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.
(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)