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7. Private Penance

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

7. Private Penance. 

"Properly speaking, public penance is such as relates to notorious offences, and is performed only before the church; private penance relates to sins confessed only to a priest, for which satisfaction is privately performed. It is private penance, thus closely connected with the practice of auricular confession, which has been exalted to the rank of a sacrament in the church of Rome.

No precedent or other authority in favor of this practice can be found in the New Testament. James, (5:16,) relates to a mutual confession of sins; and demands no more confession of the people to a priest, than of a priest to the people. Roman Catholic writers, abandoning this passage, contend, however, that auricular confession is founded upon Scripture, inasmuch as it is a natural and necessary accompaniment of the power of forgiving sins, which they suppose to have been vested in the apostles, Matt. 18:18, Matt. 16:19, John 20:23. Such is the position maintained by the council of Trent, (Sess. xiv. c. 3–6); the unsoundness of which has been, however, abundantly proved.

"The more acute and judicious controversialists on the Romish side betake themselves to the authority of the fathers in this matter; claiming Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tenullian, and others, as bearing witness to the existence of private confession in their days. Bui it is found, upon examination, that the *, or confessio, to which they allude, is quite another thing, – such, in fact, as has been already described; a point which is fully conceded by a celebrated Roman Catholic antiquarian, Gabriel Albaspinaeus. (Ohserval. Eccl. lib. ii. c. 26.) The truth is, that the ancient writers speak of * only in the sense of confession of sin to Almighty God, or as denoting public penance; the whole exercise in the latter case, being denominated from its introductory part. Concerning the former kind of confession, the fathers teach expressly that it is to be made only to God, and not by any means to man whether the whole church or individual ministers, Basil. M. in Ps. 37:8. Chrysost. Horn. 31 in Ep. ad Hehr. It is wholly unconnected with anything in the shape of satisfaction or penalty; its only necessary accompaniment being repentance or contrition, with purpose of amendment. The other kind of confession related, as has been already explained, to those open or notorious offences, on account of which a member of the church had been excluded from her communion; and it was required as a preparatory step in order to a restoration to ecclesiastical privileges. And together with this, we may rank the public confession of previous sins which was required as one of the preliminaries of baptism; allusion to which is made by some of the earliest ecclesiastical writers.

"During the Decian persecution, the number of penitents being very large, the bishop deemed it expedient to appoint certain presbyters to the especial office of receiving their confessions preparatory to public penance; it having been already recommended, as a wholesome practice, that persons suffering under any perplexities of mind or troubles of conscience, should have recourse to some wise and skilful pastor for their guidance and satisfaction. The establishment of this office of penitentiary presbyters is related by Socrates, Hist. Eccl. lib. v. c. 19, and Sozomen Hist. Eccl. vii. 16; from whom we learn also that it was never admitted by the Novatians; that it was abolished at Constantinople, by Nectorius the bishop, in the reign of Theodosius; and that this example was followed by almost all the bishops of the East, in whose churches the office was accordingly discontinued; but that it continued in use in the Western churches, and chiefly at Rome, to prepare men for the public penance of the church. The appointment of these penitentiary priests may be regarded as having led the way to the institution of confessors, in the modern acceptation of the term. But those officers were by no means identical, and ought not to be confounded with each other. The office of the penitentiary priests 'was not to receive private confessions in prejudice to the public discipline; much less to grant absolution privately upon bare confession before any penance was performed; which was a practice altogether unknown to the ancient church; – but it was to facilitate and promote the exercise of public discipline, by acquainting men what sins the laws of the church required to be expiated by public penance, and how they were to behave themselves in the performance of it; and only to appoint private penance for such private crimes as were no proper to be brought upon the public stage, either for fear of doing harm to the penitent himself, or giving scandal to the church.' Bingham, Antiq. b. xviii. c. 3, § 11. The confession of sins was indeed private; but it was destined to be made public in order to the performance of penance. The private or auricular confessio of later centuries is quite different from the confession made to those penitentiary presbyters. Confession was not made to them, with view of obtaining forgiveness from God; but in order to procure restoration to the former privileges of the offended church. It was considered indeed useful and necessary to seek for both kinds of forgiveness at the same time; but no christian minister claimed t power of pronouncing pardon in the name of God. See Schroeck Kirchensgeschichte, iv. 318–321.

"The regular establishment of the system of private confessi and absolution is usually ascribed to Leo the Great, who represented not merely any particular penitentiary priests, but every priest as possessing the power and authority to receive confession, to ad as an intercessor with God on behalf of the penitent, and to declare forgiveness of sins in the name of God. But even the system introduced by this pontiff differed from that which has prevailed since the thirteenth century in the Roman church, inasmuch as the confession of sins was left to every one's own conscience, and penano was still regarded as an entirely voluntary act, which no one could be compelled to perform; nor was the priest supposed to possess in himself any (delegated) power of forgiving sins. And subsequently to the age of Leo, it was considered as a matter quite at the option of an offender either to confess his sins to a priest, or to God alone."

Gabriel Albaspinaeus, Observat. Eccl. lib. ii. c. 26: Basil. M. in Ps. 37:8: Chrysost. Horn. xxxi. in Ep. ad Heb.: Socrat.. Hist. Eccl. lib. V. c. 19: Sozom. Hist. Eccl. vii. 16: Bingham, Antiq. bk. xviii. c. 3. §11: Schroeck, Kirchensgeschichte, iv. 318–321.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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