Norman Nagel (1925-2019)
Editor’s note: The following thoughts about Dr. Norman Nagel were shared with the faculty at the opening of our regular faculty meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 9. Dr. Nagel entered eternal rest on Oct. 8, 2019. A wide range of Dr. Nagel’s work—including a number of chapel sermons—are available for free at Concordia Seminary’s Scholar archive.
Few professors have had such a profound and lasting impact upon their students in recent memory as has Dr. Norman Nagel. That such is the case is given ample testimony by the way his students published two Festschriften for Dr. Nagel. The first, And Every Tongue Confess, was published on the occasion of his 65th birthday (1990), and the second, Dona Gratis Donata was published on the occasion of his 90th birthday (2015). In addition, over the past number of years, a group of pastors/former students would meet at Laclede Groves with Norman to go over the pericopes for the following Sunday. Pastor Steve Riordan mentioned that Norman listened in and often did not say much. But when Norman did speak, the room would become very quiet and everyone listened closely…such were the gems he often provided!
Although I had Norman as a student, it was especially as a colleague that I grew to know Norman best and where he had the greatest impact upon me. Norman was my senior by 32 years when I joined the faculty at the tender age of 32. And so, it was in good part from Norman that I learned what it meant to be a faculty member of Concordia Seminary as well as a churchman within the LCMS.
As a senior faculty member, he was always patient with younger professors like myself and a ready theological conversation partner. As a department chair, he and Betsy would host our department meetings several times a year at their home where we would talk about theology over cucumber sandwiches and a glass of sherry. Although Norman may be best known for his work on Martin Luther, C. F. W. Walther, Werner Elert, and Hermann Sasse, he kept current with contemporary theology as was being put forward at the time by figures such as Eberhard Jüngel or Wolfhart Pannenberg, to name a few.
As a churchman he initiated the practice whereby our department would meet in Terre Haute, Indiana, once or twice a year with the department of systematics of our sister seminary to share papers with each other regarding our work. At times they dealt with an issue that was perhaps under discussion within the wider church. In all of his dealings with others—even with those with whom he disagreed—Norman was never caustic and ever gracious.
As is well known, Dr. Nagel made important theological contributions in various areas such as the doctrine of the ministry and the theology of the sacraments. Some of his most important and long-lasting insights came with regard to the way in which he saw theology not as a list of disconnected theological propositions but as an organic whole that centered upon the Gospel. For example, he did not regard the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel as simply one feature of Lutheran theology. Instead, he correctly saw it as a hermeneutic by which we understand and apply all of our theology. That is to say, any theological statement can be said to “run in the way of the law” or to “run in the way of the Gospel.” And to that latter point, Dr. Nagel also sought to develop a language that would convey the Gospel’s character as gift.
In addition to these contributions of Norman, one of the other important insights I gained from him with regard to the way in which we carry out the theological task pertains to the very important theological word, proprium (the distinctive/unique character of something). He encouraged us to pay attention to the “proprium” of a given word, text (Scriptures or Confessions), and topic.
The way I might characterize this is to say that he encouraged us to do theology from a little hill named Mt. Calvary rather than from the perspective of Mount Olympus or Olympus Mons. Another way to put it is that we focus on the “this-ness” of God’s activity and revelation rather than trying to have a God’s eye view of everything in order to formulate an airtight theological system in which every question is answered to our rational satisfaction. If that meant living with certain tensions or unanswered questions, so be it. What did this look like?
Among other things, it meant that our theology of the sacraments does not begin with a general concept of sacrament that then moves to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution. Such an approach runs the risk of becoming an Oberbegriff (a general concept) that obscures the distinctive nature of each gift. It is better to begin with the proprium—the distinctiveness—of baptism, absolution, and the Lord’s Supper before proceeding to formulate a general definition of sacrament.
The same applies to our doctrine of God. Norman often warned against the dangers of speaking about God by beginning with abstract definitions of the attributes of God that we then impose on our doctrine of God and that in turn soon run the way we do theology. Instead, we must begin with God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ and let Jesus define for us what God is and who God is and how God acts within the world.
This emphasis on beginning with the “this-ness” of God’s activity and revelation, that is, with the proprium of the text, played over time in my own thinking regarding the doctrine of creation. Shortly after I joined the faculty in 1989, Norman and I (and a couple others) took a road trip to St. Paul/Minneapolis in order to attend a free conference on the Lutheran Confessions.
Halfway through Iowa, we needed to stop for lunch. Being a freeway guy myself, I spied a fast food stop—I think it was McDonalds—and I suggested we stop and go through the drive-through for our food. My approach was take the freeway until you get there and only stop for as short of a time as was possible if one needed to refuel (with gasoline for the car or food for our stomachs).
But it was Norman who said, “no, no,” let’s get off and go into town a few miles away and find a diner that is unique to that town and found nowhere else. Ever since then, whenever my wife Betty and I travel, we seek out not only a diner or restaurant that is unique to that place, but we also ask about their claim to fame, food that is unique to (or the proprium of) that place as well.
In this way, I thank God for Norman’s gifts to the church in general and to me in particular.
In the Winter 2020 issue of the Concordia Journal, we will offer several more reflections of Norman. Dr. Robert Kolb will reflect on Norman from the standpoint of one who had been already teaching here when Norman arrived in 1983. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, who did his STM thesis on the Lord’s Supper under Norman, will share thoughts on what it was like to have Dr. Nagel as a teacher and an advisor.