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Faculty Focus: From student to professor

By Travis Scholl

For Professor Peter Nafzger, joining the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 2016 was like coming home in more ways than one. Not only did Professor Nafzger complete both his ministerial training and doctoral work at the Seminary (M.Div. 2004, Ph.D. 2009), but he was born, baptized, raised, educated and confirmed in the faith — all in St. Louis.

He is proud of the fact that every day of his schooling was a gift of “the system,” as it used to be called in Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) circles: Word of Life Lutheran School; Lutheran High School South; Concordia University, Nebraska, Seward; and Concordia Seminary.

But Nafzger would be the first to point out that it was the intervening years, spent outside of St. Louis, that had a profound impact upon his life and the life of his family. After graduating with his Master of Divinity from the Seminary, Nafzger was called to be pastor of New Life Church—Lutheran in Hugo, Minn., on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, in 2007. He was pastor there for nine years, at a point when the congregation had strong lay leadership and a healthy understanding of, as Nafzger says, “who they were and why they were there.” In many ways, Nafzger and his family still miss the Hugo community.

“Accepting the call to the Sem was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “We really loved our congregation. The congregation taught me how to be a pastor.”

Which also was part of the reason why Nafzger came back to Concordia Seminary. He had completed his doctorate while serving at New Life, and he was ready to help prepare the kind of pastors New Life had helped shape him to be. And even though his doctoral training is in systematic theology, his call to the Seminary is to teach homiletics in the Department of Practical Theology, which for Nafzger strikes a vital balance.

He discovered while in parish ministry he had grown impatient with systematic theology when it was disconnected from congregational ministry. One of his joys was recog­nizing the ways in which systematic theology — sometimes considered too abstract or obscure — serves everyday life in the parish. Nafzger seeks to bring that expertise into the classroom at the Seminary, with the future pastors in his courses.

“I like to call it the ‘Practice of Good Theology Department,’” Nafzger says. “If our theology and practice doesn’t, one,
honor Christ, and two, comfort troubled consciences inside and outside the church, then why are we doing it?”

Plus, Nafzger has found that students in the homiletics classroom do not need much prompting. As he observes, “Nobody wants to be a bad preacher, so students are motivated to do well.”

Teaching preaching also connects well with his systematics work on the doctrine of the Word of God, exploring how the Scriptures are centered in Christ as the Word made flesh. His interest in the topic was intensified by the year he spent in Germany as a pastoral student. He had married his wife, Katie (they met at Concordia, Nebraska), after his second year of study, and, two months later, they were on their way to Concordia’s exchange program in Oberursel. They were in Frankfurt for intensive language training when 9/11 happened.

Nafzger had always wanted to study abroad, to live in a different culture from his own. The year in Germany became an incredibly formative time for the couple. He had not only more time to reflect and study, but he was able to see how a confessional Lutheran church like the Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church (SELK), the German partner church of the LCMS, could do things differently from what he had known and still remain faithful to the common Lutheran confession of the faith.

Moreover, he began to see how his wife would become a vital partner in his theological and spiritual life. “In Seminary, she asked the questions I couldn’t answer,” Nafzger says. “Katie keeps me sharp, forcing me to put theology in real,
meaningful terms.”

“If our theology and practice doesn’t, one, honor Christ, and two, comfort troubled consciences inside and outside the church, then why are we doing it?”
— Dr. Peter Nafzger

The Nafzgers have since been blessed with four children: Olivia, Johann, August and Louisa.

Coming back to Concordia Seminary, now as a professor, also has opened his eyes to all the things faculty do that he did not see as a student. “When you’re a student, you have no idea what professors are doing beyond the campus, not only within the Missouri Synod, but even globally, in the church at large,” he said.

Nafzger has already contributed significantly to this work. His own doctoral dissertation was published in 2013 under the title “These Are Written”: Toward a Cruciform Theology of Scripture (available on Amazon and at the Seminary’s Campus Store). He also has written this year’s Lent Sermon Series, “The Gospel in Seven Words,” published by Concordia Seminary Press. He led the Seminary’s Pre-Lenten Workshop in January.

One of his great joys has been to take part in the collaborations that happen not only among faculty and staff on campus, but among pastors and lay­people in the field, driven, as he says, by the deep sense that “we’re in this together for the sake of the Gospel.”

Dr. Peter Nafzger offers a meditation on “Sola Scriptura” during the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation Service held Oct. 31, 2017, in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus.
Photo: Jill Gray

Katie, second from left, and Dr. Peter Nafzger join Seminary students and their families on campus to pray for the children on their first day of school.
Photo: Bridgette Sharp

Dr. Peter Nafzger leads a group of students in Homiletics I in June 2017.
Photo: Kendra Whittle