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.

Notes:

[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).

Why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant’

I am very often called a ‘Protestant,’ mainly by American Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or Roman Catholics. But I have always rejected the term, and that is often perplexing to them. Since I am now a bit tired of explaining why, I have decided, after being encouraged, to just write a post about it.

Some (and mainly Americans) claim that ‘Protestantism’ (as it is often used these days) is, in some sense, a result of the Reformation. Baptists, for instance, who are undeniable part of so called modern ‘Protestantism,’ have their origin in the Anabaptist and radical reformations, yet these predates the Lutheran Reformation and are condemned by name in Confessio Augustana, art. 5, 9, 12, 16 and 17. These are ‘Protestants’ in the modern sense, yet to say that they are a result of the Reformation is, well, undeniably wrong, as they are condemned by it, and would therefore have to exist before or concurrent with it.

As for the use of ‘Protestant,’ allow me explain why this is an improper designation to use for Lutherans:

Some (American) Lutherans claim that “Lutherans were the original Protestants,” yet that is true only of German Lutherans in the Holy Roman Empire and perhaps their successors, yet I would say that this is dubious, as the term ‘Protestant’ is NOT, and have never been, a theological designation. It is a purely historical designation, and in its time it was political, not theological.

The origin of the name ‘Protestant’ was a protest not against any church body (so not against the Roman Catholic Church) but against the Holy Roman Emperor’s enforcement of the Edict of the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529, upholding the condemnation of Luther and Lutheranism in the Empire from 1521 (the Edict of Worms) and reversing concessions made to Lutherans at the first Diet of Speyer in 1526. Read more at Wikipedia, and in the included links. This decision was met by protest (hence the term ‘Protestant’) from “six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities,” according to Wikipedia. They didn’t protest the Catholic Church but the Holy Roman Empire, and the term wasn’t theological, it was political. It was a protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor (to use more modern terminology). To use a modern equivalent, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the US are ‘Protestants’ in the historic sense when they protested the HHS Mandate. The Wikipedia article notes: “During the Reformation, the term protestant was hardly used outside of German politics. People who were involved in the religious movement used the word evangelical (German: evangelisch).” Later, and gradually, the article notes, “protestant became a general term, meaning any adherent of the Reformation in the German-speaking area.” Note when it says that it was a general term it was general in the German-speaking area, and not in Lutheranism as such. It was, and remains, a political term, confined to the German situation.

It is understandable that many American Lutherans call themselves ‘Protestants’ (and underline that “Lutherans were the original Protestants”), as German Lutheranism has had a strong influence on American Lutheranism, more so, it seems, than Scandinavian Lutheranism (which is to be expected, the population of Germany far outnumbering the population of Scandinavia). Scandinavian Lutherans did not call themselves ‘Protstants,’ and I never will call myself that. In Norway we generally call ourselves ‘Lutheran’ or ‘evangelical Lutheran’ (no. evangelisk, not to be confused by the Norwegian evangelikal, used of the modern Evangelical Protestants) or often simply ‘Christians,’ though I find that to often be misleading. If someone asks me what I am, I don’t say simply ‘Christian,’ as I do not want to be put in the same box as Reformed, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics. I would rather be mistaken for a Roman Catholic than for an Evangelical.

Scandinavia was never part of the Holy Roman Empire and as such the edicts mentioned didn’t apply to us. Historically, no Scandinavian Lutherans called themselves ‘Protestants,’ and it is an entirely historically contingent term. In fact, in Scandinavia we had the reverse. Here, the Reformation wasn’t ground up, as in Germany, but top-down, as in England, introduced by the rulers (though the process was more ‘ecclesially willed’ in Sweden, then in Denmark-Norway, AFAIK). So the ‘Protestants’ in Scandinavia were Roman Catholics protesting the religious politics of the King (Gustav I in the Swedish Empire, Christian III in Denmark-Norway).

So the historical designation ‘Protestant’ doesn’t refer to me, or to many Lutherans, therefore ‘Lutherans were the original Protestants’ is simply not true of Lutheranism as such, only of German Lutheranism (and, arguably, only for those six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities, and their subjects, who uttered their political protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor).

But what about the more modern use of the word ‘Protestant’? Well, that is even more problematic. Many today simply say ‘Protestant’ every time they speak of a Christian who isn’t Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Oriental Orthodox (or perhaps Old Catholic, if they know of their existence). But that means that it has become utterly useless as a term. It doesn’t say anything about what we believe, only who we aren’t subject to. It doesn’t tell you anything about the person who is given the title. It just tells you what he isn’t. I know Lutherans (especially Americans) who time and time again has to explain that yes, they do believe in the real presence or yes, they have liturgy, because they get lumped together with everything from Pentecostals to Adventists. When Anabaptists, who are opposed to the Lutheran Reformation, are called ‘Protestants,’ we see that it has lost its meaning.

I am a non-Swede. I do not live in Sweden, and have never lived there. But non-Swede is not therefore a useful word to use about me. People from, say, southeast Asia are also non-Swedes but I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with people from southeast Asia. To illustrate the point, consider these two sentences: “As a Norwegian, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with southeast Asians.” Or: “As a non-Swede, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with non-Swedes.” The second sentence is utterly nonsensical an that tells us the uselessness of ‘non-Swede.’

So to with the word ‘Protestant’ (as many use it). I have fare more – theologically, liturgically, sacramentally, and ecclesially – in common with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than I have with Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc. To use the same kind of sentence, I would have to say, “As a Protestant, I have far more in common with Roman Catholics than I have with Protestants.” It shows how useless the term is. But it goes beyond this.

To use a word – ‘Protestant’ – to denoted some kind of unity between me and these ‘Protestants’ over and against Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics isn’t just useless and bizarre, it is misleading and, quite frankly, deceitful. It makes it look like there is some kind of unity between these so-called ‘Protestants,’ when, quite frankly, no such unity exists. It thus serves to cover up the fact that there is more unity between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than there has ever been between Lutherans and, say, Evangelicals, Pentecostals or Baptists. To use ‘Protestant’ in this modern sense is basically to lie and deceive.

And that is why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant.’

Some Lutheran reflections on Scripture and Tradition

A while back I was reading through an old (closed) discussion on an online forum, and read some thoughts from one of the participants.[1] He said that we shouldn’t read Scripture through any kind of tradition, since Scripture was ‘self interpreting,’ ‘clear,’ and ‘easily understandable.’ Then he went on to cite his proof of this, and said that Luther held to sola scriptura. There is just one big problem with this, and that is the fact that neither Luther nor any other Lutheran reformer made the claim that sola scriptura implies that tradition (or Tradition) doesn’t matter. This we can see by analysing the word. ‘Tradition’ (Gk. παράδοσις, Lt. trāditiō) just means ‘that which is handed over,’ and the act of handling over is παραδίδωμι in Greek and trādere in Latin. Scripture is itself handed over, and is thus part of Tradition. But, as we see with all text, this handing over is not passive. It is always interpreted, and Scripture is no exception. It is not ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable,’ and is read within a community, within a Tradition.

The Lutheran reformers, who used the term sola scriptura, meant by this the fact that Scripture stands above (other parts of) Tradition. But Scripture was still to be read within a living ecclesial Tradition, and especially though the writings of the Church Fathers. One can, of course, discuss to which degree they were successful in this, but they did not use the term sola scriptura as a way to exclude Tradition. In fact the first authorities mentioned in Confessio Augustana (CA) aren’t Scripture, but the Nicene Creed (article 1) and, in all ways but in name, the Chalcedon Creed (article 3).[2] To get technical, the Lutheran reformers defined Scripture as ‘the norm which norms (but which is not itself normed)’ (norma normans or norma normans non normata) and Tradition, especially the ecumenical creeds, as ‘the norms which are normed’ (norma normata).[3]

But there is a danger here. Since Scripture judges Tradition, we often end up defining Tradition as a given creed (the Apostles’ Creed, CA, etc.) That is what has happened in many modern Reformed and Lutheran churches. In a discussion I once referred to St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said to obey the bishop, and was told that this wasn’t uttered explicitly in Scripture, so we shouldn’t believe it. But this has never been part of what, at least Lutherans, have understood by sola scriptura.

I have been asked why, on this view, we cannot just say that Scripture is ‘the written rules from a board game,’ and play the game based solely on Scripture. The problem with this is that there are many different interpretations at play. The ‘game’ has changed, and does change constantly. We can say that the ‘game’ has gotten a lot of ‘expansion packs.’

The question often boils down to this: Why must Tradition judge me, and my reading of Scripture? The answer is that one person’s reading of Scripture is not identical with Scripture itself. That person’s interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily correct. Although Scripture cannot be normed by Tradition (norma normans non normata), it can be, and is, interpreted through Tradition. Tradition is still a norm (norma normata). It all boils down to the question of whether or not Scripture is ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable.’ As a man with a master’s degree in theology, and who loves Greek, I can say that it is far from.

We need people to teach this. People not only with education, but who are called and ordained to teach in Church. According to Lutheran teaching, “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” (CA XIV) Who are ‘regularly called’ (Lt. rite vocatus)? William Weedon has some thought on this:

The Augsburg Confession is very bold in its insistence: “As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” (Conclusion of first half of the AC) “In doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scriptures or the Church universal.” (Conclusion of the second half of the Augsburg Confession).

I would contend, however, that precisely at the point of AC XIV Melanchthon KNEW that something needed to be introduced that was new in both doctrine and in ceremony. But he was betting the farm that his opponent, Johann Eck, would NOT notice what he had done. And so what Melanchthon did was to scrounge up a term from canon law that might be a tad ambiguous – rite voctaus – and hope that Eck wouldn’t notice that the term was being used in a novel manner.

Fat chance. Eck was a careful student of the Lutheran movement and watched it with growing alarm. He did not let AC XIV slip by without telling commentary:

“When in the fourteenth article, they confess that no one ought to administer in the Church the Word of God and the sacraments unless he be rightly called, it ought to be understood that he is rightly called who is called in accordance with the form of law and the ecclesiastical ordinances and decrees hitherto observed everywhere in the Christian world, and not according to a Jerobitic (cf. 1 Kings 12:20) call, or a tumult or any other irregular intrusion of the people. Aaron was not thus called. Therefore, in this sense the Confession is received; nevertheless, they should be admonished to persevere therein, and to admit in their realms no one either as a pastor or as a preacher unless he be rightly called.” (Reu’s *A Collection of Sources for the Augsburg Confession*, p. 357)

The question is this: What is meant by rite vocatus? Does it mean, following Eck’s opinion, that you need ordination in apostolic succession (as that had been understodd throughout Church history), or something else? The problem is that we have never agreed what it actually means. The way I see it, is that we must read it the way the receivers of the text would read it. CA was not just a confession, it was an apologetical piece of writing, delivered to the Roman Catholic Church and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg, June 25, 1530. It seems to me that if you write a work, you need to use terminology the way its intended audience will use it. And furthermore, the authors of the confession claimed that “there is nothing,” at least in the first half of the confession (articles I-XXI), “that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.” (CA XXI) The ‘writers’ in question is the Church Fathers (Lt. ex scriptoribus; Ger. aus der Väter Schrift).[4] But if this is true, we need to understand rite vocatus as a need to not only call but to ordain men into the apostolic succession. There have been much discussion on this. But if we want to read this artivle through Tradition – the Tradition of the Church Catholic and the Church Fathers – we cannot avoid this idea. We must either read CA XIV as part of Tradition, or as a break with (or a correction of) Tradition. But then we end up, I think, as judges of Tradition. We become the norma normata ourselves. I will stop there, and let Chris Jones, one of the commentators on William Weedon’s blog post get the last word:

If the Apostolic Tradition means anything, and if the Creeds, the Councils, and the Fathers are worthy of any credit at all as faithful witnesses to that Tradition, then it seems to me that we must see our Confessions as part of that tradition, and consistently read them in the context of that tradition. Otherwise how can we possibly claim to be the Catholic Church, rightly reformed? And if that leads us to the conclusion that our Lutheran fathers were mistaken about the necessity of episcopal ordination, then that ought to lead us not to put the “Catholic principle” out of court, but to repent of that error. If we have made a mistake, we ought to admit it – not re-interpret Church history to make the mistake somehow not a mistake. After all, if one should never admit a mistake in doctrine or practice, there never could have been a Reformation.

If the “Catholic principle” is only an a posteriori judgement, not an actual embrace of the Apostolic Tradition, then it was no more than a rhetorical weapon against the Romanists, without substance. And that leaves us not as evangelical Catholics, but mere Protestants. That is not a position that I care to be in.

Notes:

[1] This post is based on different things I have written here on my blog, and on some posts in which I have participated in various online forums.

[2] For thought on this, read this (unfortunately Norwegian) article by Knut Alfsvåg: «Luthersk spiritualitet: Om lære og liv i den éne, kristne kirke» (Dansk Tidsskrift for Teologi og Kirke 40:1, 2013): 42-56.

[3] The Roman Catholic Church also essentially states this, in Dei Verbum. Here is a ‘taste’: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

[4] For the Latin and German texts of the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord), see Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (Herausgegeben im Gedenkjahr der Augsburgischen Konfession 1930. 5., durchgesehene Aufage. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1963). In the Church of Norway, however, we are bound not by the entirety of these confessions but only the three (western) ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed); Confessio Augustana; and Luther’s Small Catechism.

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.

Notes:

[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.