From This is My Body by Hermann Sasse, p. 107f. (Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1977).
There is nothing more depressing for the student of church history or for the Christian layman than to read about the great controversies on doctrinal matters that time and again have divided Christendom. At the same time, nothing has provoked more mockery from the world than those occasions when the old saying about the Early Church, “Behold how they love one another” could be changed into an ironical “Behold how they bite and devour one another” (Tertullian, Apology, XXXIX; Galatians 5:15).
How often such controversy has destroyed the missionary opportunities of the church! Was there a greater missionary possibility than at the moment when Constantine recognized Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire? But, to his amazement, the Donatist controversy in Africa, the Arian controversy in the East (which soon spread throughout Christendom), absorbed the strength of the church for generations to such a degree that it could not live up to the task of preaching the Gospel to the millions of Roman citizens as it should have done.
Is not the same true of our centuries, and even of our own age, when Christianity, in a state of obviously-incurable divisions, meets the great world-religions on the mission fields? Politicians inside and outside the church have always regarded these divisions as incomprehensible foolishness and a lack of Christian charity on the part of theologians. Just as Constantine wrote to Athanasius and Arius, expressing his astonishment that they regarded their disagreement on the meaning of a certain Bible passage (Prov. 8:22-31) as church-divisive, and admonishing them to follow the example of the philosophers, who in similar cases always found it possible to agree on a compromise, so Philip of Hesse, the far-sighted politician of the Reformation, did his utmost, in the interest of the common Protestant cause in those fateful years of the Reformation, to bring about an agreement between Luther and Zwingli on the basis of a formula acceptable to both parties. In both cases the well-meant attempt of the secular ruler to restore the unity of the church was unsuccessful.
As Christians we are not allowed to excuse even the slightest of the many sins that have been committed time and again in connection with such controversies. Pride and self-glorification, lack of love and humility, failure to understand the other side’s point of view, and acrimonious speech are some of the sins that threaten the souls of those who have to fight doctrinal controversies. There are sins and dangers in orthodoxy that the world sees with greater clarity than we theologians do, and in many cases the judgment of God on the orthodox defender of the faith may be far more severe than his verdict on the erring soul of a heretic.
In saying this, we do not want to exonerate Luther and Zwingli from the harsh words they spoke against each other. Although the 16th century was used to very rough language, this language is nothing if compared with the cruelty with which other churches and even some non-Roman nations tried to suppress what they regarded as heresy. Neither the night of St. Bartholomew nor the bloody persecution of Catholics in England can justify the way in which Lutherans and Reformed wrote and spoke against each other.
In order to understand the doctrinal controversies that accompany the history of the Reformation, we must keep in mind that according to the New Testament such controversies belong to the history of the church from the days of the apostles to the end of the world: “There must also be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:19). The heretics that Paul wanted rejected after the first and second admonition probably felt themselves to be genuine followers of Christ. The Christian gnostics that John, the apostle of love, criticized so harshly as antichrists, and to whom he refused the courtesy of a greeting, may have been, in their way, lovers of Christ who complained bitterly of narrow-minded dogmaticians that made the doctrine of the Incarnation a church-divisive dogma. Much of the criticism that has been launched against the church of all ages on account of controversies that have divided Christendom could be, and has been, directed against the church of the New Testament.
However, in order to understand that the condemnation of soul-destroying error is more than the rejection of opinions that we do not like, we need only ask what would have become of the Gospel in the world if the apostles and the church after them had been less orthodox and more tolerant, if they had shown more of what the world calls “love” and “toleration.” Just as the distinction between true and false prophets or true and false apostles belongs of necessity to the history of God’s revelation, so the fight against heresy and serious doctrinal controversy belongs to the very nature of the Church of him who called himself the truth.
If this is true of the entire history of the church, how could one expect the church of the Reformation to be an exception to this rule? On the contrary, if in an age of religious decay in the Christian world the question should be raised again as to what the Gospel really is, how could this question find an answer without incurring the most earnest controversies? And how could it be avoided that these controversies centered in the Lord’s Supper, which always has been a center of discussion, because doctrine and liturgy, as well as the life and faith of the church, meet in this Sacrament as nowhere else?