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CONFESSION

of the United States congress, to adjust matters of difference, and the assemblies of the prime ministers of the various British colonies, held at stated intervals to consult with the imperial government. The title of Colonial Conference was changed to that of Imperial Conference in 1907, but the proposal to change Conference to Council was dropped; it was felt that the administrative functions usually connoted by the word “council” made that title less suitable to an assembly with purely deliberative and consultative powers, which were more fitly expressed by “conference.” In diplomacy the word “conference” is used of a meeting of the representatives of states of greater or less importance for the purpose of settling particular points, as distinguished from a “congress,” which is properly a meeting of the great powers for the settlement of questions of general interest. In practice, however, the distinction is not consistently maintained. The meetings preliminary to a congress and the sessions of the congress itself are also styled “conferences” (see Congress). The word is also applied to the annual assemblies for transacting church business in the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Great Britain and to various similar assemblies in the Methodist Episcopal Church of America (See Methodism).


CONFESSION (Lat. confession, from confiteor, acknowledge, confess), a term meaning in general the admission and acknowledgment that one has done something which otherwise might remain undisclosed, especially the acknowledgment of guilt or wrong-doing, either in public or to somebody specially entitled to such knowledge. The term has a special importance (1) in religion, (2) in law.

1. Religion.—Among the Jews it was ordered that on the Day of Atonement the high priest should make confession of sins in the name of the whole people, and the day is still kept by the Jews with fasting and confession of sins. The Jews were also enjoined to confess their sins individually to God, and in certain Cases to man.

In the Gospels confession is scarcely mentioned. But much is said about forgiveness, and the church is empowered to administer God’s pardon (John xx. 23 and Matt. xviii. 18). But it should be noted that the primary reference of “binding and loosing” is, according to rabbinical usage, rather to the laying down of rules than to condoning breaches of them; and nothing is said to confine the words “Whose soever sins ye forgive” to the offences of Christians already baptized, and they should be held to include preaching the Gospel and baptizing converts as well as the administration of internal discipline.

The rest of the New Testament is scarcely more explicit on the subject, which did not become so urgent in the days of early enthusiasm, and when the second coming of the Lord was expected immediately. Baptism conveys the forgiveness of sins, and therefore ought to result in freedom from all wilful sin. But what was to be done with the baptized Christian who fell into grievous sin? On the one hand the Epistle to the Hebrews (vi. 4-6) declared that renewals of the lapsed are impossible. On the other, the confession of sins was ordered in James v. 15, 16 and 1 John i. 9, and the exercise of discipline is referred to in 1 Cor. v. and 2 Cor. ii. 5-11 (the identification of the two cases is precarious), Gal. vi. 1 and other passages. Though nothing was as yet systematized, the governing principle is laid down that the sin of the member affects the whole body, and therefore the society is bound to deal with it both from pity for the sinner, and for the sake of its own purity.

It soon became necessary to face the various questions involved more systematically. The definite discussion of the problems dates from The Shepherd of Hermas (published at Rome about A.D. 145). Hermas rejects both the extreme opinions, viz. that to the baptized Christian there is either no such thing as sin, or no such thing as further forgiveness. He represents the church as a woman who offers sinful Christians a unique opportunity for conversion and restoration, which must be seized at once or lost for ever. But while he insists on repentance and mortification, he says nothing about public confession or discipline. Soon bitter controversies arose, especially in the West, where questions of discipline have always been to the fore (see Montanism; Novatianus; Donatists). Speaking broadly the development was from rigour to indulgence, and the three schisms referred to voiced the protests of the puritan minority.

At the beginning of the 3rd century something like a definite system had been established at Carthage and elsewhere. Three groups of sins, classified as (1) idolatry, which included apostasy, (2) adultery or fornication, and (3) murder, were held to exclude the guilty person from sharing in the Eucharist until death, that is to say, if he had committed the sin after baptism. Not that it was asserted that he, therefore, could not be forgiven by God; indeed he was urged to pray and fast and undergo church discipline; but the church refused to venture on any anticipation of the divine decision. For other grave sins the baptized person was allowed to undergo discipline once, but only once in his life; if he relapsed again, he must remain excommunicate like the adulterer. Baptism was the first plank thrown out to save the drowning man, “confession” the second, and there was no third chance. It was largely due to the rigour of this rule that men so frequently deferred baptism till late in life. Less serious sins, again, were held to be adequately dealt with by ordinary prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer, or by the public prayers of the church. Public but general confession of sins and intercession for penitent sinners have from early times formed a normal part of public worship in the Christian church.

The process of public confession or penance (exomologesis, Greek for public confession) was as follows (see Tertullian, De paenitentia IX., and other writers). The sinner was admitted to it as to a privilege by laying on of hands. He wore sackcloth, made his bed in ashes, and fasted or used only the very plainest fare. In secret he gave himself up to ceaseless prayer; in public he threw himself at the brethren’s feet to entreat their intercessions. This went on for a time proportionate to the gravity of the offence, perhaps for years; then, if his sin allowed it, he was readmitted by the bishop and clergy with further laying on of hands. He must still (at least according to later rules) live in strict abstinence, forgoing, e.g., the use of marriage. And if he fell away, he could never be restored again. One can hardly be surprised that Tertullian says that few faced such an ordeal. In this account nothing is said of confession; but it would appear that in early days the sins were made known to the congregation, and in notorious cases they would take the initiative and expel the offender. It was also common for a penitent to take advice as to the necessity in his case of undergoing exomologesis, and this, of course, involved confession. Origen implies that in his days the penitent might choose his own spiritual physician. It is to be noticed that the clergy were never admitted to this public discipline; but a cleric might be deposed and then admitted as a layman. Ordinarily the sinful cleric prayed and fasted at his own discretion, and nothing is said of his confessing his sins. In fact far more importance was attached to the discipline than to confession.

Church practice was not the same everywhere at the same time; just because Scripture only gave the ruling principles, therefore the different churches worked out their application in different ways. It is, therefore, natural that we should trace the stages of development through the friction they caused. Thus Calixtus, bishop of Rome 219–223, decided to admit adulterers to exomologesis and so to communion; and Tertullian, now become a Montanist, pours out his scorn on him. Thirty years later, first at Carthage, then at Rome, the same step has been taken with regard to penitent apostates, at least the less guilty of them. But the church was thereby involved in a double conflict; for while on the one hand the Novatianist schism represents the puritan outcry against such laxity, on the other the martyrs (not indeed for the first time) claimed a position above church law, and gave trouble by issuing libelli pacis, i.e. requests or even orders that so-and-so, and sometimes the name was not inserted, should be readmitted to communion forthwith without undergoing the discipline of exomologesis. It was out of this practice that later on Indulgences grew up.

A further relaxation appears about the same time. Those