I was intrigued to read in Fr. Nicholas Gamvas' little book, "The Psychology of Confession and the Orthodox Church", the claim that the formula for sacramental absolution in confession was first introduced in the West around 600 A.D., with the original practice consisting of public exomologesis (confession), penance, and admission to Holy Communion without the priest ever pronouncing the words "I absolve you..."
Fr. Gamvas presents his historical survey in "Psychology of Confession and the Orthodox Church" (Light and Life, 1989), in chapter 3, pp. 17-31. Confession in the Apostolic Church was public, with mutual prayers for each others' forgiveness - "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects." (James 5:16) Contrary to much Roman Catholic apologetics, the Epistle of James is not referring to faithful walking into confessional boxes (introduced at the Council of Trent), confessing sins anonymously to a judge who says as little as possible lest he appear to be speaking in his own name rather than in persona Christi, and then absolved from legal guilt. Repentance was rather a public, communal, and reciprocal process in which the Church strove together in prayer for salvation; the prayers for forgiveness were not given by an anonymous and depersonalized conduit acting in persona Christi through the suppression of individual personality, nor given by a "spiritual father" or staretz as seen in the later East, an incarnation and image of divine fatherhood working through and glorified through human personality and fatherhood, but rather presented as coming from a righteous man of God storming Heaven by his prayers.
A later apostolic document, the Shepherd of Hermas, is one of the first witnesses to attest to the long, thorough process of penance in the early Church. Taking the texts of St. Hermas and St. James together, one can see that the two key elements of the Mystery, repentance and confession, were present in apostolic times. The long, gradated process for sacramental rehabilitation through penance took the place of a sacramental absolution formula. The process rather was exomologesis (confession), penance, and then communion.
Exomologesis seems to have disappeared entirely in the post-apostolic period close to the Council of Trent. Historical evidence falls in two strains - first, the continuation of this practice as a Greek tradition during Great Lent, when the faithful receive Holy Communion without prior confession during Great Week after completing the Church's most rigorous fast; secondly, the testimony of the Fathers themselves, who do not mention exomologesis after Great Lent (St. Athanasios the Great's 19th pastoral encyclical is cited by Fr. Gamvas). Confession and penance was reserved for what the West would later classify as "mortal sins", following a distinction introduced by Tertullian, rather than for daily faults and vices ("venial sins"). Pope St. Callistus and St. Cyprian are both mentioned as having extended the discipline of penance, without any major changes to the Church's practice. The practice of personal, private confession before a priest was introduced by St. John Chrysostom, who restored the practice of confession after it had been completely suppressed by his predecessor Nektarios in 391, who had been concerned about the scandal that some of the confessions - adulterous affairs with prominent clergy! - had been causing.
In the East, the restoration of confession was mainly monastic, and is associated most notably with the name of St. Symeon the New Theologian - who confessed to a lay brother, not to a priest. Confession in the monastic form was not public like the apostolic exomologesis, absolution was not involved, and the confession was made to a spiritual father whose efficacy lay in his personal sanctity and closeness to God, not in his priestly ministry - and some have seen St. Symeon's insistence on this practice as introducing a tension between the efficacy of monastic charism versus hierarchical ordination. Although St. Symeon's name is often invoked, and his practice of confession to a non-ordained spiritual father often noted, the practice of reciprocal confession dates back to the Rule of St. Pachomius, and is also exhorted by St. Basil the Great (Letter 229) where he urges that confession be made to a spiritual father trusted for his guidance, rather than to any monk. The need to go to a separate priest for sacramental confession after confession of sins to a spiritual father emerges in Greek monasticism in the 12th century. Confession became widespread for the faithful at that same time, and became regarded as obligatory in the 15th century under the pen of St. Symeon of Thessaloniki
The "absolution formula" was first introduced in the West by St. Columban around 600 A.D. (Gamvas, p. 40). The words "I absolve you..." to this day do not appear in the Byzantine or Orthodox sacramental practice, and for a Roman Catholic coming to the East for confession for the first time, the initial reaction is to feel "unabsolved". For six hundred years confession was practiced, when it was permitted at all, without any "absolution formula", regarded by later scholastic theology as the "form" of the sacrament. The question must be raised - is a verbal "form" soteriologically necessary for repentance to be "grace-filled", or in Latinspeak, for the sacrament to be valid? A recognition and respect for the history and universal practice of the Church for more than the first quarter of its history must insist on a negative answer, and a broader understanding of the sacrament of confession.
A traditional, or at least neo-Baroque, Roman Catholic approach would be to insist on the necessity of ex opere operato sacramental absolution as the ordinary means of grace, with "true contrition" serving only as an "extraordinary" substitute in cases of emergency where confession and absolution become physically impossible, and with reception of the Most Blessed Sacrament certainly impossible to receive worthily without sacramental absolution. It would seem, from the historical consideration offered, that such a development is not a matter of necessity from Divine Law, but rather the historical manner in which the Church's practice developed. At one time, the Church offered penance as the means for healing - or for the remission of mortal sin; whether a juridical or medicinal metaphor is employed does not change the substance of the Church's teaching, and the two metaphors are complementary, not opposed - and today in the post-Patristic era man's laxity and weakness are taken into account, and the long hard process of public penance and excommunication are replaced with a quicker process of judicial absolution and re-admittance into the company of saints. In both eras, the Holy Spirit has guided the Church to offer the best means of grace for the sanctification of the faithful in Her time, but the somewhat simplistic assumption that the mystery of confession necessarily involves a formula for absolution must be discarded.
To my readers - thoughts? Is Fr. Gamvas' history correct? How would an Eastern Christian of the Catholic communion faithful to his Orthodox patrimony answer the question?
IC XC NIKA
P.S. This blog's output has been quite low - we are well into the Philipovka and this is only the third post this year, with the last post from 2012 being written in July. I've been busy. This year I've published an expanded edition of my physics textbook, which I use in the four undergraduate university physics classes I teach, and I've entered the unspeakable joy of becoming a married man. As I am writing, we are expecting a little daughter, Cecilia Rose, whom we are worried about for some rare pregnancy complications with her growth being several weeks behind and an artery in her umbilical cord missing. Prayers for her safety and health would be gratefully appreciated. She is the most precious thing to have ever entered my life.