Absolution the act of loosing or setting free. In civil law it is a sentence by which the party accused is declared innocent of the crime laid to his charge, and is equivalent to acquittal. In the Roman theology it signifies the act by which the priest declares the sins of penitent persons to be remitted to them.
1. In the first centuries, the restoration of a penitent to the bosom of the Christian Church was deemed a matter of great importance, and was designed not only to be a means of grace to the individual, but also a benefit to the whole body. Absolution was at that time simply reconciliation with the Church, and restoration to its communion, without any reference to the remission of sins. Early writers, such as Tertullian, Novatian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Cyril, lay great stress on the fact that the forgiveness of sins is the prerogative of God only, and can never belong to any priest or bishop. After the fourth century, as the practice of private penance prevailed, the doctrine of ministerial absolution of sins began to gain ground, and was at length exalted to the rank of a sacrament.
2. Five kinds of absolution are mentioned by the early writers. a. That of baptism. b. The eucharist. c. The word and doctrine. d. The imposition of hands, and prayer. e. Reconciliation to the Church by relaxation of censures. Baptism in the ancient Church was called absolution, because remission of sins was supposed to be connected with this ordinance. It is termed by Augustine "absolutio;" or, "sacramentum absolutionis et remissionis peccatorum." It had no relation to penitential discipline, being never given to persons who had once received baptism. The absolution of the eucharist had some relation to penitential discipline, but did not solely belong to it. It was given to all baptized persons who never fell under discipline, as well as to those who fell and were restored. In both respects it was called the perfection or consummation of a Christian (τὸ τιλειονv). The absolution of the word and doctrine was declarative. It was that power which the ministers of Christ have, to make declaration of the terms of reconciliation and salvation to mankind. 'The absolution of intercession and prayer was generally connected with all other kinds of absolution. Prayers always attended baptism and the Eucharist, and also the final reception of penitents into the Church. The absolution of reconcilement to the Church took place at the altar, after canonical penance, and is often referred to, in earlier writers, by the terms, "granting peace," "restoring to communion," "reconciling to the church," "loosing bonds," "granting indulgence and pardon." Some councils enacted that the absolution of a penitent should only be granted by the bishop who had performed the act of excommunication, or by his successor. Severe penalties were inflicted on any who violated this regulation. Various ceremonies accompanied this act. The time selected was usually Passion-week; and, from this circumstance, the restoration is called hebdomas indulgentice. If not in Passion-week, it took place at some time appointed by the bishop. The act was performed in the church, when the people were assembled for divine worship, and usually immediately before the administration of the Lord's supper. The penitent, kneeling before the altar-table, or the reading-desk (ambo), was absolved by the bishop, by the imposition of hands, and by prayer. As the act was designated by the phrase Dare pacem, it is probable that a form was used which contained in it the expression, "Depart in peace." The fifty- first Psalm was usually sung on the occasion, but not as a necessary part of the service. Immediately after the ceremony, the absolved were admitted to the sacrament of the Lord's supper, and from that moment restored to all church privileges, with one exception, that a minister, under these circumstances, was reckoned among the laity, and a layman disqualified for the clerical office. In the case of heretics, chrism was added to the imposition of hands, to denote their reception of the Holy Spirit of peace on their restoration to the peace and unity of the Church. The bishop touched with oil the forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, and ears of the penitent, saying, "This is the sign of the gifts of the Holy Ghost." The Roman Church has also a form of absolution for the dead (absolutio defunctorum). It consists in certain prayers performed by the priest, after the celebration of the mass for a deceased person, for his delivery from purgatory.
3. The Roman Church practices sacramental absolution. According to the decision of the Council of Trent (sess. 14, cap. 6, etc. can. 9), the priest is judge as well as the minister of Jesus Christ; so that the meaning of the words, ego to absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomne Patris et Filei et Spiritus Sancti. Amen, is not merely, "I declare to thee that thy sins are remitted," but, "As the minister of Jesus Christ, I remit thy sins." The view of the Greek Church appears to be that "Penitence is a mystery, or sacrament, in which he who confesses his sins is, on the outward declaration of pardon by the priest, inwardly loosed from his sins by Jesus Christ himself" (Longer Catechism of the Russian Church, by Blackmore). It is very plain that the New Testament does not sanction the power claimed by the Roman hierarchy, and that it is altogether inconsistent with the teaching of the earlier fathers of the Church. When Jesus Christ says to his ministers, "Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained," he imparts to them a commission to declare with authority the Christian terms of pardon, and he also gives them a power of inflicting and remitting ecclesiastical censures; that is, admitting into a Christian congregation or excluding from it. Absolution in the New Testament does not appear to mean more than this: and in early ecclesiastical writers it is generally confined to the remission of church censures, and re-admission into the congregation. It is generally agreed that the indicative form of absolution-that is, "I absolve thee" — instead of the deprecatory — that is, "Christ absolve thee" — was introduced in the twelfth or thirteenth century, just before the time of Thomas Aquinas, who was one of the first that wrote in defense of it. The Greek Church still retains the deprecatory form. SEE INDULGENCE.
4. "The Church of England also holds the doctrine of absolution, but restrains herself to what she supposes to be the Scriptural limits within which the power is granted, which are the pronouncing God's forgiveness of sins upon the supposition of the existence of that state of mind to which, forgiveness is granted. The remission of sins is God's special prerogative — 'Who can forgive sins but God only?' (Lu 5:21) but the public declaration of such remission to the penitent is, like all other ministrations in the Church, committed to men as God's ministers. The Church of England has three forms of absolution. In that which occurs in the morning service, the act of pardon is declared to be God's. The second form, in the communion service, is precatory; it expresses the earnest wish that God may pardon the sinner. The third form, in the visitation of the sick, is apparently more unconditional, but not really so; since it is spoken to those who 'truly repent and believe in God.' The words of absolution which follow must be interpreted according to the analogy of the two other forms, which refer the act of pardon to God. And that the Church does not regard the pronouncing of this absolution as necessary, or as conducive to the sinner's pardon, is evident from the absence of any injunction or admonition to that effect. It is noticed in the rubric, apparently, as an indulgence to the sick man if he heartily desire it; but no hint is given that he ought to desire it, nor any exhortation to seek it." See Palmer On the Church, 2, 280; Wheatly On Common Prayer, 440 sq.; Bingham, Orig.