The Roman penitential system and the emergence of Reformation doctrine (part I of II)

02 Jan

In a penitential act, Luther views the head of John the Baptist in the 2003 Luther movie

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts are a summary of some of the core elements of an introduction to a forthcoming book on confession and absolution from Lutheran Press by Pastor Holger Sonntag, where he claims “in studying his modifications of the sacrament of penance one can see how Luther’s ‘reformation breakthrough’ unfolds”, and demonstrates the same.  All quotes are from Pastor Sonntag unless otherwise noted, and all citations are taken directly from the introduction, and have not been checked by me.  I realize the connections between this and “theology like a child” may not be readily apparent to all readers. 

Part I

Information about penance prior to the Reformation follows.

As Pastor Sonntag says, [the sacrament of penance’s] importance for the whole life of the Christian at the time of Luther can hardly be overestimated”.  Meritorious prayers, fasting, and alms drove the whole show/system, even during the mass, where the prayers could be a work of satisfaction (S. Th. III, qu. 79, 7).  Perhaps this is less so today, but I am no expert here.

In sum, Scripture + Aristotle (per Thomas) -> Roman penitential system -> necessary emergence of Reformation doctrine.  Luther’s “reformational breakthrough took place when God made him realize that this question – What do I have to do in order to get a gracious God? – was  wrong.” (italics and bold mine, G. Martens, “Agreement or Disagreement on Justification by Faith Alone,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 65 (2001): 218)

Indulgences – those Reformation-starting things – were a part of the Roman Catholic teaching and practice of the sacrament of penance, which is private confession before a priest (they were technically “extra-sacramental” but presupposed the sacrament).  Buying (yes, this language was widely used) indulgences did not obtain the forgiveness of guilt and its eternal consequences, but the forgiveness/alleviation of the temporal consequences of sin – perhaps all temporal consequences (for example, not only “works of satisfaction” given by the priest [this is what “loosing and binding” meant: works of satisfaction], but all the punishment in purgatory a person needed to complete) – assuming proper contrition and confession of course.  Those who only committed “venial sins” had only temporal consequences (including purgatory) to be concerned about.  Therefore, in the sacrament of penance, the distinction between mortal and venial sin was critical (Cf. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Summa Theologica (S. Th.), I-II, qu. 88; CCC, para. 1854-1864, 1955).

Let us look at the sacrament and virtue of penance in more detail.

When committed, mortal sins – sins vs God’s Law done with full knowledge and consent – destroyed the baptized man’s love of God (charity) – though not the spiritual orientation towards God he received in baptism (see below)  – putting him on a path to hell (love alone makes alive and ties together all the other virtues – including faith – of the Christian – see S. Th. II-II, qu. 23, 6-8; CCC, para. 1827-1828).  Enter the solution of penance, which strictly speaking, was not necessary for venial sin (though commendable).  The sacrament was effectual/valid if the hell-bound sinner was made worthy by doing three “meritorious acts”: contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth, and satisfaction or compensation by good works – and the priest absolved him (absolution would usually take place before the third act, but its validity/effectiveness was contingent on the subsequent actions of the penitent).  Note again that the forgiveness given in the sacrament takes away the guilt and eternal punishment of a particular moral sin, but not the entirety of its temporal punishment.

Actually, penance began with the desire to blot out one’s sins before God with opposed acts of virtue –  this was a “special virtue”  in that it was not just “a good habit or a perfection of the capabilities of man’s soul” that all men could share, but one that became “theological” by an infusion of divine grace, a spiritual substance given freely by God.  Here, faith, hope, and love – but especially love, or charity – began to take effect in the fallen baptized, creating the inner sorrow over sin – purely out of love for God – which leads to contrition for one’s mortal sin(s).  This was made possible in part not only because original sin had been removed at baptism, but also because baptism had created in man – though a union with the divine nature (II Peter 1:4) – the ability and disposition to act like the divine nature.   If the fallen sinner, who still had this stable orientation/habit given at baptism, also resolved to attend confession as soon as possible, this could remove the guilt and punishment (all of the eternal, some of the temporal) of mortal sins (someone who did penance only out of fear of punishment was only “attrite” – better than nothing).  Where is the meaning of Jesus Christ’s work here?  Christ’s life and death made this all possible: “divine grace was the heavenly orientation and assistance earned by Christ on the cross and infused into man by means of the sacraments”. So, “grace alone” and “Christ alone” in this sense.

The third necessary act – satisfaction by good works – was prompted by the moral virtue of justice itself (which all men shared), and this required that there be a “just exchange of things” and “compensation”.  In other words, a “balancing of the scales” with God by good works, or acts of virtue, namely prayer, fasting, or almsgiving (or “works of superogation” if another who had surplus works shared their merit with you).  God’s justice demanded that sin be atoned for by offering an equivalent compensation, and God, using both the priest and other means, imposed this punishment upon the sinner (all punishment embraced in patience could function as a work of satisfaction, to pay for one’s own sins – and beyond!).  According to the rules of commutative justice, either the sinner or someone in his place (*not Christ*) had to offer an act of virtue (see Thomas Aquinas, S. Th. I-II, qu. 87, 6. ; see also the S. Th. Suppl. III, qu. 12, and qu. 13, 1-2).  In such fashion God’s grace could be merited (by grace alone of course), and the forgiveness of the guilt and punishment or wages of their sins obtained.

To be continued tomorrow…

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Posted by on January 2, 2012 in Uncategorized


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