Professor and Reformation scholar makes Luther come alive

Dr. Erik Herrmann emphasizes a point to students during a class in May 2016. Photo: Kendra Whittle

Dr. Erik Herrmann emphasizes a point to students during a class in May 2016. Photo: Kendra Whittle

Dr. Erik Herrmann devotes significant time and energy at Concordia Seminary studying and talking about a man who lived, worked and died nearly 500 years ago. But to Herrmann, the Seminary’s chairman of the Department of Historical Theology, Martin Luther is a vibrant figure whose impact is still very real.

“He was absolutely obsessed with the Word of God, not just the Bible, but every way the Word of God comes to us, whether in preaching or in two people talking with each other,” said Herrmann, associate professor of historical theology, director of theological resources and special projects, and director of the Seminary’s Center for Reformation Research. He says bringing the faith and influence of Luther, as well as other historical theologians and events, come to life is what his teaching career has been all about.

It wasn’t always that way. The son of German Lutheran immigrants, Herrmann was a biology major at the University of Tennessee who experienced a dramatic change of heart, switching to theology and transferring to Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, halfway through his undergraduate studies.

Arriving at Concordia Seminary in 1995, Herrmann had every intention of serving as a parish pastor. After completing his Master of Divinity in 2000, he began serving at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in St. Louis while beginning his Ph.D. While working toward the advanced degree, he says something changed. “I realized I was preparing for a different kind of work,” he said. “I realized it was a different vocation, and that would be OK.

“I realized that this was another way to serve the church. So I threw myself into it, not knowing I would be called to the Seminary.”

But that’s exactly what happened, as Herrmann was called to the historical theology department upon completion of his doctorate. Herrmann says he hasn’t looked back since.

Herrmann says he knows that on first glance, historical theology classes might not seem as pertinent to the pulpit as homiletics or languages. But helping students understand why they are required to take historical theology courses goes beyond facts and data.

Herrmann asserts that historical theology can have a very practical use for pastors as they communicate with their congregations.

“When you’re studying history, it’s as if you’re traveling and listening to people in different times and in very different places,” he said. “Our goal is to help our students listen carefully for the sake of understanding. We want to encourage a habit of listening carefully in our students. We want them to listen to people who are different from them, understand them first and then direct them to Christ.”

Herrmann said many of the students who come to the Seminary initially have very little knowledge about the history of the church, excluding the life of Christ and the Protestant Reformation. He said his department’s goal is to provide a broad framework and to bring the vibrant history of the church to life.

“It’s about curiosity and interest in what other people have said about God,” he said. “It’s not memorizing facts from old archives; it’s about bringing to life the people that students are reading about.”

He said one of the finest examples of this came recently from his “Luther as a Pastoral Theologian” class during the summer 2016 quarter. His students were fascinated by the idea that Luther’s writings, from the 95 Theses onward, stemmed from a desire to provide pastoral care to people.

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“Understanding Luther as a pastor was a huge deal for them,” Herrmann said.

In addition to his classroom responsibilities, Herrmann is involved in several special projects relative to the milestone Reformation anniversary this year. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the Synod’s year-long commemoration has thrust Luther scholars into the spotlight. Herrmann is working on five publishing projects and is slated to speak at multiple conferences, including at the International Luther Conference in Wittenberg this summer.

A trip to Brazil also is in the works for the summer. Also, he’s helping lead the Seminary’s Reformation celebration on campus, including a worship service in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus on Oct. 31. “The occasion of the Reformation’s anniversary is a great opportunity to raise up the many positive things that Christians can learn from Luther,” Herrmann said.

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