Thursday, May 10, 2018

Educated people got rid of that a long time ago. . .

Even though it has been printed in a variety of places (bulletins, newsletters, and the like), when we ventured to place a notice in the entryway of our church building noting when individual confession and absolution were available, we got some feedback. 

Some was confusion.  Are we going back to the old style announcement for Communion as it was typical some 75 years ago in our Synod when a confessional service would be held on Friday or Saturday before the quarterly observance of the Lord's Supper.  No.  That is not it.  It is not that this is a bad idea but since we have a weekly Eucharist (as the Augustana presumes), it would be a bit more work for the pastors and for the people.

Some was consternation.  Is not the general confession before the Divine Service not enough, not complete, not salutary?  No.  That is not it.  Though it must be said that the general confession on Sunday morning is NOT an exact substitute for individual (private) confession.  Nearly all the people who go to individual confession are also there on Sunday for the general confession.  Not the same.

Some was more conflicted.  We are NOT Roman Catholics!  We Lutherans do NOT require private confession!  Well, it does not take long to pull open a Small Catechism or to reach into a few articles from the Concordia to show that Lutherans, not Roman Catholics, still hold to, esteem highly, and practice regularly individual confession (though we focus on the powerful part -- the absolution!).  And no, we do not require it.  But that is like saying you do not need to eat every day or sleep 8 hours.  No, you can eat every other day and sleep 4 hours a night but the healthiest path is to eat moderately and regularly daily and to sleep 7-8 hours per night.  No, we do not require it but a health faith benefits from individual confession and a weak faith is made stronger by it.

Some was curious.  Educated people in our church got rid of that 50 or 60 years ago.  Now this is the response I found most interesting.  In other words, individual confession was for the ignorant or the stupid or, at least, the uneducated.  Once we got smarter, we ditched that relic of the past, that mystical and superstitious practice, that medieval anachronism.  Ya, you betcha.  We are soooo much smarter than the people who went before us, especially those dullards who retained individual confession in the catechism and in our Lutheran Confessions.  We grew up and we are not children any longer -- we do not act or speak like a child and, well, individual confession is childish.  Wow.

Mind you, the announcement was not different from one that had run in bulletins and newsletters for so many years I cannot count.  It was not a suggestion that somebody might benefit from it nor was it an urgency to confess now.  It simply stated the hours when individual confession was always available as well as by appointment with one of the pastors.  But that is the point.  Sin is still a hot button issue.  Repentance is still a four letter word.  And the whole idea that anybody might want to or might actually benefit from confession with the mouth into the ear of the pastor the sins that trouble their hearts, minds, and consciences is still mighty controversial amongst us educated Lutherans.  And it always will be.  For behind it all is less a problem with confession and absolution than it is a sin problem.  We don't know what to do with it all but we presume that we can handle it and what we cannot handle can be handled by a quick prayer.  Furthermore, we presume that the problem of sin is simply stopping it and not learning to love the Lord's Law and desiring to keep it with all our soul, body, mind, and strength.

Confession and absolution are not that controversial.  Scripture is pretty clear on this (John 20 and Matthew 16 & 18).  What remains controversial is sin.  Owning it.  Repenting of it.  Believing that Christ forgives it not because of who we are or what we have done.  Rejoicing that it is forgiven, as far from us as the east is from the west.  Living the new life that love's the Law and seeks to keep it, walking in the ways of the Father within the footsteps of Jesus.  That is the part that remains stuck in our craw.  Bring up individual confession and absolution and you bring up the problem of sin.  And sin is better left unspoken. . . at least that is the default position of the heart.  Only the Holy Spirit can change that.  Reasoning with people can help but most of all the power to change the minds of us Lutherans fearful to be Lutheran comes from the faithful preaching of the Law and the Gospel for in this preaching (and teaching) the Spirit IS at work.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Martin Luther makes it clear in the Small Catechism:

Before God we MUST confess all sins
Before the pastor we MAY confess certain sins.

Anonymous said...

"Though it must be said that the general confession on Sunday morning is NOT an exact substitute for individual (private) confession."
This was settled by Luther, Jonas, Cruciger und Melanchthon an den Rat von N├╝rnberg, Wittenberg, 28 November 1536. Contra Osiander, Luther upheld the validity of general confession in the Evangelical churches. As with all other means of grace, God's offer of forgiveness must be received in faith.

Private absolution is the Gospel directed to individual persons and an offer and donation of the remission of sins on the part of God.
Absolution demands faith, and faith alone receives what is offered and given by it; neither absolution, nor any other means of grace, operates ex opere operato.

All means of grace do the same thing; namely, the offer of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to be received by faith alone. Private confession and weekly communion do not confer special grace that baptism and hearing the preached word do not equally provide. If any means of grace have held "primacy" in the Lutheran church, it is indeed baptism. Private confession may serve a pastoral function to comfort sorely afflicted consciences more than the general confession, as also weekly communion may do the same. But the grace offered and received in faith is the same. Luther did not commune weekly. Lutherans took seriously the command to examine themselves, amend their ways, and thus not take the sacrament to their judgment. Sounds kind of Pietistic today, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

According to Ronald K. Riggers (in Dr. Timothy Wengert’s The Pastoral Luther, p. 229), however, Luther was in favor of mandatory private confession for communicants, although he wanted the actual confession of (secret) sins within the new rite to be voluntary.

Anonymous said...

Here's Luther:

"Now concerning private confession before communion, I still believe as I have held heretofore, namely, that it neither is necessary nor should be demanded."

Formula missae et communionis pro ecclesia Vuittembergensi (1523)

William Tighe said...


I have read this book by Ronald K. Rittgers, a Professor of History and Theology at Valparaiso University, where he holds the Erich Markel Chair in German Reformation Studies:

http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674011762

The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Harvard University Press, 2004)

and would commend it as a detailed historical account of the Lutheran "reform" of "the third sacrament" and, as a case study, the strife in newly-Lutheran Nuremberg in the 1520s over corporate confession-and-absolution, and whether absolution in such a context was properly "sacramental" in nature, or only "conditional" upon private individual auricular confession to a pastor. The chief reformer of Nuremberg, Andreas Osiander, strongly upheld the latter position, which the Nuremberg civic authorities resisted, prevailing only when they obtained Luther's support for their views. I was surprised to learn that most of Luther's contemporary colleagues (Bugenhagen and Brenz, among others) did not follow Luther in denying the sacramental status - as he eventually did - of the rite.