Both premodern Christians and modern scholars have described the difference between Catholic and Protestant penance in terms of cause and sign: roughly, Catholics thought that repentance was both a cause and sign of grace, whereas Protestants thought it was only a sign. Yet when we examine the details of this debate the matter becomes ambiguous, with repentance and grace causally entangling each other like the chicken and the egg. An examination of the repentance of Robert the Robber (in Langland) and King Claudius (in Shakespeare) suggests that a better way to distinguish the two scenarios as characteristically Catholic and Protestant involves a speech-act analysis, which replaces notions of cause and effect with notions of the direction of illocutionary force. This approach allows us to acknowledge the important differences between Catholic and Protestant penitential understandings without denying the degree to which cause and sign slide into each other.

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