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.
-- + --
* 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.