Remembering Wayne Saffen

By Eugene Brueggemann

Wayne Saffen is one of those unsung heroes in a lost cause whose contribution to that cause was worthy of note. The lost cause was defending the Missouri Synod and its St. Louis seminary from the swarm of cultural and theological conservatives who triumphed at the Denver convention in 1973. He was numbered among those who partnered in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (Philippians 1:7) against the attacks of those who feared and resisted the changes which the dynamic gospel makes in the mission of the church in every age. His was a needed (and largely unheeded) prophetic voice as the synod was attacked from within for its transition into a more gospel-centered era in mission and ministerial education.

I knew him well. We entered Concordia College in Fort Wayne in 1940 and graduated together from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1950. In the late 50s and early 60s we both pastored nearby town-and-gown congregations in Ohio, he at Oberlin and I at Kent. We worked together with Bert Frey to critically analyze the Brief Statement to convince the Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) that Resolution Number Nine of the San Francisco Convention of 1959 was unconstitutional. This resolution required all pastors and teachers to teach in conformity with the Brief Statement of 1931. Frey and Saffen were members of the English District which had petitioned the Synod to reconsider that infamous resolution, which effectively added to the confessional article of the synodical constitution. The CCM concurred and its finding was accepted by the Synod at Cleveland in 1962.

In the early 60s Saffen followed a call to the full-time campus ministry at the University of Chicago and shortly afterwards I did the same at Northwestern University, which enabled us to continue our friendship and partnership. Saffen’s theological strength was in systematic theology and his worship practice was immersed in the great liturgical heritage of the church. The campus
congregation was named St. Gregory of Nyssa (not your usual Missouri Synod parish name) and the student center was named Bonhoeffer House and was dedicated when Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s nephew-in-law and author of a definitive biography on the German Lutheran martyr, came to the University of Chicago. Saffen also planned and promoted an annual inter-Lutheran Reformation celebration at the Rockefeller Chapel at the University with notable speakers and attendance by many in Chicagoland.

A personal incident in 1959 foreshadowed Saffen’s prophetic ministry in Chicago. Saffen visited me in the hospital in Ohio following a volleyball accident in which I broke my pelvis. (Don’t ask — although it earned me a purple heart in campus ministry.) He brought me a copy of Eric Hoffer’s book The True Believer and a paperback biography of John the Baptist. This was just about the time Synod was meeting in San Francisco and producing Resolution Number Nine. Saffen recognized and confronted the true-believer syndrome in Synod, personified in particular by Herman Otten, publisher of the increasingly strident and politically effective Lutheran News. Otten more ambitiously re-named it Christian News as he sought to increase his influence in the growing conservative movement in Protestant America.

Saffen took Otten and his yellow-sheeted journal seriously. Most moderates in Missouri were affronted by it but tried to ignore it. Bad idea. Burkee’s book has documented how well Otten succeeded in destroying the reputation of seminary professors and others whom he labeled as liberal and unorthodox, and how he succeeded in energizing the political machine which emerged to gain control of the Synod in order to purge it of these enemies of the church.

What made Saffen unique is that he took pains to write well-argued theological responses to Otten’s diatribes. He respected Otten as a brother in Christ who had become a true believer in Eric Hoffer’s sense of that term and who deserved something other than a diatribe in response. Their correspondence was extensively printed in the Christian News with the result that Saffen’s critiques were read by many more people than if he had published them in any other journal. Prophetic ministry includes confronting those who, in Jesus’ words, are the “blind leading the blind.” Saffen is one of the few who confronted Otten and refuted his errors, and he did it as a brother.

Saffen did write in other periodicals. An article of his in the Walther League Messenger in the mid 60s was grist for Otten’s mill. In it Saffen stated that he would not attempt the travesty of trying to convert the rabbi doing campus ministry at the University of Chicago. He also wrote extensively in campus ministry journals and authored devotional books following the design of the liturgical year.

But his more public prophetic ministry related to the resistance to the war in Vietnam. We’re talking Chicago in 1968, when the police riot smashed the mass assembly of students and others protesting the government’s actions during the Democratic Party’s convention. Saffen was involved in any number of public protests, and wrote against the legitimacy of that war before and after that convention. Nor was he alone. Campus pastor Ralph Moellering at Berkeley and
others were also numbered among those who publicly protested that war.

Like many of us, Saffen was a prophetic bit player in the dramas of the 60s: the Missouri and Vietnam wars. But he did his bit faithfully. For that we give God thanks.

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