Confessional knowledge

The contribution introduces the concept confessional knowledge to capture knowledge production, circulation and practices within the specific variants of Christianity that occurred in the confessionally divided Europe, after the Reformation. In the later sixteenth century, three major confessions crystallized: the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Reformed, each of them maintaining an absolute claim of truth.

Drawing on Lorraine Daston’s definition of knowledge as systematic knowledge in a historical context, the article argues that confessional knowledge was the systematic knowledge of creation and salvation that was developed within the framework of the early modern confessions. Hence, the concept confessional knowledge is better suited than the concept ”religious knowledge” to capture knowledge production in these context-specific variants of Christianity, with parallel and competing absolute truth claims.

The concept of confessional knowledge can contribute to the history of knowledge, as it holds the promise that the history of knowledge can be more than a mere expansion of the history of science. Adding confessional knowledge would sharpen our understanding of the role of knowledge in the pre-modern world, as the example of early modern Lutheranism shows. Agents, institutions, documents, practices and lived experiences were involved in the process in which certain forms of knowing came to be regarded as knowledge within Lutheranism. A prominent example are the professors of theology at the Lutheran territorial universities, who took on the role of chief interpreters of scripture as well as correctors, advisers, and educators. But the confessional knowledge was far from merely theoretical, rather it permeated society, politics, and everyday life. Systematic knowledge developed into a lived practice. In preaching and catechisms, Lutheran dogmatics became social norms and an integral part of people’s lifeworlds that characterized the practices of marriage, household, and princely power.

On the other side, history of knowledge can provide new perspectives on early modern confessions, beyond the concept of confessional culture, which has been criticized to be occupied with models of diffusion and bear an inherent tension between Lutheran unity and Lutheran plurality. It is argued that one possible way of tackling these problems is to draw inspiration from the history of knowledge, a field where analyses of movement and changes in knowledge are central, and the starting point is that knowledge is not produced and then communicated, but rather that the relationship between production and communication is circular. If the meaning-creating function is a circular relationship between production and communication, confessional culture cannot be understood as something that arises when that confession, which exists as the written word, operates in a lifeworld; instead, it must be studied as a constantly changing product of the circular production and communication process that was integral to early modern Lutheranism. By studying this process rather than ‘culture’, the history of confessional Europe would be partially freed from the framework of cultural history.

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