Review of “Worship as Repentance” by Walter Sundberg

Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Traditions and Catholic Consensus, by Walter Sundberg (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). xvi + 190 pages.

Challenges, both antiquated and modern, to the traditionally penitential posture of Lutheran worship are the subject of Walter Sundberg’s most recent monograph. In light of the mainline’s imminent collapse, this book represents a very needed corrective to the cheap grace and valueless absolution offered by contemporary Protestant liberalism. By interpreting the liturgical tradition, with special attention paid to the practice of penance in the early church, the development of confession and absolution in Lutheranism, and the influence of the liturgical movement, Sundberg offers a compelling alternative to the “grace sold on the market” (20) that is peddled by so many these days. Sundberg advances the radical proposition that to be a Christian is challenging; to follow Christ is costly; to worship is to repent.

The central issue which Sundberg seeks to address is the penitential character of worship. The church’s practice of the liturgy is not to propagate spiritual complacency. Rather, liturgical worship must continuously call the Christian assembly to repentance and their need for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus (15). However, this repetition has the propensity to breed contempt (17). It is here that Sundberg enlists the German scholar of a century ago, Ernst Troeltsch, whose “church type” exemplifies dead ritual devotion performed for its own sake. The antithesis of the “church type” is the “sect type.” Within the Lutheran tradition, Sundberg holds that the critique of “Christendom” offered by Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides a compelling case for radical, “sectarian” Christian community with intentionally defined ethical boundaries under the “peculiar conditions” of modernity (22).

Exemplary of this sect type is the early church. Sundberg reviews several key documents from the church’s first centuries which reveal the sectarian character of faith in the face of persecution from the Roman Empire. A radically eschatological and vividly realistic view of baptism was centrally constitutive for the early church’s sense of community (37-41). However, the problem of sin after baptism needed to be addressed. Early on, it was thought that serious sins could be forgiven only once. Later, the practice of penance developed to reconcile sinners to the church, and by the middle ages, it was intimately connected to the worthy reception of the Eucharist (62).

With Luther, the Reformation fundamentally shifted the orientation of penance. Rather than a plank to rescue a shipwrecked penitent (47), Luther revolutionized penance into a ritualized return to baptism itself (79). Naturally, the practice of private confession and absolution was retained and encouraged by Luther and his fellow reformers, since they conceptualized it as the continued renewal of God’s promises in baptism. However, absolution required faith, since faith is that which appropriates the promise (78). Both private and public forms of absolution do not function mechanically; rather, they demand faith and repentance. Hence, Lutheran formulas for private confession and absolution in the sixteenth-century consistently contain an interrogation (Verhör) of the penitent (85).

Though the practice of private confession and absolution was challenged during the nineteenth-century, most notably by Samuel Schmucker, private confession and absolution were defended, at least as an ideal, among many orthodox Lutherans (110-14). Though the confessional position was retained, developments in nineteenth-century American Lutheranism further complicated the situation. Sundberg credits Neolutheranism’s high view of the ministry as engendering a position of “extreme absolutionism,” in which the power of the pastor to absolve sins functions regardless of the faith or repentance of the hearers (119). The upshot of this was the absolution controversy among Norwegian Lutherans in America near the end of the nineteenth-century (125-30).

In spite of this, it was not until the advent of the liturgical movement that theological shifts became liturgically evident. Two concepts that gradually infiltrated American Lutheranism are key to Sundberg’s interpretation of the liturgical movement. First, the notion of ritual as participation in the divine offsets the liturgy’s penitential character, and downplays the early church’s ethical strictness (150-51). Problematic also is the attack on “penitential piety,” and the alternative “eucharistic piety,” which minimizes individual sin and seemingly merges the presence of God and the people of God in the form of the Eucharist (163). The practical outgrowth of these two developments is the functional antinomianism of the Protestant mainline, its inability to exercise the binding key upon the impenitent, and specious liturgical practices like Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s “Thanksgiving for Baptism” (167).

Whether or not one agrees with all of Sundberg’s conclusions about how conditional or unconditional Lutheran absolution formulas ought to be, there is no doubt that this is an important book. His explication and defense of worship as repentance is compelling, especially in light of recent challenges to Luther’s understanding of justification, as well as the development of the “new perspective” on Paul. Considering also the overly positive tenor that pervades much contemporary Christian music, the austerity of worship advanced by Sundberg is especially refreshing. Finally, the book is commendable as well for the liturgical texts found in the appendices. Worship as Repentance represents a much needed contribution to Lutheran liturgical scholarship.

John Hoyum is an undergraduate student in theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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