I have already discussed absolution in the third century. The Montanist heretics (not least of which Tertullian) argued that the Church did not have the authority to absolve mortal sin which was committed after baptism. I have also recently made the point that whether or not one could lose their salvation was never a question in the early Church - the question was: could you gain it back once you had lost it!
Now here is one thing we need to pay attention to. For the early Christians, however they practiced the sacrament of reconciliation, forgiveness of sins was always known to be a proper function of the Church. So much so in fact, that one could not receive forgiveness of sins without the Church. If three theological juggernauts such as Pope Callistus, Hippolytus & Tertullian could battle publicly in the beginning of the 200s over whether or not the Church could forgive serious sins, we cannot pretend that the Catholic Church ever saw forgiveness as a private affair.
Furthermore, it would do us no good to grant with the right hand that forgiveness of sins is a Churchly affair and then take it away with the left by dreaming up a definition of "Catholic Church" as something other than the physical, literal institution which still goes by that name. In other words, the novel doctrine of an "invisible Church" does not work here and does not distinguish forgiveness as an ecclesial matter as opposed to an individual act anyway. How can "forgiveness" be a function of an invisible collective of all "true Christians" irrespective of whether their doctrines were orthodox or heretical? In fact, the apostles and the first leaders of the Church "made their priestly vocation explicit" by entering the temple wearing priestly vestments and praying for mercy on behalf of the people.
So in the mind of the early Church, I think we have strong enough proof here alone that the Church offered forgiveness (if there was any to be found). Even the heretics when arguing that the Church could not forgive serious sins in that same breath admitted that A) she could absolve lesser sins and B) if there was any forgiveness to be had, it would need to be through the Church. (If they believed that the apostolic authority of the Church couldn't forgive grave sins, how much less an individual approaching God on his or her own aside from the Church?) Yet if this were not enough proof, one would only need a cursory reading of the ante-Nicene fathers to lay all doubts aside. And then if we needed to clarify what "Church" was in the minds of the fathers, one needn't entertain any definition short of a Church built squarely on apostolic authority as is made especially clear in Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus and even Tertullian himself in his pre-Montanist days. In fact we would sell ourselves short if we stopped there. As I have mentioned many times, Rome played a key role in identifying what the true Church was for these early fathers. Even Tertullian says of her:
"you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood!"This is not a discussion of papal jurisdiction or development, just a reminder of identification. If we say the "Church" offers forgiveness, we had better know for sure what "Church" is. (Forgiveness is a rather serious thing).
Now after the widespread persecution under Decius, the controversy of forgiveness moved from adultery etc... towards denying Christ during the persecution which was practical since many had committed this crime and were now seeking readmission to the Church. This would be a good time to bring up an important point on the development of doctrine. Cardinal Newman pointed out in his essay on the topic that doctrines typically develop when they are needed and no sooner. Therefore we shouldn't be surprised to find the Church only now dealing with readmission into communion after denying Christ under persecution. In fact, Newman remarks, it wouldn't make sense for the Church to issue dogmas on readmission during the persecution itself! We can apply this principle to many other doctrinal developments but space does not suffice here.
Origen's student, St. Dionysius of Alexandria, tells us (through Eusebius) of a remarkable event in which an old Christian named Serapion had denied Christ during the persecution. After falling ill, he sought forgiveness from the Church (notice, he didn't merely pray privately, he rightly saw the Church as the only means by which he could make amends) and sent his grandson to call a priest to his death bed. Dionysius continues the account:
And the boy ran to the presbyter. But it was night and he was sick, and therefore unable to come.This fascinating account simultaneously confirms three important facts:
But as I had commanded that persons at the point of death, if they requested it, and especially if they had asked for it previously, should receive remission, that they might depart with agood hope, he gave the boy a small portion of the eucharist, telling him to soak it and let the drops fall into the old man's mouth.
The boy returned with it, and as he drew near, before he entered, Serapion again arousing, said, 'You are come, my child, and the presbyter could not come; but do quickly what he directed, and let me depart.' Then the boy soaked it and dropped it into his mouth. And when he had swallowed a little, immediately he gave up theghost.
Is it not evident that he was preserved and his life continued till he was absolved, and, his sin having been blotted out, he could be acknowledged for the many good deeds which he had done?
1. The necessity of the visible, institutional Church for forgiveness
2. Real Presence in the early Church was not a mere communal affair - the bread & wine were actually transformed. Otherwise, what sense would it have been for him to bring ordinary bread & wine since if Jesus was truly made present only during the communal act of receiving at the hands of an ordained minister, the common elements would have been of no use in this situation. (This is to mention nothing of the rejection of "Real Presence" altogether.) Instead, we see that the Eucharistic species delivered by the boy was indeed significant and quite obviously for the reasons discussed in number 3:
3. The Eucharist administered by the Church was the key to salvation. Jesus told the Church to administer the sacrament at the last supper. The year before He told His disciples "Unless you eat My Flesh and drink My Blood, you have no life in you" and St. Ignatius of Antioch, by no accident, repeated this in calling the Eucharist "the medicine of immortality". He also reminded his readers that there was only one altar and only one communion and then noted how to find it "where ever Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church".