Joseph Andrew Sittler, Jr. (actually J.A.S. III, and henceforth Joe) was an Ohio native, the son of a Lutheran pastor, and a much-loved pastor, teacher, and public speaker in his own right. A graduate of Hamma Divinity School, Joe served as the pastor of Messiah English Lutheran Church in Cleveland Heights, OH from 1930 until 1943. He left Messiah to take up a teaching position in Systematic Theology at Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary in Maywood, IL. In 1956, Joe joined the Federated Theological Faculty at the University of Chicago. While in Hyde Park, Joe served as the interim pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in 1975. In his “retirement,” he would go on to serve as a scholar-in-residence at several schools, including the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Pacific Lutheran University, working almost up to his death in 1987.
In the 1970s, Joe started to lose his eyesight, which marked a significant change in his mode of scholarship. His son, Hans (J.A.S. IV), said of him that he worked out his sermons and speeches very thoroughly and precisely in writing. After he began to lose his sight, Joe increasingly had to “do more with less,” working and reworking material in his head rather than on paper. Recollection formed an increasingly large basis for his theological reflection. In the last decade of his life, Joe’s work became increasingly personal, reflecting on his long life and career as the context for discussing contemporary issues in the church and theology.
Joe’s scholarship ranged across many themes. He has recently become popular for his involvement in ecological issues, but Joe’s use of the term “ecology” went far beyond concern for the natural environment. His first public use of that term was in the context of preaching, in the 1959 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale! Both theology and the church are networks of connected, interrelated, interdependent living things. Much of Joe’s work relates in one way or another to the restoration of this context, where it is missing, as well as to adaptation to new and changing contexts.
While Joe was very much a Lutheran theologian, he was not bound to narrow definitions of orthodoxy. Franklin Clark Fry once said of Joe that he was “strictly for export” — which reflects how thoroughly grounded his Lutheran identity was in the ecology of ecumenical Christian dialogue. His approaches to law and gospel and the doctrine of the Word were innovative, and continue to be useful perspectives. His focus on ethics as a question of style – not merely aesthetics, but a mode of living and working and acting in the world – continues to be a unique and valuable approach.