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The Reformation of the Keys

The Reformation of the Keys

Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany

Ronald K. Rittgers

ISBN 9780674011762

Publication date: 03/15/2004

The Catholic Church’s claims to spiritual and temporal authority rest on Jesus’ promise in the gospels to give Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In the sixteenth century, leaders of the German Reformation sought a fundamental transformation of this “power of the keys” as part of their efforts to rid Church and society of alleged clerical abuses. Central to this transformation was a thoroughgoing reform of private confession.

Unlike other Protestants, Lutherans chose not to abolish private confession but to change it to suit their theological convictions and social needs. In a fascinating examination of this new religious practice, Ronald Rittgers traces the development of Lutheran private confession, demonstrating how it consistently balanced competing concerns for spiritual freedom and moral discipline. The reformation of private confession was part of a much larger reformation of the power of the keys that had profound implications for the use of religious authority in sixteenth-century Germany.

As the first full-length study of the role of Lutheran private confession in the German Reformation, this book is a welcome contribution to early modern European and religious history.


  • Rittgers has published a detailed account of the changing understanding and role of the office of the keys in Reformation Germany. He successfully weaves together political, theological, and social history as he illuminates a matter that is often overlooked by Lutheran historians and scholars…This significant contribution will be of considerable value to scholars who want to understand how this aspect of Lutheran theology was implemented in German churches.

    —J. K. Mann, Choice


  • Ronald K. Rittgers is Professor of the History of Christianity, Duke Divinity School.

Book Details

  • 330 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press