Saturday, May 14, 2011

Should Absolution be Unconditional?

This is a topic which I've actually meant to blog on for a while.  It touches on the big blow up last summer over objective justification.  It also touches on debates people are having in the LCMS and (believe it or not) some of the ELCA break-0ff micro-synods.

The question regards the whether or not absolution in the Divine Service should be given unconditionally.  The opponents of this practice argue that because absolution is not valid unless it is received with faith and repentance, conditional absolution should be the practice in the Divine Service.  In other words, a sentence or two should be added to the absolution that states that you really, really have to be repentant and have faith to receive the absolution just given.  This is, I guess, presumably to inform people that they really shouldn't believe that they just received absolution unless they really felt bad about their sins and really had faith.  Presumably telling them this will somehow produce these attitudes and feelings in them.  This is, a little bit odd, insofar as historic Lutheranism has always taught that we receive absolution by believing it.  So how could someone falsely believe the word of absolution?  Perhaps I'm just reading the intention here incorrectly, but that seems to be the implication.  

Allow me to make two points about this, one historical and the other theological.

1. First, this question of public and unconditional absolution actually goes back to the early Lutheran Reformation and so we do have Luther's opinion on the subject.  He writes:

"Even he who does not believe that he is free and his sins forgiven shall also learn, in due time, how assuredly his sins were forgiven, even though he did not believe it … He who does not accept what the keys give receives, of course, nothing. But that is not the key’s fault. Many do not believe the gospel, but this does not mean that the gospel is not true or effective. A king gives you a castle. If you do not accept it, then it is not the king’s fault, nor is he guilty of a lie. But you have deceived yourself and the fault is yours. The king certainly gave it." (AE 40:366-7).

The occasion of this opinion was a controversy that broke out in the Church of Nuremberg where Andreas Osiander of later "mystical indwelling is justification" fame was pastor.  Osiander insisted that unconditional public absolution shouldn't be given.  Instead, he favored private absolution almost exclusively.  Why?  Because Osiander claimed that he couldn't be certain if he was wrongly absolving people.  If people lacked the right mental attitude of repentance, then they wouldn't actually be receiving forgiveness and therefore when he absolved them, he would be saying something false.  Most early Lutheran liturgies actually agreed in some sense with Osiander on this point.  Likewise, later in Lutheran history, the Pietists actually took the same attitude and so many early (and some later) liturgies of North American Lutheranism only allow for a conditional public absolution.

As we know, Osiander later rejected the doctrine of purely forensic justification.  As new research has demonstrated, the reason for this was his doctrine of Christ.  Whereas he assumed with Luther that only God could oppose his own wrath with an infinite and eternal righteousness, he nonetheless rejected the communication of the divine attributes to the human nature.  What was the effect?  On the one hand, Christ had rendered satisfaction according to his human nature alone.  This forgave sins, but was insufficient to satisfy God's infinite righteousness.  Humans had to be mystically indwelt with infinite divine righteousness in order stand as righteous before God. By contrast, Luther (and later Flacius) taught that Christ fulfilled the law as a divine person through his human nature, making his righteousness and satisfaction of the law divinely effective through his human nature.  In other words, the "forensic" fulfillment of the law through Christ's obedience to the Father and death on the cross was also "effective" insofar as it was infused with divine power so that his "blood cleanses from all sin."

This has a direct implications for Church practice.  Just as God does not do his justifying work apart from Christ's human nature and therefore his human activity (active and passive righteousness), so too he doesn't do his work of justifying the sinner apart from the concrete preached, forensic word "I absolve you."  The indwelling of God and the creation of faith therefore happened through the forensic word.  Forensic justification was effective also. 

For Osiander by contrast, God was not active through the preach Word and therefore the spiritual union that really justified the sinner was available for the sinner due to their internal attitude prior to or perhaps alongside the forensic word.  Just as Christ two natures were divided, the forensic and effective nature of the gospel were as well.  This too was also true in the case for Pietism, which talked about whipping one's self up into a repentant frenzy so that one might receive the Spirit apart from the Word and in fact be ready to rightly receive the Word.

Hence, in keeping with his claim that God is deep within the Word and the sacrament, just like he is deep in the flesh of Christ (genus maiestaticum), Luther took a very different stance towards the practice than did Osiander.  When asked by Osiander's congregants what they thought, Luther and Melanchthon both insisted that unconditional and public absolution should be given.  Why?  Because the Word of God is effective, it does what it says!  God of course hardens some and works repentance and faith in some, but it is all his prerogative.  By placing conditions on absolution, one simply shifts the emphasis from the objectivity of God's work to the subjectivity of the sinner's mental attitude.  The question that the believer would begin to ask would be: "have I really had faith and repented?" and not "what has God done pro me?" 

2.  This leads into the general theological point.  If, as Luther tells us, humans are passive before God's activity in Word and sacrament, we must preach and absolve under the presupposition of bondage.  If we do not preach under the assumption of bondage, then we will begin to think about humans as free subjects and begin to worry about what free subjects will do with the Word.  Secondly, we will begin to view God's Word as mere information and think that humans can in some way undermine or enhance its effect by adding something to it.  Hence, the fear that people wouldn't "really repent" without a conditional absolution is groundless.  God's work is always effective.  The word of absolution is a word of both law and gospel.  It reveals sin, insofar as absolution presupposes sin.  It also gives a unilateral promise and creates faith.  If people do not believe either the word of law or gospel, then the word will simply harden them and it will be effective in that manner.  This is God's own prerogative to do.  The preacher cannot control the word or preempt hardening by placing a conditions on the word.  He can of course distort the word by reversing who is the subject of the verb.  Instead of "Christ absolves you" (Chris is the subject of the verb!), he states "if you repent and believe, then Christ absolves you" (the believer as the subject!).  Hence the word of the gospel is rendered as a word of pure law.

One last point.

A note of this in relationship to the debate on the issue of objective justification.  Luther states that all theology is just an intellectual clarification of what we're doing when we preach.  This does not mean that theological doctrines are not propositionally true.  Nevertheless, as propositionally true, they are inherently uninteresting as abstractions.  They are only interesting insofar as they are also regulatory of Church practice, i.e., the proclamation of the Word of God.  Hence, the position of those who reject objective justification is ironic and strange for several reasons.  

A. Those who reject objective justification talk constantly of the effectiveness of the Word of God.  But, their main worry about objective justification assumes the ineffectiveness of the Word.  In other words, they claim that because people in American Lutheranism believe in God's universally valid and unconditional forgiveness, then they behave badly and think that they don't have to be afraid of divine judgment, repent, and obey the law.  Apparently the goal of the preacher should be to scare people by placing conditions on absolution so they'll behave better?  Again, this all presupposes a need for a better mental attitude on the part of hearers of the Word to make the Word effective. In other words, they talk a good game regarding the effectiveness of the Word, but in practice they don't really believe in it.   

B.  They constantly accuse their opponents of being secret Pietists.  But ironically, their own doctrinal proposals (that there is only subjective justification) presupposes a Church practice of Pietism.  In other words, in terms of regulation of Church practice, the doctrine of objective justification stands as the basis of the minister's public, unconditional absolution of sinners.  Since God has already eternally said such a thing in the cross and empty tomb, then the minister's practice of giving public unconditional absolution makes sense.  His own giving of absolution isn't somehow an echo of God's absolution, but is the means and channel through which God renders such a judgment present and effective in time.  Without the former, the later makes no sense and is rendered meaningless.  

C. Their critique of the doctrine of objective justification is hollow also insofar as it fails to recognize what I pointed out regarding the dual effectiveness of the word of absolution.  A universal and absolute pronouncement of forgiveness is condemnation against those who reject it.  As Luther remarks in the John commentaries, there is only one sin in the whole world and that's rejecting the universal and unconditional word of divine absolution present in Christ.  This is true especially when that Word is pronounced in the Divine Service.  The word of absolution condemns as it absolves insofar as it reveals sin.  It also condemns those who reject it.  This is why in Revelation, that which the begins the eschatological judgment is the book with the seven seals.  A book with seven seals is a book of a last will and testament in the first century.  This is what Jesus, Paul, and Hebrews say the gospel is.  So, what's really happening is that the word of the testament is going out and redeeming the Church, while judging those who reject it.  It is a word that is at the same time law and promise.  It both redeems and condemns.  It kills and makes alive.  After all, God's grace never comes without judgment.


  1. Good article Jack, but...there was not a "big blow up last summer."

    Greg Jackson saying stupid things and anyone taking any time to respond to him, kind as it is, and accurate as it is, doesn't constitute a "big blow up."

    : )


  2. Just beautiful, Jack. Your opponents might talk a good game about being "in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves" but not really dealing with what it really means for the life of the church.

    Daniel Ostercamp
    Webster, SD

  3. Good post, Jack. Spot on ... justification by faith is ESCHATOLOGICAL. Though it's past engaging Jackson, it cannot strongly emphasised enough.

  4. A big YES to all your points, Jack! :-D