In Memoriam: James Arne Nestingen (1945–2022)
I do not remember our first meeting, but Jim Nestingen and I have known each other for forty-some years. He always reminded me of one of my Norwegian uncles, jolly but deeply serious, sympathetic as he heard the bruised and battered but sharp enough on occasion to bruise and batter—something of the Viking in him, indeed. Yet what bound us together even more than a common Norwegian immigrant cultural background was our common heritage of faith. He was a product of a little parsonage on the prairie; the culture hammered out in the Dakotas and Manitoba as well as Minnesota by those of whom the novelist Ole Rolvaag wrote in Giants in the Earth shaped Jim. He knew the harshness of life on the North Dakota plain and how richly the Lord blesses when the wheat prospers.
Jim was Old Synod, that is, his roots lay in the Synod of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which had sent professors and students to Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis before the Civil War and had represented the same position on the doctrine of predestination in the Predestinarian Controversy of the 1870s and 1880s as C. F. W. Walther. He presumed that the people who came to him trusting in Jesus Christ had been chosen before the foundation of the world to be God’s own, and he viewed his calling as making election come true in those to whom he was privileged to bring the means of grace, the word of promise of forgiveness and new life in our Lord.
The deeper Jim plunged into telling the gospel and bestowing the promise, the deeper his Norwegian brogue became. One morning I went to his Luther Seminary office from mine at Concordia College in Saint Paul. He had left me a note to come to a classroom where he was speaking to a group of pastors from North Dakota. They lived in an area where their congregations and their culture were perishing as agriculture became ever more commercialized and most of the farm children were leaving for towns and cities. He talked of the joy of ministry in bringing comfort and encouragement through the presence of Christ to those who recognized that their communities were withering and their congregations diminishing. His hearers were called to provide support for those suffering the pervading sense of loss that filled their people as they faced a future quite different from their experience. Jim sounded all the more convincing as the Norwegian rhythms and tones grew more pronounced as he made Luther’s theology of the cross and these pastors’ gift of serving alive for his hearers’ situation.
As the fresh translation of the Book of Concord was developing, Jim proposed to Tim Wengert and me a pair of companion volumes. The task fell to Jim and me. Jim went to editors at Augsburg/Fortress and convinced them to invite us to produce what became Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord (2001) and The Lutheran Confession: History and Theology of the Book of Concord (2012). For the latter volume we recruited Chuck Arand since neither one of us knew the ancient creeds as well as he did. Jim was a perfectionist. He always thought one more draft was necessary when I found his work superb. I finally laid down the law to both of them: “I am sending to our editor the last draft you have written.” Jim later told me that he had been very angry with me at that point and later came to recognize that the readers he wanted to serve would never have seen our work had I not done that.
Jim deeply desired to share with others the heritage that we shared in the riches of the Lutheran confessional documents, as he had begun to do in print in 1975 with his outstanding guide to Luther’s Small Catechism, co-authored with Gerhard Forde, Free to Be. Several works followed in print, all aiming to bring the gospel of Christ and the insights of the Wittenberg heritage to a broad audience: Martin Luther: A Life (2009), Martin Luther: His Life and His Teachings (2004), Manger in the Mountains (2000), The Faith We Hold: The Living Witness of Luther and the Augsburg Confession (1983), and Roots of Our Faith (1978). But Jim’s medium was the public proclamation in sermon or lecture. The blessings of the electronic age permit us to find him on our screens nowadays, at countless websites, including that of “Doxology” and “1517.org.”
You might say that Forde and Nestingen deserved each other, teacher and pupil, both ardent confessors of the gospel of Christ and the theology of Martin Luther, both concerned deeply about the urgency of calling to repentance and the growing need for clear application of the consolation of Christ’s gift of new life at the turn of the twenty-first century. Both had grown up in the combat zone between Pietist followers of Hans Nielsen Hauge and the defenders of the Formula of Concord’s understanding of grace, so they saw how easily the gospel becomes just slightly conditional if we look for the assurance of our salvation anywhere but to cross and empty tomb alone. They knew how to tell secure sinners how wrathful God is with them and how to tell broken sinners how deeply God loves them. Jim once commented in reference to differences with colleagues, that he and Forde “outpastored them.” As Gerhard’s Parkinson’s disease was making it ever more uncomfortable for him to venture alone into public settings, Jim accompanied his mentor and friend to the tenth International Congress for Luther Research in Copenhagen; Gerhard had served as president of the eighth Congress nine years earlier at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. Jim assured Gerhard that he would not depart from his side, and Gerhard was enjoying the lectures and time with colleagues when Jim got an invitation to do something in Copenhagen for a few hours. It was among my highest honors that the two of them agreed that I could substitute for Jim as Gerhard’s support for the afternoon, and we had a great time together, as we had had nearly twenty years earlier as we partnered in teaching Lutheran Confessions for a quarter at Luther.
There were mornings when I would drive the few miles to Jim’s and Carolyn’s home after she had left for work. He was just taking his freshly baked bread out of the oven as I arrived, and we feasted the morning away on great bread and great theology. His commitment to practicing theology under the discipline of the proper distinction of law and gospel guided his thoughts as we searched the Scriptures to answer pressing questions of the day. His goal of helping sinners repent so that they could prosper as Christ’s people under his promise came through in his lectures in classroom and conferences and in our discussions of how to bring this joy and peace in our Lord that we shared.
We last saw and chatted briefly with each other not many months ago as he and I were asked by the music folks at 1517 Legacy to confer over a new presentation of the Small Catechism by my former student, the insightful Marcus Grey—you may know him as “Flame”—whose music style is closer to Jim’s tastes than mine, I suppose. Marcus provoked the two of us into the kind of exchanges we had always had as we probed the truth delivered by Dr. Luther for children of all ages. What fun!
The next time we see each other, he may still be baking bread, but I know that he will be rejoicing in his Savior the way he always has.
Dr. Robert Kolb