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3. Subjects of Penance, or the offences for which it was imposed

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVII. Of the Discipline of the Ancient Church

3. Subjects of Penance, or the offences for which it was imposed

Penance related only to such as had been excluded from the communion of the church. Its immediate object was, not the forgiveness of the offender by the Lord God, but his reconcilialion with the church. It could, therefore, relate only to open and scandalous offences. De occultis non judical ecclesia – the church takes no cognizance of secret sins – was an ancient maxim of the church. The early Fathers say expressly, that the church offers pardon only for offences committed against her. The forgiveness of all sin she refers to God himself. Omnia autem, says Cyprian, Ep. 55, remissimus Deo omnipotenti, in cujus potestate sunt omnia reservata. Such are the concurring sentiments of most of the early writers on this subject. It was reserved for a later age to confound these important distinctions, and to arrogate to the church the prerogative of forgiving sins.

Various synonymous expressions occur in the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian, to denote this mode of discipline, all of which are in accordance with the representations given above of penance, such as disciplina, orandi disciplina, patientiae disciplina, deifica disciplina, satisfactio, satisfacere, etc. The last mentioned terms imply a demand made by the church, on conditions imposed in order to a restoration to that body. Hence also the frequent expression, poe* nitentia canonica, canones poenitentiales – penitential exercises required by authority of councils and bishops.

In the ancient phraseology of the church, the lapsed, who, after professing Christianity had abjured their faith, were included among the proper subjects of penance. The term was frequently applied in a wider sense, but in this restricted sense the lapsed were divided into several classes.

  1. The Libellatici – those who received from a Roman magistrate a warrant for their security, libellum securitatis, or pads, certifying that they were not Christians, or that they were not required to sacrifice to the gods. 
  2. The Sacrificati, including all those who had sacrificed to heathen gods, whether by constraint or voluntary. 
  3. Traditores. This term came into use about forty years after the death of Cyprian, and was employed to denote those who had delivered up copies of the sacred Scriptures, church records, or any other property of the church. These were chargeable with different degrees of guilt according to the nature of their offence. They who had been guilty of murder and adultery were sometimes included under this class.

Cyprian, Epist. 52, 31.

Cyprian, Epist. 55, 67: Pfanner, Observat. eccl. P. 1. Obs. 3.

Augustin. De Baptism, contr. Donatist. lib. vii. c. 2: Concil. Arelat. i. c. 13.

Nos, in quantum nobis et videre et judicare conceditur, faciem singulorum videmus, cor scrutari et mentem perspicere non possumus. De his judical occultorum scrutator et cognitor cito venturus, et de arcanis cordis atque abdilis judicaturus. Obesse autem mali bonis non debent, sed magis mali a bonis adjuvari. Id Ep. 55. – Qua ex causa necessario apud nos fit, ut per singulos annos seniores et praepositi in unum conveniaraus ad disponen da ea, quae curae nostrae coramissa sunt, ut si qua graviora sunt, cotnmuni consilio dirigantur, lapsis quoque fratribus, et post lavacrum salutare a Diabolo vulneratis per poenitentiam medela quaeratur: non quasi a nobis remissionem peccatorurn consequantur, sed ut per nos ad intelligentiam delictornm stiorum convertantur, et Domino plenius satisfacere cogantur. – Fiimilian, Ep. ad Cyprian., Ep. Cypr. 75.


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