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REFORMING PENANCE: APPEAL TO THE CHURCH FATHERS

ESTHER CHUNG-KIM

In a recent conversation with a faculty colleague, we noticed that most students claimed to be “willing
to change their mind” but when presented with a different perspective that debunked previous notions
and stereotypes, many in fact chose to remain “unchanged” in their views. If this is true for 21st
century young people who are accustomed to a high pace of change on multiple levels, how much
harder would it be for people in the 16th century to change a long-held belief and practice about the
church? Especially when the belief is about how to solve the problem of sin. This leads us to the
concerns around penance and confession, which I know are imprecise terms since they are based on
the medieval understanding of “poenitentia,” sometimes rendered as repentance. How did the
Protestant reformers introduce a change of view concerning “poenitentia”?

It is well- known among Reformation scholars that the Protestant reformers criticized some of the
practices related to penance, but it is less-known how they appealed to an earlier tradition to challenge
an existing one. By the late medieval period, ritual penitence was the result of a long development and
continual adaptations of older historical traditions and while theologians, confessors and preachers
differed in their understanding of just how the sacrament of penance worked to forgive sins, they all
agreed that forgiveness was the outcome of a combination of divine grace and human effort.[1] In
much of late medieval piety, preachers and people understood penance as a process requiring
contrition (remorse over sin), confession (verbal account of sin committed) and satisfaction (amends
usually in the form of punishment or renunciation offered by the penitent). These were the necessary
steps for a penitent to receive absolution and forgiveness, and ultimately salvation. Because sin had a
penalty either on earth or in purgatory, penance, which resolved the problem of sin and its expected
consequences, was crucial. Late medieval preachers upheld Mary Magdalene as a model penitent for
lay believers to emulate.

While the Protestant reformers initially retained the doctrines of contrition, confession and satisfaction
followed by absolution, they criticized the practices of penance in which forgiveness seemed to
depend on a person’s own efforts or a priest’s gestures. By relegating human effort and elevating
divine grace as sufficient for the remission of sins, Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther
understood forgiveness as a gift promised by God and received through faith and therefore not
dependent on human contribution or effort. Based on Luther’s thought, Philip Melanchthon, a
professor at the University of Wittenberg and a close friend and colleague of Luther, tried to explain
how such new thought not only had the support of Scripture but also of the early church tradition.
Likewise John Calvin, a pastor and reformer in Geneva tried to explain for Calvinist/Reformed groups
how their new thought could be understood as a return to the ancient tradition.

In other words, key Protestant reformers, such as Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin attempted to
claim the ancient voices of the past in their efforts to challenge and change late medieval notions
about penance. In much of their writings on this topic, both Melanchthon and Calvin listed explicit
references to the early church fathers usually for support, and sometimes for correction.[2] The
significance of these citations is two-fold. First, they answered the charges of innovation by rooting
the reformers’ views in the church’s ancient tradition, even if that ancient tradition needed revision.
Second, the reformers considered the rediscovery of ancient Christian writings as an opportunity to
rewrite history, i.e. to construct a new interpretation of the ancient tradition that would allow a critique
of penitential practices and the religious views sustaining them. The use of the church fathers in
Melanchthon and Calvin shows that the appeal to ancient authorities in the context of competing
biblical interpretations would serve to revise or subvert existing religious positions. They were able to
do this by simultaneously claiming Scripture as their authority and the church fathers as valuable
predecessors, in so far as they illumined the meaning of Scripture. In their efforts to criticize late
medieval penitential practices, Melanchthon and Calvin claimed the quasi-authority of the early
church fathers in addition to Scripture to reform penance and the practices related to it.

[1] Anne T. Thayer, Penitence, Preaching and the Coming of the Reformation, Burlington
2002, p. 48-49.

[2]John Calvin, “Dedication to Simon Grynaeus,” in Ross Mackenzie (trans.):


Commentary to the Romans, Grand Rapids 1960, p. 3. Calvin says he is using a different
kind of writing and intending something other than what Melanchthon has already
achieved illustrating the principal points, since he “neglected many points which require
attention.”

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Accessed: December 9, 2011