Liturgy by TLW



Is There Room in the Church for Private Confession?
Or, Who Lost the Key to the Office?

A Historical-Theological Inquiry

by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Below is a lecture outline plus a handout of references related to the outline, which I put together some years back for an hour and a half study time at a ministerium.  Plan to print and distribute the handout.  It is important that you actually read aloud those references for a proper understanding and consideration of the topic by those attending. For your convenience of reading through this lecture here, I have placed links and anchors throughout so that you can go directly to the references to read them and then return easily to your place in the outline.

I. Intro: a personal pastoral experience
     A. Work with A.A. 12-steps - fifth step confession
     B. Encouragement of my Adult Sunday School class
     C. Pastoral care/counseling leading to confession
     D. Previous Lents - offer of confession by open appointment - no response
     E. Later, specific hours in Holy Week (Mon, Tue, Wed) - people responded
     F. Question:
         1. What are the implications?
         2. Regular times in the future?
     G. Seek assistance of history/theology

     A. Calls for repentance abound
         1. Christ's message: "Repent, the kingdom is at hand"
         2. Paul: justification means new life based on forgiveness
         3. NT imperatives to community relate to
             a. Repentance
             b. Living baptismal life
             c. Correcting, building up one another
     B. Question for history: What do you do about post-baptismal sin?
     C. Jenson's statement -- see HANDOUT "New Testament Background"
     D. A few specific references to process of repentance
            - see HANDOUT "Forgiving One Another"
     E. Basic theological understanding = new life, forgiven life - fulfilled in
         1. Baptism
         2. Living in the Baptismal Community
         3. Sharing in the Community's meal of forgiveness, Eucharist

         1. No record of a standard rite for reconciliation
         2. Reconciliation was definitely readmission to Eucharist
             a. Presumes exclusion/excommunication
             b. For what sins? 3rd cent. tells

         1. Tertullian (160-c.220), Africa
             a. Gives first evidence of developed practice
             b. Suggests baptism eliminates normal need for repentance
             c. Only extraordinary sin needs repentance (once per lifetime)
             d. See HANDOUT "The Rise of Public Penance"
         2. Didascalia Apostolorum (early 3rd c.) - one baptism, one repentance
             see HANDOUT "Didascalia Apostolorum"
         3. Cyprian (c.200-258), bishop of Carthage - "The Lapsed"
             a. Conf. to "priest of God" = bishop, not any presbyter
             b. Assignment and performance of appropriate penance, followed
             c. Exomologesis (steps described by Tertullian?)
             d. Reconcil. by imposition of hands & readmission to Euch.
             e. Complaint: many who ought to are not doing so
         4. Gregory Thaumaturgus (Wonderworker), Asia (213-270)
             a. Five grades or degrees of penitents
             b. Parallels steps of catechumens preparing for baptism
             c. See HANDOUT "Gregory Thaumaturgus"

     C. 4TH CENT.
         1. Description of Public Penance - see HANDOUT "Fourth Century"
         2. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.394)
             a. Three capital sins: apostasy, adultery and murder
         3. Council of Nicea, 325
             a. Terms of penance - see HANDOUT  "Canons of Nicea"
             b. Other documents indicate 6 years is norm for offenses
             c. In extreme cases of heinous acts, 20 or even 30 years
         4. Maundy Thursday became normal time for reconciling penitents
             a. Links with prep of catechumens for baptism at Easter Vigil
             b. Therefore next euch. would be Easter Vigil

         1. Priest-penitentiaries - significant for later devel.
             a. Assigned by bishops
             b. Monitor progress of penance
             c. Judge adequacy of "satisfaction" of penance
             d. Declare penitent ready for reconciliation by Bishop
         2. Leo the Great (440-461), pope
             a. Advises confession to God as sufficient for daily sins
             b. First hint at "secret confession" to suppliant priest
         3. Roman penance incl. whole congregation
             a. "Weepers" prostrate, met by cong/bishop who prostrate and pray
             b. Church identifies/unites with penitent = one united repent. Church
         4. Severity of rites begin to take toll
             a. Some bishops explicitly counsel delay of penance
             b. Many would not allow to married persons because of chastity req.
             c. General use begins to decline

     A. Public penance was clearly unsatisfactory for the church
         1. New development came from
             a. Outside the cong'l church
             b. Outside the geographical centers of the church
         2. The monastic tradition
             a. A lay movement responding to influx of pagans after peace of 313
             b. The church just wasn't the church anymore
         3. Spiritual direction of desert fathers - see HANDOUT  "Rise of Private Penance"
             a. Guide to living the Christian life
             b. All that hinders Christian life is discussed, incl. sin (= conf.)

         1. Rise of monastic model for penance in Celtic and British churches
             a. No evidence that public penance ever used here
         2. Description:
             a. Tariff system of penances for various offenses
             b. Conf/Penance done privately - readmission to Euch.
             c. Confession usually to the abbot of a monastery
             d. Bishop not involved at any stage
             e. No official status as "penitent"
             f. No rite of reconciliation other than readmission to Eucharist
             g. No absolution in modern sense
         3. Model extended spontaneously to other parts of world
         4. Several manuals ("penitentials") develop
             a. Lists of time and severity for var. sins
             b. Usually involves a fast of greater or lesser severity
             c. Still pretty stiff in some cases, following pub. penance model

         1. More encouragement of devotional conf. of minor faults
             a. Now seen by parish priests as well as non-ordained spir. directors
             b. Confessions could also be made to holy women, nuns
                     Brigit and Ita of Cluain Credill
         2. Bishops seem to be implicitly or explicitly approving the new system
             a. Continuing practice of Holy Thursday reconciliations
             b. = Remnants of old pub. pen. still around
         3. Idea dev. of conf/pen/reconc. are useful to all Christians

         1. Now administered by bishop, priest, or deacon (in emerg.)
             a. Priest prays before hearing conf. - acknowl. his own sinfulness
             b. Priest functions as judge: is penitent earnest
             c. A fast is assigned of spec. type/duration = purification from sin
             d. May be commuted by almsgiving
             e. Money goes to poor, captives or church upkeep
             f. Priest must share fast (to prevent harshness)
             g. Reconc: priest lays hands & prayer asking God to forgive
         2. Penitentials multiply, circulate widely during 8th-9th c.
             a. Bishops complain of no control over contents
             b. Also no agreement between penitentials as to sins and tariffs
             c. Severity of penance is lessening
             d. Commutations abused -- open way for indulgences

         1. Council of Chalon (813) tries to ban penitentials
         2. Council of Paris (829) demanded they all be collected and burned

     C. 10TH CENTURY
         1. Pattern of performance shifts
             a. Priv. confession & immed. reconciliation before priv. penance
             b. No exclusion from eucharist
         2. Penance assignments lessen until nearly nothing
             a. Therefore no need for penitentials - disappear
         3. Regular conf. by all is widespread
             a. Esp. associated w/Lent and prep. for Easter communion
             b. By 11th c., ashes for all penitents on Ash Wed.

     D. 13TH CENTURY
         1. Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declares what is already been happening
             a. From age of discretion, all must confess at least annually
             b. Conf. is to parish priest only
         2. Recon. now effected by declaration of forgiveness (absolution)
             a. Power of absol. connected to power vested in Church & her reps.
             b. Further connected to power of priestly ordination
         3. Thus unordained spiritual directors can no longer hear confessions
             a. So no women or nuns
         4. Confessionals developed for secret conf.
             a. Protected penitent from priest to a certain extent
             b. Created strained & artificial context for those seeking direction
         5. Summary, see HANDOUT  "Merger of Public and Private Penance"

     A. Theological correctives needed
         1. Primarily made evident by the penitential system (cf. 95 Theses)
         2. Justification by grace through faith comes to bear here first
     B. Reformers felt private conf/abs. ought to be mainstay of Church life
         1. Appears in AC, AP, SA, SC, and LC
         2. In AP, art. on Penitence [178ff] second only to Just. [400ff]
         3. Indeed, they thought of it as the third sacrament
     C. Two emphases given:
         1. Contrition = burden of sin felt = effect of the Law
         2. Faith = receiving forgiveness (abs.) = effect of Gospel
         3. Absolution therefore the sacramental part of confession
     D. See HANDOUT "The Reformation"
     E. Thus of an evangelical, sacramental doctrine of penitence

     A. Evangelical penance didn't take hold in practice
         1. Once the flood gates opened, the laity ran from the old abuses
         2. Much like the running from abuse of pub. pen. from 5th c. onward
     B. German orders did provide forms, but rejected acts of penance
         1. General rule: priv. conf. could not be forced
         2. Still, priv. conf. was considered normal prep. for euch.
     C. All other reformers threw out
     D. Anglicans tried to reinstate older public penance
         1. Some successes - remnant remains until 19th c.
         2. Oxford Movement of 19th c. takes up Medieval Roman penance
         3. Two new rites (1979)
             a. First based on old Roman
             b. Second based on new Roman revisions (much like ours)
     E. Lutherans have had three orders in Am. w/simply conf., abs. and blessing
         1. 1892 Church Book
         2. 1919 Common Service Book
         3. 1962 Occasional Services Book
     F. LBW rite longer, based on Sm. Cat. and Roman revisions - as to use??
     G. Not even indiv. abs. at Maundy Thurs. rite, after indiv. ashes on Ash Wed
     H. Final word, Jenson, see HANDOUT "Post-Reformation/Modern"



  1. The Scriptures provide ample evidence of calls for repentance, commands for loosing and binding, procedure for such, and admonitions to assist one another in the Christian life.

  2. Much more, we have a Savior who reveals to us the love of God -- a love that reaches through the multiple horrors of the cross, sin, despair, death and the law until it touches us concretely, forgiving and saving us.

  3. Such saving is startlingly grace-filled, life renewing, and radically converting.

  4. Yet the tensions of the old life (old Adam/Eve) pulling me from the new life remain. It is the twin pull of the law and the gospel, God's wrath and God's love, my sin and my forgivenness, contrition and faith. The struggle goes on, though the struggle is now itself filled with grace.

  5. The Church offers assistance in this struggle: baptism as the point of departure and from which all the rest follows, the baptized community, the forgiving and renewing eucharist, the word of grace in preaching and teaching, the general word of forgiveness.

  6. But is there a personal word of forgiveness -- to me?

  7. Is it in pastoral care and counseling? Is what the pastor says the same as what God says? Who speaks God's words to me?

  8. And how often?