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.


History-Making Elections

I know I said I was done, but there’s something that’s been bothering me.  And that is all the triumphalist rhetoric issuing from every corner of our society over the fact that “we” have elected the first African-American president in our history.  I agree, that’s history-making.  And I can imagine how that might feel to African-Americans who have felt some sense of injustice in this country, especially if their (great-great-)grandparents were slaves.  I can imagine how it might feel if all the presidents up to this year were black, and we finally elected a white president.  But that makes me feel sort of slimy.  I mean, is that it?  Is that the final barrier to true equality?  Is that the marker of the fact that our country is now finally done with bigotry and intolerance?  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

And I keep hearing people say that the best thing about Pres. Obama is that he’s a uniter and a healer, that he’s going to bring this country together.  Besides the fact that it’s the same Lefty therapeutic blather we’ve heard for the last forty or fifty years (or longer), what evidence do we have of this supposed coming unity?  All we have is the fact that a majority of both black and white people elected him president.  Which is all sort of curious, because it’s so circular.  See, a majority of black and white people elected him because he promised to bring unity and change; he’s brought unity and change because a majority of black and white people elected him.  There is no substance there whatsoever.  His vague platitudes and smooth talk convinced a majority of people to vote him into the highest office in the country.  For what?  We shall see.  But since Barack Obama has voted nearly always with the Democrats (more times, let’s remember, than John McCain voted wtih Pres. Bush), and since he wants all the same things Democrats want–no restrictions on abortion, more and bigger government running more and bigger programs, higher taxes on those who actually create jobs, etc.–where is this unity and change going to come from?  So far, it’s come from the fact that his presidency would make history (read: the color of his skin).  If that’s not about the farthest thing from a good reason to elect a person to the presidency, I don’t know what is.

You know what would prove that Pres. Obama is a uniter and not a divider?  Appoint Sarah Palin to a cabinet position that has some actual authority, say, something having to do with energy policy.  Then I might be able to finally believe the hype.

UPDATE: I also wonder what the pundits would be saying if someone like Alan Keyes were elected.  And: what will the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do now?

And: here’s Touchstone‘s Mere Comments (you should all read James Kushiner’s editorial in the most recent Touchstone) on the same topic.


What Do Other Christians Believe About the Lord’s Supper?

I would have thought this would be clear by now, but I encounter people all the time who think that “we (Lutherans of the Missouri Synod variety) really believe the same things” about the Lord’s Supper as other Christians. May this post forever put that conception to rest (if only!). The reason for this post is not to bash other Christians; they are free to choose their congregations. But let’s not have any papering over of real, substantial differences–in this case, the most substantial of them. (Remember that Luther was willing to compromise with Zwingli on nearly every article of the Faith which they discussed at Marburg, but not on the Lord’s Supper. That should tell us something.)

An ELCA pastor recently told me that the United Methodists (with whom the ELCA is in altar and pulpit fellowship) had changed their stance on the Lord’s Supper, saying that they now believe that they eat Jesus’ Body and Blood. The Methodists must have missed that memo. Here’s what their website says:

The Lord’s Supper (Communion, Eucharist)

  • The Lord’s Supper is a holy meal of bread and wine that symbolizes the body and blood of Christ.
  • The Lord’s Supper recalls the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and celebrates the unity of all the members of God’s family.
  • By sharing this meal, we give thanks for Christ’s sacrifice and are nourished and empowered to go into the world in mission and ministry.
  • We practice “open Communion,” welcoming all who love Christ, repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.

Oops. “Symbolizes” doesn’t quite rise to the standard of the Lutheran Confessional teaching on the Lord’s Supper. But one could see how people might be confused. This is from a Methodist booklet on the Lord’s Supper:

Jesus Christ, who “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3), is truly present in Holy Communion. Through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, God meets us at the Table. God, who has given the sacraments to the church, acts in and through Holy Communion. Christ is present through the community gathered in Jesus’ name (Matthew 18:20), through the Word proclaimed and enacted, and through the
elements of bread and wine shared (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). The divine presence is a living reality and can be experienced by participants; it is not a remembrance of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion only.

This paragraph points out explicitly the problem with Lutherans talking about the “real presence” in the Sacrament. We mean that Jesus’ Body and Blood are eaten along with the bread and the wine. Methodists and others believe that Jesus meets us in Communion, even at the altar, but you will never see or hear any official statement that says “We believe that when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are eating and drinking the same Body and Blood of Jesus that were crucified and raised from the dead.” If they can’t say that, they believe differently from Lutherans.

What about the PCUSA, with whom the ELCA is also in fellowship? From their website:

In eating the bread and drinking the cup offered by God, our memory of the promises are made present by the Holy Spirit.


This, then, is the Presbyterian understanding of Communion: Is Jesus physically present in the elements of the Eucharist–have the molecules of bread been changed into molecules of the body of Jesus? No.

Is Jesus spiritually present in the elements of the Eucharist, authentically present in the non-atom-based substance with which he is con-substantial with God–that is, is he genuinely there to be received by us, and not just in our memories? Yes.

The Presbyterian position (Calvin’s position) is not the Lutheran position. Though we don’t believe that “the molecules of bread [have] been changed into molecules of the body of Jesus,” we do believe that “Jesus [is] physically present in the elements of the Eucharist.”

How about the United Church of Christ? (Are you sensing a pattern? Yes, the ELCA is in altar and pulpit fellowship with, perhaps, the most liberal Christian–the word almost requires quotes–denomination in the United States. By the way, the ELCA pastors with whom I was discussing these things doubted that Rev. Jeremiah Wright was a member of the UCC. Think again.) From their website:

The breaking of bread and the pouring of wine reminds us of the costliness of Christ’s sacrifice and the discipleship to which we are all called. In the breaking of bread, we remember and celebrate Christ’s presence among us along with a ‘cloud of witnesses’ – our ancestors, family and friends who have gone before us. It is a great mystery; we claim it by faith.

Just not all of it.

There are also the Moravians (do you even have to ask if the ELCA is in fellowship with them?). From their website:

In respect to the sacrament of holy communion, the Moravian Church does not try to define the mystery of Christ’s presence in the communion elements, but recognizes that the believer participates in a unique act of covenant with Christ as Savior and with other believers in Christ.

That’s an nice way out of having to struggle with Christ’s words.

I’m not even going to try with the Episcopalians. Probably some of them believe what we believe. Or what Rome believes. Or what the Baptists believe. There is this, however. Hard to know how they understand the “the inward and spiritual grace.”

Please, no one tell me that we “all believe the same things.” Not true, and if people would take ten seconds to search their websites (the UCC took me a little longer; had to get past all their social justice programming), they could compare that with even the Small Catechism and realize that there is no unity. I’ll take the Episcopalian apostolic succession over false teaching and false unity in the Supper any day. “I’d rather eat the Body of Christ with the Pope than mere bread with Zwingli.”