Metanoia : μετἀνοια

“Metanoia, a transliteration of the Greek μετἀνοια, has been reckoned the greatest word in the New Testament. The King James Version and many other versions of the New Testament translate metanoia/μετἀνοια as repentance. Metanoia’s verbal cognate metanoeo/μετανοἐω is translated by the word repent. Translating metanoia as repentance has been deemed “an utter mistranslation.”…
The meaning of the Greek metanoia/μετἀνοια is very different than the meaning of the English repentance, and the meaning of the Greek metanoeō/μετανοἐω is very different than the meaning of the English repent. Therefore, Walden describes the translation of metanoia as repentance as “an extraordinary mistranslation.”
The mistranslation of metanoia as repentance began in the 2nd century when the Greek metanoeō was translated into the Latin as poenitentiam agite.
In Biblical Greek, metanoeō/μετανοἐω and metanoia/μετἀνοια signify a “change of Mind, a change in the trend and action of the whole inner nature, intellectual, affectional and moral.” This meaning of metanoia as a “transmutation” of consciousness contrasts with classical Greek in which the word expressed a superficial change of mind. It was in its use in the New Testament and in writings grounded in the New Testament that the depth of metanoia increased until it came “to express that mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God.”
Reviewing translations of metanoeō/μετανοἐω and metanoia/μετἀνοια as repent or repentance, the biblical scholar J. Glentworth Butler noted that, in the Greek, there is none of the sorrow or regret contained in the words repentance and repent. Repentance denotes “sorrow for what one has done or omitted to do; especially, contrition for sin.” Repent primarily means “to review one’s actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do” Therefore, Butler asserts that translating metanoeō/μετανοἐω and metanoia/μετἀνοια as repent and repentance constitute “an utter mistranslation,” a mistranslation that translators excuse by the fact that no English word can adequately convey the meaning of the Greek words.
A. T. Robertson concurs with Butler. Regarding the translation of metanoia as repentance, Robertson calls it “a linguistic and theological tragedy.” Regarding John the Baptist’s call to “repent” as a translation of the Greek metanoeite, Robertson quotes Broadus as saying that this is “the worst translation in the New Testament.” Repent means “to be sorry,” but John’s call was not to be sorry, but to change mental attitudes [metanoeite] and conduct.”…
In his age, Tertullian protested the mistranslation of the Greek metanoeo into the Latin paenitentiam agite by arguing that “in Greek, metanoia is not a confession of sins but a change of mind.” “Conversion” (from the Latin conversiōn-em turning round) with its “change in character” meaning is more nearly the equivalent of metanoia than repentance. Synonyms for “conversion” include “change of heart” and “metanoia.”
prodigal son
“But what in fact is meant by repentance? It is normally regarded as sorrow for sin, a feeling of guilt, a sense of grief and horror at the wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves. Yet such a view is dangerously in¬ complete. Grief and horror are indeed frequently present in the experi¬ence of repentance, but they are not the whole of it, nor even the most important part. We come closer to the heart of the matter if we reflect on the literal sense of the Greek term for repentance, metanoia. This means “change of mind”: not just regret for the past, but a fundamental transfor¬mation of our outlook, a new way of looking at ourselves, at others and at God-in the words of The Shepherd of Hermas, “a great understanding.” A great understanding-but not necessarily an emotional crisis. Repen¬tance is not a paroxysm of remorse and self-pity, but conversion, the recentering of our life upon the Holy Trinity.

As a “new mind,” conversion, recentering, repentance is positive, not negative. In the words of St John Climacus, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair.”
john climacus
It is not despondency but eager ex¬pectation; it is not to feel that one has reached an impasse, but to take the way out. It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcom¬ ings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but for¬ ward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.
When interpreted in this positive sense, repentance is seen to be not just a single act but a continuing attitude. In the personal experience of each person there are decisive moments of conversion, but throughout this present life the work of repenting remains always incomplete. The turning or recentering must be constantly renewed; up to the moment of death, as Abba Sisoes realized, the “change of mind” must become always more radical, the “great understanding” always more profound.
In the words of St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.”

The positive character of repentance is clearly apparent if we consider what comes just before the words of Christ already quoted, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the preceding verse the Evangelist cites Isaiah 9:2, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shone.” Such is the immediate context of our Lord’s command to repent: it is directly preceded by a reference to “great light” shining on those in darkness, and directly followed by a reference to the imminence of the Kingdom. Repentance, then, is an illumination, a transition from darkness to light; to repent is to open our eyes to the divine radi¬ance – not to sit dolefully in the twilight but to greet the dawn. And re¬pentance is also eschatological, an openness to the Last Things that are not merely in the future but already present; to repent is to recognize that the Kingdom of heaven is in our midst, at work among us, and that if we will only accept the coming of this Kingdom all things will be made new for us.”
From pages 46-48 of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s Book, “The Inner Kingdom” –

“The scriptures affirm that in the beginning man was made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). With the fall of Adam and Eve, the original communion between God and man was broken.
For Orthodox, the fall resulted not merely in a legal penalty of death for breaking a law or rule, but in true spiritual death because the union of man with the Source of Life was broken. The “nous” or “heart” of man was darkened. By “nous” is meant more than simply “mind.” It is the central organizing faculty of the human personality, that which is beyond both the discursive reason and the affective nature. The central core of man’s being was separated from its original union with God, thus made unable to fulfill the purpose for which it was created.

If humankind is to be what God intended in the creation, there must be a restoration of communion between God and man and the transformation of fallen humanity again into fullness of the image and likeness of God. The incarnation of the Word of God was the supreme act of restoration of the image of God in man.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons encourages his readers to “follow the only true and reliable Teacher, the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who, on account of His great love, became what we are, so that He might bring us to be what He Himself is” (Jurgens, 1970, p. 248).
St. Athanasius boldly puts it like this: “He became man so that we might be made God” (Jurgens, 1970, p. 342). In Christ we see God as He is (John 14:9; Colossians 1:15), and we see humanity as it was intended to be. Christ’s death and resurrection bring further restoration to human nature, overcoming the final enemy, death itself. In Christ, human nature is restored to permanent communion with God.

Orthodox Christians believe this transformation of human nature is something in which the believer in Christ participates, beginning in baptism. Those who have been baptized into Christ have “put on Christ” (Galatians 2:27), have been united with Him in the likeness of His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-6), and have been “born again” in the water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Through baptism, we are brought sacramentally into an ontological union with Christ. As the incarnate Son of God draws life from the Father, so those in union with him participate in his life-giving energies (John 15:1-8).

This union is especially nourished through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus says that “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56). Orthodox Christians believe that in the Eucharist we are feeding in a mystery on the glorified human nature of Christ. Thus, we who eat are also transfigured and transformed.

This transformation, however, is not immediate in its effects, nor does it occur without continuing effort on our part. We must be renewed day by day, putting off the sins that so easily beset us and putting on virtues befitting the calling to which we have been called. Most importantly, we must drink of that Holy Spirit, allowing ourselves to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind,” being made to conform to the image of God (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Orthodox teachers have identified three stages in the process of transformation. Different theologians use different names for the three stages, but there is a general consistency of understanding as to what happens in each of these stages of spiritual development (Vlachos, 1994b). For this essay we will use the terms purification, illumination, and union for these stages.

Two things should be noted here. First, even though we use the term stages, they are not to be thought of as chronological in the sense where we complete one and move to another, never to repeat it. One goes through these stages and back again, accomplishing a level of virtue and communion with God, then falling again into sin or forgetfulness, then advancing further in virtue. The wrestling goes on even to our last breath. The process might be imagined as an ascending spiral, generally moving one “from glory to glory,” going over the same ground at a higher level (2 Corinthians 3:18). Second, none of this is accomplished by human effort alone.
gregory palamas
Everything is done by the grace of God. Indeed the goal of the whole process is to be utterly transformed by the grace of God, to become, in Gregory Palamas’s memorable phrase, by grace what He is by nature (Meyendorff, 1974, p. 175). As Longinus, one of the desert fathers said, “Give blood, and receive the Holy Spirit” (Anonymous, trans. 1984, p. 123).

The first stage, purification, begins with metanoia (repentance). Repentance is much more than remorse for one’s sins. It is a “change of mind,” a radical reorientation of the whole life toward God. The seeker battles, with the grace of God, against the passions, the habit patterns of sin within the human body and soul that corrupt human nature. Some writers, notably Evagrius and most Greeks, consider the passions as a “disease” in the soul, a disordered impulse, such as anger, jealousy, or lust. Others, such as John of the Ladder, and Gregory Palamas, consider the passions as impulses or instincts originally created by God that have been misused. For the former, the passions are to be mortified, combated until the believer has reached a state of dispassion (apatheia, in the phrase of Evagnus). For the latter, the passions are to be transformed, to be focused into the service of God. The seeker is to use ascetic discipline to cooperate with the grace of God in gaining control of the passions. These ascetic disciplines include fasting, prayer, obedience to a spiritual guide, and almsgiving. Dispassion is not thought of as a mere negative state, the absence of feeling. It is “the replacing of our sinful desires by a new and better energy from God. It is a state of reintegration and spiritual freedom” (Ware, 1989, P. 398). Being freed from passions, such as lust, we are free to love, to express the fullness of the energies of God.

Another aspect of the purification of the heart is the struggle against the thoughts (logismoi) that ultimately develop into passions. This struggle should begin when the thoughts first emerge in the consciousness, before they issue forth into outward actions and take root as passions. The pattern of which to be aware is as follows: sinful thought (i.e., a momentary disturbance of the intellect), “coupling” with the thought (i.e., considering acting on it), assent, action, and the development of a sinful passion. The earlier in the process one is able to gain control of the thought, the better.
Evagrius 2
Evagrius noted eight basic evil thoughts: gluttony, lust, avarice, dejection, anger, despondency or listlessness, vainglory, and pride. By keeping watch over one’s heart one acquires watchfulness and discernment. One is able to detect the thoughts, to discriminate between good thoughts and evil thoughts, and to guard the heart by rejecting evil thoughts. This wrestling should be accompanied by grief, sorrow for one’s s ins, and the gift of tears (Climacus, trans. 1991; Ware, 1989).

Purification also has a positive aspect to it, the putting on of virtues and the development of communion with God. The cardinal virtues to develop are faith, hope, love, and humility. By faith one draws near to God, endures hardships and tribulation, and obeys the commandments of Christ and of one’s spiritual guide. Hope looks toward the completion of the whole process of salvation, and does not disappoint (Romans 5:5). For some of the Fathers (e.g., Maximos the Confessor and St. Simeon the New Theologian) love is the highest virtue and the expression of union with God. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16b). Purifying the heart will lead to an abundance of love for God, for His creation, and for one’s brethren. Humility is also seen as a fountain of other virtues. “The remedy for all the passions … is humility. Those who possess that virtue have won the whole battle” (Climacus, trans. 1982, p. 236). Without humility, one is unable to see one’s sin, unable to repent and, therefore, unable to be purified, illumined, and deified. Humility is built by denying one’s own will and submitting to the direction of one’s spiritual father. “Humility can come only when you have learned to practice obedience. When a man has a self-taught skill, he may start having high notions of himself” (p. 239).

F. Gregory Rogers “Spiritual direction in the Orthodox Christian tradition”, “Journal of Psychology and Theology”, Vol. 30, No. 4

Also published in Gary W. Moon and David G. Benner (Eds) “Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls: A Guide to Christian Approaches and Practices” [IVP Academic , 2004), pp. 31-54

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