This thesis explores the theology and practice of confession of sin in the New Testament and most primitive churches (AD 30-100) by examining relevant passages exegetically: Acts 19:18-20; 1 John 1:9; James 5:16; Didache 4:14, 14:1; and 1 Clement 53. These passages are examined in light of the penitential practices of Second Temple Judaism, particularly Leviticus 16:20-22, 26:40-45; Deuteronomy 30:1-10; 1 Kings 8:22-61; Ezra 9-10; Psalm 32:1-5; Psalm 51; Tobit 3:1-6; the Prayer of Azariah; Words of the Luminaries (4Q504; 4Q506); the Damascus Document (4QD); and the Communal Confession (4Q393). In the examination of the penitential practices of Second Temple Judaism, this thesis relies heavily on the work of Rodney Werline, Mark Boda, and Daniel Falk. Additionally, this thesis briefly surveys penitential practices in Church history through the early middle ages, comparing canonical and private sacramental confession of sin to the practice of the most primitive churches. The magisterial work of Joseph A. Bingham is used extensively as well as the more recent work of Thomas Tentler. The thesis concludes with a provisional theological construction for the confession of sin in the contemporary Church as well as some practical suggestions for placing open confession of sin within the liturgy of public worship.
This thesis finds that there was a definable common inheritance regarding penitential practice in Second Temple Judaism and this inheritance, demonstrated so aptly by Werline, Boda and Falk, regarded the confession of sin as an essential requirement for obtaining forgiveness and restoration from deliberate sin. This inheritance can be found in a continuity of belief and praxis from earlier Old Testament texts, such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, through the later Exilic texts, Kings and Ezra, and canonical worship material (Psalms). This inheritance is additionally demonstrated in intertestamental literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since the most primitive texts of Christian communities give clear evidence of being in continuity with the Second Temple texts these texts should form the framework for reading Christian texts regarding confession of sin.
This thesis argues that primitive Christian texts reveal an understanding of confession of sin that was public, specific, and unscripted. The earliest Christian communities saw confession of sin as intrinsic to Christian conversion and intrinsic to ongoing Christian formation (sanctification).
This thesis, in surveying confession of sin through the early middle ages, concludes that the primitive practice of confession of sin developed into public canonical confession and was eventually displaced by private sacramental confession which grew out of the private confessional practice of the Irish churches.
The thesis gives a theologically constructive proposal for considering the intrinsic place of confession of sin in Christian life and worship. While the proposal is given from an evangelical Reformed perspective, it should have applicability to Christian worship in the larger Church as well. The author closes with suggestions and reflections on the practice of confession of sin in public worship from a ten-year experience of putting it into practice in his congregation.