When I say early church fathers I mean those early Christian thinkers between about 150ad-350ad. Examples are men like Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Tertullian and other thinkers. A big disclaimer is that these were just men and their words are not necessarily God’s word. I do find their view of forgiveness somewhat intriguing though. These quotes come from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs which is edited by David W. Bercot (pp. 4-5). What we think of as forgiveness the early church called “absolution” which was the formal act of a bishop pronouncing forgivness on the penatent sinner.
- “Is it better to be damned in secret than to be absolved in public?” Tertullian (ca. 203 A.D.)
- “He, then, who has received the forgiveness of sins ought to sin no more. For, in addition to the first and only repentance from sins (this is from the previous sins in the first and heathen life—I mean that in ignorance), there is forthwith proposed to those who have been called, the repentance which cleanses the seat of the soul from transgressions, that faith may be established. And the Lord, knowing the heart, and foreknowing the future, foresaw both the fickleness of man and the craft and subtlety of the devil from the first, from the beginning; how that, envying man for the forgiveness of sins, he would present to the servants of God certain causes of sins; skilfully working mischief, that they might fall together with himself. Accordingly, being very merciful, He has vouch-safed, in the case of those who, though in faith, fall into any transgression, a second repentance; so that should any one be tempted after his calling, overcome by force and fraud, he may receive still a repentance not to be repented of. “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.” But continual and successive repentings for sins differ nothing from the case of those who have not believed at all, except only in their consciousness that they do sin. And I know not which of the two is worst, whether the case of a man who sins knowingly, or of one who, after having repented of his sins, transgresses again. For in the process of proof sin appears on each side,—the sin which in its commission is condemned by the worker of the iniquity, and that of the man who, foreseeing what is about to be done, yet puts his hand to it as a wickedness. And he who perchance gratifies himself in anger and pleasure, gratifies himself in he knows what; and he who, repenting of that in which he gratified himself, by rushing again into pleasure, is near neighbour to him who has sinned wilfully at first. For one, who does again that of which he has repented,and condemning what he does, performs it willingly” (Clement of Alexandria,Stromata, Book 2.13).
- “In smaller sins, sinners may do penance for a set time and come to public confession according to the rules of discipline. Then they receive the right of communion through the imposition of the hand of the bishop (notice singular) and clergy.” Cyprian (ca. 250).
- “I entreat you, beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sins while he is still in this world-while his confession can still be received and while the satisfaction and remission made by the priests are still pleasing to the Lord.” Cyprian (ca. 250).
- “O bishop, just as you receive a pagan after you have instructed and baptized him, likewise let everyone join in prayers for this [penitent] man and restore him to his former place among the flock, through the imposition of hands. For he has been purified by repentance. And the imposition of hands shall be similar to baptism for him. For, by the laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit was given to believers.” Apostolic Consititution (ca. 390).
The early church fathers were serious about forgiveness because it meant status in the community. In order to receive communion you must be one who is not a “willful” sinner. If you were then you had to approach the bishop and request forgiveness based on your confession.
I wonder if we took this seriously what would the implications be in our fellowship?