Metanoia (theology)

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Metanoia, a transliteration of the Greek μετάνοια, can be defined as "a transformative change of heart; especially: a spiritual conversion."[1] The term suggests repudiation, change of mind, repentance, and atonement; but "conversion" and "reformation" may best approximate its connotation.[2] In The King James Version of the Bible, its verbal cognate metanoeo/μετανοέω is translated as repent.[3]

Pre-Christian use[edit]

Metanoia means afterthought, from meta meaning "after" or "beyond" and nous meaning "mind". In Classical Greek metanoia meant changing one's mind about someone or something.[4] When personified, Metanoia was depicted as a shadowy goddess, cloaked and sorrowful, who accompanied Kairos, the god of Opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance for the "missed moment". This conventional portrayal continued through the Renaissance. "The elements of repentance, regret, reflection, and transformation are always present in the concept of metanoia to some degree, ..."[5]

Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE) depicted metanoia as “in heaven, a beautiful and especially good daughter of the Most High.” There “she entreats God Most High hourly” on behalf of people.[6]

Uses in the New Testament[edit]

Modern English translations of the Greek New Testament use the word "repentance" for both the word metanoia and metamelomai. The former term is so translated almost ten times as often as the latter.[4] Metanoia can be traced to Mark Chapter 1, where Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is at hand and asks for repentance.

In Matthew 27:3 uses the Greek verb metamelomai in stating that Judas "repented himself" after he saw Jesus being led away. Metamelomai denotes "painful sorrow" or "remorseful regret." Metamelomai is the equivalent of the words Repent or Repentance."[7] Biblical scholar A. T. Robertson observes that Judas had only sorrow and regret and "mere sorrow avails nothing unless it leads to change of mind and life [metanoia]."[8]

The noun metanoia/μετάνοια, is translated "repentance," and its cognate verb metanoeō/μετανοέω is translated "repent" in twenty two instances in the King James Version of the New Testament.

Abid Rogers Bhatti in his book A Textbook of Soteriology writes about the meaning of metanoia/μετάνοια. In the Urdu Bible, the word for “repentance” is “toba.” Toba means regret, grief, and sorrow over sinful deeds that lead to a change of mind and life. Abid agrees with Tertullian[9] in preferring “conversion” rather than “repentance” to translate metanoia/μετάνοια in Mark 1:4. In summary, Abid believes that “conversion” (rather than “repentance”) is the best English word to express the meaning of the Greek metanoia/μετάνοια.[citation needed]

Use in early Christianity[edit]

The term "...was used consistently in the literature of that time to express a fundamental change in thinking that leads to a fundamental change in behavior and/or way of living".[10] In 2006, an ecumenical group of scholars published a study of repentance in the Bible and the Church. After "a thorough examination of Hellenistic Jewish writings," the study found that for Jews living at the time of Jesus, "repentance" meant "a fundamental change in thinking and living." For the New Testament, this change is a necessary ingredient in accomplishing God’s plan for salvation and community for everyone.[11]

The Acts of Peter ties metanoia to the cross on which Peter was crucified. While Peter was being crucified, he explained parts of the cross from which he was hanging, including “the nail which holds the cross beam to the upright in the middle.” This nail is “the conversion [epistrophē] and repentance [metanoia] of man.”[12]

According to David N. Wilkin, "The Latin Fathers translated metanoia as paenitentia, which came to mean "penance" or "acts of penance.""[4] Tertullian protested the unsuitable translation 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."[9] "Conversion" (from the Latin conversiōn-em turning round) with its "change in character" meaning is more nearly the equivalent of metanoia than repentance.[13]


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary transliterates the Greek μετάνοια into metanoia and borrowing it as an English word with a definition that matches the Greek: "a transformative change of heart; especially: a spiritual conversion," augmented by an explanation of metanoia’s Greek source: "from metanoiein to change one's mind, repent, from meta- + noein to think, from nous mind."[1] Synonyms for "conversion" include "change of heart" and "metanoia."[14]

In opposition to the Church's interpretation of metanoia as comprising contrition, confession, and penances, Martin Luther objected that it retained its classical sense of "a change of mind."[15] For John Staupitz, "...metanoia can be derived, though not without violence, not only from post and mentem, but also from trans and mentem, so that metanoia signifies a changing of the mind and heart, because it seemed to indicate not only a change of the heart, but also a manner of changing it, i.e., the grace of God."[16]

John Calvin pointed to the double derivation of "repentance": from the Hebrew meaning conversion, or turning again and the Greek [metanoia] meaning a change of mind and purpose. The meaning of the word, for Calvin, is appropriate to both derivations because repentance (a) involves "withdrawing from ourselves," (b) turning to God, (c) "laying aside the old," and (d) putting on "a new mind."[17]

Other interpretations[edit]

The Greek Orthodox Church in America teaches that "The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of man's vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God. In the words of a second-century text, The Shepherd of Hermas, it implies "great understanding," or discernment."[18]

In his 1881 The Great Meaning of the Word Metanoia, Treadwell Walden, former minister of St. Paul's Church, Boston, asserts that metanoia conveys the essence of the Christian gospel. Walden holds that the meaning of the Greek metanoia is very different from the meaning of the English "repentance". He describes the translation of metanoia as repentance as "an extraordinary mistranslation." Walden believed the meaning of metanoia as a "transmutation" of consciousness contrasted with classical Greek which he viewed as expressing a superficial change of mind.[19] Walden sought to promote the proper meaning of metanoia as "change of Mind, a change in the trend and action of the whole inner nature, intellectual, affectional and moral." over against its translation as repentance.[20]

In Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart, Edward J.Anton observes that in most dictionaries and in the minds of most Christians the primary meaning of "repent" is to look back on past behavior with sorrow, self-reproach, or contrition, sometimes with an amendment of life. But neither Jesus nor John the Baptist says to look back in sorrow. For St Paul, "metanoia is a transfiguration for your brain" that opens a new future.[21]

It was in its use in the New Testament and in writings grounded in the New Testament that the depth of metanoia increased until, in the words of Archbishop Richard C. Trench, it came "to express that mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God."[22]

Scholar J. Glentworth Butler says 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."[23] Repent primarily means "to review one's actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do"[24] Therefore, Butler asserts that translating metanoeō/μετανοέω and metanoia/μετάνοια as repent and repentance constitute "an utter mistranslation" that translators excuse by the fact that no English word can adequately convey the meaning of the Greek words.[7]

A. T. Robertson concurs with Butler. Regarding the translation of metanoia as repentance, Robertson calls it "a linguistic and theological tragedy."[25] 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.[26] Robertson lamented the fact that in his time there was no English word that signified the meaning of the Greek μετάνοια (metanoia).[27]

Aloys H. Dirksen in his The New Testament Concept of Metanoia argues against metanoia as merely “repentance” and for metanoia as “conversion.”[28] Other[who?] have characterized the translation of metanoia/μετάνοια as "repentance" with similar negativity. Repentance is an "unsuitable" translation.[29] It is "totally inadequate" to carry the meaning of metanoia.[30]

Of the top-ten versions of the Bible in the United States based on unit sales, seven read "baptism of repentance" in Mark 1:4 in which "repentance" translates metanoia.[31] Three of the ten top-selling versions and another in the top-ten based on dollar sales attempt to capture the meaning of metanoia. None of them transliterate the Greek μετἀνοια as metanoia.[32]

  • New Living Translation: "baptized to show that they had turned from their sins and turned to God"
  • Common English Bible: "baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives"
  • New International Readers Version: "baptized and turn away from their sins"
  • The Message: "a baptism of life-change"

In spite of these efforts, David Wilkin forecasts that "repentance" as a translation for metanoia will likely continue in most English translations. He, therefore, advises readers to substitute "change of mind" for the words repentance and repent.[33]

In its Confirmation exegesis, the Minnehaha United Methodist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota notes,

Metanoia is used to refer to the change of mind which is brought about in repentance. Repentance is necessary and valuable because it brings about change of mind or metanoia. This change of mind will make the changed person hate sin and love God. The two terms (repentance and metanoia) are often used interchangeably. "Meta-" is additionally used to imply "beyond" and "outside of." E.g., ...metaphysics as outside the limits of physics. The word metanoia has taken on an in-vogue usage among interfaith dialogues as simply meaning "a change of heart." Though this is close to its Christian theological meaning, perhaps one may conclude that metanoia is "taking one's mind/thoughts beyond and outside of one's habituations." Yes, English translators of the Christian Scriptures fail to find a proper corresponding word for metanoia, so they fall back upon the comfort and ease of the word repent. Yet repent carries with it a negative tone, almost an inhibition caused by guilt; metanoia forces a positive, proactive life-affirming response. When Jesus calls people to "repent," to "metanoia," could it be that he means: "Change your thought processes and go beyond your mind's present state of limitations"? Does this not mandate self-assessment and interpersonal acceptance?[34]

Charles Taylor defines metanoia as "to change one's mind of attitude" and builds his pastoral counseling method on the "metanoia model." In doing so, Taylor recalls that the center of Jesus' ministry was a call to metanoia.[35] For Milton Crum, metanoia means "a change of perception with its behavioral fruit." Thus, metanoia constitutes the central thing that needs to happen in preaching.[36] Peter Senge observes that what happens in a "learning organization" that experiences the "deeper meaning of 'learning'" is "metanoia" which means "a shift of mind." Therefore, concludes Senge, "to grasp the meaning of 'metanoia' is to grasp the deeper meaning of 'learning.'"[37]

Ulrich Wilckens finds in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:38-40 as narrated by Luke the Evangelist, six steps that are required for a person’s salvation. Metanoia is step number one and is essential because the other steps are contingent on a person’s experiencing metanoia. Wilckens believes that this is the normative way to salvation in Luke’s theology.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Metanoia", Merriam-Webster
  2. ^ Pope Benedict XVI. "Faith as Conversion -Metanoia", Principles of Catholic Theology, Ignatius Press, 1987, ISBN 9780898701333
  3. ^ Strong, James The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Eaton & Mains, 1890)
  4. ^ a b c Wilkin, Robert N. "New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations",
  5. ^ Myers, Kelly A., "Metanoia and the Tranformation of Opportunity", Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 1–18
  6. ^ Patrick Gray, Gail R. O'Day, eds., Scripture and Traditions: Essays on Early Judaism and Christianity in Honor of Carl R. Holladay (Brill, 2008) 80-81.
  7. ^ a b Butler, J. Glentworth. Topical Analysis of the Bible (Butler Bible Work Co, 1897), 443. Available in Google Books.
  8. ^ A.T. Robertson. "Word Pictures in the New Testament - Matthew" (PDF). Grand Rapids, Missouri: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  9. ^ a b Edward J Anton, Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart (Discipleship Publications, 2005) 32-33.
  10. ^ Nave, Guy. The Role and function of Repentance in Luke-Acts, Society of Biblical Literature, 2002
  11. ^ Mark J. Boda and Gordon T. Smith, eds., Repentance in Christian Theology (Michael Glazier, 2006), 90, 95.
  12. ^ J. K. Elliott, editor, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford University Press, 2005), 425. Greek words inserted.
  13. ^ "Millennium Web Catalog". Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  14. ^ "Conversion Synonyms, Conversion Antonyms". Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  15. ^ Luther's Works, Vol. 48, Letters (May 30, 1518 Letter to John von Staupitz), 65-70.
  16. ^ "Letter of John Staupitz Accompanying the "Resolutions" to the XCV Theses by Dr. Martin Luther, 1518", Works of Martin Luther, (Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds.), (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Volume 1, pp. 39-43
  17. ^ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3. 3. 1-16.
  18. ^ "Repentance and Confession", The Greek Orthodox Church in America
  19. ^ Treadwell Walden, The Great Meaning of the Word Metanoia: Lost in the Old Version, Unrecovered in the New, p.24, (Thomas Whittaker, 1896)
  20. ^ Treadwell Walden, The Great Meaning of the Word Metanoia: Lost in the Old Version, Unrecovered in the New. (Thomas Whittaker, 1896), 1, 3-4, 8-9. Available online in Google Books.
  21. ^ Anton, Edward J. Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart (Discipleship Publications, 2005) 31-32.
  22. ^ Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Macmillan, 1880, 9th edition) 255-261. Available online in Google Books.
  23. ^ "Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) - The ARTFL Project". Retrieved 14 November 2014. [dead link]
  24. ^ "Millennium Web Catalog". Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  25. ^ A.T. Robertson. "Word Pictures in the New Testament - 2 Corinthians" (PDF). Grand Rapids, Missouri: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  26. ^ A.T. Robertson. "Word Pictures in the New Testament - Matthew" (PDF). Grand Rapids, Missouri: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  27. ^ A.T. Robertson. "Word Pictures in the New Testament - Matthew" (PDF). Grand Rapids, Missouri: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  28. ^ D. Tarrant, review of The New Testament Concept of Metanoia (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1932.) in Classical Review 47:4 (1933).
  29. ^ Herbert George Marsh, The Origin and Significance of the New Testament Baptism (Manchester University Press, 1941), 43.
  30. ^ James Hastings and others, Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics: Vol 10 (Scribner's, 1919), s.v. "Repentance," 733.
  31. ^ "CBA Best Sellers" (PDF). Feb 2013. Retrieved 2013-02-24. 
  32. ^ "Mark 1:4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region - Online Bible Study Tools". Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  33. ^ Robert N. Wilkin. "Repentance and Salvation Part 3: New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations". Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  34. ^ "Confirmation 101", Minnehaha United Methodist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota
  35. ^ Charles Taylor The Skilled Pastor (Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 8, 64.
  36. ^ Milton Crum, Manual on Preaching (Judson, 1977 and Morehouse, 1988) 101
  37. ^ Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Doubleday, 2006), 13. Also Peter M. Senge, "Metanoia—A Shift of Mind" in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2nd ed, 2006)
  38. ^ François Bovon, Luke the Theologian: fifty-five years of research, 1950-2005 (Baylor University, 2006), 314.