Is Confession a sacrament in Lutheran theology?

It is often said that Lutheran churches only have two sacraments; Baptism and the Eucharist. The fact is that they have, at least,[1] three; Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confession, or more accurately confession and absolution, emphasis on the latter. And this can be shows by reference to what is arguably the most central of the specifically Lutheran confessions; Confessio Augustana (CA) or the Augsburg Confession. Although confession is never explicitly called a sacrament (but neither is Baptism),[2] we can conclude from both the historical context of the confession and its structure that it is indeed a sacrament.

The confession was presented at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530, primarily to show how Catholic and ecumentical the Lutheran congregations were and not how unique they were. Art. I-XXI presents the foundational Lutheran theology, before concluding: “This is nearly a complete summary of the teaching among us. As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”[3] We should, therefore, suppose that confession is a sacrament, since that was indeed the belief of the Roman Church at the time. The difference was not so much in the principle but in the fact that they opposed the fact that you need to remember and enumerate all the sins: “For this is impossible according to the psalm [19:12*]: “But who can detect their errors?”” (CA XI, cf. XXV).

The most compelling argument, however, in my opinion, is the structural one. CA VII concerns the Church (defined as the assembly of saints wherein “the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly”), CA VIII concerns the validity of the means of grace and the nature of the Church, CA IX concerns Baptism, CA X concerns the Eucharist, CA XI concerns confession, CA XII concerns repentance, penance, and absolution, CA XIII concerns the use of the sacraments, and CA XIV concerns Church order and the public exercise of the priestly office. Structurally speaking, then, it is quite obvious that confession (or or more accurately confession and absolution) is a sacrament. After two articles concerning the Church, the Word, and the sacraments (VII-VIII) we get four articles on the specific sacraments (IX-XII) before we find an article on the use of the sacraments (XIII). They could have put the articles on confession and repentance after the one on church order but they did not. It is, then, obvious that Confessio Augustana teaches that the sacrament of confession, is, well, a sacrament. So yes, confession is a sacrament in Lutheran theology.


[1] As the Lutheran equivalent of an Anglo-Catholic, I firmly hold to that we have (at least) seven sacraments but I’ll try to argue for that some other time.

[2] The word ‘sacrament’ is used numerous times in during the confession but never directly about Baptism, though no one seriously doubts that Baptism is considered a sacrament in the confession. The Eucharist is called a sacrament in CA XXIV, though not in CA X.

[3] I make use of the translation found in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, trans., Charles P. Arand et al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000), 27-105 (using the translation of the Latin text). For the Latin and German originals, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).


This was posted a few days ago in Norwegian.

According to the Roman Catholic Church the Pope is infallible by virtue of (and in) his office. It is held that when he speaks ex cathedra, his declaration or definition is without error.

I was recently asked what my thoughts were on this, and I said that somewhere there has to be one form of infallability, if we are to believe that Scripture is without error.[1] The traditional Christian view is that the Church is infallible.[2] The question that becomes: What is the status of the Pope? I don’t think that this question should start with whether or not the Pope is infallible. The question should rather start with the question of papal primacy, the authority and jurisdiction of the Pope.

The Catholic view follows logically from the points: (1) The Church is infallible. (2) I virtue of, and in, his office, the Pope speaks on behalf of the entire Church. If these premises are true, the infallibility of the Pope follows logically. The discussion must therefore not start with a debate about the conclusion (the acceptance of rejection of papal infallibility), but about the premises leading up to the conclusion. Is the Church infallible? Does the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, a ‘Church wide’ jurisdiction? This is what we must consentrate on in the debate.


[1] The traditional view is not that Scripture is infallible, but without error (inerrant). To be infallible means that one cannot make a mistake (which only make sense to say about persons). To ‘make a mistake’ is an action. Personar can be infallible, while books or documents can be inerrant,

[2] On this, see Wikipedia. For a more academic treatment (from an Eastern Orthodox view), see The Primacy of Peter (ed., John Meyendorff. SVS Press 1992).

A Roman Option for Lutherans?

The cover of Oddie’s book

Update: There is now a Norwegian version of this post.

Today I got my copy of William Oddie’s book The Roman Option.[1] Written in 1997, in the aftermath of the 1992 decision of the Church of England to ordain women to the priesthood, it explores the possibility of a ‘Roman option’ for ‘disaffected’ Anglicans. Some have compared Oddie’s proposals to the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to allow (Catholic-minded) Anglicans to convert corporately to the Catholic Church, while retaining certain elements of their Anglican patrimony,[2] and I know some Anglicans personally who have rejected the proposal of the Pope, favouring rather an (conservative) Old Catholic solution,[3] and who refer to the proposal of the Pope as ‘the Roman Option.’ I have not yet (started to) read the book, but plan to do it in the not so distant future, but I believe some remarks are in order.

I have long wondered if it isn’t perhaps time for a ‘Roman option’ for Lutherans. Much of what was considered abuses in the Augsburg Confession (a word which assumes that there is a legitimate use of said things) is long gone, and I must admit that although the Book of Concord is an interesting piece of history, I couldn’t care less about much of what it says, should I disagree with it. Belonging to the Church of Norway, I am only bound to Scripture, to the three ancient (western) symbols (the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed), to the Augsburg Confession and to Luther’s Small Catechism.[4] And there is also a ‘hierarchy of truth’ here. Scripture is the norm which norms and which is not itself normed (norma normans non normata); the rest are norms which are normed and which do not themselves norm (norma normata).[5] A further important point to be made is that in article 21 of the Augusburg Confession, in the conclusion of its doctrinal part, it is said that «there is nothing [in the preceding doctrinal part] that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.» (Emphasis added) If Lutherans are to be seen as a part of ‘the Church Catholic,’ if the ‘catholic principle’ is to be taken seriously, and not merely as a rhetorical device void of meaning, we need to take a look at what the Church has taught throughout history. And we also need to ask four important questions. The fourth question, which is the mirror image of the third, is the most important, adressing the concerns of the Reformation, its relation to our present situation and Christ’s prayer of unity in John 17:

  1. Is there room for a Catholic ecclesiology in the Church of Norway, or in any given Lutheran church?
  2. Is there such a thing as a ‘non-papal Catholicism’?
  3. Do we have to be in communion with Rome?
  4. Are there any compelling reasons not to be in communion with Rome in our present situation?

I am not going to answer these here, but they might be a good starting point for a discussion.

With these thought in mind, I recommend reading this post (and the subsequent discussion) concerning comments from the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Kurt Cardinal Koch, on the possibility of a Lutheran ordinariate.


[1] William Oddie, The Roman Option: Crisis and the realignment of English-speaking Christianity (London: HarperCollins 1997).

[2] See here, here and here. For an introduction to Pope Benedict’s proposal, see Wikipedia. Also read the ‘founding documents,’ Anglicanorum Coetibus and its complementary norms. Here, here and here are links to the three main Catholic-anglican personal ordinariates in England/Wales, USA and Australia, respectively.

[3] One person I know has seeked union with the PNCC and the Nordic-Catholic Church.

[4] See Arve Brunvoll, Vedkjenningsskriftene åt Den norske kyrkja (Ny omsetjing med innleiingar og notar. Oslo: Lunde 1979). I am probably only self-imposedly bound by this as a layman, but should I be ordained in the Church of Norway, I will be bound to it canonically, through my vows at the ordination. For some considerations of the Catholicity of the Augsburg Confession, see Wolfhart Pannenberg, «The Confessio Augustana as a Catholic Confession and a Basis for the Unity of the Church» (in The Role of the Augsburg Confession: Catholic and Lutheran Views, ed., Joseph A. Burgess. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press 1980), pp.27-45; Joseph Ratzinger, «Elucidations of the Question of a “Recognition” of the Confessio Augustana by the Catholic Church» (in Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press 1987), pp.27-45; and Avery Dulles, S.J., «The Catholicity of the Augsburg Confession» (The Journal of Religion 63:4, 1983), pp.337-354.

[5] Let me Google that for you.

Some thoughts on Purgatory

In Catholic Theology, the ‘consensus’ is that in the afterlife, there are three realms: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. I say ‘realm,’ since this can be read more loosely than ‘place.’ This fall I have been writing my master’s thesis on the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, comparing Lutheran Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg and Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now known as pope Benedict XVI. I make the point there that if Lutherans were to accept a Catholic view of the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, this, although it be ecumenically (and historically) signigicant, wouldn’t in and of itself necessarily lead to unity. There are many other aspects that needs to be considered, including Purgatory. Theology should be marked by coherence, and the same goes for unity.

The last couple of days I have been pondering the concept of Purgatory, and have tried to grasp what the doctrine actually is. We can read about this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There it says, in paragraphs 1030-1032:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. the tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

The main point is that those “who die in God’s grace and friendship,” that is, those who are already saved, already ‘on their way to heaven’ and “assured of their eternal salvation” can still be “imperfectly purified,” and thus in need of purifying, purgation. It seems to me to be a perfectly Biblical idea, as long as you understand what it means. It doesn’t involve a ‘second chance’ and it doesn’t mean that one ‘earns one’s way to heaven.’ It means nothing else than that we are purified. In 1. Cor. 3:11-15 Paul states (RSV):

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Paul starts out here by pointing out that Christ is the center. No other foundation can be laid, no one but Christ can hold up ‘the structure of life.’ But we can build on that foundation, we can live our lives, build our lives, and build upon this foundation both with gold, silver and precious stones, on the one hand, and wood, hay and straw on the other. Then, at some point, this will be tested with fire. What gold, silver and precious stones have in common is that not only can they withstand fire, they are not destroyed but purified and molded by it. So if ‘the structure of your life’ has been made up only by gold, silver and precious stones, your work, a work that in reality is the Lord’s own doing (Phil 2:12-13) will survive. What wood, hay and straw have in common, however, is that they do not withstand fire, they are destroyed by it. So if ‘the structure of your life’ has been made up only by wood, hay and straw, your work, will not survive.

We probably all have a bit of both; both that which endures and that which perishes. The point here, however, is that the fire of the Lord purifies and burns. And this is the core of the doctrine of Purgatory. There are some, it says, who are Christians, who “who die in God’s grace and friendship” (who have laid the foundation of Christ), but who are in need of purgation (because they have built upon this not only with gold, silver and precious stones. but also with wood, hay and straw). This seems to me to be a utterly Biblical doctrine, and I see no reason why a Lutheran should not believe in it. There are many ideas related to this that may need to be removed, but that doesn’t mean that the doctrine is problematic in itself.

A final thought: What is the fire that burns? It seems to me that the Orthodox have a very good answer to this: it is Christ, it is God himself. Heaven is to love being in the presence of the God who loves you. Hell is to hate being in the presence of the God who loves you. Purgatory is to love being in the presence of the God who loves you, and whose love purifies you. Allow me to end with some words from Pope Benedict XVI, from the Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi:

46 … For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

47 Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).