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9. Penance: A Medieval Pastoral Impasse

A Pastoral Impasse

As the Church developed its pastoral care there emerged a difficulty in dealing with Christians who seemed to keep “failing” to live the Christian life in holiness. A crisis emerged in medieval theology over how to deal with a church of sinners and still maintain the holiness of the church. Did not Scripture teach that “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16)?

The response to this question lead to the separation of lessor and greater sins in the early church. ‘Lesser sins’ were forgiven through prayer and repentance (Matt 6:12, Lk 18:9ff), and ‘Greater sins’ lead to excommunication (1 Cor 5:11-13, 2 Cor 6:14-18, 1 John 5:15-17, 1 Tim 1:20). The 3 Greater Sins of Acts 15:29 (interpreted as murder, apostasy, and fornication), were decisive in calling for excommunication.

A further issue of how to deal with Christians who denied their faith during the Roman Empire’s persecution led to numerous church splits. Could such apostates ever be readmitted to the church again? Some said no (Novation, cf. Heb 6:1-8), others yes (Cyprian, cf. Gal 6:1). From this crisis emerged the practice of public penance for lapsed Christians.


It is important to understand that the development of penance in the Western Church was influenced by a number of factors, not least the interpretation of Scripture. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translated the Greek μετανοέω (to repent) as poenitentiam agite (to do penance). Acts 26:20 in the Latin translation read “do penance and turn to God, doing works worthy of penance.” This was an unhelpful mistranslation and went larefly unchallenged until the 16th century when Roman Catholic scholars – such as Erasmus – noted that the Greek text of the NT actually meant ‘repent’ not ‘do penance’. Some theologians like Cœlestius (a disciple of Pelagius) wrote that, “pardon is not given to penitents according to the grace and mercy of God, but according to their own merits and effort, since through repentance they have been worthy of mercy” (NPNF1 5:202). Statements such as this reveal how the work of penance was misconstrued as meriting divine forgiveness.

Public Penance

Public penance in the early medieval church was regarded as the the plank to cling to after having made shipwreck your faith! Those who had “made shipwreck of their faith” (cf. 1 Tim 1:19) were viewed as having committed serious sin. Medieval churches would often have an order of penitents who were disqualified from the Eucharist but were still expected to come to church to pray.

The characteristics of this system of Public Penance were: (1) the enrolment into the order of penitents, (2) which could be undergone only once in a lifetime (Jerome Ep. 130.9, 147.3, 122.4), and (3) the enforcement of lifelong continence.

The System Breaks Down

In fear of the humiliating system of public penance many Christians began delaying their baptism to avoid arduous penance in the future. Furthermore, there was an over emphasis on great sins and public penance and little emphasis on everyday forgiveness for sin in the life of the Christian. Little if any emphasis was placed on the Christian’s justification before God through the merits of Christ as taught in the Bible (Rom 5:1-11). Attempts to change the traditional system of penance were rejected by some theologians as being too liberal or going soft on sin.

Monastic approaches to sin and penance

The monastery offered an alternative to public penance. Monastic theologians like John Cassian considered penance as medicine not punishment. For Cassian sins were healed by contraries, e.g. gluttony by fasting, pride by service, gossip by silence (Conferences 3.19.14). In contrast to a once off second plank, the daily confession of sins – both “big” and “small” - became part of the monastic life. The old system of public confession and once off penance was seen as counterproductive and some monastic leaders in Gaul began to encouraged private confession (Beck, 216-222).

The Evolution of Private Confession in Ireland

The early Irish church, with its strong monastic emphasis, encouraged the private confession of sin to a soul friend and a repeatable opportunity for penance and restoration to the church throughout the life of the Christian. Cassian’s writings were widely read in Irish theological circles and Cassian’s famous dictum that “contraries are healed by contraries” was regularly cited or drawn on by early Irish theologians like Columbanus, Finnian, Cummean etc.

The Soul Friend: Anmcara

The Soul Friend in an Irish monastic setting was seen as someone acting like a spiritual doctor diagnosing suitable remedies for sin. They did not act in the place of Christ conveying absolution for sin (O’Loughlin). Comgall, the sixth century Abbot of Bangor, was credited with the Irish proverb, “colann cen ceann duine cen anmacharait” (a person without a Soul Friend is as a body without a head).

The Honour Price

Honour Price and compensation in native Irish law transferred to a traffic penitential system. Penitential Handbooks were produced by Irish theologians with lists of sins and their appropriate remedy. The practice of a repeatable penance and private confession, not just a once in a life time offer coupled with a public confession, is an important contribution of Irish theology the emergence of the medieval sacrament of penance.

The High Medieval Sacrament of Penance

The sacrament of Confession, as it developed in Western Europe, was a requirement of all Christians at least once a year since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It was taught that to satisfy and remove temporal punishment for sin there had to be Confession, Penance, Satisfaction, and Absolution. The power of the Priest to convey absolution was based on an interpretation of binding a losing in Matthew 16:19 (cf. John 20:23).

From this system there emerged the rise of indulgences, which became a grievous false teaching in the Western Church and lead to widespread abuse. Indulgences were the end result of an attempt to solve the pastoral impasse of sin in the church. The misreading of Scripture (and its mistranslation) all played a part in a sacramental system that buried the joy of the Gospel message of God’s unmerited grace and forgiveness in Christ under the rubble of system of merit, work, and repayment.


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