The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctive’s : Part 8 Penance

[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong.  This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]

VIII. History of the Doctrine of Penance

The doctrine of penance was indisputably believed and practiced by the early Church, as reputable Protestant Church history reference works admit. (172) Even before the end of the first century, St. Clement of Rome advised his followers to “be subject to the presbyters and . . . accept discipline to penance, bending the knee of the heart.” (173)

In the early second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch expresses the concept of the expiatory offering of himself, as in St. Paul’s teaching (Philippians 2:17, 2 Timothy 4:6): “I am a humble sacrifice for you and I dedicate myself to you Ephesians,” (174) “May I be a ransom on your behalf in every respect, . . .” (175) In the middle of the century, St. Justin Martyr pleads: “Whoever is convinced and believes that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, . . . is instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins.” (176) Around 190, St. Irenaeus writes of many cases of lapsed Catholics being reconciled to their Church and community after public confession and acts of penance. (177)

In the early third century, Tertullian states:

In regard to this second and single repentance, then: . . . It is not conducted before the conscience alone, but it is to be carried out by some external act . . . by which we confess our sin to the Lord, not indeed as if He did not know it, but because satisfaction is arranged by confession, of confession is repentance born, and by repentance is God appeased.

Tertullian goes on to speak of various forms of penance, which he calls “temporal mortification,” such as fasting, prayer, kneeling, and outward displays of mourning for one’s own sins, “before the presbyters.” He believed these acts would “stand in place of God’s indignation” and lessen punishments. (178) About forty years later, Origen refers to:

. . . the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner washes his pillow in tears, when his tears are day and night his nourishment, and when he does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine. (179)

In the same period, St. Cyprian rebukes lapsed Catholics:

They spurn and despise all these warnings; and before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest, before the offense against an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, they do violence to His Body and Blood . . . Certainly we believe that the merits of the martyrs and the works of the just will be of great avail with the Judge. (180)

Elsewhere he writes, “When once you have departed this life, there is no longer any place for repentance, no way of making satisfaction,” (181) and:

Our colleague Therapius had rashly granted peace to him after an insufficient time and in headlong haste, before he had done full penance and before he had made satisfaction to the Lord God, against whom he had sinned. (182)

In the fourth century, St. Ambrose makes two very clear and explicit statements on penance:

He is purged as if by certain works of the whole people, and is washed in the tears of the multitude; by the prayers and tears of the multitude he is redeemed from sin, and is cleansed in the inner man. For Christ granted to His Church that one should be redeemed through all, just as His Church was found worthy of the coming of the Lord Jesus so that all might be redeemed through one. (183)Just as those who pay money absolve a debt, nor are they free of the name of debtor until the whole amount, even to the last penny, is absolved by some kind of payment, so too by the compensation of love and of other virtuous actions, or by some kind of satisfaction, the penalty of sin is removed. (184)

In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the brilliant St. Augustine elaborates:

Those whom you see doing penance have committed crimes, either adultery or some other enormities: that is why they are doing penance. If their sins were light, daily prayer would suffice to blot them out . . . In the Church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in Baptism, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance. (185)After they have been released from your severe sentence we separate from association at the altar those whose crimes are public, so that by repenting and by punishing themselves they may be able to placate Him for whom, by their sinning, they showed their contempt. (186)

A man is compelled to endure [this miserable life] even when his sins are forgiven, because the first sin was the cause of his falling into such misery. For the penalty is more protracted than the guilt, lest the guilt be thought of as being small, if the penalty were to end with it. And this is why, either to demonstrate the misery he deserves, or for the amendment of his disgraceful life, or for the exercise of needful patience, a man is detained temporally in punishment even when by his guilt he is no longer held liable to eternal damnation. (187)

The doctrine of penance, then, was essentially established in the early Church, and did not substantially change in the Middle Ages, but was only developed, like all Catholic doctrines. The theology of penance was the subject of much reasoned speculation and discussion among the Scholastics (such as St. Thomas Aquinas), but it was neither invented nor distorted at this time, as the above citations (and biblical evidence) prove conclusively.

Yet Protestantism discarded penance, in the mistaken belief that it detracted from the complete efficacy of the work of Christ on mankind’s behalf (and also due to the denial of the necessity of priestly mediation). Protestant Reformer John Calvin, for example, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, rails at great length against the very possibility of penance, with liberal use of (often slanderous) insults and false dichotomies, then goes on to deny that, generally speaking, the Fathers agreed with his Catholic opponents: “If we must contend by the authority of the fathers, what fathers, good God, do these men thrust upon us?” (188)

The reader is left to pass judgment on the merit and adequacy of the Catholic biblical and historical case, as presented above.


172. Cross, F.L. & E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1983, 1059; Douglas, J.D., ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, rev. ed., 1978, 762.
173. Letter to the Corinthians, 57,1. In Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952 in German) , 419.
174. Letter to the Ephesians, 8,1. In Lightfoot, Joseph B. & J.R. Harmer, trs., The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., ed. & rev. by Michael W. Holmes, Grand rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989 (1st ed. 1891), 89.
175. Letter to Polycarp, 2,3 and 6,1. Lightfoot, ibid., 116-117.
176. First Apology, 61. From Jurgens, William A., ed. and tr., The Faith of the Early Fathers (FEF), 3 volumes, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 1, 54.
177. Against Heresies, I,6,3 / I,13,5 / IV,40,1. From Ott, ibid., 420.
178. Repentance, 9,1-5. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 130-131.
179. Homilies on Leviticus, 2,4. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 207.
180. The Lapsed, 16-17. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 218.
181. Letter to Demetrian, 25. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 223.
182. Letter of Cyprian & His Colleagues in Council to the Number of 66: To Fidus, 64 (59),1. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 233.
183. Penance, 1,15,80. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 160-161.
184. Commentary on Luke, 7,156. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 163.
185. Sermon to Catechumens, On the Creed, 7,15 / 8,16. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 35.
186. Letter to Macedonius, Imperial Vicar of Africa, 153,3,6. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 7.
187. Homilies on John, 124,5. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 123.
188. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 ed.), Book 3, chapter 4, section 39. From tr. of Ford L. Battles (ed. John T. McNeill), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2 volumes, 1960, vol. 1, 669



About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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