word absolution comes from the Latin word absolvere, which means: to
release from, or to declare innocent.
In the history of the Church, the word has been used in two senses:
1. It is used in the sense of remission of sins.
In this sense it is God only that absolves. Roman Catholics argue
that the power of absolving or remitting sin after confession was
given to the Apostles by the words of the Lord Jesus recorded in
John 20:23, Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them;
and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained (see, for example,
the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1441). But this
is a misunderstanding. The verse can be interpreted in one of two
First, these words, spoken by the Lord after His resurrection, can
be understood as merely conveying to the Apostles who were going
forth to evangelize the world their commission. In this sense
the words of Jesus authorize the Apostles to admit those whom they
judged fit into the kingdom of grace and forgiveness, and to refuse
admission into it to those whom they judged unfit. This is the Patristic
understanding of the text as may be seen by the comment of Cyril
of Alexandria (A.D. 412444) on it.
However, there is a second interpretation of John 20:23. As persons
in Scripture are said to do that which they were commissioned to
announce would he done (see, for example, 1 Kings 19:17; Jer. 1:10;
Hos. 6:5), our Lords words in John may he paraphrased: You are commissioned
to go forth and preach that My blood has been shed to take away sin,
and whosoever believes your message and accepts the Gospel offered
will be freely forgiven (see Luke 24:47). It is important to note
that the Lord is speaking to the whole body of disciples, and not
the Apostles only. This fact is proved from a comparison of the accounts
given by Mark, Luke, and John. Thus the words of Jesus in John 20:23
are a commission to the whole Church, not just to the Apostles. Furthermore,
as the word whosesoever (plural in the original Greek) proves, it
is classes of men and not individuals which are referred to, in other
words, those who repent and believe the Gospel.
Whichever interpretation is taken it is clear that the text has
nothing whatever to do with an ordinance of Confession and Absolution.
2. The word absolution has also been used in the sense of
a release from the censures of the Church which have been imposed
upon an offender.
In early times whoever was guilty of any great crime was laid under
the censures of the Church and debarred from communion. The offences
requiring ecclesiastical censure were, according to Gregory Nyssa
(A.D. 373395), apostasy, witchcraft, adultery, fornication,
murder, homicide, robbery, robbery of graves, and sacrilege. Whoever
had been guilty of any of these offences was excluded from the Lords
Table for various lengths of time. During those periods he had to
do public penance before the congregation, who were thus assured,
so far as was possible, of his repentance, and were moved to pray
to God for his forgiveness. When he had finished the appointed time
of his penance, having passed through the four orders of penitents
as a weeper, a hearer, a kneeler, and a non-communicating attendant,
he was restored to the peace of the Church and absolved from the
censure which had been laid on him.
There was no marked form by which this absolution was conveyed.
The Bishop and clergy present laid their hands upon him in the last
stage with prayer. However, this same form had been used at the beginning
of the penance, and every day that he had remained in the class of
the kneelers. It meant no more than that prayer was being offered
for the individual by the ministers of the congregation. After this
absolution he was readmitted to Church communion.
Growth of Sacramental Confession and priestly Absolution
It was only by slow degrees that the doctrine of Sacramental Confession
as linked with absolution grew up in the Church. For twelve hundred
years there was no formula of absolution from sin (as distinct from
censure) known in the Church of Christ, but only prayer for the forgiveness
of the sinner. For the first six hundred years this prayer was offered
publicly by the congregation. Then people began to think Leo I (A.D.
440461) led the way in such thinking that the prayer of the priest
could be regarded as a substitute for that of the congregation.
Then there grew up the practice adopted by some, not by others of
confessing to the priest those sins which up to that time were confessed
publicly, and receiving his prayers in place of those of the congregation,
which for the particular purpose he represented. Gradually the idea
of the priest as representing the congregation was exchanged for
that of the priest representing God. Finally, at the end of another
six hundred years, the formula of absolution was changed from a prayer
for pardon to a granting of forgiveness. Twelve hundred years had
to pass before so presumptuous a claim could be put forth. One more
step followed. In 1215 absolution after confession was declared obligatory
on all men and women by the most arrogant of the Popes, Innocent
III, at the Fourth Lateran Council which also formulated the
dogma of Transubstantiation.
Differences between Roman Catholic Doctrine, Reformers and Anglo-Catholics
In order to show how widely the English Reformers and Rome differ
from one another in regard to confession and absolution, also how
the teaching of Anglo-Catholics is more in harmony with the Lateran
doctrine (and later that of the Council of Trent) than that of the
Church of England, we shall give a brief account of the teaching
1. The Roman Catholic Teaching
The Roman Church teaches that our Lord Jesus Christ established
a Tribunal of Penance in which the priest is judge, and that it is
necessary for every Christian to address himself to that Tribunal
for the forgiveness of his sins. History demonstrably proves that
that Tribunal was in fact not established by our Lord, but by
Innocent III in 1215, and that it was the fourth Lateran Council,
not our Lord, which ordered all Christians to submit themselves to
The Church of Rome teaches further that Penance is a Sacrament,
and that this Sacrament consists of four parts (a) Contrition or
attrition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1451-1454),
(b) Confession (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1455-1458),
(c) Satisfaction (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1459-1460)
and (d) Absolution (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1441-1442,
(a) Roman teachers are forced to substitute attrition (distress
at sin through fear of its punishment in this world or the next,
attrition is called imperfect contrition in the 1994 Catechism of
the Catholic Church, para. 1453) for contrition (distress at sin
through sorrow at offending God) because they do not dare to deny,
in face of the declarations of Holy Scripture, that contrition
on the part of man is immediately accompanied by forgiveness on the
part of God. But if that is so, why are confession, satisfaction,
and absolution needed to bring about what has been already done?
They state that contrition is enough without the other three, but
attrition is insufficient with them. Thus, in the teaching of the
Church of Rome, a person may be forgiven without any love of God
in his heart if he has a fear of Gods punishments and submits himself
to the priest.
(b) Confession, according the teaching of Rome, must be made (i)
in secrecy and (ii) to the priest not as in early times before the
congregation. Also the penitent is ordered to enumerate all grave
sins, and to answer any questions asked by the priest, who is instructed
to make inquiries on any points which may have been concealed through
modesty. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church states that confession
to a priest is essential and that, All mortal sins of which penitents
after diligent self examination are conscious must be recounted by
them in confession, even if they are most secret (para. 1456, see
also 1424 and 1493).
(c) Satisfaction, involves not only making amends to another who
has been wronged, but also involves the satisfying Gods justice by
suffering or by performing a painful penance imposed by the priest.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the sinner must
make satisfaction for or expiate his sins (para. 1459). When God
pardons the sinner on the priests absolution, He is supposed not
to be content unless the sinner undergoes some pain, which must be
undergone either on earth or in an imaginary place called Purgatory,
unless the Pope presents him with an Indulgence which shortens or
removes it (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1471-1479).
(d) Absolution, instead of being a release from the censures of
the Church, or a prayer for Gods forgiveness of the trespass
committed by the sinner, becomes a judicial pardon of sin by
a man acting in the place of God.
2. Teaching of the English Reformers
At the Reformation the Reformers swept away the whole of the system
which was established by the fourth Lateran Council of 1215. They
did not bring back the early penitential discipline of the public
acknowledgment of great offences before the congregation, but they
left each person to the rule of his God-given conscience. This had
always been the case in the early Church, except in the case of such
scandalous offences as those enumerated by Gregory of Nyssa. The
Reformers made conscience the judge of whether the person was or
was not in a state to attend the Table of the Lord. In the Anglican
Church they introduced into the Daily Prayers and into the Communion
Service a declaration of Gods forgiveness of the penitent, by
which each person might judge and reassure himself, and a prayer
for His forgiveness after the public confession of sin. For the ordinary
Christian life the mediaeval practice of private confession and absolution
However, the Reformers recognized that there might be souls so overwhelmed
by the horror of a sudden fall or by the stings of an awakened conscience
that they could not assure themselves of the possibility of Gods
forgiveness before Holy Communion (which ought to be received with
the quiet mind of a child of God conscious of acceptance by his Father)
or before death. In these exceptional cases they allowed and advised
the troubled soul to open its grief to the minister of the Church,
or some other discreet and learned minister of Gods Word, in order
to receive assurance that his sin did not shut him out from Gods
mercy, and that he might enjoy the benefits of absolution, which
are restoration to the communion of the Church. in these two cases
only did the Reformers allow private absolution not for the removal
of sin, but for assurance to the sinner that God certainly forgives
or has forgiven him, if he is truly penitent.
3. Anglo-Catholic Teaching
Anglo-Catholics make as little as possible of the public absolutions
because they wish to drive people to what they call sacramental absolution.
This teaching on sacramental absolution is essentially the same
as the Roman Church. In one respect it goes beyond it, for whereas
Roman authorities teach that only grave sins and such as they pronounce
mortal, must necessarily be confessed in order to obtain absolution,
Anglo-Catholics require all sins that the ransacked memory can recall
to be confessed for that purpose, on pain of the guilt of sacrilege.
They have found it necessary to reject the substitution of attrition
for contrition, as they could not bear the thought of forgiveness
being given to someone who was without any love towards God. But
then they are left in the difficulty, that there is no longer need
of auricular confession and no place for priestly absolution to release
from sin, when that sin has been pardoned already, as it certainly
is on contrition. They argue that God demands confession as
a condition of pardon. That is true, but it is confession to Himself
that He demands, which is a necessary part of contrition, not an
act subsequent to and apart from it. They further tacitly reject
the Roman explanation of satisfaction, and substitute for it amendment.
That is well, but amendment is a result of repentance, not a part
of an ecclesiastical ordinance. The Anglo-Catholic view of the final
act of absolution does not differ at all from the Roman Catholic
According to the Anglo-Catholics, the Scriptural authority for absolution
is commonly declared to be John 20:23. But, as we have seen,
this verse has nothing whatever to do with sacramental confession
and absolution. Some Anglo-Catholics desperately argue that
the institution of the Sacrament of Penance is to be found in our
Lords washing the disciples feet (John 13:10)! This only serves to
highlight the unbiblical nature of their teachings.
For the Roman Catholic view of absolution see Catechism
of the Catholic Church, Part II, section 2, article 4 (Geoffrey
Chapman, 1994, pp. 319-335).
For the Anglo-Catholic view see An Introduction
to the Oxford Movement,
Michael Chandler (SPCK, 2003), pp 118-121. W Walsh in the appendix
to his Secret History of the Oxford Movement gives several pages
of quotations from the writings of the Tractarians and Ritualists
on the subject of auricular confession and priestly absolution (many
editions, mine Swan Sonnenschein, 1899, pp 283-287).
For the English Reformers view see The Second
Part of the Homily of Repentance in The Second
Book of Homilies (SPCK, 1938) pp. 574-577.
Geoffrey Rowells essay The Anglican Tradition from the Reformation
to the Oxford Movement in Confession and Absolution, ed. M Dudley
and G Rowell (SPCK, 1990) gives a useful account of the Reformers
(From the article by Frederick Meyrick, in The Protestant Dictionary
(revised edition, 1933), edited and adapted by Dr A G Baxter, 2003)