From Confession we are now to proceed unto Absolution which it were pity this man should receive before he made confession of the open wrong he hath here done, in charging us to deny “that priests have power to forgive sins.” Whereas the very formal words which our Church requireth to be used in the ordination of a minister, are these: “Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.” (The Form of Ordering of Priests) And therefore, if this be all the matter, the Fathers and we shall agree well enough; howsoever this make-bate would fain put friends together by the ears, where there is no occasion at all of quarrel. For we acknowledge most willingly, that the principal part of the priest’s ministry is exercised in the matter of “forgiveness of sins;” the question only is of the manner, how this part of their function is executed by them, and of the bounds and limits thereof, which the Pope and his clergy, for their own advantage, have enlarged beyond all measure of truth and reason.
That we may therefore give unto the priest the things that are the priest’s, and to God the things that are God’s, and not communicate unto any creature the power that properly belongeth to the Creator, who will not give his glory unto another (Isaiah 48:11); we must in the first place lay this down for a sure ground, that to forgive sins properly, directly, and absolutely, is a privilege only appertaining unto the Most High. I, saith he of himself, even I am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins. Isaiah 43:25. Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity? saith the prophet Micah 7:18; which in effect is the same with that of the scribes, Mark 2:7, and Luke 5:21: Who can forgive sins but God alone? And therefore, when David saith unto God, Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Psalm 32:5, Gregory, surnamed the Great, the first Bishop of Rome of that name, thought this to be a sound paraphrase of his words, “Thou, who alone sparest, who alone forgivest sins. For who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Gregor. Exposit. 11. Psalmi Paenitential.) He did not imagine that he had committed any great error in subscribing thus simply unto that sentence of the scribes; and little dreamed that any petty doctors afterwards would arise in Rome or Rheims, who would tell us a fair tale, that “The faithless Jews thought as heretics now-a-days, that to forgive sins was so proper to God, that it could not be communicated unto man;” (Rhemists, Annot. in Matthew 4:5) and that “true believers refer this to the increase of God’s honour, which miscreant Jews and heretics do account blasphemy against God and injurious to his majesty.” (Richard Hopkins, in the Memorial of a Christian Life, p. 179. edit, ann 1612) Whereas in truth the faithlessness of the Jews consisted in the application of this sentence against our Saviour Christ, whom they did not acknowledge to be God; as the senselessness of these Romanists in denying of the axiom itself.
But the world is come unto a good pass, when we must be accounted “heretics now-a-days,” and consorted with “miscreant Jews,” for holding the selfsame thing that the Fathers of the ancient Church delivered as a most certain truth, whensoever they had any occasion to treat of this part of the history of the Gospel. Old Irenaeus telleth us, that our Saviour in this place, “forgiving sins did both cure the man, and manifestly discover who he was. For if none,” saith he, “can forgive sins but God alone, and our Lord did forgive them, and cured men, it is manifest that he was the Word of God made the Son of man; and that as man he is touched with compassion of us, as God he hath mercy on us, and forgiveth us our debts which we do owe unto our Maker.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Book 5, Chapter 17, Section 3) Tertullian saith that “When the Jews, beholding only his humanity, and not being yet certain of his Deity, did deservedly reason that a man could not forgive sins, but God alone,” he, by answering of them, that “the Son of man had authority to forgive sins,” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Chapter 10) would by this remission of sins have them call to mind, that he was “that only Son of man prophesied of in Daniel, who received power of judging, and thereby also of forgiving of sins.” (Ibid) Daniel 7:13, 14. St Hilary, commenting upon the ninth of Matthew, writeth thus: “It moveth the scribes that sin should be forgiven by a man; (for they beheld a man only in Jesus Christ;) and that to be forgiven by him, which the law could not release: for it is faith only that justifieth. Afterward the Lord looketh into their murmuring, and saith, that it is an easy thing for the Son of man upon earth to forgive sins. For it is true, none can forgive sins but God alone: therefore he who remitteth is God, because none remitteth but God. God remaining in man, performed this cure upon man.” (Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew. Chapter 8. Section 6) St Jerome thus: “We read that God saith in the prophet, I am he that blotteth out thine iniquities. Consequently therefore the scribes, because they thought him to be a man, and did not understand the words of God, accuse him of blasphemy. But the Lord, seeing their thoughts, sheweth himself to be God, who is able to know the secrets of the heart; and holding his peace, after a sort speaketh: By the same majesty and power wherewith I behold your thoughts, I am able also to forgive sins unto men.” (Jerome, Commentary on Matthew. Book 1. Chapter 9) Or, as Euthymius expresseth it in his commentaries upon the same place: “In truth, none can forgive sins but one, who beholdeth the thoughts of men.” (Euthymius, Commentary on Matthew. Chapter 13) St Chrysostom likewise, in his sermons upon the same, sheweth that Christ here declared himself to be God, equal unto the Father; and that if he had not been equal unto the Father, he would have said, “Why do you attribute unto me an unfitting opinion? I am far from that power.” (John Chrysostom, Homily 29 on Matthew. Matthew 9:1-2.) To the same effect also writeth Christianus Druthmarus, Paschasius Radbertus, and Walafridus Strabus in the ordinary gloss upon the same place of St Matthew; Victor Antiochenus upon the second of Mark; Theophylact and Bede upon the second of Mark and the fifth of Luke; St Ambrose upon the fifth of Luke; who in another place also bringeth this sentence of the scribes as a ground to prove the Deity of the Holy Ghost withal: forasmuch as “none forgiveth sins but one God; because it is written, Who can forgive sins hut God alone?” (Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, Book 3. Chapter 18. 133) as St Cyril doth to prove the Deity of the Son: “For this only,” saith he, “did the malice of the Jews say truly, that none can forgive sins but God alone, who is the Lord of the law.” (Cyril Alexand.Thesaur.lib.xii.cap.4) And thence he frameth this argument: “If he alone who is the Lord of all doth free us from our sins, and this affreeth to no other, and Christ bestoweth this with a power befitting God, how should he not be God?” (Id. in lib. de Recta Fide ad Reginas.)
The same argument also is used bv Novatianus and Athanasius, to the selfsame purpose. “For if when it agreeth unto none but unto God to know the secrets of the heart, Christ doth behold the secrets of the heart; if, when it agreeth unto none but unto God to forgive sins, the same Christ doth forgive sins; then deservedly is Christ to be accounted God,” (Novatian. On the Trinity. Chapter 13) saith Novatianus. So Athanasius demandeth of the Arians, If the Son were a creature, “how was he able to forgive sins?” it being written in the prophets,” (Athanasius. Discourse 3 Against the Arians) that this is the work of God. For who is a God like unto thee, that taketh away sins, and passeth over iniquities?” “But the Son,” saith he, “said unto whom he would, Thy sins are forgiven thee: and when the Jews murmured, did demonstrate also this forgiveness; indeed, saying to the man that was sick of the palsy. Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.” (Athanasius, De Synodis. Part 3. 49) And therefore Bede rightly inferreth, that “The Arians do err here much more madly” than the Jews; “who, when they dare not deny, being convicted by the words of the Gospel, that Jesus is both the Christ, and hath power to forgive sins, yet fear not for all that to deny him to be God;” (Bede. Commentary on Mark. Book One. Chapter 10) and concludeth himself most soundly, that “if he be God according to the Psalmist, who removeth our iniquities from us as far as the east is from the west, and the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, therefore the same is both God and the Son of man; that the man Christ by the power of his Divinity might forgive sins, and the same Christ God by the frailty of his humanity might die for sinners.” (Ibid) Whereunto we will add another sweet passage, borrowed by him from an ancienter author: “No man taketh away sins (which the law, although holy, and just, and good, could not take away,) but he in whom there is no sin: now he taketh them away, both by pardoning those that are done, and by assisting us that they may not be done, and by bringing us to the life where they cannot at all be done.” (Bede. Commentary on 1 John. Chapter 3) Peter Lombard allegeth this as the saying of St Augustine, the former sentence only being thus changed: “None taketh away sins but Christ alone, who is the Lamb that taketh away the sins of the world;” (P. Lombard, lib. iv. Sentent. Distinct. XVIII. D.) agreeable to that, which in the same place he citeth out of St Ambrose: “He alone forgiveth sins who alone died for our sins;” and to that of Clemens Alexandrinus: “He alone can remit sins who is appointed our master by the Father of all, who alone is able to discern disobedience from obedience.” (Clement of Alexandria, The Paedogogus. Book 1. Chapter 8) To which purpose also St Ambrose maketh this observation upon the history of the woman taken in adultery, John 8:9, that “Jesus, being about to pardon sin, remained alone. For it is not the ambassador,” saith he, “nor the messenger, but the Lord himself that hath saved his people. He remaineth alone, because it cannot be common to any man with Christ to forgive sins. This is the office of Christ alone, who taketh away the sin of the world.” (Ambrose. Epistle 76) Yea, St Chrysostom himself, who of all the Fathers giveth most in this point unto God’s ambassadors and messengers, is yet careful withal to preserve God’s privilege entire by often interposing such sentences as these: “None can forgive sins but God alone.” (John Chrysostom. Homilies on 2 Corinthians. Homily 5. 2 Corinthians 3:5-6) “To forgive sins belongeth to no other.” (John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Gospel of John. Homily 54. John 8:33) “To forgive sins is possible to God only.” (John Chrysostom. Homilies on 1 Corinthians. Homily 40. 1 Corinthians 15:29. 2) “God alone doth this; which also he worketh in the washing of the new birth.” (Ibid) Wherein that the work of cleansing the soul is wholly God’s, and the minister hath no hand at all in effecting any part of it, Optatus proveth at large in his fifth book against the Donatists; shewing that “None can wash the filth and spots of the mind but he who is the framer of the same mind;” (Optatus. Book 5.) and convincing the heretics, as by many other testimonies of holy Scripture, so by that of Isaiah 1:18, which he presseth in this manner: “It belongeth unto God to cleanse, and not unto man; he hath promised by the Prophet Isaiah, that he himself would wash, when he saith, If your sins were as scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. I will make them white, he said; he did not say, I will cause them to be made white. If God hath promised this, why will you give that, which is neither lawful for you to promise, nor to give, nor to have ? Behold, in Isaiah God hath promised that he himself will make white such as are defiled with sins, not by man.” (Ibid)
Having thus therefore reserved unto God his prerogative royal in cleansing of the soul, we give unto his under officers their due, when we “account of them as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God;” (1 Corinthians 4:1,2) not as Lords, that have power to dispose of spiritual graces as they please; (John Chrysostom. Homilies on 1 Corinthians. Homily 10. 1 Corinthians 4:1. 2 ) but as servants, that are tied to follow their master’s prescriptions therein; and in following thereof do but bring their external ministry, (John Chrysostom. Homilies on 2 Corinthians. Homily 8. 2 Corinthians 4:5 ) for which itself also they are beholding to God’s mercy and goodness, God conferring the inward blessing of his Spirit thereupon, when and where he will. Who then is Paul, saith St Paul himself, (1 Corinthians 3:5) and who is Apollo? but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man. Therefore, saith Optatus, “in all the servants there is no dominion, but a ministry.” (Optatus. Book 5.) Cui creditur ipse dat quod creditur, non per quern creditur; “It is he who is believed that giveth the thing which is believed, not he by whom we do believe.” (John Chrysostom. Homilies on 1 Corinthians. Homily 8. 1 Corinthians 3:5) Whereas our Saviour, then, saith unto his Apostles, John 20. Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins you forgive shall be forgiven: St Basil (Basil, lib. v. advers. Eunom), Ambrose (Ambrose. On The Holy Spirit. Book 3. Chapter 18), Augustine (Augustine. Against Parmenian. Book 2. Chapter 11), Chrysostom (John Chrysostom. Homilies on 2 Cor 3. Homily 6.), and Cyril (Cyril of Alexandria. Commentary on John. Book 7. Chapter 56), make this observation thereupon; that this is not their work properly, but the work of the Holy Ghost, who remitteth by them, and therein performeth the work of the true God. For “Indeed,” saith St Cyril, “it belongeth to the true God alone to be able to loose men from their sins. For who else can free the transgressors of the law from sin, but he who is the Author of the law itself?” (Ibid) “The Lord,” saith St Augustine, “was to give unto men the Holy Ghost; and he would have it to be understood, that by the Holy Ghost himself sins should be forgiven to the faithful, and not that by the merits of men sins should be forgiven. For what art thou, O man, but a sick man that hast need to be healed? Wilt thou be a physician to me? Seek the physician together with me.” (Augustine. Homilies on Exodus. Homily 23. Exodus 30) So St Ambrose: “Behold, that by the Holy Ghost sins are forgiven. But men to the remission of sins bring their ministry; they exercise not the authority of any power.” (Ambrose. On The Holy Spirit. Book 3. Chapter 18. 137) St Chrysostom, though he make this to be the exercise of a great power, (which also he elsewhere amplifieth after his manner, exceeding hyperbolically, (John Chrysostom. On The Priesthood. Book 3. 6) yet in the main matter accordeth fully with St Ambrose, that it lieth in “God alone to bestow the things wherein the priest’s service is employed.” (John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Gospel of John. Homily 20. John 20:22-23) “And what speak I of priests?” saith he: “neither angel nor archangel can do ought in those things which are given by God; but the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost do dipense all. The priest lendeth his tongue, and putteth to his hand.” (Ibid) “His part only is to open his mouth; but it is God that worketh all.” (John Chrysostom. Homilies on 2 Timothy. Homily 2. Chapter 1) And the reasons whereby both he, and Theophylact after him (Theophylact on John 8), do prove that the priests of the law had no power to forgive sins, are of as great force to take the same power from the ministers of the Gospel. First, because ^Mt is God’s part only to forgive sins : which is the moral that Haymo maketh of that part of the history of the Gospel (Haymo Halberstadt. Evang. Domin. 15. post Pentecost), wherein the lepers are cleansed by our Saviour, before they be commanded to shew themselves unto the priests; “because,” saith he, “not the priests, but God doth forgive sins.” Secondly, because the priests were servants, yea servants of sin, and therefore had no power to forgive sins unto others (Theophylact on John 8); but the Son is the Lord of the house, who was manifested to take away our sins, and in him is no sin, saith St John (1 John 3:5). Upon which saying of his, St Augustine giveth this good note: “It is he in whom there is no sin, that came to take away sin. For if there had been sin in him too, it must have been taken away from him; he could not take it away himself.” (Augustine. Tract 4 in 1 John 3)
To forgive sins, therefore, being thus proper to God only and to his Christ, his ministers must not be held to have this power communicated unto them, but in an improper sense, namely, because God forgiveth by them, and hath appointed them both to apply those means by which he useth to forgive sins, and to give notice unto repentant sinners of that forgiveness. “For who can forgive sins but God alone? Yet doth he forgive by them also unto whom he hath given power to forgive,” (Ambrose. Commentary on Luke. Book 5) saith St Ambrose and his followers. And “though it be the proper work of God to remit sins,” saith Ferus, “yet are the Apostles” and their successors “said to remit also, not simply, but because they apply those means whereby God doth remit sins : which means are the word of God and the Sacraments.” (Ic. Ferus, Annotat. in Johan. 20. item lib. 3. Comment, in Matt. cap. 16.) Whereunto also we may add the relaxation of the censures of the Church, and prayer; for in these four the whole exercise of this ministry of reconciliation, as the Apostle calleth it (2 Corinthians 5:18), doth mainly consist. Of each whereof it is needful that we should speak somewhat more particularly.
That prayer is a means ordained by God for procuring remission of sins, St Chrysostom (Chrysostom. in Catena Graeca. in Job 42:8) observeth out of Job 42:8, and is plain by that of St James: “The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may he healed: for the fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (James 5:15,16) The latter of which sentences hath reference to the prayers of every good Christian, whereunto we find a gracious promise annexed, according to that of St John: If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. (1 John 5:16) But the former, as the verse immediately going before doth manifestly prove, pertaineth to the prayers made by the ministers of the Church, who have a special charge to be the Lord’s remembrancers for the good of his people. And therefore, as St Augustine out of the latter proveth, that one brother by this means may cleanse another from the contagion of sin, (Augustine. Tractates on the Gospel of John. Tractate 58) so doth St Chrysostom out of the former, that priests do perform this, not “by teaching only and admonishing, but by assisting us also with their prayers.” (John Chrysostom. On the Priesthood. Book 3) And the faithful prayers, both of the one and of the other, are by St Augustine made the especial means whereby the power of the keys is exercised in the remitting of sins; (Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists. Book 3. Chapter 18) who thereupon exhorteth offenders to shew their repentance publicly in the Church, “that the Church might pray for them,” (Augustine. Homily 49. Exodus 50) and impart the benefit of absolution unto them.
In the life of St Basil, fathered upon Amphilochius, of the credit whereof we have before spoken, a certain gentlewoman is brought in coming; unto St Basil for obtaining: remission of her sins, who is said there to have demanded this question of her: “Hast thou heard, O woman, that none can forgive sins but God alone?” and she to have returned him this answer: “I have heard it, Father, and therefore have I moved thee to make intercession unto our most merciful God for me.” Which agreeth well with that which Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure do maintain, that the power of the keys extends to the remission of faults, by way of intercession only and deprecation, not by imparting any immediate absolution. And as in our private forgiving and praying one for another, St Augustine well noteth, that “it is our part, God giving us the grace, to use the ministry of charity and humility; but it is his to hear us, and to cleanse us from all pollution of sins for Christ, and in Christ; that what we forgive unto others, that is to say, what we loose upon earth, may be loosed also in heaven.” (Augustine. Tractates on the Gospel of John. Tractate 58. John 13:10-15) so doth St Ambrose shew, that the case also standeth with the ministers of the Gospel, in the execution of that commission given unto them for the remitting of sins, John 20:23: “They make request,” saith he, “the Godhead bestoweth the gift; for the service is done by man, but the bounty is from the power above.” (Ambrose. On the Holy Spirit. Book 3. Chapter 19.) The reason which he rendereth thereof is, because in their ministry it is the Holy Ghost that forgiveth the sin; and it is God only that can give the Holy Ghost. “For this is not a human work,” saith he in another place, “neither is the Holy Ghost given by man, but being called upon by the priest, is bestowed by God; wherein the gift is God’s, the ministry is the priest’s. For if the Apostle Paul did judge that he could not confer the Holy Ghost by his authority, but believed himself to be so far unable for this office, that he wished we might be filled with the Spirit from God, who is so great as dare arrogate unto himself the bestowing of this gift.? Therefore the Apostle did intimate his desire by prayer, he challenged no right by any authority : he wished to obtain it, he presumed not to command it.” (Id. ibid. lib. i. cap. 7) Thus far St Ambrose, of whom Paulinus writeth, that whensoever any penitents came unto him, “the crimes which they confessed unto him he spake of to none, but to God alone, unto whom he made intercession; leaving a good example to the priests of succeeding ages, that they be rather intercessors for them unto God, than accusers unto men.” (Paulinus in Vita Sti. Ambrosii) The same also, and in the selfsame words, doth Jonas write of Eustachius, the scholar of Columbanus our famous countryman. (Vita Sti. Eustachii Luxoviensis Abbatis, cap. i. apud Surium, Tom. II. Mart. 29.)
Hitherto appertaineth that sentence cited by Thomas Walden out of St Jerome’s Exposition upon the Psalms, that the voice of God “cutteth off daily in every one of us the flame of lust by confession and the grace of the Holy Ghost, that is to say, by the prayer of the priest maketh it to cease in us.” (Tho. Waldens. Tom. ii.de Sacramentis, cap. 147.) and that which before hath been alleged out of Leo, of the confession offered first to God and then to the priest, “who cometh as an intreater for the sins of the penitent.” (Leo, in fin. Epist. lxxx. ad Episc. Campan.) Which he more fully expresseth in another epistle, affirming it to be “very profitable and necessary that the guilt of sins (or sinners) be loosed by the supplication of the priest before the last day.” (Id. Epist. xci. ad Theod. Episc.) See St Gregory in his moral Exposition upon 1 Samuel 2:25 (Gregor. in 1. Reg. lib. 2. cap. 3); Anastasius Sinaita, or Nicasnus, in his answer to the 141st question, of Gretser’s edition; and Nicolaus Cabasilas, in the 29th chapter of his Exposition of the Liturgy, where he directly affirmeth that “remission of sins is given to the penitents by the prayer of the priests.” And therefore by the order used of old in the Church of Rome, the priest, before he began his work, was required to use this prayer: “O Lord God Almighty, be merciful unto me a sinner, that I may worthily give thanks unto thee who hast made me, an unworthy one, for thy mercies’ sake, a minister of the priestly office; and hast appointed me a poor and humble mediator, to pray and make intercession unto our Lord Jesus Christ for sinners that return unto repentance. And therefore, O Lord the Ruler, who wouldest have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth, who dost desire not the death of a sinner, but that he may be reconciled and live, receive my prayer, which I pour forth before the face of thy mercy for thy servants and handmaids, who have fled to repentance and to thy mercy.” (Alcuin. de Divin. Offic. cap. 13, in capite Jejunii.) Add hereunto the prayer of Damascen, which is still used in the Greek Church before the receiving; of the Communion: “O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, who alone hast power to forgive sins, in thy goodness and loving-kindness pass by all the offences” of thy servant, whether done “of knowledge or of ignorance, voluntary or involuntary, in deed or word or thought;” (Eucholog. Graec. fol. 217) and that which is used after, in the Liturgy ascribed to St James, wherewith the priest shutteth up the whole service: “I beseech thee, Lord God, hear my prayer in the behalf of thy servants, and as a forgetter of injuries pass over all their offences. Forgive them all their excess, both voluntary and involuntary: deliver them from everlasting punishment. For thou art he who didst command us, saying, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall he loosed in heaven. Forasmuch as thou art our God, a God who art able to shew mercy and save and forgive sins: and glory becometh thee, together with the Father who is without beginning, and the Spirit, the Author of life, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.” (Liturg. Jacobi, in fine.)
Yea, in the days of Thomas Aquinas there arose a learned man among the Papists themselves, who found fault with that indicative form of absolution then used by the priest, “I absolve thee from all thy sins,” and would have it delivered by way of deprecation; alleging that this was not only the opinion of Gulielmus Altisiodorensis, Gulielmus Parisiensis, and Hugo Cardinalis, but also that thirty years were scarce passed since all did use this form only, Absolutionem et remissionem tribuat tibi omnipotens Deus “Almighty God give unto thee absolution and forgiveness.” What Thomas doth answer hereunto, may be seen in his little Treatise of the Form of Absolution, which upon this occasion he wrote unto the general of his order. This only will I add, that as well in the ancient rituals and in the new “Pontifical of the Church of Rome, as in the present practice of the Greek Church, I find the absolution expressed in the third person, as attributed wholly to God; and not in the first, as if it came from the priest himself. One ancient form of absolution used among; the Latins was this: “Almighty God be merciful unto thee, and forgive thee all thy sins, past, present, and to come, visible and invisible, which thou hast committed before him and his saints, which thou hast confessed, or by some negligence or forgetfulness or evil will hast concealed : God deliver thee from all evil here and hereafter, preserve and confirm thee always in every good work; and Christ, the Son of the living God, bring thee unto the life which remaineth without end.” And so among: the Grecians whatsoever sins the penitent “for forgetfulness or shamefacedness doth leave unconfessed, we pray the merciful and most pitiful God that those also may be pardoned unto him, and we are persuaded that he shall receive pardon of them from God,” saith Jeremy, the late Patriarch of Constantinople. Where, by the way, you may observe no such necessity to be here held of confessing every known sin unto a priest, that if either for shame, or some other respect, the penitent do not make an entire confession, but conceal somewhat from the notice of his ghostly Father, his confession should thereby be made void, and he excluded from all hope of forgiveness: which is that engine whereby the priests of Rome have lift up themselves into that height of domineering and tyrannizing over men’s consciences, wherewith we see they now hold the poor people in most miserable awe.
Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure, in the form of absolution used in their time, observe, that “prayer was premised in the optative, and absolution adjoined afterward in the indicative mood.” Whence they gather, that the priest’s “prayer obtaineth grace, his absolution presupposeth it;” that by the former he ascendeth unto God, and procureth pardon for the fault; by the latter he descendeth to the sinner, and “reconcileth him to the Church.” For “although a man be loosed before God,” saith the Master of the sentences, “yet is he not held loosed in the face of the Church but by the judgment of the priest.” And this loosing of men by the judgment of the priest is by the fathers generally accounted nothing else but a restoring of them to the peace of the Church, and an admitting of them to the Lord’s Table again which therefore they usually express by the terms of “bringing them to the Communion,” “reconciling them to or with the Communion,” (Concil Laodicen. Can. ii, Concil Eliberitan. Can. lxxii.) “restoring the Communion to them,” (Amb. de Poenitent. lib. i. cap. 1, et lib. ii. cap. 9.) “admitting them to fellowship,” (Cypr. Epist. liii. Communicationem dare. Id. Epist. liv. Tribuere communicationem. Id. de Lapsis.) “granting them peace,” (Ibid) &c. Neither do we find that they did ever use any such formal absolution as this, “I absolve thee from all thy sins.” wherein our Popish priests, notwithstanding, do place the very form of their late devised sacrament of penance, nay, hold it to be so absolute a form, that, according to Thomas Aquinas’s new divinity, it would not be sufficient to say, “Almighty God have mercy upon thee,” (Thom. part iii. Quaest Lxxxiv. Art. 3. Ad. 1.) or, “God grant unto thee absolution and forgiveness;” because, forsooth, “the priest by these words doth not signify that the absolution is done, but entreateth that it may be done;” which, how it will accord with the Roman Pontifical, where the form of abso lution is laid down prayer-wise, the Jesuits who follow Thomas may do well to consider.
I pass this over, that in the days not only of St Cyprian (Cyprian, Epistle 13), but of Alcuinus (Alcuin. de Divin. Offic. cap. 13. in capite Jejunii) also, who lived 800 years after Christ, the reconciliation of penitents was not held to be such a proper office of the priest, but that a deacon, in his absence, was allowed to perform the same. The ordinary course that was held herein, “according to the form of the ancient Canons,” is thus laid down by the Fathers of the Third Council of Toledo: that the priest should “first suspend him that repented of his fault from the Communion, and make him to have often recourse unto imposition of hands among the rest of the penitents; then, when he had fulfilled the time of his satisfaction, as the consideration of the priest did approve of it, he should restore him to the Com munion.” (Concil. Toletan. iii. cap. 11.) And this was a constitution of old fathered upon the apostles, that bishops “should separate those who said they repented of their sins, for a time determined according to the proportion of their sin, and afterward receive them, being penitent, as fathers would do their children.” (Const. Apost. lib. ii. cap. 16.) To this penitential excommunication and absolution belongeth that saying either of St Ambrose or St Augustine, (for the same Discourse is attributed to them both 🙂 “He who hath truly performed his repentance and is loosed from that bond wherewith he was tied and separated from the body of Christ, and doth live well after his repentance, whensoever after his reconciliation he shall depart this life, he goeth to the Lord, he goeth to rest, he shall not be deprived of the kingdom of God; and from the people of the devil he shall be separated.” (Ambros. in Exhortat. ad Paenitent. August. Homil. xli. Ex. 50. et inter Caesarii Arelat. Sermones, Homil. xliii. et xliv.) And that which we read in Anastasius Sinaita: “Bind him, and till thou hast appeased God do not let him loose, that he be not more bound with the wrath of God. For if thou bindest him not, there remain bonds for him that cannot be broken. Neither do we enquire, whether the wound were often bound, but whether the binding hath profited. If it hath profited, although in a short time, use it no longer. Let the measure of the loosing be the profit of him that is bound.” (Anastas. Sinait. Quaest. vi.) And that exhortation which another maketh unto the pastors of the Church: “Bind with separation such as have sinned after baptism, and loose them again when they have repented, receiving them as brethren. For the saying is true. Whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” (Homil. in illud, Quaecunque ligaveritis, &c. inter Opera Chrysost. Tom. vii. edit. Savil. p. 268.)
That this authority of loosing remaineth still in the Church, we constantly maintain against the heresy of the Montanists and Novatians, who (upon this pretence, among others, that God only had power to remit sins) took away the ministerial power of reconciling such penitents as had committed heinous sins; denying that the Church had any warrant to receive them to her communion again, and to the participation of the holy mysteries, notwithstanding their repentance were ever so sound; which is directly contrary to the doctrine delivered by St Paul, both in the general, that if a man he overtaken in a faulty they who are spiritual should restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; (Galatians 6:1) and in the particular, of the incestuous Corinthian, who though he had been excommunicated for such a crime as was not so much as named amongst the Gentiles, (1 Corinthians 5:1) yet upon his repentance, the Apostle telleth the Church that they ought to forgive him, and comfort him, lest he should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. (2 Corinthians 2:7) Where that speech of his is specially noted and pressed against the heretics by St Ambrose (Ambros. de Paenit. lib. i. cap. 16.): “To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes I forgave it in the person of Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:10) For as in the name, and by the power of our Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 5:4, 6) such a one was delivered to Satan; so God (2 Timothy 2:25, 26) having given unto him repentance to recover himself out of the snare of the devil, in the same name and in the same power was he to be restored again; the ministers of reconciliation standing (2 Corinthians 5:20) in Christ’s stead, and Christ himself being (Matthew 18:18, 20) in the midst of them that are thus gathered together in his name, to bind or loose in heaven whatsoever they, according to his commission, shall bind or loose on earth. And here it is to be noted, that Anastasius, (by some called Nicaenus, by others Sinaita and Antiochenus), who is so eager against them which say that confession made unto men profiteth nothing at all, confesseth yet, that the minister, in hearing the confession, and instructing and correcting the sinner, doth but give furtherance only thereby unto his repentance; but that the pardoning of the sin is the proper work of God. “For man,” (Anastas. Quaest, vi) saith he, “co-operateth with man unto repentance, and ministereth, and buildeth, and instructeth, and reproveth in things belonging unto salvation, according to the Apostle and the Prophet; but God blotteth out the sins of those that have confessed, saying, I am he that blotteth out thine iniquities for mine own sake, and thy sins, and will not remember them.
There followeth now another part of the ministry of reconciliation, consisting in the due administration of the sacraments; which being the proper seals of the promises of the Gospel, as the censures are of the threats, must therefore necessarily also have reference to the (Acts 2:38; Matthew 26:28) remission of sins. And so we see the ancient Fathers do hold, that (Cyprian Epist Lxxvi, Cyril. Alexander in John lib. Xii, Ambrose. de Paenitent. lib. i. cap. 7; Chrysost. de Sacerdot. lib. iii.) the commission, John 20:23, Whose sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, &c. is executed by the ministers of Christ, as well in the conferring of baptism, as in the reconciling of penitents; yet so in both these, and in all the sacraments likewise of both the Testaments, that “the ministry only is to be accounted man’s, but the power God’s. For, as St Augustine well observeth, “it is one thing to baptize by way of ministry, another thing to baptize by way of power.” (Aug. in Evang. Johan. Tract, v) “the power of baptizing the Lord retaineth to himself, the ministry he hath given to his servants.” (Ibid) “the power of the Lord’s baptism was to pass from the Lord to no man, but the ministry was: the power was to be transferred from the Lord unto none of his ministers; the ministry was both unto the good and unto the bad.” (Ibid) And the reason which he assigneth thereof is very good: “that the hope of the baptized might be in him by whom they did acknowledge themselves to have been baptized. The Lord therefore would not have a servant to put his hope in a servant.” (Ibid) And therefore those schoolmen argued not much amiss, that gathered this conclusion thence: “It is a matter of equal power to baptize inwardly, and to absolve from mortal sin; but it was not fit that God should communicate the power of baptizing inwardly unto any, lest our hope should be reposed in man. Therefore, by the same reason, it was not fit that he should communicate the power of absolving from actual sin unto any.” (Alexand. de Hales, Summ. Part IV. Quaest XXI. Memb I) So Bernard, or whosoever was the author of the book entitled Scala Paradisi: “The office of baptizing the Lord granted unto many, but the power and authority of remitting sins in baptism he retained unto himself alone: whence John, by way of singularity and differencing, said of him. He it is which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.” (Scal. Paradis. Cap 3, Tom. IX. Operum Augustini.) And the Baptist indeed doth make a singular difference betwixt the conferrer of the external and the internal baptism, in saying, “baptize with water, but it is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost” (Mark 1:8, John 1:26, 33). While John “did his service, God did give, who faileth not in giving: and now when all others do their service, the service is man’s, but the gift is God’s,” saith Optatus (Optat. lib. V. contra Donatist.). And Arnaldus Bonaevallensis, the author of the twelve treatises de Cardinalibus Operibus Christie falsely ascribed to St Cyprian, touching the Sacraments in general: “Forgiveness of sins, whether it be given by baptism or by other sacraments, is properly of the Holy Ghost; and the privilege of effecting this remaineth to him alone.” (Arnald. Abbas Bonaevallis, Tract. De Baptismo Christi)
But the word of reconciliation is it wherein the apostle (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19) doth especially place that ministry of reconciliation, which the Lord hath committed to his ambassadors here upon earth. This is that key of knowledge, which doth both “open the conscience to the confession of sin, and include therein the grace of the healthful mystery unto eternity;” (Taurin. de Natali Petri ct Pauli, Hom. v) as Maximus Taurinensis speaketh of it. This is that powerful means which God hath sanctified for the washing away of the pollution of our souls. Now ye are clean, saith our Saviour to his apostles, through the word which I have spoken unto you (John 15:13, Ephesians 5:26). And whereas every transgressor is holden with the cords of his own sins (Proverbs 5:22), the apostles, according to the commission given unto them by their Master, that whatsoever they should loose on earth, should be loosed in heaven, did loose those cords “by the word of God, and the testimonies of the Scriptures, and exhortation unto virtues,” as saith St Jerome (Jerome, lib 6. Comment. In Esai cap. 14). Thus likewise doth St Ambrose note, that “sins are remitted by the word of God, whereof the Levite was an interpreter and a kind of an executor;” and in that respect concludeth, that the Levite was a minister of this remission.” As the Jewish scribes therefore, by taking away the key of knowledge, did shut up the kingdom of heaven against men (Luke 11:52 compared with Matthew 23:13); so every scribe (Matthew 13:32) which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, by (Acts 14:27) opening unto his hearers the door of faith doth as it were unlock that kingdom unto them; being the instrument of God herein to open men’s eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith in Christ. (Acts 26:18) And here are we to understand that the ministers of Christ, by applying the word of God unto the consciences of men, both in public and in private, do discharge that part of their function which concerneth forgiveness of sins, partly operatively, partly declaratively.
Operatively, inasmuch as God is pleased to use their preaching of the Gospel as a means of conferring (Acts 10:44; Galatians 3:2; 2 Corinthians 3:6) his Spirit upon the sons of men, of begetting them in Christ, and of working faith and repentance in them; whereby the remission of sins is obtained. Thus John (Romans 10:17; John 17:20; 1 Corinthians 3:5; Acts 14:27, and 26:18, 20) preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, and teaching (Acts 19:4) the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus, is said to (Luke 1:16,17) turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, by (Ibid. vers. 77) giving knowledge of salvation to God’s people, unto the remission of their sins. Not because he had properly any power given him to turn men’s hearts, and to work faith and repentance for forgiveness of sins, when and where he thought good; but because he was trusted with the ministry of the “word of God’s grace, which is able to convert and quicken men’s souls, and to give them an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. By the powerful application of which word, (James 5:20) he who converteth the sinner from the error of his way, is said to save a soul from death, and to hide a multitude of sins. For howsoever in true propriety (Romans 4:6, 7; Jeremiah 31:18; Revelations 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Acts 3:26; Matthew 1:21) the covering of sins, the saving from death, and turning of men from their iniquities, is a privilege peculiar to the Lord our God, unto whom alone it appertaineth to (2 Corinthians 5:19) reconcile the world to himself, by not imputing their sins unto them; yet inasmuch as he hath committed unto his ambassadors the word of reconciliation, they, in performing that work of their ministry, may be as rightly said to be employed in reconciling men unto God, and procuring remission of their sins, as they are said to deliver (Job 33:23, 24) a man from going down into the pit, when they declare unto him his righteousness, and to save (1 Timothy 4:16) their hearers, when they preach (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2; Acts 11:14) unto them the Gospel, by which they are saved.
For as the word itself which they speak is said to be (John 17:20) their word, which yet (1 Thessalonians 2:13) is in truth the word of God; so the work which is effectually wrought by that word in them that believe, is said to be their work, though in truth it be the proper work of God. And as they that believe by their word are said to be their epistle, (2 Corinthians 3:2), that is to say, the epistle of Christ ministered by them, as it is expounded in the verse following; in like manner forgiveness of sins, and those other great graces that appertain to the believers, may be said to be their work, that is to say, the work of Christ ministered by them. For in very deed, as Optatus speaketh in the matter of baptism, “not the minister, but the faith of the believer, and the Trinity, do bring these things unto every man.” And where the preaching of the Gospel doth prove “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), only the weakness of the external ministry must be ascribed to men; but the excellency of the power must ever be acknowledged to be of God, and not of them (1 Corinthians 3:7): neither he that planteth being here any thing, neither he that watereth, hut God that giveth the increase. For howsoever in respect of the former, such as take pains in the Lord’s husbandry may be accounted Θεού συυεργοί, as the (Ibid. verse 9) Apostle termeth them, labourers together with God, (though that little piece of service itself also be not performed by their own strength, but according to the grace of God which is given unto them) (Ibid. verse 10); yet “that which followeth, of giving the increase, God effecteth not by them, but by himself. This,” saith St Augustine, “exceedeth the lowliness of man, this exceedeth the sublimity of angels; neither appertaineth unto any, but unto the husbandman, the Trinity.” (Augustine. Tractates on the Gospel of John. Tract 80)
Now, as the Spirit of God doth not only (1 Corinthians 12:11) work diversities of graces in us, distributing to every man severally as he will, but also maketh us to (1 Corinthians 2:12) know the things that are freely given to us of God; so the ministers of the New Testament, being made able ministers of the same Spirit, are not only ordained to be God’s instruments to work faith and repentance in men, for the obtaining of remission of sins, but also to declare God’s pleasure unto such as believe and repent; and in his name to certify them, and give assurance to their consciences, that their sins are forgiven, they having received this ministry of the Lord Jesus to testify the Gospel of the grace of God, and so by their function being appointed to be witnesses rather than conferrers of that grace. For it is here with them in the loosing, as it is in the binding part of their ministry, where they are brought in, like unto those seven angels in the book of the Revelation, which pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth, having vengeance ready against all disobedience, and a charge from God to cast men out of his sight; not because they are properly the avengers, for that title God challengeth unto himself, or that vengeance did any way appertain unto them, (for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,) but because they were the denouncers, not the inflicters, of this vengeance. So though it be the Lord that speaketh concerning a nation, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy, or on the other side, to build and to plant it; yet he in whose mouth God put those words of his, is said to be set by him over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant; as if he himself were a doer of those great matters, who was only ordained to be a prophet unto the nations, to speak the things unto them which God had commanded him. Thus likewise in the thirteenth of Leviticus, where the laws are set down that concern the leprosy, which was a type of the pollution of sin, we meet often with these speeches: the priest shall cleanse him, and the priest shall pollute him, and in the 44th verse, the priest with pollution shall pollute him; not, saith St Jerome, “that he is the author of the pollution, but that he declareth him to be polluted who before did seem unto many to have been clean.” (Jerome. Lib 7. In Esai cap 23) Where upon the Master of the sentences (following herein St Jerome, and being afterwards therein followed himself by many others) observeth, that “in remitting or retaining sins, the priests of the Gospel have that right and office which the legal priests had of old under the law in curing of the lepers. These therefore,” saith he, “forgive sins or retain them, whilst they shew and declare, that they are forgiven or retained by God. For the priests put the name of the Lord upon the children of Israel, but it was he himself that blessed them, as it is read in Numbers.” (Peter Lombard. Sentences. Book 4. Dis 14) The place that he hath reference unto is in the sixth chapter of that book, where the priests are commanded to bless the people by saying unto them, The Lord bless thee, &c. and then it followeth in the last verse of that chapter: So they shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.
Neither do we grant hereupon, as the adversary falsely chargeth us, that “a layman, yea, or a woman, or a child, or any infidel, or the devil,” the father of all calumniators and liars, “or a parrot likewise, if he be taught the words, may as well absolve as the priest.” (Bellarmine. De Paenitent. Lib 3. Cap 2) As if the speech were all the thing that here were to be considered, and not the power; where we are taught, that the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. Indeed, if the priests by their office brought nothing with them but the ministry of the bare letter, a parrot peradventure might be taught to sound that letter as well as they; but we believe, that God hath made them able ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the Spirit: and that the Gospel ministered by them cometh unto us not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance. (1 Thessalonians 1:5) For God hath added a special beauty to the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace; that howsoever others may bring glad tidings of good things to the penitent sinner, as truly as they do, yet neither can they do it with the same authority, neither is it to be expected that they should do it with such power, such assurance, and such full satisfaction to the afflicted conscience. The speech of every Christian, we know, should be employed to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers; and a private brother in his place may deliver sound doctrine, reprehend vice, exhort to righteousness, very commendably; yet hath the Lord, notwithstanding all this, for the necessary use of his Church, appointed public officers to do the same things, and hath given unto them a peculiar power for edification, (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10) wherein they may boast above others, and in the due execution whereof God is pleased to make them instruments of ministering a more plentiful measure of grace unto their hearers than may be ordinarily looked for from others. These men are appointed to be of God’s high commission; and therefore they may speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority (Titus 2:15): they are God’s angels (Revelations 1:20) and ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) for Christ, and therefore, in delivering their message, are to be received as an angel of God, yea, as Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:20): that look how the prophet Isaiah was comforted when the angel said unto him, Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged; (Isaiah 6:7) and the poor woman in the Gospel, when Jesus said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven (Luke 7:48); the like consolation doth the distressed sinner receive from the mouth of the minister, when he hath compared the truth of God’s word faithfully delivered by him, with the work of God’s grace in his own heart; according to that of Elihu: If there be an angel or a messenger with him, an interpreter, one of a thousand, to declare unto man his righteousness; then will God have mercy upon him, and say. Deliver him from going down into the pit, I have received a reconciliation (Job 33:23, 24). For as it is the office of this messenger and interpreter, to pray us in Christ’s stead that we would he reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20); so when we have listened unto this motion, and submitted ourselves to the Gospel of peace, it is a part of his office likewise to declare unto us in Christ’s stead, that we are reconciled to God; and in him Christ himself must be acknowledged to speak, who to us-ward, by this means, is not weak, but is mighty in us.
But our new masters will not content themselves with such a ministerial power of forgiving sins as hath been spoken of, unless we yield that they have authority so to do properly, directly, and absolutely; that is, unless we acknowledge that their high priest sitteth in the temple of God as God, and all his creatures as so many demi-gods under him. For we “must say,” if we will be drunk with the drunken, “that in this high priest there is the fulness of all graces, because he alone giveth a full indulgence of all sins; that this may agree unto him, which we say of the chief prince our Lord, that of his fulness all we have received.” (De Regimine Principum, lib. 3. cap. 10, inter Opuscula Thomae, Num. 20) Nay, we must acknowledge, that the meanest in the whole army of priests, that followeth this king of pride, hath such fulness of power derived unto him for the opening and shutting of heaven before men, “that” forgiveness is denied to them whom the priest will not forgive;” (Bellarmine. De Paenit. Lib 3. Cap 2) and his absolution on the other side is a sacramental act, which conferreth grace by the work wrought, that is, as they expound it, “actively, and immediately, and instrumentally effecteth the grace of justification” (Id. de Sacrament. In genere, lib 2. Cap 1) in such as receive it: that “as the wind doth extinguish the fire and dispel the clouds, so doth the priests absolution scatter sins, and make them to vanish away;” (Id. de Paenit. Lib 3. Cap 2) the sinner being thereby immediately acquitted before God, howsoever that sound conversion of heart be wanting in him, which otherwise would be requisite. For a conditional absolution, upon such terms as these, “If thou dost believe and repent as thou oughtest to do,” is, in these men’s judgment, to no purpose, and can give no security to the penitent; seeing it dependeth upon an uncertain condition. Have we not then just cause to say unto them, as Optatus did unto the Donatists. Nolite vobis majestatis dominium vendicare. “Intrude not upon the royal prerogative of our Lord and Master.” (Optat. Lib 5)) No man may challenge this absolute power of the keys, but he that hath the key of David (Rev 3:7), that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth; he to whom the Father hath given power over all flesh (John 17:2), yea, all power (Matthew 28:18) in heaven and in earth; even the eternal Son of God, who hath in his hands the keys of death (Rev 1:18), and is able to quicken whom he will. (John 5:21)
The ministers of the Gospel may not meddle with the matter of sovereignty, and think that they have power to proclaim war or conclude peace betwixt God and man according to their own discretion: they must remember that they are ambassadors for Christ, and therefore in this treaty are to proceed according to the instructions which they have received from their sovereign; which if they do transgress, they go beyond their commission therein; they do not πρεσβεύειυ but παραπρεσβεύειυ^eveiv, and their authority for so much is plainly void. The bishop, saith St Gregory, and the Fathers in the Council of Aquisgran following him, “in loosing and binding those that are under his charge, doth follow oftentimes the motions of his own will, and not the merit of the causes. Whence it cometh to pass, that he depriveth himself of this power of binding and loosing, who doth exercise the same according to his own will, and not according to the manners of them which be subject unto him.” (Greg. in Evangel. Homil. 26. Concil) That is to say, he maketh himself worthy to be deprived of that power which he hath thus abused, (as the Master of the sentences, and Semeca in his gloss upon Gratian, would have St Gregory’s meaning to be expounded,) and pro tanto, as hath been said, actually voideth himself of this power; this unrighteous judgment of his given upon earth being no ways ratified, but absolutely disannulled, in the court of heaven. For he who by his office is appointed to be a minister of the word of truth, hath no power given him to do anything against the truth, hut for the truth; neither is it to be imagined that the sentence of man, who is subject to deceive and be deceived, should any ways prejudice the sentence of God, whose judgment we know to be always according to the truth. Therefore doth Pacianus, in the end of his first epistle to Sympronianus the Novatian, shew, that at that time absolution was not so easily given unto penitents as now-a-days it is; but “with great pondering of the matter and with great deliberation, after many sighs and shedding of tears, after the prayers of the whole Church, pardon was so not denied unto true repentance, that Christ being to judge, no man should prejudge him.” (Pacian. Epist. 1) And a little before, speaking of the bishop, by whose ministry this was done; “He shall give an account,” saith he, “if he have done anything amiss, or if he have judged corruptly and wickedly. Neither is there any prejudice done unto God, whereby he might not undo the works of this evil builder; but in the meantime, if that administration of his be godly, he continueth a helper of the works of God.” (Ibid) Wherein he doth but tread in the steps of St Cyprian, who at the first rising of the Novatian heresy wrote in the same manner unto Antonianus:
We do not prejudice the Lord that is to judge, but that he, if he find the repentance of the sinner to be full and just, he may then ratify that which shall be here ordained by us; but if any one do deceive us with the semblance of repentance, God (who is not mocked, and who beholdeth the heart of man,) may judge of those things which we did not well discern, and the Lord may amend the sentence of the Servants.Cypr. Epist. 52. sect. 11, edit. Goulart.
Hereupon St Jerome, expounding those words, Daniel 4:24, It may he God will pardon thy sins, reproveth those men of great rashness that are so peremptory and absolute in their absolutions. “When blessed Daniel,” saith he, “who knew things to come, doth doubt of the sentence of God, they do a rash deed that boldly promise pardon unto sinners.” (Jerome. In Daniel cap 4) St Basil also resolveth us, that “the power of forgiving is not given absolutely, but upon the obedience of the penitent, and his consent with him that hath the care of his soul.” (Basil. Regul. Brevior. Quaest 15) For it is in loosing as it is in binding. “Thou hast begun to esteem thy brother as a publican,” saith St Augustine, “thou bindest him upon earth; but look that thou bindest him justly. For unjust bonds justice doth break.” (August. De Verbis Domini, Serm. 16. Cap 4) So when the priest saith, “I absolve thee,” Maldonat confesseth that he meaneth no more thereby but “As much as in me lieth, I absolve thee;” (Maldonat. Tom 2. De Paenitent. Part 3. Thes 5) and Suarez acknowledgeth that it implicitly includeth this condition, “Unless the receiver put some impediment;” for which he allegeth the authority of St Hugo de St Victory, lib. 2. de Sacramentis, p. 14, sect. 8, affirming, “that this form doth rather signify the power and virtue, than the event,” of the absolution. And therefore doth the Master of the sentences rightly observe, that “God doth not evermore follow the judgment of the Church, which sometimes judgeth by surreption and ignorance; whereas God doth always judge according to the truth.” (Petr. Lombard. Sentent. lib. 4. Distinct, 18.) So the priests “sometime declare men to be loosed or bound who are not so before God: with the penalty of satisfaction or excommunication they sometime bind such as are unworthy, or loose them; they admit them that be unworthy to the sacraments, and put back them that be worthy to be admitted.” (Ibid) That saying therefore of Christ must be understood to be verified “in them,” saith he, “whose merits do require that they should be loosed or bound. For then is the sentence of the priest approved and confirmed by the judgment of God and the whole court of heaven, when it doth proceed with that discretion, that the merits of them who be dealt withal do not contradict the same: whomsoever therefore they do loose or bind, using the key of discretion according to the parties’ merits, they are loosed or bound in heaven, that is to say, with God; because the sentence of the priest, proceeding in this manner, is approved and confirmed by divine judgment.” Thus far the Master of the sentences, who is followed herein by the rest of the school men, who generally agree that the power of binding and loosing, committed to the ministers of the Church, is not absolute, but must be limited with clave non errante, as being then only of force when matters are carried with right judgment, and no error is committed in the use of the keys.
Our Saviour, therefore, must still have the privilege reserved unto him of being the absolute Lord over his own house: it is sufficient for his officers that they be esteemed as Moses was, faithful in all his house as servants. The place wherein they serve is a steward’s place; and the Apostle telleth them, that it is required in stewards, that the man be found faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). They may not, therefore, carry themselves in their office as the unjust steward did, and presume to strike out their Master’s debt without his direction and contrary to his liking. Now, we know that our Lord hath given no authority unto his stewards to grant an acquittance unto any of his debtors, that bring not unfeigned faith and repentance with them. “Neither angel nor archangel can,” neither yet “the Lord himself, (who alone can say, I am with you,) when we have sinned, doth release us, unless we bring repentance with us,” saith St Ambrose (Ambr. Epist. 28. Ad Theodosium Imp.); and Eligius, bishop of Noyon, in his sermon unto the penitents: “Before all things it is necessary you should know, that howsoever you desire to receive the imposition of our hands, yet you cannot obtain the absolution of your sins before the divine piety shall vouchsafe to absolve you by the grace of compunction.” (Eligius Noviomens. Homil. 11. Tom. 7) To think, therefore, that it lieth in the power of any priest truly to absolve a man from his sins, without implying the condition of his “believing and repenting as he ought to do,” is both presumption and madness in the highest degree. Neither dareth Cardinal Bellarmine, who censureth this conditional absolution in us for idle and superfluous, when he hath considered better of the matter, assume unto himself, or communicate unto his brethren, the power of giving an absolute one. For he is driven to confess, with others of his fellows, that when the priest “saith, I absolve thee,” he “doth not affirm that he doth absolve absolutely, as not being ignorant that it may many ways come to pass that he doth not absolve, although he pronounce those words; namely, if he who seemeth to receive this sacrament” (for so they call it) “peradventure hath no intention to receive it, or is not rightly disposed, or putteth some block in the way. Therefore the minister,” saith he, “signifieth nothing else by those words, but that he, as much as in him lieth, conferreth the sacrament of reconciliation or absolution, which in a man rightly disposed hath virtue to forgive all his sins.” (Bellarmin. de Paenitent. lib. 2. cap. 14)
Now, that contrition is at all times necessarily required for obtaining remission of sins and justification, is a matter determined by the Fathers of Trent. But mark yet the mystery. They equivocate with us in the term of contrition, and make a distinction thereof into perfect and imperfect. The former of these is contrition properly: the latter they call attrition, which, howsoever in itself it be not true con trition, yet when the priest, with his power of forgiving sins, interposeth himself in the business, they tell us that “attrition by virtue of the keys is made contrition;” (Concil. Trident. Sess. 14. cap. 4) that is to say, that a sorrow arising from a servile fear of punishment, and such a fruitless repentance as the reprobate may carry with them to hell, by virtue of the priest’s absolution is made so fruitful that it shall serve the turn for obtaining forgiveness of sins; as if it had been that godly sorrow which worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of. By which spiritual cozenage many poor souls are most miserably deluded, while they persuade themselves, that upon the receipt of the priest’s acquittance, upon this carnal sorrow of theirs, all scores are cleared until that day; and then beginning upon a new reckoning, they sin and confess, confess and sin afresh, and tread this round so long till they put off all thought of saving repentance; and so the blind following the blind, both at last fall into the pit.
“Evil and wicked, carnal, natural, and devilish men,” saith St Augustine, “imagine those things to be given unto them by their seducers which are only the gifts of God, whether sacraments or any other spiritual works concerning their present salvation.” (August. De Baptism. Contra Donatist. Lib 3. Cap. ult) But such as are thus seduced may do well to listen a little to this grave admonition of St Cyprian: “Let no man deceive, let no man beguile himself: it is the Lord alone that can shew mercy. He alone can grant pardon to the sins committed against him, who did himself bear our sins, who suffered grief for us, whom God did deliver for our sins. Man cannot be greater than God, neither can the servant by his indulgence remit or pardon that which by heinous trespass is committed against the Lord; lest to him that is fallen this yet be added as a further crime, if he be ignorant of that which is said. Cursed is the man that putteth his trust in man.” (Cyprian de Lapsis, sec ) Whereupon St Augustine sticketh not to say, that good ministers do consider, that “they are but ministers, they would not be held for judges, they abhor that any trust should be put in them;” (August. In Evang. Johan. Tract 5) and that the power of remitting and retaining sins is committed unto the Church, to be dispensed therein, “not according to the arbitrament of man, but according to the arbitrament of God.” (Id. de Baptism. Contra Donatist. Lib 3. Cap 18) whereas our adversaries lay the foundation of their Babel upon another ground, that “Christ hath appointed priests to be judges upon earth, with such power that none, falling into sin after baptism, may be reconciled without their sentence;” (Bellarmin. De Paenit. Lib 3. Cap 2) and hath “put the authority of binding and loosing, of forgiving and retain ing, the sins of men in their arbitrament.” (Baron. Annal. Tom 1. Ann 34, sec 197)
Whether the ministers of the Gospel may be accounted judges in some sort, we will not much contend : for we dislike neither that saying of St Jerome, that “having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they judge after a sort before the day of judgment;” (Jerome, Epist. 1. ad Heliodorum) nor that other of St Gregory, that the Apostles and such as succeed them in the government of the Church, “obtain a principality of judgment from above, that they may in God’s stead retain the sins of some and release the sins of others.” (Gregor. Homil 26. In Evangel) All the question is, in what sort they do judge, and whether the validity of their judgment do depend upon the truth of the conversion of the penitent; wherein if our Romanists would stand to the judgment of St Jerome or St Gregory, one of whom they make a Cardinal and the other a Pope of their own Church, the controversy betwixt us would quickly be at an end. For St Jerome, expounding that speech of our Saviour touching the keys of the kingdom of heaven, in the l6th of St Matthew, “the bishops and priests,” saith he, “not understanding this place, assume to themselves somewhat of the Pharisees’ arrogancy, as imagining that they may either condemn the innocent or absolve the guilty; whereas it is not the sentence of the priests, but the life of the parties, that is enquired of with God. In the book of Leviticus we read of the lepers, where they are commanded to shew themselves to the priests; and if they shall have the leprosy, that then they shall be made unclean by the priest. Not that the priest should make them leprous and unclean, but that they should take notice who was a leper and who was not, and should discern who was clean and who unclean. Therefore, as there the priest doth make the leper clean or unclean, so here the bishop or priest doth bind or loose; not bind the innocent, or loose the guilty; but when, according to his office, he heareth the variety of sins, he knoweth who is to be bound and who to be loosed.” (Jerome, Comment. In Matt. cap 16) Thus far St Jerome.
St Gregory likewise, in the very same place from whence the Romanists fetch that former sentence, doth thus declare in what manner that principality of judgment which he spake of should be exercised, being therein also followed step by step by the Fathers of the Council of Aquisgran: “The causes ought to be weighed, and then the power of binding and loosing exercised. It is to be seen what the fault is, and what the repentance is that hath followed after the fault; that such as Almighty God doth visit with the grace of compunction, those the sentence of the pastor may absolve. For the absolution of the prelate is then true, when it followeth the arbitrament of the eternal Judge.” (Gregor. In Evangel. Hom. 26. Concil. Aquisgran) And this do they illustrate by that which we read in the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, John 6:44, that Christ did first of all give life to him that was dead by himself, and then commanded others to loose him and let him go. “Behold,” say they, “the disciples do loose him being now alive, whom their Master had raised up being dead. For if the disciples had loosed Lazarus being dead, they should have discovered a stench more than a virtue. By which consideration we may see, that by our pastoral authority we ought to loose those whom we know that our Author and Lord hath revived with his quickening grace.” (Idem ibidem, et Eligius Noviomens. Hom 11. Tom 7) The same application also do we find made, not only by Peter Lombard (P. Lombard. Lib 4. Sentent. Dist 18) and another of the schoolmen, but also by Judocus Clichtoveus, not long before the time of the Council of Trent. “Lazarus,” saith Clichtoveus, “first of all came forth alive out of the sepulchre, and then was commandment given by our Lord, that he should be loosed by the disciples and suffered to go his way; because the Lord doth first inwardly by himself quicken the sinner, and afterwards absolveth him by the priest’s ministry. For no sinner is to be absolved before it appeareth that he be amended by due repentance, and be quickened inwardly. But in wardly to quicken the sinner is the office of God alone, who saith by the Prophet, I am he that blotteth out your iniquities.” (Clichtov in Evangel. Johan. Lib . cap 23. Inter opera Cyrilli)
The truth, therefore, of the priest’s absolution, dependeth upon the truth and sincerity of God’s quickening grace in the heart of the penitent; which if it be wanting, all the absolutions in the world will stand him in no stead. For example, our Saviour saith, If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And in this respect, as is observed by Sedulius, “in other men’s persons we are either absolved or bound” (Sedul. Lib 2. Paschalis Operis, cap 11):
Nectimur, alterius si solvere vincla negamus.”Ibid. lib 2. Paschal Carm.
Suppose now, that a man who cannot find in his heart to forgive the wrong done unto him by another, is absolved here by the priest from all his sins, according to the usual form of absolution; are we to think that what is thus loosed upon earth, shall be loosed in heaven? and that Christ, to make the priest’s word true, will make his own false? And what we say of charity toward man, must much more be understood of the love of God and the love of righteousness; the defect whereof is not to be supplied by the absolution of any priest. It hath been always observed, for a special difference betwixt good and bad men, that the one hated sin for the love of virtue, the other only for the fear of punishment. The like difference do our adversaries make betwixt contrition and attrition; that the hatred of sin in the one proceedeth from the love of God and of righteousness, in the other from the fear of punishment : and yet teach for all this, that attrition, which they confess would not otherwise suffice to justify a man, being joined with the priest’s absolution, is sufficient for that purpose; he that was attrite being by virtue of this absolution made contrite and justified, that is to say, he that was led only by a servile fear, and consequently was to be ranked among disordered and evil persons, being by this means put in as good case for the matter of the forgiveness of his sins as he that loveth God sincerely. For they themselves do grant that such as have this servile fear, from whence attrition issueth, are to be accounted evil and disordered men by reason of their want of charity : to which purpose also they allege that saying of Gregory, Recti diligunt te, non recti adhuc timent te: “Such as be righteous love thee, such as be not righteous as yet fear thee.”
But they have taken an order notwithstanding, that non recti shall stand recti in curia with them, by assuming a strange authority unto themselves of justifying the wicked, (a thing, we know, that hath the curse of God and man threatened unto it,) and making men friends with God that have not the love of God dwelling in them. For although we be taught by the word of God, that perfect love casteth out fear; that we have not received the spirit of bondage to fear again, but the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father; that Mount Sinai (which maketh those that come unto it to fear and quake) engendereth to bondage, and is to be cast out with her children from inheriting the promise; and that without love both we ourselves are nothing, and all that we have doth profit us nothing; yet these wonderful men would have us believe, that by their word alone they are able to make something of this nothing; that fear without love shall make men capable of the benefit of their pardon, as well as love with out fear; that whether men come by the way of Mount Sinai or Mount Sion, whether they have legal or evangelical repentance, they have authority to absolve them from all their sins. As if it did lie in their power to confound God’s testaments at their pleasure, and to give unto a servile fear, not the benefit of manumission only, but the privilege of adoption also, by making the children of the bondwoman children of the promise, and giving them a portion in that blessed inheritance together with the children of her that is free.
Repentance from dead works is one of the foundations and principles of the doctrine of Christ. “Nothing maketh repentance certain, but the hatred of sin and the love of God.” And without true repentance all the priests under heaven are not able to give us a discharge from our sins, and deliver us from the wrath to come. Except ye be converted, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3): Except ye repent, ye shall all perish (Luke 13:3,5), is the Lord’s saying in the New Testament. And in the Old, Repent, and turn from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from, you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed, and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, house of Israel? (Ezekial 18:30, 31) Now put case, one cometh to his ghostly Father with such sorrow of mind as the terrors of a guilty conscience usually do produce, and with such a resolution to cast away his sins, as a man hath in a storm to cast away his goods; not because he doth not love them, but because he feareth to lose his life if he part not with them : doth not he betray this man’s soul, who putteth into his head that such an extorted repentance as this, which hath not one grain of love to season it withal, will qualify him sufficiently for the receiving of an absolution, by I know not what sacramental faculty that the priest is furnished withal to that purpose? For all do confess with St Augustine, that “This fear which loveth not justice but dreadeth punishment, is servile because it is carnal, and therefore doth not crucify the flesh. For the willingness to sin liveth, which then appeareth in the work when impunity is hoped for but when it is believed that punishment will follow, it liveth closely, yet it liveth. For it would wish rather that it were lawful to do that which the law forbiddeth, and is sorry that it is not lawful; because it is not spiritually delighted with the good thereof, but carnally feareth the evil which it doth threaten.” (August. In Psalm 118. Conc 25)
What man then, do we think, will take the pains to get him a new heart and a new spirit.) and undertake the toil some work of crucifying the flesh with the lusts thereof; if without all this ado the priest’s absolution can make that other imperfect or rather equivocal contrition, arising from a carnal and servile fear, to be sufficient for the blotting out of all his sins? Or are we not rather to think, that this sacramental penance of the Papists is a device invented by the enemy to hoodwink poor souls, and to divert them from seeking that true repentance which is only able to stand them in stead? and that such as take upon them to help lame dogs over the stile, after this manner, by substituting quid pro quo, attrition instead of contrition, servile fear instead of filial love, carnal sorrow instead of godly repentance, are physicians of no value, nay such as minister poison unto men under colour of providing a sovereign medicine for them ? He, therefore, that will have care of his souFs health, must consider that much resteth here in the good choice of a skilful physician, but much more in the pains that must be taken by the patient himself. For, that every one who beareth the name of a priest is not fit to be trusted with a matter of this moment, their own decrees may give them fair warning, where this admonition is twice laid down out of the author that wrote of true and false repentance: “He who will confess his sins that he may find grace, let him seek for a priest that knoweth how to bind and loose; lest, while he is negligent concerning himself, he be neglected by him who mercifully admonisheth and desireth him, that both fall not into the pit, which the fool would not avoid.” (Lib. de Ver. et Fals. Paenitent. cap. 10, inter Opera Augustini, Tom. 4) And when the skilfullest priest that is hath done his best, St Cyprian will tell them, that “To him that repenteth, to him that worketh, to him that prayeth, the Lord of his mercy can grant a pardon; he can make good that which for such men either the martyrs shall request, or the priest shall do.” (Cyprian. de Lapsis, sect. 13)
If we enquire who they were that first assumed unto themselves this exorbitant power of forgiving sins, we are like to find them in the tents of the ancient heretics and schismatics, who promised unto others liberty, when they themselves were the servants of corruption (2 Peter 2:19). How many, saith St Jerome, “which have neither bread nor apparel when they themselves are hungry and naked, and neither have spiritual meats, nor preserve the coat of Christ entire, yet promise unto others food and raiment, and being full of wounds themselves, brag that they be physicians; and do not observe that of Moses, Exod. iv. 13, Provide another whom thou mayest send; and that other commandment, Ecclesiastic, vii. 6, Do not seek to he made a judge, lest peradventure thou be not able to take away iniquity. It is Jesus alone, who healeth all sicknesses and infirmities: of whom it is written, Psalm cxLvii. 4, He healeth the contrite in heart, and bindeth up their sores.” (Jerome, lib 2. Comment. In Esai. cap 3) Thus far St Jerome.
The Rhemists in their marginal note upon Luke 7:49, tell us, that “as the Pharisees did always carp Christ for remission of sins in earth, so the heretics reprehend his Church that remitteth sins by his authority.” But St Augustine, treating upon the selfsame place, might have taught them, that hereby they betrayed themselves to be the offspring of heretics rather than children of the Church. For whereas our Saviour there had said unto the penitent woman. Thy sins are forgiven and they that sate at meat with him began to say within themselves. Who is this that forgiveth sins also? St Augustine first compareth their knowledge and the knowledge of the woman thus together: “She knew that he could forgive sins; but they knew that a man could not forgive sins. And we are to believe that all, that is, both they which sate at table, and the woman which came to our Lord’s feet, they all knew that a man could not forgive sins. Seeing all therefore knew this, she who believed that he could forgive sins, understood him to be more than a man.” (August. Homil. 23. Ex 50, cap 7) And a little after: “That do you know well, that do you hold well;” (Ibid) saith that learned Father. “Hold that a man cannot forgive sins. She who believed that her sins were forgiven her by Christ, believed that Christ was not only man, but God also.” Then doth he proceed to compare the knowledge of the Jews then, with the opinion of the heretics in his days. “Herein,” saith he, “the Pharisee was better than these men; for when he did think that Christ was a man, he did not believe that sins could be forgiven by a man. It appeared, therefore, that the Jews had better understanding than the heretics. The Jews said. Who is this that forgiveth sins also? Dare a man challenge this to himself? What saith the heretic on the other side? I do forgive, I do cleanse, I do sanctify. Let Christ answer him, not I: O man, when I was thought by the Jews to be a man, I ascribed the forgiveness of sins to faith. Not I, but Christ doth answer thee: O heretic, thou, when thou art but a man, sayest. Come, woman, I do make thee safe. I, when I was thought to be but a man, said. Go, woman, thy faith hath made thee safe,” (Id. Ibid. Cap 8)
The heretics at whom St Augustine here aimeth, were the Donatists; whom Optatus also before him did thus roundly take up for the same presumption. “Understand at length, that you are servants and not lords. And if the Church be a vineyard, and men be appointed to be dressers of it, why do you rush into the dominion of the house holder? Why do you challenge unto yourselves that which is God’s?” (Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists. Book 5) “Give leave unto God to perform the things that belong unto himself. For that gift cannot be given by man which is divine. If you think so, you labour to frustrate the words of the Prophets and the promises of God, by which it is proved that God washeth” away sin, “and not man.” (Ibid) It is noted likewise by Theodoret of the Audian heretics, that “they bragged they did forgive sins.” (Theodor. Haeret. Fabul. lib. 4.) The manner of confession which he saith was used among them, was not much unlike that which Alvarus Pelagius acknowledgeth to have been the usual practice of them that made greatest profession of religion and learning in his time. “For scarce at all,” saith he, “or very seldom, doth any of them confess otherwise than in general terms; scarce do they ever specify any grievous sin. What they say one day, that they say another, as if every day they did offend alike.” (Alvar. de Planet. Eccles. lib. 2. Art. 78, A) The manner of absolution was the same with that which Theodoricus de Niem noteth to have been practised by the pardoners sent abroad by Pope Boniface the Ninth, who “released all sins to them that confessed without any penance or repentance; affirming that they had for their warrant in so doing all that power which Christ gave unto Peter, of binding and loosing upon earth.” (Niem.de Schismate, lib. 1. cap. 68.) Just as Theodoret reporteth the Audians were wont to do, who presently after confession granted remission; not prescribing a time for repentance, as the laws of the Church did require, but giving pardon by authority. (Theodor. Haeres. lib. 4)
The laws of the Church prescribed a certain time unto penitents, wherein they should give proof of the sound ness of their repentance (August. Enchirid. ad Laur. cap. 65); and gave order that afterwards they should be forgiven and comforted, lest they should he swallowed up with overmuch heaviness (2 Corinthians 2:7). So that first their penance was enjoined unto them, and thereby they were held to be bound (Vide Nomocanonem Nefleutae in Theod. Balsamonis Collect. Canon, edit. Paris, ann. 1620); after performance whereof they received their absolution, by which they were loosed again. But the Audian heretics, without any such trial taken of their repentance, did of their own heads give them absolution presently upon their confession; as the Popish priests use to do now-a-days. Only the Audians had one ridiculous ceremony more than the Papists; that, having placed the canonical books of Scripture upon one side, and certain apocryphal writings on the other, they caused their followers to pass betwixt them, and in their passing to make confession of their sins : as the Papists another idle practice more than they; that after they have given absolution, they enjoin penance to the party absolved, that is to say, as they of old would have interpreted it, they first loose him, and presently after bind him; which howsoever they hold to be done in respect of the temporal punishment remain ing due after the remission of the fault, yet it appeareth plainly, that the penitential works required in the ancient Church had reference to the fault itself; and that no absolution was to be expected from the minister for the one, before all reckonings were ended for the other. Only where the danger of death was imminent, the case admitted some exception; reconciliation being not denied, indeed, unto them that desired it at such a time; yet so granted, that it was left very doubtful whether it would stand the parties in any great stead or no. “If anyone being in the last extremity of his sickness,” saith St Augustine, “is willing to receive penance, and doth receive it, and is presently reconciled and departeth hence; I confess unto you, we do not deny him that which he asketh, but we do not presume that he goeth well from hence. I do not presume, I deceive you not, I do not presume.” (August. Hom. 41. Ex. SO; Ambros. Exhort, ad Paenit.) “He who putteth off his penance to the last, and is reconciled; whether he goeth secure from hence, I am not secure. Penance I can give him; security I cannot give him.” (Ibid) “Do I say, he shall be damned? I say not so. But do I say also, he shall be freed? No. What dost thou then say unto me? I know not, I presume not, I promise not, I know not. Wilt thou free thyself of the doubt? wilt thou escape that which is uncertain? Do thy penance while thou art in health.” (Ibid) “The penance which is asked for by the infirm man, is infirm. The penance which is asked for only by him that is a dying, I fear lest it also die.” (August. Serm. 57. de Tempore.)
But with the matter of penance we have not here to deal : those formal absolutions and pardons of course, immediately granted upon the hearing of men’s confessions, is that which we charge the Romish priests to have learned from the Audian heretics. “Some require penance to this end, that they might presently have the Communion restored unto them; these men desire not so much to loose themselves as to bind the priest,” (Ambrose, On Repentance. Book 2. Chapter 9.87) saith St Ambrose. If this be true, that the priest doth bind himself by his hasty and unadvised loosing of others; the case is like to go hard with our Popish priests, who ordinarily, in bestowing their absolutions, use to make more haste than good speed. Wherein with how little judgment they proceed, who thus take upon them the place of judges in men’s consciences, may sufficiently appear by this: that whereas the main ground whereupon they would build the necessity of auricular confession, and the particular enumeration of all known sins, is pretended to be this, that the ghostly Father, having taken notice of the cause, may judge righteous judgment, and discern who should be bound, and who should be loosed; the matter yet is so carried in this court of theirs, that every man commonly goeth away with his absolution, and all sorts of people usually receive one and the selfsame judgment. If thou separate the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth, (Jeremiah 15:19) saith the Lord. Whose mouth, then, may we hold them to be, who seldom put any difference between these, and make it their ordinary practice to pronounce the same sentence of absolution as well upon the one as upon the other?
If we would know how late it was before this trade of pardoning men’s sins after this manner was established in the Church of Rome, we cannot discover this better than by tracing out the doctrine publicly taught in that Church touching this matter, from the time of Satan’s loosing until his binding again, by the restoring of the purity of the Gospel in our days. And here Radulphus Ardens doth in the first place offer himself, who toward the beginning of that time preached this for sound divinity: “The power of releasing sins belongeth to God alone: but the ministry, which improperly also is called a power, he hath granted unto his substitutes; who after their manner do bind and absolve, that is to say, do declare that men are bound or absolved. For God doth first inwardly absolve the sinner by compunction; and then the priest outwardly, by giving the sentence, doth declare that he is absolved. Which is well signified by that of Lazarus; who first in the grave was raised up by the Lord, and afterward by the ministry of the disciples was loosed from the bands where with he was tied.” (Rad. Ardens, Homil. Dominic I. post Pascha) Then follow both the Anselms, ours of Canterbury, and the other of Laon in France; who, in their expositions upon the ninth of St Matthew, clearly teach, that none but God alone can forgive sins. Ivo, Bishop of Chartres, writeth, that “by inward contrition the inward judge is satisfied, and therefore without delay forgiveness of sin is granted by him unto whom the inward conversion is manifest; but the Church, because it knoweth not the hidden things of the heart, doth not loose him that is bound, although he be raised up, until he be brought out of the tomb, that is to say, purged by public satisfaction.” (Ivo Carnotens. Epist. 228.) And if presently, upon the inward conversion, God be pleased to forgive the sin, the absolution of the priest which followeth, cannot in any sort properly be accounted a remission of that sin, but a further manifestation only of the remission formerly granted by God himself.
The Master of the sentences after him, having propounded the divers opinions of the doctors touching this point, demandeth at last, “In this so great variety what is to be held.” and returneth for answer: “Surely this we may say and think : that God alone doth forgive and retain sins, and yet hath given power of binding and loosing unto the Church; but he bindeth and looseth one way, and the Church another. For he only by himself forgiveth sin, who both cleanseth the soul from inward blot, and looseth it from the debt of everlasting death. But this hath he not granted unto priests; to whom, notwithstanding, he hath given the power of binding and loosing, that is to say, of declaring men to be bound or loosed. Whereupon the Lord did first by himself restore health to the leper, and then sent him unto the priests, by whose judgment he might be declared to be cleansed : so also he offered Lazarus to his disciples to be loosed, having first quickened him.” (Petr. Lombard, lib. 4. Sentent. Distinct, 18) In like manner, Hugo Cardinalis sheweth, that it is “only God that forgiveth sins (Hugo Card, in Luc. 5) and that “the priest cannot bind or loose the sinner with or from the bond of the fault, and the punishment due thereunto; but only declare him to be bound or loosed: as the Levitical priest did not make or cleanse the leper, but only declared him to be infected or clean.” (Id. in Matthew 16) And a great number of the schoolmen afterward shewed themselves to be of the same judgment : that to pardon the fault and the eternal punishment due unto the same, was the proper work of God; that the priest’s absolution hath no real operation that way, but presupposeth the party to be first justified and absolved by God. Of this mind were Guliehnus Altissiodorensis (Altissiodorens. Summ. lib. 4. cap. de generali usu clavium), Alexander of Hales (Alexand. Halens. Summ. part 4. Quaest. 21. Membr. 1), Bonaventure (Bonavent. in iv. Dist. 18. Art. 2, Quaest. 1 & 2), Ockam (Gul. Ockam, in 4. Sentent. Quaest. 9. lit. Q), Thomas de Argentina (Argentin. in 4. Sent. Dist. 18. Art. 3), Michael de Bononia (Mich. Angrian. in Psal. 29 & 31), Gabriel Biel (Biel. in 4. Sent. Dist. 14. Quaest. 2. d. n. et Dist. 18. Quast. 1. k), Henricus de Huecta (Henr. de Oyta (al. Jota), in Propositionib. apud lllyricum, in Catal. Test. Veritat.), Johannes Major (Major, in 4. Sentent. Dist. 18), and others.
To lay down all their words at large would be too tedious. In general, Hadrian the Sixth, one of their own Popes, acknowledgeth, that the most approved divines were of this mind, “that the keys of the priesthood do not extend themselves to the remission of the fault.” (Hadrian, in Quodlibetic. Quaest. 5. Art. 3) and Major affirmeth, that this is “the common tenet of the doctors.” (Major, in 4. Dist. 14. Quaest. 2. Concl. 3) So likewise is it avouched by Gabriel Biel, that “the old doctors commonly” (Biel. in 4. Dist. 14V. Quaest. 2) follow the opinion of the Master of the sentences; that priests do forgive or retain sins, while they judge and declare that they are forgiven by God or retained. But all this notwithstanding, Suarez is bold to tell us, “that this opinion of the Master is false, and now at this time erroneous.” (Fr. Suarez. in Thom. Tom 4. Disp. 19. sect. 2, num. 4) It was not held so the other day, when Ferus preached at Mentz, that “man did not properly remit sin, but did declare and certify that it was remitted by God. So that the absolution received from man is nothing else than if he should say, Behold, my son, I certify thee that thy sins are forgiven thee; I pronounce unto thee that thou hast God favourable unto thee; and whatsoever Christ in baptism and in his Gospel hath promised unto us, he doth now declare and promise unto thee by me. Of this shalt thou have nie to be a witness: go in peace and in quiet of conscience.” (Jo. Ferus, lib. 2. Comment, in Matt. cap. 9) But, jam hoc tempore, “the case is altered” these things must be purged out of Ferus (Ferus in Matt. edit Antwerp ann 1539. 1570. etc) as erroneous; the opinion of the old doctors must give place to the sentence of the new Fathers of Trent. And so we are come at length to the end of this long question, in the handling whereof I have spent the more time, by reason our priests do make this faculty of pardoning men’s sins to be one of the most principal parts of their occupation, and the particular discovery thereof is not ordinarily by the writers of our side so much insisted upon.