The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s President Explains Why Herman Sasse is an Important Voice to Hear Today
The following is an interview with Matthew C. Harrison addressing the importance of Hermann Sasse and his Letters to Pastors to the current life of the Church. The book is also available in Kindle eBook format.
Who was Hermann Sasse?
Until the end of World War II, Sasse was a pastor and professor in Germany; then he emigrated to Australia, where he served as a professor at Immanuel Seminary in South Australia. He came out of a very liberal education prior to the end of World War I, but gradually and decisively turned toward confessional Lutheranism. Sasse was very active in the ecumenical movement before he was forbidden to travel by the Nazis. He was the first in the German church to publicly take the Nazis to task for the “Aryan paragraph” in the party platform. Sasse contributed to Kittel’s Dictionary of the New Testament and wrote the greatest book in English on Luther’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (This Is My Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar). He fought tirelessly for solid Lutheranism. When his own church, the Bavarian Church, joined a union of Lutherans and Reformed churches (the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland [Evangelical Church in Germany or EKiD]), Sasse joined the German free church. Ultimately he left Germany to teach at the seminary of the Lutheran Church of Australia. He spent the rest of his life writing public letters, books, and treatises rallying confessional Lutherans around the world and rousing particularly The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) just as it was drifting from its historic confession. He died in 1976.
Sasse saw the LCMS as the “last hope” for world confessional Lutheranism. Yet post-World War II Missouri Synod (and particularly the seminary in St. Louis) was bent on a path of Lutheran union in the United States. Sasse believed the danger to the LCMS was either a confessionless entry into the Ecumenical Movement and the loss of doctrinal substance, or evangelical fundamentalism. His writings are largely historical/doctrinal treatises on pertinent topics of world Christianity and Lutheranism that apply even in our day. LCMS President John Behnken (1884–1968, president 1935–62) very much wanted Sasse to teach at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, but the administration of the seminary was strongly opposed.
What was the genesis of the group of documents gathered together as Letters to Pastors? Who received these letters and how were they communicated more broadly?
In 1948, Sasse wrote to Herman A. Preus: “The only thing I can do is write letters.” As he was preparing to enter self-imposed exile in Australia, Sasse began writing treatises on what it means to be a confessional Lutheran, commenting on basic issues of Bible and confession, the Lord’s Supper, church fellowship, Baptism, the Office of the Ministry, church governance, Luther’s teachings, and much more. The letters, written in German, were dispersed in mimeographed form in the early years by Sasse’s friend Rev. F. Hopf, who had remained in Germany. Americans began translating the letters immediately. Now, for the first time, we have translated all seventy letters and are publishing them in a series of three volumes.
There is great controversy surrounding a couple of the letters in this volume. Why publish them?
Upon his arrival in Australia, Sasse was immediately placed on a committee working toward the unification of the country’s two Lutheran bodies (one associated with the American Lutheran Church and the other with the LCMS). The issue of Scripture, its inspiration and inerrancy, was central in the discussions. Sasse had studied under the most notorious liberal of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Adolf von Harnack. While Sasse had moved far away from Harnack’s rejection of all the supernatural content of the Bible, when Sasse wrote Letter 14 and then Letter 16, he was convinced that the inerrancy of the Bible did not include all issues addressed, but only issues of faith and belief. There was a tremendous backlash, and eventually Sasse retracted Letter 14. However, many in the LCMS who were arguing against absolute inerrancy and for higher criticism picked up on this letter in particular. I have included these significant letters along with other supporting documentation so readers can see that Sasse moved significantly on the issue, and so readers can see, in part, what was at stake in the great battle for the Bible in the LCMS. At the same time, Sasse’s concern that the Missouri Synod might lose a fundamentally Lutheran view of Scripture and church because of its participation in America’s evangelical/Protestant context remained a real concern. Although we must disagree with Sasse at this point in his career, we can also see the validity of his concern.
How do you hope this volume will benefit the Church?
Sasse is tremendously lucid. He is a profound Lutheran historian. Jumping on his back, as it were, gives one a tour of the 2,000-year history of the church. He’s clear. He’s scriptural. He calls for
repentance and faith. He’s courageous. At times he’s a curmudgeon. He often says what is unpopular, though he says it in a gentle and generous manner. He’s uncompromisingly Lutheran yet sees what is good in other churches. Sasse touches on so many of the issues that challenge us today: the Office of the Ministry, the priesthood of believers, relationships with other church bodies, closed Communion, understanding the Roman Catholic Church, mission/evangelism, theological education, and so much more. Through it all, Sasse brings us back to basics, to the very Gospel itself.