Tertullian, Novatian, and the Jansenists, have often been accused of being rigorists and sparse with the divine grace and forgiveness. In particular the former two Church Fathers have considered certain public grave sinners to be incapable of being forgiven by the Church and can only remain “perpetual penitents” outside of the Church and hope to receive forgiveness from God, and not the Church, only after their deaths.

While officially the rigorism of all three have been condemned by the Roman Church, what I find interesting is that this sort of rigorism still remains in the Church and continues to do so even up to today. They have not so much as eliminated the rigorism but have merely redrawn the sort of sins which maybe subject to such rigorism as well as found loopholes for people to remain outside of the Church, because of their “grave sins”, and yet still be saved in the end. This is due to the peculiar way in which the Roman Church’s nitty gritty, nit-picky canon law system traps itself.

It was common in St Augustine’s time to simply wait until one’s death bed to baptised so that throughout one’s life, though one maybe outside of the Church for rejecting baptism, yet one is free to sin merrily away and then have it all flushed down in one go with a convenient deathbed baptism. This was the thinking of both St Augustine and was how the Emperor Constantine himself thought who delayed baptism so that he can do all kinds of “dirty hands” stuff while he was emperor and then have all of his sins cleansed at end with a deathbed baptism. In a way this is a sort of “perpetual penitent” thinking in that those who live in sin, and yet believe, cannot be in the communion with the Church and can only hope to be saved at the end of their lives.

Even today observe for example the way that the Roman Church deals with divorced and remarried couples in that they are technically living in sin if they have sexual relations. Thus they are also “perpetual penitents” for living in sin and cannot take communion but can only hope to be saved at the end of their lives.

As a friend of mine once observed, loopholism and legalism often goes hand in hand and we might wonder how amused God is with such “loopholish” tactics of delaying obedience to his will and waiting until the end to be saved. What is clear however is that for all the contemporary exaltation of beer swilling, aesthetic and joyful Roman Catholicism in comparison to the rigorist austere Jansenism, the very canonical system of Roman Catholicism itself has often compelled it to return to its “rigorist” undercurrents, with the very predictable loopholistic response which comes when people attempt to impose a very narrow legal system upon the Christian life.

Personally I think there is much to admire, not so much in the practical prescriptions, but in the attitude of the rigorism of Tertullian, Novatian, the Jansenist, the Puritans, etc. However is it possible to have such rigorism without the legalism, and thereby the loopholism, which often accompanies it? That is what the Protestant Reformation has always struggled with in their proclamation of justification by faith alone without the works of the law.

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