Norman Hjelm is a frequent consultant to Eerdmans, especially in the area of ecumenical studies, and a good friend of author Eric Gritsch, who passed away last month.
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Eric Gritsch entitled his personal memoirs The Boy from the Burgenland: From Hitler Youth to Seminary Professor (2006), and that said a great deal about him. His home was the Burgenland, the easternmost province of Austria, where he received his earliest education and where, like all boys his age during World War II, he was taken into the Hitler Youth. But he fled the Nazis, spending a brief time with the Russian army (driving a tank!) before returning home at the end of the war. In 1954 he enrolled at Yale as a Fulbright Scholar and from the U.S. he never retreated. He received his doctorate from Yale in 1960, having pursued the study of the Reformation under Roland Bainton.
Gritsch died on December 29, 2012 in Baltimore, at the age of 81. Most of his career, more than thirty years, was spent as professor of church history at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. His list of international academic, ecclesial, and ecumenical involvements is enormous. But it may well be that, at least for many, his most lasting legacy will be literary, and in the formation of that legacy Eerdmans played a significant role.
With Eerdmans, Eric Gritsch published, in 2012, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment, perhaps the most honest and thoroughgoing study of one of the most neuralgic points in the Reformer’s writings and career. Also for Eerdmans, he translated, in 1997, an important study of a pivotally great post-World War II Hungarian bishop, He Could Not Do Otherwise: Lajos Ordass, 1901-1978. And later this year his translation of Thomas Bremer’s Cross and Kremlin: A Brief History of the Russian Orthodox Church will appear.
Other books by Gritsch (from other publishers) range from a seminal study of Thomas Münzer, Reformer without a Church (1967), through his major study of Luther, Martin — God’s Court Jester (1983), to A History of Lutheranism (2010). In 1996 with another Eerdmans author, Robert Jenson, he published Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings, perhaps the most widely used introduction in English to the Lutheran theological tradition.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Eric Gritsch will encompass far more than his academic or literary accomplishments. He saw his vocation as that of an ecumenical theologian whose task was to help the Church clarify and purify its message for the present day. He never understood himself apart from his baptism and his ordination as a pastor. He never saw the Church only through the lens of his own Lutheran tradition; his contribution especially to the Lutheran–Roman Catholic dialogue of the 20th Century was notable. He never saw his many colleagues, even those with whom he sharply disagreed, as anything other than friends on the same journey. Indeed, Eric Gritsch was fond of the well-known words of Luther, Wir sind alle Bettler, “We are all beggars.” Beggars in search of food, beggars who are recipients of the graciousness of God. Eric gave us much; he taught us much; and we are grateful.