SACRAMENT OF PENANCE IN THE EARLY CHURCH
1. Epistle of Pope St. Clement, probably c 95 AD: 51.3:
"For it is good for a person to confess his transgressions and
not to harden his heart."
COMMENT: This could mean only generally admitting faults, or a liturgical
2. Didache 14, perhaps between 100 and 150 AD:
"And on the Lord's own day, gather together and break bread and
give thanks, first confessing your transgressions that your
sacrifice may be pure."
COMMENT: Again this could have same sort of meaning as that of the Epistle
3. The Shepherd, by Hermas, brother of Pope St.Pius I, who ruled 140-150.
Mandate 4.3.1-6: Hermas says to the angel of Penance:
"I have heard, sir, from some teachers that there is no other
means of repentance than the one when we went down into the
water and obtained remission of our previous sins. He said to
me, you have heard rightly, for that is true. He who has
received remission of sin should never sin again, but live in
purity. But since you ask carefully about everything, I will
explain this too to you, not to give an excuse to those who in
the future will believe or to those who have already believed in
the Lord. For those who have already believed or are going to
believe have no means of repentance of sins, but have the
remission of their previous sins. For those who were called
before these days, the Lord appointed means of repentance, For
the Lord knows the heart and since He knows in advance
everything, He knew the weakness of man, and the cunning
craftiness of the devil,that he will do some evil to the
servants of God and will deal wickedly with them. The Lord then,
since He is full of compassion had mercy on His creatures, and
established this means of repentance. And to me was given power
over this means of repentance. But I tell you, he said, after
that great and solemn calling, if a man should be tempted by the
devil and sin, he has one means of repentance. But if he sins
repeatedly and repents, it does him no good, for scarcely shall
COMMENT: Most scholars think the passage is deliberately obscure, for
psychological reasons.It opens by saying there is only one means of
forgiveness, Baptism. But at once it adds that there is another, but not
all may use it. Implication is that repentance might not be real in many,
especially if they denied Christ in the Roman court, planning to use the
sacrament afterwards. Their repentance then would probably not be sincere -
it was preplanned, and there was no a real change of heart. But after long
and hard penance, there could be a change of heart. So,in Parable 9.16 we
read: "It is impossible for him to be saved who now denies His Lord, but
for those who denied Him long ago, repentance seems possible." Also, the
angel, speaks of one means - which could imply that the Sacrament of
Penance could be used only once in a lifetime. It says one should never sin
again -this is the Baptismal seal, which marks one as God's property, and
one should never break the seal. Yet we do see here,in spite of the
deliberate obscurity, that there was a Sacrament of Penance.
We use a regressive method: we go back to the first point at which a
doctrine is clear - earlier are only unclear statements. But since we know
that in the Patristic age any change in doctrine provoked a storm, if there
was no storm at the time of the first clear statement, we gather that the
teaching was around long before, even from the beginning. We know too that
the penetration by the Church into the deposit of revelation grows with
time: so we need not suppose everything was clear at the start, e.g.,the
case of the Immaculate Conception. This all stems from the promise a the
Last Supper, in John 16:13 that He would send the Holy Spirit to lead them
into all truth. It did not mean new revelations, but a deeper penetration.
4. Tertullian, "De Paenitentia" 4: (written 100-206 while not yet a
"For all sins, then, whether of the flesh or the spirit, whether
committed in act or [only] in will, He who destined punishment
by judgment, also promised pardon, though the door of
forgiveness and intinction [Baptism] has been closed and
fastened. He allowed something to yet be open, for He placed in
the vestibule a second penance, which is open to those who
knock, but now once, since it already the second time."
COMMENT: Here the Sacrament can be used not only for the big three,
apostasy, murder, adultery, but for all graver sins of flesh or spirit, and
even for sins committed only interiorly, not in action. But he says it can
be used only once. Yet, in 7.13 he at least hints the sacrament could be
used more than once: "Let it be irksome to sin again, but let it not be
irksome to repent again. Let it be irksome to be in danger again, but not
to be freed again." So his words seem to be psychological, like those of
5. Tertullian, "De pudicitia" (dated 213 to 223--he was then a heretical
18.3: "But if the clemency of God is open yet to those who are
ignorant [of Him] and infidels, surely also penitence invites
clemency to itself, that kind of penitence being still on hand
after believing [after Baptism] which can obtain pardon for the
[relatively] lesser faults, from the bishop, for greater and
unforgivable ones from God alone."
19.24-26: "For to whom does it not happen that he is unjustly
angry, and beyond the setting of the sun, or that he lays
violent hands [on someone] or that he easily curses or swears
rashly or violates the faith of a contract, or that he lies out
of shame or necessity, in businesses,in duties,in making money,
in manner of living,in looking, in hearing - what great
temptations! so that if there be no pardon for these things
salvation would be open to no one."
COMMENT: Tertullian thinks the great three cannot be forgiven by the
Church, but he lists many others which he thinks are mortal, since without
forgiveness there is no salvation,and pardon can be had for these,
apparently from the Bishop, who is mentioned specifically in 18.8. And in
the same work, in section 1, he [now a heretic] ridicules the "peremptory"
edict of the "Bishop of Bishops" who says he can remit the sins of adultery
and fornication. This may mean Pope Callistus - debated.
Tertullian, on Baptism 18.4:(between 100 and 206 AD):
"For no less reason the unmarried should put off [Baptism], for
in them there is an aptness to temptation--in virgins because of
their ripeness, as also in the widowed on account of their
freedom -until either they are married, or are made stronger for
continence.One who understands the seriousness of Baptism will
fear to receive it more than to defer it."
COMMENT: Extreme view of the baptismal seal, reflecting also the difficulty
of the sacrament of penance.
St. Cyprian, Epistle 10 (16) written in 250 to priests and deacons:
"Whereas in the case of lesser sins, sinners do penance for the
fixed time, and according to the order of discipline come to
confession, and through the imposition of the hands of bishop
and clergy receive the right of communion, now, while the unripe
time of persecution still lasts, when the peace of the Church
herself has not yet been restored, they are admitted to
communion, and offering is made in their name though penance has
not yet been done, nor confession made,and through the hand of
the bishop and clergy has not yet been imposed on them, the
Eucharist is given them.
St Cyprian, "On the Lapsed" [in persecution] 251 AD:
"Then how much greater and better the fear of those who though
bound by no guilt of sacrifice or certificate, yet, since they
have even thought of doing this, sorrowfully and simply
confessing this very thing before the priests of God, make their
confession of conscience."
COMMENT: This is the persecution of Decius, who ordered all to have a
certificate saying they had sacrificed. Some bought these, but then,
showing them, was a denial of Christ. Here Cyprian speaks of those who had
not done either thing, but only considered it, but yet came to confession
for the sin of thought.
Origen, "On Leviticus" 14. after 244 AD:
"There is always an opening for recovery when, for example, some
mortal guilt ["culpa mortalis"] has found us out that does not
consist in mortal crime ["crimen mortale"] like blaspheming the
faith, but in some vice of speech or habit.... Such guilt can
always be repaired, and penance is never denied for sins of this
kind. In the case of the graver crimes, only once is there given
place for penitence; but these common things, which we
frequently incur, always admit of penance, and without
intermission they are redeemed."
COMMENT: Origen speaks of mortal sins that are not mortal crimes, such as
blaspheming the faith. For ordinary mortal sins, he says, there is always
penance - for the crimes, only once. We must remember that technical terms,
such as mortal sin, had not yet become precise by his time.
Origen, "On Psalm 37.6. Homily 2.":
"Only look around very carefully to whom you should confess your
sin. First test the physician to whom you should explain the
cause of your sicknesses. If he understands and foresees that
such is your sickness that it should be explained in the
gathering of the whole church and be cured, so that perhaps
others may be edified and you yourself may more easily be
healed, this is to be carried out with much deliberation and
with the very skilled counsel of that physician."
COMMENT: Here seems to be a preliminary private confession, to decide if
public penance is needed or not. Written before 244 AD.