Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Protestant Dictionary: Absolution

ABSOLUTION (from ab-solvo "to release from," "to declare innocent") is used in two senses.

(1) It is employed in the sense of remission of sins. In this sense it is God only that absolves. It is argued that the power of absolving or remitting sin after confession was given to the Apostles by the words of our Lord, " Whosesoever (genitive plural) sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John xx. 23). But this is a misapprehension. The words, spoken by our Lord after His Resurrection, are clearly a conveyance to the Apostles, who were going forth to convert the world, of their commission, authorising them to admit those whom they judged fit into the kingdom of grace and forgiveness, or to refuse admission into it to those whom they judged unfit. Hence the words are addressed still to every one ordained to the presbyterate. For by ordination the presbyter is commissioned to receive into Christ s kingdom (a) adult converts from among the heathen when, but not until, he counts them worthy; and (&) infants whom he judges fit subjects for admission into the covenant on the promise of their future repentance and faith when they come of age. That this is the Patristic understanding of the text may be seen by the comment of Cyril of Alexandria (A.D. 412-444) on John xx. 23. [1] It has nothing whatever to do with an ordinance of Confession and Absolution.

2. In the sense of a release from the censures of the Church which had been imposed upon an offender. In early times whoever was guilty of any great crime was laid under the censures of the Church and debarred from communion. The offences requiring ecclesiastical censure were, according to Gregory Nyssen (A.D. 373-395), Apostasy, Witchcraft, Adultery, Fornication, Murder, Homicide, Robbery, Robbery of graves, Sacrilege. Who ever had been guilty of any of these offences was excluded from the Lord s Table for various lengths of time, and during those periods he had to do public penance before the congregation, who were thus assured, so far as was possible, of his repentance, and were moved to pray to God for his forgiveness. When he had finished the appointed time of his penance, having passed through the four orders of penitents as a "weeper," a "hearer," a "kneeler," and a "non-communicating attendant," he was restored to "the peace of the Church," and absolved from the censure which had been imposed upon him. There was no marked form by which this absolution was conveyed. The Bishop and clergy present laid their hands upon him for the last time with prayer, but this same form had been used at the beginning of the penance, and every day that he had remained in the class of the " kneelers; " and it meant no more than that prayer was being offered for the individual by the ministers of the congregation. After this absolution he was readmitted to Church communion.

It was only by slow degrees that the doctrine of Sacramental Confession as linked with absolution grew up in the Church. For twelve hundred years there was no formula of absolution from sin (as distinct from censure) known in the Church of Christ, but only prayer for the forgiveness of the sinner. For the first six hundred years this prayer was offered publicly by the congregation. Then men began to think—Leo I. (A.D. 440-461) had led the way in thinking—that the prayer of the priest might be regarded as a substitute for that of the congregation; and then there grew up the practice, adopted by some not by others, of confessing to the priest those sins which up to that time used to be confessed publicly, and receiving his prayers in place of those of the congregation, which for the particular purpose he represented. Imperceptibly the idea of the priest as representing the congregation was exchanged for that of the priest representing God, and finally at the end of another six hundred years, during which this change was being matured, the formula of absolution was changed from a prayer for pardon to a conveyance of forgiveness. But twelve hundred years had to pass before so presumptuous a claim could be put forth. One more step followed. In 1215 absolution after confession was declared obligatory on all men and women by the most arrogant of the Popes, at that Lateran Council which also formulated the dogma of Transubstantiation.

In order to show how widely England and Rome differ from one another in regard to confession and absolution, also how the teaching of the Ritualists is more in harmony with the Lateran doctrine (and later the Tridentine) than that of the Church of England, we shall give a brief account of the teaching of each.

The Roman Doctrine.—The Roman Church teaches that our Lord Jesus Christ established a Tribunal of Penance in which the priest is judge, and that it is necessary for every Christian to address himself to that Tribunal for the forgiveness of his sins. History demonstrably proves that that Tribunal was in fact not established by our Lord but by Innocent III. in 1215, and that it was the fourth Council of the Lateran, of that date, not our Lord, which ordered all Christians to submit them selves to it. The Church of Rome teaches further that Penance is a Sacrament, and that this Sacrament consists of four parts (1) Contrition or Attrition, (2) Confession, (3) Satisfaction, (4) absolution.

Attrition, which is distress at sin through fear of its punishment in this world or the next, has to be substituted for contrition, which is distress at sin through sorrow at offending God, because Roman Doctors do not dare to deny, in face of the declarations of Holy Scripture, that contrition on the part of man is immediately accompanied by forgiveness on the part of God ; and in that case what is the use of confession, satisfaction, and absolution to effect what has been already done? Contrition is allowed to be enough without these; but with them, attrition is pronounced sufficient; from whence it follows that a man may be forgiven without any love of God in his heart if he have a fear of His punishments and submit himself to the priest.

Confession, on the Roman theory, must be made (a) in secrecy, (b) to the priest, not as in early times before the congregation; and the penitent is ordered to enumerate all grave sins, and to answer any questions asked by the priest, who is instructed to make inquiries on any points which may have been concealed through modesty.

Satisfaction, instead of being regarded as making amends to another who had been wronged, is represented as the satisfying God’s justice by suffering or by performing a painful penance imposed by the priest. When God pardons the sinner on the priest s absolution, He is supposed not to be content unless the sinner undergoes some pain, which must be undergone either on earth or in an imaginary place called Purgatory, unless the Pope presents him with an Indulgence which shortens or removes it.

Absolution, instead of being a release from the censures of the Church, or a prayer for God s forgiveness of the trespass committed by the sinner, becomes a judicial pardon of sin by a man acting in the place of God. Church of England swept away the whole of the system which was established by the fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and is continued still in the Roman Communion. She could not bring back the early Penitential Discipline of the public acknowledgment of great offences before the congregation, but she left each man to the rule of his God-given conscience as had always been the case of old, except in regard to such scandalous offences as those enumerated by Gregory Nyssen. She made conscience the judge whether the man was or was not in a state to attend the Table of the Lord, introducing into the Daily Prayers and into the Communion Service a declaration of God s forgiveness of the penitent, by which each person might judge and reassure himself, and a prayer for His forgiveness after the public confession of sin. For the ordinary Christian life the mediaeval and unprimitive practice of private confession and absolution was abolished, and has no more existence.

But yet the Church recognised that there might be souls so overwhelmed by the horror of a sudden fall or by the stings of an awakened conscience that they could not assure them selves of the possibility of God’ s forgiveness before Holy Communion (which ought to be received with the quiet mind of a child of God conscious of acceptance by his Father) or before death. In these exceptional cases she allowed and advised the troubled soul to open its grief to the ministering clergyman, or some other discreet and learned minister of God s Word, in order to receive from him assurance that his sin did not shut him out from God s mercy, and that he might enjoy the benefits of absolution, which are restoration to the communion of the Church. In these two cases only does the Church of England allow private absolution, and that, not for the removal of sin, but for assurance to the sinner that God certainly forgives or has forgiven him, if he is truly penitent.

Ritualist Teaching.—Ritualists make as little as possible of the public absolutions (Ritual Reason Why, p. 325), because they wish to drive people to what they call "sacramental absolution" (ibid.), a title which they say is given to private absolution by Bishop Cosin (Catholic Religion, p. 269). That the title is given to it by Bishop Cosin is not true. It is employed in an anonymous series of Notes, probably written by one Hayward, which has been without reason assigned to Cosin in the Oxford Edition of 1855, but certainly is not his. The Ritualist teaching on "sacramental absolution " is essentially the same as the Roman. In one respect it goes beyond it, for whereas Roman authorities teach that only grave sins, and such as they pronounce mortal, have to be necessarily confessed in order to obtain absolution, Ritualists require all sins that the ransacked memory can recall to be confessed for that purpose, on pain of the guilt of sacrilege. They have found it necessary to reject the substitution of attrition for contrition, as they could not bear the thought of forgiveness being secured by a man who was without any love towards God; but then they are left in the difficulty, that in that case there is no need of auricular confession, and no place for priestly absolution to release from sin, when that sin has been pardoned already, as it certainly is on contrition. They argue that " God demands confession as a condition of pardon " (Catholic Religion, p. 268). That is true, but it is confession to Himself that He demands, which is a necessary part of contrition, not an act subsequent to and apart from it. They further tacitly reject the Roman explanation of Satisfaction, and substitute for it “Amendment." That is well; but " Amendment" is a result of repentance, not a part of an ecclesiastical ordinance. The Ritualist view of the final act of "absolution " does not differ from the Roman.

The Scriptural authority for absolution is commonly declared by Ritualists to be John xx. 23 (Catholic Religion, p. 264), which, as we have seen, has nothing whatever to do with "sacramental confession and absolution." (See p. 2, note.) Some are driven into finding " the institution of the Sacrament of Penance" in our Lord s washing the disciples feet, John xiii. 10 (Mason, Faith of the Gospel, p. 335). The word Absolution was also applied to other prayers besides those which besought God for the for giveness of sinners. The "Absolutions" used at Nocturns, printed on the last page of the preface to the Breviary, are simple prayers or collects. See CONFESSION. [F. M.]

[1] There is another interpretation of John xx. 23. As persons in Scripture are said to do that which they were commissioned to announce would be done (compare 1 Kings xix. 17 ; Jer. i. 10 ; Hos. vi. 5), our Lord s words in St. John may be paraphrased: You are commissioned to go forth and preach that My blood has been shed to take away sin, and whosoever believes your message and accepts the Gospel offered will be freely forgiven. Compare Luke xxiv. 47. It is well to note that our Lord on that occasion addressed the whole body of disciples, and not the Apostles only. This fact is proved from a comparison of the accounts given by St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. It was unanimously agreed at the Fulham Conference that the words in St. John s Gospel were not addressed only to the Apostles or clergy, but were "a commission
to the whole Church " (Fulham Conference, 1902, pp. vii, 109). Furthermore, as the word whosesoever (plural as the Greek has it, though the fact is often unnoticed) proves, it is classes of men and not individuals which are referred to, viz., those who "repent and believe the Gospel." ED.

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