Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Non tamen vulgo ignoscere decet; nam ubi discrimen inter malos bonosque sublatum est, confusio sequitur et vitiorum eruptio; itaque adhibenda moderatio est, quae sanabilia ingenia distinguere a deploratis sciat. Nec promiscuam habere ac vulgarem clementiam oportet nec abscisam; nam tam omnibus ignoscere crudelitas quam nulli.

It is not seemly that forgiveness be also vulgar, for where the discrimination between evil and good is removed, confusion and an eruption of vices follows. Thus, a moderation is called for that is able to distinguish between those inward natures capable of being restored to health and those that are hopeless. Promiscuous, vulgar clemency ought not to be exercised, but neither should it be done away with altogether; it is just as cruel to pardon all as to pardon none.
-Seneca's De Clementia (II.2)

Seneca wrote the moral essay, On Mercy, to the new emperor - Nero. His advice was directed to a man in power, who held authority over others; as such it seems most appropriate to direct comments on this passage to those in the church who hold offices of authority. It is to pastors that the Office of the Keys - of binding and loosing, forgiving and retaining - has been given, and to the same I direct my comments.

The Christian Church has struggled with the question under examination for millenia: when and where should mercy be shown? There have been those who advocated a strict militaristic use of the absolution of sins: let a man demonstrate the depth of his sorrow and commit himself to satisfaction before forgiveness is spoken. On the other side have been those who advocated indiscriminate forgiveness and "erring on the side of the Gospel." Seneca describes these two factions as those who "exercise promiscuous, vulgar clemency," and those who "do away with it altogether."

Certainly nobody would argue when I suggest that the pendulum in our setting has most certainly rested in "promiscuous, vulgar clemency." Forgiveness is proclaimed indiscriminately -I can't help but use Seneca's word - "promiscuously," and most certainly in a vulgar manner (entire congregations absolved at once, along with any strangers who might have wandered through the church's doors).

In following Seneca, I am certainly not going to react against this promiscuity of the Gospel with a removal of it altogether, since this would be a great violence. Neither, however, should such indiscriminate forgiveness be proclaimed; even pagan Seneca can rationally discern that this is a great violence to the Church as well, since it leads to a dissolution of the distinction between good and evil. Rather, I must advocate a "middle path."

What does this middle path look like? Ah, doubtless you may be expecting some strict guidelines or step-by-step instructions? Surely not. The only way to find this middle path of moderation is to carefully discriminate between those inner natures that can be cured and those that are hopeless. This requires a great deal of concentration and effort from both emperors and pastors. It is hard work. It also requires authority. Both emperor and pastor must rest secure in their authoritative power to both mercifully restore or dicisively punish, and wield their authority confidently. Ultimately, it looks like pastor as Seelsorger - caretaker of souls.

While we do the work of both executing and advocating a middle path, it is certainly appropriate that we repent of the violence we have done to our brothers and sisters by "promiscuously and vulgarly absolving," and the repentance should be all the more sincere because we stand rightly accused by a pagan.


Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.
-Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans (2:4-5, ESV)


Steven G. said...

Do you think that the General Absolution should be removed? What about offering a specified time for private absolution?

Lucilius said...

As I understand the current practice, General Absolution is "promiscuous and vulgar clemency." As such, it should be removed. Perhaps it is possible to reform Corporate Confession and Absolution so that it is no longer "promiscuous and vulgar."

One common example of the indiscriminate nature of Corporate Absolution is the problem of absolving a congregation including one or more persons under Church Discipline. If they are under Church Discipline, then they are openly unrepentant and should not be absolved.

Whether Corporate Confession and Absolution is retained, removed, or reformed, private confession and absolution should be retained (or re-instituted where they have been removed).

"Of Confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches..." Augustana XI

Steven G. said...

I agree that General or Corporate Confession and Absolution should be removed. Do you agree or disagree that the practice of General Absolution has negatively impacted the role of the sermon? The church I am currently attend does not have a time of silent mediation bewteen the Confession and Absolution. Of course the church I currently attend is trying to be seeker friendly, and we all know that it is not seeker friendly to think about one's sins.

Lucilius said...

Do you agree or disagree that the practice of General Absolution has negatively impacted the role of the sermon?

I'm not sure. Sermons have their own problems, but I observe the same tendency toward "promiscuous and vulgar clemency."

I find it ironic in the common liturgical setting that the sermon is sandwiched between General Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar - two incredibly potent "Gospel moments," - and yet there is an obsession with preaching essentially antinomian sermons (or at least sermons that rescue from an anfechtung that no listener has been allowed to experience).

Steven G. said...

I find that to be the case as well. There is also a tendency that I think is related to having a General Absolution to turn the sermon into a pep talk.

Der Bettler said...

The likelihood that there is anyone present in these "seeker-sensitive" churches that is under Church Discipline is so remote that it is almost not a consideration! The church that would reinvent itself for this "seeker" would surely never comndemn his sins, and much less so in public! If there is any condemnation of sins, it is only in a general sense, and even then it only applies to the Goyim outside the church's walls.
I suppose since private confession is such an important part of the Roman Catholic Church's identity (or it used to be), it was inevitable that it be cast off eventually.

Steven G. said...
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Steven G. said...
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Steven G. said...

It is so unfortunate that we as Lutherans stop doing something not because it is condemned by the Bible or impedes the gospel but because it is too Catholic or Calvinist. Just like making the sign of the cross at the or having crucifixes.

Back to the idea of not having a General Absolution. This is from the Calenberg KO:

"The pastors shall absolve each individual after an act of confession according to the command and promise of Christ and not two, three or more at the same time."

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your thoughts here. The points you make are ones which must be discussed and pondered in the Church today. I would think the addition of a conditional phrase would help greatly.

Steven G.,

Yes, this promiscuous, vulgar clemency has affected the sermon - and everything else in the Church. Pastors have become like timid, frightened children, knowing right but choosing to please instead. They are unwilling to take the beating for standing up to the bullies (voter's assembly). They want to keep as much of their lunch money as possible.

Zeke on the edge.