To be absolved means to be "set free from the consequences of guilt." And yes, some churches do claim to be able to absolve people of their sins. In the Episcopal Church, for example, a penitent may confess their sins to God in the presence of a priest or bishop and receive from them the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution. Upon their confession the priest then pronounces this absolution:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to
absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of
his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his
authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Spirit. Amen. [Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, page 447].
The rationale behind this Episcopal Church tradition (also found in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Lutheran traditions) is that Jesus forgave sins (Matt 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26; 7:36-50), and passed on to Peter the authority to "bind and loose" (Matt 16:18-19); and in the Gospel of John Jesus passes on to all his disciples the ability to forgive sins (John 20:19-23). The custom of the church granting absolution for sins does not appear to be known in the rest of the New Testament. Ignatius does not seem to be aware of the practice of ecclesial absolution for sin in the early second century (but compare his Letter to the Philadelphians 8.1). The Shepherd of Hermas (100-150), however, disagreed with those who believed that if anyone sinned after baptism there was no opportunity for repentance (compare Hebrews 6:1-6, where forgiveness is not possible after apostasy). The Shepherd asserted that there was opportunity for the church to repent (Shepherd, visions 2.2-3; mandates 4.1-4, 12.3-6; similitudes 8.11,1-5) In the third century those about to undergo martyrdom or who underwent torture or imprisonment were deemed to be able to absolve those who had committed the sins of adultery and fornication. A shocked Tertullian (died after 220) reported (Modesty, 1 and 22) that a certain Bishop Kallistos (who himself had experienced torture and imprisonment) issued an edict saying that "I remit to such as have discharged repentance the sins of both adultery and fornication." Such is the evidence for absolution in the earliest period. After the late second century the custom became institutionalized in the later church for sins in general.
It seems to me that the church practice of absolving people of their sins is a usurpation of God's prerogative on the assumption that the authority Jesus is believed to have had and extended to his disciples falls by default to the institutional Christian church. That is to say: someone had to pronounce absolution for sins, and who better to do it than the church?
Those who take upon themselves the pronouncement of absolution for the sins others commit may believe they have the authority to do so by virtue of church custom and their ordination, but in my view they are deceiving themselves about the limits of their ability. The Scribes asked the correct question: "who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7).
In the context of religious faith only God has the authority to pronounce absolution for sins. Even though God doesn't speak audibly anymore, those who have sinned must still by themselves seek absolution from God. In the context of human life absolution for sins (i.e., injuries, ills, harms, etc. done to others) must also be sought from those they have injured—in the case of the recent murders in Mother Emanuel Church in Atlanta forgiveness was extended to the murderer by the injured families without any repentance on his part. Forgiveness was theirs to give, or not.
If the statements in the previous paragraph are correct, it would appear that the priestly pronouncement of absolution is like the counsel of Eliphaz, the Temnite, to Job—just so many "windy words" (Job 16:2)—vaporous words, full of well meaning intent perhaps, but signifying little. Absolution for sins must be sought in two venues: 1. a person must stand, nakedly remorseful, before the injured party in person and humbly petition for absolution; and 2. during a personal dark night of the soul penitents must make their own peace with God. The Church may assist the penitent seeking absolution, but it seems an arrogance of the first order to assume it can grant absolution, or even assure the penitent that absolution has been granted. A third party has no standing in this situation. God cannot be "bound or loosed" by church tradition (compare Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). Believing oneself capable of committing the God of the universe to anything on one's personal say-so seems very much like thinking one can bridle a giant fire-eating dragon: it is the stuff of romantic fiction and mythology.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University