Lecturing on Luther in Taiwan

It is always a matter of surprise and joy how enthusiastically Luther’s theology is received outside of his European homeland. At the end of April, Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson offered a three-day conference at China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei, Taiwan, on the topic “Reconsidering Martin Luther for the 2017 Reformation Anniversary: Theological Insights and Ecumenical Hopes,” to a very engaged and enthusiastic audience.

Each day offered two lectures on Luther, followed by a third and final lecture on the relevance of the day’s topic to ecumenical and interfaith matters. Wilson began with an introduction to Luther’s historical setting in the medieval Western church, which led into a detailed analysis of the 95 Theses and the lesser-known but theologically richer Theses of 1518 on the Remission of Sins. This set the stage for a review of Lutheran-Catholic relations in the past half-century, with a special emphasis on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Taiwan’s Christians are roughly half Catholic and half Protestant, but so far there is not much ecumenical engagement between them.

The second day focused on Luther’s law-gospel hermeneutic, beginning with a detailed discussion of what exactly it means: the law is what God commands, while the gospel is what God gives. Wilson then turned to the Large Catechism, to show how both structurally and in its details the Catechism embodies the law-gospel dynamic. Yet all-too-common misinterpretations of the law aspect have fostered an unacceptable anti-Judaism in certain strains of Lutheran (and broader Christian) thought. Accordingly, the final lecture of the day dealt with Luther’s legacy regarding the Jews. Acknowledging the hateful writings Luther produced against the Jews toward the end of his life, Wilson also showed the many places where Luther praised the Old Testament, Moses, and the law, and argued that Israelites and Christians have the same religion and the same justifying faith.

On the final day, Wilson took up the topic of baptism. The first lecture laid out Luther’s fundamental understanding of baptism: as a law commanded to the apostolic ministry to baptize all nations, but even more importantly as a gift to be received by all nations. Thus baptism is primarily God’s act, not an act of the human baptizer or the baptized. This in turn raised the question of Luther’s defense of infant baptism and its setting within the context of the faith of the church, the apostolic command, and the sheer grace of baptism itself. Lastly, Wilson presented the story of the Lutheran-Mennonite reconciliation at the 2010 LWF assembly in Stuttgart, with some suggestions for how Christians who baptize infants and those who do not can work toward mutual recognition and respect and avoid the scandal of rebaptism.

On the first two days, members of the Taiwanese Christian community, both professors at China Evangelical Seminary and local pastors, offered insightful remarks in response to Wilson’s lectures. On the last day, students and other participants at the conference were invited to ask questions, which were thoughtful and wide-ranging. The excitement and energy of Christianity emerging in a new context were evident throughout.

Crucial to the success of the conference was Prof. Yuan-Wei Liao, who teaches theology at CES. He participated in the Studying Luther in Wittenberg seminar taught by Wilson and Prof. Theodor Dieter, from which emerged the invitation to Wilson to offer lectures in Taiwan. (In fact, Wilson had the opportunity to meet with all four of the Taiwanese pastors who had participated in the Wittenberg seminar.) Prof. Liao interpreted all nine of the lectures with extraordinary ease and skill, in addition to facilitating the travels, meals, and even some sightseeing for Wilson and her family, who also came along with her to Taiwan. Prof. Wilson and her husband Andrew attended Prof. Liao’s class on Luther’s theology on the last day of their visit to answer questions and talk about their pilgrimage from Erfurt to Rome in 2010 in Luther’s footsteps, about which Andrew Wilson has written a book. Additionally, Prof. Liao arranged for Wilson to preach at a local Lutheran congregation at Sunday worship and to lead a discussion of Luther’s basic political insights as they might apply to the unique political situation of Taiwan.

Following the lectures at CES, Prof. Wilson also paid a visit to China Lutheran Seminary in the neighboring city of Hsinchu at the invitation of Prof. Jukka Kääriäinen. CLS is the only Mandarin Chinese-language Lutheran seminary in the world, as well as the main center of cooperation for the six Lutheran denominations in Taiwan. Wilson offered a talk on law and gospel during the chapel service and enjoyed lunch and a tour of the beautiful library (complete with both the American and the Weimar editions of Luther’s Works). The CLS faculty are both Taiwanese and from other parts of the world, fostering an exciting international dynamic in the seminary community.

Wilson’s lectures, revised and expanded, are due to be translated into Chinese and published by Taosheng Publishing House.

Altogether the Wilsons were deeply moved by the friendliness and hospitality of the Taiwanese Christian community and hope very much for opportunities for further cooperation.