By Glenn Fluegge
Yesterday morning I sat at my desk and wept. I do not cry often, but I could not help myself.
I had just received news that Rev. Dr. Wilbert Kreiss had died during the night while attending the dedication of the Kiswahili translation of The Book of Concord in Tanzania. My heart is still torn. God has called home to Himself His own child and for that I am joyful. But, my friends, I am deeply saddened that we have lost a great man — a man whom God used mightily in Africa to do so much for the Lutheran church on this continent.
The Reporter has written an article on Dr. Kreiss, former president of our Lutheran church partner in France. I encourage you to take a look at it (click here).
But I want to write a few lines from our perspective — from those of us in French-speaking Africa who are, in many respects, his “children.” We are his “children” because so many of us in French-speaking Africa have “grown up” in the Lutheran faith nurtured by him through his frequent visits and numerous writings.
Only a few years ago, Dr. Kreiss led a seminar at the Lutheran seminary in Togo. I was the academic dean at the time and felt deeply humbled and privileged to be able to introduce this man to a group of around 30 pastors/vicars from all over French-speaking Africa.
As I looked out at the pastors from all over Africa, I knew that all of them had been touched by Dr. Kreiss in some way. I introduced him as “Le Vieux” (the Old Man), a term of endearment and deep respect used by the younger ones to address their elder (it is forbidden among the Moba in northern Togo for “children” to pronounce the name of their grandparents). He was and continues to be for us in Africa “le Grandpére” (the Grandpa) with his gleaming white hair and beard — a sure sign of wisdom, for “you can’t buy white hair in the marketplace.”
He was also our “Prof” — exceedingly wise in his understanding of theology. He wrote some 50 books, pamphlets and articles on every conceivable subject ranging from commentaries on individual books of the Bible, to his multi-volume Dogmatics, to a pastoral theology of marriage. Oh, how many times did we at the Lutheran seminary in Togo seek out his wisdom as we taught our courses? Our students “grew up” on Kreiss’ wisdom and insight and his faithful commitment to a confessional Lutheran approach, despite the liberal opposition from so many corners in the world — both in France and in Africa.
What amazes me most about our “Prof” was his deeply humble and selfless pastoral approach to writing. He wrote highly academic works such as his multi-volume Dogmatics, which in my opinion surpasses Pieper in its depth and width and applicability to our changing world, and at the same time wrote simplified TEE [Theological Education by Extension] books for new Christians in Africa who often struggled with the foreign French language.
He wrote commentaries on Romans, Philippians, Micah, etc., and at the same time could write an extremely insightful and valuable booklet on marriage which addresses the pressing issues facing our society today. He took the time to translate Luther’s catechism into simple French for those in Africa who might struggle with this foreign language.
Our “Prof” did what most theologians nowadays have not been able to do — put back together a theology that has been fragmented and splintered into multiple separate disciplines (exegesis, systematics, historical, practical, etc.). I think he was able to do this because he was pastoral. He wrote not for himself and his own glory. He wrote so that others might come to know the way of salvation — that was his passion and it permeates his writing. He will continue to be our “Prof” for many generations to come.
He was also a pastor and wanted nothing more than to be called “Pastor.” He continued pastoral work in France even after his retirement, for no pastor ever truly “retires.” But he was also Pastor to all of us in Africa. He was never too busy to answer a hastily written email from a perplexed professor or offer advice on a particularly difficult question.
Up until the very end, he would often send me emails in reply to my prayer letters with kind and encouraging words. He knew the ministry — the sacrifices made and the difficulties faced — even when those things were hidden between the lines.
And he knew that the real Lutheran way is the lonely way. And so he encouraged me to remain faithful to God and to the mission God has called me to. And I know that he did this for many other servants throughout Africa besides me.
What is more, he was not a player of politics. I suppose he had grown beyond that and it made him a particularly encouraging friend, adviser and pastor. I will miss our “Pastor” dearly.
During his long years of service, Le Vieux, our “Prof” and our Pastor, made some 35 visits to Africa to strengthen the Lutheran church on this continent. It is without doubt a tremendous hardship on Marguerite, his wife, and on his four daughters that he passed away so far from home. But in a certain way it is also telling that a man whom God used so mightily to build up His church in Africa might die doing that very thing on the continent that owes so much to him and his ministry. Au revoir, cher Prof, nous te reverrons un jour! [Goodbye, dear Prof, we will see you again one day!]
I have not written this to glorify a man and his works in this lifetime. I thank God that He kept Dr. Kreiss until the last moments of this life faithful to Him and to the ministry. I have written this so that we might together glorify God who so graciously gave us such a man and who so caringly nurtured our Lutheran church in Africa through him.
The saints are not to be venerated, but they, their service and their example are to be remembered. I therefore commemorate my “Prof” and pray earnestly that God might raise up others who will give of themselves so selflessly to the Church in Africa. Soli Deo Gloria.
The Rev. Glenn Fluegge is an LCMS missionary who formerly served in Togo and now teaches at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pretoria, South Africa. This commentary was originally published in his family’s newsletter to supporters.
Posted Nov. 3, 2011