Author: Martos, Joseph
Date published: March 1, 2013
WORSHIP AS REPENTANCE: LUTHERAN LITURGICAL TRADITIONS AND CATHOLIC LITURGICAL CONSENSUS. By Walter Sundberg. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012. Pp. xvi + 190. $18.
An odd title, to be sure, and we are not told until the last chapter what lies behind it. Sundberg is convinced that the liturgical liberalizations of the last century removed something crucial from Protestant and Catholic worship.
S. is a Lutheran pastor and professor of church history who graduated from St. Olaf College in 1969, so he has lived through the changes that Catholics associate with Vatican II and that have parallels in other liturgical churches. Put briefly, he is dismayed by the way that eucharistie piety has replaced repentance piety as a religious mindset in Christian worship. Taken to the extreme, this revolution in spirituality leads to a belief that people should walk out of church feeling good about themselves, and even mainline churches tend to console and affirm their worshipers instead of challenging them. The Catholic version of this reminds parishioners that they are the people of God without insisting on the demands of discipleship.
To build his case, S. begins in the first chapter with the NT's call to conversion, and he reminds us that Kierkegaard in the 19th century warned against identifying church membership with true Christianity, a theme taken up in the 20th century by Bonhoeffer, who railed against the temptation of cheap grace. Chapter 2 takes us back to the Didache and its demand for metanoia (conversion, repentance) among those who would follow the way of Jesus and share in his supper. Likewise, the Apostolic Tradition views baptism in a context of spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness and demands true repentance for sin before admission to the table of the Lord. Christians in those days were sectarians, separatists who insisted that would-be members adhere strictly to God's commandments and Jesus' teachings, and in consequence Christian communities grew - much like sectarian churches do today, in contrast with the undemanding mainline churches that are losing membership.
The repentance requirement changed in the fourth century when the church grew larger and tried to accommodate itself to the culture of the Roman Empire. Instead of asking repentance of all before baptism, repentance was required afterward only of public sinners. Holiness was no longer expected to be found in each of the saints (as Paul called them) but was instead made a mark of the church as such. The Donatisi controversy can be read as a clash between the moral rigor of the early sectarian tradition and the catholic inclusivity of imperial Christianity.
Fast forward to the Reformation, and S. zeroes in on Luther and others protesting against the laxness of the Catholic penitential system that in theory demanded repentance from sins but in practice required little in the way of changed behavior before absolution was pronounced. Although private confession eventually disappeared from Lutheran churches, Luther himself regarded it as a necessary act of repentance before receiving communion. He preached that salvation was a gift of God's grace and not a reward for good works, but he also believed that such grace required explicit faith in God's mercy and true repentance for sin. Nonetheless, the Lutheran theology of grace tended to suggest that since salvation is freely given, repentance is secondary. From that moral position it is possible to slide into a theology that assumes that people are good because God loves them, and so repentance is unnecessary.
Luther himself saw things very differently and argued that "the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christians in name" (81). Therefore he believed that the call to repentance needed to be built into the very structure of worship, if Christians in name were to become Christians in fact.
Chapter 3 on the Lutheran tradition traces the decline of private confession through theological debate and pastoral practice, the end result being similar to what is found in Catholicism today: many go to communion, few go to confession. As indicated at the beginning, S. sees this as a problem to be resolved by reintroducing a theology of repentance into Christian worship: not by resorting to fire and brimstone sermons, but by building the call for repentance into the structure of the liturgy itself. It is legitimate to ask, however, whether such a liturgical change is enough to solve the problem. The Didache and the Apostolic Tradition demanded that people's lives be different after joining the Christian community. How might churches make similar demands today and thus avoid being institutions full of baptized non-Christians?
Bellarmine University, Louisville JOSEPH MARTOS