My brother-in-law has loaned me a book called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. The book shows in numerous ways how scripture is often misunderstood through the differences in cultural, historical and linguistic contexts. I was rather enjoying it when I came across this passage on page 76 on the topic of language equivalency:
The Protestant Reformation began as an effort to correct a mistaken assumption about equivalency in the language. Over time, the Roman Catholic church had developed a doctrine of confession that included works of penance, such as reciting a certain number of prayers (think “Hail Mary” or “Our Fathers”) and, most disturbing, the purchase of indulgences to assure forgiveness of sins. By late Middle Ages, church leaders insisted this system is what Jesus had in mind when he called sinners to repent—that do penance was equivalent to (meant the same things as) repent—Martin Luther’s history-changing, ninety five these addressed this issue head on. “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole of life of believers should be repentance,” Luther argued in the opening sentences of his disputation. “This word cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.” The medieval church had superimposed certain presuppositions onto Scripture by mistakenly assuming that the Latin term for do penance was equivalent to the Greek term for repent. Because repentance is necessary for salvation (Is 30:15; 2 Cor 7:10), their mistake undermined Christian faith and identity at its core. Is it possible that we risk equally dangerous misreadings by assuming equivalency between languages?
As many know, I recently converted to Roman Catholicism from decades as a non-denominational Christian and one-time Protestant in early life. One of many intellectual reasons for my conversion bordered on the topic outlined in this book, namely, that Holy Scripture can be misinterpreted, or, most disturbing, reinterpreted to mean whatever one wants it to mean, going so far as to sanction marriage pathologies and progressive ideas that slowly render Christianity indistinguishable from secularism. The point at which this started to really bother me was when I listened to a convincing sermon by Matthew Vines on how scripture supported same-sex marriage. When it dawned on me that I could be just as far off center with my own interpretations of scripture as Vines or anyone else, I began to wonder about the pillars of the Reformation on which many non-Catholic Christian faiths rest.
The irony of Richards and O’Brien’s book is that, for the most part, it supports the Catholic viewpoint: the understanding of scripture requires more than a private reading of a translation of the Bible sola scriptura: it requires an understanding of the language, the times, the culture and the intent of the sacred writer. It also requires a knowledgeable body of authority to make sure it doesn’t get pulled in the wrong direction as it has in the intervening centuries since the Reformation starting from day one. Just look at all the different denominations, over 30,000. And yet there is still only One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Why?
It may surprise non-Catholic Christians that the Church actually considers the King James Bible and the Lutheran German Bible excellent translations (minus some books). The issue is not translation but an understanding of what those words intend from the divine source—God. Sacred Scripture coupled with Sacred Tradition has provided a safe and harmonizing forward error correction over the expanse of centuries. If and when this understanding of the Catholic Church dawns on us we change, adhere and submit to it– or we continue to make it up as it suits us. In the end, one will either be Catholic or syncretic to the point where every man is his own denomination.
The debate I have with the passage cited above is not about equivalency but the rather remarkable lack of understanding regarding the sacrament of penance, often called the sacrament of reconciliation or, simply, confession. The “do penance” part, as the authors correctly point out, is often a “work of penance” such as reciting the Hail Mary or Our Father or something more, depending on the wisdom of the priest and the needs of the penitent. But what the authors failed to point out is that this work of penance is merely a token of justice at the tail end of a rite that starts with true repentance of a kind that encompasses the entire life of the believer. Indeed, if it is apparent that the one giving confession has no intention of amending their life, forgiveness is not extended and, hence, no work of penance is assigned. And this is one of the most difficult things a Catholic priest might have to do within his office, i.e., withhold the forgiveness of God as the rightful holder of this authority on Earth through the documented lineage of apostolic succession.
Let me also add that regular confession serves as a tool to aid the disciple growing in virtue. Regular confession keeps one from becoming spiritually cold and wandering deeper into sin. In other ecclesial communities, such a tool might be called “accountability” or a similar structure set up with mentors in a discipleship program but does anyone bash this as superficial? The Catholic Church includes this as part of the sacramental life and I can attest to its efficacy. Confession is an incredible resource to the believer. Perhaps I’m weird in this way, but I really like it.
Finally, the act of confession was always part of the Sacred Tradition of the Church for at least a thousand years prior to the Reformation and demonstrably part of the Apostolic era. If it developed “over time” as the authors claim, that time was rather early and short. In the fourth century A.D., Emperor Theodosius was required to do a work of penance for eight months as specified by St. Ambrose bishop of Milan after the emperor’s vengeful slaughter of a mob in Thessalonica. This was the first moment that the might of the state was subordinate to the spiritual might of the church, only to be taken back centuries later during the Reformation. Today, Western civilization is dominated by secular policy with no spiritual accountability. Without the authority of the Church, the state can commit whatever atrocity it desires with no one to answer to and so it does: abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, injustice, corruption, drone attacks, unbridled spending and on it goes much of which conveniently supported by a private interpretation of Sacred Scripture through whatever lens is politically expedient.
Perhaps the authors intended to implicate the Catholic Church in its teaching during the years of the Reformation but I doubt it. I have seen this ignorance exhibited frequently in modern Christian contexts: my daughter’s youth journal made the same misstatement which I had to correct. It’s sad but I don’t blame them too much: I was also ignorant of such matters and, once upon a time, reading the quoted passage above would have not stirred me in the least. Indeed, I would have agreed. Not anymore.
 In England, the head of state and the head of the church became one based on the doctrine of marriage. Because King Henry wanted a divorce, he assumed the Church’s spiritual authority. To this day, the Catholic Church still adheres to the doctrine of marriage it did during the days of the Reformation despite ongoing public pressure.