Friday, September 25, 2009

Pastors Need Pastors

Comments in a previous post started me thinking (again) about the matter of the spiritual needs of the pastor. Who feeds the shepherd?

Although the pastor benefits from the same Gospel he preaches, and receives the same sacrament he administers, thus receiving the full forgiveness of all sins, it's also imperative that the pastor have his own pastor. He needs another man to absolve him and to be his spiritual counselor. He needs this weapon against the devil and his flesh.

I was involved in a rather extensive debate, over at a private discussion board at CAT41, on the question of whether or not the pastor is personally absolved by the the words of corporate absolution which he speaks a la the TLH page 15 formula. That formula, you will recall, is not a mere declaration of grace, though it is arguably a conditional absolution, as Fr. Petersen has explained in a Gottesdienst article about a year or so ago. The pastor says, "Upon this your confession," which is at least by implication the condition, "I by virtue of my office . . . forgive you all your sins . . ."

The matter of whether that corporate absolution is conditional (I believe Fr. Petersen's argument is persuasive) is related to the question whether as such it is not a true absolution (I'm a little less convinced about this). It's a matter of semantics, but what stands out in the formula, whatever you want to call it, is the personal application of grace--personal not so much in terms of the recipient, but in terms of the one administering it: "I forgive you" is not the same thing as "God forgives you," although in both cases it is God's forgiveness. The personal pronoun provides that the man saying the words is doing the forgiving, exercising the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The use of this formula in the corporate setting is admittedly weak, and a host of questions about its propriety are warranted. I use it, if only because I use TLH.

But what I have insisted the formula does not allow, in any case, is for the pastor to suppose that by the formula "I forgive you" he is thereby forgiving also himself. The grammar of "I forgive you" does not allow it, period.

Hence, in order to receive the benefit of hearing the word of personal absolution, the pastor must seek out another pastor. And if the argument obtains that the corporate formula, for all its benefits, is nonetheless altogether weak, then the pastor must seek out another pastor in private.

The formula for private absolution, although the implication is clearly present that faith is necessary for one to benefit from it ("as you believe, so let it be done for you"), is itself without question an unconditional declaration: ". . . and I as a called and ordained servant of the word, forgive you your sins . . ." As such, it is to be coveted as a special and extraordinary means of grace.

In short, the pastor should know that if wants to avail himself of all the varied means that God provides for receiving mercy, he may not allow himself to think he is receiving absolution only because he is hearing the words of the formula which he himself speaks. He needs to go to a pastor to get this, just like everybody else.


  1. It is a tough call about the pastor's absolution.

    Not being privy to the debate in the other forum, my first thought would be does the "you" in the absolution formula include the pastor speaking to himself in the second person? David does this in a way in the Psalms in a way when he refers to his own psyche as "O my soul."

    It reminds me a bit of when I say a Mass for a shut in at the sursum corda when I say: "Lift up your hearts" in plural. I guess I'm also talking to myself here, otherwise "heart" would be singular if only one person is lifting his heart. But then again, I commune as part of the community when I say Mass, whether at parish or in a home or hospital. So if I receive the one sacrament from my own hands, maybe I can receive the other sacrament from my own mouth. Hmmm.

    Nevertheless, just as the "groupsolution" is a poor substitute for private pastoral care, so also is pastoral "auto-absolution" (if that's what is even happening) nowhere near the level of pastoral care a pastor himself needs to have.

    Great topic for discussion!

  2. I thought I had heard somewhere (maybe from Korby, or from Pr. Petersen?) that one should not hear the sins of one's father confessor. If a pastor absolves himself, this is unavoidable. Perhaps this is the key difference between the administration of the Absolution and the Eucharist?

    Auto-absolution seems like a very dangerous practice to me; although I'm a layman and pastoral auto-absolution isn't an option for me as a Lutheran, much of Protestantism seems to function through a subjective self-assurance of repentance, faith, and consequent absolution. Wasn't it Philip Cary who pointed out that Luther's "syllogism" was that he was saved because he was baptized and that Christ is not a liar, instead of a reflexive "faith in faith" that could become a "faith in repentance" in the context of auto-absolution?

  3. I will concur here with Fr. Beane here -- I don't think that we can go so far as to say that if I hear it from my own lips it isn't valid or the word of God. However, part of the reason (according to my theory) is precisely so that people are not left to simply what they themselves know, but so that they can hear the Word spoke to them from another - a physical example of the Gospel being Extra Nos. Even if we were to agree that a Pastor receives the Gospel from himself (which I think we ought to agree upon), surely it is better for him to be simply a hearer of the Gospel in totality by simply receiving absolution.

    Of course, I would go beyond simply the absolution proper, but the entirety of worship. Luther notes repeatedly the presence of absolution in the service - "The Peace of the Lord be with you always" is an absolution. The sermon is absolution, for the Gospel (and the preaching thereof) forgives sins. Pastors, as individuals who struggle against their own sin, benefit from receiving this from another.

  4. Rev. Brown wrote, "I don't think that we can go so far as to say that if I hear it from my own lips it isn't valid or the word of God."

    This business about "it's still the Word of God" is, I think, a non sequitur in these sort of debates. If a layman "licensed" by a district for "ministry" gives a sermon, it's no harm no foul because, after all, "it's still the Word." Yes, it's the Word. But Yes Indeed there is harm and a foul.

    I've never heard anyone argue that the Word of God ceases to be the Word of God in such cases; that's a red herring. The question is whether the phrase "Word of God" exhausts all categories of our concern. If a pastor says, "I forgive you (ego vos absolvo)" it might be the Word of God - but I think Fritz is right: it's just not an absolution of his own sins.

    Likewise, a layman might speak the most orthodox words in the world from the pulpit where he is "licensed" to preach - and it would be the Word of God: and it would be a sin for him to speak it and for me to go and hear it (see Luther's comments about uncalled, unsent preachers in AE 69.360-66). It would be the Word of God - but no apostolic preaching, for that requires someone sent by Christ in the office of the apostles.

    And an absolution requires that the "I" and the "you" be separate people.


  5. My point precisely, Phil: auto absolution is a very dangerous practice. Not only dangerous, I might add, but foolish and illegitimate.

    This question must hinge on the grammar. Although, as Fr. Beane points out, the psalmist may refer to his own soul in the third person, yet he never, nor does anyone else ever, refer to himself and to others in the second person at the same time. That is, if I speak to you, then I cannot be also at the same time be speaking to myself, unless I am only speaking to myself. This is how we universally understand the rules of language.

    So we must follow the grammar here, and the pastor can in no way be said to be absolving himself.


  6. Pr. Eckardt,

    Would it be worth contrasting with the traditional prayers at the pastor's self-communion? I think it would be interesting to see the comparison, in light of the argument from analogy that could be made, though weak: if you insist on self-communion, why not self-absolution; or if you require seeking another pastor to absolve you, shouldn't another pastor commune you?

    I don't mean to belabor the point, I just wonder whether it might place the difference between these two Means of Grace in a clearer light?

  7. I may be slightly confused here - are sins forgiven by the Gospel, in whatever form it is proclaimed/administered, or are we putting Absolution as *the* method by which sin is forgiven?

    I ask this (and this is why I jumped to the Word of God thought) because it is my understanding that while hearing absolution is a way in which sin is forgiven (and indeed, one that is vastly underappreciated today), it is not the sole means. Sometimes we can speak of "absolution" in both a broad and a narrow sense (like so many theological terms) - where in the broad sense it is any Word of forgiveness (as in the fashion where Luther can call the Pax Domini an absolution), and where in the narrow sense it is the absolution of confession and absolution, and even more narrowly that of private confession and absolution.

    I still think I would contend that the absolution is still an external Word of forgiveness, even if I am speaking to a group that contains myself - that is the reason for all the prefatory discourse on "office" and "stead and command". The absolution comes not from me as an individual, but from the person who holds that office, who simply happens to be me. I think the "problem" would be that this still remains as generic to the pastor as it is to everyone else - and that there is an importance to receiving specific absolution, and that cannot be given to the self - we ourselves as humans need to hear that from another.

    One note: Fr. BFE, we do have a way of addressing both ourselves and another - the first person plural. Could we argue then that it ought to be phrased, "I forgive *us* all *our* sins" -- that seems completely strange though - although it shows up enough (for good or for ill) often enough in preaching.

    (P.S. If I do end up bugging y'all here, let me know privately and I can back off and let you discuss more amongst yourselves)

  8. When I consider auto-absolution, the following come to mind. Peter sought absolution from the Lord. He did not absolve himself. And he was the head of the apostles. James tells pastors, "confess your sins to one another." He does not tell pastors to absolve themselves. Examples aren't conclusive, and James isn't canonical. But, I for one find it troublesome that the pastor administer the sacrament of absolution to himself.

    Yet, I think it is safe to say that God's Gospel works absolution whenever and wherever it is proclaimed and heard in faith, regardless of who or what proclaims it. If the Devil were to administer a baptism in the name of the triune God, it would work the same miracle of salvation as if the Lord Himself were to do the baptizing, because, truth be told, He is the one doing it, regardless of the hands He uses to do it. Same goes for private absolution, baptism, preaching, holy communion etc.

    That means, at the very least, that if the pastor does nothing but read the word of God, listen to his own preaching, and partake of the sacrament consecrated with his hand, he is absolved. Moreover, he is still absolved by another: Christ working through the mouth(s) (pen(s)) of His apostles.

    It would be helpful if we remember that the Bible is an extension of the apostolic (pastoral) office. That is to say, it is part of the ministry. One can not say, “I don’t need the ministry. I have my Bible.” If you're using the Bible, then you are benefiting from the ministry. Those books weren’t written by you. They were written by the apostles (or, at least they are records of apostolic teaching). So, a layman benefits from the ministry every time he takes the Bible in hand. The pastor also benefits from a ministry not his own when he takes the Bible in hand. In reading the Bible, he is being absolved by another.

    A pastor may avail himself of private absolution so that he may hear Gospel applied to that which specifically troubles his conscience, just as any one may seek out a pastor and hear this Gospel word spoken directly in regard to specific sins. Private absolution is available to the pastor from other pastors just as it is available to the layman from pastors.

    We ought not make any rules about this, I think. How do you legislate the Gospel? Even our confessions do not require an enumeration of sins.

    The sad part is that so many pastors neglect the Gospel in the form of private absolution. To be the administrator of such a treasure and not then also to partake of it belies the pastor’s belief in the great worth of private absolution.

    It is the wise pastor who avails himself of such a precious gift as private absolution. It seems to be that it would be difficult if not hypocritical to preach the benefits of private absolution without being oneself a penitent. Even more importantly, the burden of the office of the ministry is heavy, and pastors regularly misstep. The pastor, one would presume, would have plenty of sins that weigh on his heart. One particularly good answer to these is private absolution.

  9. Phil,

    Part of the problem here is semantics, or definitions. When I use the word "absolution" I am not referring to the general appropriation of the Gospel, which is universal in scope, to anyone who hears and believes it. So, as I indicated about, this is manifestly not about whether or not the pastor benefits from the Gospel words he speaks. Of course he does. Let me repeat that. Of course he does. Let me repeat that once more for good measure. Of course he does. I don't mean to be flippant, only emphatic.

    The absolution as specifically referenced here, however, is the personal application of mercy from a called and ordained servant, i.e. the confessor, to the penitent who is seeking mercy. Traditionally, grammatically, and Biblically, I would say--I would insist, really--that they cannot be one and the same person.

    Fr. Skillman aptly brings up the reference to Peter.

    And Phil, you aptly illustrate this point by bringing up--correctly, I'd say--the way the rite ought to read for it to be grammatically correct. He'd have to say, "I forgive us." However grammatically correct it would be, I think it ought to be pretty evident that such a formula would unquestionably be unacceptable.

  10. I do have a question - does Auto-absolution go beyond the theoretical? Have you run across people who say, "Well, I went and privately confessed to myself"? It is something I have not heard of before - private confession has always involved at least two folks as far as I have heard anyone talking about it.

  11. Dear Pr. Skillman,

    While I think you are generally correct in saying that we should not make any rules legislating the Gospel and that baptisms adminisitered by the devil with water and the Triune name are still Baptisms, absolving, and the Word of God. But is it making a "rule" to say that we should not seek Baptism from the devil? If one is baptized by the devil without knowing he is the devil, because the devil lies about who he is and dresses in sheep's clothing, the baptized should be comforted that God's Word is God's Word whenever and wherever it comes regardless of who brings it. But it is a sin to death to seek Baptism from the devil and to wink at his lie about who he is when you know better. In fact, it is a sin, in any case, to fail to recognize the devil. So even if someone is baptized by the devil because of the devil's cleverness, while he has been baptized he has also sinned.

    Can this "rule" not be applied likewise to hearing those who preach without being sent? Is this not the very thing that keeps us from embracing the preaching of women pastors even when what they say is orthodox?

    As to what is here being termed the "auto-absolution", the man in the office who speaks these words in his own voice can listen in on the absolution. The formula he speaks is the Gospel. But listening in is not quite the same thing as recieving it "for you." That listening in is no small or insignificant thing. So also a man might recieve comfort and encouragement for his faith, or even conversion, from the words of institution without actually partaking of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The words themselves are the Gospel. But hearing the Instituting Word of Our Lord is not that same thing as eating. Of course, it is not a direct parrallel. These are distinct gifts. But there is a similarity. Hearing the words of the absolution spoken to someone else is a hearing of the Gospel, but it is not a direct application in the voice of one sent by God for you for this speaking.

    - Petersen

  12. What of preaching and teaching? I will gladly say that pastors ought make sure that they receive absolution from another - but do we give the attention to being in worship that we ought - hearing a sermon, to being in the congregational role of worship as well.

    The burden of being a pastor is that you never (if you are off by yourself, as many of us are) get to simply "come" to Church - you get to conduct the service. Is not what is true here of the absolution also true of all the things which we urge our parishioners to take advantage of?

  13. Fr. Peterson,

    You’re right. It is a rule not to seek baptism, absolution, preaching, holy communion, etc. from the devil. I think “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” covers that. The orthodox judgment of the church regarding the donatist controversy assuages fearful consciences who were blessed by weak/erring/evil pastors in ignorance. It does not give us license to seek out evil pastors.

    I’m a little less clear on just who can and should speak words of Gospel. I note two extremes.

    I have heard it said that laymen should not speak the gospel to others because that is not their vocation. It belongs to the office of the ministry and the office of the ministry alone to speak the gospel. The way the layman tells people about Jesus should be limited to their Christian lives and the instruction fathers give their children and their wives in the home. That, I think, is quite wrong. I cite St. Mary Magdalene, not a pastor, but the first to proclaim the resurrection. Thank God she did. Would Peter and John have gone to the empty tomb, been converted, and entered the office of the ministry otherwise?

    On the other hand, I’ve heard of some playing fast and loose with the office of the ministry (e.g. temporary calls, laymen consecrating, rotating laymen preaching, throwing pastors out of office for no good reason, etc.). Even our own synod speaks out of both sides of its mouth. The Wichataw convention comes to mind. So does SMP, and some of our vicarage congregations. That is a shame, and also quite wrong.

    I know this much. The office of the ministry is not an auxiliary component of the gospel. It is part of the gospel. You can not have a proclamation without a proclaimer. That which is proclaimed is, by definition, proclaimed by someone. Had the events of the gospel taken place in a corner with no one to witness them and proclaim them to the world, they would still not truly be good news. For news to be news it has to be proclaimed. The concept of news carries within it the presupposition that it is being proclaimed. News is not just the fact of an event taking place. It also includes the report of that event. In the same way the gospel is not quite the gospel if it is not gospeled. The evangel requires the evangelist. Thus, the very concept of the gospel carries within it the presupposition that it is being gospeled, proclaimed. The gospel is not the gospel without the office of the ministry.

    Just how that plays out regarding who can and should speak the gospel in what context, I’m less sure. But, I offer the following beginnings of where I’m currently leaning.

    I believe that it is necessary in a fundamental way that a congregation call a pastor with the presumption that the call is for life. The proclamation of the gospel should not be left up to chance. God has ordered things so that His word will be, not might be, proclaimed. The gospel is not the gospel without a gospeler. A congregation of goseplites requires a gospeler to gospel the gospel to them.

    On the other hand, I believe that every Christian may tell others the story of Jesus and the importance of that story as opportunities arise to do so. The layman has no call to start a congregation, disrupt a congregation, fill in for a pastor at a congregation, or eschew congregational life. Yet, each of us are called to make confession of our faith, laymen included.

    As I said, I’m a bit unclear on some of this. I hope to sharpen it up as I go along. I’m grateful for forums such as this one in which to do so.

    In Christ,
    Pr. Skillman


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