Discipline: Confession of Sins


In accordance with the increase of polemic zeal and the decrease of moral earnestness, the tendency of the age was to sharpen the penalties against heresy, and to lessen those against immorality. In some cases the rigor of earlier canons was formally modified. Thus the council of Nicæa set forth the principle that every penitent, whatever his crime, might be admitted to communion in the dying hour, provided he had given previously a suitable exhibition of contrition. [Canon 13.] There was a general endeavor to proportion the period of penance to the guilt of the penitent. According to the scheme of Basil, based on the preceding legislation of the Church, the period of penance for apostates was to be life-long; for murder, twenty years; for adultery or violation of the vow of virginity, fifteen years; for perjury or robbing of graves, ten years; for communicating with diviners, six years; for theft, when not confessed two years, when confessed one year. [Epist., ccxvii.] In practice, the differing tempers of church officials had much to do with the degree of severity employed. Not a few were inclined to laxity, especially in dealing with culprits of rank. This unworthy concession was strongly denounced by Chrysostom, as appears from his exhortation to those administering the communion. "Though a captain," says he, "or a governor, nay, even one adorned with the imperial crown, approach unworthily, prevent him: you have greater authority than he. Fear God, not man. If you fear man, he will treat you with scorn; if you fear God, you will appear venerable even to men." [Hom. in Matt., lxxxii.]

As respects confession, two points should be considered; namely, the ground of its importance, as commonly apprehended, and the extent to which it was formally prescribed. As the whole tenor of reference to the subject indicates, the need of confession (to bishop or priest) was an inference from the necessity of penance. According to a notion quite thoroughly developed in the preceding period, sins committed after baptism are not easily forgiven: a special atonement must be made for them; a penance proportionate to the transgression must be fulfilled. As the priests were the proper advisers in respect to penance, there was a standing occasion for those who were conscious of misdeeds to open to them the nature of their offences. This was the motive for the confession of secret sins. The penitent came not to a judge for a sentence of absolution, but to a spiritual director to be see upon the path of a proper atonement. The absolution came at the end of the atonement, or penance, and then was not a judicial sentence, except so far as concerns the penitent's relation to the Church; as respects his relation to God, it was of the nature of a benediction or prayer. Augustine indicates this sense when he says, "The laying on of hands in reconciliation to the Church is not, like baptism, incapable of repetition; for what is it more than a prayer offered over a man?" [De Bap. cont. Donat., iii. 16. Compare the following from Leo the Great Epist., clxviii.: "Sufficit illa confessio quæ primum Deo offertur, tum etiam sacerdoti, qui pro delictis pœnitentium precator accedit."]

In considering the extent to which there was a formal requirement of confession, the following specifications are pertinent: (1) There was no rule requiring all Christians to confess at recurring intervals. "In this period," says Neander, "there was no law requiring confession of sins before the priest at a stated time. Either the bishop excluded from the fellowship of the Church those whose sins had become sufficiently known, and allowed their restoration only on condition of submission to the discipline ordained by him and accommodated to the case; or they voluntarily confessed their sins to the bishop, thus giving him a token of their penitence, which worked to the softening of the penance imposed." [Kirchengeschichte, iii. 266.] (2) Very largely, participation in the eucharist was left to the conscience of the individual, and he was not required to confess as a condition of participation. On this subject we have information from Socrates and Sozomen. The former says, "When the Novatians separated themselves from the Church because they would not communicate with those who had lapsed during the persecution under Decius, the bishops added to the ecclesiastical canon a presbyter whose duty it should be to receive the confession of penitents who had sinned after baptism. And this mode of discipline is still maintained, among other heretical institutions, by all the rest of the sects; the Homoousians [Orthodox Trinitarians] only, together with the Novatians who hold the same doctrinal views, having rejected it. The latter, indeed, would never admit its establishment; and the Homoousians, who are now in the possession of the churches, after retaining the function for a considerable period, abrogated it in the time of Nectarius, in consequence of what occurred in the church of Constantinople [namely, a, scandal respecting a woman of noble family]. When, in consequence of this, ecclesiastics were subjected to taunting and reproach, Eudæmon, a presbyter of the church, persuaded Nectarius the bishop to abolish the office of penitentiary presbyter, and to leave every one to his own conscience with regard to the participation of the sacred mysteries." Hist Eccl., v. 19. According to Sozomen, the act of Nectarius, in abrogating the office of peniteritiary presbyter, was followed generally by the bishops of the East; and he adds language which indicates that, for a time at least, there was a general absence of confession in any form. "From that period," he says, "the performance of penance fell into disuse; and it seems to me that extreme laxity of principle was substituted for the severity and rigor of antiquity. Under the ancient system, I think, offences were of rarer occurrence for people were deterred from their commission by the dread of confessing them, and exposing them to the scrutiny of a severe judge." [Hist. Eccl.,vii. 16.] A state of things in which "the scrutiny of a severe judge" was no longer encountered, implies, of course, an extensive remission of confession, whether private or public. But this liberty could not well continue a great length of time. The prevailing notions respecting the necessity of satisfaction for sins committed after baptism, and the growing emphasis upon priestly rank and mediation, could hardly fail to bring in the complete machinery of the confessional as known in later times.