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Eshetu Abate
1955 to 2011
Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus  
Ethiopia / U.S.A

“The Christian faith begins by grace, exists by grace, and comes to fulfillment by grace” (Eshetu Abate, in African Bible Commentary).

Born in the Arbe Gona district of Sidama Zone in the Southern part of Ethiopia, Eshetu Abate became one of the most influential African theological thinkers, a pastor, and a leader of considerable reputation. Through his lectures and writings, he has contributed to the development of theology in the African context. Through his leadership and life testimony, he was able to influence his students, who later became leaders in different churches and organizations throughout the world.

Eshetu was born in 1955 to his mother, Ijigayehu Kasaye, and his father, Abate Koyra. He completed his primary and secondary school education at Sodo town of Wollaita in 1974. Though he was offered the opportunity to study medicine in the Soviet Union, he insisted on studying theology and following God’s call. He earned his Bachelor of Theology degree from Mekane Yesus Theological Seminary (MYTS) in Addis Ababa in 1981, and his PhD from Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, MO, in 1988. Eshetu married Amarech Abate and they had three children: Miseker, Eliezer, and Benjamin.

He served as a teacher and vice principal at the Tabour Theological Seminary in Hawassa (1981-1983). When Tabour Seminary was confiscated by the former Marxist government of Ethiopia, he was called to Mekane Yesus Theological Seminary where he served as a teacher and academic dean of the Department of Theology (1988-1992) and as principal (1996-2000). He was one of the visionaries that started the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, where he lectured for two years (1994-1996). In the meantime, he was called by the Addis Ababa Mekane Yesus Congregation to ordained ministry and served the congregation on a voluntary basis. He has also served at the Bible Society of Ethiopia, an organization that works to translate Scriptures to various Ethiopian languages, and as consultant for Bible translation.

Upon receiving an invitation to serve as a lecturer at Concordia Seminary in Irvine, California, as member of Christ College’s faculty, he came to the United States in 2002, where he remained until his death on December 28, 2011. Dr. Steven Mueller, Dean of Christ College, describes Eshetu as “a faithful scholar [who] was devoted to his students.” According to Mueller, Eshetu “was kind and soft spoken, but had a powerful witness whose faith was so pure, strong, and sincere.” [1]

Besides teaching, he was engaged in planting congregations for Ethiopian Lutherans living in America. These congregations were planted in Los Angeles and in Long Beach. He was a founder and chairperson of the Evangelical Mekane Yesus Church Lutheran Fellowship in North America (EMYCLFNA), which was founded by the members of the EECMY in North America. He also led the team and contributed to the peace and reconciliation process between the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) and the congregations that separated from the Church for over twelve years (the so-called Addis Ababa and the Surrounding Church).

Eshetu grew up at the time of monumental change. He finished his secondary education during the feudal government (44 years of reign). A few years after socialist governments came to power (1974-1991), he joined MYTS and studied theology. He served under the socialist and the federal government (1991 to present) until his death in 2011. The emphasis of his writings, poor and marginalized communities, indicates the impact of the socio-political and socio-economic situations during his life on his theology.  He was Christ-centered in his theological approach, and had the conviction that a Christian or the church should evaluate and face realities from the perspective of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Eshetu’s contribution to theological development in Africa has been given due consideration in the past few years. His contributions include a commentary on the books of Philippians and Titus in Africa Bible commentary where he stated that “[t]he Christian faith begins by grace, exists by grace, and comes to fulfillment by grace”); “A Study Note” in The Lutheran Study Bible, published by Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS); Amharic books on the Trinity and Sacraments; and many others. His unpublished dissertation is entitled “The Apostolic Tradition: A Study of the Texts and Origins, and Its Eucharistic Teachings with a Special Exploration of the Ethiopic Version.” [2] His writings, particularly those written in Amharic, are still being used for teaching Lutheran doctrine to lay ministers.

In 2015, a collection of Abate’s works, Christian Theology in African Context: Essential Writings of Eshetu Abate, was published. [3] The collection contained Abate’s essays published in different books and journals. The significance of the essays for churches in Ethiopia and beyond are two-fold. First, they were written during the last period of the Socialist government of Ethiopia and the first decade of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (between 1990 and 2002). This time signifies the years in which Ethiopia was going through social, economic, political, and religious changes. Eshetu, as a prominent theologian and pastor, reflects on issues that the Ethiopian communities faced during those periods. Second, Eshetu is one among few Ethiopian theologians who have initiated the conversation about Christian theology from an African perspective. He understood his own context, which included the crucial, existential issues that African Christians were facing, to be the legitimate context out of which Christian theology should emerge. He did so without compromising the centeredness and uniqueness of Christ. [4]

Samuel Yonas Deressa


Notes:

1. Stephen Puls, “Dr. Eshetu Remembered for Powerful, Soft-Spoken witness,” in The Concordia Courier, Vol.6, No.8 (January 2012).
2. Eshetu Abate, The Apostolic tradition: a study of the texts and origins, and its Eucharistic teachings with a special exploration of the Ethiopic version(Th. D. Thesis, Concordia Seminary, 1988).
3. Samuel Yonas Deressa (ed.), Christian Theology in African Context: Essential Writings of Eshetu Abate (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2015).
4. I knew Eshetu personally while he was teaching at Mekane Yesus Seminary (MYS). He and my father, Yonas Deressa, were close friends and coworkers. Both of them had lectured in the same institution for years and were also part-time pastors at the Addis Ababa Mekane Yesus congregation. I was attending elementary and high school while the two labored together. Eshetu left Ethiopia and joined Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, in 2002, a year before I became a student at MYS for my first degree in theology. It was at MYS that I was first introduced to some of his essays by one of my professors, Rev. Dr. Johnny Bakke. A few years later, while lecturing at MYS (2008-2011), I included these essays as part of the required readings for one course on African Christian Theology.  I also had the opportunity to have fruitful conversations with Eshetu about his essays and some other theological issues when he visited me and my siblings during his trip to Ethiopia for a vacation in 2008. I found Eshetu to be a man of deep theological knowledge. He was humble and generous in his personality, and creative and visionary in his leadership.


This article, received in 2017, was written by Samuel Yonas Deressa, Ph.D. Candidate, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. This work was originally written as a presentation for an annual conference of the Evangelical Mekane Yesus Church Lutheran Fellowship in North America held at Columbus Ohio, USA, in July 2015.