Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tertullian and the Nature of Confession.

I have always been enthralled by Tertullian. Of his herculean literary output and his immense influence on Christian theology cannot be denied by anyone. Even more was his internal struggle with his perceived degradations of the Catholic Church and his subsequent descent into heresy. However wild and impulsive Tertullian perhaps was it does not subtract from the power and analytical rigor that controlled his writings as he was formally trained in Roman Law.

One such example is Tertullian on the meaning and nature of confession and how it is to be done by Christians. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a Protestant a few weeks ago. He admitted it was much "easier" for him to confess his heinous sin of committing adultery on his wife with another woman directly to God than it would ever be to confess such a dreadful deed to an official in the church (priest/pastor).

I submit that this is the main reason people have problems with confession to what they call, a "mere man." Surely it is not theological but psychological. The New Testament is replete with references for us to confess our sins to one another and lays down a blueprint of mutual confession in the body of Christ which is the Church. Most mainline Protestant denominations feel the force of ancient tradition and Scripture here and practice some form of corporate confession during their worship service. The problem is man's deep rooted fear of exposure. We are content with convincing ourselves that a quick session with the Lord will undo even the gravest of sins. Thus, we can go on merrily with our lives - undisturbed and unmolested, with the only humans aware of our transgression, the person you defiled and the person staring back at you in the mirror.

But against this modern fantasy world stands the reality of apostolic tradition. Tertullian records it well in his work De paenitentia. 1

"It (confession) is not conducted before the conscience alone, but is to be carried out by some external act", since, "satisfaction is arranged by confession, of confession is repentance born, and by repentance is God appeased."

Hence, confession has a divine design, it is "a discipline for man's prostration and humiliation, enjoining a manner, even as regards dress and food, conducive to mercy. It commands one to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover the body with mourning, to cast the spirit down in sorrow, to exchange the sins which have been committed for a demeanor of feed prayers on fasting; to groan, to weep and wail day and night to the Lord your God; to bow before the presbyters (priests)...and to beseech all the brethren for the embassy of their own supplication."

Tertullian arrives at the heart of the matter, "Most men, however, either flee from this work (confession), as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness...Why do you flee from the partners of your misfortunes as you would from those who would deride? The body is not able to take pleasure in the trouble of one of its members. It must necessarily grieve as a whole and join in laboring for a remedy. With one and two individuals, there is the Church; and the Church indeed, is Christ. Therefore, when you cast yourselves at the knees of the brethren, are entreating Christ. In the same way, when they shed tears over you, it is Christ who suffers...How very grand is the reward of modesty, which the concealing of our sin promises. If in fact we conceal something from the notice of men, shall we at the same time hide from God?...Is it better to be damned in secret than to be absolved in public?...Therefore, when you know that after the initial support of the Lord's Baptism there is still in confession a second reserve against hell, why do you desert your salvation?"


1. Written during Tertullian's orthodox period.


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