1902 Encyclopedia > Confession


CONFESSION is a verbal acknowledgment of sin. Among the Jews it was the custom, on the annual feast of expiation, for the high priest to make confession of sins to God in the name of the whole people. Besides this general confession, the Jews were enjoined, as a first principle of their religion, to confess their sins individually to God. Herein, indeed, lay one marked and leading feature of difference between their creed and that of the heathen around them. The Jew was taught to regard his Maker as a merciful God, who forgives sin (Mic. vii. 18, 19 ; Isa. IviL 16-19). While, however, the contrite heart was insisted on as the all-important element on man's part, outward signs of humiliation were valued as tokens and manifestations of the inward sentiment, as is seen in such cases as those of David, Ahab, and the captives who returned from Babylon (2 Sam. xii. 16 ; 1 Kings xxii. 27 ; Neh. ix. 2, 3). Such conduct implied admission of wrong-doing before man as well as before heaven. In some cases, as in that of Achan (Josh. vii. 19), acknowledgment before man was demanded. In others, as in those involving sin or trespass offerings, some degree of acknowledgment to the priest seems to be implied (Lev. iv. v.). Kestitution of things stolen, and general reparation for injustice were also enjoined (Ezek. xxxiii. 15, &c.) as evidences of sincerity.

In the Christian church public offenders were from an early period put to open penance. We find St Paul en-joining this, but subsequently interceding that the offender be not dealt with too severely (I Cor. v. 2 ; 2 Cor. ii. 6, 7). The growth of private (or auricular) confession is more diffi-cult to trace. Even those who would be most inclined to represent it as primitive admit that for the first three centuries little or no mention is made of any such practice; and though they would fain attribute such silence to per-secution, or to the reserve known as the disciplina arcani, they seem inclined to admit that private confession was a development, and grew up gradually. Passages from the fathers, such as St Cyprian, St Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa, and others, recommending the practice, have to be confronted with the small prominence given to it in the works of St Aagustine and the strong declarations of St Chrysostom on the sufficiency of confession to God. But the practice gradually became more common, especially in the West, and more a matter of rule and precept; until at length, in the fourth Lateran Council, held under Pope Innocent III., in 1215, it was enjoined upon all members of the Church of Rome once a year, by the famous 21st canon, beginning with the words, Omnis utriusque sexus fidelis. The mediaeval church of the West fixed the number of sacraments as seven, and insisted on auricular confession as an essential part of the sacrament of penance. Confes-sion and absolution was reserved for the priesthood. Yet a certain recognition of a quasi-priestly power, residing in the church at large, and in some sense therefore in the laity, appears in the Roman office-books, and we find laymen, in cases of extreme emergency, confessing and absolving each other. (An instance occurs in one of the earliest and most admirable of French biographies, Joinville's Life of St Louis.) Russia appears now to be the country where, at least in theory, confession is most insisted upon as a certificate of annual confession (often, it is said, purchased) is a condition of being a witness in court.

At the Reformation the reformed communities were unanimous in rejecting enforced auricular confession, but it is a mistake to suppose that they were equally unanimous in reprobating its use in cases where it was sought by the free choice of penitents. The Augsburg Confession (parti, art. 11) retains it, and Melanchthon asserts that many frequently availed themselves of it. Luther did not even deny its claim to a sacramental character; nor has it ever died out among the Lutherans. But the sacramental character is denied by Calvin and the Calvinistic churches generally. Peter Martyr, Chamier, and others seem to identify absolution with the preaching of God's Word. Nevertheless absolution still retained, for a long time, a disciplinarian character even among these bodies. Thus we find the Scottish ministers offering absolution to the marquis of Montrose before his execution at Edinburgh on May 21, 1650 ; and his refusal seems, according to the historian Burton, to have influenced his enemies in the matter of the sepulture granted to his remains. Private confession also finds a place in the English prayer-book and homilies. Before the Bevolution of 1688 it was so far common that we find Bishop Burnet, in his History of His Own Times, naming this or that clergyman as confessor in the family of such and such a nobleman. To divulge anything thus confided is as strictly forbidden in the reformed English as in the mediaeval or modern Boman church, though an exception is made in the English canons in the case of such crimes as might endanger the life of the recipient of the confession by making him an accessory in the eye of the law.

The connection of confession with casuistry and with the morality of nations, cannot be discussed here. As regards casuistry, it must suffice to allude to the great name of Pascal, and the controversy arising out of his celebrated Lettres Provinciales. The question of its effect on morality is still more complex and difficult to estimate. As a rule, we may expect to find its influence well spoken of by Roman Catholics and the reverse in the opposite camps; nevertheless, some Protestant writers, as Hallam, and perhaps Sismondi, appear to view it with a certain amount of tolerance and even favour, while some Roman Catholic writers (e.g., Vitelleschi, under the pseudonym Pomponio Leto), on the contrary, seem inclined to censure at any rate its extreme development in the form of direction, as injurious to proper self-reliance and independence of character.

It remains to add, that the terms confessor and con-fessional are used by ecclesiastical writers in very distinct senses, which can only be judged of by the context in which they are found. The statement that a given priest is the confessor—say of the king of Spain—means, of course, that he is the person to whom that sovereign confesses; but the term found simply after a name, as " St Leonard, confessor," means that the person so designated underwent more or less of suffering on behalf of the Christian faith, though he may not have been an actual martyr. This latter sense is the usual one in ancient writers. In like manner the term confessional, which is now commonly employed to signify the structure placed in Roman Catholic churches for the purpose of hearing confessions, meant originally, in Christian antiquity, the place where a martyr had been buried. It was subsequently applied to a tomb built over a spot thus hallowed either in the crypt or in the upper part of a church.

The authorities on the subject embrace, as has been seen, acts of councils, confessions of faith, and an abundanceof controversial works. The foreign Reformers— Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli— have all touched upon it in their writings. Among Anglican works may be named Jewell's Apology, and Marshall's Penitential Discipline of the Early Church (republished in the Anglo-Catholic Library, 1844), and various modern Catena; of authorities, as Gray's Statement on Confession. The Eoman Catholic view is set forth in such works as Klee's Dogmatik and History of Dogmas (Mayence, 1834, 1838), and Martigny's Dictionnaire des antiquités chrétiennes, Paris, 1865. The subject is a prominent one in the Acts of the Council of Trent, and for the fourth Lateran Council the student may refer to Labbé's Concilia (torn, vii.,Paris, 1714). (J. G. C.)

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