In an age where most church leaders have succumbed to the cult of “Bureaucratic Managerial Efficiency” as Alasdair MacIntyre in his great book “After Virtue” sees as the bane of the modern world—where the “Manager” has become the chief cultural role, and we get Machiavellian Politicians scheming and conniving to increase personal wealth and power under the guise of being “Servant Leaders” of the church (and providing “growth”!) the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is fortunate indeed to have, in Matthew Harrison, a genuine scholar-pastor as Synod President.
President Harrison was the presenter at the St. Mark’s Conference in Baltimore April 19-20 in which I was delighted to participate. Pr. Harrison is the leading scholar on the life and work of Dr. Hermann Sasse (1895-1976) whose confessional Lutheran theology has much to say to the church today.
Pr. Harrison began his presentation with a story that tells you much about Sasse and why he still is relevant today. Sasse served in World War I, and at the battle of Paschendale Nov. 7, 1917 (the day of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia) Sasse was one of only 5 men out of a regiment of 120 to have survived. Staggering into camp, his sergeant major greeted him with the words: “But we have buried you yesterday with full military honors.”
Dr. Sasse was educated at the University of Berlin by some of the most outstanding, influential (liberal) theologians of the late 19th-early 20th century—Adolf von Harnack, Karl Holl, and Adolf Deissmann (his doctor father). But the liberal theology he (and his frenemies Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) learned from them as he put it, “was something you can perhaps live on in happy times, but you can’t die with it. So that optimistic theology died for us in WWI.” He spent the rest of his life searching for a faith in which one could live and die.
So, Pr. Harrison’s story of Sasse … “When I was drafted into WWI, the Catholics were separated from the Lutherans by a Silesian officer. There were some left. ‘What are you?’ the officer asked. ‘An atheist’ came the reply. ‘So you believe nothing? You are a Protestant!’”
To a world where Protestantism is triumphant, where most believe nothing, Sasse has something to say. As he put it, many years later, “Pindar and Sophocles had vanished from our lives [after WWI], but one book remained, our Greek New Testament… [Sasse’s erudition and wide reading astonished even the highly accomplished scholars he knew]. As a pastor in Weimar Berlin in the late 20’s and early 30’s Sasse saw even more harsh realities. He talks of visiting an attempted suicide from his parish “in a ward of one of the big hospitals of East Berlin… I have never again, not even in the Bowery of New York, seen such misery, where the curses of the unsuccessful suicides mingled with the hellish noise of those who had destroyed their voices by taking poisonous acids. Now I had to face all he problems of a parish pastor, including the financial problems with which the church is confronted since the days of the apostles in Jerusalem.” The wry humor of the last line is a Sasse trademark. In the darkest of alleys he never despaired, nor was lacking a witty rejoinder.
Where did that courage, faith, and joy come from? In an essay from 1928 Kyrios Sasse says it comes, simply, from the biblical confession that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is indeed the Lord God, Yahweh come in the flesh, who has died for our sins and risen from the dead, who gives life and light to all by His Word and Sacrament, then we have a Faith here for which one can live and die— with a smile. While Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their Lost Generation buddies drank themselves silly in Parisian cafes that Albert Camus and friends would later take over, ever searching and never finding anything more inspiring than Sisyphus and his rock, Hermann Sasse found something, or as he would put it was found by Someone who moved him to courageous witness and joyful living even in the darkest of days.
It is this simple faith that the Lutheran Reformation rediscovered, the faith the Apostles Peter and Paul and John bequeathed and Athanasius and Augustine proclaimed that alone gives us something to live, die, and rise for—the Faith that Jesus is Lord that changed everything for Sasse and his friends.
This is why the question of the Church and Ministry became vital for Sasse as he was active in the Faith and Order ecumenical movement which morphed into the mid 20th century Liturgical Renewal movement (and the anti-Nazi resistance of the German Underground in the 30’s and 40’s). In another essay “ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia” [Where Christ, There Church] Continued on page 3 3 Sasse says “this question does not for us mean ‘where do we find the people who belong to this church’? But rather, ‘Where do we find Christ?’”
Sasse would find the answer in the Augsburg Confession Article V: “Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit works faith where and when He pleases in those who hear the Gospel”. Christ has promised to be found nowhere else, so those who would be His disciples, who would have communion with Jesus, share His life, death, and resurrection, will certainly find Him here and nowhere else!
This did away with all Enthusiasm—the idea that we find God through our religious experiences, or in holy living and servant leadership. It did away with all theologies whose proponents, as Sasse put it, “saw in the New Testament only a beautiful religious experience, pious sentiment, and useful ethics. Such persons will not understand this quest for the one truth.”
Sasse spent a year in the United States, 1925-26 and saw the secularization of the church rampant in America. It was just like a secular club. Sasse writes, “Worship [for Americans] has been, as they say ‘developed’. There must always be something new, and everything must be effective: lighting effect, musical effect, an effective liturgy.” Great men of American achieve their business goals. “Other chapters show Jesus as the master salesman or sportsman. If Jesus were living today, he would, in principle affirm American civilization… thus we have the basis for the practical church program of the American: the realization of democratic society through the work of the church.” Something for which he saw the LCMS going whole hog in the 60’s and 70’s. One shudders to think of how he would have judged the LCMS leaders of the 80s-00s! [uh, not well would be the answer].
All of that silliness comes from failing to confess that Jesus is LORD, Yahweh, the True God in whom alone is life and joy. It comes from failing (crucially!) to see that the Lord Christ is present only through the purely preached Gospel and ritely administered Sacraments in the apostolic Divine Liturgy of the church catholic [Lutheran].
Pr. Harrison concluded by pointing out that this simple, but profoundly Scriptural theology sees that: missions that result in individual witnessing are useless. Only missions which result in planting actual Christian congregations where divinely called pastors publicly proclaim the Gospel purely and administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution are doing anything that is actually Christian and useful.
Too much of what the LCMS has done since the 1940’s has been a secularizing of the church for the sake of human power and wealth. This harsh judgment of Sasse’s has been demonstrated again and again as a true judgment which calls us all to repentance. A simple return to the biblical faith of the Augsburg Confession on the one hand, and the restoration of the apostolic Divine Service or the ancient mass as our worship, on the other, is key to finding the Christian reason for living and dying that alone gives life, hope and peace to modern people adrift on a lonely way through an increasingly dark age.
We will do a study of President Harrison’s paper in an upcoming pastor’s class (time and date TBD) which should generate some lively discussion! I hope you will be able to join us.
-Pastor Kevin Martin