Sasse on Ecumenism and Unity

Anyone interested in ecumenical endeavors has a lot to learn from Hermann Sasse.  Where today do we have someone as knowledgeable about as many different confessions and church struggles?  His interest in and love for those of other confessions should not be in doubt, and yet he was able to hold just as strongly to his love for the Lutheran confession.  Who sees as clearly where the real issue lies?  While we talk around and around over peripheral issues, Sasse sees the heart of the matter.

And what about the Lutheran Churches of America? They would have been entitled to speak and act for the Lutheran Confession at that time. In the thirty years which now have passed since the formation of the L.W.F. at Lund they have increased in stature and in favor with man. Whether also in wisdom and favor with God remains an open question. They have sent their young men to Europe to get a European degree in theology, preferably
a German one which is supposed to be the seal of perfect wisdom and knowledge. The time may come whcn our American brethren will realize that “authentic scholarship” and “relevant scientific thcology” does not save churches….  It was a false “critical” theology which has destroyed the Word of God instead of explaining it. A theology is false and a nuisance to the Church which destroys the dogmatic substance of the church under the pretext
to make it plain or to express it in “relevant” terms which modern man would readily accept. It is true of mankind in all ages: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” even not the man who has reached the state of “maturity.” … [Hello Seminex!]

Why do neither the church historians nor the dogmaticians nor the practical theologians examine these claims? Why does no one ask, in an age of alleged deeper Biblical studies, what the New Testament teaches on Church, church unity, the ministry? Why do we all take modern concepts of the ecumenical movement for granted? Who tells us that God wants all who call themselves Christians to be united in one big visible church? Certainly not our Lord and His Apostles. We read that into the New Testament. Who has invented the idea that the Church as the Body of Christ consists of churches and that this body is unfortunately divided? The body of Christ cannot be divided, neither the sacramental nor the spiritual body. “A sumente non concisus / non confractus, non divisus / Integer accipitur.” Who has invented the myth of an “Ancient undivided Church” which must be “reunited” into the “Future Reunited Church”? Who has invented the idea that by means of a dialog we can attain unity? In some cases it may be possible, in others not. Most certainly it will not be possible if this dialog aims at a minimum of doctrine and at formulas of compromise. A lot of these have been written in our time to overcome the doctrinal differences concerning the sacraments.  No formula has been found yet to overcome the contrast between those who teach that the consecrated bread is the body of Christ and those who teach that it is not. Even if in Holland, the home of Cornelis Hoen from whom Zwingli took over his doctrine, Roman Catholics now try their hands at a compromise by suggesting a new doctrine of “transsignification” (“In Holland everything changes in the Church except bread and wine”), the alternative remains. And all compromises on the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Baptism are marred by the fact that when unity seems to be reached the representative of the Quakers and the Salvation Army rises and states that all is nice and good, but that external sacraments are not necessary. Then you may try to convince him that this is wrong. In the very moment when the Quaker admits, he ceases to be a Quaker and must be replaced by another Quaker.  So the dialog must be continued until the last member of the Society of Friends has accepted the sacraments. And the dialog itself? We already hear alarming statements that our separated brethren in Rome, after they have converted the other churches to a renewed Catholic Church wish to extend the dialog to the Jews, the Mohammedans, the Buddhists, the Marxists and atheists.

But it may then happen that not only the walls between the Christian denominations become transparent (Edmund Schlink), but also other walls. We quote only one example. At the meeting of the International Missionary Council at Tambaram, Madras, in 1938 Walter Marshall Horton spoke of his friendship with “a Buddhist priest whom to this day I persist in regarding as my brother in Christ. He gave me a picture of a Bodhisattva . . . which to him perfectly symbolized the spirit and attitude required by his simple creed: ‘to cleanse the heart of evil, and endeavour to make this world a kingdom of God.’ There is a faint smile of self-congratulation on that picture face, which reminds me of the great gulf that remains forever fixed between Buddhist self-discipline and the Christian sense of grace toward sinners; but when I talked with the priest who gave me the picture, that gulf was not there. Differences of tradition seemed to vanish behueen us, as I often felt them melting away between Christians of different communions at ecumenical gatherings, and our souls met in something less tangible and definable than forms of speech and thought, but infinitely more real and authoritative. If I belong in any sense to the Body of Christ,-then he does too. It would be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Wind of God that bloweth where it listeth, for me to deny my Buddhist brother his place in that Body. When I ventured to say as much to a group of Christians in Kobe the next day, I was sternly reminded that ‘There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’; but I thought to myself that I have rather have the Spirit without the Name, than the Name without the Spirit” (Tambaram Series vol. I, “The authority of Faith,” London 1939, p. 149f.; emphasis added). This is the end of the dialog, if consistently carried on. We all should love our pagan brother in Adam. He is a sinner, as I am a sinner. But to make him my Brother in Christ, this is the denial of Christ, the only Saviour of sinners, of the Holy Spirit, of the Living God and His eternal Word. (Hermann Sasse, “Confessional Churches in the Ecumenical Movement,” The Springfielder, XXXI:1 (Spring, 1967), 25-27 [])

May God grant us to listen again to Sasse, and raise up his heirs among us.