Who might this book interest? Since this book is from a conservative Lutheran perspective, I believe that this book would interest many Evangelicals, especially pastors and Christian counselors, of various denominations. It is a concise, well-written overview of pastoral counseling's relationship to individual confession and absolution.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: The late Walter J. Koehler was a Lutheran Church pastor as well as a professor of theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Canada (back cover). I generally like to give more biography of the author, but it was difficult to find substantial information on Koehler.
This new edition of the book contains several Forewords as well as Prefaces. Dr. Harold L. Senkbeil begins by discussing individual confession and absolution (ICA), and its resurgence in recent times (8-9). Dr. Rick W. Marrs continues with a new introduction to the work (10-13). He concisely identifies the loss and resurgence of ICA as well, but in addition, he addresses soul care from before the 1930s and after 1982. He mentions many of the recent psychological developments such as: physiological-pharmacological, CBT, attachment, and systems approaches.
Finally, we come to Koehler's Preface and Introduction to the Original Edition. He says, "This book is written with the hope that the field of pastoral counseling will be functionally and theologically strengthened as the resource of individual confession and absolution is considered" (16). For pastoral counseling (PC) to be distinctly pastoral, I believe that it must draw on the all-too-often forgotten resources of the Christian tradition like confession and absolution. He adds, "This volume seeks to dispel some of the fogginess surrounding pastoral counseling and to give insight into the possibilities and resources which individual confession and absolution hold for effective pastoral counseling" (18). I appreciate Koehler's addressing ICA as a resource of PC.
As Maars points out, Chapter 1 is both historically incomplete and dated (12-13). It covers from the 1930s to 1982. Koehler begins by working toward a definition of PC. His defines it, "Pastoral counseling is a function of the shepherding office carried out by recognized pastors and clergy leaders of the church who utilize the resources of the mental health profession and the Christian faith in order to assist people in the communication of personal feelings" (23). He continues, "Resources are used to overcome obstacles which may hinder personal meaning and fulfillment in relationships to God, self, and others" (23). This rather lengthy definition attempts to cover the entire range of PC and contains both positive and negative aspects.
After seeking to define PC, Koehler continues by providing an overview, especially noting the liberal-conservative split in the 1920s which generally continues today. Broadly speaking, liberals utilize secular psychology, while conservatives use a directed, Biblically-based approach. He continues by interacting with various psychotherapies and noting the contributions of PC to psychology in terms of short-term methodology and relationship. He also identifies several tensions that exist outside of PC with secular psychology and within PC between liberals and conservatives. He ends by noting several aspects of the theological and practical uniqueness of PC.
Chapter 2 discussed Individual Confession and Absolution (ICA) in Lutheran theology and practice. Koehler points out that ICA is not directed in Scripture, but is consistent with it (44). In addition, Luther considered ICA very important to the Christian life. In defining confession, Koehler points out six types: in the heart (secret), general or public in the liturgy, public confession of an individual to the congregation, reconciliation, mutual confession between believers, and private or individual. He identifies absolution as a special form of Gospel proclamation which may come in one of three forms: exhibitive or collative, declarative, or optative or supplicatory. Luther insisted on using the words of Scripture in the absolution.
The essence of ICA is found in confession and absolution which contains both a subjective and objective side. It contains specific pastoral value for those who are: of weak faith, realize the reality of sin and God, need humility, seek to reestablish fellowship, and share burdens. Theologically, ICA relates broadly to Lutheran theology in many areas: means of grace, justification, sin, office of the keys, public ministry, Law and Gospel, faith, and baptism. In this chapter, he ends with some research on the contemporary practice of ICA in the Lutheran Church, but unfortunately, this 1962 study was horribly dated when he first published the book in 1982! At best, it can only describe the practice at that time with limited significance today.
Chapter 3 addresses the Contributions of ICA to the Pastoral Counselor. There are often two mistakes that occur when relating ICA and PC. Practitioners tend to either confuse the goals of PC and ICA, or completely separate the two. But there are several similarities. Both are within pastoral care, deal with the same basic problems, are done by a pastor, move through the same stages, and experience the need for confession (62). PC may be good preparation for ICA. What is the significance of ICA? Confession focuses on sin, brings sin and guilt to the surface, articulates personal feelings, admits the seriousness of sin, recognizes the reality of God, exposes one's sin to another, fosters humility and repentance, accepts responsibility, expresses a desire for forgiveness, and a willingness to reorient life.
Absolution is a specific proclamation of the Gospel which effects the remission of sins through Christ when received by faith. Following his discussion of absolution, he discusses guilt. He distinguishes between legal-theological and subjective-psychological guilt. ICA deals with the theological, while PC deals with the psychological. Some struggle with it for various reasons: a distorted God concept, forgiving others, or forgiving oneself. These struggles need to be recognized as the pastor works toward the goal of ICA, the restoration of relationships. Pastoral care and counseling may be enriched by ICA.
Evangelical Assessment: Koehler has provided us with a psychologically and theologically informed book on pastoral counseling (PC) and individual confession and absolution (ICA). As an Evangelical, the first time that I read anything concerning private confession was by the Anglican priest, Kenneth Leech, in his books, True Prayer and Soul Friend. While I have no personal experience with it, I am learning more and developing an appreciation of private confession.
My assessment will address two things: psychology and theology. In terms of expertise, Koehler is generally psychologically competent, but a couple of things do stand out, which may reflect attitudes of that time.
First, as Dr. Maars indicates (11), why would you not offer ICA to mentally disturbed individuals? In my seminary training, I had a very experienced pastoral counseling professor who was also a psychiatrist, which advocated confession as a component of treating mental issues. It may play an important role in their healing. Second, Koehler emphasizes catharsis, which is a major emphasis in certain schools of psychology, but it is generally accepted today that catharsis provides a necessary, but not sufficient component to resolving mental issues. I found myself desiring to qualify his comments on catharsis and the process of counseling (Benner, Healing Emotional Wounds). Yet, Koehler is usually insightful in terms of PC and the psychological side of ICA.
Second, how are Evangelicals to theologically understand pastoral counseling (PC) and individual confession and absolution (ICA)? There are several considerations. Koehler's work clearly upholds a high view of Scripture, Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin, and salvation. While individual confession is not explicitly taught in Scripture, it can be implied from Scripture. Also, it was a common practice in the church before the Reformation, and there are Evangelicals within some denominations that practice individual confession and absolution. An interesting parallel to me is found in Evangelicals of the Revivalistic Tradition. As a pastor in this tradition, who offered an invitation at the end of the worship service, the response at the invitation was often very similar to individual confession and absolution.
This discussion highlights one of the basic disagreements within Evangelicalism. Some Evangelicals hold that if a practice does not contradict Scripture, then it is permitted, while others hold that if it does not come directly from Scripture, then it is not permitted. According to the first view, it does not contradict Scripture, and theologically, may arise from it. Therefore, confession and absolution may be practiced. Martin Luther continued and refined this practice, according to the Scriptures, which was already in use in the church.
In light of the previous discussion, I believe that there is freedom for Evangelicals. For those who believe that this violates Scripture, they should not violate their conscience, but for others, who are open to this practice, or see this practice as consistent with and rising from Scripture, they should follow their conscience in participating in private confession and absolution.
Walter J. Koehler. Counseling and Confession: the Role of Confession and Absolution in Pastoral Counseling (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2011).