[This is an old post from my own website, but since I never got any comments on it there, I thought it might be a good introductory post for me here. Please, consider this an exercise in amateur theology; I am not a theologian by training, and will be perfectly happy to heed any corrections or qualifications given by those who are.]
Protestants have long been irked by a critical fact that Martin Luther noticed early in his reform work regarding the accuracy of the Vulgate. Luther, using the newly-produced critical Greek New Testament of Erasmus, noticed that at Matthew 3:1 and 4:17 the Vulgate translates the Greek term metanoia (to turn around) with the Latin term paenitentiam agite (”do penance”). This, said Luther, was a dire mistranslation, since the Greek text cannot be made to support the complicated penitential theology of the later Middle Ages. Ever since, the argument has become a major plank in Protestant polemics alleging Rome’s “dislike of plain biblical truths” and reliance instead upon “traditions of men.”Now I do not propose to defend the Catholic theology of penance in this post. However, I would like to bring out a possibility that occurred to me this past week in, ironically enough, the context of some Latin tutoring that I do. One of my students was translating a speech by Pope John XXIII at the funeral of Pope Pius XII (1958). In this speech John XXIII, expounding on the “double reason” why his papal name was “John”, said the following:
“Joannes Baptista precursor Domini: qui non erat certe ille lux, sed testimonium erat de lumine: et vere fuit testimonium invictum veritatis, justitiae, libertatis, in praedicatione, in baptismo paenitentiae, in profuso sanguine.”
“John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Lord: he was not truly that light, but was a testimony of that light: and truly he was an unconquerable testimony of truth, justice, and liberty in public proclamation, in the baptism of penance, in blood poured forth.”
Note the text I have bold-faced: in baptismo paenitentiae, or, “in the baptism of penance.” Now of course, non-Latin based translations of Matthew 3:1 and 4:17 read “baptism of repentance”, not “baptism of penance.” But, given that Catholic theology doesn’t as tightly distinguish “faith” and “works” as does Protestant theology, I can’t help but wonder if this is a reason why Jerome chose paenitentiam agite for the Greek term metanoia.
While I would want to be careful not to read developed Roman Catholic theology back into the Church Fathers, and would certainly not wish to read developed penitential theology (complete with notions of Purgatory and the sinner himself rendering satisfaction for the temporal consequences of sins) into the New Testament, it makes a good bit of sense, if one assumes that the turning of mind expressed by metanoia is immediately followed up by a different set of actions (i.e., paenitentiam, or penance) which demonstrate by means of works that repentance has truly taken place.
Now this sort of construct is similar to Protestant theology in that just as we say that justification and sanctification are not separate but only distinguished and that the latter must inevitably follow from the former, we would also view a repentance that does not issue forth in a changed life as being a false repentance. Indeed, the New Testament itself teaches that works must follow upon repentance, as in Acts 26:20’s injunction that the Gentiles should “perform deeds appropriate to repentance.”
Catholic theology as I understand it teaches that faith has to be “formed” by works or it is the dead faith of James 2. Again, without trying to make concessions to the whole complicated tangle of Purgatory and the sinner himself making satisfication for temporal penalties, etc., I can’t help but wonder if the root of the Catholic view of penance, as stated in the Latin translation of such verses as Matt. 3:1 and 4:17, is the biblical teaching that true repentance issues forth in changed works. Repentance thus cannot help but produce penance, and thus metanoia was translated by Jerome as paenitentiam agite–”do penance.”
This is probably too simple an explanation, though, and certainly must be missing a number of distinctions within Catholic theology itself. Any corrections, qualifications, or additions would be welcomed.