Do yourself a favor and buy this book today. The first letter, if you are a Missouri Synod pastor or layman and care about what the Missouri Synod once confessed and (supposedly) still confesses today, will make you cry and repent on your knees. But Sasse gives hope, as you’ll see in the last quote. There are many others wonderful things Sasse says in this letter. These are merely the tip of the iceberg. Now, I beg you, please buy this book.
Confession and Theology in the Missouri Synod, 1951
Missouri would be no Lutheran Church if she had not asked herself again and again on what her understanding of the missionary duty of the church is founded. Missouri would have no right to call herself Lutheran had she not again and again measured her own actions by the Word of God, and acknowledged and confessed her own sins. However, the errors and sins which were committed in this area do not change the fact that this church has recognized the missionary duty of Lutheranism.
For this type of Lutheranism possessed that which, given a missionary situation, makes a church a missionary church: the consciousness of vocation and a firm dogmatic conviction, without which missionary preaching is impossible. The consciousness of the Stephanist church as being the remnant of the pure Lutheran Church was refined through catastrophe. Through Walther’s preaching and pastoral ministry [Seelsorge] was produced the true Lutheran Church consciousness in the sense of a congregation standing in justifying faith and living by the means of grace. This explains the consciousness of vocation found in the Missouri Synod. And this consciousness of vocation is inseparably bound up with the dogmatic conviction of Lutheran orthodoxy.
[Walther’s] Lutheranism is limited, not by the theology of Spener, but by that of the orthodoxy of the late sixteenth and of the seventeenth centuries. Luther seen through the spectacles of orthodoxy is the Luther of Walther and of the Missouri Synod. This is certainly not a perfect picture of Luther; nevertheless, it is better than those which are pietistically and romantically colored.
The secret lies in the existence of genuine congregations which are able to attract people and to integrate them into themselves, to stir up their slumbering faith and to draw them into the service of Christ. The secret of the missionary successes of Missouri is the living congregation of the Missouri Synod.
It happens again and again in political history that nations, despite long wars waged with each other— indeed, in these very wars—grow into unity. So it can happen in the history of the church, that churches which fought hard with each other concerning the truth become one. For the church of God on earth is also subject to the law of secular history that peace is achieved through struggle. In any event, those who themselves surrendered pure doctrine without a struggle have no right to criticize the Lutheran Churches in the Anglo-Saxon world on account of their doctrinal controversies. There simply is no preservation of pure doctrine without the fight against false doctrine, no affirmation of the truth without negation of error, no confession of the church without condemnation of heresy. Therefore condemnation of error can be understood only when one knows which truth is being defended with the anathema. Also in the case of the Missouri Synod, the struggle against error was only the negative side of the effort in behalf of the preservation of the pure Gospel as they understood it.
Faith cannot be bequeathed by one generation to another. It must be born anew in every generation, must be worked through a miracle of the Holy Spirit. As parents can never guarantee the faith of their children, so the church of the present cannot assure the faith of the next generation. She can lay down her teaching in books. She can establish schools in which this doctrine is transmitted to youth. But what this youth will do with the doctrine transmitted to it lies beyond the power of the church. Faith cannot be transmitted. This also constitutes a limit to the transmission of the Confession of the church . For us Lutherans the Confession is the great expression of the continuity of the church. It expresses the great consensus of faith, teaching, and confession which unites the church of all times, the oneness of true faith, which binds us today with the fathers who believed before us and with all coming generations who will believe after us. We transmit this Confession to our children in order that it may become their Confession. Whether it will be their Confession depends solely on the grace of God in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, who through the means of grace, as through instruments, “works faith when and where He pleases” [AC V].
It is not the question concerning the strength of the external organization, the constitution, the growth of the congregation , or the school system . Nor is it the question with respect to the position of the Confession as the basis for the message and work of the church. Rather, it is the question concerning the strength of the Lutheran faith in the sense of the genuine deep faith of the heart in the saving Gospel, which the Holy Spirit alone can give. It is the question whether and to what extent this strongest confessional church of Lutheranism is a truly confessing church, a church in which the Lutheran Confession is not merely held in honor as the confession of the fathers and therefore in force and unassailable. It is the question whether the Confession is the confession of a living faith of the congregation and therefore the formative life principle of the church. It is the question which Missouri, even as every other church, must ask herself in humility and must answer before the face of God: Are we still Lutheran?
It is sufficient to note that in the Missouri Synod itself the minds of men are deeply troubled over the question whether the Synod is still a Lutheran Church in the essential sense of the word, or whether she is in danger of losing her Lutheran character. It is not accidental that this question arose in connection with the problem of church fellowship, the correct doctrine concerning the oneness of the church and of a practice in conformity with this doctrine. For the essence of the Lutheran Church becomes manifest in connection with the question of where the limits of church and church fellowship lie.
What does the great satis est [“ it is sufficient for the true unity of the church …”] mean? What does consentire de doctrina evangelii [“ to agree regarding the doctrine of the Gospel,” AC VII 2] mean? What is the minimum of consensus which must be there if church fellowship is to be possible? Is it sufficient that there is a factual agreement in the preaching of the Gospel? Or must this also be expressed by a joint confession? It is no small surprise to the European theologian who addresses these questions to the varied groupings within the Missouri Synod, and tries to understand their discussion, to find that they do not understand our question. They are unconcerned about the understanding of the Augsburg Confession, Article VII, but about the exegesis of a Scripture passage, namely, Rom. 16: 17ff. This passage appears to them to be the locus classicus for the doctrine concerning the limits of church fellowship. For years the whole debate has revolved around this passage as though there were not a number of other passages in the light of which the Pauline admonition to avoid those who cause divisions and offenses must be understood. The biblical doctrine concerning the oneness and the boundaries of the church, concerning schism and heresy, concerning conduct toward schismatics and heretics must be drawn from many passages, which shed light on one another…. The fruitlessness of the debate which has been waged for many years about Rom. 16: 17ff. is explained by the one-sidedness with which this passage has been singled out. This passage cannot give the desired information because Paul does not name the false doctrines for which anathema is intended but assumes that they are known.
The Lutheran Confessions no longer play the role in the life and in the theological thinking of the Missouri Synod— in fact, for all of American Lutheranism they play nothing of the role— which they played during the nineteenth century [Sasse’s emphasis here]. They are recognized as the self-evident and unassailable foundation of the church. To test them on the touchstone of Scripture is considered unnecessary. Their complete agreement with Holy Scripture is presupposed. Anyone who would deny this would be considered no longer a Lutheran. This is a deep and honest conviction.
the Confession is far from playing the role which it was compelled to play during the nineteenth century in the struggle for the preservation of Lutheranism in the face of the demands of unionism, as we have shown in another connection (Letters to Lutheran Pastors, nos. 10 and 15). At that time the Confession was needed to save the very existence of the Lutheran Church. Today the existence of the Lutheran Church is no longer in question (so at least it appears to the Lutheran brethren), and so the Confession recedes in their thinking. The consequence of this has been that considerable parts of American Lutheranism appear to have made their peace with the union, e.g., the great United Lutheran Church or the Augustana Synod. Even in the churches of the Synodical Conference the Confessions are now the undebatable or no longer debatable presuppositions of the church rather than the expression of the great consensus of faith [AC I 1], from the vantage point of which the great decisions of the church must be made. Even in the case of pressing [ganz aktuellen] theological and ecclesiastical questions, which must be answered on the basis of the Confession, it is no longer consulted.
One of the reasons for the astonishing receding of the confessional writings in the Lutheran theology of America during the past generation is probably to be sought in the fact that the Lutheran Churches had to conduct their debates not with the other confessions, but among themselves…. It is not to be criticized that Lutherans in a certain situation declare how they understand certain doctrines of the Confession. Yet such formulations can never take the place of the ancient Confession itself. They lack completely the character of the Confession of the church, even when they have been approved by a synod. According to Lutheran understanding, a synod is unable to establish a new confession. This only the church can do— the orthodox church as a whole— by receiving a definite text as her confession.
The “Brief Statement” is, as it were, an epitome, drawn up for practical purposes, indicating how at the moment the chief doctrines of the Lutheran Confessions are understood by the Missouri Synod. More than this it cannot and does not desire to be. Necessary and useful as such a document is for practical use, it is nevertheless inevitable that also apart from the discussion for which it was intended it will be understood and treated as confession of the Missouri Synod, and that in the life and practice of the church it will for many actually take the place of the Confession of the church which it was meant to support.
Are we mistaken if we miss this joy with our brethren in the Missouri Synod when they speak of the Confession? Are we mistaken in believing that their understanding of the doctrine is wholly orthodox, but only in the sense of correct doctrine, while real orthodoxy includes a joyous praise to God? In the case of the old Missouri of Walther, it is still plainly noticeable that here, even as in the classical time of orthodoxy, dogma and liturgy belong together— how greatly St. Louis formerly influenced liturgy in America! If it were still so today, would not then orthodox Lutheranism in particular have something of importance to say to the liturgical movement in America? Christian America, more than many Lutherans sense, waits today for a word from Lutheranism. Members of the Protestant churches in the United States sense the fact that the surrender of the confession of the fathers which has taken place in all these churches during the past century constitutes an irreparable loss of something that is essential for church and for Christianity.
The Wisconsin Synod, for instance, never accepted the narrow concept of church as it prevailed in Missouri, according to which only the local congregation is really church and can act as a church, yet both were in the Synodical Conference. Nevertheless a very extensive measure of agreement on theological questions was the presupposition for communicatio in sacris.
No one desires to abandon the old Lutheran Missourian doctrine as it is expressed in the “Brief Statement.” The difference appears to lie only in the question of how one makes this doctrine effective today.
The polemics between these two parties [the “ecumenical” Missourians and the Confessional Lutheran supporters] which is so deeply regretted by all members and all friends of the Missouri Synod owes its acidity and its hopelessness above all things to the fact that both sides talk past each other, either because they do not understand the dogmatic side of the problem at all or at least insufficiently. By moving the whole problem into the area of ethics and pastoral theological casuistry (How does the individual pastor or the individual Christian or the individual congregation act in a given case on the basis of Scripture ?), the “ecumenical” Missourians overlook the fact that the problem is dogmatic and theological, and therefore cannot be solved with the means of pastoral care alone. The Confessional Lutheran men on the other side do not understand why the old solutions have become questionable for many and that they are in need of further examination, which must lead either to new proof or to revision. They consider it self-understood that Lutherans, between whose churches there remain unsolved differences with respect to the doctrines treated in the “Brief Statement,” can have no pulpit, altar, and prayer fellowship with one another. Basically, both sides make the same mistake, which is a result of the retreat of the “Lutheran Confession” in the thinking and acting of their church. It strikes one as strange that “A Statement” of 1945 contains no appeal to the Confession . It spoke of “the great Lutheran principle of the inerrancy, certainty, and all sufficiency of Holy Writ” and otherwise appealed in every article to the “historic Lutheran position” in the questions discussed. There is not the faintest trace of understanding for the fact that the question of church fellowship and the limits of the church, and this means the question concerning the essence of the Lutheran Church, has been placed anew before our generation through the events of world history and therefore needs a new answer, whatever that answer may turn out to be.
If it belongs to the essence of the Lutheran Church that it is a confessional church, the Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession—which in turn means, since the later confessions are all commentaries on the Augsburg Confession, the Church of the Book of Concord— then it is a matter of the very existence of the Missouri Synod that it remain also in the future the church which is loyal to the Confession, rooted in the Confession, and proclaiming the evangelical truth attested by the Confession. It is a matter of her theological, not her physical, existence…. But the vital question for a church is not so much whether it will continue to live, but whether it will remain that which it has been and which according to its innermost essence it ought to be.
Reformed Fundamentalism makes the relationship to Christ depend on the relationship to the Bible, as Catholicism makes it depend on the relationship to the church. This is a wrong deduction from the fact that without the Scripture or the oral Word which is based upon the Scripture we would know nothing of Christ. The faith of the Lutheran Church in the Scripture is based on her faith in Christ. It is basically faith in Christ because the Bible, and this is true of the whole Bible, is testimony concerning Christ . Our faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God is therefore an entirely different faith from the faith of Fundamentalism in the Bible , which at least logically and factually precedes faith in Christ. The conviction that the Scripture from beginning to end is inspired and therefore the inerrant Word of God, whose statements can be trusted absolutely, is not necessarily Christian faith.
Historical research in Lutheran theology has shown how deeply orthodoxy was influenced by that same Aristotelian philosophy which Luther had banished from dogmatics. We know now that orthodoxy is a very similar synthesis of the natural (reason) and supernatural (revelation) knowledge of God as was the scholasticism of the Middle Ages. Francis Pieper [1852– 1931], the great systematician of the Missouri Synod, could have known this if he had taken cognizance of the results of historical research. But he was so completely the systematician, and so completely imprisoned in the systems of orthodoxy, that he disregarded history [Sasse goes on to mention Jaroslav Pelikan’s book “From Luther to Kierkegaard” as a fine example of understanding orthodoxy historically].
For as soon as the sola Scriptura is superordinated to the sola fide we are on the road to a false understanding of the Lutheran Church. It is the Reformed understanding of the evangelical, the Protestant Church, which emerges victorious.
The church today also has one thing which preserves her— only one thing, only one person— Him who has reserved for Himself the task of being the Savior of His Body. One of the most comforting truths which the New Testament teaches us with respect to the church is that the prayer for the preservation of the church is not our prayer alone . The greatest of all prayers which are preserved for us in the Holy Scripture, perhaps the greatest prayer which ever was spoken on earth , is the prayer in John 17 of the eternal High Priest for His church on earth. We know from Scripture that it is not on earth only that prayers are spoken. There is praying also in heaven. The mystery of prayer reaches into the Holy Trinity itself, as the prayer of Jesus shows. This is our comfort, dear brethren, wherever we may be performing our office in the church in this difficult and sorrowful time, as it was the comfort of our fathers during the “evening of the world,” as they regarded their time. This comfort gives us the strength to work while it is day [cf. John 9:4]. The most necessary task we have to perform in the English-speaking world is that we learn again to read Luther and the Confessions as men began to learn to do it in Europe after the First World War. Here lies your greatest theological task, brethren, in the Missouri Synod. That which your church has done since the days of Walther to preserve the knowledge of Luther, you must now do for a second time. If this can be done together with other Lutheran Churches of your country, and perhaps with the Lutherans of the whole English-speaking world, it will be all the better for all concerned [emphasis mine here].