Whose Sins You Forgive: Confession and Penance in the Fathers
Whose Sins You Forgive: Confession and Penance in the Church Fathers
based on posts from FidoNet (1995-96)
Date: 07-02-95 / From: P / To: DAVID GOFORTH / Subj: Great Confession Debate / Conf: Open_Bible
DG> ....the question on confession was the following: "When did mandatory auricular confession come in Phil? --wasn't it in the 1200's?"
No, you are totally wrong on confession. Your implication was that confession of sins to a PRIEST was INVENTED in the 1200's. You originally asked me the question -- "How can you say this [confession to priest] is not spurious?" You are confusing the idea of "invention" of doctrines with the Church officially defining a dogma. The same could be said about the early Christological heresies and the Councils concerning the Person of Christ. While the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon officially defined (for the whole church) the dogmas concerning the Person of Christ, we don't say the Church invented them at this point -- that they are therefore "spurious" as you said.
from CATHOLICISM AND FUNDAMENTALISM: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians" by Karl Keating (Ignatius Press, 1988)
Confession to a priest goes back to our understanding of Jesus' words to the apostles in John 20:21-23 also the teaching of Paul that Christ has given MEN the ministry and word of reconciliation in 2 Cor 5:18-20. Confession of sins by itself is clearly taught in James 5:14-16 and 1 John 1:7-9. As with all doctrines of the Christian faith, it became more explicit over time.
Is Confession a late invention of Catholicism, or was it used from the earliest times? Let's see what the earliest writers say.
DIDACHE (as early as 70 AD) -- Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life....On the Lord's Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. (4:14; 14:1)
ST. IRENAEUS OF LYONS (180 AD) -- [The gnostic disciples of Marcus] have deluded many women...Their consciences have been branded as with a hot iron [cf. 1 Tim 4:1ff]. Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses. (Against Heresies 1:22)
TERTULLIAN OF CARTHAGE (200 AD) -- [Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness. Why do you flee from the partners of your misfortunes as you would from those who deride? The body is not able to take pleasure in the trouble of one of its members. It must necessarily grieve as a whole and join in laboring for a remedy....With one and two individuals, there is the Church [cf. Matt 18:17ff]; and the Church indeed is Christ. Therefore, when you cast yourself at the knees of the brethren, you are dealing with Christ, you are entreating Christ. (On Repentance 10:1,6)
ORIGEN OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 244 AD) -- In addition to these [kinds of forgiveness of sins], albeit hard and laborious: the remission of sins through penance...when he [the sinner] does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine....In this way there is fulfilled that too, which the Apostle James says: "If, then, there is anyone sick, let him call the presbyters [where we get priests] of the Church, and let them impose hands upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him [James 5:14-15]." (Homily on Leviticus 2:4)
ST. CYPRIAN OF CARTHAGE (250 AD) -- The Apostle likewise bears witness and says: ...."Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" [1 Cor 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest...they do violence to his body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him. (The Lapsed 15:1-3)
....Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who...confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. God cannot be mocked or outwitted, nor can he be deceived by any clever cunning....Indeed, he but sins the more if, thinking that God is like man, he believes that he can escape the punishment of his crime by not openly admitting his crime....I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord. (The Lapsed 28)
ST. ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA (295 - 373 AD) -- Just as a man is enlightened by the Holy Spirit when he is baptized by a priest, so he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest. (On the Gospel of Luke 19)
ST. BASIL THE GREAT (330 - 379 AD) -- It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God's mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] is entrusted [i.e. priests]. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt 3:6]; but in Acts they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized [Acts 19:18]. (Rules Briefly Treated 288)
ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO (c. 354 - 430 AD) -- Let this be in the heart of the penitent: when you hear a man confessing his sins, he has already come to life again; when you hear a man lay bare his conscience in confessing, he has already come forth from the sepulchre; but he is not yet unbound. When is he unbound? By whom is he unbound? "Whatever you loose on earth," He says, "shall be loosed also in heaven" [Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23]. Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church... (Psalms 101:2:3)
Yet those who do penance in accord with the kind of sin they have committed are not to despair of receiving God's mercy in the Holy Church, for the remission of their crimes, however serious. (Echiridian 17:65)
Iniquity, however, sometimes makes such progress in men that even after they have done penance and after their reconciliation to the altar they commit the same or more grievous sins....and although that place of penance in the Church is not granted them, God will not be unmindful of His patience in their regard....(Letters 153:3:7)
There have been those who would say that no penance is available for certain sins; and they have been excluded from the Church and have been made heretics. Holy Mother Church is not rendered powerless by any kind of sin. (Sermons 352:9)
ST. AMBROSE (c. 333 - 397 AD) -- But what was impossible was made possible by God, who gave us so great a grace. It seemed likewise impossible for sins to be forgiven through penance; yet Christ granted even this to His Apostles, and by His Apostles it has been transmitted to the offices of priest. (Penance 2:2:12)
ST. JEROME (c. 347 - 420 AD) -- Just as in the Old Testament [ibi] the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament [hic] the bishop and presbyter [i.e. priest] binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who loosed. (Commentary on Matthew 3:16:19)
THEODORE OF MOPSUESTIA (c. 428 AD) -- This is the medicine for sins, established by God and delivered to the priests of the Church, who make diligent use of it in healing the afflictions of men. You are aware of these things, as also of the fact that God, because He greatly cares for us, gave us penitence and showed us the medicine of repentance; and He established some men, those who are priests, as physicians of sins. If in this world we receive through them healing and forgiveness of sins, we shall be delivered from the judgment that is to come. It behooves us, therefore, to draw near to the priests in great confidence and to reveal to them our sins; and those priests, with all diligence, solicitude, and love, and in accord with the regulations mentioned above, will grant healing to sinners. [The priests] will not disclose the things that ought not be disclosed; rather, they will be silent about the things that have happened, as befits true and loving fathers [cf. 1 Thess 2:11; 1 Cor 4:15] who are bound to guard the shame of their children while striving to heal their bodies. (Catechetical Homilies 16)
ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (c. 344 - 407 AD) -- Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: "Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed" [Matt 18:18]. Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can bind only the body. Priests, however, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself, and transcends the very heavens...Whatever priests do here on earth, God will confirm in heaven, just as the master ratifies the decision of his servants. Did He not give them all the powers of heaven?
What greater power is there than this? ...The Father has given all the judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven, elevated above human nature, and freed of its limitations....The priests of Judaism had power to cleanse the body from leprosy -- or rather, not to cleanse it at all, but to declare a person as having been cleansed. And you know how much contention there was even in those times to obtain the priestly office. Our priests have received the power not of treating with the leprosy of the body, but with spiritual uncleanness; not of declaring cleansed, but of actually cleansing...What mean-souled wretch is there who would despise so great a good? None, I dare say, unless he be urged on by a devilish impulse....God has given to priests powers greater than those given to our parents; and the differences between the powers of these two is as great as the difference between the future life and the present....Our parents begot us to temporal existence; priests beget us to the eternal. The former are not able to ward off from their children the sting of death, nor prevent the attack of disease; yet the latter often save the sick and perishing soul -- sometimes by imposing a lighter penance, sometimes by preventing the fall. Priests accomplish this not only by teaching and admonishing, but also by the help of prayer. Not only at the time of our regeneration [at Baptism], but even aftward they have the authority to forgive sins....
...Great is the dignity of priests. "Whose sins you forgive," He says, "they are forgiven them" [John 20:23]...The things that are placed in the hands of the priest, it belongs to God alone to give.... Neither angel nor archangel is able to do anything in respect to what is given by God; rather, Father and Son and Holy Spirit manage it all; but the priest lends his own tongue and presents his own hand. Nor would it be just, if those who draw near in faith to the symbols of our salvation were to be harmed by the wickedness of another. (Homilies on John 86:4)
POPE LEO THE GREAT (c. 459 AD) -- I decree also that that presumption contrary to the apostolic regulation, which I recently learned is being committed by some in an illegal usurpation, is by all means to cease. With regard to penance, certainly what is required of the faithful is not that the nature of individual sins be written in a document and recited in a public profession, since it is sufficient that the guilt of consciences be indicated to priests alone in a secret confession. For although that fullness of faith may seem to be praiseworthy which, for fear of God, is not afraid to blush before men, nevertheless, because the sins of all are not of such kind that those who seek Penance do not fear to make them public, such an unapproved custom is to cease. (Letter of Pope Leo I to the Bishops of Campania, Samnium and Picenum dated March 6, 459 AD)
from FUNDAMENTALS OF CATHOLIC DOGMA by Ludwig Ott, proof from prescription --
Date: 09-08-95 / From: P / To: ED WITEK / Conf: Open_Bible
EW> Something else from Chrysostom you might want to add to your collection. "You need no witnesses of your confession. Secretly acknowledge your sins, and let God alone hear you." De Paenitentia
First, your reference is wrong. Your quote is found in -De Lazaro homiliae- as follows --
Similar statements of confession to "God alone" are found in Chrysostom's writings on Penance -De paenitentia homiliae-
Confession is made in CHURCH, where the Christian GOES IN to be heard by the Priest who, acting on God's behalf, grants forgiveness of sin (John 20:21-23). Chrysostom clearly believed in sacramental confession of sins just as the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church teaches today. The statement "to God ALONE" should be understood in light of other statements made by St. John Chrysostom on priests and the ministerial priesthood --
PP> I would like to look this up. I'll compare it with articles in the New Catholic Encyclopedia on Confession and tell you what I find. Catholics don't deny there is a certain development of dogma concerning the Sacraments (including Confession). I never alleged, nor does the Catholic Church allege, that Confession to priests in its full-blown form is clearly taught everywhere from the first century.
DG> Sounds like you're FINALLY trying to admit what I posted to start with--that mandatory (as a rule) auricular (to a priest) confession came in the 1200's.
No. What you originally wrote was "How can you say that this is not SPURIOUS?" I assumed you meant confession to priests itself since that is how the objection is brought up in all the anti-Catholic books I have read. I already explained to you what the Fourth Lateran Council did -- it merely defined the already existing duty of confession more closely by prescribing yearly confession. It was not "SPURIOUS." But most anti-Catholics think that is where we INVENTED Confession. For example, Loraine Boettner has stated in his well-known work on ROMAN CATHOLICISM (P&R,1962) under "Some Roman Catholic Heresies and Inventions" (page 7-9)
Of course no Catholic says "instead of to God." We are to confess our sins to God as well as to the priest. Later, in his chapter on Confession, Boettner writes --
I gave clear references to priestly confession from Origen (244 AD), Cyprian (250), and others including saints Augustine and John Chrysostom about 150 years later. Some of the earlier quotes from the Didache, Irenaeus, and Tertullian may not be as clear and I'll have to get back with you on those. However, it is quite clear that both Irenaeus and Tertullian (Modesty 21:7; De Paenitentia) believed that the apostolic authority, which would include the authority to forgive sins (John 20:21-23), had been passed on to the Bishops of the Church.
DG> Take off your rose colored glasses and try reading something more objective than your Catholic books for a change Phil. I think you'll find the role of the priest evolved as the doctrines on mass and confession evolved.
Maybe you need some glasses so you can SEE! Yes, these doctrines developed and so did the New Testament canon! Does this mean they are false? No! Catholics accept the fact that dogma develops. Read the classic work on that by John Henry Cardinal Newman just before he converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism -- AN ESSAY ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE. In there he discusses the canon of Scripture, the Trinity, as well as uniquely Catholic doctrines. Now on to your quotes from Oscar Watkins A HISTORY OF PENANCE.
DG> To quote some of your own pro-Catholic material from your own Oscar Watkins:
Let's start from the beginning of that chapter, shall we?
A REVIEW OF THE PRACTICE OF PENANCE IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH FROM ITS INCEPTION TO A.D. 450
(from the summary pages 466 - 496 in A History of Penance volume 1 of two volumes by Oscar Watkins)
According to Oscar Watkins and his research into Penance and the early Church, this is where the Catholic Church received her doctrine on the sacrament of Penance -- from the lips of Jesus (John 20:21-23).
Your quotes dealt with the practice of Penance in the Church, which indeed developed. So what? That is irrelevant to the fact that the Catholic Church has ever believed that her Lord left her the authority to bind and loose (Mt 16:19; 18:18) which includes the power to forgive sins (Jn 20:23; 2 Cor 2:10; Jas 5:14-16). I know you disagree with the Catholic understanding of these texts. However, you either have to believe the entire Church fell into apostasy on this teaching and Christ's promises are false (Mt 16:18; 28:20; Jn 14:16; 16:13; 1 Tim 3:15) and you are right in your interpretation, or that Christ's promises are true and the Church got it right. Here you attempted to quote from Watkins' summary which I mailed you --
DG> "In citing these instances of confession as the preliminary of Penance, it is important to bear in mind that there was no thought of admitting Penance more than once in the whole term of life."
Granted, the practice of Penance was more strict in the early Church. That does not mean the doctrine did not exist or was invented out of thin air. Yes, it appears the earliest Christians -- Tertullian (200), Origen (220), Cyprian (250) -- had allowed for the sacrament to be administered only once in life for serious sin, as Baptism is given once. The early Christians were quite holy. Most were martyred and became Saints of the Church. Here is the context of what you quoted --
This sounds very much like the current Catholic teaching although admittedly the practice of allowing the sacrament for serious sin more than once in life has changed. That is not a change in the doctrine but rather the practice of Penance. The Church still has the same commission and authority to forgive sins through Christ.
DG> "The system of graded penance, thus introduced in Pontus, appears to have spread rapidly to the neighboring provinces of Cappadocia and Galatia. The Council of Ancyra in Galatia, which was held in A.D. 314, alludes to the grades as "the defined grades."
This shows a development in the practice -- brought in by the great missionary bishop St. Gregory the Wonderworker of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus -- the five grades being the Mourners, the Hearers, the Fallers, the Bystanders, and the Restored or Faithful. Again, this has to do with how the sacrament should be practiced in the Church, and does not deny the doctrine. Christ still gave the Church the authority to forgive sins. That does not change. What changes is how this should be implemented. The paragraph continues where you left off --
Sounds okay to me. I ask you -- Where are all the Baptists?
DG> "In the Spanish peninsula the Council of Illiberris (c. A.D. 306), as already noticed, shows the Spanish churches still solid for the pre-Decian rigorism fifty years after the rest of the Church had moved." (i.e. the once only type).
The quote continues -- sorry, there isn't a period but a colon --
So are you saying some of the Spanish churches were Baptist churches? I don't really get the point of you quoting what you did. Oscar Watkins is proving to you that ALL of these early Christians were Catholics to the core! Of course there is a difference in how the sacrament of Penance should be practiced -- Rigorism (once only Penance) had sway in the early Church. Later the practice was changed. The Church still has the authority to forgive sins from Christ and everyone believed that. Baptists are nowhere to be found!
Watkins ends his summary of the first 450 years of the Christian church --
DG> "No indicative form of absolution, as Ego te absolvo is known to come down from the early centuries."
This is from page 494. Read the next sentence --
DG> "So remarkably various are the developments of Penance in the different parts of the Church in the fourth century that any useful survey must discriminate accurately the practice of the various churches."
So what? I thought Watkins discriminated quite well. We are dealing with the practice of various churches. Everyone accepted the sacrament of Penance itself. How it is practiced developed. No big deal.
DG> "Especially by his (S. Chrysostom's) teaching of the many modes of remission does he retire from all claim on the part of the Church to control the exercise of such remission."
So you are saying St. Chrysostom was a Baptist? What else does Watkins say?
See the explicit citations from St. John Chrysostom above.
DG> Any believer should equally have the power to forgive sins *IF* a priest *CAN* forgive sins. You can't have it both ways Phil, saying everybody is a priest but everybody doesn't have the power of a priest.
Do you have ministers in your church? Or does anyone who wants to get up and preach the sermon that day? Does anyone excommunicate anyone else whenever they feel like it in your church? No, again you do not understand the Catholic teaching. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the believer's priesthood:
DG> *IF* an apostle (as a special priest) had the power to forgive sins as you suggest Phil, why is there zero evidence for it having ever actually happened? Why do we never see something in Scripture such as, 'and Paul heard his confession of sins committed that year and absolved his sin'?
How about 2 Corinthians 2:10 -- "Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ." (NKJV)
The context is the re-acceptance of the sinner causing grave scandal in Corinth probably involved in the sin of incest (1 Cor 5:1ff). Sounds to me like the apostle Paul exercising the power of priestly absolution according to Christ's command "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them" (John 20:23). And this power was given to the apostles alone and to their successors in the priesthood. There is a lot of evidence from the Bishops and Fathers of the Church that that is exactly how Christ intended His words to His apostles to be so understood (Mt 18:17-18; Jn 20:21-23; cf. 2 Cor 5:18-20; James 5:14-16; 1 John 1:7-9; Acts 19:18). Also, there is a whole book about Confession to priests in Scripture -- it is called Leviticus. Simply because there is no explicit mention in the New Testament of sacramental absolution does not mean the Church fell into "apostasy" on the Sacraments.
DG> Because John 20:23 follows the reference to the gift of the Spirit, (and therefore these words were NOT limited to the apostles since every Christian has the Spirit)
But the apostles had the Spirit in a special way. They were inspired preachers and teachers -- they had the "Spirit of the Father" speaking through them (Matt 10:19-20). That is not true of all believers. Jesus said "if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them."
DG> The ONLY mention of NT believers being priests is used in a context where ALL true believers are included, not just a certain few
The Catholic Church accepts the priesthood of believers while at the same time maintaining a ministerial priesthood (see the Catechism 1546-1547). The word for "elder" is where we get our word "priest" and James 5:14ff specifically refers to the "elders" of the church involved in the Sacrament of anointing the sick with oil.
DG> This power to forgive and retain sins, contrary to Catholicism, belongs to each and every person who preaches the true gospel of salvation.
We obviously disagree but thanks for your explanation.
PP> You bring up the distinction between presbyter and priest. I grant the terms were not interchangable until later centuries.
DG> Thank you. Now that you've been honest and admitted this much, admit your priests do not qualify as presbyters and are therefore usurping the biblically described office.
I admit the early distinction between the terms presbyter and priest because the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) says this was the case.
David, where is the evidence of "corruption" or "usurpation" by the early Catholic Church? There is none. The Catholic hierarchy of Bishop, Priest (presbyter), and Deacon was there from the start!
ST. IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH (c. 110 AD)
Priests (from the Greek presbuteros) were there from the start. Consider St. Clement of Rome writing near the end of the first century --
Date: 03-23-96 / From: P / To: DAVID BLACK / Subj: A Question of Salvation / Conf: R_CATHOLIC
DB> Why do you confess sins to a priest? He cannot forgive them. No man can, Only God can. It says in the bible to confess your faults to one another, not sins and not a priest.
While it is quite true "only God can forgive sin" (Mark 2:7) the priest acts as Christ's representative because we believe the power to forgive sin and to grant absolution was passed on to His apostles and to their successors, the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church, based on the explicit words of John 20:21-23 and combined with the texts dealing with the binding and loosing authority (Matt 16:18-19 and 18:18) and the witness of the early church in its understanding of these biblical texts. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church --
From the KJV translation of John 20:23 --
"Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."
You can't get much more explicit than to say,
"If YOU FORGIVE anyone his SINS, they are forgiven" (John 20:23 NIV).
We believe the immediately preceding context shows a definite conferrel of power here from the sending forth of the apostles and the "breathing" on them with the Holy Spirit (v. 21-22). See the parallel passage of the paralytic and his forgiveness of sins in Matt 9, especially verse 8
"But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such POWER unto MEN" (Matt 9:8 KJV).
For a biblical example of the reconciliation of a sinner and his penance imposed by the Church, see 2 Cor 2:5-11. Paul states that "what I have forgiven...I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake" (2 Cor 2:10 NIV). The KJV reads "in the person of Christ" -- Paul acting as Christ's representative in the forgiveness of sins. See also Acts 19:18 for another mention of confession of sins. While it is not explicit that confession was made to a "priest," the "elders" of James 5:14-16 is where the English term -priest- is derived. Priest in English comes from the Greek -presbuteros-. And you can't exclude the "elders" (presbuteros) here from "one another" to whom we confess sins. "And if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him" (James 5:15 KJV) by who? The elders or priests of the church (v. 14). We have two sacraments here -- Anointing of the Sick and Reconciliation by the elders or priests. These priests (elders) and bishops of the early Church inherited the power to forgive sins from the apostles (John 20:21-23; Matt 18:18). Church history bears out this is the correct understanding of the biblical witness.
The historical evidence for sacramental confession is overwhelming (see above) If you want to get into a serious historical discussion of the development of the practice of Confession, tracing it from John 20:21-23 through the entire history of Christ's Church, find the massive two-volume work by Oscar Watkins titled A History of Penance (Burt Franklin, 1961).
DB> I was also told that one can party all week, sin, and live a corrupt life as long as you go to the priest for confession. That certainly is not scriptural.
Certainly not. I was wondering who told you this? Someone who is living a corrupt life probably would give no thought to the sacrament of Confession anyway. Of course we sin and are always in need of forgiveness. It is part of the Lord's prayer, the Our Father, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Catholics have that assurance that Christ gave to His apostles and to His Church that we can be forgiven if we repent and confess our sins. And that means being reconciled to the Church Christ established in Matthew 16:18-19 which is why confession to the priests of His Church is necessary, as the Church Fathers tell us.
OLX 2.1 TD -- Thou art Kepha and upon this Kepha I will build my Church
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