Walther on why the Lutheran Church should not try to claim to be Catholic

LP Cruz has put up a most interesting link to an article by the old Yankee Lutheran, C.F.W. Walther, re the preference for the name “Lutheran” over “Catholic”. It makes fascinating reading.

Here are just a few comments from me on the selection Lito has chosen to cite on his blog.

Generally, when you take into account Walther’s unique point of view, he talks a lot of sense, but at the same time his article shows how “non-catholic” his Lutheranism actually was.

“How wonderful the name catholic sounds. For example, in the mouth of Athenasius or Augustine when they use it against the sects of the Arian, the Donatists and others. “

But when the boot is on the other foot (ie. when you are the heretic and not the Catholic) it doesn’t sound so nice, eh?

“How glorious the name [“Catholic”] rings in the time of the Roman bishop Gregory the Great who completely rejected the title of the universal bishop of Christianity.”

And rightly so. Neither does the Bishop of Rome today claim such a title. He is a local bishop, the first among bishops, the “prius”, the primate, and he has universal jurisdiction in the Church precisely as the local Bishop of Rome, but not as a “universal bishop”. He is not above his brother bishops as if like some sort of “uber-bishoff”. There is no such title as “universal bishop” in the Church, except, as Walther points out, perhaps Christ himself.

“But what is the meaning of the word “Catholic Church” now? It is the fellowship of those who recognize the bishop of Rome as the head of the church, as standing in the place of Christ and God himself.”

Well, yes and no. First, lets be quite clear that the Pope is not the Head of the Church. Walther is right, and Benedict would agree: Christ is the Head of the Church.

On the other hand, there is no meaningful use of the word “Catholic” today which does not include communion with the Bishop of Rome.

“They must therefore worship all the unquestionable errors of the papacy such as: the sacrifice of the Mass, praying to the saints, purgatory, the worship of images and relics, the pope’s indulgence, human works unto salvation and self chosen works, the forbidding of the bible and marriage, tradition or the unwritten Word of God, compulsory fasts etc. etc. which all the confessions and catechisms of the new Roman Catholic Church teach along with the explicit explanation that outside of this faith no one can be saved.”

Well, what a show bag of horrors! If Walther were prepared to get down off his high horse and have a bit of chat to a real Catholic (rather than his straw-Catholic he sets up) he might learn that these horrors are in fact either myths (such as “forbidding the bible” or “human works unto salvation”) or part and parcel of the doctrine of the Incarnation (such as saints, images, relics, etc.).

I would hope that no readers of your blog, LP, would simply accept this 150 year old accusation without entering into some sort of dialogue to understand what we Catholics actually teach on these matters.

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3 Responses to Walther on why the Lutheran Church should not try to claim to be Catholic

  1. L P Cruz says:


    I got a personal question, in your LCA daze have you always felt this way towards Walther, i.e. semi-crtical?

    I ask this because when it comes to American Lutheranism, Walther is similar in stature with Warfield of the Reformed. What I mean is that they are considered holy men and it is taboo to disagree with them. What people do is not to openly disagree with them but disregard simply something what they have said on a matter.

    I treat them like I treat any church father, i.e. the best of men are, at their best, just men.

    However, in this case, I agree with Walther’s admonition to his readers on catholic/Catholic labelling.

    But you know that anyway.


  2. Schütz says:

    Yes, even as a Lutheran I was fairly dark on Walther. I was more of a Loehe man, Walther’s German contemporary. It reflects, I dare say, the origins of the Lutheran Church in Australia. Despite the fact that I was born in the year of the union, my family was UELCA, not ELCA. Walther was, in my opinion, to fixated on various sectarian “Lutheran principles”, and not conscious enough of catholic issues such as ecclesiology and liturgy.

    Unfortunately, there is far more Walther around in English than there is of Loehe.

  3. William Weedon says:

    FWIW, Sasse is very helpful in getting the best out of either man. Walther has achieved a stature in the LCMS that at times borders on the absurd. Don’t get me wrong: he was truly a great man, but he was not infallible and shouldn’t be treated as such (nor was he a theologian of the stature, say, of Krauth or even of Henry Jacobs, in my opinion). I also agree with David that Loehe is undervalued in English, no doubt through not having as much of his stuff put into English.

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