Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ELCA Theologian Responds to My Post on Unconditional Absolution.

I generally received positive responses to my post on unconditional absolution. I nevertheless received one negative response from one ELCA theologian who advocates conditional absolution. I wrote him and asked him if I could use his name and respond to his piece. He has not responded to me. For this reason, I have decided to post his response in an edited form so as to not reveal his identity.

I will respond to this statement in the form of a running commentary:

"Someone sent a copy of your blog on, I think was May 15th, concerning something you call "The Divine Service" absolution and Osiander."

It's interesting that he puts "Divine Service" in quotes. For my LCMS audience, it should be born in mind that ELCA people do not call church services the "Divine Service." I suspect he might be unaware that this is our practice.

(To summarize his statement here, without revealing any names, he then tells me that I have all the facts wrongs and that he's going to set things straight. He then comments on how his opponent (an ELCA pastor who reads my blog) believes in unconditional absolution. His opponents holds that conditional absolution is legalistic and pelagian. He then moves to his historical counter argument.)

"The only prominent figure in the Lutheran Reformation who argued that an absolution had to be unconditional was Andreas Osiander. The historian Ronald Rittgers, who has a fine study on these matters from which I learned much, calls this point of view “extreme absolutionism.” But even Osiander would have not agreement with your position. For Osiander confession had to be private. Public confession and absolution was for him illegitimate."

First, every study that I've read on Osiander says the opposite. Also, if Osiander was advocating absolute and unconditional absolution, then why did he want confession to only be private? In other words, if one unconditionally absolves people, then why can't you do that in public? Furthermore, Luther's letters to the Nuremberg town councils say the very opposite thing: Osiander didn't believe in unconditional absolution- that's why he thought it could only be private!

"He was at odds with the city fathers of Nuremberg over this. They banned private confession because they believed, and experienced to an extent, that the exercise of the keys by an independent clergy in private over individuals had the potential to be seditious."

That's a possible motivation, I have no way to judge that. All I have is Luther and Melancthon's letters.

"So confession and absolution in preparation for communion was made part of the public act of worship, the liturgy being approved by the city council. In the public order, the absolution was conditional because they knew that the imperatives of repentance and faith could not be assured at a public gathering. The dispute went on for quite a while. Luther and Melanchthon weighed in in a jointly written letter, taking the side of the city council. Nuremberg was somewhat of an exception. 50 Lutheran territories mandated by law private confession; the forms of absolution being unconditional."

Notice that he doesn't give examples of what constitutes "conditional absolution." We'll see below that his evidence is not very strong. Again, my point was merely about what Luther says and not what the city council said or did. What Luther clearly says is that there should be public and unconditional absolution. Luther's point was that the Word was effective, even if many did not believe the public proclamation of forgiveness!

Also, saying that private confession and absolution were maintained in other cities is besides the point. First, it dosen't automatically make it a good practice or in keeping with what Luther wanted and believed. Secondly , it is a red herring. Advocating private confession and absolution is not the same as saying that we should have conditional public absolution. I think having private confession and absolution is a wonderful practice!!! I think it's rather unfortunate that it's fallen out of use and I greatly appreciate those Lutheran pastors in the LCMS and elsewhere who have revived it. The issue is: should we try to somehow scare people into faith or more repentant "feelings" by making public absolution conditional. The answer is no! If we believe in the bondage of the will, then scaring people with conditional absolution won't lead to real faith or repentance.

Furthermore, the exercise of the keys is necessary and should be advocated strongly. If you read Matthew 18 and read Luther's take on these things, the primary goal of the exercise of the keys is to let people who are abusing their Christian freedom know that God is not mocked and that living in mortal sin is faith-destroying. In other words, the goal is to bring people to repentance who are already in a state of mortal sin, yet remain in the Christian community.

Secondly, the binding of sin is not an act that should begin in public, and therefore should not be part of the public liturgy of the Word. As Jesus states in Matthew 18, this should occur on a one-on-one basis. Later, when the Church disciplines those who reject the private admonition to repent, it can become public. Hence, the Divine Service should not be the arena where the binding of sins is to be initiated and therefore the public absolution should not be used to do this by placing conditions on it. That should happen within private confession and absolution first, before it becomes a matter of public church discipline("then tell it to the Church" and all that).

"This begins [public conditional absolution] with Luther in 1524 when he rejects the radical worship practices introduced by Karlstadt. As public orders began to appear, the uniform Lutheran practice was to make the absolution conditional. Here is an example of a conditional absolution for a public order from Wittenberg in 1559:

Therefore to all such as are here present with a penitent and believing spirit, who turn themselves to God and fear his anger at their sins, who believe that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ, and who earnestly resolve to die unto sin, to all such I proclaim the forgiveness of their sins according to the word of the Lord: Whosesoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them. Therefore, according to the command of Christ, I pronounce to you this forgiveness, that your sins are pardoned for the sake of Jesus Christ. And of this voice of the Gospel you ought to accept, and enjoy true comfort in Christ, and walk faithfully and obediently before God, having a good conscience."

But this isn't something what Luther wrote, so why is being quoted to prove his position? Again, what I was writing about was Luther's position and not Church-practice 13 years after he died. In fact, as far as I can tell (I am not a liturgical scholar, so someone can correct me if I'm wrong!), Luther's original German mass simply assumes the continuation of private absolution, so it lacks a public absolution- conditional or otherwise!

Secondly, I don't know if I would really characterize this as conditional absolution. Yes, it presupposes faith is necessary to receive the general absolution, but that's a little bit different from what I mean when I reject conditional absolution. What I mean is when the minister tells his congregation "if you believe, then you will have forgiveness" or when he says "although I just gave absolution, if you weren't really penitent or had faith in what I said, then it didn't work" (this is more or less what Norwegian Pietist liturgies say!). This is the transformation of gospel into law. Law of course should be proclaimed- but gospel should not be transformed into law! All this liturgy says when it mentions faith and penitence is "receivers now receive!"

"Even where private confession was mandated, the public service with communion uniformly included an exhortation to communicants, warning them about repentance and faith. Here is Luther’s own version from 1525. Remember now, this is official liturgical language:

Dearest Friends in Christ: You know that our Lord Jesus Christ, out of unspeakable love, instituted at the last this his Supper as a memorial and proclamation of his death suffered for our sins. This commemoration requires a firm faith to make the heart and conscience of everyone who wants to use and partake of this Supper sure and certain that Christ has suffered death for all his sins. But whoever doubts and does not in some manner feel such faith should know that the Supper is of no avail to him, but will rather be to his hurt, and he should stay away from it. And since we cannot see such faith, and it is known only to God, we leave it to the conscience of him who comes and admit him who requests and desires it. But those who cling to open sins, such as greed, hatred, envy, profiteering, unchastity, and the like and are not minded to renounce them, shall herewith be barred and be warned faithfully not to come lest they incur judgment and damnation for their souls as St. Paul says [I Cor. 11:29]. If however someone has fallen because of weakness and proves by his acts that he earnestly desires to better himself, this grace and communion of the body and blood of Christ shall not be denied to him. In this fashion each must judge himself and look out for himself. For God is not mocked [Gal. 6:7], nor will he give that which is holy unto the dogs or cast pearls before swine [Matt. 7:6]."

Again, a red herring- Holy Communion is very, very different than public absolution. But this is not a surprising red herring. ELCA folks typically do not understand the distinction between general absolution and Holy Communion. That's why they practice what might properly be referred to not as "open Communion" but "indiscriminate Communion." In other words, when I've brought up the issue of closed Communion to ELCA folks they typically get really, really angry and say: "well, you just think that we have to be holy to receive Christ! But Christ's forgiveness is for sinners!!!" When I was in seminary, I had classmates who in this spirit, actually advocated communing the unbaptized- because hey, they need forgiveness as well!!

This misses the function of Holy Communion within the Christian life and why it is different than absolution or baptism.

In a word, there is a single mystery of faith (Christ and his benefits), but our relationship to that mystery differs depending on our faith and baptism. Jesus and the New Testament authors are clear that baptism and the proclamation of the Word of absolution both give faith and sustain faith. This is different than the Lord's Supper. To summarize Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: the Lord's Supper sustains faith that already exists, it does not create it. Hence, Christ commands baptism and proclamation extend to "every living creature." Sometimes the Word will harden, sometimes it will create faith- but one need not have faith prior to baptism or the the hearing of the gospel for it to be effective. Both have the possibility of creating faith, and not merely sustaining it.

Nevertheless, Jesus only instituted the Lord's Supper after the Disciples had already had faith. Similarly, Paul states that those who come to the table without a faith to be sustained don't receive forgiveness, but are condemned. In other words, unlike baptism and proclamation, faith will simply not be worked in those who receive Communion without it. Instead, condemnation will result. Hence, it's important to keep those away from Communion who don't have faith.

It's also true that a person (let's say a non-Lutheran Christian) can have faith in Christ and be saved, and through what Pieper called "falicitious inconsistency" have a wrong understanding of Communion. Hence, they should be kept away since they do not believe the promises and will therefore be condemned. It doesn't mean that they're not justified and absolved or that the pastor should have placed conditions on their absolution when he spoke them earlier in the Divine Service. To benefit from Communion, one must trust not only in Jesus' promise of the forgiveness of sin, but that he is substantially present ("discerning the body and blood").

Therefore, a eucharistic exhortation has nothing to do with the question of public absolution. If people don't believe (either that they are sinners or that Jesus is present), they should be kept away for their own good. This does not mean that they haven't previously received the public absolution or that giving unconditional absolution was in some way dangerous.

(Here he strongly attacks his opponent and admits that his own position might be characterized as Pietistic. But that's not a bad thing, he seems to say. He then talks about older American hymnals, which I am not competant to discuss and asks if anyone can really counter his argument. He seems to think not).
In summation, the question cannot be a purely historical one. The early Lutheran fathers were not infallible, neither did they claim to be. In any case, I think I've shown that his historical arguments have some significant holes in them and that conditional absolution (at least as he is advocating it) is not supported by his historical citations he offers.

Ultimaely, this is a theological question and not a historical one. The theological qusetion is this: Do people benefit when the subject of the verb in absolution is changed from Christ to themselves? The answer is no, because it gives the impression that we are absolved because of something we do. Secondly, is there a danger in publically telling people that they are forgiven? No, because if people believe it, then it is so! No one will accidentally believe it!

There of course is the possibility that many will simply use it to justify their continued wicked behavior or will reject the Word outright. This is where the power of the keys and the binding of sins comes in. Nevertheless, the creation of conditions for absolution will not reverse or prevent this. God works through his Word as he chooses. It is not up to us to somehow make his Word have a better effect by transforming it from gospel into law. Similarly, by witholding the unconditionality of the public word of absolution, we risk destroying the possibility that living faith will be created and/or sustained. This is different from warning people about the Lord's Supper, where as we know, unbelief will automatically result in condemnation.


  1. Dr. Kilcrease,

    I will chew on all of this carefully, but I thought I should say that the depiction of your opponent, as a preface to his argument, while possibly providing indications of his/her character, does not bear on the argument following. I suppose it would be possible for even Arius or Marcion themselves to make a reasonable and cogent argument.

  2. Yes, this is correct. My point was merely that you can see the parallel between their other views their view of confession and absolution. Actually, though, that's a good point. I'll erase that part. I'm not interested in engaging in character assination!

  3. What is the difference between a pastor saying, "Your sins are forgiven," and a pastor saying, "I forgive you all your sins?"

  4. Phil- I don't think that there is. With the exception of the word "all." :) The other is implicitly "all."

    Why do you ask?