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Team-teaching the Lutheran Confessions

Team-teaching the Lutheran Confessions: Coming in Spring of 2015

Karl Krueger, Martin Luther and Nelson RiveraThe idea first surfaced at an area meeting of the faculty last fall. Under consideration was the strategy for teaching the Lutheran Confessions in the spring semester of 2015 following the retirement of Dr. Timothy J. Wengert, a renowned teacher of the Confessions at Philadelphia Seminary (LTSP).

Dr. Karl Krueger, director of the Krauth Memorial Library and Professor of the History of Christianity at the LTSP, turned to Dr. Nelson Rivera, an associate professor of Systematic Theology, and said, “Why don’t we try teaching the course together? I’ll do the part on Reformation History and you can lead the class in theological discussions.” The idea clicked. The team-teaching approach at the seminary is anything but novel, but to hear the two professors talk, the class promises to be distinctive.

Asked to consider what it will be like to follow in the footsteps of Wengert and other teachers of the Confessions, including such noted figures across the seminary’s history Ted Tappert and Helmut Lehmann, Krueger said simply, “We’ll be filling big shoes. It is a great honor, but simultaneously it is a frightening challenge.” Rivera said he is “nervous” about what lies ahead. But at one point in the conversation, he added, “I can’t wait to explain to seminarians how my knowledge of the confessions has transformed my life as a Christian.”

Both veteran Lutheran professors bring remarkably different backgrounds to the challenge. During the 1970s, Krueger studied at a seminary in Germany known for its resistance to Hitler’s Third Reich. Fascinated by the role of religion in the immigration experience of Polish-speaking Lutherans, Krueger earned his PhD in History from the University of Michigan and his MDiv from LTSP, studying with Lehmann. He has been pastor of bilingual congregations in Michigan (Slovak was the second language) and in Philadelphia (German was the second language). Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, came to the Lutheran faith in Puerto Rico at the age of 20. His college training was in Puerto Rico. While an MDiv student at LTSP in the 1980s, Dr. Scott Hendrix was his Confessions teacher. But he also studied in Puerto Rico with Lehmann, who taught a course there on the life of Reformer Martin Luther. And, while earning his Master of Sacred Theology at LTSP, he took three courses with Wengert, who was his faculty advisor. Rivera’s linguistic and cultural background is Hispanic, and he oversees the seminary’s Latino Concentration.

Both men acknowledge certain differences in the contexts of their formations, but Rivera noted that he expects the respective backgrounds of both men to be a huge advantage for students. (Lutheran seminarians are required to take the course.) “In my experience with other scholars,” Rivera said, “we agree about 90 percent on our core convictions regardless of our cultural backgrounds and perspective. The particular context we may come from only adds to the perspective about those convictions. What many people do not understand entirely is that the Lutheran tradition is truly global and ecumenical in its perspective. There are more than 144 church bodies in 79 countries with some 72 million Lutherans affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation, and some of my greatest understanding has come from figures like former LTSP Dean J. Paul Rajashekar (a native of India) and former LWF President Josiah Kibira of Tanzania. Their cultural backgrounds are different from mine. Part of my motivation, and what I see as an opportunity in teaching this class is to convey how we can share our global experiences as Lutherans, how regardless of our background our faith gives us the means to speak with one another, understand and learn from each other.”

“These documents we will be studying with seminarians are not relics,” Krueger said. “They are not old-fashioned or medieval. These Confessional writings define who we are as Lutherans. We are transplanting an understanding of these documents in such a way that students can understand why they are part of our tradition now, and why they are important.” Krueger explained that the seminary’s earliest professors, men like William Julius Mann, Charles Schaeffer, and Henry Eyster Jacobs, were refuting the claim by some that the foundational documents of faith from the 1500s were in fact relics and should be set aside or recast for seminarians in the midst of the North American frontier. “We will be upholding that proud tradition of these early professors,” Krueger said.

Rivera added the Confessions “are not just documents either. They are the Confessions of faith of those living Christian lives, the way we are trying to do today. They convey what Lutherans believe, how they feel about faith and how our faith transforms the way we look at church and ourselves. When we embrace an understanding of the Confessions it nurtures our faith.”

Rivera is also teaching a unique class this fall on five Saturdays in October and November in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. The class, entitled “Luther — Today and Tomorrow,” occurring both live in a classroom and online, will focus on the Lutheran Experience and the Confessions, Rivera explained. “We’ll be looking at the history of the tradition, who Martin Luther was, and the life and theology of Luther. What does it mean to be a Lutheran and have a faith in this context today?” he said. “It is a propitious opportunity.” Rivera explained the class is for both pastors and laity, and he looks forward to contributions and feedback from students accessing the class live and online.

Krueger said in Michigan he became inspired in the congregation he served by how Eastern Europeans now in the U.S. understood their faith through the Confessions “and how their understanding helped them cope with difficult times. They taught me. And so when I preached before them I felt the Confessions come alive in my sermons and in the way I approached pastoral care.”

Rivera added that in his view an understanding of the Confessions “keeps us grounded on earth. We are not preaching ourselves, but rather we are proclaiming and preaching Christ. We aim to help all students understand how believers from so many places contribute to our history as Lutherans, and how we become reshaped by Word and experience.”

A cornerstone of the class, which will meet once a week this spring, will be “lots of reading” from the Book of Concord and other resources, Rivera explained.

In an interview it quickly becomes clear how much Krueger and Rivera respect and complement one another. “We face a challenge,” Krueger said about what lies ahead. “But we think it will be fun, and I believe in our teaching that we will feed off of one another.”

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