Monday, April 6, 2020
Live streaming absolution. . .
Luther said in his Small Catechism: Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. Those words not only presume a personal encounter but also expect it as one of the parts. Though there might be a means of a personal encounter when the direct technology of a live audio or video between penitent and pastor, it would be a stretch to suggest that modern live streaming or recorded services provide such a connection.
Luther continues: I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself. If the pastor is to absolve those who repent of their sins and desire to amend their sinful lives, how is he to ascertain that they indeed repent of their sins and desire to amend their sinful lives without any direct connection between them?
Live streaming may give a person the opportunity to hear the Word proclaimed and preached, but it certainly does not provide the same setting as a pastor surveying the faces of the people he knows or the pastor in private confession addressing one who has acknowledged his or her sins before him. Of course, we admit gladly that the penitent may confess directly to God but that is certainly not the point of live streaming or recorded worship services. There the presumption is that the penitent is depending upon the vocal absolution of the pastor for the assurance of his or her forgiveness. That being the case, I wonder how well we have thought this through. Perhaps there is a way that this might be legitimate but I do not see it yet and wonder if someone will help me feel better about the idea that the absolution live streamed or video or audio recorded is the same as people in view of the pastor.
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Pastor Peters, thanks for raising this issue. In some circles, as you know, there has been much discussion and strong opposition to online communion (where the pastor pronounces the words of institution over a screen). I agree with and understand the concerns about that, but I have wondered why (generally speaking) there do not seem to be the same concerns about the confession/absolution as done in traditional liturgies (being done by live streaming). It would seem to me that the same principles would apply, possibly even more so.
Dear Pastor Peters, I could be mistaken, but I believe a solution is provided for us in the rubrics of our hymnals. The pronouncement of God's grace as the option rather than the absolution. It is the assurance of God's forgiveness in His Son spoken in general as a pastor does in his sermon.
I have been following some of the arguments/discussion about this the last couple of weeks. One thing that has come up is what you ask: "How does one survey the penitence of someone you neither see nor know?" My thought here is what about the visitor who shows up for service that you know absolutely nothing about? In my mind it's not a different situation (I could very well be wrong).
I have been thinking about this lately and reading thoughts on both sides of this. You ask "How does one survey the penitence of someone you neither see nor know?" That's one of the common questions. I wonder - how different is this (besides the live, in-person aspect) from the visitor who shows up for service that you know absolutely nothing about?
"How does one survey the penitence of someone you neither see nor know?"
Lutheran hymnals have texts for Confession and Absolution as part of the printed liturgies which are used in Lutheran worship services, in which there are people in the pews that the pastor may neither see nor know.
"Live streaming... certainly does not provide the same setting as a pastor surveying the faces of the people he knows."
Even surveying the face of a person is not equivalent to "survey[ing] the penitence" of that person.
If your remarks here are to be consistently applied then we should stop the practice of general confession and absolution in our public worship services.
Let's not forget the reality of the power of the Word of the Gospel: whenever it is heard, read, studies, meditated upon, read or taught. The Gospel is never not an absolving word and in our desire to extol the blessings of private confession and absolution we must not do so by raising doubt that the Holy Spirit is absolving sins whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed.
From J.T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (pp. 463-4):
"To the objection that a minister cannot forgive sins because he does not know if the recipient is "worthy" or not we reply: Absolution does not depend on any worthiness in man, but on God's grace in Christ Jesus, which has appeared to all men and should therefore also be proclaimed and offered to all. This is done both by the preaching of the Gospel in general and by the special promulgation of the Gospel in the form of absolution. Those who announce the grace of God in Christ Jesus to men never make a mistake; for there is no clavis errans, or Feklschluessel. The words of absolution are always as true as is the Gospel itself, of which absolution is only a special application. If any one fails to receive the forgiveness announced and proffered in absolution, the fault is his alone and not that of the absolution. For Christ's sake God has graciously remitted the sins of the whole world, 2 Cor. 5, 19. 20, and absolution is nothing else than the proclamation of this gracious forgiveness to the individual. Every one who believes this glorious fact is in actual possession of complete pardon."
Sorry, I had to repost to correct the typos. . .
Looking into the face of the penitent was not a reference to some hidden knowledge but to the fact that this is a personal context. No one (and certainly not me) suggests otherwise. The point here is that there is no context known in live streaming sacramental grace. It is surely a comfort to watch and to discern in your heart the forgiveness God has promised but if this is a real confession and absolution, why on earth would we only do this in time of emergency and why would this not be the normal and standard practice of the Church?
It would appear that J. T. Mueller is addressing another issue here unrelated to the prospect of live streaming or recorded absolution. His point is that you do not make yourself worthy in any way of the absolution and the absolution of Christ does not in any way depend upon such worthiness. I do not believe that is the issue. The point is not whether or not the words are true but if a live streamed or video of the words of forgiveness is a real absolution.
With respect to the congregation and the prospect of a stranger or someone else slipping in and being absolved when they were neither prepared for such absolution or confessed their sin, that is resolvable by speaking with the person after the service. You cannot speak with the people who watch the live stream or video unbeknownst to you and from whatever perspective presume that their sins are forgiven.
Again, as I said, I have not come to a decided conclusion in this but I have sought to raise questions for us to discuss because certainly this issue will not go away simply because the pandemic is over. We need to talk about these things precisely because exceptions become the norm and then become the rule and soon we end up where we did not intend to be.
Some Lutheran churches have for years broadcast their regular services on cable access TV (usually not live) and in a certain sense maybe putting out a live streamed copy on the Internet is no different from that. I think what Pastor Peters and others are getting at is that you want to have the personal touch and contact. It's not an issue of judging hearts. God can possibly work through someone scrolling through You Tube and coming across a church service there and hearing the Word of God, but hopefully he or she would go from there to have some personal contact with somebody in response to that.
There are many commentaries on this from all kinds of perspectives. Below is one that I came across this morning by Tim Challies, a conservative Reformed pastor and author in Canada. I think it is worth reading and considering. It is titled, "Why Our Church Is Only Sort of Streaming Our Services."
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