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“A Remarkable Predilection for Small Numbers”

August 26th, 2007
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I was looking through some of my papers and came across this copy of a
letter that Hermann Sasse sent privately to a group of LCMS leaders in
1964. Prophetic, timely, timeless, wisdom.

Private letter by Hermann Sasse
June 24, 1964

"If I say something foolish, please bear with me. But speak I must as
a representative of a generation which is now slowly dying out. It is
the generation of Lutheran pastors who after the First World War when
the churches in Germany were reorganized tried, under the leadership
of the great churchmen like Wilhelm Zoellner, to restore the Lutheran
Church in Prussia; who later started, over against the claims of
secular political powers on the Church that movement which has become
known as the "Confessing Church" in Germany. It is the generation of
those who in the Lutheran World Convention under the leadership of men
such as Moorehead, Ihmels, Ralph Long, Michael Reu, tried to gather
the Lutherans of the world against the rising world unionism, and who
did what they could, in the old World Conference on Faith and Order at
Lausanne, 1928, and later to build up the coming "Oikumen" as a
federation of the great confessional churches. We failed because the
doctrinal substance of the Protestant churches, including those who
claimed the Augsburg Confessions had vanished to such a degree that
they could not resist the raging currents of a world syncretism in
which the substance of the Christian faith will vanish and in which
the Church of the Gospel will perhaps exist "as a cottage in a
vineyard . . . as a besieged city" (Is. 1:8), as small minority groups
comparable to the remnants of the old Christian churches in the
post-Christian, Mohammedan era of the Orient, or as the oppressed
churches in the Communist world today. For this will be the true
destiny of the true Church of Christ even if the phantastic [sic?]
plans of the "One World Church" under the leadership of Rome should be
realized. It is from personal experiences in Germany and other
European countries, from studies in the U.S.A. and from many years of
ecumenical studies that I look upon your situation and ask for your
forbearance in putting before you some thoughts.

"Our Lord has always shown a remarkable predilection for small numbers
and little flocks. Instead of organizing vast evangelistic campaigns
He has, in the terms of modern missiology, wasted His time by seeking
the individual, leaving the ninety-nine in the desert for the one lost
sheep. We modern Christians seem sometimes to think and act as if He
said: ‘Where two or three millions are gathered in my name . . . "
Besides, the small Free Churches represent in all weakness the faith
for which the Fathers of Missouri left their old country. We should be
very carful not to condemn our own fathers and so to destroy the very
foundations of our church. Moreover, what Missouri’s commission may
teach on such questions as Revelation and Inspiration does not only
concern its sister churches but all Christendom. For up to this day
Christians of all denominations have looked at Missouri as the
stronghold of Orthodox Lutheranism. The repercussions of a false
decision may have a detrimental effect on the churches that claim to
be still churches of the Reformation, as, on the other hand, a sound,
Biblical decision may be a blessing for many churches, even outside
the Lutheran orbit. It belongs to the very nature of any true
confession that it is made "in the presence of God and of all
Christendom before both our contemporaries and our posterity" (FC,

"This, then, would be my first wish for your future work that you
educate your people to think of the world-wide implications of your
actions, not in terms of a denominational parochialism as if Missouri
had to solve the great theological problems of our day only for
itself, and not in terms of a false ecumenicity, as if we would find
the solution by means of a "Dialog" with all kinds of Christians
irrespective of their faith, but in terms of that Lutheran ecumenicity
which combines the belief in the Una Sancta as an existing reality
with the faithful adherence to the confessions o the unchangeable
truth of the Gospel of which nothing can be yielded or compromised.

"If we realize that the solution of the problems at issue must be
based on that understanding of Holy Scripture which the entire
Lutheran Church–we mean the Church which has remained faithful to the
Book of Concord–magno consensu confesses, then it becomes necessary
to define what you are seeking. Modern Protestantism has lost almost
entirely with the confessions of the Fathers also the understanding of
what a confession of the Church is. This is true of the Anglicans, the
vast majority of the Presbyterian and Reformed (Switzerland, Holland)
Churches, the Congregationalists, the majority of the Baptists, the
Methodists. With the loss of their confessions, these churches are
disappearing in the great union churches of our age. Only remains of
them will survive. The old confessions are being replaced everywhere
by new "confessions" or doctrinal statements. it is significant that
all these new documents follow the pattern which, as a spokesman for
modern Reformed theology, Karl Barth, has established in his opinion
for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (Cardiff 1925) on the
possibility and desirability of a new Reformed confession of faith
(Ges. Vortraege Bd. 2, 1928, pp. 76-105): The Confession can only have
a locally limited validity; it must be regarded as something
preliminary which may be replaced at any time by a better insight into
the truth of Holy Scripture; it must never claim catholicity in space
and time, as the Lutheran confession does which claims to express the
truth of God’s Word which is the same everywhere and at all times.
This view of modern Reformed theology has found its practical
expression in the union movements in Europe (Germany, Holland,
France), in the Ecumenical Movement (see the definition of the nature
of unity by the WCC) and especially in the "younger churches"
throughout the world. Everywhre we find the new confessional formulas,
different according to the local needs, in Canada, U.S.A., India,
Australia, New Zealand, Germany, (Barmen and the EKiD) and in many
other churches throughout Christendom.

"And the Lutheran Churches? As usual, they said neither Yes nor No.
Even where a better theological insight was present, the practical
necessities or what was regarded as such determined the policy of the
churches. Halfheartedly they followed the Reformed leadership, quietly
protesting . . . This is the situation everywhere in the churches of
the Lutheran World Federation. They all follow the lead of the modern
Reformed Churches into the great syncretism of the outgoing 20th
century. Some do it reluctantly, others jubilantly under the influence
of the ecumenical enthusiasm of our time. But they all go the same
way, under the guidance of the Spirit, as they say. But what is that
Spirit which leads in South India already to a "dialog" with Paganism?

"And Missouri: Why is that so many faithful Lutherans in the whole
world have been waiting in vain for a clear testimony in South India,
for a rejection of the unionism of the WCC and its national and local
councils? We understand the great difficulties in which a Church, like
Missouri, finds itself in this time of transition. But should not one
of the reasons for the failure to give a clear lead, lie in the fact
that also this great church does no longer fully understand the
Lutheran Confessions? It is certainly not fair to judge a great church
from mistakes or errors of an individual. But sometimes such mistakes
may shed light on the situation of this church. It is with deep
consternation that friends of your Church has read the article in THE
AMERICAN LUTHERAN (Febr. 1964) in which Melanchthon and the late
Melanchthon at that, and not Luther, is presented as the true and
normative teacher of the churches of the Augsburg Confession and we
are informed that the nature of Lutheranism is no longer to be found
in the Sola Fide, but in the doctrinal heritage that we have in common
with the Catholic Church before the Reformation. Why has this not been
rectified? And if this can be taught in one of your faculties, what,
then, has become of the great consensus in the Lutheran faith which
once was the strength of Missouri? And how will you reach a true
consensus on the doctrine of Holy Scripture and on all the topics
mentioned in your rich program if you are no longer one in the
articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae? I do not want to be
misunderstood. The consensus in the Lutheran faith exists still in
your ministry, at least among the majority of your pastors, who
faithfully preach and teach the article with which the Church stands
and falls. It exists in your congregations which live in the faith of
the Catechism. But it is in danger in your theology.

"A confession is for the Lutheran Church never simply a set of
propositions in which the church, or several churches, agree. This is
the great misunderstanding of modern Protestantism that has crept also
into the Lutheran Church. The idea of such modern "confession" is that
some Christians, or whole churches, try to find out what their common
convictions are, how each of them understands the Scriptures, and
whether they can agree on a common understanding. This leads always to
"confessions of a minimum," to the discovery and expression of the
least common denominator. The careless interpretation of the Latin
text of Augsburg Confession, Article 7 has lead even Lutherans to this
view of the Confession of the Church. Many individuals agree in a
certain common doctrine whatever that may be and ascribe the discovery
of this common possession to the "guidance of the Spirit." But the
consensus of which AC 7 speaks is the consensus in the maximum, in the
true Gospel, as the German text shows: "dass da eintraechtiglich nach
reinem Verstand das Evangelium predigt und die Sakrament laut der
Einsetzung Christi gereicht werden." The word "eintraechtiglich"
appears already in the first sentence of CA I and is rendered by the
Latin "magno consensu."

"It seems to me that the theologians of Missouri, before defining what
a doctrine is, must try to understand anew the deepest nature of our
confession. One of the reasons why there are so many misunderstandings
among theologians and laymen in America is the fact that you never had
to fight for the confessions against those who tried to take it away
from you. The confession was taken for granted. You did not have to
defend it, to suffer for it, as your fathers had to. The same
situation exists Australia. Thus we, as you, had the time to fight
each other for real or alleged deviations from the Lutheran doctrine.
So it was in Europe until the totalitarian state of this or that color
made the confession of faith, the confession of the pure doctrine,
compulsory, dangerous and costly. it should not be forgotten that also
our faith was weak. There were many who denied the faith. We do not
judge them. We shall never forget that the first confessor of the
church whom Christ honored with the name of "Rock." became the first
to deny Him and was saved only by the prayer of his Savior (Luke
22:32) and by His grace.

"Much of this experience has been forgotten. As all church history
also this chapter was and is a sad chapter, full of sin and error, for
instance, the doctrine of the nature and the number of Sacraments. But
since those years, the Augsburg Confession and the Tenth Article of
the Formula of Concord have gained a vital importance. . . . If it is
your aim, "to involve the whole church in the proper study of
theology," there is no other way open but to teach in all
congregations the Augsburg Confession and the Large Catechism as a
minimum requirement. I can assure you that this is a great spiritual
experience for all involved if it is done in the right way. It
presupposes a careful preparation on the part of the pastor. "Bek
enntnisstunden" [studies of the Confessions] have been a great
enrichment for our churches, especially if our congregations learn
that each article of the AC, as each part of the Catechism, teaches in
its way the great articula stantis ecclesiae [the article by which the
church stands=Justification]. Booklets must be written for that
purpose. And before all, we must fight that "hurry up" spirit which
destroys not only theology, but also the spiritual life.

"If I may be allowed to say a critical word of the Interview, I must
say that what I missed in it is the spirit of repentance. I understand
that in a document in which you had to defend your work you could not
possibly make a confession of sins. But if you speak of the tasks
before you, you cannot fail to recognize the sins of omission and the
urgency to make amend for them. It is easy for us theologians to make
the proud confession that we believe the world to be about 6,000 years
old and the days of creation to be days of 24 hours. This may be a
heroic act of faith if we know what we say. As a rule, we have not
given much thought even to the epistemological problems of such
statements, let alone to the physical and metaphysical questions
involved. . . . On the other hand, what a lack of feeling of
responsibility manifests itself in the easy way in which modern
Protestant theologians abandon the eternal Word of God, the Holy
Scriptures, as the inspired Word of God and its inerrancy in the sense
of Luther’s definition: "Gottes Wort luegt nicht." Theology is not an
easy science. We have to know a lot more than our Fathers did if we
are to answer the questions of our time.

"We all should not be afraid to admit the failures of our church and
to take our share in the judgment of God in patience and faith, in the
faith in Him who is the Savior of all men and also the Savior of His
body. This should determine our view of the history of the Church and
its theology. . . . We shall find the entire history of the Church and
its theology to be a history of progress in the truth and of the rise
of error after error. Otherwise our generation would represent the
climax of history, the highest summit at least reached so far.

"This is theologia gloriae, which Luther rejected. For him the world,
including the outward, visible church, was a battlefield on which the
great fight goes on between God and Satan, Christ and Antichrist (in
his various forms). He saw the seriousness of the attacks of the old
evil foe. Let us believe what we sing. Do we really believe that our
poor theology will overcome the might of heresy in the world? The
theologia gloriae does not take quite seriously error and heresy.
Arianism was not conquered by theological discussions. It is not true
that it was dead in 381. On the contrary. It hid itself in the sheep’s
clothes of Orthodoxy. It is true that the Creed of the 150 fathers in
381 assembled in Constantinople had no longer to repeat the specific
formulas of condemnation. But since this Synod was not regarded as
Ecumenical before the 6th century–it was merely a synod of the
East–they could not abolish the Creed of "the great Synod" of 325.
This remained the official Creed of the Church until we find in the
decision of Chalcedon the three formulas side by side: the old Nicene
Cred, the Creed of 381, and the declaration of Chalcedon.

"I mention this only because it illustrates the fact that no
condemnation of any heresy is ever withdrawn. Heretics can return to
the truth, as the last Germanic Arian church in 589 accepted the
Catholic Faith. But the anathema against the heresy remains because
every great heresy of the old and new Arians in the Augsburg
Confession and the Formula of Concord.

"I mention this as an example of the seriousness with which the Church
at all times has to fight error and heresy. In this respect there
cannot be any latitude in the Church. The old Missouri Synod–and I
hope in this respect it will never change in spite of all legitimate
theological growth–has been for all churches in America the great
example of a church that cares for purity of doctrine. In spite of all
mistakes and shortcoming it has shown to other churches that the
Gospel of the saving grace of God in Christ, the proclamation of the
love of God is inseparably linked up with the old evil foe tries to
destroy it. But this fight must begin in ourselves with the daily
prayer that God may keep us in His Word. We ourselves cannot do that."

Private letter by Hermann Sasse to:
Dr. Oliver R. Harms
Dr. Roland P. Wiederaenders
Dr. Theodore F. Nickel
Dr. Alfred O. Fuerbringer
Dr. J.A.O. Preus
Dr. Martin H. Franzmann
Dr. Herbert J.A. Bouman
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
Date: June 24, 1964
Prospect (Adelaide), South Australia
Copy to Ralph Gerhke
Held in the Archives of Concordia Historical Institute

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 26th, 2007 at 17:49 | #1

    Confession “with great consensus”

    I’ve written about the topic here before. But now, I’d just like to call
    your attention to a remarkable post on Cyberbrethren containing or
    excerpting a private letter of Hermann Sasse. I’ve been told that in
    some areas, Sasse is theologically unreliabl

  2. August 27th, 2007 at 13:54 | #2

    “Phantastic” is a regular spelling for Sasse and I think German writing in English in general. It’s certainly how that word and others on the same root are written in German.

  3. Holger Sonntag
    August 31st, 2007 at 13:39 | #3

    Sasse seems to be referring to A. C. Piepkorn’s article in The American Lutheran (Feb. 1964), pg. 8-11, “What is the Lutheran Church?” To shed some light on the meaning of Sasse’s complaints, here are some excerpts from the article:
    In that piece, ACP first rejected a mere “historical” definition of the Lutheran church (Lutheran = everything Lutheran churches ever did), but also speaks against viewing the Lutheran church as the “continuing incarnation of Martin Luther or even the projection of his image across four centuries.” In other words, it denies “that his theology is normative for the church.” The confessional writings of Luther — the catechisms, the Sm. Art. — are ranked clearly below the “Catholic Creeds” and the Augsburg Confession. “Any opinion that Luther voiced” outside those writings is placed on the same level as “any opinion” Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bonaventure, or Thomas Aquinas might have voiced. Those trying “to explicate some aspect of the doctrine of the Lutheran church” based on Luther’s private writings “are misleading their readers.”
    Moreover, Piepkorn deplores the Protestantization of the Lutheran church, while he attributes the excommunication of Lutherans in the 16th century to “Papalist partisans of the period.” Therefore, he declares: “opposition to the Roman Catholic denomination on principle or the rejection of any tenet or practice of that denomination because the tenet or practice is Roman Catholic has never been a substantial aspect of the Lutheran Church.”
    According to Piepkorn, the Lutheran church is not the result of a “Biblicistic kind of repristination,” trying to turn the clock back 1500 years. After all it is keenly aware of “the fact that God is working out the destiny of the Church in history, that the Holy Spirit Who spake through the prophets has illuminated teachers of the Church in every generation to understand and to apply that speaking to the Church’s situation in each century, and that the cultic and disciplinary and institutional traditions of the past posses a real (even though relative) value that is not lightly cast aside.”
    He then states that “Lutheran theology cannot be comprehended in any oversimplification of any shibboleth — not even in sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura; not even in justification through faith. To classify the Lutheran faith in terms of a formal and material principle to be set in opposition to the formal and material principles of other Christian communities … does little justice to the necessary complexities of … theology.” He then proposes a theological outline based on the Apostles’ Creed.
    Then he concludes by finally answering the question: “What is the Lutheran Church?” — “To be a Lutheran is to accept the great Creeds of the Church in the sense in which the Church has always understood them and has used them to understand the real intent of the Sacred Scriptures.” — Piepkorn continues, after enumerating the Nicene (the “filioque” is not commented on); the Athanasian; and the Apostles’ Creeds (in this order!), by stating: “This continuity with the Catholic past underwent no breach at the Reformation. The churches … that accepted the Reformation remained the same churches they were before, with the same Catholic faith, the same Catholic worship…” Only that this worship was “purged of those abuses about which the Augsburg Confession said that the *whole disagreement … revolved* and which had crept into the church without certain authority for the most part only during the preceding two centuries or so.”
    Moreover, Lutherans “saw in the same Baptism an unbroken link with the medieval church of John Hus … They were eating the same Body and drinking the same Blood of the Lord upon which they spiritual forebears before them had been nourished in every age, back through the eleventh and the fifth centuries to the apostolic church … They confessed their sins in the same way and were pardoned with the same Absolvo te …”
    About the consequences of the refusal of the Catholic bishops to ordain Lutheran pastors, Piepkorn comments: “even this breach of fellowship involved no breach of succession … since holy ordination administered by any pastor … is valid and rightful not merely by human canons but by divine law.”
    Then Piepkorn finally speaks about the doctrine of justification: “In support precisely of those *theological emphases* for which the Paplist adversaries criticized them most virulently — the comprehensive inability of man in his existential condition to turn to God without the operation of divine grace (…), the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake by the same grace without works through faith (…), the administration of the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins under the species of both the hallowed host and the consecrated chalice (…) — they confidently cited the witness of the same doctors of the East and of the West, not as alien authorities but as fathers of the church of which they regarded themselves as an integral part.”
    Equally interesting is his assessment of how church history and secular history interacted to bring about the break-up of Western Christianity: this break-up “emerges as a product of those centrifugal forces of division in the medieval body Christian — corpus Christianum — that in the realm of politics and culture were creating the nations of Europe and in the realm of theology had doomed to failure” the efforts of various late-medieval councils.
    Lutherans “claimed no patent on the church, but they refused to concede that their loyalty to the Gospel put them outside the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
    The other documents of the BoC Piepkorn regards as being “merely explications or reinforcements of or authoritative comments on the Augsburg Confession.” “In passing” he notes that “about 40 percent of the Book of Concord comes from the pen of a single lay theologian, Philip Melanchthon,” whose “influence on the total is heightened by the prominent role played by three of his students and proteges — Martin Chemnitz, Nicholas Selneccer, and David Chyrtraeus — in the production of the Formula of Concord…”
    In summary Piepkorn remarks: “On this basis the Lutheran Church stands today, evangelical in her unqualified committment to the Gospel of God’s reconciling and redeeming act of grace in Christ, and catholic in her deliberately willed continuity with the past as an unbroken extension of the Western Church of the Middle Ages, of the ecumenical church that existed before the brerach between the East and the West, and of the primitive Church ‘on the prophets and apostles built with Christ the Cornerstone.’”
    These are the main points, it seems, that caused some of Sasse’s concerns voiced in his letter to LCMS leaders.

  4. September 24th, 2007 at 08:23 | #4

    Thirty Three Things (v. 31)

    1. How to be a genius 2. Scrabulous — website where you can play Scrabble online for free. 3. The Balcony Archive has over 5,000 videos of movie reviews from Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and R…

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