Günther Gassmann, Ecumenist and Distinguished Professor, Dies

The Gettysburg Seminary community mourns the death of Distinguished Visiting Professor, Dr Günther Gassmann, who died January 11th, 2017 in Tutzing, Germany. Gassmann, an outstanding theologian and ecumenist who shaped the work of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order for 11 years, contributed to the Lutheran World Federation’s ecumenical work, and taught confessions and Lutheran theology part time at Gettysburg Seminary from 1995 to 2004.

Distinguished Professor of Lutheran Confessions and Ecumenical Theology

January 28, 2017

Gassmann in Gettysburg capThe Gettysburg Seminary community mourns the death of Distinguished Visiting Professor, Dr Günther Gassmann, who died January 11th, 2017 in Tutzing, Germany.

Gassmann, an outstanding theologian and ecumenist who shaped the work of the World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order for 11 years, contributed to the Lutheran World Federation's ecumenical work, and taught confessions and Lutheran theology part time at Gettysburg Seminary from 1995 to 2004.

Among his many academic contributions was the (Scarecrow Press) 2011 lead author/editor of the Historical Dictionary of Lutheranism, a collaboration with fellow Gettysburg colleagues, Dr. Duane Larson and Dr. Mark Oldenburg. He also authored with Scott Hendrix on the Fortress Introduction to the Lutheran Confessions, a 1999 collaboration with the former Gettysburg Reformation historian. “Gunther was a magnificent scholar, a dedicated teacher, an experienced administrator, a congenial companion, and a gifted jazz pianist" said Oldenburg. "He left his international, winsome, ecumenical stamp on a generation of seminarians.”                       

Gassmann's ecumenical career led him first to the Ecumenical Institute of the Lutheran World Federation in Strasbourg as research professor from 1969-1976. After some years in Germany as president of the VELKD office, he was for a short while Associate Director of Department of Studies at the Lutheran World Federation, before he was appointed Director of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (1984-1994). He taught a course one semester each year at Gettysburg for a decade and addressing the Institute for Luther Studies Luther Colloquy multiple times.

Gassmann, born in 1931 in Thuringia (Germany), got in touch with the ecumenical movement already at young age in the then GDR through a pastor. But the crucial impetus for his later ecumenical thinking and involvement was during his studies at the University of Heidelberg through the noted Lutheran theologian Edmund Schlink, who was one of the official Protestant observers at the Second Vatican Council. Gassmann did his doctorate with Schlink and became his academic assistant. Some younger ecumenists still remember him as director of studies at the ecumenical-student dorm in Heidelberg in the early 1960s.

Gassmann's tenure at the Commission on Faith and Order fell into the period after the publication of the first convergence document of Faith and Order on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, when the official responses of the churches were collected and analyzed. Under his guidance, Faith and Order also conducted a study on the Apostolic Faith and on Church and World. He once said that he felt lucky that his was a time when relations between the churches were changed and churches opened themselves toward each other.

Gassmann had always a special interest in relations between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Anglicans. His specific passion was for efforts toward theological convergences in multilateral and bilateral discussions. The most important highlight during his time as Faith and Order director was the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela in 1993, which bears his mark. Before he retired, he was also instrumental in bringing about a study on ecclesiology, which resulted in 2013 in publication of another convergence document on The Church: Towards a Common Vision.

For over a decade, Günther Gassmann came among us as a kind of modern international theological troubadour who blessed us with his winsome spirit," said President Michael Cooper-White.  "He widened our horizons with his broad ecumenical and global perspectives.  He and his wife Ulla became beloved members of the Gettysburg Seminary community, and his renown as a first-rate scholar further enhanced out institutional image.  We are saddened at his passing, and grateful he spent some of his days in our midst."

The thoughts and prayers of the Seminary community join those of the global Lutheran world and ecumenical community for Günther Gassmann's family, particularly his wife, Ulla (Ursula), and their three sons.

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Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary, World Council of Churches contributed to this article.