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§ 57. Church Discipline.

I. Several Tracts of Tertullian (especially De Poenitentia). The Philosophumena of Hippolytus (l. IX.). The Epistles of Cyprian, and his work De Lapsis. The Epistolae Canonicae of Dionysius of Alex., Gregory Thaumaturgus (about 260), and Peter of Alex. (about 306), collected in Routh’s Reliquiae Sacrae, tom. III., 2nd ed. The Constit. Apost. II. 16, 21–24. The Canons of the councils of Elvira, Arelate, Ancyra, Neo-Caesarea, and Nicaea, between 306 and 325 (in the Collections of Councils, and in Routh’s Reliq. Sacr. tom. IV.).

II. Morinus: De Disciplina in administratione sacram poenitentiae, Par. 1651 (Venet. 1702).

Marshall: Penitential Discipline of the Primitive Church. Lond. 1714 (new ed. 1844).

Fr. Frank: Die Bussdisciplin der Kirche bis zum 7 Jahrh. Mainz. 1868.

On the discipline of the Montanists, see Bonwetsch: Die Geschichte des Montanismus (1881), pp. 108–118.

The ancient church was distinguished for strict discipline. Previous to Constantine the Great, this discipline rested on purely moral sanctions, and had nothing to do with civil constraints and punishments. A person might be expelled from one congregation without the least social injury. But the more powerful the church became, the more serious were the consequences of her censures, and when she was united with the state, ecclesiastical offenses were punished as offenses against the state, in extreme cases even with death. The church always abhorred blood ("ecclesia non sitit sanguiem"), but she handed the offender over to the civil government to be dealt with according to law. The worst offenders for many centuries were heretics or teachers of false doctrine.

The object of discipline was, on the one hand, the dignity and purity of the church, on the other, the spiritual welfare of the offender; punishment being designed to be also correction. The extreme penalty was excommunication, or exclusion from all the rights and privileges of the faithful. This was inflicted for heresy and schism, and all gross crimes, such as, theft, murder, adultery, blasphemy, and the denial of Christ in persecution. After Tertullian, these and like offences incompatible with the regenerate state, were classed as mortal sins,269269    Peccata mortalia, or, ad mortem; after a rather arbitrary interpretation of 1 John 5:16. Tertullian gives seven mortal sins: Homocidium idololatria, fraus, negatio blasphemia. utique et moechia et. fornicatio et si qua alia violatio templi Dei. De pudic. c. 19, These he declares irremissibilia, horum ultra exoratur non erit Christus; that is, if thev be committed after baptism; for baptism washes, away all former guilt. Hence he counselled delay of baptism.69 in distinction from venial sins or sins of weakness.270270    Peccata, venialia.70

Persons thus excluded passed into the class of penitents,271271    Poenitentes.71 and could attend only the catechumen worship. Before they could be re-admitted to the fellowship of the church, they were required to pass through a process like that of the catechumens, only still more severe, and to prove the sincerity of their penitence by the absence from all pleasures, from ornament in dress, and from nuptial intercourse, by confession, frequent prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other good works. Under pain of a troubled conscience and of separation from the only saving church, they readily submitted to the severest penances. The church teachers did not neglect, indeed, to inculcate the penitent spirit and the contrition of the heart is the main thing. Yet many of them laid too great stress on certain outward exercises. Tertullian conceived the entire church penance as a "satisfaction" paid to God. This view could easily obscure to a dangerous degree the all-sufficient merit of Christ, and lead to that self-righteousness against which the Reformation raised so loud a voice.

The time and the particular form of the penances, in the second century, was left as yet to the discretion of the several ministers and churches. Not till the end of the third century was a rigorous and fixed system of penitential discipline established, and then this could hardly maintain itself a century. Though originating in deep moral earnestness, and designed only for good, it was not fitted to promote the genuine spirit of repentance. Too much formality and legal constraint always deadens the spirit, instead of supporting and regulating it. This disciplinary formalism first appears, as already familiar, in the council of Ancyra, about the year 314.272272    Can. 4 sqq. See Hefele, Conciliengesch (second ed.) I. 225 sqq. Comp. also the fifth canon of Neocaesarea, and Hefele, p. 246.72

Classes of Penitents.

The penitents were distributed into four classes:—

(1) The weepers,273273    Προσκλαίοντες, flentes; also called χειμάζοντες, hiemantes73 who prostrated themselves at the church doors in mourning garments and implored restoration from the clergy and the people.

(2) The hearers,274274    Ἀκροώμενοι, audientes, or auditores. The fourteenth canon of Nicaea (Hefele I. 418) directs that "Catechumens who had fallen, should for three years be only hearers, but afterwards pray with the Catechumens."74 who, like the catechumens called by the same name, were allowed to hear the Scripture lessons and the sermon.

(3) The kneelers,275275    Γονυκλίνοντες, genuflectentes: also ὑποπίπτοντες , Substrati. The terra γόνυ κλίνωνas designating a class of penitents occurs only in the 5th canon of the Council of Neocaesarea, held after 314 and before 325.75 who attended the public prayers, but only in the kneeling posture.

(4) The standers,276276    Συνιστάμενοι, consistentes.76 who could take part in the whole worship standing, but were still excluded from the communion.

Those classes answer to the four stages of penance.277277    Πρόσκλαυσις, fletus; ἀκρόασις auditus; ὑπόπτωσις, prostratio, humiliatio; σύστασις, consistentia. The last three classes are supposed to correspond to three classes of catechumens, but without good reason. There was only one class of catechumens, or at most two classes. See below, § 72.77 The course of penance was usually three or four years long, but, like the catechetical preparation, could be shortened according to circumstances, or extended to the day of death. In the East there were special penitential presbyters,278278    Πρεσβύτεροι ἐπὶ τῆς μετανοίας, presbyteri poenitentiarii78 intrusted with the oversight of the penitential discipline.


After the fulfilment of this probation came the act of reconciliation.279279    Reconciliatio.79 The penitent made a public confession of sin, received absolution by the laying on of hands of the minister, and precatory or optative benediction,280280    The declarative, and especially the direct indicative or judicial form of absolution seems to be of later origin.80 was again greeted by the congregation with the brotherly kiss, and admitted to the celebration of the communion. For the ministry alone was he for ever disqualified. Cyprian and Firmilian, however, guard against the view, that the priestly absolution of hypocritical penitents is unconditional and infallible, and can forestall the judgment of God.281281    Cypr. Epist. LV., c. 15: "Neque enim prejudicamus Domino judicaturo, quominus si penitentiam plenam et justam peccatoris invenerit tunc ratum faciat, quod a nobis fuerit hic statutum. Si vero nos aliquis poenitentiae simulatione deluserit, Deus, cui non deridetur, et qui cor hominis intuetur, de his, quae nos minus perspeximus, judicet et servorum suorum sententiam Dominus mendet." Comp. the similar passages in Epist. LXXV. 4, and De Lapsi, c. 17. But if the church can err in imparting absolution to the unworthy, as Cyprian concedes, she can err also in withholding absolution and in passing sentence of excommunication.81

Two Parties.

In reference to the propriety of any restoration in certain cases, there was an important difference of sentiment, which gave rise to several schisms. All agreed that the church punishment could not forestall the judgment of God at the last day, but was merely temporal, and looked to the repentance and conversion of the subject. But it was a question whether the church should restore even the grossest offender on his confession of sorrow, or should, under certain circumstances leave him to the judgment of God. The strict, puritanic party, to which the Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists belonged, and, for a time, the whole African and Spanish Church, took ground against the restoration of those who had forfeited the grace of baptism by a mortal sin, especially by denial of Christ; since, otherwise, the church would lose her characteristic holiness, and encourage loose morality. The moderate party, which prevailed in the East, in Egypt, and especially in Rome, and was so far the catholic party, held the principle that the church should refuse absolution and communion, at least on the death-bed, to no penitent sinner. Paul himself restored the Corinthian offender.282282    1 Cor. 5:1 sqq. Comp. 2 Cor. 2:5 sqq.82

The point here in question was of great practical moment in the times of persecution, when hundreds and thousands renounced their faith through weakness, but as soon as the danger was passed, pleaded for readmission into the church, and were very often supported in their plea by the potent intercessions of the martyrs and confessors, and their libelli pacis. The principle was: necessity knows no law. A mitigation of the penitential discipline seemed in such cases justified by every consideration of charity and policy. So great was the number of the lapsed in the Decian persecution, that even Cyprian found himself compelled to relinquish his former rigoristic views, all the more because he held that out of the visible church there was no salvation.

The strict party were zealous for the holiness of God; the moderate, for his grace. The former would not go beyond the revealed forgiveness of sins by baptism, and were content with urging the lapsed to repentance, without offering them hope of absolution in this life. The latter refused to limit the mercy of God and expose the sinner to despair. The former were carried away with an ideal of the church which cannot be realized till the second coming of Christ; and while impelled to a fanatical separatism, they proved, in their own sects, the impossibility of an absolutely pure communion on earth. The others not rarely ran to the opposite extreme of a dangerous looseness, were quite too lenient, even towards mortal sins, and sapped the earnestness of the Christian morality.

It is remarkable that the lax penitential discipline had its chief support from the end of the second century, in the Roman church. Tertullian assails that church for this with bitter mockery. Hippolytus, soon after him, does the same; for, though no Montanist, he was zealous for strict discipline. According to his statement (in the ninth book of his Philosophumena), evidently made from fact, the pope Callistus, whom a later age stamped a saint because it knew little of him, admitted bigami and trigami to ordination, maintained that a bishop could not be deposed, even though he had committed a mortal sin, and appealed for his view to Rom. 14:4, to the parable of the tares and the wheat, Matt. 13:30, and, above all, to the ark of Noah, which was a symbol of the church, and which contained both clean and unclean animals, even dogs and wolves. In short, he considered no sin too great to be loosed by the power of the keys in the church. And this continued to be the view of his successors.

But here we perceive, also, how the looser practice in regard to penance was connected with the interest of the hierarchy. It favored the power of the priesthood, which claimed for itself the right of absolution; it was at the same time matter of worldly policy; it promoted the external spread of the church, though at the expense of the moral integrity of her membership, and facilitated both her subsequent union with the state and her hopeless confusion with the world. No wonder the church of Rome, in this point, as in others, triumphed at last over all opposition.

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