Tertullian VIII: Repentance and Penance

18 Jan

Initially this was going to be part of the very complex post I mentioned recently however I decided I could split it up and make it more readable.

One of Tertullian’s shorter treatises is On Repentance(de paenitentia). In contrast with much of his other material, where he seems to be writing to convince someone of something, this is more expository. He seems to be explaining something which is generally accepted practice within the Church. Still, as he’s the first Christian author I’ve seen address this in this sort of detail, I wanted to mention what he has to say as I think it represents an evolution in the development of these concepts.

Now you don’t need to be particularly knowledgeable about Christianity, or have read a pile of source material, to understand that from its earliest days the Church was concerned with sin. The concept of receiving a single baptism for the remission of sins goes back to Paul; it’s unclear just what sort of baptism he received but he was baptized. But what happens when you sin after baptism? You’ve already received the giant forgiveness promised you, suppose you screw up later? The very early Church accepts this as a possibility. As early as The Didache Confession is mentioned, though it appears to have been a public confession told to the entire group. 1

Tertullian discusses Confession however in this treatise he adds a couple of new twists, or maybe a twist and a half. Repentance; the sinner being truly sorry for his sins, has at least been strongly implied as being necessary for the Confession to be acceptable to God. I just don’t recall anyone stating this as baldly and in as much detail as Tertullian. He terms this a second repentance and applies conditions; a second repentance is possible, but is a third? Tertullian says not. He believes that repeatedly engaging in the same sinful behavior implies a lack of repentance and that this repeated sinning will not be forgiven:

“It is irksome to append mention of a second — nay, in that case, the last — hope; lest, by treating of a remedial repenting yet in reserve, we seem to be pointing to a yet further space for sinning. Far be it that any one so interpret our meaning, as if, because there is an opening for repenting, there were even now, on that account, an opening for sinning; and as if the redundance of celestial clemency constituted a licence for human temerity. Let no one be less good because God is more so, by repeating his sin as often as he is forgiven. Otherwise be sure he will find an end of escaping, when he shall not find one of sinning. We have escaped once: thus far and no farther let us commit ourselves to perils, even if we seem likely to escape a second time.” On Repentance, VII (italics from the ANF text)

What is new with Tertullian is the idea that the Christian must somehow demonstrate his or her repentance, through some sort of penitential act. He or she must accept a ritual humiliation, before God and his or her brethren, in order for this second repentance to be accepted.

“The narrower, then, the sphere of action of this second and only (remaining) repentance, the more laborious is its probation; in order that it may not be exhibited in the conscience alone, but may likewise be carried out in some (external) act. This act, which is more usually expressed and commonly spoken of under a Greek name, is ἐξομολόγησις, whereby we confess our sins to the Lord, not indeed as if He were ignorant of them, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is settled, of confession repentance is born; by repentance God is appeased. And thus exomologesis is a discipline for man’s prostration and humiliation, enjoining a demeanor calculated to move mercy. With regard also to the very dress and food, it commands (the penitent) to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed; moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain, — not for the stomach’s sake, to wit, but the soul’s; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep and make outcries unto the Lord your God; to bow before the feet of the presbyters, and kneel to God’s dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his deprecatory supplication (before God).” On Repentance, IX

As Tertullian doesn’t go into the type of detail for this topic as he does with many others, my sense is that he is describing accepted practice rather than introducing an innovation, though I can’t be certain of this. As I have not read of this practice of physical penitence before (I always want to caution people that as much of this material as I’ve read over the past couple of years, it’s very possible that I missed earlier mentions) I think it’s an interesting evolutionary “marker.” At least in Carthage in the middle of the Third Century, Confession was still offered to the community, not to a designated individual, and in order for post-baptismal sin to be acceptable, penitential acts must be publicly performed. Many of these acts; sackcloth and ashes, wailing for forgiveness, and dietary restrictions were used for penance until very recently (and I suspect still are used in some sects).

I’m also sorry I didn’t review On Repentance before my post on Baptism. In Chapter VI he has stronger statements than I used in that post on the necessity of delaying baptism until the individual is truly ready to receive it.

1 The Didache, IV and particularly XIV, “On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.” You can also look at 1 John, I.9 and James, IV.16, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Basically, these three texts which first officially mention confession were probably all written around the end of the first century. 1 John is less explicit that this means a confession to others rather than to God however from the context (a discussion of Christian fellowship) it appears to me that this is the case.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers Number 6. New York: Newman Press (1948). ISBN:0-8091-0247-1.

Osborn, Eric, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-521-52495-7.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on January 18, 2014 in Uncategorized


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