Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume III/Ethical/On Repentance/Elucidations
(Such as have lapsed, cap. vii. p. 660.)
The penitential system of the Primitive days, referred to in our author, began to be changed when less public confessions were authorized, on account of the scandals which publicity generated. Changes were as follows:
1. A grave presbyter was appointed to receive and examine voluntary penitents as the Penitentiary of a diocese, and to suspend or reconcile them with due solemnities—circa a.d. 250.
2. This plan also became encumbered with difficulties and was abolished in the East, circa a.d. 400.
3. A discipline similar to that of the Anglican Church (which is but loosely maintained therein) succeeded, under St. Chrysostom; who frequently maintains the sufficiency of confession according to Matt. vi. 6. A Gallican author says—“this is the period regarded by historians as the most brilliant in Church history. At the close of the fourth century, in the great churches of the Orient, sixty thousand Christians received the Eucharistic communion, in one day, in both kinds, with no other than their private confessions to Almighty God. The scandalous evil-liver alone was repelled from the Eucharistic Table.” This continued till circa a.d. 700.
4. Particular, but voluntary confessions were now made in the East and West, but with widely various acceptance under local systems of discipline. The absolutions were precatory: “may God absolve Thee.” This lasted, even in the West, till the compulsory system of the Lateran Council, a.d. 1215.
5. Since this date, so far as the West is concerned, the whole system of corrupt casuistry and enforced confession adopted in the West has utterly destroyed the Primitive doctrine and discipline as to sin and its remedy wherever it prevails. In the East, private confession exists in a system wholly different and one which maintains the Primitive Theology and the Scriptural principle. (1) It is voluntary; (2) it is free from the corrupt system of the casuists; (3) it distinguishes between Ecclesiastical Absolution and that of Him who alone “seeth in secret;” (4) it admits no compromise with attrition, but exacts the contrite heart and the firm resolve to go and sin no more, and (5) finally, it employs a most guarded and Evangelical formula of remission, of which see Elucidation IV.
(The last hope, cap. vii. p. 662.)
How absolutely the Lateran Council has overthrown the Primitive discipline is here made manifest. The spirit of the latter is expressed by our author in language which almost prompts to despair. It makes sin “exceeding sinful” and even Ecclesiastical forgiveness the reverse of easy. The Lateran System of enforced Confession makes sin easy and restoration to a sinless state equally so: a perpetual resort to the confessor being the only condition for evil living, and a chronic state of pardon and peace. But, let the Greek Church be heard in this matter, rather than an Anglican Catholic. I refer to Macarius, Bishop of Vinnitza and Rector of the Theological Academy of St. Petersburg, as follows: “It is requisite (for the effective reception of Absolution) at least according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church of the Orient, that the following conditions be observed: (1) Contrition for sins, is in the very nature of Penitence, indispensable; (2), consequently, there must be a firm resolution to reform the life; (3) also, faith in Christ and hope in his mercy, with (4) auricular confession before the priest.” He allows that this latter condition was not primitive, but was a maternal concession to penitents of later date: this, however, is voluntary, and of a widely different form from that of the Latin, as will appear below in Elucidation IV.
Now, he contrasts with this the system of Rome, and condemns it, on overwhelming considerations. 1. It makes penances compensations or “satisfaction,” offered for sins to divine Justice, this (he says) “is in contradiction with the Christian doctrine of justification, the Scripture teaching one full and entire satisfaction for the sins of the whole human race, once for all presented by our Lord Jesus Christ. This doctrine is equally in conflict with the entire teaching of the Primitive Church.”
2. It introduces a false system of indulgences, as the consequence of its false premisses.
3. He demonstrates the insufficiency of attrition, which respects the fear of punishment, and not sin itself. But the Council of Trent affirms the sufficiency of attrition, and permits the confessor to absolve the attrite. Needless to say, the masses accept this wide gate and broad way to salvation rather than the strait gate and narrow way of hating sin and reforming the life, in obedience to the Gospel.
(Among brethren, cap. x., p. 662.)
A controversial writer has lately complained that Bp. Kaye speaks of the public confession treated of by our author in this work, and adds—“Tertullian nowhere used the word public.” The answer is that he speaks of the discipline of Exomologesis, which was, in its own nature, as public as preaching. A Gallican writer, less inclined to Jesuitism in the use of words, says frankly: “When one studies this question, with the documents before his eyes, it is impossible not to confess that the Primitive discipline of the Church exhibits not a vestige of the auricular confession afterwards introduced.” See Irenæus, Adv. Hæres. Vol. I. p. 335, this Series. The Lii. of the canons called Apostolical, reflects a very simple view of the matter, in these words: “If any Bishop or Presbyter will not receive one who turns from his sins, but casts him out, let him be deposed: for he grieves Christ, who said, There shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.” The ascetic spirit of our author seems at war with that of this Canon.
(Exomologesis, cap. xii., p. 663.)
To this day, in the Oriental Churches, the examination of the presbyter who hears the voluntary confession of penitents, is often very primitive in its forms and confined to general inquiries under the Decalogue. The Casuistry of (Dens and Liguori) the Western Schemata Practica has not defiled our Eastern brethren to any great extent.
In the office (᾽Ακολουθία τῶν ἐξομολουγουμένων) we have a simple and beautiful form of prayer and supplication in which the following is the formula of Absolution: “My Spiritual child, who hast confessed to my humility, I, unworthy and a sinner, have not the power to forgive sins on Earth; God only can: and through that Divine voice which came to the Apostles, after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying—‘Whosoever sins, etc.,’ we, therein confiding, say—Whatsoever thou hast confessed to my extreme humility, and whatsoever thou hast omitted to say, either through ignorance or forgetfulness, God forgive thee in this present world and in that which is to come.”
The plural (We therein confiding) is significant and a token of Primitive doctrine: i.e. of confession before the whole Church, (2 Cor. ii. 10): and note the precatory form—“God forgive thee.” The perilous form Ego te absolvo is not Catholic: it dates from the thirteenth century and is used in the West only. It is not wholly dropped from the Anglican Office, but has been omitted from the American Prayer-Book.
- Le Confesseur, par L’Abbé * * * p. 15, Brussels 1866.
- Theol. Dogmat. Orthodoxe, pp. 529–541, etc.
- Couc. Trident. Sess. xiv. cap. 8.
- The Great Euchologion, p. 220, Venice, 1851.