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April 6, 2008 / vivator

On John 20:22-23

Catholics understand that John 20:22-23 as the scriptural support of Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them [the apostles], and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” We look at the testimony of two early Christians, Ambrose and John Chrysostom, on how they interpreted these verses.

Ambrose (c. 338 to 397 AD) was bishop of Milan, Italy from 374 to 397 AD.   In one of his works, Concerning Repentance, he wrote commentary on John 20:22-23 (English translation from Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers or NPNF, Series II, Vol. 10):

Consider, too, the point that he who has received the Holy Ghost has also received the power of forgiving and of retaining sin. For thus it is written: “Receive the Holy Spirit: whosesoever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained. So, then, he who has not received power to forgive sins has not received the Holy Spirit. The office of the priest is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and His right it is specially to forgive and to retain sins. How, then, can they claim His gift who distrust His power and His right?

Ambrose, Concerning Repentance, Book I, Chapter 2: 7 to 8

Echoing the same view, John Chrysostomos (c. 347 to 407AD), bishop of Constantinople wrote (English translation from Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers or NPNF, Series I, Vol. 9 with added emphasis):

For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw nigh to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven. They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, “Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained?” What authority could be greater than this? “The Father hath committed all judgment to the Son?” But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable. Moreover, if a king should bestow this honor upon any of his subjects, authorizing him to cast into prison whom he pleased and to release them again, he becomes an object of envy and respect to all men; but he who has received from God an authority as much greater as heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies, seems to some to have received so small an honor that they are actually able to imagine that one of those who have been entrusted with these things will despise the gift. Away with such madness! For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?

John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Book 3, Chapter 5

In contrast Reformer John Calvin, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, denied that the authority to forgive sin was given to the apostles.

While Christ enjoins the Apostles to forgive sins, he does not convey to them what is peculiar to himself. It belongs to him to forgive sins. This honor, so far as it belongs peculiarly to himself, he does not surrender to the Apostles, but enjoins them, in his name, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, that through their agency he may reconcile men to God. In short, properly speaking, it is he alone who forgives sins through his apostles and ministers.

Calvin, Commentary on John 20:22-23

Following Calvin, Protestants generally interpret those verses as commandment to preach Gospel.

Most absurdly do the Papists, on the other hand, torture this passage, to support their magical absolutions. If any person do not confess his sins in the ear of the priest, he has no right, in their opinion, to expect forgiveness; for Christ intended that sins should be forgiven through the Apostles, and they cannot absolve without having examined the matter; therefore, confession is necessary. Such is their beautiful argument. But they fall into a strange blunder, when they pass by the most important point of the matter; namely, that this right was granted to the Apostles, in order to maintain the credit of the Gospel, which they had been commissioned to preach. For Christ does not here appoint confessors, to inquire minutely into each sin by means of low mutterings, but preachers of his Gospel, who shall cause their voice to be heard, and who shall seal on the hearts of believers the grace of the atonement obtained through Christ. We ought, therefore, to keep by the manner of forgiving sins, so as to know what is that power which has been granted to the apostles.

Calvin, Commentary on John 20:22-23



Leave a Comment
  1. vivator / Feb 28 2010 8:52 am

    Dear Timothy,
    Christ’ words recorded in John 20:20-23 were addressed to the apostles. Catholics do believe, based on Tradition, that they appointed their successors, i.e. bishops, who in turn appointed theirs and so on. The fact that only God and Christ can forgive sins does not negate the fact that they can channel their authority through men. Scripture applies the title Saviour to Christ and God only, yet we can participate in salvation of others through sharing good news, praying etc. without diminishing their roles as Saviour. For more details on scriptural supports on Catholic priesthood you can read in my last post on Years of Priests.

  2. Timothy / Feb 28 2010 8:33 am

    I can understand the argument, but saying that a “Priest’s” divine right is the Holy Spirit and therefore the ability to forgive sins is a bit of a stretch. The new testament is full of examples where the Gifting and Baptism of the Holy Spirit is for any believer in Christ that asks for it – because it is described as a gift. This is backed up in the Old Testament where God wishes to make the entire population of Israel a nation of priests. The people are afraid to experience God’s full presents and mandate Moses to go up for them. This was to fulfill the statement that “Salvation is of the Jews”.

    In short, according to this argument, anyone who has received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit wields the ability to free or capture people in their sins… This again is a stretch because Jesus himself says that the only way to the father is through the Son. He also says that if you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood that you will have no part in my kingdom.

    By making this statement you are taking power away from the blood of Jesus Christ. You are also overlooking the fact that the veil was torn in two after Jesus died, symbolizing that anyone may enter into the Holy of Holys – Which negates the need for a priest.

    Furthermore, the role of the Holy Spirit takes the place of Jesus’ physical presents on the Earth. Did Jesus need a priest to forgive people their sins? Absolutely not! Why then does the Holy Spirit require a priest to forgive sins? Is the Holy Spirit any less God than Jesus? Do we serve a Holy Bi-Part God? Or is it rather a trinity?

    Jesus did not want to have a few spiritual superstars – If He did then He would have stayed on Earth. There is no difference between “clergy” and “layman” (I hate those words) both are equally dangerous to the kingdom of darkness. One man’s calling is to teach while another man’s calling is to build tires – equally as spiritual.

    The whole reason I looked up commentary on this passage is because it seemed so incongruent theologically – at least in the English translation – the Greek seems to clear many of the questions we English speakers have regarding the Bible because English is a vague language; there are many Greek words that we have no translation for.

    No I did not back up my argument with specific scripture citations, but feel free to check up on what I said. There are many resources online to look up parts of scripture.

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