|Confession and Penance
Human beings have probably been
aware of their imperfections since the dawn of history. We have always,
it seems, sought to remedy the ways in which we fall short from what we
think we should be.
Stone carvings from the Eastern and Aztec civilisations indicate that
worshippers pleaded with the gods - though about what we can't be
certain. Certainly our earliest written records from ancient Egypt
confirm that by around 1250 BCE an elaborate
system of confession had arisen.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, records how Nu,
Keeper of the Seal, approaches the Lord Maati who feeds upon the blood
of sinners "... on the day when the consciences of men are reckoned up
in the presence of the god Un-Nefer". Nu comes to the Lord Maati with a
negative confession - that is, he brings a list of things he has not
done. He has not made any man weep, he has not committed murder, he has
not stopped water when it should flow - and so on through 38 items.
All ancient religions no doubt had similar concerns with imperfection
and took measures to remedy them through sacrifices and offerings to the
gods. The Hebrews were no exception. Their idea of sin as akin to being
unclean was a common one, still followed by some religious people today.
In the Hebrew Bible, for example, Numbers 19.1-20 gives detailed
instructions for clearing guilt before God.
By the time of Jesus these elaborate measures had been simplified a
good deal. The ultra-strict Essenes of Dead Sea Scrolls fame had
elaborate rules about ritual defilement and cleansing. They built a
complicated system to channel scarce water to twelve large baths so that
they could stay pure in God's eyes. But in Palestine ordinary people
were generally more relaxed about ritual defilement.
Some Christians may find themselves confused about confession and
penance when they turn to the New Testament.
Jesus rejected the Hebrew concept of ritual contamination as
something which comes between us and God. This is not to say that he
rejected the idea that we can and do sin - though even then he pays
little attention to the matter except in the context of forgiveness.
This Jesus is the man of history, derived from those parts of the
gospels that we can take as "what really happened" with a degree of
Despite the generously forgiving stance of Jesus, early Christians
quickly instituted the practice of restricting recalcitrants from full
participation in the community. Only when they mended their ways were
they allowed back. Paul in 1 Corinthians 5.1-13 tells the community not
to associate with immoral people and continues:
Don't even sit down to eat with such a person ... As the scripture
says, "Remove the evil man from your group".
Keeping in mind that the gospels were written decades later than the
letters of Paul, it's important to recognise a quite dramatic change
which took place in the first century after the death of Jesus. As the
new Christian communities developed, they came first under pressure from
the Jewish religious authorities to conform. Then within another short
while they had come to the attention of the Roman authorities as a
troublesome group who would not accept the emperor as supreme.
Persecution was, with hindsight, inevitable.
The Greek word for "confess" is used in the New Testament in two
senses. One is to publicly acknowledge Jesus as supreme ("Lord"); the
other is to admit a wrongdoing against God's laws. The first of these
two uses came to be primary as Christians were put under duress by
religious and secular authorities to deny their faith.
Thus the First Letter of John introduced the idea of confession as a
defence against heresy and false knowledge
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is
no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he
will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our
sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing.
As Paul Johnson remarks,
Hitherto, the confession produced a decision for or against faith
... We see here the rise of dogma. 
In other words, confessing became linked to what in the early Church
was the greatest sin of all - apostasy, the denial under persecution
that Jesus was the only true Emperor (Lord). Apostates had to go through
a rigorous confession if they wanted to be received back into the
Church. In some cases, they might even be re-baptised to ensure that
their ultimate sin had been erased.
Although early Church historians portrayed apostates as the few,
it's much more likely that they were the majority by far. William Frend
writes how around the year 250, as a result of a drive by Roman
authorities to insist on public sacrifice to declare loyalty to the
... there were thousands who thought nothing of performing
sacrifice in the temple and presenting themselves for Eucharist the
next Sunday. No one disobeyed an imperial edict lightly ... the great
majority of Christians played safe and sacrificed. 
As is the way with institutions, initially ill-defined teaching about
confession in the Church gradually solidified into a legal code. Pope
Innocent III at the Lateran Council of 1216 settled argument about the
validity of private confession to a priest by making it compulsory for
all adult Christians. It became a way of controlling people, says Colin
... we must not think of confession as providing counselling of an
elevated kind but rather as an organ of social control which helped to
ensure that the laity performed the duties appropriate to their
What better way to sniff out and snuff out incipient heresy than to
make it a deadly sin to question or contradict official Church dogma -
and at the same time to force a confession under pain of eternal
It enabled the Church to be far more flexible in its tactics, and
to adapt them to particular problems, places and men. And whereas [the
older practice of] public confession was a rude form of democracy, the
carefully selected confessor underpinned the hierarchy of [medieval]
Perhaps fortuitously, confession and resulting acts of
penance turned out to be financially beneficial to the Church. Church
officials in medieval times promoted ecclesiastical foundations as a way
of atoning for sin. This explains why so many churches, cathedrals and
monasteries were founded by evil men.
In short, a mechanical process had been substituted
for the more genuine practice of normal confession and penance.
Confession became a duty legislated from above, rather than a sign of
genuine contrition. Such things may begin with the elite. But they soon
penetrate lower socials levels. By the 14th century indulgences in the
form of time-off from hell and purgatory were being freely granted in
return for cash.
In the first six months of 1344, [Pope] Clement IV
granted [death-bed indulgences] to two hundred people in England
alone; it cost them less than ten shillings each. The Pope justified
this by saying: "A pontiff should make his subjects happy".
Mass-marketing tends to reduce both price and value of
a commodity. Indulgences were no exception.
With abuse (as we now perceive it) usually comes
correction. Martin Luther provided public impetus to a strong movement
which had already surfaced in the European Church of the 16th century
against the power which confession and penance gave the Roman
authorities. In his The Babylonian Captivity, he came out against
penance as a sacrament. It is, he wrote, merely a "promise" rather than
a "sign" or sacrament of something done by God.
The Reformation was accompanied by a different sort of
confession - a restatement of doctrinal fundamentals such as the
Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Westminster Confession of 1643. If
one side of a dispute states its case, the other side in drawn to do the
same. Thus the Roman Catholic Church also formulated its own
confessional statements through the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
Confession as penance quickly disappeared from most Protestant churches,
retaining a tiny foothold mostly in Anglo-Catholic congregations of the
Apart from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches,
confession appears on the surface to have disappeared from modern
secular society. In the former church a long-term reform of teaching
culminated in 1973 with revision which stressed confession primarily as
a pastoral tool. If a person is burdened by guilt, he or she may know
that they are certainly relieved of it by confessing to a priest.
However, a passage from William James in 1907 should
alert us to the possibility that confession may have merely migrated
elsewhere out of the Church. His comments are intended "psychologically,
It is part of a general system of purgation and
cleansing ... For him who confesses, shams are over and realities have
begun; he has exteriorized his rottenness ... he at least no longer
smears it over with a hypocritical show of virtue.
Once Sigmund Freud had popularised digging into the
dark recesses of the primal Id, the stage was set for the
development of the secular confession. Instead of going to the priest to
be shriven in God's eyes, the penitent now goes to the psychologist to
be delivered of the hidden burden of deep-seated complexes.
In the West the practice of confession in private in
the presence of a priest has declined to almost nothing - though many
millions still avail themselves of the sacrament of confession in the
newer churches in Asia, Africa and South America. But, of course, usage
validates nothing. Confession is not efficacious or good theology just
because many do it and it is pronounced essential by ecclesiastical
hierarchies, no matter how venerable.
As a means by which a feeling guilt can be assuaged,
confession in the sense of unburdening oneself to another person
nevertheless seems to have been validated by experience over millennia.
It's unlikely ever to disappear as long as there are those whose guilt
weighs them down intolerably.
But the idea that penance is somehow eternally of
value to God is, I suspect, bound to lose ground in an increasingly
secular world. After all, it is in its own small way but a kind of
sacrifice made on earth to appease God in heaven.
Reformation of a life (insofar as that is possible
given genetic background and the bonds of social conditioning) is more
likely than not to retain a place in the human economy. It is, after all
is said and done, what is meant by metanoia or repentance - a
fundamental part of the process of placing Jesus of Nazareth at the
centre of one's life.
 A vast amount has been written on the subject of the
One of the best sources of a minimalist
Jesus is The Five Gospels
(Polebridge Press, 1993)
 A History of Christianity, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976
 The Rise of Christianity, DLT 1984
 Christian Civilization in The Oxford Illustrated History