Monday, July 20, 2015

Can the Church Grant Absolution for Sins?

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
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Cody Hayes said...

Hi, Dr. Hedrick,

The traditional Church theology on this issue is that it is God who grants the forgiveness; the priest is merely the instrument through which God does so. Therefore, it is safe to say, at least in this understanding, that God is certainly involved.

Now if you are implying the notion of God literally appearing, and saying to someone, "I forgive you," that may be a more difficult, since it is traditionally understood that God is outside the material world.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie, can we make a comparison between the church and the IRS forgiving debt.. In the latter we have evidence of value, and in the former we don't. Jesus seemed to base forgiveness on one's own ability to forgive; I'm recalling the parable of the two slaves and their owner's reaction.

Gene Stecher
Chambersbirg. Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Cody,
It may very well be as you say--and I hope that it is, that church theology teaches and the priest believes that God grants absolution from sin. But the difficulty I have is that the BCP directs the priest to say to the penitent: . . . "By his (i.e,, Christ's) authority I absolve you of all your sins." So in the BCP statement the priest absolves the penitent from sin on Christ's authority and God simply (apparently) does not have a role in forgiving anyone anything.
My question is why doesn't the Book of Common Prayer reflect the best thinking of the church?

Charles Hedrick said...

Good afternoon Gene,
I do not understand your statement about the IRS forgiving debt "for value." Could you elaborate please. It is true however that in the NT texts where Jesus is portrayed as forgiving the sins of someone, he does not demand that the person repent or do penance (in spite of Mark's famous summary of the message of Jesus in Mark 1:15). Jesus is portrayed as granting forgiveness even before the person asks. In the light of the example of Jesus the church appears quite wrong in demanding repentance or penance. Also I do not know a parable about the two slaves. I think you mean a parable I call : "A King Settling Accounts with Servants," which is more usually called "The Unmerciful Servant" (Matt 18:23-35) The whole problem of the titles of parables has never been resolved by scholars. They are frequently given a title by an interpreter who ties the title to some aspect of the behavior of a character in the parable. For example, the Unjust Judge or the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, etc.

Anonymous said...

It was more or less a joke, Charlie; forgiveness by the IRS means a tangible gain, forgiveness by the church means what, a cleared conscience? I wonder which institution has the higher repeat offender rate?

Yes, I was thinking of The Unmerciful Servant Parable. I think you're correct that Jesus does not demand repentance or penance to get forgiveness, but he does require being a forgiver rather than a "you owe me" person, according to the parable, and other statements attributed to him (e.g.,Mk 11:25) . Apparently, neither the church nor the IRS require one to forgive before being forgiven.

The ancients complicated the whole matter by connecting illness and tragedy to sinful behavior. Maybe the paralytic in Mark 2 was psychosomatically disabled due to some powerful guilt over his behavior, and Jesus was presented as demonstrating the connection between forgiveness and good health, "Get up and walk home."

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

What a pithy post, Gene! It leads me off in many directions, but I will limit myself to two comments. What value a person gains from penitence/absolution depends on the person. If a person holds a strong mythical view of God then s/he may conceive God's eraser actually obliterating sins from the records God keeps on the good and evil we commit in life. If the person does not think mythically, perhaps they gain a clear conscience, perhaps not. How could there be a cleared conscience without reconciling with the offended others. I note in the model prayer Jesus is portrayed as teaching the disciples to pray forgiveness is not petitioned for sins committed against God, but the petition is for forgiveness for our "failings" with one another (Matt 6:12 "debts" is likely earlier than Luke's "sins" Luke 11:4).