Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hosepipe Absolution

For some years now, some of my pastoral brothers have used the illustration of a hosepipe to express doubts about the practice of "corporate confession and absolution." They put it somewhat like this: the pastor declaring absolution to the whole congregation (for example, at the beginning of Divine Service) is like spraying them with a forgiveness hosepipe. It's shooting all over the place, soaking everybody with a general remission of sins, without taking any care to examine the congregation individually. So, with this absurd picture in mind, it seems natural to doubt that this should be done. The next step is to use a corporate "announcement of grace" that does not rise to the level of absolution, and to urge members of the congregation to come to individual confession & absolution.

For the most part, I have tentatively agreed with this view. I still think individual confession should be encouraged as a remedy for people afflicted with guilt and terrified consciences (I have known such people in my ministry). I also think it is something Christians with an average sense of their own sinfulness should experience from time to time, because it teaches them to rely more and more on God's forgiveness, and perhaps also to watch their behavior a bit more. Besides this, we should all watch for the tendency to search for an "inner forgiveness" (e.g. in our silent, private prayers before God) rather than the external Word that alone can make us certain of God's forgiveness.

But a huge hole in the hosepipe analogy opened up before me today. I don't know how I missed it before, but I will never again be able to listen to talk about spraying down parishioners with a fire hose. It's simply this: if you're a penitent believer, your faith is rooted in Christ, and you need to be sprinkled with his cleansing, nourishing Word of forgiveness, just as an ear of corn in a dry, dusty field needs to be fertilized and watered. If you are a hypocrite, an unrepentant sinner, or an unbeliever, the same words of forgiveness wash over you, but since you have no roots, they do not refresh you.

So yes, the same forgiveness splashes on the worthy and unworthy, just as the same body and blood of Jesus feeds both worthy and unworthy communicants. I don't know whether this should discourage pastors from pronouncing a general absolution. Perhaps those who don't mean to confess their sins and receive forgiveness should not be there for this rite. Or perhaps the words "Upon this, your confession" address the absolution that follows them specifically to those who have truly confessed their sins. Or, again, perhaps the general absolution means the parishioners themselves must carry the burden of preparing themselves to receive the Lord's gifts. Those who come unprepared, unexamined, and unrepentant must take responsibility if they leave the Lord's house unforgiven.

Stay tuned, in the next few days, for some musings on the theology of E. W. A. Koehler, which partly prompted me to make these observations. I welcome your correction or remarks on my thoughts above.

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