Letters to Lutheran Pastor

Vol 1
Vol 1

Letters to Lutheran Pastors: Volume I, 1948–1951, and Volume II, 1951–1956. By Hermann Sasse. Edited and Translated by Matthew C. Harrison. Foreword by Ronald R. Feuerhahn. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013, 2014. Click here and here.

By any benchmark Hermann Sasse was one of the foremost twentieth-century Lutheran theologians. He incisively analyzed how modern trends in church life eclipse doctrinal truth. Sasse approached any issue with an enviable, encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture, the ancient church fathers, medieval scholastics and mystics, Luther and the Confessions, and modern voices, such as Karl Barth’s. He ever challenged the modern assumption that doctrine is trivial and action is pivotal. His loyalty to the Lutheran Confessions was unwavering—to the point that he resigned his chair in theology at Erlangen when in the late 1940s a Reformed theologian was called to teach there, in violation of the charter of the Theology Department, which legally required theologians to be Lutheran. Sasse also left the Bavarian Lutheran State Church in protest, and joined the Lutheran Free Church, after the state church became a member of the Union Church, which united both the Lutheran and Reformed confessional traditions. Much can be learned from Sasse, and it is to the credit of LCMS president Matthew Harrison that he has kept Sasse’s work at the fore.

The essays presented here take the form of “letters”—circulars which Sasse wrote and sent to colleagues, students, and friends throughout Australia, Europe, and the United States. Of varying lengths, they address various topics in ecumenism, sacramental theology, the church, and church history. Each is sensitive to pastors seeking to be faithful to Scripture and the Confessions when either the wider church or the wider culture undermines that fidelity. In addition to the Scriptures and the Confessions, Sasse makes no judgment call apart from appealing to the catholic heritage of the church. Ancient and medieval voices must be heard and cannot be written off simply because they are pre-Reformation or pre-modern. However, these voices are valid only to the degree that they harmonize with the gospel.

Highlights from the essays found in volume 1 include the conviction that the creedal nature of the faith, so offensive to many modern Christians (“deeds not creeds”) can be traced back to Jesus himself (24). Indeed, one of the problems with the Reformed is that they do not make doctrine as binding on their churches as do Lutherans (51). In response to the Reformed church’s inability to confess baptism as a sacrament, Sasse restates the Lutheran case for its sacramentality and its applicability to children (in contrast to Karl Barth) (56–67).

Ever concerned to uphold the church in her mission, Sasse notes that at its core the church is a praying community: “for the church of Christ is not a church that is always busy holding conferences, nor is she a church that does business with politicians and the press. She is ecclesia orans. And this is her main calling. Either she is ecclesia orans—as indeed she showed herself to be already in the catacombs—or she is nothing (76). Her ministry is not dependent on how that ministry came into being, such as an apostolic succession. Instead, the apostolicity of the church is grounded in its fidelity to the apostles’ message: “every sermon becomes more important than those sessions in which grandiose ecclesiastical resolutions are discussed concerning the Bonn Constitution or the atom bomb or the Goethe bicentennial” (133). In contrast to American Protestantism, the church is not a voluntary association (188), and in contrast to Catholicism, she is not an organic expression of Christ himself (189). Instead, she is the witness to Jesus Christ in her administration of word and sacrament.

This first volume includes Sasse’s pastorally valuable essay, “Theologia Crucis.” Here Sasse notes that theology to be a theology of the cross, in which “in the judgment of God sickness, failure, poverty may be much more precious, and this judgment of God is right, even if it contradicts all human reason” (398-99). In light of that cross theology, Sasse’s ecumenics is done on a third, “lonely path” between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed churches (63). Roman Catholics cannot accept faith alone while the Reformed deny the efficacy of the word in the sacraments.

Sasse affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible with respect to its teachings about salvation. However, in Letter 14, we see that he denied that the scriptures were absolutely inerrant in matters such as science or history. He eschewed American fundamentalism’s, and late orthodoxy’s, view of inerrancy situated a priori, independent of Christ, and grounded in the logic of verbal inspiration alone. No humans, including the authors of scripture, are omniscient. In this regard, Sasse would see the LCMS Brief Statement’s view of inerrancy to be a departure from genuine Lutheranism. Naturally, this aspect of Sasse is problematic for orthodox Lutherans in America who are apt to see his view of scriptural inerrancy as like dominoes—if scripture fails to be true in non-spiritual matters, then how can it be trusted in matters of faith? Sasse was a man of his generation, which challenged the appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy in Lutheran orthodoxy since it played Luther’s exegetical approach to theology off against a comprehensive dogmatics. The problem here is that there would seem to be a trajectory between Luther’s Christological and Eucharistic disputations and later Orthodox scholasticism, which undermines any claim to a grievous rupture between Luther and his Orthodox heirs. Likewise, hidden in Sasse’s assessment is the assumption that the earth and cosmos are ancient and not merely 6,000 years old.

Vol 2
Vol 2

Highlights of volume II include an analysis of confession and theology in the Missouri Synod. Of course, this view is written prior to the crises of the early 1970s. Sasse saw the direction in which the LCMS was moving and concluded, “The Lutheran Confessions no longer play the role in the life and in the theological thinking of the Missouri Synod—in fact, for all of American Lutheranism they play nothing of the role—which they played during the nineteenth century” (17). As mentioned above, Sasse here disagrees with the LCMS position of the infallibility of scripture as based on its inspiration. Instead, for Sasse, “the faith of the Lutheran Church in the Scripture is based on her faith in Christ. It is basically faith in Christ because the Bible, and this is true of the whole Bible, is testimony concerning Christ. Our faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God is therefore an entirely different faith from the faith of Fundamentalism in the Bible, which at least logically and factually precedes faith in Christ” (26).

Here too, Sasse chides the LCMS adoption of Lutheran orthodox scholasticism and its importation of Aristotelian philosophy into theology. “Historical research in Lutheran theology has shown how deeply orthodoxy was influenced by that same Aristotelian philosophy which Luther had banished from dogmatics” (27). This criticism, common among thinkers at the time, is too simplistic. Surely Luther’s Christological disputations and appreciation for disputation in general ever hearkened back not only to Nominalist strategies in logic but Aristotelian logic in general. Luther always rejected eudaimonistic assumptions in Aristotelianism as applied to our status with God. But that hardly means he rejected Aristotelian modes of argumentation—insofar that theology is amenable to argument. A solid case can be made that Lutheran orthodoxy is in continuity with Luther and not an aberration.

Repeatedly Sasse brings up the confessional stance of the nascent LWF, particularly its meeting in Hanover (letter 27), and “deconfessionalism” in general (Letter 22 and Letter 43). The question merits attention and the LWF merits critique for a weak, even non-existent, confessional identity. But the whole question should not have surprised Sasse since he was raised in a union church and only came to a confessional identity as an adult and doing study in North America. There is no doubt that this theme represents Sasse’s disappointment in European Lutheranism’s inability to clarify and establish an identity as a truly confessional church. Deep down, Sasse believes that a compromised Lutheranism has virtually nothing to contribute to the world.

Known for his stance that the sacrament is the gospel, Sasse calls for renewal in and appreciation of the Lord’s Supper: “A renewal of the Sacrament of the altar, which in the last 250 years has declined even in Lutheranism, must be one of the foremost tasks of the spiritual office and of the Christian congregation” (94). Hence, Sasse deals with the question of consecration in the Lord’s Supper, noting that “sacramental action,” for Luther, starts with the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer and lasts until all have communed, the cup has been drunk empty, the hosts have been eaten, and the people have been dismissed and have gone from the altar” (156–7).

In “Last Things” Sasse does not retreat from Luther’s stance that the pope is the antichrist (106) and that the papacy today is the same as at Luther’s time (110). In “Toward Understanding the Six Days of Creation” Sasse maintains that no conflict can exist between theology and science “if each of the two disciplines ‘remains within its sphere of concern’. Both the theological and scientific treatments of the world run alongside each other like the rails of two parallel train tracks. Trains travel to and fro upon them, without disturbing each other. A wreck is possible only if a derailment takes place” (291). In response to the accusation of narrow-mindedness over prayer fellowship as inferior and unethical, Sasse claims that “narrow-mindedness can often be ethical more justifiable than liberality” and so follow Luther in maintaining the importance of true doctrine (258).

Why should confessional Lutherans, specifically leaders in the LCMS, take such an interest in Sasse? He clearly was not on the same page with the Brief Statement in several respects. Sasse is a highly intellectual, deeply committed German Lutheran who, like the Perry County Saxons, upheld the Lord’s Supper as conveying the real presence of Christ and would not tolerate compromising this teaching in any way. Sasse is conversant with the trends of his day, all of which urged Lutherans to compromise the gospel for the sake of unity, and he rejected this path—leaving him only a “lonely path.” No doubt the LCMS perceives numerous temptations for it to compromise its confession and heritage—most likely the trappings of Evangelicalism and not Mainline Protestantism as it was for Sasse. In this regard Sasse serves as a model for confessional fidelity—deeply rooted in the faith, conversant with the modern world, but succumbing neither to the modern world nor to a secularized and compromised Christianity.

Mark Mattes

Des Moines, Iowa