I. Confession and Absolution: The Question in Contemporary Lutheranism
Presenter: Jeffrey Truscott
A presentation on confession and absolution from the Lutheran perspective in the twentieth-century features four major voices two German and two American alternately: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Marty, Peter Brunner and Robert W. Jenson. For Bonhoeffer, repentance and confession is tied to ecclesial authenticity. The church is not an "ideal" community; rather it is a community which proves that it is worthy of the gospel of forgiveness by constantly proclaiming God's forgiveness. Confession is intended for sins committed after baptism which enables the sinner to overcome self-indulgence and self-deception. Whereas confession brings mortification of the flesh because it delivers sin up to the death of Christ, absolution brings a resurrection with Christ. In extreme cases of excommunication, three-fold ecclesial process is employed as a discipline: first the preaching of law and gospel; second, an admonition from church members; and third, formal disciplinary action. Marty seems to share Bonhoeffer's concern about the "cost of discipleship" but worries today about a "false evangelicalism" whereby one hears the Gospel without acting. Confession, he posits, has been neglected, but it is useful not for the enumeration of sins but for helping Christians to live out their baptism. Confession leads to absolution which is also born in baptism and related to Eucharist. Absolution not only rids of sin, but it frees the person for service in the world.
Brunner believed that salvation can be "lost, frittered away or forfeited." Confession is analogous to baptism in that it helps move the sinner from unbelief to belief. To the degree that it is necessary to speak the Word to preserve salvation, confession of sins results in the proclamation of the Word of forgiveness. Absolution is a "condensation of the Gospel as Word." Confession is an act which can be done private or corporately but in either case it is a reflex to the encounter with the living God in the revealing Word. Jenson, a student of Brunner, sees the practice of penance as tied to the discipline which the church exercises for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of ecclesial authenticity. The mandate for penance comes from baptism and thus takes two forms: individual confession and absolution, and excommunication and reconciliation. In both cases, the same formula of absolution is employed to underscore the dominical command to forgive others as God has forgiven us.
II. Corporate Confession and Forgiveness: A Tool for Sociopolitical Conversion
Presenter: Craig Satterlee
Although provision is made for confession and absolution in Luther's Small Catechism , they must be seen in relationship to baptism. The medieval discipline of private confession was maintained in Lutheran churches varying in form in the different Lutheran localities. The current Lutheran Book of Worship provides for three rites of confession: corporate confession, individual confession and confession immediately prior to celebration of Holy Communion. The presentation focused on the first form and its relationship to what D. Gelpi, S. J. calls "sociopolitical conversion." In Gelpi's Committed Worship: A Sacramental Theology for Converting Christians (vol. I, p.17), he defines sociopolitical conversion as "the decision to turn from unreflective acceptance of the institutional violations of human rights to a commitment to collaborate with others in the reform of unjust social, economic, and political structures."
Corporate Confession and Forgiveness is a flexible rite designed to stand as a separate service which can be used as a tool to facilitate sociopolitical conversion. The rite consists primarily of hymns, psalms and prayers, preceding the proclamation of scripture and a homily which are intended to lead to a prayer of confession and absolution. The corporate setting emphasizes corporate sin and collective conversion, although the prayer of confession, recited by the assembly, is cast in the first person singular. The minister responds with a formula reminding the congregation that God's mercy comes to them by the cross of Christ and through the cleansing action of the Holy Spirit. He declares that their sins are forgiven in the name of the Trinity. An analysis of the formula of absolution underscores the gratuitous mercy of God manifested in Christ in the paschal mystery. Those who receive absolution participate in the Easter passage from darkness to light by the power of the Spirit. The ritual action which accompanies absolution is the laying on of hands, the most ancient form of absolution, signifying a return and renewal of the Holy Spirit to the penitent and a reconciliation to the community.