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Woe to the church, which seeks a way other than confessing Christ to gain the world’s attention.

January 28th, 2011
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“Since the time when the church entered the stream of history, it has appeared to the world as a complicated enigma, a riddle without a solution. Here are some of the questions. What is the distinct character of the church of Jesus Christ? What place does it occupy in history? How can the church’s claims be rationalized and what are proper responses to them? At what point can the question of what the church is be broached? Government officials in every country and state where the church is found have to face the question of what the church is. We are not the first ones to ask these questions. Since the time of Justin [ca. 100-ca.165] and Clement [ca. 100], of Celsus[1] [d. ca. 200] and Porphyrus[2] [ca. 232-ca. 303], philosophers have had to face them. Various modern scholarly disciplines, including historical research, psychology, sociology and the scientific study of religion [Religionswissenschaft], have examined the phenomena associated with the church in an attempt to provide a definition. So far no government has found an answer to the question of what the church is and it seems unlikely that any scientific discipline will have more success. “Their conclusions in defining the church conflict with each other.” What is the reason for their failure to come up with an answer? The answer obviously lies in the simple fact that there are no real analogous organizations which can serve as a standard or norm to which the church can be compared. Since comparisons are necessary in making definitions, it is impossible to define the church. The discipline of comparative religions, as the name indicates, compares the church with other religions. Its claims for revelation can be placed along side the beliefs and teachings of the other great world religions. The methods used in the history of religions and sociology can be used in placing the earliest forms of Christianity along side of Hellenistic Gnostic cults. This can be expanded to make other comparisons. A Catholic Church in its development can be compared with the “people” of Islam. The same comparison can be made between the social forms which have appeared in Christian history and the corresponding Asiatic world religions which appeared at that time. Recognizable parallels are easy to come by. It takes a bit of daring to take standards of the school of the history of religions, which are so obviously human conceptions, and then to use them in examining the phenomena associated with the church. At first glance such a scholarly approach holds out the promise of providing a definition of the church and what its essence is. This approach promises to deliver more than it actually does and soon proves to be deceptive. While for some phenomena connected with Christianity, some parallels can be found, for others there is neither an explanation nor a comparison. In what is beyond explanation, where there are no parallels in the history of religion (comparative religions) or in how religious associations are structured, the mystery of the church’s essence is hidden. One way out of the dilemma of explaining why the unique phenomena of the church are beyond explanation is to take refuge in the Latin axiom: “Individuum est ineffabile [What is distinctive or unique is beyond definition].” Unique individuality is not uncommon to history. This still leaves the problem of finding an answer for an historical definition, since the unique individuality of something living – like the church – cannot be so easily explained. Florenski[3] once said that the inability to come to a definition of what the church is demonstrates its living character. Looking for the answer of what makes the church the church simply goes beyond the limits of the scientific study of the history of religions and examining the structure of other human organizations. It must be conceded from the start that if the church is constituted by what its members believe, its rituals and its organizational structure, then the church should be studied along with other religious organizations which also have statements of what they believe and which have rituals. This approach leads to only one conclusion: the church’s essence is then not really distinctive. In this case the Christian church is only a peculiar or idiosyncratic historical phenomenon, as defined by the history of religions. But another such phenomenon resembling the church simply does not exist. The church has no parallels. There are no Jewish, Parsee (followers of Zoroaster), Manichean, Mohammedan or Buddhist churches. There is no church of Mithra. For the church is the body of Christ. She is not only called, but really is the body of Christ. She is the people of God in the same way that she is temple of the Holy Spirit. There is no such thing as the body of Mohammed or of Buddha, or a body of Serpis or Mithra. Only under the presupposition that Jesus Christ is really the Son of God, who for the sake of us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was really made man,[4] can the church be the church. The church is church only because what the ancient creed says about the person of Jesus Christ, his birth, his death, his resurrection and his ascension, is really true. If all these things were not true, to drag up an old saying, these things are no more or less significant than any other good story. In this case the church, as we understand it, simply does not exist. The church has no other response for explaining the reason for the world’s failure to understand what she really is than by pointing out that the world does not believe in Christ. What the church believes about herself is dependent on what she believes about Jesus. If non-Christians know nothing of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, how could they possibly recognize his actual and personal presence in the world through the church? Does the church have a way of proclaiming the mystery of her existence in the world other than by proclaiming the presence of her exalted Lord? What the church is can only be shown by confessing Christ. Woe to the church, which seeks a way other than confessing Christ to gain the world’s attention. Ecumenical Council for Practical Christianity.”

Law and Gospel (December 1936). Hermann Sasse, Erlangen. Translated by David P. Scaer

[1] Celsus was a second century pagan philosopher. His attack on Christianity is the oldest of which portions survive. It is known to us from “Contra Celsum” by Origen which is a third century work which preserves 90% of Celsus’ original work, “Alaqh~ Logo~” or “True Word.” ODCC p. 311. MH

[2] Neoplatonist philosopher, perhaps once a Christian by definitely no longer so by the persecution of Decius in 250. Studied philosophy at Athens and was convinced of Neoplatonism by Plotinus, whom he met in Rome in 262. Studied popular religion and took a particularly negative attitude toward Christianity. He pointed out alleged inconsistencies in the Gospels and attacked the O.T. Refutations were presented by St. Methodius of Olympus, Eusebius of Ceasarea, Apollinarius of Laodicia, and others. ODCC p. 1309. MH

[3] George Florovsky 1893-1979, Russian theologian. From 1926 professor of Patristics at the Orthodox Theological Institute of St. Sergius in Paris and later Professor of Dogmatics. Came to the U.S. in 1948, professor and dean at St. Vladimier’s Seminary (1948-1955) and Professor of Eastern Church History at Harvard Divinity School (1956-1964), and Visiting Professor at Princeton from 1964. Played a leading part in the ecumenical movement from 1937 serving regularly as a delegate at assemblies of the Faith and Order movement and of the World Council of Churches. ODCC p. 620. MH

[4] Reference to the second article of the Nicene Creed. MH

“Gesetz und Evangelium.” Oekumenischen Rat Fuer Praktisches Christentum. Forschungsabteilung. Vertraulich Kirch, Dezember 1936. Unpublished paper. Feuerhahn Bibliography no. 36-02. This paper was written in preparation for the upcoming Faith and Order Conference at Edinburgh (1937). Sasse was at this time under prohibition of travel, as he had been when he attended a Faith and Order committee meeting in London at Archbishop Temple’s residence earlier in the year. He was also deeply involved into the open schism in the Confessing Church. The pressures he was facing at the time of this publication were enormous. The entire article will appear soon in “The Lonely Way” vol. 3, from C.P.H. MH

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