Jerome on Forcing the Scriptures

These instances have been just touched upon by me (the limits of a letter forbid a more discursive treatment of them) to convince you that in the Holy Scriptures you can make no progress unless you have a guide to show you the way. I say nothing of the knowledge of grammarians, rhetoricians, philosophers, geometricians, logicians, musicians, astronomers, astrologers, physicians, whose several kinds of skills are most useful to mankind, and may be ranged under the three heads of teaching, method, and proficiency. I will pass to the less important crafts which require manual dexterity more than mental ability. Husbandmen, masons, carpenters, workers in wood and metal, wood dressers and fullers, as well as those artisans who make furniture and cheap utensils, cannot attain the ends they seek without instruction from qualified persons. As Horace says:

Doctors alone profess the healing art
And none but joiners ever try to join.
Ep 2.1.115-16

The art of interpreting the Scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be masters. To quote Horace again:

Taught or untaught we all write poetry.
Ep 2.1.117

The chatty old woman, the doting old man, and the wordy sophist, one and all take in hand the Scriptures, rend them in pieces and teach them before they have learned them. Some with brows knit and bombastic words balanced one against the other, philosophize concerning the sacred writings among weak women. Others—I blush to say it—learn of women what they are to teach men; and as if even this were not enough, they boldly explain to others what they themselves by no means understand. I say nothing of persons who, like myself, have been familiar with secular literature before they have come to the study of the Holy Scriptures. Such men when they charm the popular ear by the finish of their style suppose every word they say to be a law of God. They do not deign to notice what prophets and apostles have intended but they adapt conflicting passages to suit their own meaning, as if it were a grand way of teaching—and not rather the faultiest of all—to misrepresent a writer’s views and to force the Scriptures reluctantly to do their will. They forget that we have read centos from Homer and Vergil; but we never think of calling the Christless Vergil a Christian because of his lines:

Now comes the Virgin back and Saturn’s reign,
Now from high heaven comes a Child newborn.
Eclogue 4.6-7

Another line might be addressed by the Father to the Son:

Hail, only Son, my Might and Majesty.
Aeneid 1.664

And yet another might follow the Savior’s words on the cross:

Such words he spoke and there transfixed remained.
Aeneid 2.650

But all this is puerile, and resembles the sleight-of-hand of a mountebank. It is idle to try to teach what you do not know, and—if I may speak with some warmth—it is worse to be ignorant of your ignorance.

St Jerome, excerpt from Epistle 53 to St Paulinus of Nola. As presented in F. Sadowski, The Church Fathers On The Bible: Selected Readings (Alba House, 1987).


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