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2. The Origin of Penance

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

2. The Origin of Penance

Penance in the christian church is an imitation of the discipline of the Jewish synagogue; or rather, it is a continuation of the same institution. Excommunication in the christian church is essentially the same as expulsion from the synagogue of the Jews, and the penances of the offender, required for his restoration to his former condition, were not materially different in the Jewish and christian churches. The principal point of distinction consisted in this, that the sentence of excommunication affected the civil relations of the offender under the Jewish economy; but in the christian church, it affected only his relations to that body. Neither the spirit of the primitive institutions of the church, nor its situation, or constitution in the first three centuries, was at all compatible with the intermingling or confounding of civil and religious privileges or penalties.

The act of excommunication was at first an exclusion of the offender from the Lord's supper, and from the agapae. The term itself implies separation from the communion. The practice was derived from the injunction of the apostle, 1 Cor. 5:11. 'With such an one no not to eat' From the context, and from 1 Cor. 10:16–18, 11:20–34, it clearly appears that the apostle refers, not to common meals, and the ordinary intercourse of life, but to these religious festivals.

Examples of penitence or repentance occur in the Old Testament; neither are there wanting instances, not merely of individuals but of a whole city or people, performing certain acts of penance, – fasting, mourning, etc., Neh. 9 and Jon. 3. But these acts of humiliation were essentially different, in their relations to individuals, from christian penance.

We have, however, in the New Testament, an instance of the excommunication of an offending member, and of his restoration to the fellowship of the church by penance, agreeably to the authority of Paul, 1 Cor. 5:1–8, 2 Cor. 2:5–11. This sentence of exclusion from the church was pronounced by the assembled body and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. By this sentence, the offender was separated from the people of the Lord, with whom he had been joined by baptism, and was reduced to his former condition as a heathen man, subject to the power of Satan, and of evil spirits. This is perhaps the true import of delivering such an one up to Satan.

A similar act of excommunication is described briefly in 1 Cor. 16:22. "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema maranatha." The * corresponds, in sense, with the Hebrew **; and denotes a thing devoted to utter destruction. It is only the Syro-Chaldaic ** expressed in the Greek character, and means, "The Lord cometh." The whole sentence implies that the church leaves the subject of it to the Lord, who cometh to execute judgment upon him. All that the apostle requires of the Corinthians is, that they should exclude him from their communion and fellowship; so that he should no longer be regarded as one of their body. He pronounces no further judgment upon the offender, but leaves him to the judgment of God. "What have I to do to judge them that are without?" 5: 12, i.e. those who are not Christians, to which class the excommunicated person would belong. "Do not ye judge them that are within?" i.e. full members of the church. But them that are without God judgeth; or rather will judge * as the reading should be. It appears from 2 Cor. 2:1–11, that the church had not restored such to the privileges of communion, but were willing to do so; and that the apostle very gladly authorized the measure.

On these important passages it is worthy of remark:

  1. That the excommunication of the offender is, by the authority of the apostle, the act of the whole church.
  2. This exclusion is called a "punishment," *, but it is carefully distinguished from a civil penalty, and from a judicial punishment by God.
  3. No mention is made of any act of penance, either in kind or in duration, as the condition on which the excommunicated person was re-admitted to the church; but the silence of the apostle on this subject is not proof that such penance was not required. Especially is it worthy of remark that satisfactory evidence of sorrow, *, on the part of the transgressor, for the sin committed, was the condition of his restoration to the church.

The history of the primitive church for the first three centuries, is more full on the subject of ecclesiastical discipline, than on any other. The apostolical fathers very frequently treat of it, and not only speak of penitence as a moral quality, and as a religious duty, but they also treat of penance as a part of church discipline. Tertullian, especially, recognizes this distinction; and says, that penitence ought not only to be felt in the mind, but to be manifested by some external act, non sola conscientia proferatur, sed aliquo etiam aciu administretur. . 

The Shepherd of Hermas treats expressly of this subject. This work, according to the most approved opinion of the learned, is not indeed the production of that Hermas who is mentioned by the apostle, Rom. 16:14, but of some author of the second century. And yet it was held in such consideration by the early fathers as to be entitled to respect. Tertullian describes it as almost divine, fere scriptura; and as such, it was publicly read in connection with the Scriptures. The leading topic of this book is repentance and the forgiveness of sin. Mention is made of an angel of penitence, whose office it is to lead Christians, who have fallen into sin, to repentance, and to aid and strengthen them in this exercise. This angel teaches Hermas that true penitence is appropriately found in baptism; but that still opportunity for repentance is given to those who, after baptism, have been drawn into sin by the wiles of Satan, but this only once, Unam poenitentiam habet. It is, however, declared, that this repentance remains not to bold and presumptuous sinners, but only to those whose future repentance and reformation God had foreseen.  

Tertullian wrote an entire treatise on the subject of penitence, De Poenitentia, from which, and from many other passages in his writings, the conclusion is fairly derived that there was, in the second century, a complete system of discipline and penance extant in the church. This discipline he describes as consisting in exhortations, and censures, and tokens of divine displeasure. "For," he adds, "it is a consideration of great moment, that, if any one so offends as to be excluded from all intercourse, communion, and fellowship with the saints, it is seen and known of God, and deeply affects the offender in the future judgment." It is also worthy of consideration that the author guards against a thoughtless and presumptuous continuance in sin, by according to transgressors the grace of repentance bid once after baptism, and even this, he in another place denies to fornicators and adulterers.  

Cyprian of Carthage defends the same general principles, against the Novalians, who denied to the fallen christian professor the grace of God and the hope of eternal salvation, and accordingly refused him the benefit of penance and readmission to the church. His sentiments are fully developed in the note below, and in many of his writings.  

This system of church discipline existed at an early period in the Eastern churches, as well as in the Western. Clement of Alexandria teaches, from the Shepherd of Hermas, that penitence can be experienced but once after baptism; and that all subsequent appearance of repentance is not repentance. Origen appears to have entertained the same sentiments. Semel tantum, idque raro, penitentia concedebatur, was, according to Dupin, his doctrine. 

A prayer for penitents is given in the Apostolical Constitutions, which, together with the acts of several councils in the beginning of the fourth century, in connection with the foregoing testimonies, clearly prove the existence of an established system of church discipline as early as the second and third centuries. The prayer for the penitents, in the Apostolical Constitutions, is given in the note below. 

S. Flugge's Beytrag zur Gesch. der Rel. und Theol. Th. ii. 1798. 8. S. 3–248: J. Chr. Ernesti, De antiquo Excomraunicalionis ritu. Viteb. S. a. 4: Krause, De Lapsis primae ecclesiae. Lips. 1706. 4: Chr. F. Quell, De Exconnraunicationis origine inantiqua ecclesia. Lips. 1759. 4.
(No tag #1 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

De Peonltentia, c. 8.

D. Gratz, Disquisit. in Past. Hermas.

P. Ill, Simil. 6–8.

P. III. Siiriil. 6: Comp. Bellarmin, P. I. 1820. 4. p. 9: De Scriptor, eccl. p. 27.

Comp. Neander, Geist. des Tertullianus. Berlin, 1825. 8. p. 220.

Epist. 10, 13, 25, 46, 48, 54, etc.

Stromal, lib. ii. c. 13.

Biblioth. torn. i. p. 216: Vgl. pp. 350, 351.

Or if, as some suppose, these works were written by Tertullian after he became a Montanist, we must consider this as one of those points on which he was known to differ from the majority of that sect.

Ibidem etiam exhortationes, castigationes, et censura divina. Nam et judicatur magno cum pondere, utapud certos de Dei conspectu, sumraumque futuri judicii praejudicium est, si quis ita deliquerit, ut a communicatione orationis et conventus, et omnis sancti commercii, relegetur. – Tertull. Apologet. C.39. – Haec igitur venena ejus providens Deus, clausa hcet ignoscentiae janua,et intinctionis seraobstructa, aliquid adhucpermisit patere. Collocavit in vesWhnXo poenitentiam secundam, qyidie pulsantibus patefaciat: sed jam semely quia jam secundo, Sed amplius nunquam, quia proxime frustra. Non enim et hoc semel satis es? De poenit. c. 7. – Hujus igitur Poenitentiae secundae et unius, quanto in arto negotium est, tanto operosior probatio, ut non sola conscientia proferatur, sed aliquo etiam actu administretur. Is actus, qui magis vocabulo Graeco exprimitur et frequentatur, exomologesis (*) est, qua delictum Domino nostrum confitemur: non quidem ut ignaro, sed quatenus satisfactio confessione disponitur, confessione poenitentiae nascitur, poenitentia Deus mitigatur. Itaque exomologesis prostemandi et humilificandi hominis disciplina est, conversationem, injungens misericordiae illicem; de ipso quoque habitu atque victu mandat, sacco et cineri incubare, corpus sordibus obscurare, animum moeroribus dejicere, ilia, quae peccavit, tristi tractatione mutare. Ceterum pastum et potum pura nosse, non ventris scilicet, sed animae causa. Plerumque vero jejuniis preces alere, ingemiscere, lacrymari et mugire dies noctesque ad Dominum Deum tuum, presbyteris advolvi, et aris Dei adgeniculari, omnibus fratribus legationes deprecationis suae injungere, Haec omnia exomologesis, ut poenitentiam commendat, ut de periculi timore Dominum honoret, ut in peccatorem ipsa pronuntians pro Dei indignatione fungatur, et temporali afflictione aeterna supplicia, non dicam, frustetur, sed expungat. – Ibid. c. 9.

Ne igitur ore nostro, quo pacera negamus, quo duritiam magis humanae credulitatis, quam divinae et paternae pietatis opponimus, oves nobis commissae a Domino reposcantur: placuit nobis, Sancto Spiritu suggerentej et Domino per visiones multas et manifestas admonente, quia hostis imminere praenuntiatur et ostenditur, colligere intra castra milites Christi, exaniinatis singulorum causis, pacem lapsis dare, imo pugnaturis arma suggerere; quod credimu.s vobis quoque paternae misericordiae contemplatione placiturum. Quod si de collegis aliquis exstiterit, qui urgente certamine pacem fratribus et sororibus non putat dandum, reddet ille rationem in die judicii Domino, vel importunae censurae, vel inhumanae duritiae suae. – Cyprian, Ep. 54 ad Cornelium, de pace Lapsis danda.


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

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


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