more on private confession
I was looking at William Perkins' writings on the conscience yesterday while researching some questions I have about the history of Reformed moral theology and the shift from theories focussed on the formation of conscience and inculcation of virtue toward more deontological theories.
While skimming through The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience
(Cambridge: John Legat, 1606), however, I ran across Perkins' discussion of private confession of sin to Ministers of the Word, which he addressed in connection with the topic of the distressed conscience.
Perkins began by noting that Christ, in his prophetical office, have the "special duty...to give comfort to the consciences of those that were distressed," a duty Christ has now "committed the dispensation thereof to the Ministers of the Gospel" (3-4). He goes on to say, "because Christ now in the New Testament, speaks not unto the afflicted in his own proper person, it remaineth therefore, that he performs this great work in the Ministry of Pastors and Teachers upon earth, to whom he has given knowledge and other gifts to this end and purpose."
For Perkins the ministry of private confession is first and foremost an application of the promises of the Gospel to specific persons, which is received by them in faith. He adds that "it is most convenient, this Application be made by the Minister of the Gospel, who in it must use his ministerial authority given him of God, to pronounce the pardon" (103).
Perkins adds some caveats with regard to the use of private confession. "First," he writes, "it must not be urged, as a thing simply or absolutely necessary, without which there can be no salvation" (6). He does maintain, however, that "in troubles of conscience, it is meet and convenient, there should always be used private Confession. For James saith, 'Confess your faults to one another, and pray one for another,' thereby signifying that Confession in this case, is to be used as a thing most requisite" (5).
He adds that "though confession may be made to any kind of man ('Confess one to another,' saith James) yet is it especially to be made to the Prophets and Ministers of the Gospel" who in virtue of their office and gifts "are the fittest and best able to instruct, correct, comfort, and inform the weak and wounded conscience." The person to whom one makes confession, however, "must be a man of trust and fidelity, able and willing to keep secret things that are revealed, yea to bury them (as it were) in the grave of oblivion, for 'Love covereth a multitude of sins'" (6).
In later chapters, Perkins goes on to give very specific instructions to confessors in helping the troubles and penitent to examine their consciences and to provide them pardon and comfort from the Gospel. At times Perkins' advice is a rather odd mixture of pastoral concern and experience, apparent familiarity with traditional confessional manuals, and use of syllogistic logic by which the penitent might be granted assurance by drawing deductions from major and minor premises under the direction of the minister.
In ways Perkins departs from some earlier Reformed discussions of private confession since he sees the Minister more as instructing the penitent about his forgiveness, than as effectually declaring God's forgiveness to him. This departure would parallel Perkins' wider sacramental thelogy, which sees sacraments more as signs pointing to God's immediate work rather than as instrumental means by which God actually does work, to be received in faith.
The wider shift towards favoring a more Bullingerite "occasionalism" rather than a Calvinian "instrumentalism" is typical of some Puritan writers and goes hand-in-hand with what strikes me as an increasing rationalism. This shift is coordinate with a shift away from Calvin's more "objective" declaration of forgiveness to a troubled conscience, by which forgiveness itself is offered and received in faith, toward a focus upon a more "subjective" assurance of forgiveness, by which an already present forgiveness is rediscovered and known.
Still, it is interesting to find that private confession remained a matter of discussion in Reformed dogmatics within the early 17th century, almost 50 years after Calvin's writing on the topic. This, of course, raises the question of when it fell into disuse and why. I suspect some of the shifts already present in Perkins are part of the explanation, but the bigger story would be interesting to discover.
After not-very-productively researching some other matters (regarding moral theology and Trinitarian theology), I also, on a whim, thought to take a look at Richard Baxter to see if he addressed the issue of private confession of sins to a minister. Thus, I took a look at Baxter's The Right Method for a Settled Peace of Conscience, and Spiritual Comfort
(Underhil, Tyton, and Raybould, 1653), which is a series of 32 "directions" written for a "troubled friend," each of which is divided into numerous sub-points, as was Baxter's custom. Baxter wrote this nearly a century after Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession
Like Perkins before him, Baxter affirms (in "Direction 31") the propriety of private confession of sin to ministers. When a conscience is troubled by sin, he maintains that "it is your duty to seek direction from the guides of the church," that is from a "faithful, prudent, judicious pastor" as a "guide under Christ in the way to salvation."
Baxter writes to his friend, "You must use your pastor as the ordained instrument and messenger of the Lord Jesus and his Spirit, appointed to speak a word in season to the weary, and to show to man his righteousness, and to strengthen the weak hands and feeble knees; yea, and more, to bind and loose on earth, as Christ doth bind and loose in heaven." Thus, he writes, "as Christ and his Spirit do only save in the principal place...yet ministers save souls in subordination to him as his instruments."
Baxter goes on to discuss what one may and may not reasonably expect from the ministry of a pastor. Baxter's discussion, though psychologically and pastorally sensitive, is also rather tedious, so I'll spare the details. In general his focus seems, as with Perkins, less upon the effectual communication of forgiveness than upon personal assurance, though these are not entirely disconnected for him. Still, the drift away from "absolution" towards mere "assurance" is apparent.
After discussing how best to choose a pastor for the purpose of confession, he gives the penitent directions for examination of conscience and making confession, beginning with "Do it as truly as you can. Make the matter neither better nor worse than it is."
What follows in Baxter's discussion indicates that, in his day, the practice of private confession had begun to fall into disuse. He makes the following exhortation:
And let me advise all christian congregations to practise this excellent duty more. See that you knock oftener at your pastor's door, and ask his advice in all your pressing necessities; do not let him sit quietly in his study for you; make him know by experience, that the tenth part of a minister's labour is not in the pulpit. If you sins are strong, and you have wounded conscience deep, go for his advice for a safe cure; many a man's sore festers to damnation for wnat of this; and poor, ignorant, and scandalous sinners have more need to do this than troubled consciences.
Baxter goes on to criticize those who, under the devil's influence would "call Christ's yoke tyranny" and "dare call the ordinances of the Lord of glory tyrannical." Apparently, then, some in Baxter's day were rejecting the practice of private confession as a form of spiritual abuse of power, seeing it as an attempt "to bring christians under the tyrrany of priests again, and make them acquainted with all men's secrets, and masters of their consciences."
Baxter, however, replies that "Some in opposition to popery have gone too far on the other extreme; perhaps sinning as deeply in neglect as the papists do in formal excess." He then follows with a list of further reasons "why our ministers have not urged this [i.e., private confession] so much upon you, nor so plainly acquainted their congregations with the necessity of openning your case to your minister and seeking his advice." Again, this indicates that the practice was already falling into disuse in the mid-17th century.
Among the reasons listed by Baxter for the waning of confession are:  it is a personal burden for a minister to hear confession of sins,  many ministers already are very busy without this additional ministry,  some ministers are over-modest in seeing themselves as unfit to hear others' secret sins, and  some do not want to appear to be masters of others' consciences.
Baxter does say that "most godly ministers do tell people in general" of the importance the ministry in God's church, but "do not so particularly and plainly acquaint people with their duty, in opening to them the particular sores of their soul." He adds that "it is also the policy of the devil, to make people believe that their minister are too stout, and will not stoop to a compassionate hearing of their case, especially if ministers carry themselves strangely, at too great a distance from their people."
At any rate, these are some notes toward a larger picture and history.