Sinners in the Early Centuries

Towards the end of the first century Clement of Rome was shocked at divisions and 'sedition against the presbyters' among the Christians of Corinth. He begged them: 'Let us then quickly put an end to this [state of affairs]; and let us fall down before the Master and beseech him with tears that he may have mercy on us, be reconciled to us, and restore us to our seemly and holy practice of brotherly love' (Epistle to the Corinthians, 47—8). Around the same time another Christian writer exhorted the faithful to repent of and confess their sins before celebrating the Eucharist: 'On the Lord's own day [Sunday] gather together, break bread, and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure' (Didache, 14. 1). A few decades later Hermas, in his third vision, pictures the Church as a tower. Some building stones have been rejected and thrown away, but they can still be incorporated into the structure. These stones symbolize sinful Christians who can still repent and rejoin the Church: 'Those then who are to repent—if they do repent—will be strong in faith, if they now repent while the tower is being built' (Shepherd, 3. 5. 5).

Early Christians distinguished between lesser, daily sins and death-dealing sins. Daily sins could be forgiven through prayer (in particular, through the Lord's Prayer), fasting, works of mercy, and the eucharistic celebration. Such death-dealing or serious sins as apostasy from the Christian faith called for a process of reconciliation. In the third century the sacrament of penance as reconciliation with and through the liturgical assembly emerged for the first time in a recognizable form. Christians publicly acknowledged their sins (confession) and were temporarily excommunicated or kept apart from community worship for a period of penance (involving plain food and squalid clothing), contrite prayer, and almsgiving—a process called 'satisfaction' by the Carthaginian Tertullian (De Poenitentia, 9). The penitents confessed God's mercy and asked prayers from other members of the community, and particularly from the widows and presbyters who were considered to be people especially dedicated to God. Reconciliation essentially involved the whole community praying for the penitents' conversion and renewed life.

When the bishop judged the repentance adequate, he summoned the sinners and restored them to full communion through the imposition of his hands (absolution). Recalling the original forgiveness of sins in baptism, Tertullian named postbaptismal forgiveness 'the second penitence'. But it could be received 'only once'; there could not be a second 'second time' (ibid. 7). After having initially accepted that all sins could be forgiven, Tertullian became fiercely rigorous, turned to Montanism (see Ch. 1), and towards the end of his life argued that some sins are 'too serious and ruinous to receive pardon': 'murder, idolatry, fraud, denial [of Christ], blasphemy.adultery, and fornication' (De Pudicitia, 19). With reference to 'the power of binding and loosing' given by Jesus to Peter, Tertullian denied that such power referred to the seven 'capital sins' he had listed; such 'sins against God are not to be remitted' (ibid. 21). He ridiculed a contemporary 'Supreme Pontiff' or bishop of Rome for presuming to absolve the sins of adultery and fornication. Such mockery on the part of Tertullian provided, however, a vivid picture of what might happen during the period of 'satisfaction', when penitents prostrated themselves and asked for the prayers of widows and presbyters:

You bring the penitent adulterer into the church to beg for readmission into the brotherhood.He is in a hair shirt, covered in ashes, in a condition of shame and trembling: you make him prostrate himself in public before the widows, before the presbyters, seizing the hem of their garments, licking their footprints, catching hold of them by their knees; and for this man you use all your aids to compassion, and you preach like the 'good shepherd' and 'blessed Papa' that you are. (ibid. 13)

Tertullian's younger contemporary, Origen of Alexandria, showed a similarly rigorous attitude in distinguishing between sins for which presbyters 'should offer sacrifice' and sins that 'admitted of no sacrifice'. He dismissed as not being 'fully versed in priestly knowledge' those presbyters or bishops who prayed for grave sinners and forgave the deadly sins of idolatry, adultery, and fornication. Origen justified his rigorism with an appeal to the teaching about 'deadly' sins in 1 John 5: 11 (see above).

The anonymous author of an early third-century work on Church order from Northern Syria, the Didascalia Apostolorum, was, however, more compassionate about receiving sinners back into eucharistic fellowship. The writer, who was probably a physician converted to Christianity from

Judaism, encouraged bishops to remember their duty to 'give absolution to the penitent', even in cases of idolatry. With the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishops were to say: 'The Lord also has forgiven your sin; be of good cheer; you shall not die' (2. 18; see 2. 23).

We saw earlier in this chapter how the persecution of Christians by Decius (emperor 249—51) and others led to important clarifications about baptism, in particular baptism administered 'outside the Church'. Decius decreed that every household must have a notarized certificate attesting to the father's offering sacrifice to the gods of Rome. During this persecution in the mid-third century some Christians denied their faith by publicly worshipping the old Roman gods, others by producing false certification that they had done so, and others again by surrendering to government agents their sacred books. In the Church of Carthage the last two groups were readmitted to communion, after repentance and suitable satisfaction, but the public apostates were obliged to undergo lifelong penance and could be readmitted to fellowship only on their deathbed.

Fourth-century Christianity began with the Council of Nicaea (325) insisting on the authority of the Church to reconcile great sinners, even those who had lapsed under the Great Persecution which had broken out in AD 303 (DH 127; ND 1601). From an expanding Christian Church, which now enjoyed the freedom granted by the Emperor Constantine, we have abundant information about the administration of penance for the baptized who fell into serious sin. Previously 'confessors' or those who had suffered for having confessed their faith but without being killed, as living martyrs and representatives of Christ's forgiving love, had reconciled sinners on their own authority. The end of the persecutions and the death of the last confessors brought the forgiveness of grave sins more fully under the bishops' control.

Sinners acknowledged their guilt before an assembly of Christians presided over by the bishop and were enrolled in the order of penitents. Canon 11 of Nicaea prescribed that those who had denied the faith should spend three years among the 'hearers' or those who listened to the readings at the liturgy. Through the Word and prayers for them, the penitents were gradually reconverted. Next they had to face six years as 'prostrators' or those who heard the readings and homily, prostrated themselves in front of the celebrant, and were then dismissed with a blessing. The time and forms of penitential practices, now commonly called 'satisfaction', varied according to the gravity of the sins committed; bishops could lessen the severity of the penance. In any case the whole period of conversion was regarded as an opportunity to grow in renewed faith rather than as a punishment. The process ended with the bishop reconciling the sinners on Holy Thursday and readmitting them to the eucharistic table. This act of reconciliation was available only once in a lifetime—an ancient principle endorsed by Hermas, as we saw above. On account of this once-only reconciliation, sinners under the age of 35 were normally not admitted into the order of penitents; they could too easily go through the whole process of reconciliation but relapse later into serious sin. To sum up the picture from the fourth-century administration of penance: it was a public, communal action of reconciliation that led to a lasting change of heart, involved the whole community, and was presided over by the bishop.173

Preaching around AD 408, Augustine put the public reception of penance into a fuller context by distinguishing three kinds of reconciliation with God through the Church: the remission of all previous sins through baptism; the daily remission through prayer and fasting of 'light and small' sins; the formal remission of 'serious and deadly' sins granted through public penance but only once in a lifetime (Sermo 278). But before Augustine died in 430, changes were already coming in the administration of penance. No longer was such administration totally public and necessarily limited to bishops alone. At some point in the fifth century or perhaps earlier, in central Italy presbyters were delegated to be ministers of the sacrament, which now required a certain secrecy. Leo the Great objected to a 'public confession of sins in kind and number being read' from a written list: 'it is enough that the guilt of conscience be revealed to priests alone in secret confession' (DH 323; ND 1606).

173 Written later in the fourth century, the three 'Canonical Letters' from Basil of Caesarea to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, give detailed regulations for penitential discipline. Someone who has committed murder and repented was to be excommunicated for twenty years: 'For four years he must weep, standing outside the door of the house of prayer, beseeching the faithful as they enter to pray for him, and confessing his sin. After four years he will be admitted among the "hearers" and for four years he will leave [the assembly] with them. For seven years he will leave with the "kneelers" (i.e. the prostrators). For four years he will merely stand with the faithful, not partaking of the offering. On the completion he will be admitted to partake of the sacrament.' Adulterers received fifteen years, to be divided as above into two, five, four, and two years; fornicators were let off with seven years, to be divided into two, two, two, and one years. Those who had denied Christ and repented had to spend the rest of their life in penitence, and could receive the Eucharist only at the time of death (Epistola 217, canons 56, 58, 73).

Two factors within the Church contributed to the breakdown of the administration of penance that had flourished after Nicaea I: the vastly increased numbers of Christians and the development of restrictions in the post-reconciliation life of penitents. They could not hold office in the community, they had to live with their spouse as brother and sister, and so forth. Add too the disruption caused by the barbarian invasions. As we saw in Ch. 1, between 410 and 455 invading forces had put Rome itself under siege eight times, occupied the city six times, and sacked it twice (in 410 and 455).

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