Hermann Sasse on “Fathers of the Church”:
Patriarchs of sacred story
And the prophets there are found;
The apostles, too, in glory
On twelve seats are there enthroned
All the saints that have ascended
Age on age, through time extended,
There in blissful concert sing
Hallelujahs to their King.
Thus the old funeral hymn of our church speaks of the church of all the perfected in heaven (cf. Heb. 12:22-23). And this thought of the fathers of the church who have preceded us into heaven rings through the centuries down to Wilhelm Loehe’s hymn on the Sacrament, where it says of heaven: “There the angel host stands inflamed in Your light, and my fathers gaze upon Your sight.” All the saints from the beginning of the world who have died believing in the Redeemer, whether he was yet to come or had come in the flesh, all members of the people of God of all times to the present day–in this sense, all are fathers of the church. Whether Christians have found themselves in the loneliness of a Siberian prison camp or the isolation of the diaspora or suffering inner alienation within the great secularized “churches” of our century, it has become ever more the consolation of those who have suffered for the sake of the church and whom God has led on a “lonely path” to know that they are not alone in the one church of God. They who have been removed from every error and sin of the earthly church stand with us in the seamless fellowship of the body of Christ. No one can understand the “comforting and highly necessary” article of faith regarding the church, as the Apology calls it, who does not know that the fellowship of the church is a fellowship with the saints of all the millennia. There is not only a spatial but also a temporal catholicity of the church. The Lutheran confession speaks of this everywhere it confesses the faith and the doctrine of the church of the fathers, the faith of the apostolic church and the doctrinal decisions of the ancient councils. This consensus of the church not only binds together the living, but also the living generation with those who have believed and confessed before us. …
Bishops as such or pastors as such are not “fathers in Christ” unless they proclaim the pure Gospel. …
It is always a sign of a deep spiritual sickness when a church forgets its fathers. It may criticize them. It must measure their teaching by the Word of God and reject whatever errors they have made as fallible men. But it must not forget them. … It is always a certain sign of the decline of a church when it reviles the fathers and wants only to be a “young church.” And it is, according to Luther, a sign of the true church and the real fathers when they must bear the cross. …
We sincerely rejoice over every sign of a new awakening of Lutheran theology, where ever it may be… But there is one thing we long for from those who call themselves Lutheran. We demand that they take the confession of our church just as seriously as it was taken by the fathers at the time of the Reformation, and by the fathers of the nineteenth century. Where one departs from it, let it be demonstrated that it is not scriptural, that its interpretation of Scripture is false. We will be the first to give up whatever does not accord with the Word of God. But we cannot confess the church’s confession with our mouths and deny it with our deeds. We have learned this from the fathers of our church.
[Hermann Sasse, “Fathers of the Church,” The Lonely Way, 2:223-236.]
Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His Way. (LSB 677:4-7)
I think I’ll have the people at my funeral sing this hymn twice (and then Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart twice). My favorite day in the Church calendar, after the Vigil of Easter, and this hymn has the clearest confession of the Resurrection of any in our hymnal. There are very few hymns that go beyond “paradise the blest” to the “yet more glorious day.” Whoever William How was, he had a better sense of the true hope of the Christian Faith than most American Christians today. For all the saints, and for all the fathers, thanks be to God.