5 Martin Luther

How could I, a poor, stinking bag of maggots, have come to this, that people would refer to Christ’s Children by my unholy name?

—Martin Luther

5.1 Predecessors

“Tom’s Doubts,” #14, by “Saji”

Where were the true Christians before Luther, from whom he must have personally received the Holy Spirit according to Church doctrine? The answer that I’ve heard among Conservatives is that the believers were hidden inside the Catholic Church, practicing the true religion with its person-to-person absolution in secret. That is a convenient theory, because it is unfalsifiable. But it seems inconsistent with the idea (4.2.4) that God has always called men unto repentance through his Kingdom.

I doubt if there is more than a handful of people in the LLC–preachers or anyone else–who have read anything from Christian writers earlier than Luther. There aren’t many who even have read much of his writings. The Church Fathers from the first several centuries are completely ignored within the movement, even Augustine by whom Luther was so influenced as to have been called, in some ways, “Augustine’s most faithful son” (Balge 1984, 9).

I cite Augustine in this book, along with several other writers of the first few Christian centuries. The following are my ancient sources, listed by date-order of their cited works (A.D., of course). Each list entry contains the author’s name (if known), and title of each cited work. Most of the list entries also have one of the following codes indicating the authority I place on each source:

ENT – Early New Testament. Writings considered by early Christians to be as authoritative as now-canonical New Testament works, as evidenced by citations or inclusion in early New Testament codices.

AF – Apostolic Fathers. Writings by acknowledged leaders of the early church, cited approvingly since ancient times.

P – Prominent. The author’s works were extensive and well-known enough to give an indication of the prominent Christian ideas of his time.

L – Luther. An author whom Luther considered authoritative, persuasive, or at least one of the saved.

Ancient Sources
Date : Author : Work(s) : Authority

c. 95 : Unknown : First Clement : AF

c. 100 : Unknown : Epistle of Barnabus : ENT

c. 100 : Ignatius : Epistle to the Ephesians, Epistle to the Philadelphians, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Epistle to the Trallians : AF

c. 140 : Unknown : Shepherd of Hermas : ENT

c. 160 : Justin Martyr : Dialogue with Trypho, First Apology : P

c. 170 : Tatian : Address to the Greeks

c. 180 : Athenagoras : Plea to the Christians

c. 180 : Theophilus of Antioch : To Autolycus

c. 185 : Irenaeus : Against Heresies : P

197-200 : Tertullian : Against Praxeas, Apologetic, Ethical, On Modesty : P

c. 200 : Clement of Alexandria : Stromata, The Instructor : P

215 : Unknown : Apostolic Tradition : P

212-248 : Origen : Homilies on Leviticus, Homilies on Luke, Against Celsus : P

c. 384 : Ambrose : On Repentance : P

397-410 : Augustine : Confessions, The City of God : L

5.1.1 Luther’s View

Luther wrote that the spirit is lost when it does not cause the Word to be preached and roused in the heart so that it is understood. That happened during the Papacy, he said, for “faith was stuck entirely under the bench and no man recognized Christ as his Lord, nor the Holy Ghost for that which would sanctify” (Large Catechism, Part 2, §43). He feared

that since St. Peter’s times there has been no Pope that has preached the Gospel. There has certainly been none who has written and left anything behind him in which the Gospel was contained. Saint Gregory, the Pope, was certainly a holy man, but his sermons are not worth a farthing; so that it would seem that the See of Rome has been under the special curse of God. It is very possible that some Popes may have endured martyrdom for the Gospel’s sake; but nothing has been written of them to show that it was the Gospel. And yet they go on and preach that they must feed the flock; and yet they do nothing but bind and destroy the conscience, by laws of their own, while they preach not a word of Christ. [Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained, “The First Epistle General of St. Peter,” Ch. 5]

Writing The Papacy at Rome in 1520, he asserted that “Christ’s kingdom has been at all times in all the world, . . . but never was it entirely under the pope, even for one hour, in spite of those who say otherwise” (PE 1, 375, emphasis added). He appeared to grant that “even if the papacy has been under Satan now and then, yet there have always been pious Christians under it.” But in the same breath he says that there are Christians under the rule of the Turk and in all the world (pp. 382-83). The first part of his statement may be consistent with the picture of a few true believers huddled together in some secret recesses of Catholicism, but the second isn’t. Except perhaps in private admissions, Conservatives generally deny the possibility that there is any other saved group out there that is unknown to “the Kingdom.” The true believers all know each other, it is commonly said.

Luther recognized a number of Church Fathers as having the Holy Spirit, including St. Bernard [923-1008], Jean Gerson [1363-1429], and John Hus [c. 1372-1415] (Large Catechism, Part 4, §50). Bernard, he wrote,

was one of the best of the medieval saints. He lived a chaste and holy life. But when it came to dying he did not trust in his chaste life for salvation. He prayed: “I have lived a wicked life. But Thou, Lord Jesus, hast a heaven to give unto me. First, because Thou art the Son of God. Secondly, because Thou hast purchased heaven for me by Thy suffering and death. Thou givest heaven to me, not because I earned it, but because Thou hast earned it for me.” [Commentary on Galatians (1535), from Graebner 1949, Ch. 4]

Luther left little doubt about his approval of John Hus, referring to him as “St. John” and asserting that all of his articles “condemned at Constance are altogether Christian” (An Article in Defense of all the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull [1521]; PE 3, 97). Hus, along with Jerome of Prague [1379-1416], were “good Christians, [who] were burned by heretics and apostates and anti-christians,–the papists–for the sake of the holy Gospel” (p. 103).

He was heavily influenced by Augustine [354-430] and cited him throughout his writings. He considered it “intolerable nonsense not to consider St. Augustine one of the best [church] fathers, since throughout all Christendom he is esteemed the highest of them,” though he also criticized “this endless trouble and labor of holding to the [church] councils and fathers, against the Scriptures, and judging ourselves by them” (On the Councils and the Churches [1539]; PE 5, 149). Luther “had praise, admiration and charitable words for Ambrose, Bernard and others. But it was Augustine he cited, to whom he appealed, from whom he learned” (Balge 1984, 9).

When Luther left the monastic order that had named itself after Augustine and his own theology developed, however, he found himself in disagreement with his ancient teacher on many important points. He was forced to acknowledge–as Conservatives do now about Luther himself due to disagreements with some of his teachings–that “St. Augustine was only a human being; we are not compelled to follow his interpretation” (from Balge 1984, 8). It was difficult for Luther

to disassociate himself in many points of doctrine from the teacher to whom he owed so much: “No one will believe how great an ordeal it is and how severe a shock when a person first realizes that he must believe and teach contrary to the fathers. . . . When I read the books of St. Augustine and discover that he, too, did this and that, it thoroughly appalls me.” [pp. 8-9]

Still, Balge concludes that Luther continued to

speak appreciatively of the man whom he regarded as Paul’s “most trustworthy interpreter.” He believed that faith in the gospel had preserved Augustine’s soul from the logical consequence of his errors. “Holy Christendom has, in my judgment, no better teacher after the apostles than St. Augustine.” He opined that “Augustine is certainly a princely elector in heaven.” He regarded him as “a teacher who shines in the church up to this day and teaches and instructs it.” [p. 9]

5.1.2 Problems

I have pored over many Pre-Reformation church writings–most everything written by Christians of any type in the first couple of hundred years after Christ, some by Augustine, and some by John Hus–in search of teachings that would allow me to point to “believers” prior to Luther.1 The Conservative Laestadian definition of a “believer” is extremely specific because the movement must differentiate itself from thousands of other Christian denominations and sects. That type of “us vs. them” differentiation is inherent to fundamentalism (4.2.3), but Conservative Laestadianism is even more prone to it because of the need to justify its extreme claim of exclusivity.

The single most significant point of distinction between Laestadians (not just Conservatives) and the rest of Christianity is the focus on personal absolution from one believer to another for day-to-day housekeeping of the conscience (4.6.2). So absolution (from lay believers or clergy) was what I focused on in my search for pre-Lutheran Laestadian equivalents. What I found–more precisely, what I did not find–shocked me as much as any of the many unsettling discoveries I have laid out in this book thus far: With only a few vaguely possible exceptions, the Christians prior to Luther have left a written record that makes them nearly unrecognizable as the “believers” of my childhood faith. In every case, they were clearly very different people of very different times, beliefs, and practices. They wrote about some strikingly non-Lutheran subjects such as asceticism, honoring ecclesiastical hierarchy, limited grace, numerology, and the veneration of martyrs.2 There is almost nothing in their teachings or practices–certainly not about the most critical issue of personal absolution–that a Conservative Laestadian could point to and say, “He was one of us.”

Absent Absolution

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession notes that all “good people of all situations, even the theological profession, undoubtedly confess that the teaching of repentance was very much confused before Luther’s writings appeared” (Article 12a; McCain 2005, 158). It certainly was, beginning with two centuries of writings that not only fail to explicitly mention absolution, but provide many teachings incompatible with it. Even absolution as a sacramental, priestly function–the long-standing predecessor to Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” (5.4.5)–was absent:

Sometimes the power of discipline was assumed by the congregation, sometimes by the whole group of presbyters, but most frequently by the Bishop. It is significant however, that the power to forgive sins was not claimed by these officials until the end of the second century. The Johannine tradition that Christ had given such power to all the apostles was taken to mean that everyone might approach God to ask for his own or another’s forgiveness; only the martyrs were recognized to have special privileges in according grace to those who had lapsed during the persecutions. [Burkhart 1942, 196, emphasis added]

Henry Charles Lea begins his monumental History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences (1896) with a brief summary of how “man dealt directly with God” in the primitive Christianity of the Gospels. The only requirements were “repentance, love, humility, [and] pardon of offenses or charity.” Then he observes, “It required all the ingenuity of theologians for thirteen centuries to build up from this simplicity the complex structure of dogma and observance on which were based sacramental absolution and the theory of indulgences” (Lea 1896, 4).3

An equally significant work on the topic is K.E. Kirk’s Vision of God (1966). He summarizes the occasions where “the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers urge the confession of sins . . . from the pastoral point of view” in a half-page footnote. He concludes the summary by observing that “confession to God (which did not exclude the assistance of man and hearing the confession) was constantly urged upon the primitive Christian. It thus provided a permanent background of thought and practice from which sacramental ‘confession’ would emerge later when disciplinary penance broke down” (Kirk 1966, 172).

Lea does not mince words in expressing his dim view of the “transmission of power from the apostles to those who were assumed to be their successors,” calling it “the most audacious non sequitur [Latin: ‘it does not follow’] in history”:

That the primitive church knew nothing of this is plainly inferable from the silence of the early Fathers. It is proverbially difficult to prove a negative, and in this case the only evidence is negative. They could not discuss or oppose a non-existent doctrine and practice and their only eloquence on the subject must perforce be silence . . . [Lea 1896, 109]

Yet the Fathers did earnestly discuss “the methods of obtaining pardon for sins.” Thus “their omission of all allusion to any power of remission lodged in priest or Church is perfectly incompatible with the existence of contemporaneous belief in it” (p. 109, emphasis added).

It’s a mouthful, but Lea is making a critical point: The earliest Christian writers never thought to mention what became such an important aspect of Catholic (and, I might add, Conservative Laestadian) doctrine and practice, the absolution of sins by the proclamation of another human being. And the fact that they wrote about other means by which sins could be forgiven makes their silence about absolution all the more problematic.

It seems that the inattention to absolution continued into the early middle ages, at least when it came to the practice of everyday Christians. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 commanded all adults to undertake annual confession (Murray 1993, 52), which must seem astoundingly infrequent to Conservatives who hear the words of absolution every Sunday and, between family members, often daily. Murray researched the practice of confession by laymen in the centuries leading up to the Lateran Council and concluded that, although “regular” lay confession had been urged for several hundred years, it “was a usage generally ignored, if often in favor of unofficial substitutes.” (Amusingly to Conservative ears, he refers to “regular” practice as “once, twice or even three times per year,” p. 58.) And where laymen did make such confessions, there was either “an active study of pastoral divinity” going on or “a body of clergy living under a common rule” (p. 79). In other words, it seems, those laymen who participated were doing what the people who surrounded and observed them expected them to do.

What They Said (and Didn’t Say)

The Shepherd of Hermas was written in the early 2nd century, not many decades after the Gospels themselves, and was recognized and accepted up to the fourth century (McDonald and Porter 2000, 620). That acceptance is evidenced by its inclusion as part of the New Testament in Codex Sinaiticus. It is an early and authoritative Christian writing, but it clearly conflicts with the Conservative doctrine of forgiveness only by personal absolution. In the Shepherd, a narrator is “praying to the Lord and confessing my sins” (Vision 1,3; Ehrman 2005, 252) and being told to “pray to God, and he will heal your sins” (Vision 1:9).

Justin Martyr describes the weekly worship of the Christians around 160 A.D. There is a reading of scripture, common prayer, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and charity for the needy. But there’s no hint whatsoever of absolution:

[O]n the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. [First Apology, Ch. 67]

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho addresses the forgiveness of sins very briefly, telling the Jews that they should “hasten to know in what way forgiveness of sins, and a hope of inheriting the promised good things, shall be yours.” But, he says, “there is no other way than this–to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest to live sinless lives” (Ch. 64). That is hardly a clear indication of absolution. Indeed, it sounds a lot more like the one-time washing away of sins via baptism, a measure of grace that could not be repeated. (As we will see in the discussion below, there were absolute limits to God’s grace in the first Christian centuries.)

Justin made clear his views on the atoning power of baptism when he wrote that “we have believed, and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life” (Dialogue, Ch. 14). The discussion of baptism in 4.7.6 quotes that and several other such statements from Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Augustine. These earliest Christian writers put so much emphasis on the ritual cleansing of baptism that they seemed not to have seriously entertained any other means of forgiveness.

Writing a few decades after Justin, Theophilus of Antioch presents repentance as manifesting God’s constant desire “that the race of men turn from all their sins.” He goes on to cite a number of Old Testament prophets as some of the “countless sayings in the Holy Scriptures regarding repentance” (To Autolycus, Book 3, Ch. 12). His loose paraphrase of Joel 2:16-17 seems to indicate a favorable view about forgiveness by prayer: “Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children that are in arms; let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet, and pray to the Lord thy God urgently that he may have mercy upon you, and blot out your sins” (Book 3, Ch. 12, emphasis added).

With the passage of a few more decades, Clement of Alexandria also notes God’s direct role in forgiveness. He acts seemingly to the exclusion of man, who has a different task: “The Lord ministers all good and all help, both as man and as God: as God, forgiving our sins; and as man, training us not to sin” (The Instructor, Book 1, Ch. 3)

Origen notes of Luke 3:3 that baptism “is also preached ‘for the remission of sins.’” He encourages people in the process of conversion (which culminated in their baptism) to come and do “penance, so that Baptism for the remission of sins will follow. He who stops sinning receives Baptism ‘for the remission of sins.’” He cautions them not to “come to Baptism without caution and careful consideration,” because anyone who “comes sinning to the washing . . . does not receive forgiveness of sins” (Homilies on Luke, No. 21; Lienhard 1996, 135). Two things are clear here about Origen’s views: you receive forgiveness of your sins by coming to baptism, and you’d better have figured out how to quit sinning by that point. Both are in keeping with the viewpoints of early Christianity, and neither conforms in the slightest with the viewpoints of Conservative Laestadianism.

Ambrose [340-397] made a pretty clear reference to clerical forgiveness of sins: “If it be not lawful for sins to be forgiven by man, why do you baptize? For, assuredly, in baptism there is remission of all sins. What matters it whether priests claim this right as having been given them by means of baptism or penitence? One is the mystery in both” (Concerning Repentance, Book 1, Ch. 8, from Capel 1884, 13). But yet again, the forgiveness was not just through absolution (assuming that’s what he means by “penitence”). Ambrose’s point was that the forgiveness could occur equally through either baptism or penitence.

Despite the emphasis he and his predecessors put on baptism for the cleansing from sin, Augustine was of course aware of Jesus’ gift of “the keys to His Church” so that “whatsoever it should bind on earth might be bound in heaven, and whatsoever it should loose on earth might be loosed in heaven” (On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, Ch. 18). He clarified the biblical statement as follows:

[T]hat is to say, that whosoever in the Church should not believe that his sins are remitted, they should not be remitted to him; but that whosoever should believe and should repent, and turn from his sins, should be saved by the same faith and repentance on the ground of which he is received into the bosom of the Church. For he who does not believe that his sins can be pardoned, falls into despair, and becomes worse as if no greater good remained for him than to be evil, when he has ceased to have faith in the results of his own repentance. [Ch. 18]

Still, there’s no mention of any person–clergy or otherwise–proclaiming absolution. Rather, Augustine emphasized the individual’s faith and repentance. Augustine’s recollection of his own conversion, when “by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away,” is devoid of anything about absolution. It was a private spiritual experience, which he shared with a close friend and his mother only in retrospect (Confessions, Book 8).

Augustine must also have also known about the emerging practice of private confession, even though he didn’t seem to write anything about it. He subscribed to a canon of 419 A.D. that prevented a bishop from using knowledge about a sin against a person if the bishop learned of the alleged sin in private confession and the sinner denied it (Lea 1896, 15). But he “seems to set little store on confession when he omits it entirely from his enumeration of what is requisite to obtain pardon for sin” (p. 180).

In addition to reading the Church Fathers, I have found it interesting to see what the less orthodox Christians were saying in the early centuries. After all, one way of attempting to explain the lack of pre-Lutheran “believers” that meet Conservative Laestadian doctrinal requirements in the historical record is that the true Christians were a disregarded minority back then, too. One early bit of Christian writing from the Gnostic “heresy” is The Second Revelation of James, dating from sometime in the first couple of centuries after Christ (Meyer 2007, 331-32). It contains a brief reference to the forgiveness of sins, but by direct prayer to God: James the Just prays on his deathbed for God to save him “from sin, and forgive me all the debts of my days” (from Meyer 2007, 341).

My reading of the Gnostics is pretty limited, but that is the most relevant passage about the forgiveness of sins I have come across in their writings. It just didn’t seem to be much of a concern to them, which may be understandable given their views about the inner man being distinct from the flesh that carries him around. Price agrees, and also notes the Gnostics’ claim of being superior to the law. “Judging from their own writings, they were radical ascetics. Also, 1 John condemns those who claimed to be sinlessly perfect, and that was very likely a reference to Gnostics who claimed perfect divine nature. Such folks are not going to be much concerned with gaining forgiveness!” (Price 2012).


Lea writes, “Evidently among the primitive Christians the practice of acknowledging sins was regarded as a wholesome exercise, contributory to their pardon and leading to self-restraint” (1896, 173). It was a direct confession to God, “with prostration and humiliation, whereby repentance was excited through which his wrath might be appeased. In the primitive Church this confession to God was the only form enjoined” (p. 174). Lea refers to one of the earliest Christian writings outside our present biblical canon, First Clement [c. 95 A.D.], in support of his point: The Lord “stands in need of nothing; and He desires nothing of any one, except that confession be made to Him” (Ch. 52).

No mention is made of any human mediator. Indeed, the direct confession to God is confirmed by the statement in First Clement’s Chapter 7 that the Ninevites repented “of their sins, propitiated God by prayer, and obtained salvation.” Chapter 8 discusses repentance in the New Testament era, saying that to “all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop.” But again, even though the bishop is mentioned, there is no mention of confessing to the bishop or anyone else. Rather, the “Didache shows us that this confession was public, in church, and that each believer was expected to confess his transgressions on Sunday, before breaking bread in the Eucharistic feast, for no one was to come to prayer with an evil conscience” (Lea 1896, 174).

The next mention of confession of sins is in the Epistle of Barnabas, written sometime around 80-130 A.D. Barnabas was considered part of the New Testament early on in the church, as evidenced by its presence in both the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century. (It’s an interesting book; you can find some pretty crazy stuff in Barnabas about numerology and the legend of the Phoenix rising from the ashes.) A lengthy paragraph of admonitions urges readers to “seek out every day the faces of the saints, either by word examining them, and going to exhort them, and meditating how to save a soul by the word,” to not hesitate to give to every one that asks you, to hate the wicked, to not make a schism. Finally, readers are urged, in language that may well have been copied from the Didache, “Thou shalt confess thy sins. Thou shalt not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light” (Ch. 19).

Presumably, the writer of Barnabas considered the act of confession to be a solution to an evil conscience, so some sort of absolution might be inferred as part of the act of confession. But it is impossible to know whether the clearing of the conscience took place, in his view, as a result of the act of confession, or whether it occured by an absolution that is not mentioned. A hint might be found in Chapter 16, which talks about the spiritual temple that is found in the mouth of a Christian:

Before we came to believe in God, the dwelling of our hearts was rotten and weak like an actual structure built by human hands because it was a den of idolatry, a cave of demons, because of the things we did contrary to the will of God. . . . When we received amnesty for sins and placed our hopes on the name, we were renewed, being created all over again from scratch. This is why God truly lives inside us, in the dwelling that we constitute. How? By means of his message of faith, the summons of his promise, the wisdom of the commandments, the statutes of the teaching, his prophesying inside us and living inside us, by his opening the door of the temple, that is, our lips, to speak his words, giving us a chance to repent and in this way leading us, former slaves of death, into the unfading temple. For whoever wants to be saved focuses not on the individual who is preaching the news to him but on the one who lives in him and speaks through him. He is amazed at him, never having heard him speak thus with his mouth, nor has he himself ever wanted particularly to hear such speech. Both the speaking and the hearing attest the presence of the divine. The result is a spiritual temple being erected for the Lord. [from Price 2006a, 1129-30, emphasis added]

What are “his words”? Of absolution, or just the good news of Jesus Christ? The comparison one might make to the temple is that sins are forgiven via the mouth of the believer. But note how the “amnesty for sins” is viewed as a one-time event that the author and his readers are invited to look back on in retrospect.

When we get to Irenaeus, we finally see repentance being associated with confession, though there is still no mention of any corresponding act of absolution. Writing around 185 A.D. about a certain “Marcus” whom he considered a heretic (Against Heresies, Book I, Ch. 8), Irenaeus refers to a woman who “spent her whole time in the exercise of public confession, weeping over and lamenting the defilement which she had received from” Marcus after being converted “with no small difficulty” by “the brethren.” He also discusses others who “have their consciences seared as with a hot iron,” and some “of them, indeed, make a public confession of their sins; but others of them are ashamed to do this.” Irenaeus also mentions a predecessor of Marcion who, “Coming frequently into the Church, and making public confession, . . . thus remained, one time teaching in secret, and then again making public confession; but at last, having been denounced for corrupt teaching,” was “excommunicated from the assembly of the brethren” (Against Heresies, Book III, Ch. 4).

Shortly after Irenaeus, the Christian priesthood appeared in Rome and Africa. The Apostolic Tradition–a document traditionally dated to around 215 A.D. but possibly written up to a century later–contains a prayer of consecration for a new bishop that refers to his authority “by the Spirit of high-priesthood . . . to remit sins according to thy commandment, . . . to loose every bond according to the authority which thou gavest to thy disciples . . .” (from Burkhart 1942, 198). The “high-priestly bishop was recognized to have the power to forgive venial sins” in both Rome and North Africa (p. 199),

This was a bit beyond “the primitive period–in the days, for example, of Hermas, Clement, and Polycarp,” when Kirk says “little stress was laid upon absolution, much upon the efficacy of true penitence” (1966, 287). Lea says it “is not until we reach the middle of the third century that we find any evidence of an occasional custom of sinners [unburdening] their souls to priests” (Lea 1896, 175), although what we just saw from Irenaeus and the Apostolic Tradition seem to push that date back just a bit. He continues, “The first allusion to it occurs in Origen, who, in the seven modes of pardon includes the remission of sins by repentance,” which “is described as hard and painful,” showing “that it was by no means a usual expedient” (p. 175). Origen’s seven modes of pardon he summarizes as follows:

I. Baptism, II. Martyrdom, III. Almsgiving, IV. Forgiveness of offenses [by others], V. Converting a sinner from the error of his ways, VI. Abundant loving charity, VII. and lastly, the hard and laborious way of repentance, when the sinner washes his couch with tears, when tears are his daily and nightly bread, and he does not blush to reveal his sin to the priest of God and ask for medicine. [Lea 1896, 81]

Ambrose’s ambivalent statement quoted above about penitence vs. baptism indicates what Lea acknowledges was one of “three forms of voluntary confession in more or less frequent use” at the time: confession “to a priest or some other holy man” (p. 178). He claims, however, that “sacramental confession and absolution . . . was a practice permitted but not recognized by the Church” and that “Ambrose himself knows only of public penance for grave sins; the venials of daily occurrence were removed by repentance, and there is no class intermediate between them” (pp. 178-79). For his part, Kirk does not seem to believe that “a single case of private reconciliation (other than sick-bed cases) [can] be quoted from the first five centuries” (p. 540).

The doctrinal requirements of Conservative Laestadianism result in an assumption to the contrary. Apparently, it is more widespread than that, because Kirk (who probably never heard of Laestadianism) calls it an assumption, too, that “private penance with private absolution, running parallel to the public institution as a recognized alternative.” But maintaining that “involves the hypothesis of a conspiracy of silence on the part of patristic authorities . . . and flies in the face of the vast bulk of contemporary evidence” (p. 540).

Lea says “it was perhaps necessary for the Council of Trent [held from 1545 to 1563] to declare that sacramental confession is of divine law.” He then provides a scathing critique not just of those theologians who bore the “somewhat onerous task of proving from history” that the Council’s declaration was correct, but also on the historicity of sacramental confession itself. To defend it,

every shred of patristic literature has been searched with the result of finding a few scattered and irrelevant passages which at best are but indirect allusions or exhortations. This is in itself sufficient evidence of the fruitlessness of the effort. So infinitely important a priestly function, in a population so corrupt as that of the [Roman] empire, would necessarily have formed the subject of detailed treatises for both penitence and confessors. The Apostolic Constitutions embody the customs of the church towards the end of the third century, but they are silent as to this. A hundred years later St. Augustin, with untiring industry, covered the whole ground of Christian ethics and duties, but he gives no counsel to confessors how to perform their most delicate and responsible functions. The councils, in a fragmentary manner, prescribed penances for the grosser sins, but they lay down no commands as to confession. [Lea 1896, 171]

No indications about confession appear until about the seventh century, Lea continues, and their nature shows “how rare as yet was confession” (p. 171). Some examples of what he may have in mind are a seventh-century council that declared “the penance of sinners” to be “medicine of the soul” and “useful to all men” and an eighth-century statement showing that the devout laity habitually received absolution before Christmas (Kirk 1966, 285). Lea is not impressed by the argument that literature about sacramental confession did in fact exist but is now lost: “To estimate the full force of this negative evidence it is only necessary to compare the silence of the early centuries with the clamor which arose as soon as confession was made habitual by the Lateran Council in 1216” (1896, 171). He cites the “increasing mass of literature which has swollen to vast proportions” since then, and says it “cannot be imagined that men like the Christian Fathers could have been blind to what has been so clearly seen since the thirteenth century, that the duties of the conscientious confessor are the most arduous and exacting, the most intricate and complex, that can be imposed on the fallibility of human nature” (p. 172).


The epistle to the Hebrews began a “rigorist practice of refusing reconciliation to grave sinners” (Kirk 1966, 161) that placed absolute limits on God’s grace for five centuries (pp. 227, 275-81, 506-507) and associated it with severe public humiliation and punishment for centuries more (pp. 292-95). “Unfortunately for the Church, the rigorist view of the epistle to the Hebrews predominated for many generations, and poisoned the whole atmosphere of Christian ethics” (p. 165). The issue with Hebrews has been been long recognized; Luther’s concern about the “hard knot” posed by its chapters 6 and 10 is discussed in 7.7.

The first Church Father to leave us anything on the topic of rigorism is whoever wrote the Shepherd of Hermas around 140 A.D. Kirk says the book excludes grave sinners “from the Church without any hope of readmission” (p. 167). It does, however, offer to “the apostates and other excommunicates” what had been denied them, “one more chance, but one alone. Grave sinners within the Church he calls to open penance, with the threat that after this opportunity nothing awaits them except the penalty of permanent excommunication” (p. 168).

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho indicates an expectation that converts would stop sinning after baptism. He tells his Jewish reader to eradicate from his soul the hope that ancestry from God’s chosen people would save him. Rather, he should “hasten to know in what way forgiveness of sins, and a hope of inheriting the promised good things, shall be yours. But there is no other [way] than this,–to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest, to live sinless lives” (Ch. 44).

Irenaeus warned about a lack of second chances: “We ought not . . . be puffed up, nor be severe upon those of old time, but ought ourselves to fear, lest perchance, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins, but be shut out from His kingdom” (Against Heresies, Book 4, Ch. 27, emphasis added).

In the discussion of alternatives to absolution, we saw how Origen viewed baptism as an end to sinfulness. So did Tertullian, a few decades earlier: “That baptismal washing is a sealing of faith, which faith is begun and is commended by the faith of repentance. We are not washed in order that we may cease sinning, but because we have ceased, since in heart we have been bathed already” (Ethical, On Repentance, Ch. 6).

“Although the gate of forgiveness has been shut and fastened up with the bar of baptism,” Tertullian thought God “has permitted it still to stand somewhat open. In the vestibule He has stationed” a second repentance that could be opened to those who knock (Ch. 7). He offers consoling words to those who have to do so: “Let none be ashamed. Repeated sickness must have repeated medicine. You will show your gratitude to the Lord by not refusing what the Lord offers you. You have offended, but can still be reconciled” (Ch. 7).

But don’t push your luck–that’s all the chance you’ll get. It is the “second and only (remaining) repentance” (Ch. 9), and was for Clement of Alexandria, too. He advised that a person “who has received the forgiveness of sins ought to sin no more,” because there would be only one more chance. God, “being very merciful,” offers a second repentance to those “who, though in faith, fall into any transgression.” But that repentance was itself “not to be repented of,” he warns, quoting the Hebrews 10 passage (Stromata, Book 2, Ch. 13). Even without the absolute limit imposed by the rigorism of his day, Clement would have little patience for the regular forgiveness of Conservative Laestadianism. Frequent repentance was itself sinful, and the “frequent asking of forgiveness . . . for those things in which we often transgress, is the semblance of repentance, not repentance itself” (Ch. 13).

The rigorism was still in place when Origen did his writing in the early third century. “Among us,” he noted “there is only one pardon of sins, which is given in the beginning through the grace of baptism. After this, no mercy nor any indulgence is granted to the sinner” (Homilies on Leviticus, No. 2; Barkley 1990, 66). And of “the sins which we commit in this life” he said, “some can now be healed but others cannot” (No. 8; p. 181).

Along with the epistle to the Hebrews, the Shepherd of Hermas established the strict limit of rigorism. But at least “Hermas proposed one post-baptismal reconciliation for all grave sins without exception” (Kirk 1966, 171). By the time Origen noted the distinction between sins that could and could not be healed, “the Church excluded even from this strictly limited amnesty the three mortal sins of apostasy, adultery and homicide.” All that was available was submission “to life-long discipline in the hope that God would forgive after death that from which the church dared not absolve during life” (p. 171). Although there had been “[s]poradic instances of mitigation in one direction or another” since the mid-second century, “the rigour of the law was in general fully maintained. Adulterers, apostates and murderers . . . were normally excluded from the Church without hope of readmission” (p. 224).

The absolute limits would soon loosen up a little bit, with the “rigorist attitude towards the remission of sins of the flesh” disappearing in Africa and Italy by the middle of the third century (Kirk 1966, 226). Forgiveness for murder only became available after a 314 A.D. council that allowed for reconciliation when the murderer’s own death approached (p. 227).

The change does not imply a commensurate laxity about sin, however. Open penance was a requirement for forgiveness, and

the severity increased to an almost unbelievable degree. Not only before, but even after his reconciliation, the penitent suffered every kind of temporal penalty–so much so that entry into a monastery came to be a recognized (and even preferable) alternative to penance, and evasion by suicide was not unknown. [p. 228]

Kirk summarizes the position of Western Christianity by the fifth century as follows:

There are no longer any sins irremissible by the Church on earth, but the number of sins for which reconciliation will only be given [at the point of death] is considerable. Penance for grave sin after baptism, but one penance only, is still the invariable rule. So severe has the penitential discipline become, both in character and duration, that (with only the rarest possible exceptions) no one can be found to undergo it voluntarily–except indeed at the moment of death, when neither severity or publicity nor duration can be enforced. [p. 275]

During the period of penance, which could go on for years (Lea 1896, 25-26), the penitent man’s head was kept shaved and the woman’s veiled, sackcloth and ashes were worn, and bathing was forbidden (p. 28). In church, “the penitents were grouped apart in their hideous squalor” and publicly humiliated. A “complete separation between husband and wife was enforced,” and even after the penance marriage or resumption of sex in marriage was a dicey question (pp. 29-30).

It was a hideous system that bears not the slightest resemblance to the grace and forgiveness of Christianity today, Laestadian or otherwise. And it went on for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Duplicating the Keys

It was during during the fifth and sixth centuries that “the rule of one penance” gradually disappeared, and “it is probably safe to associate this development with a growing ascendancy of the priesthood in the ministry of absolution” (Kirk 1966, 281). At first, sins could be forgiven only by the bishops, who stood apart from mere priests.

In the early Christianity Ignatius describes around 100 A.D., there was a single bishop, the leader of the entire church: “[T]here is but one altar for the whole Church, and one bishop, with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants” (Epistle to the Philadelphians, Ch. 4). Ignatius urged his readers to “all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ch. 8). Decades later, the narrator of the Shepherd of Hermas was seeing a vision of bishops in the plural, rather than the singular (Ch. 27). Tertullian’s writings from the end of the second century make it clear that there were a number of bishops at that point.

These bishops were the leaders of each regional body of a Church that, “although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house,” preserved the preaching and faith that Irenaeus described around 185 A.D. in his Against Heresies (Book 1, Ch. 10). The men occupied the highest levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchy that had formed when the keys finally turned up around the turn of the second century. By “the middle of the 2nd century all the chief centres of Christianity were headed by bishops” (Wikipedia).

As soon as the ministry of reconciliation passed from the hands of the bishop “into the ordinary jurisdiction of the priest, repetition of penance–often secured, no doubt, by application to different priests at different times–became easy, and privacy easier still” (Kirk 1966, 280).

Origen offered an intriguing early reference to the forgiveness (and retaining) of sins by a person having divine authority:

But consider the person inspired by Jesus as the apostles were and who can be known by his fruits as someone who has received the Holy Spirit and become spiritual by being led by the Spirit as a son of God to do everything according to the Word (or reason). This person forgives whatever God forgives and retains sins that cannot be healed, serving God like the prophets by speaking not his own words but those of the divine will. So he, too, serves God, who alone has authority to forgive. [Treatise on Prayer, 28:8-10, from Crouzel 1985, 229]

After providing us this quotation, Crouzel notes, “The priests of the Old Testament offered expiatory sacrifices only for sins that could be pardoned.” He then quotes Origen again:

Therefore, it is the same way that the Apostles and those like the Apostles, since they are priests according to the great High Priest, have received knowledge of God’s healing and know, since they are taught by the Spirit, for what sins sacrifice must be offered and when and how; and they know for what sins it is wrong to do this . . . I do not know how some arrogate to themselves powers that exceed the priestly dignity; perhaps they do not thoroughly understand priestly knowledge. These people boast that they are able to forgive adultery and fornication, supposing that through their prayers for those who have dared these things even on into death is loosed. For they do not read that “there is a sin which is unto death. I do not say that one is to pray for that.” [from pp. 229-30]

Origen’s words underscore the rigorism of his day: adultery and fornication could not be forgiven, by priests or otherwise. They also leave a tantalizing possibility that the “person inspired by Jesus,” having “received the Holy Spirit and become spiritual” might be any believer, not just a bishop or priest. Crouzel, a Jesuit, dismisses that idea, saying such an interpretation “has little foundation.” According to him, Origen is criticizing “priests or bishops who claim to forgive sins by their prayer alone, by a remission, aphesis, by grace alone, without expiation through public penance [by] which one displays repentance and makes the sinner fit to receive pardon, thus transforming a ‘sin unto death’ into one that is no longer unto death” (p. 230).

Crouzel notes that “the only person who exercises the power of the keys in accord with the divine intention is the priest who is a spiritual man and remits sin as God does and wills, and who has the knowledge required for this function” (p. 230). That conclusion may seem to be a presupposition of his Roman Catholicism, but it really isn’t. The idea of laymen being able to forgive sins would have been utterly foreign to Origen or anyone else in Christianity. Even priests had only recently gained access to the keys from the bishops, and their authority was initially only delegated to them in the bishop’s absence (Kirk 1966, 281). It “was very uncertain how far the priest, as distinct from the Bishop, had the power of the keys” (p. 281, n. 4). It would go no further until the monasticism that formalized in the centuries ahead brought with it the phenomenon of monks, even lay monks, proclaiming absolution to their brethren in the cloisters (p. 283-84). Luther’s “system of lay confession” (Lea 1896, 173) associated with his expansion of the priesthood to all believers would not appear for more than a thousand years.

The only case I’ve seen of ordinary lay Christians performing absolution before Luther was in the Bogomil heresy that began in the Balkans around 930 A.D.: “Bogomil’s congregation had no priesthood or hierarchy; men and woman confessed their sins to one another and gave one another absolution” (Harris and Paich 1999). “[W]hile the Bogomils accept the necessity for Confession, it is of the non-auricular kind, i.e. they believe it enough to confess one’s sins to another “Christian” (their name for each other). [A contemporary critic] Cosmas is particularly outraged that women are included among those to whom one may confess” (bogomilism.eu). It’s an intriguing exception to the rule, but I have learned little else about it. The Bogomils were certainly no proto-Lutherans, being a “dualist and docetist sect” that talked about Satan being God’s older son (St. Pachomius Library). Their founder was accused of teaching that “Christ our God was born of the Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary as an illusion, and as an illusion he was crucified, but that he took this assumed flesh up with him, leaving it in the air” (Synodicon).

All in all, it was a tortuously slow expansion of those authorized to use the keys. At first the authority was neither claimed by nor given to anyone at all. Then the bishops appeared, keys in hand. Then the priests to whom they hesitantly delegated their authority got copies, and later monks did, too, within the walls of their closed communities. And finally, when Luther’s system appeared, laymen got their chance to employ the keys, in theory if not so apparently in actual practice (5.4.4, 5.4.5).

Hiddenness Again

Conservative Laestadianism’s focus on absolution “from faith to faith” and unchanging doctrine demands that there has been a special group of believers who make up an unbroken chain of people to whom the keys have been passed ever since Jesus conveyed them to the disciples. Those believers used the keys to absolve each other on a regular basis from sin that occurs at every turn. For most of the past two thousand years, these people have been completely hidden from any of the history we’ve just reviewed. To believe that, you must assume a “conspiracy of silence on the part of patristic authorities” about absolution in the earliest Christian centuries, as Kirk adeptly puts it.

You must also disregard how strictly limited the opportunity was for repentance from post-baptismal sin, and the corresponding assumption by the earliest Christians that they were immune to any further sinning. You must assume that free grace, by faith rather than works, was being offered to this select group of proto-Lutherans in secret, entirely removed from the suffering of harsh penances that was imposed on all known Christendom for many hundreds of years. You must assume that these hidden believers either had their own clergy to whom the keys had been authorized, or that Luther’s revolutionary concept of lay absolution was accepted by them a thousand years before the Reformation, at a time when even priests were being denied access to the keys.

When absolution finally reaches laymen in the middle ages–certainly not preached by them, but received by them–there was such reluctance that annual participation had to be mandated. So you must make one final transition, from that somber, sacramental event to the weekly and even daily repetition of a verbal formula, largely disconnected from confession of anything. It’s a big leap, after several impossibly huge ones, and the subject of this section’s overall study, Martin Luther, is right in the middle of it.

1 It’s not that hard to cover the earliest writings: “With the exception of the Pastor of Hermas and the short tract called the Didache, we have nothing more than a dozen letters from the Fathers of the first hundred and fifty years of Christianity” (Casey 1899, 15). Keeping up with the century after that requires much more dedication, as it explodes with preserved works from such prodigious authors as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. I’ve found those writings excellent bedtime reading, however, with just enough interesting material to keep me following along until the seemingly endless repetition finally puts me down for the night.

2 The asceticism often included celibacy, even in marriage. Indeed, there is a writing in the Pauline canon, 1 Cor 7:29-30, with instructions about that. Rev 14:4 appears to make celibacy a requirement for at least the inner circle of heaven. See the discussion of that passage in 7.9 to get an idea of how anti-sexual it and many other early Church writings were.

3 H.C. Lea’s comprehensive and important book, A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences (1896) is in the public domain. I got my copy of Vol. 1, Confession and Absolution, for free on Google’s ebookstore. This long, ugly link may at least get you in the neighborhood of it on Google’s site. If you want to spend twenty bucks, you can also get a paperback reprint at Amazon.com.

It is well regarded, meticulously researched, and surprisingly readable. I highly recommend it. In the interest of objectivity, you may also wish to accompany your reading of the book with a short critique (also public domain) by Patrick H. Casey, a Catholic apologist: Notes on a History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences (1899).