The Doctrine of Indulgences in the Early Church

This is a compilation of passages from the early Church about the doctrine of indulgences. I wanted to make this compilation as a resource to help Catholics show that the doctrine of indulgences is an ancient part of the faith. I brought it up to the time of the first crusade because I think it is well-known that the Church offered indulgences from that point on.

I want to mention two things about my examples here. First, if you think about indulgences, you probably think of one of two things: either gaining an indulgence for yourself, or gaining one for a soul in purgatory. I don't think any of the examples in this article clearly refer to the second thing, except perhaps one quote from St. Cyprian. Perhaps in the future I will make an article with more examples of the latter.

Second, the first couple of examples may not appear to mention indulgences at first glance. I think they fit the definition of an indulgence upon close inspection. An indulgence remits the temporal punishment due to sin that has already been forgiven. An excommunication involves a temporal punishment of sin. In the passage from St. Paul, a man has been excommunicated, and St. Paul appears to remit his punishment early, which makes this an indulgence.

In several other early examples of indulgences, Christians who have been convicted of sin are temporarily excommunicated as a penance, and they go to the prisons to see the Christians who have been imprisoned for their faith. They receive certificates from the imprisoned Christians recommending the Church to let the excommunicated Christians back into the fold early, which is a kind of indulgence.

Lastly, there are probably other early documents that can be cited in support of indulgences. Does anyone know of any?

The Doctrine of Indulgences in the Early Church Fathers

~57 A.D. - St. Paul - “For such a one this punishment by the majority is should rather turn to forgive and comfort him...I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. … What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:5-10)

~197 A.D. - Tertullian - “Some, not able to find this peace in the Church, have been used to seek it from the imprisoned martyrs. And so you [imprisoned Christians] ought to have it dwelling with you, and to cherish it, and to guard it, that you may be able perhaps to bestow it upon others.” (Ad Martyras Chapter 1)

222 A.D. - Tertullian - “[N]ow you are ascribing this power [of granting indulgences] even to your dear martyrs. As soon as someone of his own accord has taken on the once the adulterers are swarming about…[and] prayers are humming in the air... Men and women crowd [them]...beg for [their] blessing...and return from there as [restored to] the community.” (On Modesty Chapter 22)

250 A.D. - St. Cyprian - “[A]ccording to your diligence...designate those by name to whom you desire that peace should be granted. For I hear that certificates [of indulgence] are [too freely] given.” (Letter 10 or 15 Paragraph 4)

And (250 A.D.): “[W]hen some of the lapsed…[demanded] the peace that had been promised to them by the martyrs and confessors...I wrote twice to the clergy...[that] if any who had received a certificate [of indulgence] from the martyrs were departing from this life, having made confession, and received the imposition of hands on them for repentance, they should be remitted to the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs.” (Letter 14 or 20 Paragraph 3)

251 A.D. - St. Cyprian - “...Certainly we believe that the merits of the martyrs and the works of the just will be of great avail with the Judge...” (The Lapsed, 17)

314 A.D. - Council of Ancyra - “[T]he bishops have the right, after considering the character of [a sinner's] conversion, either to deal with them more leniently, or to extend the time [of penance]. But, first of all, let their life before and since be thoroughly examined, and let the indulgence be determined accordingly.” (Canon 5)

314 A.D. - Council of Arles - “Concerning those who carry letters from the confessors, be it resolved that, when they have handed over those letters, they receive other letters of reference.” (Canon 10 or 9)

325 A.D. - The First Ecumenical Council - “[Some sinners], after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, [must] be for ten years prostrators. But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds...when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favourably concerning them.” (Canon 12)

379 A.D. - St. Basil - “We do not judge [a penance] altogether by the length of time, but by the circumstances of the penance.” (Canonical Epistle to Amphilochius Canon 84)

380 A.D. - St. Gregory of Nyssa - “[F]ornicators [should] be three years wholly ejected from prayer...and [after an additional six year period] admitted [back] to communion; but the [additional six years] may be lessened to them who of their own accord confess, and are earnest penitents.” (Canonical Epistle to Letojus Canon 4)

~390 A.D. - St. Ambrose - “For he is purged as if by certain works of the whole people, and is washed in the tears of the multitude; by the prayers and tears of the multitude he is redeemed from sin, and is cleansed in the inner man. For Christ granted to His Church that one should be redeemed through all, just as His Church was found worthy of the coming of the Lord Jesus so that all might be redeemed through one.” (Penance, 1, 15, 80)

~650 A.D. - St. Cummian writes a book about penance in which he lists several ways a penance can be shortened. Among them, he notes that “twelve three-day periods” of penance can be “the equivalent of a year” of penance. He says that a penitent can shorten his penance if he spends “one hundred days with half a loaf and an allowance of dry bread and water and salt, [and] sing[s] fifty psalms during each night.” Or, the penitent can do “fifty special fasts, with one night intervening.” (Penitential Chapter VIII Canons 25-28)

~679 A.D. - St. Theodore of Tarsus - “Penitents according to the canons ought not to communicate before the conclusion of the penance; we, however, out of pity give permission after a year or six months.” (Penitential Chapter 12 Canon 4)

740 A.D. - St. Egbert of York - “For him who can comply with what the penitential prescribes, well and good; for him who cannot, we give counsel of God's mercy. Instead of one day on bread and water let him sing fifty psalms on his knees or seventy psalms without genuflecting. But if he does not know the psalms and cannot fast, let him, instead of one year on bread and water, give twenty-six solidi in alms, fast till [3:00 pm] on one day of each week and till Vespers on another, and in the three Lents bestow in alms half of what he receives.” (Penitential Chapter 13 Canon 11)

807 A.D. - According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on indulgences, an Irish Synod of this year said that the fast of the second day of the week may be “redeemed” by singing one psalter or by giving one denarius to a poor person. (Canon 24)

1095 A.D. - The Council of Clermont - “Whoever, out of pure devotion and not for the purpose of gaining honor or money, shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, let that journey be counted in lieu of all penance.” (Canon 2)

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