Hermann Sasse’s Footnotes to Letter 14
This essay is reprinted from Scripture and the Church: Selected Essays of Hermann Sasse, ed. J. Kloha and R. Feuerhahn, Concordia Seminary Monograph Series, 2 (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 1995), 106-115. The “Introduction” was written by Feuerhahn. As this introduction observes, these notes are referenced to specific sentences in Sasse’s 1948 “On the Doctrine De Scriptura Sacra,” which should be referenced by the reader for context. Further reference to historical setting is described in the essay “Hermann Sasse Confesses the Doctrine de Scriptura Sacra” in the same volume. Scripture and the Church is available from Concordia Seminary by contacting the Seminary Press at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-505-7117, or be visiting its online store.
Slight modifications have been made to this version of the essay, primarily the translation of foreign language words and phrases and the referencing of the Lutheran Confessions to the Kolb/Wengert edition.
Sasse’s Footnotes to Letter 14 (1967/69)
These footnotes were prepared by Dr. Sasse and sent in 1967 to the editors of a proposed Festschrift in his honor; that work never appeared. They seem to indicate Sasse’s sensitivity to the controversy surrounding the original work, Letter 14.
Dr. Ralph Gehrke included them as a supplement to a reprint of Letter 14 in 1969 to be presented for discussion by the department of theology at Concordia Teachers College (now University), River Forest, IL; Dr. Gehrke was at the time the chairman of the department.
Dr. Gehrke has commented further on these notes:
Because of some unspecified critics of Sasse . . . [he] wanted to respond at least to such criticism. Excerpts from Sasse’s own letters (on separate sheets entitled “To Whom It May Concern”) were made by me to squash rumors that I had translated them against his wishes. To be sure, Sasse did object . . . to the unauthorized Concordia Seminary Bookshop’s “pirated” (1955?) reprint. [Letter to the undersigned (R. Feuerhahn), September 9, 1992]
The last sentence is a reference to Sasse’s attempts to withdraw the unauthorized reprint of his essay (Letter 14). See for instance his letters to Concordia Seminary Bookstore and the editor of Lutheran News, Sasse Responds to Unauthorized Publication [Letters of 17 Jun and 24 Jun 1967] in Lutheran News 5.17 (7 Aug 1967), p.16.
The notes in the original typescript distributed by Gehrke refer to pages and line numbers of a reprint of the Gehrke translation of “On the Doctrine De Scriptura Sacra” distributed by the office of President Behnken of the Lutheran—Missouri Synod. For this edition they have been made to correspond to the pagination of the text of the letter as here printed.
Sasse’s Footnotes to Letter 14 (1967/69)
Footnote 1. [p. 62, line 2], after the Latin word “docendum . . .” and before the phrase “Whether θεόπvευστoς is correctly . . .”
Neither the ancient nor the medieval church nor the reformers know of the alleged essential difference between the spoken and written word of the prophets. “Qui locutus per prophetas” [“who spoke by the prophets”] does not mean only that the Holy Spirit has once upon a time spoken. He speaks today through the prophetic books (see “secundum Scripturas” [according to the Scriptures”] in the same creed, cf. 1 Cor 15:3f.). The medieval theologians deal with “Inspiration” under the title “On prophecy” as one of the gratiae gratis datae. [“gifts freely given,” usually in the context of gifts given for the good of others]. The distinction between the living oral word and the “dead” written word goes back to the young Schleiermacher for whom every sacred scripture is “a mausoleum of religion,” a proof that there has been a living experience in the past. This distinction resounds in modern Protestant theology which has found it in 2 Corinthians 3:6. But the “letter kills” refers to the Law, not to the written Word as such.
Footnote 2. [p. 88, line 18], after the words “world view” and before the words “Here the Old Orthodoxy. . .”
The problem of the “Inerrancy” of Holy Scripture became urgent in the 19th century when the clash between what was regarded as the biblical doctrine of Creation and the views of modern science developed into a major crisis of Christianity, and when the application of modern historical research to the biblical writings threatened the old belief that “the Bible is true.” The heyday of the apologists had come. The only church which took up the matter as a church was Rome. The First Vatican Council had defined the Inspiration of Scripture (Denzinger § 3006). To meet the challenge of modern science, John Henry Newman, by this time an esteemed cardinal, tried to solve the problem by assuming that the inspiration of Scripture did not extend to certain “obiter dicta,” incidental remarks of no importance for matters of “faith and morals” (“On the Inspiration of Scripture,” The Nineteenth Century (1884), [185-99] ). This was rejected by Leo XIII in “Providentissimus Deus” (1893) [Denzinger § 3280-94]. Whatever must be regarded as wrong in this encyclical “On the Study of Sacred Scripture,” the decision that the inspiration extended to the entire Bible and all its parts was correct and corresponded to what has been taught by all churches throughout the centuries. But how, then, is the “Inerrancy” of the Scriptures to be understood which always has been regarded as a corollary from “Inspiration”? It has been suggested to disregard this term or to drop it altogether and to replace it by a positive doctrine of the truth or truthfulness of the Bible (see the attempt by the Catholic theologian Oswald Loretz, Die Wahrheit der Bibel, Freiburg, 1964). A. C. Piepkorn in a stimulating and, as far as the historical observations are concerned, highly stimulating article “What Does ‘Inerrancy’ Mean” (CTM 36, Sept. 1965, 577–93) defends the doctrine, though not wholeheartedly, as a “Schutzlehre” [“protective teaching”] (p. 593), with the understanding “that ‘Inerrancy’ is used metaphorically of the Sacred Scriptures to describe them as ‘not wandering away’ from the truth” (p. 580). This understanding rests on the assumption that “inerrantia” has been “formed from a non-existent Latin original vocable on the analogy of other combinations, with in meaning ‘not’ and errantia meaning ‘the act of wandering about’” (p. 580). This seems not to be tenable. First of all, a Latin word coined in the 19th century in the living language of the Roman church is a perfectly legitimate vocable just as the words which were coined in the Middle Ages or the many new words to be found in the Acta Apostolica Sedis or new words in modern English, German and Hebrew. There is no such a thing as “original” Latin with a fixed vocabulary. We would do well to remember that Latin—together with Greek and Hebrew—is a basic theological language of the entire Western church, including the Lutheran church. A language is not only a means of communicating, but also of thinking. We all think, as far as we think theologically, in the terms of the language of Augustine and the confessions of the Reformation. “Inerrantia” cannot be understood from the passages where “inerrans” occurs in late ancient Latin as the translation of a Greek astronomical term denoting the fixed star in contrast with the planet, the erring star. The nearest word in ancient Latin is “errantia” which means the “state of erring” or simply “error” (See Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, s.v., where besides two non-theological passages Irenaeus is quoted—or rather the translator of Adversus haereses III, 25, 6  [Ante-Nicene Fathers 1, 460]—who calls a certain doctrine of the gnostics “ex errantis corruptelam” [“corruption from error”). Hence “inerrantia” is a perfectly legitimate term of modern ecclesiastical and theological Latin to render in one word what in older texts is called “freedom from error” (carere errore) or being “without error” (sine errore).
That the Bible as the Word of God is free from error is for the Lutheran church the necessary negative form of the proposition that is true, “God does not lie. My neighbor and I, in short all men may err and deceive, but God’s Word cannot err” (“Verbum Dei non potest errare nec fallere”; Large Catechism IV, 57 [BS 703, 5; Tappert 444] of the promise in Baptism; but the rule applies to every form of the Word of God, also to the Bible). Because this is so, “we base our position on the Word of God as the eternal truth” (wie wir Gottes Wort als die ewige Wahrheit zu Grunde legen; Latin: Verbum Dei tamquam immotam veritatem pro fundamento ponimus), as the principle is stated in De compendiara . . . regula atque norma, Solid Declaration I,  [Bekenntnisschriften, 839, 1 Latin; 838, 43 German; Kolb/Wengert, 529]).
Hence the doctrine of the truth of the Bible can and must be expressed also in the negative form as the doctrine of the Inerrancy of the Scripture. This is all the more necessary as today attempts are being made to misinterpret the concept of the truth of the Bible. We wholeheartedly agree with the rejection of a false intellectualism, which with the reception of Aristotelian and even Thomistic philosophy by the Orthodox theologians of the seventeenth century has crept into the Lutheran church and has falsified the Lutheran understanding of the Bible. Truth is not “adequation intellectus et rei” [“the equivalence of the intellect and the thing that is known”] as the definition by the Arabic follower of Aristotle (Avicenna) says which has been taken over by Christian scholasticism, at least this is not what the Bible understands by truth. But the attempt to understand the biblical concept of truth—the absolute faithfulness of God—must not lead to the false conclusion that the Bible does not care for the reliability of the sacred history it narrates. If the covenants with Abraham and with Israel at Mount Sinai were legends, the faithfulness of God would be legend too. If Christ were not risen, if the Gospel of Easter were legend or myth, the apostles would be false witnesses and liars, as Paul points out. Neither biblical theology nor any attempt by modern existentialist philosophers to understand “truth as encounter” can abolish the fact that the biblical concept of truth contains the idea that certain events have happened “in truth” and that the Bible does not err if it tells us so.
The emphasis on the “Inerrancy” of Scripture is even more important to the Lutheran church than to Rome because we have no [other] “fundamen” [“foundation”] on which we base our doctrine than Scripture alone. The sola Scriptura is going to become one of the great issues of all Christian theology again after the Second Vatican Council has repeated the rejection of the fundamental doctrine of the Reformation. The “Constitution of Divine Revelation” (“Dei Verbum” of Nov 18, 1965 [Tanner, 971–81]) tries to bind together Scripture and tradition as closely as possible. But the attempts by modern Catholic theologians to regard Scripture as the source of revelation proper and tradition as the interpretation of at least de facto Scripture by the church have been rejected.
There is at least one content of divine revelation which we know not from Scripture, but from tradition, i.e. the contents of the biblical canon. And expressly it is stated that the church does not get the certitude concerning all contents of revelation by Scripture (non per solam Sacram Scripturam; [“not through the Sacred Scriptures alone”; Tanner, 975, 6]).
The Lutheran—and, incidentally, the old Reformed—principle of sola Scriptura must not be equated with the teaching of the sixth of the Anglican  Articles which plays a great role in the modern ecumenical movement: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be preserved thereby, is not to be required or necessary for salvation.” This article has made it possible for many Anglicans to retain or revive the tradition of the church. Any Anglican layman or priest is free to believe and to teach doctrines like the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary or to practice a cult of Mary and the Saints, provided he makes it clear that these are expressions of private piety and pious opinions which are not to be required of any Christian and are not necessary to salvation. This is not the sola Scriptura of the Reformation. To the Lutheran church Holy Writ is the only source of doctrine not only of the formulated dogma of the church, but also of the faith of the individual and the teaching of the individual pastor and teacher of the church. “The Word of God shall establish all articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel” (“Es heißt, Gottes Wort soll Artikel des Glaubens stellen und sonst niemand, auch kein Engel”; Smalcald Articles II, 2, 15 [Bekenntnisschriften, 421, 23; Kolb/Wengert, 304]), let alone a “tradition” of the church. There may be pious opinions, e.g., concerning the “semper virgo” [“perpetual viriginity of Mary”] which depends on possibilities of different interpretations of Scripture. But if a private opinion or a theological hypothesis contradicts Scripture it cannot stand and no Christian should hold or defend it. This is the case with the Mariological dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, to take Mariology as the outstanding example. These articles have no basis in Scripture. They contradict the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae [“the article by which the church stands or falls”]. They ascribe to Mary what belongs to her Son alone. They lead inevitably, as the example of the Anglican church shows, not to a new love and respect for the Mother of God as we know her from the Bible, but to a new cult of Mary, and thereby back behind the Reformation into a new papacy, where the alleged infallibility of the church or its teaching office replaces the Inerrancy of Scripture. All this is the inevitable consequence of a wrong understanding of the sola Scriptura. With the sola Scriptura, rightly understood, stands and falls the sola fide, stands and falls the Gospel.
If, thus, we Lutherans have every reason to maintain and defend the doctrine of the Inerrancy of Holy Scripture, we have, on the other hand, no reason to preserve the form of this doctrine as we find it in the Orthodox Fathers, and as it has developed in all churches of Christendom at the [conclusion of the]  sixteenth and in the seventeenth century. We have shown that this doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy is nothing else but the theory developed in the ancient church. It got its final form with Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great. On the authority of the three great fathers and doctors of the church, especially of Augustine, it was accepted by the Middle Ages and taken for granted in all the churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Church history knows of no greater example for the power of ecclesiastical tradition than the tendency which Catholics and Lutherans, Reformed and Anglicans, the English-American sects of all ages up to now, have stuck to a theory which had become untenable already at the time of the Reformation. Tradition was used to bolster up the authority of Scripture, to justify the sola Scriptura, a tragedy from which the churches of the Reformation have never recovered. The depth of the tragedy becomes clear if one remembers that the theory on which this doctrine was based was the pagan theory of the divine book. Nothing is more significant than the fact that Augustine had to recognize pagan Sibylinic book along with the prophets, as equally inspired, because they fitted the theory. He is the father of the medieval “teste David cum Sibylla” [“testified by David along with the Sibyls,” a line from the hymn dies irae/Day of Wrath]. There can be no contradictions in the Bible. Why not? Because the god of Greek paganism cannot contradict himself. But the God of the Bible does, as far as our judgment goes. God’s wrath and his love, his will to save all men and the fact that he permits, and even causes, men to be lost. Who will reconcile this? In the same way God’s Word contains what to us men must seem irreconcilable contradictions. There can be no mistakes in the Bible, no error. But it was not only Erasmus and following him the Socinians who found slight mistakes or “errors,” as they had been found by Origen and some Fathers, e.g., the quotation from Zechariah ascribed to Jeremiah in Matthew 27:9. Augustine had seen it. His explanation was: Matthew has certainly noticed this error when he read through what he had written. But he probably thought: This is what the Holy Ghost has suggested to me. He must have had his reasons. He wanted perhaps to show that it does not matter which prophet has written this or that word, because it is the same Spirit who speaks through all prophets. Luther found this “levis error” [“slight error”] and was satisfied with the explanation given by Augustine. In another case Luther finds a “patent error” (ein offenbarer Irrtum). It is the famous difference between the history of the Patriarchs, as told by Stephen in Acts 7 and the corresponding passages of the Old Testament (Anhang zum Chronikon W2 14, 718; [Latin in WA 53, 177ff.]). He could not explain the difference because the problem of the various traditions of the Old Testament history in the Hebrew Bible and in the Greek Old Testament was not known to him. This problem is related to the strange phenomenon, which is characteristic of the Bible, that all important events, even the whole history of Israel in the Old Testament, are told twice or three times (Synoptic Gospels, conversion of Paul) or in the case of the history of the passion and resurrection of Christ even four times, and always with variations. This belongs obviously to the nature of the Bible. One should not forget that the Septuagint is not simply a translation, and yet it is treated in the New Testament, along with other Greek translations, as Bible. It is noteworthy that the Septuagint was for the Eastern Fathers and is still for the Eastern churches the Bible. In other words: We must take the Bible as it is, as it presents itself, and not as we without ideas of a divine book would like to have it.
What, then, can in these circumstances our belief in the “Inerrancy” of Holy Scripture mean? It does not mean that we believe it to be free from the deficiencies and limitations of truly human writings. As the biblical manuscripts shared the destiny of other human manuscripts, so also the writing of the biblical books was in most cases a process similar to that of the production of other books, as the epistles of Paul and the prologue of the Gospel of St. Luke show. The biblical historians wrote history with the same technical means as other historians of their time. They were neither omniscient nor endowed with superhuman gifts of historiography. They had to select their sources, use their critical judgment and write as best they could, assisted, as we believe, by the Holy Spirit. But such assistance which helped them in their work and preserved them from making untrue statements is, though accompanying the inspiration not yet the inspiration itself, that activity of God the Holy Spirit who made the human word of these authors his own so that they are now God’s own Word and as such the eternal truth of divine revelation, the inerrant Word of him who can neither err nor deceive. When Paul wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians, to take one example from the earliest Christian literature, he wrote as an Apostle to one of his churches, deeply moved by the concern about the weaknesses of this church in their faith and life. It was a letter full of pastoral love and wisdom, full of deep theological insights. He did most certainly not realize that what he wrote was not only his word, but the word of an Apostle of Jesus Christ, yet at the same time God’s Word. There were minor things in which his human weakness became manifest. It occurred to him when he spoke of the baptisms he had performed in Corinth that he did not quite remember the names and he had to correct himself (1 Cor 1:14ff.). But when it comes to the great historical statements on the institution of the Lord’s Supper (11:23ff.) and on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and the first appearances of the Risen Lord (15:1–9), he is not only sure of the historical facts, but he substantiates them by referring to the source of his knowledge. These statements will be read until the end of the world in all churches as God’s inerrant Word. The words of this epistle will be memorized, translated into innumerable languages, read and proclaimed in liturgy and sermons. They are words filled with an inexhaustible power to call men to Christ, to change human lives, to build the church, to comfort the dying, to make men triumph over death and hell (15:15ff.). As the words of this epistle were spoken “in the Spirit” when Paul dictated them, unaware of what they would mean in the future, so this epistle is forever filled with the Holy Spirit. This is what we call Inspiration of Holy Scripture. The human word of the Apostle has become God’s living and powerful Word, full of grace and truth, free from the un-truth and error of this world.
We leave it with this example. If Inspiration and Inerrancy must be understood in this way, it becomes clear that they are always an object of faith and not of observation. We cannot compel any man by way of argumentation to accept Paul’s epistle or for that matter any book of the Bible as inspired, as God’s inerrant Word. I cannot prevent people from rejecting the clear statements concerning the institution of the Lord’s Supper as erroneous myth. As an article of faith the Inspiration of Scripture is, to use Luther’s term, “hidden.” On the basis of Hebrews 11:1 which was for Luther always a classical description of faith, the Reformer says “Faith does not have to do with things that are apparent. Therefore, in order that there may be room for faith it is necessary that that which is to be believed is hidden” (Fides est rerum non apparentium. Ut ergo fidei locus sit, opus est, ut omnia quae creduntur, absconditur; De servo arbitrio (1525), WA 18, 633, 7; [AE 33, 62]). Only as an article of faith in the strictest sense the Inspiration of Scripture can be understood.
This becomes clear when we realize what the deepest nature of inspiration as the work of the Holy Spirit is. In the discussion of the problems of inspiration one misses a closer examination of the passages of the Gospel of St. John on the Paraclete. Here Jesus himself ascribes to the “other Paraclete” the great task to testify to himself. If the witness to Christ is the foremost task of the Holy Spirit, then it becomes clear why for Luther the inspiration of Scripture is always connected with the proper content of Scripture which is Christ himself. If all the Scripture is theopneustos, given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then it is true what Luther says of the entire Scripture: “Universa Scriptura de Christo solo est.” Christ, the Saviour of sinners is testified in the entire Scripture: “Of him testify all prophets that through his name all who believe in him should receive forgiveness of sins” (Peter in Caesarea, Acts 10:43).
Footnote 3. [p. 102, first line of first full paragraph], after the first occurrence of the word “person” and before the phrase “The Word of God is”.
It has become necessary to warn against modern misunderstanding and misuse of the fact that Jesus calls himself “The Truth” (cf. Eph 4:21; Rev 3:14). Protestant Modernism, under whatever flag it may sail, rejects the idea that the Bible is the Word of God. It finds the Word of God proper either in the “mighty acts of God” in the history of salvation, or in the person of the historical Jesus. In those events and in this person God reveals himself, while the written word of the Bible is a more or less indispensable “record” of that revelation. In some modern union documents we find even the assertion that the person of Christ only could properly be called the “Word of God.” But are the mighty acts of God, is the person of the historical Jesus (the Christ of the NT minus his divine nature, as the “historical scholarship” of the demythologizers describe him) the “self-revelation of God”? It would be worthwhile to study what the NT (and not Kittel’s Wörterbuch [Theological Dictionary] only, which, as we contributors know, is neither inspired not inerrant) teaches on revelation. Where does the Bible teach a “self-revelation” of God, except in the cases of a “theophany.” 1 Timothy 3:16 cannot be adduced because the better manuscripts read “ὃς” and not “θέος.” If we as theologians speak of God’s revelation we should always beware that as Luther has rightly seen, God “reveals” himself by hiding himself. Human eyes could not see in the Exodus “the mighty acts of God” unless it was revealed to men by the Word, and even this could be rejected. For the vast majority of the people who had the unspeakable privilege of meeting Jesus here on earth he was not a revelation of God. He was that for those to whom the Holy Spirit had given faith. “The Word was made flesh, and we beheld his glory,” we the few elect. His miracles were by no means revelation of God’s power to those who witnessed them. They had different explanations. To the people who witnessed his death on the cross, this was at best, as it is for the majority of the nominal members of our Protestant churches, a human tragedy, a manifestation of the power of faith and perhaps of more-than-human love. The Risen Lord appeared only to some elected persons, not to the world. That the grave was empty was not denied by the contemporaries—this denial is the privilege of modern “theology”—but they had their explanation: the body was removed, according to the Jews—this tradition still existed in the Middle Ages—by “the gardener” who is mentioned in John 20:15. Only to those who believe today the prophetic and apostolic message of the Bible is Jesus what the New Testament declares him to be: the Eternal Son, the Eternal Word, and not only a means of communication from God to man. The God-Man only could say his great I am: I am the Truth.
Endnotes This is discussed in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae 2a 2æ 171–7. Latin text and English translation available in St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae; Latin text and English translation . . . (Blackfriars; New York: McGraw-Hill; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, s.d), vol. 45. See especially the note regarding the use of the term “gratiae gratis datae” in the cited volume, “Introduction,” xiii.  The article may be found in the Concordia Seminary Library in John Henry Cardinal Newman, On the Inspiration of Scripture, ed. J. Derek Holmes and Robert Murray, 101–31 (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1967).  Critical edition is A. Rousseau and L. Doutreleau, eds., Irénée de Lyon. Contre les hérésies, Livre III, Sources Chrétiennes, no. 211 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1974), 488, 8.  Text in J. H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, revised edition (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1973), 267.  The original typescript of Sasse’s manuscript reads “outgoing” here; this may be the result of confusion over the translation of the German “ausgehend.”