By Hermann Sasse
It may happen that an un-Lutheran faith seizes control of the forms of the Lutheran church and that then this church is only externally a Lutheran church. This indicates the danger which threatens every Lutheran church at all times. Missouri is no exception to the rule.
This danger becomes visible in the case of a notable shift of emphasis which can be observed in the theology of the Missouri Synod. …Dr. P. E. Kretzmann begins his book, The Foundations Must Stand! The Inspiration of the Bible and Related Questions (St. Louis, 1936) with a statement on the importance of the doctrine of Inspiration of the Holy Scripture:
We commonly refer to the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the central doctrine of the Christian religion, the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. But even this fundamental truth of personal faith is not a matter of subjective certainty. Rather, it depends rather, as do all other articles of faith, on the objective certainty of the Word of God as a whole and in all its parts. In this respect the doctrine of Inspiration of the Bible is fundamental for the entire corpus doctrinae (p. 3).
We may assume that any orthodox Presbyterian, Baptist, or Adventists could have written these sentences in precisely this manner. It is, however, our conviction that they can be brought into harmony neither with the theology of Luther nor with the teaching of the Confessions. Reformed Fundamentalism makes the relationship to Christ depend on the relationship to the Bible, as Catholicism makes it depend on the relationship to the church. This is a wrong deduction from the fact that without the Scripture or the oral Word which is based upon the Scripture we would know nothing of Christ. The faith of the Lutheran church in the Scripture is based on her faith in Christ. It is basically faith in Christ, because the Bible, and this is true of the whole Bible, is testimony concerning Christ. Our faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God is therefore an entirely different faith from the faith of Fundamentalism in the Bible, which at least logically and factually precedes faith in Christ. The conviction that the Scripture from beginning to end is inspired and therefore the inerrant Word of God, whose statements can be trusted absolutely, is not necessarily Christian faith. The orthodox rabbis have the same faith with respect to the Old Testament. The “Christadelphians,” “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and other heretics who deny the true deity of the Son and therefore also the true deity of the Holy Spirit, who therefore do not even know what inspiration in the biblical and Christian sense is (Mt 10:20; Jn 16:13ff.), but make out of the Scripture a book of oracles after the fashion of the heathen sibyls, likewise teach the plenary inspiration and the absolute inerrancy of the Scripture, which shows plainly that this doctrine is not an absolute defense against false doctrine. Least of all does it guard against unbelief. On the contrary! As it was but a brief step from the Orthodoxy of a Hollaz to the Rationalism of a Semler, so also there is but one step from Fundamentalism to unbelief. One can only respect the seriousness with which earnest Reformed Christians desire to hold to the authority of Scripture. But one must also see the tragic reality when human opinions, for instance, concerning the age of the earth, are proclaimed as divinely revealed truths, with the result that with these opinions the authority of the Scripture collapses. What kind of Christianity is that which can be refuted by a photograph of the depths of space, or by the facts—(not theories)—of radioactivity! No, Luther’s mighty faith in the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God has nothing in common with this understanding of the Scripture current in Fundamentalism. One seeks for it in vain in the Lutheran confessional writings.
If the theologians of the Missouri Synod believed that it was necessary to draw up an explicit doctrine of the Holy Scripture, its inspiration and inerrancy, which goes beyond the brief sentences of the Lutheran Confession, in order to oppose the apostasy from the Word of God which was taking place also in Lutheran churches this must be considered a wholly legitimate undertaking. This must be granted, and it is to be regretted that the necessity of such formulation of doctrine was not recognized everywhere. But then Missouri should have formulated a truly Lutheran doctrine of the Holy Scripture, a doctrine which is in complete harmony with the Confession and which takes seriously the principle of the Formula of Concord, that Luther is the foremost teacher of the church of the Augsburg Confession. Instead, the fathers of the Missouri Synod simply took over the doctrine of the later Orthodoxy (Baier, Quenstedt) concerning the Scripture, without even asking themselves the question, whether this doctrine is Lutheran, and whether it can be brought into harmony with the Confession. One need not take this amiss if one considers with what difficulty the fathers of the Lutheran revival also in Germany had to work their way back to the Lutheran doctrine. They were not yet able to see what a deep chasm exists between the understanding of revelation with Luther as compared with the Orthodoxy of the seventeenth century. Today this is different.
Historical research in Lutheran theology has shown how deeply Orthodoxy was influenced by the same Aristotelian philosophy which Luther had banished from dogmatics. We know now that Orthodoxy is a very similar synthesis of the natural (reason) and the supernatural (revelation) knowledge of God as was the scholasticism of the Middle Ages.
Excerpted from “Confession and Theology in the Missouri Synod” (1951), Scripture and the Church: Selected Essays of Hermann Sasse (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1995), 214-217.
Readers my also be interested in A. C. Piepkorn’s essay, “What Does Inerrancy Mean?”