This book happened by accident.
In 2014 I was once again teaching an annual course called Studying Luther in Wittenberg. My colleague Theodor Dieter and I have led the November seminar (there’s also a March one) since 2009. It gathers Lutheran pastors from all over the world, about twenty of them, for a fortnight of intensive study in the heartland of the Reformation. We’ve had people from Senegal, Greenland, Myanmar, Colombia, and Poland—places you may not even expect to find Lutherans!
Every so often we have a special edition of the seminar for people who teach Luther. Especially outside of North America (but I get the impression sometimes even in parts of Europe) Lutherans are called upon to offer instruction in Luther without ever having the opportunity to study his works directly. Often it’s professors at Bible schools or seminaries; sometimes it’s bishops or campus pastors wanting to get a better grounding.
One of the teachers who attended the 2014 seminar was Yuan-Wei Liao, a professor at China Evangelical Seminary and pastor in the largest of the six (!) Lutheran denominations in Taiwan. He had studied at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writing his doctoral work on Watchman Nee, probably still the most influential Chinese Christian thinker. Yuan-Wei and I became friends, and that in time led to his inviting me to offer lectures at CES in the spring of 2016. I was thrilled!
A comical turn of events: after I’d said yes, bought the ticket, etc., etc., it occurred to me to ask exactly how many lectures he wanted me to give. The answer: nine. One hour each. “You don’t want lectures,” I joked, “you want a whole course!”
Well, there was nothing to do but to assemble all the various work I’d done on Luther—including at our annual Wittenberg seminar—and pair it up with my ecumenical work, especially since I’d be talking to a mixed audience of Protestants in a setting where Protestants and Catholics don’t really engage with each other at all.
The first three lectures, on day one, placed Luther in his medieval setting, examined his 95 Theses and his lesser-known but theologically more important Theses from 1518, and concluded with a survey of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue over the past fifty years.
The second set, on day two, went more deeply into Luther’s theology, first discussing his distinction between law and gospel, then seeing how that distinction plays out in the Large Catechism, and finally turning attention to Luther and the Jews—a logical outgrowth of the discussion, since misunderstanding how Luther conceives of the law almost inevitably leads to anti-Judaism.
The final day turned to baptism: first how Luther understood it as God’s gift and act, then a closer look at the practice of infant baptism, and last the story of Lutheran-Mennonite reconciliation, since Mennonites (heirs of the Anabaptists) do not baptize infants. (Incidentally, there was an article about my lectures in the local Christian newspaper, so I tried copying and pasting some of the text into Google Translate. “Infant baptism” came out as “baby wash.”)
Well, it was an amazing experience! In the West we hear about the vibrancy of the Chinese church but it’s another thing to experience it firsthand. The lecture hall was packed with about two hundred people, mostly students but also local church members and pastors. They were so attentive—not an easy thing to be when there is consecutive interpretation—and Yuan-Wei did all the interpreting just at the moment! What an amazing talent. Some of the people understood English, which created the delightful phenomenon of getting laughter first when I spoke in English from half the crowd, and then again as the Chinese speakers picked up the interpretation. A number of professors and pastors offered responses to my lectures, and the students posed a lot of great questions. The energy of the place was great.
And that is to say nothing of the best food anywhere ever! I still dream of those dumplings.
Anyway, when it was all over, the kind folks at the Taosheng Publishing House—which provides books for the Lutheran churches in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and on the mainland—inquired if they might publish a book of my lectures… in Chinese! That was simply too cool to pass up. And once again, Yuan-Wei was the hero, translating the whole book. The only downside is that I can’t read it for myself! (Maybe someday.)
It’s kind of funny to have a book out in Chinese when it doesn’t even exist as such in English. Maybe when my nonstop fall of 2017 schedule winds down I’ll look into creating an English edition, as an ebook or in print. Till then, I won’t lie, I’m hoping for ten thousand copies to be sold in Chinese!