Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume 1 (1948–1951), by Hermann Sasse. Edited and Translated by Matthew C. Harrison. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013. 480 pages.
Hermann Sasse (1895–1976) was a German Lutheran pastor and professor. From 1933 to 1949 he served as professor at the University of Erlangen. In 1949 Sasse emigrated to Australia and became professor of history at Immanuel Theological Seminary of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia. His major works include Here We Stand (CPH, 1988), This is My Body (Augsburg 1959), and collections of essays in the We Confess Anthology (CPH 2003) and The Lonely Way series (CPH, 2001-2002).
Letters to Lutheran Pastors is the first volume of a collection of letters which Sasse wrote to pastors in his native Germany and throughout the world. Sasse employed this form of communication to publish material when other means of publication would have been impossible (due to censorship or cost). The letters were widely read, translated, and distributed. Many of the letters were first published in English in the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly. This collection includes letters one through nineteen, which were written between 1948 and 1952.
The volume begins with a series of letters written not by, but about Hermann Sasse. These letters were originally collected from various theologians, colleagues, and friends, to be included in “The Lonely Way” series. They speak to Sasse’s significant influence on Lutherans around the globe, and particularly within the synods of the Synodical Conference. In addition, the editor includes a useful biographical sketch of Sasse which gives an overview of Sasse’s life and work. This sketch helps provide the context in which Sasse’s letters were written.
The letters deal primarily with the state of Lutheranism throughout the world, especially Lutheranism in Germany. At the same time, Sasse always took a great interest in and maintained significant familiarity with events shaping American Lutheranism, especially among the churches of the former Synodical Conference.
The broad scope of Sasse’s letters should be of great interest to confessional Lutherans in America today.
First, as a matter of historical perspective, Letters to Lutheran Pastors presents Sasse’s view of the events of the day, as well as his own presentation of prior history leading up to his day. He provides a closer perspective on events and movements of German Lutheranism which shape Lutheranism to this day, such as: the Prussian Union, the Barmen Declaration, the free-church movement. When he relates the events and movements of his own day, he presents a first-hand, primary source account. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to track the people and events that would have been more familiar to his original audience. The editor’s footnotes often help by providing background information on some of these details.
Secondly, Sasse provides an outsider’s (European) perspective on American religion in general and Lutheranism in particular. Sasse spent time in the United States in 1925 at Hartford Theological Seminary, which influenced him greatly. Something like Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 evaluation of American democracy, observant outsiders are often able to identify uniquely American traits which we as Americans are not even aware are unique. Sasse’s letters provide that perspective for American Lutheranism.
Thirdly, in his Letters to Lutheran Pastors (along with his other writings which found their way to the United States), Sasse sent American Lutherans an eye-opening appraisal of the state of Lutheranism in the world and a reminder of what is essential to the Lutheran faith and its confession. One LCMS writer called Sasse’s writing a “theological infusion” into the Missouri Synod of the 1950’s. One example is Sasse’s writings on the Sacraments. When Sasse wrote his first letter (“Concerning the Status of the Lutheran Churches in the World”), none of Luther’s writings on the Lord’s Supper had yet been translated into English.
Finally, many of his observations may still find application to the church today, especially as many of the movements which began in the middle of the last century have continued to grow and bear their fruit up to the present day. Sasse’s observations occasionally strike as prescient, and have only now come to fulfillment. Here are just a few thought-provoking quotes to whet the appetite:
The discipline of prayer, both of private and congregational prayer, the understanding of the liturgy in general, has been widely lost. (50)
The Lutheran Churches are still sunning themselves in the delusion that they have something to expect from the world other than the dear holy cross. (75)
Every new day in the Church of Christ has begun with a movement of repentance. (84)
We pastors no longer know and understand the liturgical treasures of our church, and therefore are not in a position to introduce our congregations to them. (85)
No Christian of the Reformation, apart from the followers of the Reformation at Zurich and Geneva, could conceive of a Sunday Divine Service without the Lord’s Supper. (88)
Ever since the sixteenth century there have been two Lutheranisms in constant struggle with each other. (179)
Ever since the close of the nineteenth century, the Augustana has been held to be beyond the grasp of a Christian congregation. (320)
It is not the children who are too immature for the Fifth part of the catechism, but the pastors, the professors, the ecclesiastical dignitaries who no longer believe it. (320)
A fight against “orthodoxism” has weight for the Lutheran Church only when it is accompanied by confession of orthodoxy. (415)
If the rule were introduced that only those should speak regarding the church’s confession who have actually studied the symbolical books, how quiet it would be! (459)
When one reads Sasse, it is important to understand the place from which Sasse writes. He is a German theologian battling in the German territorial church and dealing with the realities of the union movement. It is from this perspective that he writes about the ecumenical movement, which he sees as an opportunity to unite under a common confession, not regardless of confession, which is the basis for the false ecumenism that continues even to our day.
Sasse’s origins in the German church also gives a hint for the source of Sasse’s denial of innerancy as expounded in letter 14. The editor provides useful commentary and opposing viewpoints in the commentary.
Sasse’s letters (and work in general) are most valuable to be read by 21st century American pastors. Where Sasse was wrong, it is an exercise in hearing an argument and identifying the fallacies in that argument. At the same time, it is a reminder that even otherwise brilliant theologians may easily err in any point, and almost always in defense of another correct truth of Scripture.
But overall, Sasse speaks to the Lutheran church about the nature of her confession. “The future of Christianity in Germany and in the world depended on those churches who still dared to confess their dogma” (Sasse, In Statu Confessionis). In these letters, Sasse not only encourages a bold confession, he confesses. He presents the centrality of Christ, his Church, repentance and faith, Word and Sacrament for the church of his day and ours.