Confessionalism (religion)

Confessionalism (religion)

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Confessionalism, in a religious
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 (and particularly Christian
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

) sense, is a belief in the importance of full and unambiguous assent to the whole of a religious teaching. Confessionalists believe that differing interpretations or understandings, especially those in direct opposition to a held teaching, cannot be accommodated within a church communion.

Confessionalism can become a matter of practical relevance in fields such as Christian education and Christian politics. For example, there is a question over whether Christian schools should attempt to enforce a specific religious doctrine
Doctrine is a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system...

, or whether they should simply teach general "Christian values". Similarly, some Christian political parties have been split over whether non-Christians should be allowed to participate — confessionalists, arguing against it, stress the importance of religious doctrine, while non-confessionalists say that shared values are more important than adherence to exact beliefs.


Historically, the term confessionalism for the first time was used in mid-19th century. Of course the phenomenon of confessionalism and the term “confession”, from which the term confessionalism derived, is much older, referring to once individual belief, then collective belief. Furthermore, the term confession in different languages implies different notions (faith, denomination, croyance, culte, communauté religieuse).

In the 16th and 17th centuries the term confession was only used for the documents of belief (cf. Confessio Augustana) while the religious communities of Roman Catholics
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

, Lutherans, and Calvinists were referred to as “religious parties”, different “religions” or “churches” - not as confessions. In the late 18th century the term confession started to expand to religious bodies sharing a common creed. The first evidence is the Wöllner and Prussian Religious Edict of 1788 (though there might be earlier proofs for the English-speaking world). The international Congress of Vienna in 1815 still didn’t use the term confession to mark different Christian denominations. Labelling Christian groups “confessions” implied a certain degree of civil progress and tolerance, accepting that no party could claim absolute truth. The original intention to pacify conflicts between the denominations in the 19th century turned into its opposite: Confession bore the ground for new conflicts, as for example in the Cologne conflict about mixed marriages in 1837. The Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

 refused to consider itself as merely a confession, and even after the Second Vatican Council
Second Vatican Council
The Second Vatican Council addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. It was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church and the second to be held at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. It opened under Pope John XXIII on 11 October 1962 and closed...

 (1962–1965), it continues to consider its visible organization to be the only true church on earth.

However ahistorical the terminology (cf. the latest semantical research of L. Hölscher), historians talk about the Early Modern period as a “confessional age” (first evidence: Ernst Troeltsch, 1906) and with good reasons use the terms of confessionalization
Confessionalization is a recent concept employed by Reformation historians to describe the parallel processes of "confession-building" taking place in Europe between the Peace of Augsburg and the Thirty Years' War...

 and confessionalism.

In the third half or the 19th century the term confessionalism occurred in dictionaries. It referred to internal Protestant conflicts (orthodoxy v. “living” Protestantism), to conflicts between different confessional groups, to everyday resentments and to any exaggerated emphasis of religious identity against competing identities. The Catholic Staatslexikon in 1959 defines Confessionalism as the “endeavour of the confessions to defend their religious doctrine” and their identity, in opposition to indifferentism, but it also meant the “overemphasize of confessional differences, esp. transferring them into the realm of state and society”. In later editions of dictionaries there is no lemma any more since the phenomenon lost its wider impact. Confessionalism exerted a severe impact on European social and political History between 1530 and 1648 and again between 1830 and the 1960s.

Nowadays confessionalism is of minor relevance in European state churches
State religion
A state religion is a religious body or creed officially endorsed by the state...

. It rose to importance in the early 19th century and vanished in the 1960s. This is why some scholars talk about this time-period as a "second confessional age", comparing the dimensions of confessionalism with the "first confessional age" (16th to 17th centuries). However, various European free churches still consider confessions important, for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church
Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (Germany)
The Evangelical Lutheran Free Church is a small confessional Lutheran denomination based in Germany and western Austria. It currently consists of 1,470 members in 15 congregations, primarily located in former East Germany...

 and the Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church
Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church
The Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church is a confessional Lutheran church body of Germany. It is a member of the European Lutheran Conference and a member of the International Lutheran Council . The SELK synod has about 36,000 members in 200 congregations...

 both require clergy and congregations to declare a quia subscription to the Book of Concord
Book of Concord
The Book of Concord or Concordia is the historic doctrinal standard of the Lutheran Church, consisting of ten credal documents recognized as authoritative in Lutheranism since the 16th century...


In Lebanon
Lebanon , officially the Republic of LebanonRepublic of Lebanon is the most common term used by Lebanese government agencies. The term Lebanese Republic, a literal translation of the official Arabic and French names that is not used in today's world. Arabic is the most common language spoken among...

, the concept of confessionalism holds an important political meaning, since political power and governmental bureaucracy are organized according to religious confessions (as it happened in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries before). For example, the National Pact
National Pact
The National Pact is an unwritten agreement that laid the foundation of Lebanon as a multi-confessional state, and has shaped the country to this day. Following negotiations between the Shi'ite, Sunni, and Maronite leaderships, the National Pact was born in the summer of 1943 allowing Lebanon to...

 (an unwritten covenant) and later the Taif Agreement
Taif Agreement
The Taif Agreement was an agreement reached to provide "the basis for the ending of the civil war and the return to political normalcy in Lebanon." Negotiated in Taif, Saudi Arabia, it was designed to end the decades-long Lebanese civil war, politically accommodate the demographic...

 provide for a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament.


The idea of confessionalism can generate considerable controversy. Some Christian denominations, particularly newer ones, focus more on the "experience" of Christianity than on its formal doctrines, and are accused by confessionalists of adopting a vague and unfocused form of religion. Others argue that the confessionalist view of religion is too narrow, and that people should be able to seek religion in their own way. Anti-confessionalists generally argue that it is the spirit and values of religion that matter, rather than the rules. Confessionalists generally counter that the "spirit and values" of any given faith cannot be attained without first knowing "truth" as given in formal dogmas.


  • Darryl G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

  • Margaret L. Anderson, Living Apart and Together in Germany, in: Helmut W. Smith (ed.): Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in Imperial Germany, Oxford 2001, p. 317-32.

  • Olaf Blaschke, Das zweite konfessionelle Zeitalter als Parabel zwischen 1800 und 1970, in: zeitenblicke, 2006 (
  • Olaf Blaschke (ed.), Konfessionen im Konflikt. Deutschland zwischen 1800 und 1970: ein zweites konfessionelles Zeitalter, Göttingen 2002.

  • Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain. Understanding Secularization 1800-2000, London 2001.
  • Manfred Kittel, Provinz zwischen Reich und Republik. Politische Mentalitäten in Deutschland und Frankreich 1918-1933/36, Munich 2000.

  • Bodo Nischan, Lutherans and Calvinists in the Age of Confessionalism. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1999.

  • Lucian Hölscher, Konfessionspolitik in Deutschland zwischen Glaubensstreit und Koexistenz, in: Hölscher (ed.), Baupläne der sichtbaren Kirche. Sprachliche Konzepte religiöser Vergemeinschaftung in Europa, Göttingen 2007, p. 11-53.