“Jerome in Context: A Case Study Surrounding Epistle 15 with respect to the Roman Claims about interpretive authority”
It is an unending object of amazement to behold what is at best, ignorance, if not the worst, arrogance, of the misuse that the Early Church Fathers receive in the hands of Roman apologists. Our Roman opponents are accustomed to shout “out of context” immediately at the faintest citation of any patristic witness whose words appear to be at odds with the modern day views of the Roman communion, whether they have actually investigated the context of any such citation or not. One would verily be led to believe by such statements that such members of the Roman communion possess the attribute of omniscience when it comes to the context of every quote that stands in contrast to their present day claims. Time and time again patristic citations are met with counter citations, as Cross' example demonstrates, which amount to an overt double-standard on the part of Roman apologists. I, for one, am willing to grant, in this case, the benefit of the doubt as to motives, and simply underscore the reality that this example serves to prove, as a case in point, the common ignorance that prevails among Roman controversialists in their enthusiasm to offer anything that even has, as it were, the appearance of providing a few stitches as an attempt to cover the birthday suit of the emperor. There is, then, this tendency to read back into the statements of the Early Church Fathers (ECFs) a certain meaning that one wants to see, regardless of whether that perceived meaning can stand the test of historical examination and scrutiny. This is a specific example of reading back into Jerome a modern day view of the papacy which was unknown to him. It will be helpful to consider something of the background of this letter, as well as some of the things which Jerome addresses in it.
First of all, this letter was written roughly in the winter of 376 or 377 A.D. from the desert area of Chalcis ad Belum “on the confines between northern Syria and the region west of the Euphrates.”[FN1] If we are to accept the usual date offered for his birth (347 A.D.), he couldn’t have been more than 29 or 30 years of age. However, Kelly argues strongly in favor of the date Prosper suggests as 331 A.D.,[FN2] which, if accepted, would place his age at this time around 45 or 46 years of age. He had probably been baptized sometime prior to the year 366 before Damasus became the bishop of Rome, or else as Kelly argues “it is inconceivable that he should not have mentioned the fact when he proudly reminded the pope that he had been baptized in Rome” because it was the bishop who normally administered baptism.[FN3] Thus, writing from a foreign location to the church of his present communion, it is only natural that Jerome should seek the counsel of his pastor concerning the three factions of Christians in the city of Antioch. The fact that he proudly employs the flowery language of consulting “the chair of Peter...the successor of the fisherman” is perfectly understandable because it is the church of his present communion and from which he received “the garb of Christ,” which as Kelly notes might possibly be a reference to the “white garment” with which the new newly baptized are clothed following the sacrament.[FN4] Rather than appealing to some notion of universal jurisdiction, Jerome is simply seeking the counsel of his home communion and the advice of his pastor whom he knows and trusts. Taken at its worst, we would have to conclude that Jerome’s expressions are far from that of a catholic spirit, for he excludes from his fellowship (at this time) all three of the rival bishops of Antioch, when he declares “I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist,” having declared Rome to be “the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten.”[FN5] Such a spirit is decisively sectarian and uncatholic, especially in the light of the fact that Meletius whom he brushed off in his rejection as one of “those Arians”[FN6] who was advocating the ‘three hypostases’ doctrine in an attempt to explain the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. It was none other than Meletius who only some five or six years later was elected to preside over the Council of Constantinople, and who stood decisively opposed to the Arian heresy. Kelly states of Jerome that;
It was sheer prejudice, or deliberate perversity, to dismiss the adherents of the ‘three hypostases’ doctrine as Arians. They were just as much opposed to Arianism, with its subordination of the Son to the Father and of the Holy Spirit to the Son and its denial of divinity to both, as he was.[FN7]At any rate, Damasus failed to respond to this letter (Letter 15) of Jerome, which in turn precipitated a second letter (Letter 16) to Damasus, which as far as we know suffered the same fate of no response.[FN8] Suffice it to say, because of the prestige which the Church of Rome enjoyed in many locations in both the west and the east, Jerome was appealing to his home pastor for counsel and advice, with these many expressions of pride for the communion of his baptism.
In the broader ecclesiastical picture, though unbeknown to Jerome at the writing of Letters 15 and 16, Paulinus was the only one which Rome acknowledged as the true bishop of Antioch. Strangely enough, it was Meletius’ claim to the chair of Antioch that was supported by the greatest majority of the eastern church. It was he who enjoyed the support of the great Cappadocian Father, Basil of Caesarea, and it was at Meletius’ hand that John Chrysostom received his baptism and his ordination to the diaconate. And it was at the hand of Flavian (the successor of Meletius) that John Chrysostom received ordination to the priesthood.
To Pope Damasus
To Pope Damasus
This letter, written in 376 or 377 A.D., illustrates Jerome’s attitude towards the see of Rome at this time held by Damasus, afterwards his warm friend and admirer. Referring to Rome as the scene of his own baptism and as a church where the true faith has remained unimpaired , and laying down the strict doctrine of salvation only within the pale of the church , Jerome asks “the successor of the fisherman” two questions, viz.: who is the true bishop of the three claimants of the see of Antioch, and which is the correct terminology, to speak of three “hypostases” in the Godhead, or of one? On the latter question he expresses fully his own opinion.
1. Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord, “woven from the top throughout,” since the foxes are destroying the vineyard of Christ, and since among the broken cisterns that hold no water it is hard to discover “the sealed fountain” and “the garden inclosed,” I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ. The wide space of sea and land that lies between us cannot deter me from searching for “the pearl of great price.” “Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed corn is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats. In the West the Sun of righteousness is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer, who fell from heaven, has once more set his throne above the stars. “Ye are the light of the world,” “ye are the salt of the earth,” ye are “vessels of gold and of silver.” Here are vessels of wood or of earth, which wait for the rod of iron, and eternal fire.
2. Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. But since by reason of my sins I have betaken myself to this desert which lies between Syria and the uncivilized waste, I cannot, owing to the great distance between us, always ask of your sanctity the holy thing of the Lord. Consequently I here follow the Egyptian confessors who share your faith, and anchor my frail craft under the shadow of their great argosies. I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist.
3. Just now, I am sorry to say, those Arians, the Campenses, are trying to extort from me, a Roman Christian, their unheard-of formula of three hypostases. And this, too, after the definition of Nicaea and the decree of Alexandria, in which the West has joined. Where, I should like to know, are the apostles of these doctrines? Where is their Paul, their new doctor of the Gentiles? I ask them what three hypostases are supposed to mean. They reply three persons subsisting. I rejoin that this is my belief. They are not satisfied with the meaning, they demand the term. Surely some secret venom lurks in the words. “If any man refuse,” I cry, “to acknowledge three hypostases in the sense of three things hypostatized, that is three persons subsisting, let him be anathema.” Yet, because I do not learn their words, I am counted a heretic. “But, if any one, understanding by hypostasis essence, deny that in the three persons there is one hypostasis, he has no part in Christ.” Because this is my confession I, like you, am branded with the stigma of Sabellianism.
4. If you think fit enact a decree; and then I shall not hesitate to speak of three hypostases. Order a new creed to supersede the Nicene; and then, whether we are Arians or orthodox, one confession will do for us all. In the whole range of secular learning hypostasis never means anything but essence. And can any one, I ask, be so profane as to speak of three essences or substances in the Godhead? There is one nature of God and one only; and this, and this alone, truly is. For absolute being is derived from no other source but is all its own. All things besides, that is all things created, although they appear to be, are not. For there was a time when they were not, and that which once was not may again cease to be. God alone who is eternal, that is to say, who has no beginning, really deserves to be called an essence. Therefore also He says to Moses from the bush, “I am that I am,” and Moses says of Him, “I am hath sent me.” As the angels, the sky, the earth, the seas, all existed at the time, it must have been as the absolute being that God claimed for himself that name of essence, which apparently was common to all. But because His nature alone is perfect, and because in the three persons there subsists but one Godhead, which truly is and is one nature; whosoever in the name of religion declares that there are in the Godhead three elements, three hypostases, that is, or essences, is striving really to predicate three natures of God. And if this is true, why are we severed by walls from Arius, when in dishonesty we are one with him? Let Ursicinus be made the colleague of your blessedness; let Auxentius be associated with Ambrose. But may the faith of Rome never come to such a pass! May the devout hearts of your people never be infected with such unholy doctrines! Let us be satisfied to speak of one substance and of three subsisting persons — perfect, equal, coeternal. Let us keep to one hypostasis, if such be your pleasure, and say nothing of three. It is a bad sign when those who mean the same thing use different words. Let us be satisfied with the form of creed which we have hitherto used. Or, if you think it right that I should speak of three hypostases, explaining what I mean by them, I am ready to submit. But, believe me, there is poison hidden under their honey; the angel of Satan has transformed himself into an angel of light. They give a plausible explanation of the term hypostasis; yet when I profess to hold it in the same sense they count me a heretic. Why are they so tenacious of a word? Why do they shelter themselves under ambiguous language? If their belief corresponds to their explanation of it, I do not condemn them for keeping it. On the other hand, if my belief corresponds to their expressed opinions, they should allow me to set forth their meaning in my own words.
5. I implore your blessedness, therefore, by the crucified Savior of the world, and by the consubstantial trinity, to authorize me by letter either to use or to refuse this formula of three hypostases. And test the obscurity of my present abode may baffle the bearers of your letter, I pray you to address it to Evagrius, the presbyter, with whom you are well acquainted. I beg you also to signify with whom I am to communicate at Antioch. Not, I hope, with the Campenses; for they — with their allies the heretics of Tarsus — only desire communion with you to preach with greater authority their traditional doctrine of three hypostases.
To Pope Damasus
To Pope Damasus
This letter, written a few months after the preceding, is another appeal to Damasus to solve the writer’s doubts. Jerome once more refers to his baptism at Rome, and declares that his one answer to the factions at Antioch is, “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” Written from the desert in the year 377 or 378.
1. By her importunity the widow in the gospel at last gained a hearing, and by the same means one friend induced another to give him bread at midnight, when his door was shut and his servants were in bed. The publican’s prayers overcame God, although God is invincible. Nineveh was saved by its tears from the impending ruin caused by its sin. To what end, you ask, these far-fetched references? To this end, I make answer; that you in your greatness should look upon me in my littleness; that you, the rich shepherd, should not despise me, the ailing sheep. Christ Himself brought the robber from the cross to paradise, and, to show that repentance is never too late, He turned a murderer’s death into a martyrdom. Gladly does Christ embrace the prodigal son when he returns to Him; and, leaving the ninety and nine, the good shepherd carries home on His shoulders the one poor sheep that is left. From a persecutor Paul becomes a preacher. His bodily eyes are blinded to clear the eyes of his soul, and he who once haled Christ’s servants in chains before the council of the Jews, lives afterwards to glory in the bonds of Christ.
2. As I have already written to you, I, who have received Christ’s garb in Rome, am now detained in the waste that borders Syria. No sentence of banishment, however, has been passed upon me; the punishment which I am undergoing is self-inflicted. But, as the heathen poet says:
They change not mind but sky who cross the sea.The untiring foe follows me closely, and the assaults that I suffer in the desert are severer than ever. For the Arian frenzy raves, and the powers of the world support it. The church is rent into three factions, and each of these is eager to seize me for its own. The influence of the monks is of long standing, and it is directed against me. I meantime keep crying: “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” Meletius, Vitalis, and Paulinus all profess to cleave to you, and I could believe the assertion if it were made by one of them only. As it is, either two of them or else all three are guilty of falsehood. Therefore I implore your blessedness, by our Lord’s cross and passion, those necessary glories of our faith, as you hold an apostolic office, to give an apostolic decision. Only tell me by letter with whom I am to communicate in Syria, and I will pray for you that you may sit in judgment enthroned with the twelve; that when you grow old, like Peter, you may be girded not by yourself but by another, and that, like Paul, you may be made a citizen of the heavenly kingdom. Do not despise a soul for which Christ died.
What Roman disputants cannot appreciate about this letter (letter 15) of Jerome is that he writes as a theological novice, as he later describes himself during this period of his life in the prologue of his commentary on Obadiah (PL 25:1098). In Letter 15, as well as Letter 16 (which was his 2nd attempt to get Damasus to respond to him, with Letter 15 having gone unanswered), he makes mention in both letters of the three rival bishops of Antioch, "I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist."
With a true sectarian spirit, Jerome writes off all three of these rival bishops as being of “Antichrist.” Jerome makes the same youthful mistake of judgment that any of us are liable to make. After all, unknown to Jerome at this time, Damasus recognized Paulinus as the true "catholic" bishop of Antioch. And Meletius (and this is where it becomes comical when dealing with misguided Roman apologists) whom Jerome rejects in this letter, and regards as one of "those Arians" because Meletius and others (most notably Basil of Caesarea) were using the language of "three hypostases" (which, by the way, was orthodox language) to describe the relationship of the persons in the Trinity. It is because this language is new to the ears of Jerome, that he dismisses it as "Arian," all the while informing his pastor Damasus that if he chooses to accept it, so will he! As Kelly points out concerning this language of Jerome, “It was sheer prejudice, or deliberate perversity, to dismiss the adherents of the ‘three hypostases’ doctrine as Arians. They were just as much opposed to Arianism, with its subordination of the Son to the Father and of the Holy Spirit to the Son and its denial of divinity to both, as he was.” See J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), p. 54.
But what becomes even more damaging to the Roman paradigm of the alleged papal primacy and “catholic unity” in that day, is that while pope Damasus recognized Paulinus as the true bishop of Antioch, Basil of Caesarea (no small ecclesiastic of the east) and John Chrysostom recognized Meletius as the true bishop of Antioch, from whose hands Chrysostom was baptized and ordained to the diaconate! The third claimant to the throne of Antioch, who is mentioned by Jerome, Vitalis, fell into the error of Apollinarius.
Jerome isn’t appealing to “the teacher of all Christians” who had the ultimate authority to adjudicate between the rival bishops. He was appealing to the pastor of his own communion in the western see where he had been baptized! Moreover, no one in the east had any notion of the papal primacy of jurisdiction. Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom, in supporting Meletius as the rightful bishop of Antioch, certainly held no notions of papal primacy, such as Leo XIII's Satis cognitum (and now Bryan Cross) attempts to read back into this letter of Jerome. After all, according to the standard of Leo XIII's Satis cognitum, Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom were “outside the edifice,” “separated from the fold,” and “exiled from the kingdom,” for the simple reason that neither of them joined Damasus in recognizing Paulinus as the rightful occupant of the Antiochene see! They “knew nothing (As Edward Denny points out in his helpful work, Papalism, p. 347) of the Papal Monarchy as an integral part of the Divine Constitution of the Church necessary to its very existence.”
This is why I regard “Romanists” by this title. After all, there is no greater "anti-Catholic" spirit than that of a Romanist who maintains that communion with Rome constitutes the necessary requirement to be in the true Church of Jesus Christ. What can be more sectarian (as it was in Basil and Chrysostom's day) than this kind of party spirit!
We, as Protestants, are very content to let the ECFs be what they were. But it is the Roman apologist who, on the contrary, must read back into the ECFs the notions of modern day Rome and papal primacy that were never recognized by the eastern church. Again, for all this insistence on the ECFs being “catholic” I am in great agreement! But the true “anti-Catholic” title belongs to those who argue for the exclusive claims of Rome.
Bryan Cross’ typical misuse of this letter of Jerome (in the comment section of his blog) is a classic example of why the claims of the Roman communion cannot be taken seriously from an historical perspective, much less a theological one.
P.S. As to interpretive authority, Jerome's own writings are full of statements like the following 3 examples...
Jerome (347-420) says toward the end of his commentary on Habbakkuk: And thus have I briefly delivered to you my opinion; but if any one produce that which is more exact and true, take his exposition rather than mine. John Daillé, A Treatise on the Right Use of the Fathers (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856), p. 229.
Latin text: Haec a me breviter dicta sunt. Si quis autem his sagaciora et veriora repererit, illius magis explanationi praebete consensum. Commentaria in Abacuc, Liber Secundus, PL 25:1332.
Jerome (347-420) says at the close of his commentary on the 2nd chapter of Zephaniah: We have now done our utmost endeavour, in giving an allegorical exposition of the text; but if any other can bring that which is more probable and agreeable to reason than that which we have delivered, let the reader be guided by his authority rather than by ours. John Daillé, A Treatise on the Right Use of the Fathers (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856), pp. 229-230.
Latin text: Haec diximus, ut potuimus interpretationi allegoricae servientes. Si quis autem magis verisimilia, et habentia rationem quam a nobis sunt disserta repererit, illius magis lector auctoritate ducatur. Commentariorum In Sophoniam Prophetam, PL 25:1372.
Jerome (347-420) says again elsewhere: This we have written according to the utmost of our poor ability, and have given a short sketch of the divers opinions, both of our own men and of the Jews; yet if any man can give me a better and truer account of these things, I shall be very ready to embrace them. John Daillé, A Treatise on the Right Use of the Fathers (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856), p. 230.
Latin text: Haec ut quivimus, et ut vires ingenioli nostri ferre potuerunt, locuti sumus, et Hebraeorum et nostrorum varias opiniones breviter perstringentes, si quis melius immo verius dixerit, et nos libenter melioribus acquiescimus. Commentariorum In Zachariam Prophetam, PL 25:1446-1447.
1. J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), p. 46.
2. Ibid., pp. 1f., 337-339.
3. Ibid., p. 23.
5. Letter 15, §2.
6. Letter 15, §3, and Letter 16, §2, where he wrote “For the Arian frenzy raves, and the powers of the world support it. The church is rent into three factions, and each of these is eager to seize me for its own. The influence of the monks is of long standing, and it is directed against me. I meantime keep crying: ‘He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.’ Meletius, Vitalis, and Paulinus all profess to cleave to you, and I could believe the assertion if it were made by one of them only. As it is, either two of them or else all three are guilty of falsehood.”
7. J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies, p. 54.