Review of “The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse,” By John T. Pless

The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse, eds. Matthew C. Harrison, Bror Erickson, and Joel A. Brondos (Irvine: New Reformation Publications, 2016), 647 pp.

Hermann Sasse (1895–1976) is remembered for his staunch confessionalism, largely out of step with twentieth century theology. The journey of his life was a movement away from the Prussian Union and the teachers of his youth in Berlin, particularly Adolph von Harnack and Karl Holl, toward a carefully articulated case for the distinctiveness of the Lutheran church in the world. Postgraduate studies at Hartford Seminary in 1925 and 1926 would expose him to American Christianity. While in the States he admitted to becoming a loyal Lutheran through the reading of Wilhelm Loehe’s Three Books about the Church.

Returning to Germany, Sasse was active in ecumenical affairs. He collaborated with Bonhoeffer in writing the Bethel Confession but refused to sign the Barmen Declaration as he evaluated it as Barthian. Along with such notables as Werner Elert and Paul Althaus, Sasse served on the faculty at Erlangen during the Nazi era. It was during this period that he wrote Here We Stand, a book that was translated into English in 1938 by his friend Theodore Tappert and widely used in American Lutheran seminaries of all stripes in the 1940s and 50s. Disappointed with unionistic path taken by the Lutheran Church in Bavaria after World War II, Sasse emigrated to Australia for a teaching post at Immanuel Lutheran Seminary in Adelaide.

While he was geographically isolated in Australia, Sasse kept abreast of theology in Europe and North America. His engagement was often through circular letters, mimeographed and mailed to Lutheran pastors and professors the world over. The letters have been collected and published in a three-volume set by Concordia Publishing House. Other significant essays have been translated and edited by Matthew Harrison in a two-volume set, The Lonely Way, also published by Concordia. Sasse’s wartime sermons translated by Bror Erickson are available in Witness, published by Magdeburg Press. His major book on the Lord’s Supper, This is My Body, was published by Augsburg Publishing House already in 1959. The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse now rounds out the corpus of Sasse’s collected works in English.

The materials in this most recent anthology are from the Australian years. The majority of the articles and book reviews in this volume were published in the Reformed Theological Review, an Australian journal. It was no accident that Sasse, who was highly critical of Reformed intrusions into Lutheran theology and church life, would be a welcomed contributor to this journal. Sasse was respected as a conservative Lutheran theologian who was willing to engage with those outside of his tradition. In fact, Sasse served for a while as president of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in Australia.

Sasse’s confessionalism was by no means a narrow parochialism. He was a friend and regular correspondent with Cardinal Augustin Bea, a highly influential figure in the years of the Second Vatican Council. Several of the entries in The Journal Articles are commentary on decisions of the Council. A significant number of articles deal with aspects of the ecumenical movement with which Sasse was intimately acquainted. He narrates the history of the ecumenical movement from its origins in Pietism and the great missionary movements of the nineteenth century. In a 1953 essay, Sasse worried that the ecumenical movement was so eager for reunion that it neglected truth. He wrote, “Ecumenical discussions can be fruitful but only if carried on between those who have a common doctrinal basis, be it the Nicene Creed or the ‘sola scriptura’ of the Reformation. Without such expression of common convictions and a common faith, the ecumenical discussions will lead not to a new Pentecost, but a Babel-like confusion of tongues. That is the tragedy of modern ecumenical organizations. What is meant to be a means of overcoming the divisions of Christendom has practically destroyed the unity that already existed” (p. 7). To be sure, Sasse is critical, but there is no hint of mean-spiritedness or cynicism. His polemic is intended to serve the truth of the one gospel which alone creates the unity of the church.

Along with essays on matters ecumenical, there are numerous essays on the nature of Holy Scripture and its authority. Shortly after his arrival in Australia, Sasse became entangled in debates on scriptural inerrancy, to the frustration and dismay of some of his friends in the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods. Critical of both the skepticism embodied in Rudolph Bultmann and the ahistorical approach of fundamentalism, Sasse sought a path forward that would avoid both extremes. His essays examine the emergence of the dogma of Holy Scripture and are suggestive of ways to confess that the Bible, like Christ, has both a divine and human nature. Although misunderstood on this point, Sasse asserted that to speak of the Bible’s human nature does not imply a capacity for error.

Also included in this volume are forty-two book reviews published in the Reformed Theological Review. These reviews demonstrate the wide-ranged of Sasse’s theological interest and give insight into his evaluation of his contemporaries such as Wingren, Schlink, Tillich, Cullmann, Elert, and Pelikan.

Given the current situation of global Lutheranism, it is not an overstatement to say that Hermann Sasse spoke prophetically. We have a record of his prophetic voice in this volume. No sectarian, Sasse was both confessional and ecumenical. He knew that the Lutheran Confessions stand in service to the whole church of Jesus Christ. These articles and reviews demonstrate the depth of his knowledge and the wide range of his ecclesiastical connections.

John T. Pless is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Mission at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Leave a Reply