Confession Confusion

In our church service we sometimes use words in ways which were once common, but have acquired a different meaning over time.  This can be especially confusing when we use the same word in both an archaic sense and a modern one.  That’s the case with the word ‘confess.’

It’s standard Lutheran practice to begin our service with a brief rite of confession and absolution where the pastor first invites us to silently confess our sins and then states that Jesus Christ, through his suffering and death, has forgiven (absolved) us of all our sins.  In this case we are using the word confess in its familiar modern sense of acknowledging our wrong-doings and shortcomings.   Confession in this context means admitting guilt, similar to when a suspect confesses to the police that he has committed a crime.

So it can then be puzzling (perhaps even shocking), when later in the service the Pastor may say something like this:  “Let us now confess our faith in the words of the Apostles Creed.”  Now the Creeds of the church are fundamental statements of our shared Christian belief, so why should reciting them be a confession?  Surely we don’t mean to suggest that holding these beliefs is something we should feel ashamed or guilty about!   Quite the opposite!  So what gives?

This is the case of an ancient word (Latin: confessare) which once had the specific meaning of “speaking the truth.”   From this you can see why the concept of making a truthful statement became associated with both the idea of confessing a religious belief (a positive statement of affirmation) and of confessing a wrongdoing (a negative statement of acknowledging guilt).   So though we may be using the exact same word in the above examples of liturgical practice, our intent is very different!  Those of us who have grown up with this dual usage don’t usually give it another thought, but it is admittedly something that can cause confusion!

This use of the word “confession” in the positive sense of an affirmation of faith also explains why Lutherans refer to the body of our traditional shared beliefs as our ‘Lutheran Confessions’ and why one of the most important documents for us is the Augsburg Confession which on June 20, 1530 was presented to Emperor Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire, as a definitive statement of beliefs held by Martin Luther and his followers.  This event, central to the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran denomination which eventually emerged is a story for a different time.  But it does explain why Lutherans proudly state that we are a confessional church.

But while we’re on the subject of obscure words, another name for the Augsburg Confession is The Augustana, from its Latin title: Confessio Augustana.  This and other key Reformation-era confessional documents were assembled in the Book of Concord, or Concordia for short.   And that accounts for why Concordia and Augustana are such common names for Lutheran institutions.

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