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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Confession

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1. Confession of Christ.-The duty of confessing Christ before men was very plainly taught by the Lord. He promised (Matthew 10:32) that He would Himself acknowledge a faithful disciple before His Father and the holy angels. He had challenged by a leading question the confession of St. Peter: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16), which He commended. In the Acts we find the same root ideas carried into practice. St. Peter and the other apostles openly confessed Jesus as the Christ (Acts 2:31 f.). The references to baptism into the name of the Lord most probably refer to the confession of faith in Him which was made by all candidates for baptism. Probably the little creed put into the mouth of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:37 ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’) is an interpolation, and represents the creed of some Church in Asia Minor, since it was known to Irenaeus.

The Epistles bear the same witness: ‘No one can say that Jesus is the Lord, save in the Holy Ghost’ (1 Corinthians 12:3). ‘If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thy heart that Cod hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved’ (Romans 10:9). St. Paul here implies that the Lord Jesus is one with the Lord Jahweh on whom the prophet Joel bade men call when he predicted ‘this word of faith.’ Our difficulties begin when we try to piece together any sort of longer confession which might be regarded as the archetype of the later creeds. It is so difficult to keep an open mind and refrain from reading too ranch into the evidence.

The Epistle to the Hebrews confirms the testimony of the earlier Pauline Epistles. Hebrews 3:1 reads, ‘consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, even Jesus.’ In Westcott’s words (Ep. to Hebrews, 1889, ad loc.): ‘In Christ our “confession,” the faith which we hold and openly acknowledge, finds its authoritative promulgation and its priestly application,’ In Hebrews 4:14 the idea is expressed of clinging to faith in one who is truly human and truly Divine. In Hebrews 10:23 this confidence is described as the confession of our hope, by which it is shaped. There is an interesting parallel in Clement, ad Cor., ch. 36, who calls Christ ‘the High Priest of our offerings.’

The Johannine Epistles correspond to the Pauline. In 1 John 2:23 confession is contrasted with denial as entailing the privilege of having the Father. The true inspiration of the Spirit is shown in confession of ‘Jesus Christ come in the flesh’ (1 John 4:2 f.) uniting the Divine and the human in one person. ‘The recognition of the revelation of God is the sign of the presence of God’ (Westcott, Epp. of St. John, 1883, p. 146): ‘Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him and he in God’ (John 4:15).

There is an interesting parallel with Johannine teaching in Polycarp’s Epistle, ch. 7, where he urges confession of Jesus Christ come in the flesh, echoing 1 John 4:2. Polycarp’s teacher, Ignatius of Antioch, has much more to say on the lines of the developed teaching about the person of Christ in opposition to Docetic heresy. Thus he writes to the Ephesians (ch. 7): ‘There is one only physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.’ This is a good illustration of the way in which the simple primitive creed was analyzed to meet new phases of thought which were felt to impoverish its full meaning. But there is great risk in the attempts which have been made to extract a full parallel with a later baptismal creed, such as the Old Roman, from passages like the following. Ignatius writes to the Trallians (ch. 9): ‘Be ye deaf therefore, when any man speaketh to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven, and those on earth, and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will so raise us also who believe on Him-His Father, I say, will raise us,-in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have not true life.’ It is reasonable to argue from this and similar passages (ad Eph. 18, ad Smyrn. 1) that for purposes of catechetical instruction Christian teachers would soon prepare a precise statement of the great facts of the Lord’s, life and death and resurrection. But there is no evidence that it had as yet been fitted into the setting of the Trinitarian baptismal formula. Ignatius expresses his faith in the Trinity-‘in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit’ (ad Magn. 13; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:14)-clearly enough. But he does not bring it into connexion with his confession of Christ.

From a study of Ignatius we may work backwards to the problem of the confession of faith in the Pastoral Epistles of St. Paul. We are not concerned here to defend their authenticity, but only to ask whether it is possible to extract from them, as Zahn attempts to do, an Apostolic creed of Antioch, St. Paul reminds Timothy of the confession which he made before many witnesses, we may suppose at his baptism (1 Timothy 6:12). He calls it the beautiful confession to which Christ Jesus has borne witness before Pontius Pilate, and charges Timothy ‘before God, who quickeneth all things, to keep the commandment undefiled, irreproachable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The reference is to the Lord’s avowal that He was a King (John 18:36). The word ‘confession’ seems to draw attention to the fact that He confessed rather than to any form of words. In the Martyrdom of Ignatius, ch. 1, it is referred to the martyrdom of one who witnesses by blood-shedding-that is to say, in deed, not in word.

‘A form of sound words’ was indeed needed by Timothy as a teacher, and he is exhorted to teach as he had been taught (2 Timothy 1:13), ‘in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.’ ‘Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my gospel’ (2 Timothy 2:8), We can safely say that that gospel included teaching about God who quickeneth all things, reference to Pontius Pilate, to the resurrection, and to the return to judgment; but the inference is most precarious by which Zahn puts them all into the creed with confession of the Holy Spirit, who is named in 2 Timothy 1:14, but not with emphatic correlation of His Person to the Persons of the Father and the Son (cf. 1 Timothy 6:13). The thought is rather that of 1 Corinthians 12:3, quoted above, where St. Paul teaches that it is under the influence of the Spirit that any man confesses Jesus as the Lord.

It is very unsafe in the face of these reflexions to restore an Apostolic Creed of the NT as several writers have attempted to do. A. Seeberg of Dorpat (Der Katechismus der Urchristenheit, 1903) suggests the following as a reconstruction of St. Paul’s creed: ‘The living God who created all things sent his Son, Jesus Christ, born of the seed of David, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and was buried, who was raised the third day according to the Scriptures and appeared to Cephas and the Twelve, who sat at the right hand of God in the heavens, all rules and authorities and powers being made subject unto him, and is coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.’ This is much less like the earliest forms of developed creed both in East and West than Harnack’s more famous reconstruction of ‘our oldest creed,’ which he was careful to explain ‘is not a creed that was ever used or ever likely to be used’: ‘I believe in (one) God Almighty, in Christ Jesus, His Son, our Lord, who was born of a Virgin, under Pontius Pilate suffered (crucified), and rose again (from the dead), sat on the right hand of God, whence He is coming (in glory) to judge living and dead, and in the Holy Ghost.’* [Note: Hahn, Bibliothek der Symbole3, Breslau, 1897, p. 390.]

It is important, however, to remember that the fact of confession is of greater importance than any form in which it is made. Of that there is no doubt. It comes out incidentally in a passage about idol meats, where St. Paul implies that it is not the eating of flesh in itself, but with the open confession, ‘I am a Christian,’ that makes the difference (Romans 14:14). Again, it is not generally understood that one form of the interfering with other men’s matters spoken of by St. Peter (1 Peter 4:15 f.) might be the pressing forward with open confession of Christianity during another man’s trial. Such unwholesome fanaticism under the cloak of zeal began early. On the other hand, the definite teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews takes a sad tone when the writer thinks of recent acts of apostasy. If, as von Dobschütz thinks, the Epistles to Timothy represent the transition to Catholicism, the exhortations to fearless confession may he explained by opposition to a Gnosticism that, fought shy of confession (2 Timothy 1:6; 2 Timothy 2:3). In this case, the apostle who was not ashamed of his bonds might certainly appear to his successors a pattern putting them to shame (2 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 2:9 ff.; 2 Timothy 4:6 ff.). But we need not wait for 2nd cent. Gnosticism to suggest motives for cowardice. The temptation is rife in every generation. In Revelation the condition of the churches varies widely, but it is only the Church of Philadelphia which sets the pattern of joyous confession coupled with active missionary zeal (Revelation 3:7 ff.). Such joy is also expressed in Clem. ad Cor. 5, 6, some words of which may fitly conclude this part of our subject:

‘Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter, who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one nor two but many labours, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance.… Unto these men of holy lives was gathered a vast multitude of the elect, who through many indignities and tortures, being the victims of Jealousy, set a brave example among ourselves.’

Literature.-A. Harnack, Hist. of Dogma, Eng. translation , 1894-99: F. Kattenbusch, Das apostol. Symbol, Leipzig, 1894-1900; H. B. Swete, The Apostles’ Creed, 1894; C. H. Turner, Hist. and Use of Creeds, 1906; A. E. Burn, An Introd. to the Creeds, 1899.

2. Confession of sin.-In the Apostolic Age this had its root in ancient Jewish practice. The ceremonial of the Day of Atonement, the confessions in the Books of Ezra and Daniel, the Penitential Psalms must be remembered when we reflect on the confessions made publicly by disciples of John the Baptist. The language of penitence lay in the OT ready for use when John’s fervent appeal stirred the consciences of men into self-accusation. Among these men were reckoned same of the chief apostles of Christ.

(1) Confession to God.-The repentance demanded from all candidates for Christian baptism (Acts 2:38) must have included confession of sins as a necessary element, in private if not in public. The teaching of 1 John 1:9 expressly makes it a condition of forgiveness. St. Paul’s teaching on repentance leaves no doubt that he also regarded it as a primary duty. For him conscience was supreme arbiter, No troubled conscience can find relief save in full acknowledgment of fault.

(2) Confession before men.-This brings us to a more difficult problem. In 1 John 1:9 confession of sins is connected with the Divine blessing, and the word implies open acknowledgment in the face of men. But nothing is said as to the mode, though it is implied that it will be definite and specific, not in mere general terms. St. Paul is represented as receiving many confessions publicly at Ephesus (Acts 19:18), when many ‘came, confessing, and declaring their deeds,’ and there was a bonfire of books of magic. The case of discipline at Corinth, when St. Paul was constrained to condemn a brother so sternly for incest, led to public confession not only by him but also by those who had been implicated in shielding him (2 Corinthians 7:11). St. James records, it would seem, the practice of the Church in Jerusalem in relation to visits of the elders of the Church to sick persons whom they anointed with prayer; ‘Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed’ (James 5:16). The word ἁμαρτίας refers to sins against God, though it may include sins against neighbours. Much has been made of Cardinal Cajetan’s opinion that this does not relate to sacramental confession (Epp. S. Pauli, Paris, 1532, f. ccxii). But however limited he the meaning put on the wards, e.g. by Mayor (Epistle of James3, 1910, p. 175), who supposes reference ‘merely to such mutual confidences as would give a right direction to the prayers offered,’ the practice in the sickroom corresponds to the common practice of the Church in the next generation.

Both Clement and Hermas witness to the custom of public confession. Clement writes to the Corinthians (57): ‘Ye therefore that laid the foundation of the sedition, submit yourselves unto the presbyters and receive chastisement unto repentance, bending the knees of your heart.’ We must interpret these words in the light of others, e.g. ch. 51: ‘For it is good for a man to make confession of his trespasses rather than to harden his heart’ (cf. ch. 54). Hermas, the prophet, tells us bluntly in the Shepherd of the confessions of untruthfulness and dishonesty which he was constrained to make publicly (Mand. iii. 3). He was constrained also to confess neglect of his home, double-mindedness, and doubts. It is no ideal picture which he draws of his own conduct or of the life of his fellow-Christians. But, as von Dobschütz says, these confessions reveal ‘the magnificent moral earnestness of the man, and not of him only, but of the Christianity of his time’ (Christian Life in the Primitive Church, p. 315). The Epistle of Barnabas is evidence for the preciseness with which the Church in Alexandria at the end of the 1st cent. interpreted the Moral Law. The writer teaches definitely: ‘Thou shalt confess thy sins’ (ch. 19), and also speaks of the spiritual counsel which one is to give to another: ‘Be good lawgivers one to another; continue faithful counsellors to yourselves; take away from you all hypocrisy’ (ch. 21). Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Philadelphians (ch. 8), regards the bishop with his council as in charge of the discipline of the Church: ‘Now the Lord forgiveth all men when they repent, if repenting they return to the unity of God and to the council of the bishop.’

These hints about the public penitential system of the primitive Church do not carry us very far, but they certainly prepare us for the famous description given by Tertullian, which applies no doubt to the practice at the beginning, as at the end, of the 2nd century.

‘This confession is a disciplinary act of great humiliation and prostration of the man; it regulates the dress, the food; it enjoins sackcloth and ashes; it defiles the body with dust, and subdues the spirit with anguish; it bids a man alter his life, and sorrow for past sin; it restricts meat and drink to the greatest simplicity possible; it nourishes prayer by fasting; it inculcates groans and tears and invocations of the Lord God day and night, and teaches the penitent to cast himself at the feet of the presbyters, and to fall on his knees before the beloved of God, and to beg of all the brethren to intercede on his behalf’ (de Pœn. ch. 9).

Literature.-E. von Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. translation , 1904; N. Marshall, The Penitential Discipline of the Primitive Church, new ed., 1844.

A. E. Burn.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Confession'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/confession.html. 1906-1918.


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