Monday, 17 January 2011

Sasse: We do not deny living tradition

Is the new constitution* acceptable to the churches of the Reformation today, or can it at least be regarded as a step in the direction towards a solution of the controversy? Our answer must be: It presents a good starting point for a serious dialogue between Rome and the evangelical churches, but not more. It helps to clarify the issues to formulate the real status controversiae. What is the point at issue? We do not deny the existence of a living tradition in the church. The doctrine is not simply passed on by passing on a book. As the prophetic and apostolic writings have grown out of the oral proclamation of the prophets and apostles, so they are passed on not only as written or printed books, but as the basis of the preaching and teaching of the Church. Such tradition must have existed already in the time of the Old Testament….

[For the sake of brevity, we have omitted here a portion of Sasse’s address where he talks about the likely conduits of ‘oral tradition’ among the people of God in the OT, culminating in the meditations of the pious common people.]

When we speak of tradition we should not only think of the apostolic tradition in the New Testament, but also of the tradition which kept the written Word of God alive in the centuries before Christ. There are, of course, traditions of various natures. There were in Jerusalem the traditions of the Sadducees who regarded only the Torah as God’s word and had very strong liturgical interests. There was the tradition of the Pharisees, and again among them various schools of thought. There was the tradition kept in the Rabbinic schools. There were the simple people in whom the hope of the fathers lived. Mary and Joseph, Zacharias and Elisabeth, Simeon and Hannah may be found among them. In these circles the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis were sung. They were the first to recognise the Messiah while the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy put him to death.

Tradition stood against tradition. The psalms, the prophets were interpreted differently by the different traditions, just as later the Petrine texts of the Gospels were differently interpreted by the traditions of the East and the West. It is the same with the oral teaching of the prophets. Jeremiah proclaimed the destruction of Jerusalem. He was denounced as a false prophet. Had not Isaiah prophesied just the opposite and been vindicated by the events? Jeremiah regarded the prophets of a happy end at his time as false prophets. The people at Jerusalem were confused. Where was the divinely appointed infallible teaching office to decide this issue with authority? Who was to decide in the earthly days of our Lord whether his claim was right or wrong? If a clear decision might have been expected anywhere, then it was in the Sanhedrin where the learned doctors of Scripture and the most eminent religious leaders of God’s people constituted the highest spiritual authority which existed in the world at that time. Their decision was wrong.

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* The new constituion being Dei verbum, the 'Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation' approved by Vatican II and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 18 Novemeber, 1965.

From Holy Church or Holy Writ? The Meaning of the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation IVF Graduates Fellowship, Syndey, 1967, pp.19-20; italics mine.

Biographical note - Dr Hermann Sasse (1895-1976) was one of the foremost confessional Lutheran theologians of the 20th century. He began his education at the University of Berlin prior to the outbreak of WWI, during which he served as a sergeant and was awarded the Iron Cross (2nd class) for bravery. He was ordained in 1920 and went on to become a member of the faculty of the renowned theology department at Erlangen University in 1933, after which he openly opposed the Nazi regime, bringing himself under SS surveillance.
When, after the war, the Americans, who controlled that sector of Germany, asked Sasse to de-Nazify the theology faculty, Sasse's long-term position became untenable because of the resentment that task created. Thus, in 1949, all other avenues being closed to him, Sasse migrated with his family to Australia in order to teach at Immanuel Lutheran Seminary in Adelaide (later Luther Seminary of the Lutheran Church fo Australia).
Germany's loss was Australia's gain - Sasse earned the respect of theologians from all denominations in Australia and heightened the public profile of the Lutheran Church. Furthermore, even from the relative isolation of Australia, Sasse continued to influence church affairs and theology in Europe and elsewhere through books, essays in English and German, and a voluminous correspondence. His correspondents even included Cardinal Augustin Bea, one of the most influential Roman prelates present at Vatican II. For more Sasse, see the blog 'What Sasse Said', link provided in right-hand column.

Pic: Sasse just before his death, c. 1975.


Northwest SD Lutheran said...

It seems that there are those among us who make the claim to be Lutheran and have forsaken what we believe the most. That is justification . When the LWF(ELCA) decided to join Rome in condemning the true evangelical doctrine they brought great sadness into the church. After this all hope of dialog was lost and I can honestly say I do not believe that there is really anything we have to dialog with Rome because of her many persistent errors. It would be nice if we could talk but they want us to discuss and agree with their errors.

Here it appears that Sasse is appealing to Scripture as source and norm and not to a Pope.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Remember that Sasse wrote this 45 years ago, when there was reason for some optimism that Rome might reform itself even further than Vatican II - yes, there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then. We cannot be so optimistic now. In fact, we see a rolling back of Vatican II in some areas.

Northwest SD Lutheran said...

It is interesting that you bring this up. I have friends who are Roman Catholic. One of them is very into Vatican II to the point where he is willing to consider the Gnostic Gospels and wonders if they are valid interpretations of God's Word. I have warned him about this but apparently he wants to make excuses to sin freely and not feel the guilt he feels or that the church makes him feel and that he must confess his sins. Then my other friend is heading backwards and says that he has to work for purgatory and he has a pastor who believes that every religion has equally valid things to say and pleads to anonymous Christianity. Unless you believe in we are saved by grace through faith in Christ then you are anathema.

It is truly a sad state of affairs for Rome because it seems that they are losing members; or so says World Magazine. These former Catholics are heading to supposedly watered down evangelicalism which is the same thoelogical philosophy as Rome. My question is how many have headed to atheism? It is funny but I have a friend who turned atheist who told me that he believes in ghosts but can't believe in God. Oh the confusion that has been weaved!

By the way, how do you handle the apologetic task? Have a great one and Cheers!

Pr Mark Henderson said...


Yes, I believe tens of thousands are leaving Rome, and not only in the US but in countries such as Germany, Italy and France. I assume their faith in the institution has been shaken by the priestly sex scandals - not only the peadophilia but also the exposure of the numbers of priests who have mistresses and children conceived out of wedlock (obviously). Many will go to other churches, but some will surely question God's existence and goodness.

As to apologetics, my basic approach would be to maintain the friendship and proceed slowly. Work through things. If you don't have an answer, say so and get back to them. Consult your pastor.

Btw, we can't blame Vatican II for the Gnostic Gospels! :0)


Northwest SD Lutheran said...

I want to wish you well in Australia and am glad that our gracious Lord brought you and yours through the trying weather.

Well the original church called them heresy and rightfully so as the gnostic text came to be around 2nd and 3rd century. So I agree we can't blame the Vatican for that one as they have tried to protect the Roman church from the heresy.
My question is becoming why should the Pope bother stopping the gnostic texts? He does not even believe the Prophet Isaiah is prophetic. To him Isaiah 53:5 is not being prophetic at all. This is what I hear at least. Have great day down under!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

In as much as Roman theology adss our sufferings (either in this life or purgatory) to what is said of Christ in Is 53:5, yes, they do deny the import of that text.

Thanks for your kind thoughts, NSDL; the weather where we are has moderated somewhat, but now the state of Victoria, some 2000 miles to our south is flooded. Much as you've had a very bleak winter in the northern hemisphere, we've had a terrible summer. However, it was predicted, so we can't say we weren't warned. We had a drought that lasted 10 years and I think people stoipped believeing it could rain again!