Friday, October 15, 2010

Is the Sacrament of Confession Biblical?

And, What Did the Early Church Fathers Teach About It?

Over at Father Tim Moyle's blog, we have been having this dialogue with Small Town Guy about the sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession/Penance.

Hence, I wrote an article yesterday about the reading from Galations that was part of the mass readings for the day here.

But, it is a worthy question whether the sacrament of Reconciliation is in fact biblical.  However, once again, we have to muddle through the Reformers point of view (pick one) from interpretations of scripture that began in the 16th century.  It is tiresome to have to battle against scriptural interpretations that are new (ie. 500 years old), instead of the beliefs from the beginning of Christianity.

So, let me present to you a perspective that describes that we Catholic Christians believe the sacrament of reconciliation to have been created by Christ and to be supported by the bible.

Bella Online has a writer, Melissa Knoblett-Aman who has admirably brought together some of the Church teaching on the topic.  I say some, since this is no picayune matter, and there are reams of Catholic data available (none of which was written by that fundamentalist apologist Loraine Boettner - may he rest in peace).

No need to rewrite it, here are her words:

Some ask why Catholics confess to a priest rather than just going straight to God. Some claim that confessing to a priest is not biblical. But that is not true.

We confess to a priest because that is the way Jesus instigated the sacrament. It is at his command that we confess to one another. When we sin against the Father our sins also affect our Christian family. Confessing sins to a priest is something that was a universal practice and never debated in the Early Church. (See the supplement Early Church Fathers - On Confession for some quotes.)

Jesus himself was able to heal not only the physically sick, but the spiritually sick as well. Christ had the power to forgive sins (see Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:5-12).

He passed on that power to forgive sins in his name to his Apostles.

"Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father." (Matthew 18:18-19)

"Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I sent you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (John 20:21-23)

Jesus entrusted his Church with the power of forgiving sins through this most wonderful sacrament. The priest is simply the one who acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) in the confessional, but it is our Lord who forgives our sins. The priest grants absolution (sets us free from our sins) using the power Jesus entrusted to his Church. It is through Christ, however, that our sins are forgiven.

St. Paul tells us, "And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us." (2 Corinthians 5: 18-20)

Does this mean that we shouldn’t speak and pray directly to God and express sorrow for our sins? Not at all! In fact for daily faults that is exactly what we should be doing. But for more serious offenses, for grave and mortal sins, we must repent and confess through the Sacrament of Reconciliation because that is what Christ commands us to do.
STG, when presented with links to the above, initially ignored them and went on to say: "Loraine Boettner mentions in his book that not a word is found in the writings of early church fathers about confessing sins to a priest or anyone except God alone. Confessing to priests or men is not mentioned in the writings of Augustine, Origen, Nestorius, Tertullian, Jerome, Chrysostom, or Athanasius. All of these men apparently spent their lives without ever thinking of going to confession." 

But, he was wrong with his list, not by a little bit, but sufficiently enough to call anything that Loraine Boettner had to say about the Catholic Church into question.  It was not difficult to find what the men who Boettner said did not speak about Confession, did actually say about the sacrament.  Unlike Boettner, I have a lap top computer and access to Google.  Several of the quotes that follow come from a well researched article here.

Here, for example is what Augustine said specifically about 400 AD:

  Wherefore God gives the sacrament of grace even through the hands of wicked men, but the grace itself only by Himself or through His saints. And therefore He gives remission of sins either of Himself, or through the members of that dove to whom He says, "Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained." NPNF1, vol. 4, p. 474.
In 416, Augustine wrote further on the topic in "On the Gospel of John":

  "As the Father hath sent me," He adds, "even so send I you." We know the Son to be equal to the Father; but here we recognize the words of the Mediator. For He exhibits Himself as occupying a middle position when He says, He me, and I you. "And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost." By breathing on them He signified that the Holy Spirit was the Spirit, not of the Father alone, but likewise His own. ""Whose so-ever sins," He continues, "ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever ye retain, they are retained."The Church's love, which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, discharges the sins of all who are partakers with itself, but retains the sins of those who have no participation therein. Therefore it is, that after saying "Receive ye the Holy Ghost," He straightway added this regarding the remission and retention of sins. NPNF1, vol. 7, p. 438.
As for Origen, in his Homilies on Leviticus, in 244 AD, he wrote:

In addition to these there is also a seventh, albeit hard and laborious: the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner washes his pillow in tears, when his tears are day and night his nourishment, when he does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, and after the manner of him who says, “I said, ‘To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity, and you forgave the disloyalty of my heart.” In this way there is fulfilled that too, which the Apostle James says:   “If, then, there is anyone sick, let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them impose hands upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him. Jurgens, Vol. 1, #493, p. 207.
Since most of what we know about Nestorius is due to a time of heresy in his life, what he really ended up believing and originally believed about Reconciliation is not as readily available, not that it matters.

Tertullian was in the end a heretic, and did not believe in the sacrament of Reconciliation for all sins, believing that murder, adultery and apostasy were too evil to be healed by Confession.  But, he did say some things that supported the sacrament of Reconciliation here.

And, Saint Jerome has things to say as well about Confession in 398 AD:

Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop and presbyter binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who loosed. Jurgens, vol. 2, p. 202
Boettner was once again wrong about St. John Chrystostum as we find here in his (St. John's, not Boettner's) book "On the Priesthood", written in 386 AD:

For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw nigh to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven." They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. NPNF1, vol. 9, p. 47.
The last of Boettner's list of Church leaders was Athanasius, and he had this to day about Confession which comes from a reference on the EWTN site here:
"As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ."

Here is an additional smattering of writings from the early Church about the sacrament of Reconciliation, again quoting Melissa Knoblett-Aman:
Confessing sins to a priest is something that was a universal practice and never debated in the Early Church. Below are several quotes from the Early Church Fathers confirming that the basics of this most powerful sacrament have always been part of the Church.

The Didache
"Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . On the Lord's Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure." (Didache 4:14,14:1 -- A.D.70)

The Letter of Barnabas
"You shall judge righteously. You shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify those that contend by bringing them together. You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light." (Letter of Barnabas 19 -- A.D. 74)

Ignatius of Antioch
"For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ." (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 -- A.D. 110)

"For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop." (ibid. 8)

Origen
"[A filial method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, "I said, to the Lord, I will accuse myself of my iniquity." " (Homilies in Leviticus 2:4 -- A.D. 248)

Basil the Great
"It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles." (Rules Briefly Treated 288 -- A.D. 374)

John Chrysostom
"Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed." Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding: but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? "Whose sins you shall forgive," he says, "they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21-23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven." (The Priesthood 3:5 -- A.D. 387)

Ambrose of Milan
"For those to whom [the right of binding and loosing] has been given, it is plain that either both are allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to priests only." (Penance 1:1 -- A.D. 388)
It seems that Boettner as a resource on Catholic teaching should be ignored, particularly when the facts are available.  The truth, and the truth alone will set us free.

1 comment:

cory said...

Hello. I keep seeing this quote from Ambrose, but when I look at Penance 1:1, I can't find this anywhere?

Instead I read this. "If the highest end of virtue is that which aims at the advancement of most, gentleness is the most lovely of all, which does not hurt even those whom it condemns, and usually renders those whom it condemns worthy of absolution. Moreover, it is the only virtue which has led to the increase of the Church which the Lord sought at the price of His own Blood, imitating the lovingkindness of heaven, and aiming at the redemption of all, seeks this end with a gentleness which the ears of men can endure, in presence of which their hearts do not sink, nor their spirits quail."

Wondering where you got your source from? Thanks.