Book Review: Witness: Erlangen Sermons and Essays for the Church

Witness: Erlangen Sermons and Essays for the Church, 1933–1944. By Hermann Sasse. Translated by Bror Erickson. Foreword by Matthew Harrison. Introductory Essay by John T. Pless. Saginaw, Michigan: Magdeburg Press, 2013, 327 Pages. Hardbound.

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Witness: Erlangen Sermons and Essays for the Church

Witness: Erlangen Sermons and Essays for the Church

Seldom do sermons catch your breath as if you were standing on a precipice overlooking the Grand Canyon. These sermons do just that. Sasse was originally a pastor in the Church of the Prussian Union in Germany, but while on a study leave in the United States he encountered Loehe’s Three Books on the Church (in translation) and studying it moved him towards confessional Lutheranism. After the Second World War, he left his Erlangen professorship in protest over the proposals for territorial church unification in Germany and ended up teaching theology at Immanuel (now Luther) Seminary in North Adelaide, Australia.

Sasse preached these sermons in the decade in which both the Nazis came to power and the Second World War was being fought. The faith of many pastors would have folded under these conditions for two reasons. First, many German prospered under the Nazis. Even those not supportive of the new regime were grateful for their jobs. It would easy for a pastor to accommodate Nazism and become a “German Christian,” a pro-Nazi sympathizer. Second, as the war progressed, conditions in Germany eroded. Some pastors succumbed to skepticism and despair. Sasse, however, was made of iron. He was not numbered among those mesmerized by Hitler. He found his good neither in German prosperity nor did he despair over the dismal war conditions. Instead, in these sermons, we encounter the words of a fiery prophet like Elijah or John the Baptist, pointing to our Savior Christ in a more confessional way than that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Repeatedly, Sasse’s message calls sinners to trust in God and for Lutherans to return to their evangelical roots and not be swept up in Hitler as a false messiah. Indeed, one gathers that Sasse’s opposition to Nazism is grounded in confessing the faith. Sasse refused to accept a counterfeit faith that trusts in Hitler. Of Christ, Sasse says, “He does not need to be justified by us, but we need to be justified by him. We are not his judge. He is our judge. We have not forgiven him. He has forgiven us. We do not decide to make him our Führer. No, he chooses to be our Lord” (68).

Each one of these sermons or addresses has a bite. No anemic “there, there” comfort is found here. Instead, Sasse exudes urgency, bordering on apocalyptic—a “fight” between God and the devil (201), which is intertwined throughout his work. Additionally, scriptural quotations abound here, and clearly he crafts each sermon with a teacher’s heart. Sasse’s proclamation always includes a didactic element. Courage forms the core of Sasse’s message: Christ risen from the dead will end any idolatry of an “eternal Germany” (113).

Themes repeated include the doctrine of the incarnation as the “central mystery” (77) of the Christian faith and a concomitant affirmation of the church to return to offering the Lord’s Supper weekly, even if not all commune. Indeed, Sasse discourages an individual from communing each week (164). Sasse notes that communion attendance in the German Protestant territorial churches had dramatically dropped and links such a drop with the decline of spiritual vitality in Germany. For Sasse, Luther would “probably judge” the evangelical church without the Lord’s Supper “as harshly as he judged the church of the Sacrifice of the Mass. A church without the Lord’s Supper must die!" (277).

Most importantly, Sasse claims that the need for a gracious God is as necessary for today’s world as it was for Luther’s (245). This is due not only to human guilt but also because only the “real God” can take up the “burden” of human life (94). Sadly, the church has let go of her mission. Ironically, the church of the Reformation became the inoffensive religion of the bourgeoisie (83).

These sermons are a must read for preachers and any Christian will find them edifying. Today, when it is so easy to give a lukewarm version of law and gospel as coping and acceptance, the church desperately needs men of Sasse’s caliber.

Mark Mattes

Grand View University

Des Moines, Iowa