Recently I picked up the Kindle (for iPad) edition of Gregg Allison’s, Historical Theology. A friend at church recommended it and besides it had the word “historical” in it and that made it a compelling buy after I read the free sample on Amazon.

Historical Theology is the discipline that discusses the development of doctrine.

For example, how did the church over the course of 2000+ years of history arrive at the doctrine known as the Trinity. Or, on what basis, did the church decide what Old and New Testament books should be considered canon and included in the Bible?

Here’s something that I picked up from the chapter about canon.

Jerome, author of Latin Vulgate, a translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin. I always wonder why early scholars are often depicted with a skull on the their desk. I think they are pondering their own mortality.

Jerome, author of Latin Vulgate, a translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin. I always wonder why early scholars are often depicted with a skull on the their desk. I think they are pondering their own mortality.

Jerome translated the Greek New Testament into Latin (I knew that.) It was and is called the Vulgate (I knew that too.) What I did not know is that Jerome translated Jesus’ evangelistic teaching in Matthew 4:17 to say “do penance.” The early Roman Catholic Church used the text to establish a biblical foundation for the sacrament of penance and a means of receiving God’s grace after sinning.

I found this particularly interesting as a former Catholic who went to a Catholic grade school and went to confession monthly as I recall. At the end of the confession the priest assigned penance which was usually a string of prayers. I remember it like this; “say 3 “Our Fathers, 10 “Hail Marys” and 3 “Glory be.”  I remember the practice well except that my numbers were usually higher. Hmmmmm.

How praying was a penance (we kids interpreted penance as a punishment for sin) I’m not sure but at the time mine was not to ask questions but to do it and remain in God’s good graces.

My intent here is not be flippant and make fun of Roman Catholic sacraments. After all, if the Catholic Church believed that Matthew 4:17 commanded penance from the mouth of Jesus then it made perfect sense “to do” penance as one does not take commands from Jesus lightly.

But in Allison’s book, I discovered this little tidbit.

Erasmus straightening out Jerome.

Erasmus straightening out Jerome.

A humanist scholar by the named of Erasmus pointed out that the Greek should be translated “repent” and not “do penance.” The correct translation changes the entire meaning of the passage because to repent means to have an entire change of heart rather than commanding a church-imposed practice.

Now to be fair somewhere along the line the Catholic Church agreed with Erasmus because the modern-day English translation of Matthew 4:17 in the Catholic Bible reads:

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matt. 4:17, NAB)

Here’s the same passage from a popular Evangelical translation called the English Standard Version:

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 4:17 ESV)

Pretty darn close heh?

I’m sure the Catholic Church used other texts to establish their doctrine of penance since as far as I know penance is still practiced by Catholics who take their faith seriously.

However, the point should be well taken that doctrine is hashed out and based on the Word of God (something that conservative evangelicals and Catholics say the Bible is). The above noted error led to further debate as to what the beliefs and practices of the church should be based on, a poorly translated Latin Vulgate (sorry Jerome) or the original Greek text correctly translated.

This is no small matter and in this case understanding what repentance is and is not is crucial to understanding the biblical gospel.

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