of Lutheran culture interfere with the acceptance of the Lutheran church as part of our civil religion. Thus efforts are being made to create a Lutheran church more acceptable to the American religious sensibility, to drop the depressing emphasis on the importance of sin and to omit hymns which talk about Jesus’ wounded head and the devil as the prince of this world and other gloomy subjects.

[26] But while a Lutheran church without a Lutheran theology may be sociologically viable in Germany or Scandinavia, it is doomed in America. Without a distinctive theology there is no reason to maintain a separate Lutheran church; its disappearance within the mainstream of culture-protestantism of the right or the left is unavoidable and by no means deplorable. There is no need for another version of the UCC or the Episcopal church. For that matter a Southern Baptist church with a slightly German accent is redundant.

[27] That raises the question as to the nature of Lutheran theological identity and its significance for the life of the Christian church in this country. For years I have claimed, in season and out of season – in Lutheran theological journals and Funk and Wagnall’s supermarket encyclopedia – that there are certain distinctive aspects of Lutheran theology which if lost would weaken and impoverish the Christian message in our world. Here I shall mention them only as slogans: (1) the distinction of law and gospel; (2) the Christian as righteous and sinner at the same time; (3) the finite as the bearer of the infinite (with its implications for sacrament, scripture, and vocation); and (4) the theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory.

[28] Everything I have ever written has been an attempt to elucidate one or the other aspect of this message, convinced that it might help all Christians to understand their election and the resulting obligation. This proclamation is a debt Lutherans owe to the ecumenical church. It is not a sign of superiority or a reason for isolation, but rather a vocation which should contribute to the wholeness of the people of God. It would be my claim that Quakers and Jesuits, the Salvation Army and the Coptic Church may likewise have obligations to the people of God which, while not equally apparent to me, may be very obvious to them and important to all of us.

The Protestant Faith – A Post-Denominational Book
[29] This understanding of the Lutheran tradition within the ecumenical context has been the result of my experience as a teacher of theology not only at Iowa but in Tanzania (1960), Japan (1968), India (1978), Hong Kong (1980), and Taiwan (1993), and three years as advisor to the Department of Studies of the LWF (1981-84). I have learned that the theological insights so dear to me and clearly identified with Luther and the church of the reformation are, if freed from the denominational label, of value to people who have no roots in the Europe of the sixteenth century. In Taiwan, my book The Protestant Faith[3] has been translated into Chinese, given another title more appropriate to the Chinese setting (Biblical Systematic Theology), and published without my knowledge or permission by a non-Lutheran publisher. I understand it is in the third printing and used by Christians of various backgrounds. When, while teaching at the China Evangelical Seminary at Taipei in 1993, I asked for the reason for the book’s apparent popularity in a setting so very different from the Iowa students for whom it was originally written, I was told that it summarizes evangelical theology for a post-denominational Christianity in a manner they consider appropriate to their situation. It may be of some significance that while only one of my books is still in print in the U.S.A., three are in print in Chinese.

[31] We are, indeed, in a post-denominational age. But this does not imply that we live in a post-theological age. It is our task to express the Christian faith in words that reach people at the turn of the millennium. It is my conviction that the theology developed in the sixteenth century, briefly characterized above, supplies basic resources that can be used for the articulation of the Christian faith in our time. This task should be undertaken in the church for its members as well as for all the people on the outside who are questioning the nature and destiny of humanity.

[30] People inside and outside the church are surrounded by innumerable ideologies soliciting their attention and demanding their loyalty. This situation is inescapable. It was always thus: as Luther observed in the Large Catechism, we trust either God or an idol; for human beings atheism is an impossibility. Thus no other investigation is more significant than that which examines what people believe, which makes theology the queen of the sciences.

[32] But the church is not the only place where this inquiry can be pursued. At the end of my career at Iowa I was invited to give the annual Presidential Lecture which gave me the opportunity to explain what I had been up to for the last thirty-five years. I called it “The Sacred and the Secular: Religion in the State University,”[4] and claimed that (1) the university is a major resource to the study of religion and (2) the study of religion is a valuable resource to the academic task of the university. This is what I had tried to demonstrate while teaching the forty thousand students that had been enrolled in my classes from 1954 to 1990.

[33] Having been brought to America more than half a century ago to preach the gospel in German, I am now apprehensive that the gospel may not be preached at all. If the church abandons its responsibility to theology to devote itself entirely to entertainment, pop-psychology, and social-work, the task of helping people with the big questions will be assumed by others. If that happens, somebody will eventually write a book with the title: The Treason of the Church. It was at that point in a very similar condition almost five hundred years ago that Luther entered the picture. At the end of my pilgrimage I am convinced that his relevance to our situation is enormous.

Copyright © 1994, Word & World, Luther Seminary. Used with Permission.
Word & World, Supplement Series 2, pp. 1-9.

[1] F. Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches on Religion to its Cultured Despisers (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1958). The term “cultured” is a somewhat inadequate translation of the German word “gebildet.”

[2] George Wolfgang Forell, Faith Active in Love (New York: American, 1954; reprint, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1959).

[3] George W. Forell, The Protestant Faith (Englewood, Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1975).

[4] George Wolfgang Forell, “The Sacred and the Secular, Sixth Annual Presidential Lecture” (Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa, 1989).