The persistence of penance : evangelical alternatives for the sacrament of penance.


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This dissertation explores the formation of Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist alternatives for the functions of the sacrament of penance. It makes use of normative documents that guided the medieval practice of penance, the theological writings of Protestant reformers, and legislation that governed church–state institutions of discipline. It follows the evolution of penance through the Middle Ages from its inception in Celtic Monasteries to the late medieval period when it became a mandatory religious practice for all believers. During that development, penance became a significant aspect of European social and religious life that played important sociological roles in regulating norms of behavior and belief. This work focuses on the roles of disciplining and controlling behavior and consoling anxious consciences. Each stream of Protestantism rejected the sacrament of penance but established alternatives that carried out its functions in ways unique to their respective contexts. They also differentiated those functions and created specialized alternatives to carry out the functions they found most important. Luther highly prized the consoling function of penance and developed a form of confession bereft of disciplining features so that it could be used solely to console anxious individuals. Magisterial reformers in the Lutheran and Reformed churches worked with the state to establish and operate controlling institutions that interrogated, corrected, educated, and punished those who transgressed normative bounds. By cooperating with the state, the magisterial churches enjoyed stability and longevity, and their alternatives had access to state powers, increasing their efficacy. Anabaptists, however, evolved into a movement that eventually rejected church–state cooperation. They created alternatives for discipline in which the entire congregation was required to participate. Their choice to reject cooperation with the state and to accept pacifist separation meant they rarely enjoyed the stability and longevity of magisterial reformers. The alternatives maintained the functions penance had served for a millennium. These institutions and rituals were shaped by changes in their respective contexts, including existing church–state relationships, impulses to democratize power, early modern impulses to concentrate power in the hands of secular elites, and competing goals for the proper use of the power to discipline and console.