Vulgate’s “Do Penance”: Exchange w Reformed Protestants

Vulgate’s “Do Penance”: Exchange w Reformed Protestants March 15, 2018
Jonathan Bonomo is the senior pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania.

These discussions about penance occurred on the blog, Evangelical Catholicity. I was responding in a thread entitled Paenitentiam Agite, having to do with why St. Jerome used the phrase “do penance” at Matthew 3:2 and 4:17, when the more straightforward translation would seem to be “repent.”

Pastor Bonomo’s words will be in blue; Laurence K. Wells’ words in green, and Kevin D. Johnson’s in brown.

* * * * *

I think it depends on one’s translation methodology. Ironically, I was writing about this again tonight with regard to a Latin translation of a statement of Luther’s that Steve Ray and I and another friend have been debating for now literally two months. One can translate absolutely literally or exercise more freedom and do more of a thought-for-thought rendering. 

My friend John McAlpine was over tonight doing some Latin translation for the other project. He has a Masters Degree in Linguistics from U of M and teaches Latin to many home-schoolers. He wrote:

It occurs to me, a latinist, that the discussion has so far neglected a formal element of the Latin translation paenitentiam agite. As I understand it, the question is, why does Latin use the verb agite, which to an English speaker seems to imply some kind of action, being, after all, translated as “do”. Well, it should be noted that while the Greek metanoeite in Matthew 3:2 is used “personally”, if I may so put it, being in the second person plural, the Latin verb paenitet (dictionary form) is used impersonally, being in the 3rd person singular. That is to say, in Greek the logical subject is the same as the grammatical subject, but in Latin the logical subject of the verb paenitet (dictionary form), the Latin verb closest to the Greek verb in meaning, would be the grammatical direct object: one would not say “Repent,” as in Greek, but “May it repent you”. It may be partially for this reason that the Latin chooses to say Paenitentiam agite, which is a word phrase, and not in itself a direct translation of the Greek metanoiete, which is a one-word Greek imperative.

I was curious to see how more recent Catholic translations rendered these verses. Knox’s Revised Vulgate, Confraternity, Jerusalem, and NAB all have “repent.” That’s what I would prefer, myself, as I like to get as literal a translation of the Greek as possible. So it isn’t like the Catholic Church wants to stubbornly hold on to the older translation from the Vulgate.

Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J., in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, gives as his first definition of “Penance”:

The virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one’s own sins and is converted to God. (Etym. Latin paenitentia, repentance, contrition)

Thus, if this definition were applied to the passages in question, it might mean, literally, “perform the act of repenting.” I’ve argued with Protestants who say that no one can do anything, and I’ll reply, “when you repent, you are doing something. You are doing this thing which is repenting, changing your life around, turning from sin. That is a thing, and that is you doing that thing. God causes it, but you do it.” Etc.

So the one who repents is also doing something; hence, possibly “do penance” could actually mean this, or have a double meaning, along with the more usual interpretation of what Catholics mean by penance.”

Also, similar to Acts 26:20 is Matthew 3:8, right in the same context: “Bear fruit that befits repentance.” Parallel verse Luke 3:8 is identical except for having “fruits”. And we could add Luke 3:9 to my list in my last comment of “judgment based on works” motif:

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I was just reacting to the “translation methodology” of Dave Armstrong (as if he knows Greek in the first place!) who veered quite widely from the topic in the first place. Cut me a break, will you?

Hi Kevin, 

I wasn’t so much defending Catholic doctrine as I was establishing common ground between Reformeds and Catholics, as I saw it. Repentance and action have some intrinsic connection of some sort, both sides agree (or should agree).

. . . why the Catholic Church continues to leave the Vulgate translation of this phrase “do penance” and corresponding usage as you note above when the original biblical text says otherwise. . . . one can’t help but think that it is only dogmatic concerns that force Rome’s hand in this regard.

As I stated above, the four major translations that have come from Catholic circles in the last hundred years or so have “repent” at this passage. That hardly sounds like a “dogmatic” resistance to textual / linguistic arguments as to the best translation here. I have stated that I agree with that. Though I understand better now what “do penance” may mean and how it can have at least a possible defense as a translation at Matt 3:2 and 4:17, I think “repent” is a better rendering, which is why most Bibles have that word. I would even have granted that “do penance” exhibited a Catholic translation bias, but in light of my friend John’s clarification as to Latin construction, perhaps that is not the case.

I was just reacting to the “translation methodology” of Dave Armstrong (as if he knows Greek in the first place!)

I am not assuming that I know Greek. I never said that. Where did I say that? Where did I indicate at all that I knew Greek? [I was using Kevin’s own phraseology against him here] Nor did I translate anything on my own accord. That would be ridiculous. But I do use Greek language reference works that are intended precisely for English speakers who do not know the language, in order to delve more deeply into the biblical text. If you have a problem with that, go quibble with Strong, Thayer, Robertson, Vine, Vincent, Kittel et al. Do you know Latin?

who veered quite widely from the topic in the first place.

Really? The post was about the meaning of a Latin phrase from the Vulgate. I cited my friend who knows Latin very well and majored in languages in grad school. That’s off-topic? Bringing in Latin grammatical aspects is helpful to this discussion, I think most thoughtful folks would agree.

Then I mentioned that four recent Catholic translations no longer have “do penance”. That’s off-topic? I should think it was quite relevant information. Maybe not. But it seems relevant to me, anyway.

Then I made two biblical arguments that tie repentance and action together, which was a major component of the post I was critiquing; therefore relevant. But maybe not. No one else is saying so. But you have been suspected of sophistry and useless speculation. 

Then I brought in a definition of “penance” from a major Catholic scholar in an effort to further explain how “do penance” may not be as wide of the mark as you seem to think. How is that off-topic?

Reasonable people can differ on the somewhat subjective matter of what remains on a topic, surely. As a webmaster and blogmaster for eleven years and moderator in two venues, and participant in “live” discussion groups in my home and others’ homes for now 18 years and running, I know that very well indeed, believe me. But I think a quite plausible, feasible argument can be made that I have been right smack dab on-topic in my replies. 

Have a great day!

I also thought it would be heartening to Protestants to see that Catholic translations other than Douay-Rheims from 1582 or whatever also have “repent” at these verses. More common ground . . .

Believe it or not, I like unity as much as we can manage to achieve that exalted goal, and am not always trying to create some huge stink and controversy, as my critics seem to assume is always my motivation. In fact, it virtually never is. But I become controversial because I have opinions and am not shy about expressing them.

Some of your responders would do well to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the “Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation” (Paragraphs 1422 through 1433). Too long to quote in its entirely, just consider this much: (1430) “Jesus’s call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does NOT aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the CONVERSION OF THE HEART, interior conversion. Without this such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and woks of penance….”

It seems as clear as a day in July that in the NT genuine repentance implies, as far as humanly possible, restitution. Think Zacchaeus. No genuine repentance without restitution. 
But where RC theology got into trouble at a very early time was in the unBiblical notion that proper restitution can be commuted into other actions: so many Hail Marys, so many pilgrimages, so many nocturnal visits to the Blessed Sacrament, etc. That is why the Reformation was necessary and still relevant.

But your insight is right on target, Biblically accurate, and not a sell-out of the Reformation. St Jerome grasped that repentance is not just something we feel, but something we do.

“10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

True action, but nothing of praying a certain number of set prayers, paying a certain amount of money, or gazing at a skull, etc.

I find it remarkable but not surprising at all that, having identified the true (”Roman”) Catholic doctrine of interior conversion leading to repentance and penance, nevertheless you have to go right back to the usual humdrum Protestant “either/or” mentality and pit these same works against the interior conversion, as if they were antithetical. Why is that? You’re looking right at Catholic truth, as ably expressed in the Catechism, yet one second later you act as if you didn’t see what you just explained. There must always be a division created where there need not be one. 

There is no necessary dichotomy here! Obviously, individuals can misunderstand and mis-apply Catholic teaching, but we’re talking about actual theology and doctrine of the Church, not practice, as indicated by the phrase, “But where RC theology got into trouble . . .”

CCC #1460 (citing Trent) explains the relationship of such penance to Jesus:

1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, “provided we suffer with him.”

The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of “him who strengthens” us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ . . . in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth “fruits that befit repentance.” These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father.

Now what is wrong with that? The only way a Protestant can fault this notion (correctly understood) is to go back to the old canard that this amounts to us poor sinners actually “doing” something, which must be Pelagianism, and couldn’t possibly be a biblically synergistic view, with God providing all enabling grace, and our cooperating with Him. That smuggles in prior presuppositions that are not themselves biblical. For example:

1 Corinthians 3:9 (RSV) For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 

KJV: For we are labourers together with God . . .
Phillips: In this work, we work with God . . .
Amplified: For we are fellow workmen — joint promoters, laborers together — with and for God . . .

2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him [i.e., Jesus; see 5:21], then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. 

Why is this so difficult to grasp?If penitential works are such a terrible thing, supposedly disconnected to God’s grace and Jesus’ death on the cross, etc., etc. (”the unBiblical notion that proper restitution can be commuted into other actions: so many Hail Marys, so many pilgrimages, so many nocturnal visits to the Blessed Sacrament, etc.”), then what do you do with these passages from the Apostle Paul?:

Philippians 2:17 Even if I am to be poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.

Philippians 3:10 . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.

2 Timothy 4:6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.

Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

2 Corinthians 4:10 Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

And what about what I have called “the most ‘Un-Protestant’ Verse in the Bible” (The Catholic Verses, p. 163):

1 Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

I submit, then, that what is “necessary” is not so much the “Reformation” but for Protestants to be more biblical and especially “Pauline.”

Mr. Armstrong,
Funny, I see absolutely no conflict between the passages you’ve just given and what Fr. Wells, [name], or I have said above. None of us have said anything like “either faith or works.” Actually, I think we’ve said just the opposite. Our contention however is that the Bible paints a different picture of good works than does the RC penetential system.
The Biblical presentation of the “fruits befitting repentence” is one of true love for God manifesting itself outwardly in the form of worship of Him and works of love for others. These works are not of course something disconnected from the sacrifice of Christ or our subsequent justification. All are intimately related, having their center in our mystical union with Him. This, I believe, is precisely what is at work in each of the passages you’ve cited. 
Sure, you can continue to marshall forth your list of texts. But they mean nothing to one who does not share your perspective on things. In fact, without at least some exegetical work to demonstrate the connections you’d like to draw, they don’t really amount to a hill of beans. We all have Bibles of our own, and we’ve all read those passages before. What’s more, we even believe them. Heck, some of us even know Greek and have analyzed the context, grammar, and syntax of a few of those passages, and all that without becoming Roman Catholic! 
Surprising, I know.
* * *

These works are not of course something disconnected from the sacrifice of Christ or our subsequent justification. All are intimately related, having their center in our mystical union with Him. This, I believe, is precisely what is at work in each of the passages you’ve cited.

Exactly. And that is the Catholic position. So where do we disagree? I’m saying we agree on this when the Catholic position is correctly understood. You guys are the ones who insist on there being a huge difference. I’m seeing points of unity and common ground, and rejoicing in it, but you guys want to create a division where there is none. There is plenty where we actually disagree . . . 

Lastly, I’m curious: can you direct me to a post where you actually do comparative exegesis with a Catholic? Or is this the presuppositionalist method again, where no one who does not share it can ever break through the bubble? Therefore, Bible verses are of little value and can be dismissed as irrelevant unless one presupposes the entire Reformed structure of belief, then it all makes sense . . .

Mr. Armstrong,
Well, let it be known that you are the one who expressed disagreement first. Your reactionary stance here is not appreciated. No one said anything about a “huge” difference. But there is a difference. For instance, Protestants would view things such as relics and indulgences as being at best utterly meaningless, and at worst an abomination.
And, please, don’t be silly. I’m not about to point you to posts I’ve written or commented on in order to simply indulge your curiosity. The vast majority of exegetical and theological work I do does not make its way onto the internet anyway. Unlike some, I don’t spend a whole lot of time figuring out what profound topics to write on next so that people can be convinced of how right I am. So, yes, I have compared Roman Catholic and Protestant exegesis of various passages. But whether or not the work I’ve done in these areas is on the internet doesn’t mean anything.
And just so you know, future comments along the lines of what you’ve written in your second paragraph above will be deleted without warning.

No one ever pointed these verses out to me in a systematic way, so in reading the Bible, I would pass over them without giving them much thought. If they had been presented in the way I presented them above, I would have been given serious pause, and would have tried to interpret them according to my evangelical grid.

[the paragraph of mine above, starting with “Lastly, I’m curious” was said to be “awaiting moderation”, so now they are playing the game of filtering my posts through “Reformed Catholic” / Via Media standards of “taste and decorum” before deciding if I will be granted the respect of unmolested free speech or not. Not a chance. I’m already gone. But if I see something on this blog worthwhile critiquing, I will do so on my blog, with the folks over there are more than welcome to come and comment freely on my blog. What a shame. I continue to look for a venue with serious Protestant-Catholic dialogue that everyone can benefit from and be edified by. I may be looking for a long time . . .]


(originally 2-2-08)

Photo credit: The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (c. 1548), by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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