Thursday, May 1, 2008

Public Confession


Lutheran Service Book (LSB), the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s most recent hymnal, offers five (5) settings of the chief Sunday and festival Service. Each setting is optionally commenced by a preliminary rite designated, “Confession and Absolution”. And each of these rites pastorally extends alternative responses to the assembly’s general confession of sin by either; a) an optative-declaration of grace of the objective gospel, or b) an en masse indicative-operative “absolution”.

Grace Lutheran congregation employs the former Declaration of Grace; but assiduously avoids the so called “absolution” as a faux sacrament beyond the authority of the church and an improper administration by the Pastoral Office in her midst.

Why does my Pastor respond to the public-general confession of sin at the beginning of the Communion Liturgy with a Declaration of Grace rather than an absolution?

The short answer is that the Declaration of Grace is the traditional and proper gospel response to the assembly’s general confession (“tradition” in the narrow sense denotes what is handed-on in the life of the church catholic, essentially in and by her Liturgy).

Why then did my previous pastors employ an "absolution" beginning the Divine Service with Communion?

Implicitly this question assumes that Lutheran pastors have always employed the “indicative-operative absolution”, for example The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) page sixteen (16), in commencing the Mass. This is not the case. In fact a “generalized absolution” is an historical novelty almost entirely exclusive to the latest generation of Lutherans. (The word “almost” in the last sentence is intended as a qualification. While beyond the scope of this catechism, a parochial and rebellious practice of the Nurnberg congregation was its use of a form of Offene Schuld “public confession and absolution” following the sermon and admonition concerning the Lord’s Supper. The idea of bringing the law to bear in this way following a Reformation gospel sermon of release is at best liturgical incompetence. In 1533 Luther was asked to intercede. Politically hard pressed and extended, Luther’s opinions on Offene Schuld were not his finest hour for their vacillation, lack of clarity, and desire for compromise).

TLH's page sixteen (16) “absolution” (continued in LSB), had its debut with that hymnal’s publication in 1941 as a worship innovation and was immediately out of step with prior centuries of Lutheran liturgical practice. One might speculate that in 1941, life-long Lutherans who had never before experienced the indicative-operative “absolution” to their corporate confession, must have inquired: “Were all my previous pastors wrong?”

How does the Corporate Confession Rite relate to the Liturgy?

First, we observe that the Confession Rite itself is not a part of the Divine Service proper (which begins with Invocation and Introit). The Confession Rite, rather, is a pre-Service rite, adopted in the Missouri Synod during the latter half of the nineteenth century. When introduced, this Confession Rite utilized what is known as the Melancthonian Declaration of Grace, a general, non-sacramental proclamation of the objective gospel appropriate to the congregation’s assemblage of believers as well as any unrepentant, under-discipline, and occasional unbeliever attending the Liturgy. Accordingly, it is this traditionally Lutheran gospel Declaration of Grace which this pastor announces in response to the congregation’s “general confession”, and not the novelty of an indiscriminate public “absolution” invited now in the LSB as an alternative response.

Why are sacramental (i.e., indicative-operative) words of Absolution improper to the assembly’s general confession commencing the Divine Service?

The key is to comprehend the nature of “sacrament”, by which the gospel’s forgiveness is applied (not generally and objectively as by preaching and declaration; but personally and subjectively) to individuals in their particular circumstance. Thus the Absolution sought by individuals in the context of private confession is not co-ordinate to the pre-Liturgy’s objective gospel proclamation and corporate purpose.

In the Liturgy of the Word, God’s law and gospel are read and preached generally, that is, to the truth of our universal objective justification (forgiveness) for Christ’s sake. This general proclamation invites all who hear and believe “from faith to faith” to advance to personal sacramental reception of the gospel, that is, to Baptism (for those converted), and to Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper (for the baptized). Thus, the indicative-operative pastoral words of all sacraments are directed to individuals and received subjectively in faith by specific persons in their particular circumstances and spiritual condition.

In the case of Baptism, the words of personal application are: “I baptize you [singular]”. Before administering the Holy Absolution to an individual, the pastor must inquire, “Do you [singular] believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”, and if the response is affirmative, the Sacrament is applied: “I forgive you [singular]”. And in case of the Lord’s Supper each communicant is served individually by the ordained man in the Holy Ministry, with such words as: “Mary (if name is known), take, eat/drink…this is for you [singular]”.

Are the pre-Service “Confession and Absolution” rites of the LSB anywhere taught by Martin Luther in his Small Catechism or otherwise from the Lutheran Confessions?

No! In this discussion it is important to discern that the rite of public-general confession at the beginning of our communion Liturgies is not the same confession of sins and Absolution taught in Luther’s Small Catechism as the Fifth Chief Article (LSB p. 362; pp 292, 3). Luther knew the indicative-operative words of Holy Absolution only in the context of the pastor-penitent relation, that is, in private confession.

According to Lutheran liturgical commentator, Rev. Paul H.D. Lang, the rite of public-general confession prefacing our current Liturgies entered Lutheran worship as a post-Reformation phenomena via Calvinist associations, that is, from the Reformed Church. The Reformed (as with all Protestantism) eschew a Real Presence/means of grace gospel understanding of the church’s sacraments. Thus, the Reformed altogether did away with an extra-Service private confession in the pastor-penitent setting by transmuting the whole notion of “confession of sin” out of the private venue and into the congregation’s corporate worship. This radical change involved theological sleight of hand; morphing Rome’s “priesthood” into a corruption of Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” to effect a pastor-less “me and Jesus absolution”. Of course since the Reformed (and Protestants in general) do not understand a pastor’s ordination in the Lutheran sense, that the pastor’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness in his place and stead, any “absolution” from a pastor would be superfluous and not administered, in any form. This minimalist view of the Pastoral Office supports the peculiarly Protestant notion expressed by the pietistic bromide, “everyone a [his own absolving] minister”.

In contrast to a Reformed inspired corporate general confession, Luther’s Small Catechism (Fifth Chief Article) only teaches a confession of sins which seeks sacramental Absolution dispensed in the context of private, that is, individual confession of sins. In the Fifth Chief Article, Luther taught how Christians should privately confess their sins before their pastor. Sadly, Synod editors removed this teaching from the 1943 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism thereby creating no little confusion about the nature of our Lutheran confession and Absolution practice. This omission has since been remedied. Luther’s teaching on how to privately confess before one’s pastor has been restored (LSB pp. 292, 3; also see this blog’s immediate prior post). Unfortunately the last generation of Lutherans missed this teaching so that many now hold a greater identification with sectarian Protestantism’s teachings on confession of sins than with their Lutheran fathers in the faith with the result that in the Lutheran communion an entire sacrament of the church has all but been obliterated. This of course is tragic for a church body which understands that the marks of the true church are where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments (presumably all of them) are rightly administered.

If our Lutheran Confessions do not teach of a public confession and a corporate “absolution”; how did these enter the Lutheran Church and continue in her official hymnals?

Early in the life of the Missouri Synod, public-general confession was accepted as part of Lutheran worship (acceded to over warnings from elder churchmen of the danger posed to our faith). Theoretically this Reformed novelty of public-general confession was never intended to replace private confession of sins, but was instead to stand as a human institution in support of the church’s sacrament of Holy Absolution administered in the context of private confession. After all the Apology to the Augsburg Confession speaks of the sacrament of Holy Absolution in this way, “we also keep confession, especially because of absolution, which is the word of God that the power of the keys proclaims to individuals by divine authority” (Ap. Art. XII, para. 99, pg. 197 Tappert edition).

If public-general confession is permissible in “support” of private confession and Absolution; is it also permissible to employ a corporate “absolution” in the historic public Liturgy?

Absolutely not! Prior to 1941 Lutheran pastor’s extended to the assembly a gospel Declaration of Grace as the only response to the general confession commencing the Sunday/festival Liturgy. The declaration was as follows:

“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, hath had mercy upon us and hath given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgiveth us all our sins. To them that believe on His name He giveth power to become the sons of God and hath promised them His Holy Spirit. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. Grant this, Lord, unto us all.” [Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (1927), and Liturgy and Agenda (1916 & 1921)]

Note well; this traditional language DOES NOT employ sacramental verbiage, (“...I forgive you [singular] your [singular] sins...”), properly reserved only as Absolution in individual application (Small Catechism, Art. V, para. 28, pg. 554 [Latin, “...remitto tibi [singular] tua [singular] peccata...” English, pg. 555] Concordia Triglotta edition).

Prior to 1941 Missouri Synod Lutheran pastors universally and properly announced the pre-Service gospel of forgiveness in the manner appropriate to a congregation’s corporate confession at the public worship, that is, by a Declaration of Grace (“...for His sake forgiveth us [plural] all our [plural] sins...”) conveying the gospel’s message of objective justification. But today in LSB it is retained merely as a pastor optional alternative.

The error of the 1941 TLH (continued in LSB) was that it “creatively” cobbled Lutheran sacramental “indicative-operative” language from the Holy Absolution with a Protestant public-general confession to produce a faux absolution that had not otherwise existed in any Christian communion. The end irony is: all that was required to turn sacramental Lutherans into aping American Protestants was a trick of grammar. By changing Luther’s singular pronouns (in the Latin/German) into English plurals, there is no change in the English sounds. Nevertheless, between “you” [singular] and “you” [plural], there is all the difference in the world. The former is sacramentally normative and authorized in its private/individual context; while “you all” is incongruent novelty.

By what authority of Word comprehended in the church’s historic Liturgy does the Pastoral Office continue to “sacramentally” administer an en masse corporate “absolution”?

None! Such an indiscriminate, unsolicited “absolution”, if the words are believed, would necessarily effect the evil result of absolving, the impious, the impenitent and those under-discipline, and unbelievers. In order to obviate such an unintended, faithless evil it would be necessary to imply a condition to such corporate “absolution”, i.e., that it is only operative and indicative to penitent and conscience examined believers—and all others thus “absolved” must continue in their sins. Obviously such an implicitly conditional “absolution” is corruptive of the assurance of God’s gospel promises and undermining of the Holy Ministry which proclaims and applies them in the congregation.

A pastor is no more authorized to administer an indiscriminate-conditional “absolution” than he would be to Baptize by hosing down a room full of people in the triune Name; or to send the communion “plate” to be passed around the pews from one person to another. All attempts at en masse “sacramental” applications are beyond a pastor’s right and authority (the gospel en masse is why Christ commanded preaching and teaching, and the church appoints evangelists); indeed, such faux sacrament attempts are an abrogation of the pastor’s raison d’être in the proper, traditional, and discriminate application of the gospel in the congregation. Pastors are called, first and last, to fidelity in stewardship of the mysteries (sacraments) of God; and when right administration is at issue, they are called to vigilance and discernment in things handed on in the church for all time, everywhere, and for all.

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