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Martin Bucer on Private Confession & Absolution

Amy Nelson Burnett points out that Zwinglians and Lutherans differed on the practice of offering private confession and absolution. Lutherans believed the practice to be a healthy replacement for mandatory auricular confession, while the Zwinglians considered it meaningless for one Christian to pronounce forgiveness over another. Martin Bucer initially supported the Zwinglians on this issue but after his rapprochement with the Lutherans over the Lord’s Supper at the Wittenberg Concord of 1536, he changed his tune. Burnett explains:

Bucer’s growing appreciation of the Lutheran position on the Lord’s Supper which resulted in the Wittenberg Concord led to a more favorable evaluation of private confession and absolution as well. The secret confession which he had written off as a human precept in the first edition of his commentary on the Gospels, published in 1527, was recommended in the second edition of the commentary, published in 1530: “Men should be taught that it is indeed Christian sometimes to confess their sins to men.” He no longer asserted, as in the first edition, that the Lutheran view of absolution was unscriptural but instead gave a sort of apology: “I scarcely think that they feel that what they call private absolution has any ability of itself to soothe consciences, but rather that when brothers meet together and console one another, the Spirit of Christ, who renders efficacious the Gospel so heard in private, is not absent. ” At the end of his ministry in Strasbourg Bucer echoed the words of the Augsburg Confession, stating that sinners who received absolution from the minister could have as much confidence in the forgiveness of their sins as if they had heard the voice of God from heaven. Nevertheless, in his discussions of private confession Bucer’s chief emphasis remained its usefulness as a means for individual instruction, admonition and counsel.1

  1. Burnett, “Church Discipline and Moral Reformation in the Thought of Martin Bucer,” The Sixteenth Century Journal XXII, No. 3 [1991], 444.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.