Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Home - Articles - Church History - Catholic Morals - Prayers - Prayers Answered - Saints Children's Bible - History

The Penitential Discipline

In baptism the convert received remission of all former sins, and, what
was equivalent, admission to the Church. If he sinned gravely after
baptism, could he again obtain remission? In the first age of the Church
the practice as to this question inclined toward rigorism, and the man who
sinned after baptism was in many places permanently excluded from the
Church (cf. Heb. 10:26, 27), or the community of those whose sins had
been forgiven and were certain of heaven. By the middle of the second
century the practice at Rome tended toward permitting one readmission
after suitable penance (a). After this the penitential discipline
developed rapidly and became an important part of the business of the
local congregation (b). The sinner, by a long course of
self-mortification and prayer, obtained the desired readmission (c). The
Montanists, however, in accord with their general rigorism, would make it
extremely hard, if not impossible, to obtain readmission or forgiveness.
The body of the Church, and certainly the Roman church under the lead of
its bishop, who relied upon Matt. 16:18, adopted a more liberal policy and
granted forgiveness on relatively easy terms to even the worst offenders
(d). The discipline grew less severe, because martyrs or confessors,
according to Matt. 10:20, were regarded as having the Spirit, and
therefore competent to speak for God and announce the divine forgiveness.
These were accustomed to give "letters of peace," which were commonly
regarded as sufficient to procure the immediate readmission of the
offender (e), a practice which led to great abuse. One of the effects of
the development of the penitential discipline was the establishment of a
distinction between mortal and venial sins (f), the former of which
were, in general, acts involving unchastity, shedding of blood, and
apostasy, according to the current interpretation of Acts 15:29.

(a) Hermas, Pastor, Man. IV, 3:1.

For Hermas and the Pastor, v. supra, 15.

I heard some teachers maintain, sir, that there is no other repentance
than that which takes place when we descend into the waters and receive
remission of our former sins. He said to me, That was sound doctrine which
you heard; for that is really the case. For he who has received remission
of his sins ought not to sin any more, but to live in purity. The Lord,
therefore, being merciful, has had mercy on the work of His hands, and has
set repentance for them; and He has intrusted to me the power over this
repentance. And therefore I say unto you that if any one is tempted by the
devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has
called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but
once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such
a man his repentance will be of no avail, for with difficulty will he

(b) Tertullian. Apology, 39. (MSL, 1:532.)

We meet together as an assembly and congregation that, offering up prayer
to God, with united force we may wrestle with Him in our prayers. In the
same place, also, exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are
administered. For with a great gravity is the work of judging carried on
among us, as befits those who feel assured that they are in the sight of
God; and you have the most notable example of judgment to come when any
one has so sinned as to be severed from common union with us in prayer, in
the congregation, and in all sacred intercourse.

(c) Tertullian, De Poenitentia, 4, 9. (MSL, 2:1343, 1354.)

According to Bardenhewer, 50:5, this work belongs to the
Catholic period of Tertullian's literary activity. Text in part in
Kirch, nn. 175 ff.

Ch. 4. As I live, saith the Lord, I prefer penance rather than death
[cf. Ezek. 33:11]. Repentance, then, is life, since it is preferred to
death. That repentance, O sinner like myself (nay, rather, less a sinner
than myself, for I acknowledge my pre-eminence in sins), do you hasten to
embrace as a shipwrecked man embraces the protection of some plank. This
will draw you forth when sunk in the waves of sin, and it will bear you
forward into the port of divine clemency.

Ch. 9. The narrower the sphere of action of this, the second and only
remaining repentance, the more laborious is its probation; that it may not
be exhibited in the conscience alone, but may likewise be performed in
some act. This act, which is more usually expressed and commonly spoken of
under the Greek name, exomologesis, whereby we confess our sins to the
Lord, not indeed to Him as ignorant of them, but inasmuch as by confession
a satisfaction is made; of confession repentance is born; by repentance
God is appeased. And thus exomologesis is a discipline for man's
prostration and humiliation, enjoining a demeanor calculated to move
mercy. With regard, also, to the very dress and food, it commands one to
lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover the body as in mourning, to lay the
spirit low in sorrow, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he
has committed; furthermore, to permit as food and drink only what is
plain--not for the stomach's sake, but for the soul's; for the most part,
however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep, and make outcries
unto the Lord our God; to fall prostrate before the presbyters and to
kneel to God's dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors
to bear his deprecatory supplication before God. All this exomologesis
does, that it may enhance repentance, that it may honor the Lord by fear
of danger, may, by itself, in pronouncing against the sinner stand in
place of God's indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say
frustrate, but rather) expunge eternal punishments.

(d) Tertullian, De Pudicitia, 1, 21, 22. (MSL, 2:1032, 1078.)

Callistus, to whom reference is made in the first chapter, was
bishop of Rome 217 to 222. The work, therefore, belongs to the
latest period of Tertullian's life.

Ch. 1. I hear that there has been an edict set forth, and, indeed, a
peremptory one; namely, that the Pontifex Maximus, the bishop of bishops,
issues an edict: "I remit to such as have performed penance, the sins both
of adultery and fornication."

Ch. 21. "But," you say, "the Church has the power of forgiving sins." This
I acknowledge and adjudge more, I, who have the Paraclete himself in the
person of the new prophets, saying: "The Church has the power to forgive
sins, but I will not do it, lest they commit still others." I now inquire
into your opinion, to discover from what source you usurp this power to
the Church.

If, because the Lord said to Peter, "Upon this rock I will build My Church
[Matt. 16:18]. To Thee I have given the keys of the kingdom of heaven,"
or "Whatsoever thou shalt bind or loose on earth, shall be bound or loosed
in heaven," you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing
has descended to you, that is, to every church akin to Peter; what sort of
man, then, are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention
of the Lord, who conferred the gift personally upon Peter? "On Thee," He
says, "I will build my Church," and "I will give thee the keys," not to
the Church; and "whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound," not what
they shall have loosed or bound. For so the result actually teaches. In
him (Peter) the Church was reared, that is, through him (Peter) himself;
he himself tried the key; you see what key: "Men of Israel, let what I say
sink into your ears; Jesus, the Nazarene, a man appointed of God for
you,"(65) and so forth. Peter himself, therefore, was the first to unbar,
in Christ's baptism, the entrance to the kingdom of heaven, in which are
loosed the sins that aforetime were bound.

What, now, has this to do with the Church and your Church, indeed, O
Psychic? For in accordance with the person of Peter, it is to spiritual
men that this power will correspondingly belong, either to an Apostle or
else to a prophet. And accordingly the "Church," it is true, will forgive
sins; but it will be the Church of the Spirit, by a spiritual man; not the
Church which consists of a number of bishops.

Ch. 22. But you go so far as to lavish this power upon martyrs indeed; so
that no sooner has any one, acting on a preconceived arrangement, put on
soft bonds in the nominal custody now in vogue, than adulterers beset him,
fornicators gain access to him; instantly prayers resound about him;
instantly pools of tears of the polluted surround him; nor are there any
who are more diligent in purchasing entrance to the prison than they who
have lost the fellowship of the Church. Whatever authority, whatever
reason, restores ecclesiastical peace to the adulterer and the fornicator,
the same will be bound to come to the aid of the murderer and the idolater
in their repentance.

(e) Tertullian, Ad Martyres, 1. (MSL, 1:693.)

The following extract from Tertullian's little work addressed to
martyrs in prison, written about 197, shows that in his earlier
life as a Catholic Christian he did not disapprove of the practice
of giving libelli pacis by the confessors, a custom which in his
more rigoristic period under the influence of Montanism he
denounced most vehemently; see preceding extract from De
Pudicitia, ch. 22. The reference to some discord among the
martyrs is not elsewhere explained. For libelli pacis, see
Cyprian, Ep. 10 (=Ep. 15), 22 (=21).

O blessed ones, grieve not the Holy Spirit, who has entered with you into
the prison; for if He had not gone with you there, you would not be there
to-day. Therefore endeavor to cause Him to remain with you there; so that
He may lead you thence to the Lord. The prison, truly, is the devil's
house as well, wherein he keeps his family. Let him not be successful in
his own kingdom by setting you at variance with one another, but let him
find you armed and fortified with concord; for your peace is war with him.
Some, not able to find peace in the Church, have been accustomed to seek
it from the imprisoned martyrs. Therefore you ought to have it dwelling
with you, and to cherish it and guard it, that you may be able, perchance,
to bestow it upon others.

(f) Tertullian, De Pudicitia, 19. (MSL, 2:1073.)

The distinction between mortal and venial sins became of great
importance in the administration of penance and remained as a
feature of ecclesiastical discipline from the time of Tertullian.
The origin of the distinction was still earlier. See above, an
extract from the same work.

We ourselves do not forget the distinction between sins, which was the
starting-point of our discussion. And this, too, for John has sanctioned
it [cf. I John 5:16], because there are some sins of daily committal to
which we are all liable; for who is free from the accident of being angry
unjustly and after sunset; or even of using bodily violence; or easily
speaking evil; or rashly swearing; or forfeiting his plighted word; or
lying from bashfulness or necessity? In business, in official duties, in
trade, in food, in sight, in hearing, by how great temptations are we
assailed! So that if there were no pardon for such simple sins as these,
salvation would be unattainable by any. Of these, then, there will be
pardon through the successful Intercessor with the Father, Christ. But
there are other sins wholly different from these, graver and more
destructive, such as are incapable of pardon--murder, idolatry, fraud,
apostasy, blasphemy, and, of course, adultery and fornication and whatever
other violation of the temple of God there may be. For these Christ will
no more be the successful Intercessor; these will not at all be committed
by any one who has been born of God, for he will cease to be the son of
God if he commit them.

Next: The Catechetical School Of Alexa

Previous: Later Montanism And The Conseque

Add to Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network