Free Online Bible Library | Penance; Penitence

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Penance; Penitence

(from Lat. poena). Regarded as a sacrament in the Eastern and Roman churches, it originated as a development of the idea of repentance which included not only an inward feeling of contrition, but also an outward act of self- abasement. Gradually the latter predominated and ultimately took the place of the former. The penitent was required to confess his guilt (exomologesis) and submit to discipline (e.g., exclusion from the Eucharist; committal to prayer, fasting, almsgiving), eventually to receive absolution and restoration. It probably arose from NT passages on discipline (e.g., Matt. 18:18; 1 Cor. 5:3-5; 1 Tim. 1:20; Titus 3:10). Early references to such discipline can be found in 1 Clement 57 and Hermas, Visions 3.5.

After the irruption of Montanism,* penance was part of the regular discipline of the church. Prior to Novatianism,* the censures were short and administered simply, e.g., exclusion from participation in or in sight of the sacrament, exclusion from the church, for a few weeks. During the third to fifth centuries the time lengthened considerably. The practice was to permit only one penance after baptism, it was public and formal, and distinction was made between graver and lesser sins. The Novatianists refused to remit postbaptismal sins, and in reaction to them the penitential system tended to become more rigid and systematic (e.g., in the letters of Pacian to Symphronianus). Penance came to be regarded more as a penalty and less of a privilege. The Council of Elvira* (c.305) reveals the position at the end of the third century. The Penitential stages were developed, first laid down in the councils of Neocaesarea and Ancyra (314). Private penance eventually replaced public penance; the first reliable evidence for private penance as a sacrament was canon 2 of the Third Council of Toledo (589), which condemned it. In the East, after 1000 the pattern became (1) confession, (2) interrogation, (3) absolution, (4) assignment of penance. In the West, penance led to the growth of Indulgences,* whereby canonical penance for sin could be remitted by money payments.

At the Fourth Lateran Council

1215) private penance was made compulsory at least once a year. The Council of Trent* (1551) stated that the sacrament of penance was absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of postbaptismal sin, and consisted in confession, contrition, absolution, and satisfaction. (For the Protestant position see, e.g., Calvin's Institutes.. J.F. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (1903); O.D. Watkins, A History of Penance (1920); R.C. Mortimer, The Origins of Private Penance in the Western Church (1939); J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (1958).