Since August and Ambrose, Leo and Gregory, we have seen no further attempts to explain the theological concepts relevant to the penitential system. We could could only cite individual, occasional expressions about how the position of the ecclesial office relates to the forgiveness of sins, confession, and reconciliation. In the Carolingian period, at least the attempt was made to provide a theological account for these circumstances. We have seen how the penitence books already expanded the demand to confess sins before the priest and expunge them with the penance prescribed by the priest not only to small sins, but even to sins of thought. And we have seen how they limited the statement that confession before God alone would suffice through the caveat “in an emergency.” Vis-à-vis this practice, the question had to be asked: whether and to what extent is confession before a priest necessary?
Several of the theologians of the Carolingian period sounded off on this question. In a letter to his clergy from the year 797, Theodulf of Orleans writes on this topic:
“Every day we must confess our sins to God in our prayer, either once or twice or as much more often as we are able. Because the confession which we make to priests, brings us this help that after we have received wholesome counsel from them, we wash away the stains of ours sins either with the most salutary observances of penance or with mutual prayers. But the confession which we make to God alone, aids in that however much we remember our sins, God forgets them just as much; and, conversely, as much as we forget our sins, just as much the Lord remembers them.” [Omni etenim die Deo in oration nostra, aut semel, aut bis, aut quanto amplius possumus, confietri debemus peccata nostra. – Quia confession, quam sacerdotibus facium, hoc nobis adminiculum affert, quia accepto ab iis salutari consilio, saluberrimis poenitentiae observationibus, sive mutuis orationibus peccatorum maculas diluimus. Confessio vero, quam soli Deo facimus, in hoc juvat, quia, quanto nos memores sumus peccatorum nostrorum, tanto horum deus obliviscitur; et e contario, quanto nos horum obliviscimus, tanto dominus reminiscitur].
Therefore, God is the actual forgiver of sins, and, therefore, confession before God is necessary daily and under all circumstances; but the sinner needs helps [adminicula] for this, and therefore confession before the priest is also called for so that the priest might dispense advice for the necessary satisfaction and unite his supplication to the sinner’s prayer of confession. Alcuin, who was so influential, goes much further still. In a letter to the clergy in Languedoc, he wonders that the laity in their province refused to confess to the priests “to whom along with the holy apostles, according to our faith, Christ has given the power from God to bind and release.” According to Alcuin, they wanted to confess to God, but they denied the due satisfaction to the church in which they had sinned. However,
“in Leviticus the sinner is repeatedly sent with his gift to the pries at God’s command, so that the priest would bring it before God and pray for him and in this way it would be forgiven him. What else are the sacrifices which we bring for our sins than the confession of our sins which we must present as pure to God through the priest, so that though the priest’s prayer our confession would be pleasing to God and we might receive from Him forgiveness.”
From the Protestant side, too much emphasis has been laid upon the fact that Alcuin admittedly presents God as the actual forgiver of sins and the priest only as a supplicant. However, this supplication is not merely a supplication, but the entire conception develops out of the false notion of sacrifice. The satisfaction of the sinner are a sacrifice meriting forgiveness from God, but between the sinner and God stands the priest in a mediatory, intercessory position, and because of this the sinner may bring his expiatory sacrifice, his confession and penance, before God, though not he himself, but rather he must bring it through the supplicant, intercessory priest, if it should move God to forgiveness. The power of the keys consists in this intercessory mediation. Another passage proves that this is Alcuin’s meaning. In his book de divinis officiis, which served as a the proper pastoral handbook for centuries, he provides a form of confession and absolution—to be discussed at length below—and instructs the sinner to say to the priest:
therefore, I, as a suppliant, do beseech your counsel, indeed your judgement, you who have been ordained as a go-between and means between God and sinful man, and I humbly implore that you would step forth as intercessor for these my sins.” [ideoque consilium, immo judicium tuum, qui sequester ac medius inter Deum et pecatorem hominem ordinatus es, supplex deprecor, et ut pro eisdem peccatis meis intercessor existas, humiliter imploro]