The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great

By Henry Chadwick | Go to book overview

61 Penance

From the beginning there has been a stream of Christian moral thinking which has expected Christians not to sin and has believed in their capacity and potentiality to avoid it altogether. It is problematic to demand of human beings a personal standard of morality which is in practice unattained. The difficulty was already felt by the great Stoic moralists, Seneca and Epictetus. Perhaps any moral code worthy of commanding the allegiance of serious minds is one beset by the hardness of the ideal's practicability. But it is easy to think of a minimum standard as being commanded, and of higher ideals as being a counsel of perfection, by which impracticability for all but rare individuals is normally meant. The ascetic movement of the fourth century was a quest for perfection. Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5: 48) 'Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect' prescribed some such ideal. His words to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19: 21, not in Mark's telling of the same story) 'If you aspire to be perfect, sell what you have and give to the poor' have obviously had huge influence in bequeathing the distinction between precept and counsel.

The absoluteness of the vows undertaken at baptism commits the believer to follow Christ in keeping to the path of a good moral life. But the frailty of human nature constantly leads to failures, and the question arose very early in the development of the Church: what ought to be done to restore the penitent and to exclude the impenitent and mocking apostate as long as their mind does not seriously change?

Jesus was understood to have entrusted the forgiving of believers' sins to the Church (Matt. 18: 15-17); in the last resort, one unwilling to heed the community's admonition is to be treated as an outsider and a heathen. The community is given power to 'bind and loose', and this is expressly said in the sense that decisions on earth have consequences in heaven. In John 20: 21-3 this power and duty are entrusted to the apostles. In Matt. 16: 19 the power of the keys is entrusted to Peter. In the first century it was a general axiom that reconciliation with the Church is the path to reconciliation with God and vice versa. At Rome late in the fourth century Ambrosiaster (Quaestiones, 102, CSEL 50) took it for granted that if a sin has not been absolved on earth, it remains on the debit side in heaven. In the third

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The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Church in Ancient Society iii
  • Prefatory Note vi
  • Contents vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1: The First Followers of Jesus 5
  • 2: The Jewish Matrix 13
  • 3: Jews and Christians Survive Rome's Crushing of Revolts 21
  • 4: The Hebrew Scriptures in the Church 27
  • 5: Interpreting Scripture 32
  • 6: Apostles and Evangelists 43
  • 7: Women Among Jesus' Followers 53
  • 8: 'Barnabas', Jewish Christianity, Trouble at Corinth 56
  • 9: Ignatius of Antioch 65
  • 10: Didache 84
  • 11: Marcion 89
  • 12: Justin 93
  • 13: Irenaeus of Lyon 100
  • 14: The New Testament Text 108
  • 15: Celsus: A Platonist Attack 110
  • 16: Montanism: Perpetua 114
  • 17: Tertullian, Minucius Felix 118
  • 18: Clement of Alexandria 124
  • 19: Julius Africanus 130
  • 20: Hippolytus and Liturgy 132
  • 21: Origen 135
  • 22: Cyprian of Carthage 145
  • 23: Dionysius of Alexandria 161
  • 24: Paul of Samosata 166
  • 25: Mani 170
  • 26: Plotinus, Porphyry 173
  • 27: Diocletian and the Great Persecution; Rise of Constantine 176
  • 28: Constantine 190
  • 29: The Seeds of Reaction 201
  • 30: The Church at Prayer 212
  • 31: Athanasius, Marcellus, and the Gathering Storm 226
  • 32: A Fiasco at Serdica 240
  • 33: Religious Division 254
  • 34: Athanasius' Return 260
  • 35: Constantius' Double Council of Unity 279
  • 36: Julian and the Church 295
  • 37: Damasus, Siricius, Papal Authority, Synesius of Cyrene 314
  • 38: Basil of Caesarea (Cappadocia) 331
  • 39: Ambrose 348
  • 40: Ambrosiaster 379
  • 41: Donatism 382
  • 42: Monks: The Ascetic Life 394
  • 43: Messalians 411
  • 44: Schism at Antioch 415
  • 45: Jerome and Rufinus 433
  • 46: Pelagius, Caelestius, and the Roman See in Gaul and North Africa 446
  • 47: Julian of Eclanum 464
  • 48: Augustine 473
  • 49: John Chrysostom 479
  • 50: Innocent I and John Chrysostom's Honour 499
  • 51: The Christological Debate, I 515
  • 52: The Christological Debate, Ii 538
  • 53: The Christological Debate, Iii 557
  • 54: The Aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon 592
  • 55: Justinian, Origen, and the 'Three Chapters' 612
  • 56: The Ancient Oriental Churches 628
  • 57: The Church and the Barbarian Invasions in the West 633
  • 58: Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) 658
  • 59: Worship After Constantine 675
  • 60: Pilgrims 684
  • 61: Penance 688
  • Further Reading 694
  • Dates of Roman Emperors 714
  • Index 721
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