I discovered today that the Latin Vulgate gives paenitentiam agite — Do penance! — where English Bibles usually give, ‘Repent!’ in Matthew 4:17. The Greek is metanoeite; the automatic instinct is to opt for the English. The Latin would seem to tend towards simply performing some sort out outward act, mere ‘works righteousness’ without a related renovation of the heart. Or perhaps a purely sacramental version; confess to a priest and perform the penance assigned.
Certainly, it could be read that way. It has been used that way.
For Ivo of Chartres, who has come up on this blog a few times lately, paenitentiam agere may better be, to carry out penitence. It is interesting what happens with the switch of verb and the switching out of one English derivative from paenitentia for another. Ivo is insistent in his letters that just because a person — be he king or bishop — has performed some outward act of charity or discipline does not mean that true paenitentia has occurred.
Paenitentia involves the inward workings of the human heart. These are visible to God alone. However, for Ivo, as for medieval culture more generally, the inner person will manifest itself in outer deeds. Thus, to carry out penitence will necessarily involve both true contrition for sin and behaviour that shows a desire, a willingness, to change.
Today’s Protestant is probably still wary of this question of the outer behaviour.
For Ivo, as represented in the Prologue that he wrote for his canon law collection (the Decretum — a title it shares with many other canon law collections!), the canons of the church are remedies for sin. These canons include the order for administering penitence. I am not going to get into the concept of temporal penalties for sins in mediaeval theology for two reason: 1. I don’t feel like offending any Roman Catholic readers; 2. I am not sure what it’s development looked like in the Middle Ages.
Nevertheless, whether someone believed that penitential acts could get them time off Purgatory, Ivo’s argument is fairly simple: they help you become holier. That is, with the aid of the grace of God working in you, your penitential actions will help make your soul healthier (remember the medical imagery he uses) and thus more able both to perform virtuous deeds and resist temptations to sin.
This, I think, carries with it a fuller understanding of repentance than our usual English translation of metanoeite in Matthew 4:17. Is it biblical? Well, I hope so. Here is a brief thought on metanoia: it is a word used in various situations to refer to a changing of directions — perhaps changing sides in a war, for example. To risk the etymological fallacy, it seems to have something to do with changing your nous, your mind/intellect/heart/however you wish to translate that word. In that case, Jesus is referring to changing the direction of your life and heart to live in the Kingdom of the Heavens.
To effect that change — well, here we fall back on St Paul’s various lists of virtues and vices, of fruits of the Spirit, and his exhortations to pray, to worship God, to rejoice in the Lord, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It strikes me that what Ivo is doing is trying to find specific applications of St Paul’s general principles for the health of those Christians who write him letters or who use his canon law collection.
And one last thing — Ivo’s Christian is not alone, not sitting about performing penitential deeds in isolation. Ivo’s Christian, clerical or lay, is part of the militia Christi — the army of Christ. He or she is a communicating member of the local Church, having received the sacrament of holy baptism and partaking of the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion. He or she is a hearer or reader of God’s word, whether in sermon or from a book.
This is the context of ideal mediaeval penitence — the real life of the church as lived in community by real people.
Christof Rolker, Canon Law and the Letters of Ivo of Chartres
Ivo of Chartres, Prologue, in Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 132-158.