The Month: A Catholic Magazine and Review, 80 (1894) pp. 361-372


A Quotation from Tertullian.

IN its July and September numbers last year, the Contemporary Review contained articles by Archdeacon Farrar entitled respectively, "Undoing the Work of the Reformation," and "The Principles of the Reformation." With the general argument of these articles we have no intention of dealing; they are directed immediately against the Ritualists, whose teaching and practice in certain points are denounced as opposed to those of the Church whose children they profess themselves to be. The case as against them is undoubtedly a strong one, and they must be left to defend themselves as best they can against the charge of undutifulness to their mother, the Establishment. Our present purpose is to invite the attention of the reader to the way in which one of the fundamental "Principles of the Reformation" is illustrated in the article so entitled, that, namely, of making misleading quotations from the Fathers, and so attributing to them doctrines and opinions which they never held. This can hardly be deemed an unprofitable task, inasmuch as the high reputation for learning and honesty enjoyed by such men as the writer of the article in question renders the ordinary reader quite unprepared for any such employment of the good old Protestant methods, forgetting as he may that the influence of tradition and prejudice cannot even with the best will in the world be readily overcome.

Towards the end of the September article occurs a paragraph denouncing auricular confession as baneful in its effects and without foundation in Scripture or in the early traditions of the Catholic Church. To this paragraph are appended a number of notes, constituting quite a mine of information, insinuated rather than explicitly drawn out. as to the views of Tertullian. St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others on the subject. It would be an advantage in some ways to insert here the whole paragraph with its accompanying notes, but besides being disedifying, it would |362 occupy valuable space, and so we shall content ourselves with one quotation, and having extracted from it a specimen of the information which the reader of the Contemporary is presumably intended to carry away, we shall subject this specimen to some little examination.

We read, then, in the paragraph in question the following:

As to the third text about remitting and retaining sins,1 I have already quoted to him 2 the authority of the greatest of living theologians, and I could quote many more, to show (1) that it applies not to priests only, but to all Christians; and (2) that it never had, or could have had, the meaning which he and the Ritualists generally attach to it. Scriptura est sensus Scripturae, and it is useless to quote a text as decisive to those who have proved again and again that it can have no such meaning.

To this passage is appended the following note:

"Nil agit exemplum quod litem lite resolvit." The Ritualists might apply St. Jerome's remark to this passage as well, as to others: "Istum locum presbyteri . . . non intelligentes aliquid sibi de Pharisaeorum summit supercilio . . . quare apud Deum non sententia sacerdotum sed rerum veritas quaeratur." "Who and what are you," asks Tertullian, "in this claim to forgive, if you have only obtained an office of teaching; one not of authority but of ministration? Domini, non famuli est jus et arbitrium; Dei, non sacerdotis. (De Pudicit. 21.) Even such Romish divines as Aquinas, Scotus, Hugo de S. Victore, St. Bonaventure, Cajetan, Beatus Rhenanus, and many more "consent that precisely from the words of Christ no necessity of confession to a priest can be concluded." And Scotus says of the text, "Hoc verbum non est praecisum." (Jer. Taylor, vi. 507.)

It is somewhat of a relief to find, on turning to the previous article, that "the greatest of living theologians" turns out to be "our greatest living theologian, the Bishop of Durham;" nor can we discover on reference to that eminent prelate's commentary on St. John's Gospel, any proof for the assertion made there, that the power of absolution is committed to the Christian society, and not to the Christian ministry; it is simply assumed, and that too in spite of what seems like an incautious concession in a preceding note, to the effect that v. 21 is addressed to the Apostles. However, it is not with the text from St. John that we are concerned at present, but with the quotation from Tertullian slipped into the note. The |363 information intended to be gathered from it by the confiding reader may, we think, be fairly summed up in the following statement: Tertullian evidently scouts the very idea of bishop or priest or any other person having any power to forgive sin, for he asks, Who and what are you in this claim to forgive, if you have only obtained an office of teaching; one not of authority, but of ministration? This is a right of the Lord, not of the servant; of God, not of the priest. A few pages shall be devoted to examining the value of the information concerning Tertullian's views on Confession, conveyed in this, handy and compendious way.

The scantiness of our knowledge of Tertullian's life is in striking contrast with his fame as a writer. The son of a centurion in the service of the proconsul of Africa, he was born about A.D. 160, or a little later, at Carthage. He was converted to Christianity in early manhood, spent some time at Rome, and was ordained priest either there, or after his return to Carthage; the period of his literary activity extends apparently from about A.D. 197 to A.D. 222, and seems to coincide with that of his life as a priest in his native town. Absolute certainty as to the exact chronological order of the many treatises which he wrote during these years is of course unattainable, but as regards the two, De Poenitentia and De Pudicitia, with which we are almost exclusively here concerned, there can be little doubt that the former was one of the earliest, and the latter one of the latest, if not the very last, that issued from his pen.

Without pretending to give anything like a complete idea, of the teaching of the De Poenitentia, or to solve the difficulties that it raises concerning Catholic doctrine and practice, we shall merely throw together those of Tertullian's statements contained in it which may assist us in our present purpose, and which are at the same time clear and unmistakeable. In the first place, then, the existence and the gravity of sins that are merely internal, sins of thought, as they are often called, is very fully and explicitly recognized. There is the same necessity of Penance for them, as for those which involve some external act as well. They are alike in their guilt, one and the same is the Judge, both are equally to be shunned, and the remedy for both is the very same.3 In Baptism the entire blotting out of all |364 sin is certain and sure, provided only it is received with the requisite conditions of soul; it is easy for the minister of the sacrament to be deceived in this matter, but God watches over the treasure which He imparts, nor can the unworthy take Him unawares, so as to obtain possession of it, as it were by stealth.4 As there is no sin, however heinous, which Baptism will not wash away, so too after Baptism, there is absolutely no sin for which pardon cannot be obtained;5 but the process is a difficult and painful one; it cannot be completed within the heart and conscience of the sinner alone, but it is an external process as well. The ordinary name for it is confession, and just because it involves an exposure of oneself before one's fellow-men, many a one, thinking more of the shame than of the salvation which it brings with it, puts it off from day to day.6 This would be very well, if by keeping our sin from the knowledge of men, we could so hide it from God, but this cannot be. The question is simply this: is it better to hide our guilt and be lost, or to be openly absolved. And so if you shrink from confession, put Hell before your mind, and since, even after Baptism, there is a second means of safety from Hell in confession, save yourself by means of it.7

It must be remembered that we are not undertaking to prove the antiquity of auricular confession,8 nor indeed the sacramental nature of the absolution which was pronounced over the sinner |365 who acknowledged his guilt, but simply to show the utterly unreliable nature of the information which such a method of quotation as that employed by Archdeacon Farrar is calculated to impart; and therefore it is of no consequence whatever for our present purpose that Tertullian's description of the process which he calls confession, includes many other things besides an acknowledgment of guilt, or that he affirms that this means of obtaining pardon for sins subsequent to Baptism can be applied but once. It does, however, concern us to note, that although absolution is mentioned, and that too by some outward ceremony, it is not stated in whom the power of absolution resides, or by whom it is pronounced. Fortunately, though there is not the least reasonable doubt on the matter, Tertullian himself supplies the omission in the second of the two treatises we have to deal with, as will appear later on.

It has been already observed that it is impossible to determine with certainty the exact chronological order of the thirty-two treatises of Tertullian that have come down to us; but one of the chief internal means we have of doing so, is found in that gradual development of Montanist views, which transformed this man of truly splendid character and talent from an orthodox Catholic into a manifest heretic. Perhaps the first clear signs of the leaning towards Montanism appear in the De Corona, in which he reproaches Christians with having rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit.9 Again in the De Fuga, having committed himself to the proposition that the adoption of ordinary measures of prudence in order to avoid persecution is tantamount to apostasy, and being himself sensible of the extravagance of such teaching, he entrenches himself behind the authority of the new prophets, and adduces certain maxims of Montanus in defence of his these.10 So too in the first chapter of the De Virginibus velandis, we find explicit mention of that three-fold division of the course of justice upon earth, which is characteristic of Montanism; it is represented as passing through its period of childhood under the Law and the Prophets, it sprang up into youthful vigour by means of the Gospel, and now finally through the mission of the Paraclete it is being brought to full maturity. Those who have received Him, he adds, prefer the truth to custom; those who have heard Him, prophesy to-day as of old. In these last words, we detect the very poison of the heresy, which lay in its |366 setting up the private revelations of its so-called prophets against the authoritative teaching of the Church. Whatever view may be taken of the origin of Montanism, whether it be regarded as having merely clung in a perverse way to certain characteristics which belonged to the primitive organization of the Church, or as more independent and positive in its rise and revolt against the established order of things, it is at least certain that it comes before us in history under the aspect of a pretended reform, originating in Phrygia about the middle of the second century after Christ. Its leader Montanus professed to have been favoured with special revelations of the Spirit, and along with two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who received similar outpourings of the prophetic gift, he announced the approaching Judgment, and the necessity for a holy and austere life in immediate preparation for that event. These deluded "prophets" did not indeed profess to make any change, or to have any message, of a directly doctrinal character, and accordingly the heretical nature of the sect was not at first made prominent; but of course there was manifold heresy in its assumptions and assertions. Ostensibly, however, the private inspirations of Montanus and his fellow-prophets were concerned with matters of practice and discipline; Christ's coming was declared to be imminent, and the Christian's sole business in the world was to make ready. To further this end, the Spirit had now revealed to the Church through Montanus those very things which Christ had declared even His Apostles to be unable at the time to bear, those ordinances that became the Church, now no longer in its adolescence, as in the time of the Apostles, but entering upon the period of its final maturity and perfection. The chief of these were that second marriages were to be eschewed, martyrdom was to be sought out and courted, long and rigorous fasts were to be practised, and certain grievous sins, such as idolatry, murder, and impurity were to be punished in Christians by perpetual privation of the Church's sacraments and fellowship. Those who adopted these principles and practices formed the truly "spiritual" Church, the Church of the Spirit, while the rest of Christians, whoever they might be, bishops, priests, or laity, were looked down upon as unspiritual, or, as Tertullian contemptuously styles them, "psychic," or animal. Of course such a movement as this, resting as it did upon the private visions and revelations of a few, could not but be antihierarchical in its tendencies, could not but encourage a contempt for the ministrations of mere bishops and priests, who claimed no "prophetic" gifts. The "spiritual" man was the only true Christian, the inspired "prophet," the only true guide, the select body that accepted the revelations which accompanied this final outpouring of the Spirit, the only true Church. As far as we are concerned, time has passed sentence upon Montanism; divisions soon arose among the "spiritual," they gradually dwindled away, and in the course of a few centuries they disappear from history like so many other heretical sects. St. Augustine tells us that he himself had the consolation of reconciling to the true Church the small remnant of the party which Tertullian's example and influence had formed in Africa.

We need not pause here to inquire into the reasons that explain Tertullian's acceptance of the Montanist prophecies. That he did accept them is certain; the first traces of their influence upon him have been pointed out in his writings; as they took firmer and completer hold of his mind, his breach with the Catholic Church widened and widened, and appears as consummated and final in that very work from which the quotation of Archdeacon Farrar is made. This fact would be alone sufficient to destroy its value as an argument against Catholic teaching, but some little examination of the treatise De Pudicitia will serve to reveal still more clearly the ineptitude, and were it not for the excuse of ignorance, we should be compelled to add, the dishonesty of the quotation made from it. To form any idea of the bitterness and unfairness towards his opponents, which characterize this treatise of Tertullian, or to realize how strained, inconsistent, and even self-contradictory is the course of the argument, one must have read it through; there is, however, sufficient method in its madness, to make it possible for us to be certain that the sentence quoted by Archdeacon Farrar has a different sense from that in which he evidently means his readers to take them, while to any fair mind acquainted with the treatise as a whole, it will be evident that it is altogether too sophistical and party-spirited to be used, so far as its special teaching is concerned, for purposes of argument at all.

From, the first few lines we learn that a decree had recently gone forth from the Supreme Pontiff, that not even, to those guilty of gross immorality was reconciliation to be denied, provided that they fulfilled the course of penance enjoined upon them. It is only a conjecture, but not an improbable |367 one, that this decree, generally ascribed to Callistus I., who became Pope in A.D. 218, was directed against a comparatively recent custom, that had grown up in certain places under Montanist influences, a custom certainly not in conformity with the original practice, as appears not only from the De Poenitentia of Tertullian himself, but also from the fact that the very institution of public penance had for its special matter the three capital crimes of idolatry, murder, and adultery. Anyhow, it was this decree that apparently drove Tertullian, who by this time had thrown himself entirely on to the Montanist side, into a fury against what he had long regarded as the laxity of discipline in the Catholic Church, and the outcome of his passion is the treatise that follows. After mention of the decree, he anticipates the charge of changeableness, allowing that he had formerly held the doctrine contrary to that which he now defends.11 This confession is important, since it at once connects the treatise with the De Poenitentia, and seems to show that the question dealt with under the term remission or pardon of sin is the same in both. Tertullian, then, admits that he had once taught that all sins committed after Baptism; without distinction of kind, could be forgiven under the proper conditions. Now, however, he is of a different opinion; and so he proceeds to divide sins into remissible and irremissible. Then follows a concession to which we would draw special attention; in speaking of some sins as irremissible, he expressly disclaims any intention of putting limits to the mercy of God. God may pardon them by His own immediate power, and therefore the sinner is not to despair, nor to think that repentance is fruitless.12 But if this be so, if as far as God's power is concerned no sin is irremissible, it follows that the division of sins into remissible and Irremissible, to have any meaning at all, regards a power of forgiveness exercised by the Church; and accordingly it is not denied, but rather implicitly maintained, that the Church does possess a real power of pardon under God, though primarily of course the power belongs to God alone. Here, then, is the main thesis of the whole treatise, that the power of the Church to forgive sin is restricted in its subject-matter, some sins being reserved, so to say, to God alone. What these reserved or irremissible sins precisely were, |368 it would, we think, have puzzled Tertullian to say; the Montanist prophecies would not have furnished him with a complete list. In speaking of them as mortal, or as sins unto death, it is anything but certain that he is using the word mortal in the sense it commonly bears now, that is, of sins that deprive the soul of the favour and grace of God. We have seen that Tertullian fully recognizes the gravity of sins of thought, and their need of remission by Penance equally . with sins of deed. It is absurd to imagine that he believed the sinner could obtain pardon of these from the Church without any acknowledgment of guilt, and yet at the same time it is not likely that he would have included all grave sins of this kind among the irremissible. Although we do not wish to speculate upon, or to draw conclusions, however probable, from Tertullian's words; it is at least certain that in this treatise he asserts, rather than denies, a power in the Church to remit some sins, though not all. But in whom does this power reside? To this question, as we saw, the De Poenitentia gave no express answer; but in the eighteenth chapter of the De Pudicitia, we have it answered, and just in the most satisfactory way, namely, in that casual and passing way which excludes the supposition of any doubt or dispute. For, towards the end of the chapter, having insisted upon the fact that the mercy of God in pardoning sin finds place in the case of the ignorant and of those who have not yet received the light of faith, rather than of Christians, he adds that in saying this he must not be thought to be excluding that forgiveness, which may be obtained through the Bishop for less serious sins committed after Baptism, nor that which God may deign to grant without any intermediary for the greater and irremissible sins.13 It is the Bishop, then, who forgives sin, and who as God's delegate does for less serious sins, what God in His mercy may do without any instrument for those to which the Bishop's delegated power does not extend.

We come now to the immediate context of the words selected by Archdeacon Farrar for quotation in his note. As a matter of fact they do not occur continuously, but are taken partly from the middle and partly from the very end of |369 the twenty-first chapter. The sense, however, remains much the same, and we only mention the fact as affording some ground for hope that not even the chapter, much less the treatise, has been read by the Archdeacon, whose only fault, therefore, may lie in his having placed too blind a trust in the controversial writers from whom he copies.

In the twenty-first chapter, then, our author says, that in case the blessed Apostles themselves ever granted pardon for those sins which come under God's immediate power alone, they did so not ex disciplina, but ex potestate. This distinction may perhaps be explained by saying that the Apostles might be regarded either as teachers or as Apostles; their powers as teachers were ordinary, and to be transmitted to their successors, the Bishops; their powers as Apostles were personal and extraordinary. And so, Tertullian argues (of course as a Montanist heretic), that if they ever exercised the prerogative of pardon in regard to the sins reserved to God alone, they did this in virtue not of their ordinary, but of extraordinary faculties, somewhat as they raised the dead, or restored the sick to health, or struck down Ananias, in virtue of powers ordinarily exercised by God alone.14 Prove, then, he says to his adversaries, prove to me that you have their extraordinary powers of forgiving sin, by some evident miracle, such as Prophet or Apostle is permitted by God to work. "But if you have obtained an office of teaching only, if you govern not by supreme authority but only ministerially, who and what are you in this claim to forgive? You who exhibit no proof of being in the position of an Apostle or a Prophet, are devoid of the requisite power of pardon." And so our author argues, if you rejoin that the Church has power to forgive sin, I allow it; but to forgive the irremissible sins is an extraordinary power, and consequently it is in the Church only so far as the Holy Spirit may have communicated it to particular individuals. Unless a man proves himself to be an Apostle or a Prophet, he cannot be supposed to have received such extraordinary faculties. Such faculties reside in the Church, if you will, but in the Church as represented by the "spiritual," |370 not as represented by ordinary bishops.15 These have no such power, for it is the right and power of the Lord, not of the servant; of God alone, not of the priest. The close connection of such a line of argument with the Montanist pretensions will be self-evident to the reader, nor, we think, is any further remark of ours necessary to show of how little avail are the words quoted by Archdeacon Farrar for the purpose he had in view.

One or two further observations upon the note in which the words from Tertullian find a place will conclude the paper. If the reader will look back at it, he will find an indication of another principle of the Reformation, namely that of never keeping to one point, but of mixing up distinct questions so inextricably as to render the entrance of any light almost impossible. It is one question whether by the words of St. John xx. 23, the power is conferred on certain individuals in the Church of forgiving sin, and quite another whether by the same words confession of sin committed after Baptism was made obligatory by our Lord. Before the Council of Trent it was quite possible for some Catholic theologians to regard the latter question as undecided, while maintaining the obligation, and that too by Divine precept, on other grounds. We do not deny that the doubt entertained as to the full content of our Lord's words in St. John xx. 23 by some theologians of note, does tell against those Ritualists, who would positively assert that the obligation is therein expressed and imposed, and yet who reject the only authority that can put the question beyond dispute; we would only insist that the question is a perfectly distinct one, and not to be in any way confounded with the other, whether a power of forgiving sin is conferred by the words upon certain individuals. As to the words quoted by Archdeacon Farrar from St. Jerome, they are taken, though not accurately,16 from his commentary on St. Matt. xvi. 19. The gist of his remark is that priests must not think they can bind and loose at random, and he ends up by saying that, as their office requires, after having heard the different sins committed, they come to know who is to be bound, and who is to be loosed. |371 

Lastly, as to the words of Scotus: hoc verbum non est praecisum (also inaccurately quoted), it is very difficult not to suppose that Archdeacon Farrar takes them (as in one place does Jeremy Taylor) to mean that the text is not decisive or conclusive. Not, of course, that he could have so understood them, had he ever read the passage in which they occur: but this he would seem not to have thought worth while, and perhaps rightly for the object that he had in view. What Scotus really says is this: it may well be argued, he writes, that because the words, Whose sins you shall retain, &c., are not exclusive (praecisum), inasmuch as sins may be retained otherwise than by the exercise of the priestly power, so too the words, Whose sins you shall forgive, &c., may also not exclude other ways of obtaining pardon for sin. He allows the great probability of the objection as against the conclusiveness of the text taken by itself, and proceeds to prove the obligation of confession by Divine precept from the words of St. John combined with those of Deut. vi. 5.1

Altogether, notwithstanding a considerable show of learning, we are convinced that Archdeacon Farrar is not a satisfactory guide to the teaching of the Fathers and great scholastic theologians on the subject of Confession.


[Footnotes have been moved to the end and renumbered.]

1. 1 St. John xx. 23.

2. 2 Canon Knox Little, who replied in the August number to the Archdeacon's previous article.

3. 1 "Communis reatus amborum est, communis et judex, Deus scilicet; communis igitur et poenitentiae medela. Exinde spiritalia et corporalia nominantur, quod delictum omne aut agitur aut cogitatur. . . . Per quod ostenditur, non facti solum, verum et voluntatis delicta vitanda, et poenitentia purganda esse." (De Poenit. c. 3.)

4. 1 De Poenit. c. 6. 

5. 2 Ibid. c. 8.

6. 3 Ibid. 9: ". . . Non sola conscientia praeferatur, sed aliquo etiam actu administretur. Is actus qui magis graeco vocabulo exprimitur et frequentatur, exomologesis est. . . ." And c. 10: "Plerosque tamen hoc opus, ut publicationem sui aut suffugere, aut de die in diem differre, praesumo, pudoris magis memores quam salutis. ..."

7. 4 Ibid. c. 11: "Grande plane emolumentum verecundiae, occultatio delicti pollicetur. Videlicet, si quod humanae notitiae subduxerimus proinde et Deum celabimus. . . . An melius est damnatum latere, quam palam absolvi?" And c. 12: "Si de exomologesi retractas, gehennam in corde considera. . . . Igitus cum scias adversus gehennam . . . esse adhuc in exomologesi secunda subsidia, cur salutem tuam deseris?"

8. 5 Archdeacon Farrar tells us that "the Church of Rome began in the thirteenth century to insist on auricular confession." Does he mean that she then began to insist on confession, or to insist that it should be auricular? Not surely the first; as to the second, it may suffice here to quote the words of St. Leo in the middle of the fifth century: ''Illam etiam contra Apostolicam regulam praesumptionem, quam nuper agnovimus a quibusdam illicita usurpatione committi, modis omnibus constituo submoveri, ne de singulorum peccatorum genere libellis scripta professio publice recitetur, cum reatus conscientiarum sufficiat solis sacerdotibus indicari confessione secreta. Quamvis enim . . . tamen removeatur tam improbabilis consuetude. . . . Sufficit enim illa confessio, quae primum Deo offertur, tunc etiam sacerdoti. . . . (Ep. 108. 2.)

9. 1 De Corona, c. 1. 

10. 2 De Fuga, c. 9.

11. 1 "Erit igitur et hic adversus Psychicos titulus, adversus meae quoque sententiae retro penes illos societatem." (De Pudicit. c. 1.)

12. 2 Ib. c. 3.

13. 1 "Quod si clementia Dei ignorantibus adhuc et infidelibus competit, utique et poenitentia ad se clementiam invitat, salva illa poenitentiae specie post fidem, qua aut levioribus delictis veniam ab Episcopo consequi poterit, aut majoribus et irremissibilibus a Deo solo." (De Pudicit. c. 18.)

14. 1 "Itaque si et ipsos beatos Apostolos tale aliquid indulsisse constaret, cujus venia a Deo, non ab homine, competeret; non ex disciplina sed ex potestate fecisse. Nam et mortuos suscitaverunt, quod Deus solus; et debiles redintegraverunt, quod nemo nisi Christus, imo et plagas inflixerunt." (De Pudicit. c. 21.)

15. 1 "Et ideo ecclesia quidem delicta donabit; sed ecclesia spiritus per spiritalem hominem, non ecclesia numerus episcoporum. Domini enim, non famuli est jus et arbitrium; Dei ipsius, non sacerdotis." (De Pudicit. c. 21.)

16. 2 "Istum locum episcopi et presbyteri non intelligentes, aliquid sibi de Pharisaeorum assumunt supercilio, ut vel damnent innocentes, vel solvere se noxios arbitrentur: cum apud Deum non sententia sacerdotum, sed reorum vita quaeratur."

17. 1 Scotus in lib. iv. Sent, Dist. xvii. Scholium, n. 12.


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