At the blog “Grateful to the Dead,” a “church historian’s playground,” a Protestant professor (Chris Armstrong, specialist in church history at Bethel University) posts an exchange with a young, earnest Evangelical student over the Catholic sacrament of confession. It’s an instructive back-and-forth in which the professor rebuffs some basic caricatures and demonstrates a genuine commitment to ecumenism, rightly understood.
But perhaps one of the more intriguing lines in the post comes when the interlocutor alludes to C. S. Lewis’ voluntary practice of personal, auricular confession. Thus a question for my Protestant friends: could they (and would they) ever consider partaking in some form of regular “confession,” like that of Lewis?
This is no doubt an unusual practice, and the very notion of it might be so historically off-putting as to detain it in the “bad joke” stage for many. After all, Luther’s crushing sense of his failure to make any progress through confession played heavily into his separation from Roman Catholicism (though, I’d note, he was rather more ambiguous about whether it could be considered a “sacrament”—it sat somewhere in the borderlands between the two he recognized [baptism and Eucharist] and those he vehemently disqualified in their traditional senses [holy orders]). But would it be absolutely unacceptable from a theological perspective? Assuming it was couched in fully Protestant terms, and not presented with equivalence to the Catholic practice (i.e., the practice was not presented as mandatory, and all sides strenuously avoided claiming that it was on the same footing as or “replicated” the Catholic sacrament), is there an actual theological problem with encouraging congregants to engage in one-on-one confession with a minister if they found the discipline truly fruitful for their spiritual life?
The answer, certainly, would vary by denomination. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, describes the plurality of opinions in its own tradition: “Luther said one thing. Zwingli said another. The Anabaptists said one thing. The Roman Catholics said another. [ . . . ] Lutherans have traditionally tried for greater clarity in their definition by stating that a sacrament is an act that is commanded by Christ, uses a material or earthly element, and through connection with the Word is the bearer of Gods promise. And Lutherans have quite clearly stated that using those criteria Holy Baptism and Holy Communion qualify as sacraments, and nothing else. [Yet] in recent years theologians and liturgical scholars have been working toward a richer and fuller understanding of sacraments.”
Calvin was less sanguine, though like Luther and other Reformers his central objection was to the Catholic claim of the priest’s sacral power and the necessity of “satisfaction” (penance) as an element of the sacrament. Other elements of confession, even individual confession, could under some circumstances be beneficial provided they were seen simply as a helpful human method of drawing closer to God, and not as a divine ordinance. Calvin even granted that the early Church had some form of this activity, though he tried to establish a rigid ”distinction [ . . . ] between public and private reconciliation. I consider that ancient observance of which Cyprian speaks to have been holy and salutary to the Church, and I could wish it restored in the present day. The more modern form, though I dare not disapprove, or at least strongly condemn, I deem to be less necessary.”
Given other movements in Protestantism in recent years which have tried to recover something of the “high church” experience, might a more personal form of confession (something beyond the general penitential rite often undertaken in various denominations’ Sunday services) be helpful, at least for some of their members? Would they agree with Professor Armstrong that the practice, like a renewed focus on liturgy or ecclesial structure, could produce real ”benefits in the realm of church order”?