Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Fundamental difference in Lutheran and Catholic understanding of Absolution?

It is interesting that, as far as I know, "the Sacrament of Reconciliation" (in Catholic parlance) or "Confession and Absolution" (in Lutheran parlance) has never been a subject for official dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics.

You will remember me saying that my daughter recently did her first confession with her Lutheran pastor, following preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation at her Catholic primary school (supplemented with a good deal of teaching from her parents).

I didn't make a lot of the differences of understanding between our two communions at that point (not wanting to confuse her at such a tender age), rather we emphasised what we held in common. But I for one was very aware of the differences.

Dr William Tighe recently alerted me to this entry on Paul McCain's blog regarding the Lutheran understanding of Absolution. Among other things, there Pastor McCain says:
The Gospel is never not the Gospel. The Gospel is good news precisely because it is always forgiving sins. The Gospel is absolution. Every pastor is speaking absolution when he communicates the Gospel. And the Gospel is never any less Gospel when it is spoken in general, public settings than when spoken in private settings.

Also, while we are at it, let it be said, clearly, that it is equally wrong, horribly wrong and Gospel-denying, ever, to suggest that the Gospel is more "effective" or somehow of some better forgiving quality when spoken by an ordained pastor. This is nothing more, or less, than heresy.
I can understand where Pastor Paul is coming from. During my time as a Lutheran, I was convinced that the Gospel could in fact be reduced to three words: "I forgive you."

It is also perhaps worth reading what Dr Luther had to say on the matter (thank you, Paul, for the quote):
The preaching of the holy Gospel itself is principally and actually an absolution in which forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in general and in public to many persons, or publicly or privately to one person alone. Therefore absolution may be used in public and in general, and in special cases also in private, just as the sermon may take place publicly or privately, and as one might comfort many people in public or someone individually in private. Even if not all believe [the word of absolution], that is no reason to reject [public] absolution, for each absolution, whether administered publicly or privately, has to be understood as demanding faith and as being an aid to those who believe in it, just as the gospel itself also proclaims forgiveness to all men in the whole world and exempts no one from this universal context. Nevertheless the gospel certainly demands our faith and does not aid those who do not believe it; and yet the universal context of the gospel has to remain [valid]. (LW 50:75)
Regarding Pastor McCain's whole blog, Dr Tighe remarked that he was
not wholly clear on the principal point that is being asserted. Is it that "public absolution" is just as valid as "private confession and absolution?" Or is it that anyone, lay or ordained, can pronounce a sacramental (or semi-sacramental) "absolution" with equal "validity?" And if the latter, would not the same apply to the celebration of the Eucharist?
That final point is important. The speaking of the "Verba" at the consecration actually does something. It is a "performative utterance" to quote my old Seminary Professor, Dr John Kleinig. Surely, in authentic Confessional Lutheran theology (as opposed to Martin Luther's or Paul McCain's opinion), the declaration of absolution is akin to the consecration of the Eucharistic elements: God's Word is spoken and something happens: the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ; the sinner is absolved and all his sins are forgiven.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Catholic and Lutheran understandings of this sacrament is the element of "reconciliation"--and its relationship to the Church. Lutherans (rightly) believe that by the proclamation of the Gospel, sinners are reconciled to God. But Catholics are quick to point out that this reconciliation happens only by the ministry of the Church, and that there cannot be reconciliation with God without reconciliation with his people (sin--particularly mortal sin--sunders fellowship not only with God but also with the assembly of the faithful). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is as much about restoring the sinner to communion with the Church as it is about restoring the sinner to fellowship with God. Indeed the one cannot come about without the other. That is why it is necessary, if one has committed serious sin, to receive absolution before receiving the Eucharist. For this reason, formal absolution (and not simply the precatory form that follows the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass) can only be granted by an ordained priest or bishop--ie. those who can speak, not only for God, but also for the Church.

As for Loehe, he perhaps knew the Tradition of the Church better than the modern Lutherans. For there can be no absolution (reconciliation with God and his Gemeinde) where there is no authentic repentance. It was therefore necessary to add the "conditional" clause to public absolution. In the Lutheran Church of Australia, there are four formulas for public absolution, the first three of which contain either explicit or implicit conditions:
As you believe, let it be done for you. By the authority the Lord has given his church and by his command I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God forbid that any of you reject his grace and forgiveness by refusing to repent and believe, and your sins therefore remain unforgiven. May he comfort you with his holy absolution, and strengthen you with his sacrament, that your joy may be full.
Amen.
(Supplement, Confession and Absolution, p34, alt. acc. to Church Rites, Maundy Thursday, p273)

Upon your confession, I as a called and ordained servant of the word, announce the grace of God to all of you. On behalf of my Lord Jesus Christ, and by his command, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God forbid that any of you reject his grace and forgiveness by refusing to repent and believe, and your sins therefore remain unforgiven.May he comfort you with his holy absolution, and strengthen you with his sacrament, that your joy may be full. Peace be with you.
(Supplement, Service with Communion, p7)

Christ gave to his church the authority to forgive the sins of those who repent, and to declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven. Therefore, upon your confession, I, as a called and ordained servant of the word, announce the grace of God to all of you, and on behalf of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you.
(Supplement, Service with Communion, alternative absolution p7)
There is a fourth form, however, which does not include any semblance of conditionality. I can remember the discussions that took place at the LCA Liturgical Department before this was approved, and it was recognised that something new in Lutheran practice was being proposed. But the arguement in favour of it was precisely that which Pastor McCain proposes in his blog:
As a called and ordained servant of the word, I announce the grace of God to all of you. On behalf of my Lord Jesus Christ, and by his command, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you.
(Supplement, Service--Alternative Form, p58)

15 Comments:

At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 12:47:00 am , Anonymous Christine said...

Or is it that anyone, lay or ordained, can pronounce a sacramental (or semi-sacramental) "absolution" with equal "validity?" And if the latter, would not the same apply to the celebration of the Eucharist?

Indeed.

The ecclesial dimension of absolution is very much a part of being catholic.

 
At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 1:35:00 am , Blogger William Weedon said...

Further discussion over on Petersen's Cyberstones, which is where the discussion really kicked off.

 
At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 7:28:00 am , Blogger eulogos said...

This is a sensitive subject, I am sure, but if you had been a Catholic before you married someone not Catholic, you would have had to promise to do your best to raise your child as a Catholic. (in past days, the non Catholic spouse had to promise, which makes more sense to me, because just to ask the Catholic to promise to try might be an invitation to an ongoing battle...) I don't know how it is with you and your wife and how she feels about this subject. But here is one case where it is clear that not being Catholic is depriving your child of something. Because although I am sure God forgives whatever sins your child might have when she confesses to the Lutheran pastor, this is not sacramental confession to a priest. Yes, we can't limit God, and I think He will be there in Anglican and Lutheran eucharists...and confessions, for those who expect him, (which is much more than many Catholics would say) but still, there isn't that rock solid certainty about this that one can have as a Catholic in the sacraments. In a way I would say that in the sacraments God is there even more than we expect with graces that we didn't even know how to ask for. As she gets older, how can you be content with less than that for your child?

I understand that an ongoing battle is worse for the child and if that is the only alternative I understand why you wouldn't press the point. Maybe you will get to that on the other blog. But the way you put it here it came across as something that wasn't even an issue, which was startling.

Maybe you discussed this at the earlier post you referred to, which I didn't see. Please don't take this the wrong way.

 
At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 5:01:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

Excuse me -- "Sacrament of Reconciliation" was not a part of Catholic parlance until within my lifetime.

Along with the pogroms by which confessionals were remade into Reconciliation Rooms.

Once again, you confuse your 1960s cult with Roman Catholicism.

 
At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 11:34:00 pm , Anonymous Christine said...

Once again, you confuse your 1960s cult with Roman Catholicism.

Heh, Past Elder you must have been itching to post that over the week that David spent with his family.

Not that you haven't said this before -- and before -- and before.

So I'll take the liberty of being equally redundant.

I -- am -- Catholic. Deo gratias.

 
At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 11:39:00 pm , Anonymous Christine said...

David, when you were still Lutheran did any of your parishes ever encourage individual absolution? I never experienced it in any Lutheran congregation of which I used to be a member, including LCMS. Neither did my Lutheran mother in East Prussia.

I was able to lay down some old burdens when I became Catholic. Every priest I've ever gone to confession to has left me with a deep sense of peace in incarnating the Lord's forgiveness.

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 4:17:00 am , Anonymous William Tighe said...

Since in a way I provoked this discussion, I'll throw in this reference to a fascinating article about the "conditionality" or "unconditionality" of absolution in 16th-Century Lutheran thought and practice: "Luther on Private Confession" by Ronald K. Rittgers, *Lutheran Quarterly* Vol. XIX, No. 3 (Autumn 2005), pp. 312-331. (The article seems to be an excerpt from Rittgers' book *The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany* [Harvard University Press, 2005], which I have not seen.)

The article concerns a row in Lutheran Nuremberg in the 1520s that set its Reformer, Andreas Osiander, against the town council. The latter wanted to treat "general absolution" and "private absolution" as optional alternatives, but Osiander was not willing to have or pronounce "general absolution." The reason was, that while he thought absolution unconditional, such that even absolved impenitent persons had their sins loosed, only to be damned in the end because of their impenitince, for a pastor to pronounce a "general absolution" without satisfying himself of the genuine repentance of the absolved persons was both to harden the impenitent in impenitence and to abuse his own pastoral office. Luther disagreed with Osiander, holding that since the impenitent lack faith the absolution conferred upon them is meaningless, and urged Osiander to conform to the requirements of the town council. (Osiander refused, and eventually went into exile over the issue.)

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 8:20:00 am , Blogger Past Elder said...

Good Lord. No-one said you weren't Catholic.

I must have missed logic class the day it was taught that if an argument were advanced before it is therefore wrong.

The point is, the term Sacrament of Reconciliation has been "Catholic parlance" for less than 50 of its claimed 2000 year existence. In which context, to pass it off as Catholic parlance is misleading.

Those are facts.

But then again Rome itself has been passing off its 1960s phenomenology cult as Roman Catholicism for a few decades now, so hardly surprising. And as usual, when facts are pointed out the response is not to address the facts but the person.

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 9:43:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

Dear Dr William,

How perfectly fascinating! Three cheers for Osiander! Why were we not taught about these things in Reformation history at Sem?

Funny too how Luther acted as a virtual bishop--even a pope!--in the early period. Interesting that his word decided everything. Still does, in many ways, with many Lutherans using his writings as if they were confessional creeds.

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 12:32:00 pm , Anonymous William Tighe said...

" ... in the early period." If only!

On the two occasions when a semi-serious effort was made to get an "Evangelical Bishop" in Germany (i.e., not to have a neighbouring Lutheran ruler elected "Administrator" of an ecclesiastical territory ruled by a bishop after the bishop's death, and then have him appoint a General Superintendent to lutheranize the clergy and supervise the new territorial church), in Naumburg in 1543 and Merseberg in 1545 -- cases in which the Elector of Saxony (whose lands surrounded these small ecclesiastical territories) forced the cathedral chapter to elect a Lutheran as bishop (in the case of Naumburg forcing them to revoke their previpus election of the Catholic Johannes Pflug) -- Luther in 1543 brushed aside suggestions that the Catholic-turned-Lutheran Bishop of Brandenburg, Matthias von Jagow (Bishop 1526-1544; he became Lutheran in 1539) be asked to perform the consecration of the Lutheran electus (Nicholas von Amsdorf), and instead acted as consecrator himself, later justfying his action in his tract "On the Installation or
Consecration of a True Christian Bishop." By 1545 von Jagow had died (but the two Lutheran bishops in East Prussia, one of them a Catholic bishop who had turned Lutheran in 1525, and the other a colleague whom the former had consecrated in 1528, were still alive and still in office), and so Luther again acted as consecrator of Georg von Anhalt as Bishop of Merseberg.

Come Muhlberg in 1547, the two Lutheran "bishops" were ejected from their sees, and Pflug installed in Naumburg and the 1545 Catholic candidate in Merseberg as well. When these two died in the 1560s, the cathedral chapters of these respective dioceses were forced to elect the Saxon Elector as Administrator, and he incorporated these terrotories into his duchy, and apponted a General Superintendent to lutheranize and superivise them. similar things happened in the 1560s as the last few Catholic bishops (or, rather, bishops-elect, since none of them had bothered to get themselves consecrated) in northern Germany died, and neighboring Lutheran princes took over their territories.

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 1:16:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

Your "fourth form" is essentially that of the Common Service in The Lutheran Hymnal -- minus the following opening words: "Upon this your confession ...".

Hmmm. If this ain't your confession, you ain't absolved.

Three cheers for Luther.

 
At Thursday, October 11, 2007 11:32:00 pm , Anonymous Christine said...

The point is, the term Sacrament of Reconciliation has been "Catholic parlance" for less than 50 of its claimed 2000 year existence. In which context, to pass it off as Catholic parlance is misleading.

So what? In the sacrament of reconciliation I still encounter Christ through the priest who reconciles me with God and the Church. If the Church now wants to call it the Sacrament of Reconciliation the operative word there is "Sacrament." Power of the keys, and all that and whether one wants to go face to face (as they do in the East) or anonymously confession is confession.

My response that I am a Catholic is simply to your silly assertion that the Church is a "60's cult".

Lutheran "catholicity" was still somewhat evident in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation but today, especially in the U.S., Lutheran Christianity is simply another Protestant body on the landscape.

I don't miss it.

 
At Friday, October 12, 2007 2:36:00 am , Blogger eulogos said...

Did you remove my comment and your response in the next day's blog? Sorry if I took things in a direction you decided you didn't want to go.
Susan Peterson

 
At Friday, October 12, 2007 5:57:00 am , Anonymous Christine said...

Hi Susan,

Do I remember you from Amy Welborn's blog? Former Episcopalian?

Great to run into you, so to speak, on this blog.

 
At Sunday, October 14, 2007 2:34:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Dear Susan,

No, I didn't. The only blog I deleted was the one on the Orientale-Lumen Conference.

You could never offend me, Susan. I have a thicker skin than a rhino.

 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home