What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?


“The Confession,” by Giuseppe Molteni (19th c.)

Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.

In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”

My response:

You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man.

The student wrote, “The Scriptures explicitly declare Christ the mediator of our confession, reconciling us to God (I Tim. 2:5-6, ESV), not the power or authority of the priest.”

I responded:

Again you misunderstand. The priest declares the reconciliation that Christ attains for us. It is not the priest’s attainment, not his power, that secures reconciliation for us. Augustine explicitly taught against this stance when he fought the Donatists. While it is true that the sacrament may be performed only by a duly ordained priest, the sacrament and its power do not belong to the priest. This is another fundamental Protestant misunderstanding (caricature) of RC theology and practice. While it is certainly up for debate whether we require a duly ordained person to hear our confession (perhaps not, though it has benefits in the realm of church order, and C S Lewis recognized this, practicing confession to a priest for the last few decades of his life), and I am inclined to side with Luther on this, nonetheless in Catholic theology the priest is “necessary” to the sacrament only as officiant, not as the person with the power, in and of himself, to forgive or absolve. That power is recognized as being Christ’s only.

The student, drawing directly from Luther, insists on a Protestant model of Confession based in an understanding of sola gratia, sola fides: “There is no need for individuals to work for their salvation, but rather there is an outpouring of the Spirit that compels good works through the fruits of the Spirit and the imputed righteousness of God.”

I responded to that naive position of Luther’s, that sanctification happens in a sort of automatic way, pointing out that many Protestants through history have disagreed with this stance. Then continued:

Important note: the “works” involved in the Catholic theology of penance are two: (1) confession (which you are recommending for Protestants! And make no mistake, it is a work) and (2) works of satisfaction, which are a sort of “spiritual discipline” intended to move the individual forward in their sanctification. This, too, many Protestants affirm. Think of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson . . . and John Calvin, who spent the whole third chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion talking about sanctification as including human participation to both “mortify” sin in the body and “vivify” the spirit.

Continued the student,

“Luther’s experience of penance was not an experience that gave him hope or left him feeling relieved, but rather brought up the unending list of sins that he had committed and continued to add to by the minute”

My response:

His problem, as has been clearly demonstrated by Protestant as well as Catholic historians of theology, was with a corrupted, non-Augustinian stream in late medieval humanist-influenced Catholic theology, called the “theologia moderna.” This sub-tradition insisted that once you “did your best,” God would honor that and bring you salvation. This was not the historic teaching of the Catholic Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a Roman Catholic, nor do I wish for my Protestant students to cross the Tiber. But if we are going to argue with Catholics over things, we should argue with their real positions, not caricatures based on the worst abuses of theology within their confession. It is only fair, since that is what we would wish from our own theological opponents. And it is the only way to gain useful knowledge in dialogue with “the other.”

That said, I expect I’ll see some heated responses to this post. Perhaps even some light, correcting any mis-emphases I may have committed here.

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16 responses to “What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?

  1. Hi Dr. Armstrong – Thanks for your website! I spent 54 years in the Roman Church (left it 5 years ago), having experienced both Vatican 1&2, Catholic School, etc., and I’d have to challenge something you said, please.

    In practice, the RC priests have long postured that THEY are the ones to bestow God’s forgiveness (vs the Greek Orthodox precess of peer encouragement by the GE priest). RC Priests are a conduit, and (as history) believed they could suspend or convey God’s mercy, as agents (Acting as another Christ “Alter Chistus”, The Faith of Millions, Fr. John O Brien) thereby retaining “control”. (Much as they exclusively could initiate the Consecrative process of Transubstantiation)

    As shown on “Catholic Answers” , the Ordinary Form of the Sacrament, the prayer of absolution is:

    God, the Father of mercies, (2 Cor. 1:3)
    through the death and resurrection of His Son
    has reconciled the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19; cf. Rom. 11:15; Col.1:20)
    and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; (John 20:21-23)
    through the ministry of the Church (2 Cor. 5:18-20)
    may God give you pardon and peace, (Luke 7:50; Col. 1:14)
    and I absolve you from your sins
    in the name of the Father, and of the Son, +
    and of the Holy Spirit.
    (Emphasis on “I”, which is required).

    I have personally heard this “first person coveyance” (“I” forgive”) for nearly a half century – regardless of ones interpretation of the CCC.

    Pls note: Fr. O”Brien’s book was a best seller, and carried the official RCC “Imprimatur” /”Nihil Obastat” seal, indicating “free from Doctrinal Error. Still further, Pg 171 (Reconciliation example) notes his explanation “..I in my official capacity as a ambassador of Almighty God, acting in His name and by His authority, exercise a power which far transcends that of a human being (to forgive) and is in truth, the very power of God Himself…(ie The distinction between a man in his private capacity and his official position as ambassador or “Alter Christus”.) O’Brien uses the “another Christ” example throughout, and by that belief, substitutes himself in the role of Christ to forgive… by assuming that role and that power (by his own, direct, inherited power–which priests, bishops and popes of the early ages used to manipulate and control, yes).

    I honestly don’t think your student’s views were a caricature of the belief or common praxis of this belief. (FWIW, O’Brien’s book was one of the main reasons I left the RCC). If I’m wrong, pls don’t hesitate to correct where I might be missing something.

  2. This is what Catholics believe in regards to re-justification through the sacrament of confession:
    The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 1446 that, “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.””

    According to Pope John Paul II the Catechism “is given as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine.”

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