Sasse, Harrison, and Inerrancy

sasse01It has been a long time since I have been so thoroughly edified, educated, and stimulated by one book.  I am talking about Hermann Sasse’s Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume 1, 1948-1951 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013) (available here in print:; also in Kindle ed.).  Confessional Lutherans of all types are looking forward to the second volume, to be released soon by CPH!

Like other works by master theologians, this volume has not been a “quick read” for me.  I now have two letters more to read in the “Letters to Lutheran Pastors” section, as well as the letters to the Westphalian pastors at the end.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday I read—carefully—Sasse’s letter #16 “What Does Luther Have to Say to Us on the Inerrancy of the Holy Scripture?”  That letter got me to thinking about the inerrancy subject again.

I hereby express my sincere gratitude to President Matthew Harrison for his careful, scholarly approach to Sasse’s works and for his own forthright stand on the inerrancy subject.

President Harrison’s own position is summarized by his editorial statement in the Preface:

I believe Sasse was wrong on the issue of inerrancy in Letters 14 and 16. . . . His attack on Pieper and the orthodox dogmaticians is egregious, and frankly, disturbing.  His criticism of the Missouri Synod at the end of Letter 20 might well be tempered by the fact that not a single Lutheran church body which has not maintained a strict view of has been able to prevail against union with the Reformed. (ibid., lxxxiv).

In his editorial footnote to Letter #16, Harrison states this:

History has simply proven Sasse wrong.  Where absolute inerrancy has not been regarded as church dogma, or where it has been asserted but where fellowship has been granted with those who do not hold to it, such churches cease to be confessionally Lutheran. (ibid., 340).

As Harrison notes, Sasse’s view on the inerrancy of Scripture changed.  That story is charted in the monograph edited by Dr. Jeffrey Kloha and Dr. Ronald Feuerhahn (available here in print: ).  Sasse later agreed with the Missouri Synod that Scripture has no defects.  He wrote: “Holy Scripture as the Word of God is absolutely perfect and no deficiency—we do not speak here of textual corruptions—can be ascribed to it.” (Kloha & Feuerhahn, eds., Scripture and the Church [St Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1995],185-186 [letter of August 1952]).  Although Sasse’s position changed, his letter #14 continued to be used by liberals in the Missouri Synod in order to defend their anti-inerrantist position up until they left that synod.

As a historian of doctrine, I was puzzled by many of Sasse’s assertions in Letters 14 and 16.  I kept thinking while reading those letters, “Did he really do his homework here?  Has he studied the primary sources, or is he ‘shooting from the hip’ on the basis of secondary sources from the 19th century?”  One of the most surprising assertions, considering his love of the patristic fathers, was Sasse’s denigration of Augustine’s doctrine of inerrancy (see Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors, volume 1, 363-364).  This doctrine was stated in Augustine’s letter to Jerome, number 82 (see Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 1, 350 sec. 3).

Augustine’s view of inerrancy was held in such high esteem in the early church that it found its way into canon law—the same canon law in force at the time of Luther.  This can be found in Distinction 9, Part 2, sections C.3 to C.10 (see Gratian, The Treatise on Laws with the Ordinary Gloss [Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993], 29-32).  Augustine’s view of the canonical Scriptures that “none of their writers ever erred” was also repeated by Martin Luther in his own defense during his trial in 1521 (see Luther’s Works 32:11).  Luther also referred to the sections of canon law in Distinction 9 in his own defense at Worms on April 18, 1521 (see ibid., 32:110).   So when Sasse “slammed” Augustine’s doctrine in his letter #16, he was also “slamming” Luther!

This is very odd.  Here is Hermann Sasse, the man who—together with Dietrich Bonhoeffer—first publicly renounced the Fuehrer’s racial doctrine in the Bethel Confession; the same man who later had to withdraw from the “Confessing Church’s” protest because of its unionistic platform; the same man who resigned from an extremely prestigious academic career at Erlangen University due to the Lutheran and Reformed post-war church unions; the same man who wrote so many excellent articles, letters, and books in defense of true Lutheran theology and practice—denigrating and “slamming” the foundation of Luther’s theology in letter #16!

HarrisonReading through these letters carefully, I can see why Sasse held to his anti-inerrantist position.  He talks in many places about science and history.  He talks about how theology must defer to science-and-history when the two are in conflict (see e.g. Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors, volume 1, 273, 277-278, 335).  Using my “sociology of knowledge” antennae, I can hear the German academician speaking there. “Deference” was Sasse’s lowly “place” at Erlangen University.  The mandarins of science-and-history—veritably infallible “gods” in the minds of some Germans—looked down from their lofty ivory tower at poor little theologians who prepared pastors for the church and charity.  Of course, the theologians must defer to the infallible mandarins of science-and-history—or else they will be eliminated! [sounds of evil laughter from your favorite Gothic horror movie].  No real opportunity for discussion or debate there.  And that was the setting of Sasse’s entire career, until he began work in Australia in 1949 at one of the Lutheran seminaries.

So we can understand “where Sasse was coming from.”  By reading the next volume of his letters, soon to come from CPH, we will see “where he was going to.”  And that position, although not identical to the LCMS-WELS-ELS position, was very close to it.  Many thanks to President Harrison and the hard-working “elves” at CPH for making these important letters available to the public!

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