The news that Russell Saltzman is leaving Lutheranism to the Roman Catholic Church calls to mind previous headlines. The story of evangelical catholic Lutheranism—of which Saltzman was a part—involves many people swimming rivers (be it the Tiber to Roman Catholicism or the Bosphorus to Eastern Orthodoxy). First Things’s own Richard John Neuhaus took one of the better known of these swims, at least around these parts.

As it happens, I had just begun reading a book by another of these famous converts when I heard word of Saltzman’s move to the Roman Catholic Church. I had in hand Jaroslav Pelikan’s 1964 work Obedient Rebels, an early work of his that attempted to situate Lutheranism’s place in the catholic tradition.

“Martin Luther was the first Protestant, and yet he was more Catholic than many of his Roman Catholic opponents,” Pelikan quips in the first sentence of the book. “This paradox lies at the very centre of Luther’s Reformation.” The rest of the book is devoted to exploring this movement which was, at one time, both Catholic and Protestant.

That the Lutheran tradition intended to be faithful to the catholic tradition does not seem to be in doubt with either Saltzman or Pelikan. Philipp Melancthon’s profession that “the churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith” is understood to be an accurate assessment of the intentions of the historic Lutheran church. No, the problem lies not in the Lutheran tradition, according to these writers, but instead with contemporary expressions of Lutheranism.

“What I have always sought,” Saltzman writes, “is to be in a church that finally gives expression to the catholicity of the Augsburg Confession.” But in his assessment, “there is no Lutheran expression doing that.” Yes, there are “evangelically catholic centers of Lutheran congregational life, and some that are deeply so,” he writes. “And there are evangelically catholic-minded pastors seeking parish renewal by Creed, Catechism, Confession, and praise God for it.” But these on their own, it seems, are not enough.

Saltzmann further notes that his transition “is not for ease nor is it out of mere unhappiness with the state of Lutheranism.” Instead, he writes, it emerges out the conviction that the Roman church is a fuller expression of the Church of Christ. Nevertheless, he is clear that dissatisfaction with a contemporary Lutheranism that eschews its catholic identity has played a part in the changing of his mind.

Pelikan held similar views. Robert Louis Wilken (himself a famous convert from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism) recounts a dialogue that Pelikan is said to have had at a theological conference in the 1960s. “Pelikan spoke of that strand of Lutheranism that led people to say that if they weren’t Lutheran they would be Baptist because of the Bible,” Wilken writes. “He said that this was a misreading of Lutheranism and that Lutheranism was closer to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. And he added: If Lutheranism would lean in the direction of the Baptists or the Methodists, he would die in the bosom of the Orthodox Church.”

It cannot be denied that many—too many—Lutherans today have forgotten their catholic heritage. Sadder still, some groups who claim the title Lutheran appear to be so only in name. They have jettisoned the authority of Scripture and core doctrines of the historic church—fundamental aspects of what it means to be Lutheran. That these people continue to use the name only confuses the matter for those seeking an authentically evangelical catholic faith.

Yes, contemporary Lutheranism faces challenges, but the Wittenberg Way nevertheless remains a trustworthy, faithful expression of the catholic tradition. We do not need to go to another church to find that tradition; what we need is for our churches to wake up to the fact that the catholic tradition is already their tradition—and to live out that tradition in faith and practice.

This is part of Pelikan’s argument in the final chapter of Obedient Rebels. “An evangelically Catholic theology must serve a concrete church or denomination,” he writes. “This is a fact of life.” The catholic tradition is not merely a topic for personal reflection and edification; it is meant to inform and structure the life of the visible church around us. Consequently, it is the role of every particular church’s theologians, pastors, and educators to reflect upon this tradition and remind the wider church of its importance.

“What such a church or denomination has a right to expect of its theologians is usually less than it does expect of them in actual practice,” Pelikan laments. “Usually it expects of them that they parrot, or provide learned footnotes in support of, the current party line of the denomination. . . . But the denomination does have the right to ask of the theologian as teacher and scholar that he deepen his own response to its confessional heritage, and that he help the denomination to respond more profoundly to its tradition.” That’s precisely what we need today—leaders to help Lutherans connect with the treasures of our catholic faith once more.

Pelikan, in the end, went East, but I will be forever grateful for the work he did in calling Lutherans to a richer understand of our tradition. So too I will be forever grateful for the good work Saltzman has done on behalf of the evangelical catholic tradition. I extend my sincere well-wishes to him and his wife as they make a transition that will no doubt be equal parts bitter and sweet, and I pray that our Savior Jesus Christ bless them with every good thing.

I wish them well, but it’s a journey I will not be following them on. Contemporary Lutheranism may have its flaws, but at its core the Lutheran tradition is deeply and fundamentally catholic. The riches of the catholic tradition are already ours, and at our best we embrace that heritage. I pray that our churches will delve deeper into that tradition. For what it’s worth, I believe that we will.

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