Eck Vs. Protestantism Chronicles: Confession

Eck Vs. Protestantism Chronicles: Confession June 3, 2024

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Johann Eck (1486-1543) was a German Catholic theologian, who was arguably one of Martin Luther’s two most important and formidable debate opponents, along with Erasmus (I’ve compiled several of his devastating replies to Luther as well). He was ordained as a priest in 1508 and in 1510 was installed as a professor of theology at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria: which lasted for thirty years. He mastered both Greek and Hebrew and had a prodigious memory, boundless energy, and very considerable debating skills. He famously engaged Luther for eighteen days in the Leipzig Disputation of July 1519.

Eck’s argumentation might be said to be one of the quintessential examples of the Catholic theological and polemical response to the Protestant Revolt up to the opening of  the Council of Trent in 1545. This is one of many excerpts from his best-known and principal volume, Enchiridion of Commonplaces Against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church. It first appeared in 1529 and eventually went through 91 editions. I will be using a later edition from 1541 (translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1979; now in the public domain).

Eck’s words will be in black; my interjections in blue, and citations from Luther and other famous Protestants in green. I use RSV for scriptural citations.

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That Confession is necessary for the sacrament of penitence, and is itself enjoined by divine law. Christ said to Peter: “To you I shall give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven” [Mt 16:19]. These keys, moreover, are two: of knowledge and of power. The key of knowledge is the faculty of discerning between one leper and another. Likewise between a leper and a nonleper; that is, between one sin and another, and between sin and non-sin.

But the key of power is the faculty of loosing and binding. For after the cognizance of the case in the forum of penitential judgment between the confessor and the confessant, which is done through the key of knowledge, there remains to hand down judgment in the case, which is to loose or to bind, and this is done through the key of power. Therefore to deny that confession has been commanded by Christ, is to deny that the power of the keys has been passed on by Christ—something manifestly against the Gospel of Christ.

“Whatever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven and whatever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed also in heaven” [Mt 18:18]. “He breathed on them, saying: Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” [Jn 20:22f]. [From the last part of this authority, again, it is clear that confession is of divine right, just as has been commanded by Christ in this passage. For to retain sins is not else than not to forgive them. Therefore the sense of Christ’s words is: whose sins the priest shall retain, that is not loose, are retained, that is are not forgiven in heaven. When therefore anyone is by divine right held to pay for his sins it clearly follows that by God’s command that person is obligated to confess his sins to the priests.

The twofold power of loosing and forgiving which he ought to use, the priest would not know how to use, unless it cleaned him of misdeeds. Therefore he put first “Receive the Holy Spirit,” as if to say: “By the direction of the Holy Spirit, may you loose or retain sins on behalf of the one confessing.”

“Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be saved” [James 5:16]. Here James as God’s herald, announced to men God’s commandment concerning the confessing of sins, and it is to be understood with precision. [Unless you confess, you will not be saved. Therefore confession is commanded by divine right, but when it is carried out in shepherding individual souls, it is commanded by human ecclesiastical right. For Christ left his commandments to the Church, with the Holy Spirit as the director, to be determined at a particular time.]

Besides, the Confession is considered to have been prefigured and done to the Apostles: “Men were baptized in the Jordan by John confessing their sins” [Mt 3:6]. Christ said to the cleansed leper: “Go, show yourself to the priests, and offer the gift which Moses commanded as a testimony to them” [Mt 8:4]. He said to the ten leprous men: “Go, show yourselves to the priests” [Lk 17:14], who, although they were not priests of the New Testament, yet in them the New Testament priesthood was figured. When Lazarus was raised, Jesus said: “Loose him and let him go” [Jn 11:44].

“Many of the believers came, confessing and declaring their deeds” [Acts 19:18]. “Be not without fear about sin forgiven, and add not sin upon sin” [Ecclus 5:5]. And it is clear that these statements on confession are plainly received, for the practice of the Church best interprets the Scriptures.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” [1 Jn 1:9]. “He who hides his sins, shall not prosper; but he who shall confess them, shall obtain mercy” [Prov 28:13].

[Objection] James 5 speaks of brotherly confession, for he does not say “Confess to a priest” but “to one another” [James 5:16].

[Reply] It is indeed true that James did not determine with precision to whom one should make confession, for already Christ had expressed absolving sinners; therefore it was sufficient for James to express what was necessary for absolution, namely confession, not precisely indicating the judge.

[Objection] Jesus did not say to the woman taken in adultery: “Go and confess to a priest,” but “Go and sin no more” [Jn 8:11]; 4 thus concerning Mary Magdalene [cf Lk 7:37ff].

[Reply] Not yet did the power of loosing exist in the Church, for the reason that confession had not yet been instituted. The adulteress and Mary Magdalene were not held to confession. Now those things which were done with a special privilege are in consequence not to be treated according to the common theory.

Related Reading 

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Confession and Absolution Are Biblical [National Catholic Register, 7-31-17]
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John 20:22-23 & Formal Absolution (vs. Steve Hays) [5-12-20]
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Photo credit: The Confession (1838), by Giuseppe Molteni (1800-1867) [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

Summary: One of a series of posts documenting the Catholic apologetics efforts of Johann Eck (1486-1543) against various Protestants. This entry addresses confession.

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