St. Jerome -On Making Use of Secular Writings in Theology

September 28, 2017




On Making Use of Secular Writings in Theology
From Letter 70 – To Magnus, An Orator of Rome




Clement,  a presbyter of Alexandria, in my judgment the most learned of men, wrote eight books of Miscellanies  and as many of Outline Sketches,  a treatise against the Gentiles, and three volumes called the Pedagogue. Is there any want of learning in these, or are they not rather drawn from the very heart of philosophy? Imitating his example Origen  wrote ten books of Miscellanies, in which he compares together the opinions held respectively by Christians and by philosophers, and confirms all the dogmas of our religion by quotations from Plato and Aristotle, from Numenius  and Cornutus.  Miltiades  also wrote an excellent treatise against the Gentiles. Moreover Hippolytus  and a Roman senator named Apollonius  have each compiled apologetic works. The books of Julius Africanus  who wrote a history of his own times are still extant, as also are those of Theodore who was afterwards called Gregory,  a man endowed with apostolic miracles as well as with apostolic virtues. We still have the works of Dionysius  bishop of Alexandria, of Anatolius  chief priest of the church of Laodicea, of the presbyters Pamphilus,  Pierius,  Lucian,  Malchion;  of Eusebius  bishop of Cæsarea, Eustathius of Antioch and Athanasius  of Alexandria; of Eusebius  of Emisa, of Triphyllius  of Cyprus, of Asterius  of Scythopolis, of the confessor Serapion,  of Titus  bishop of Bostra; and of the Cappadocians Basil,  Gregory,  and Amphilochius.  All these writers so frequently interweave in their books the doctrines and maxims of the philosophers that you might easily be at a loss which to admire most, their secular erudition or their knowledge of the scriptures.

I will pass on to Latin writers. Can anything be more learned or more pointed than the style of Tertullian?  His Apology and his books Against the Gentiles contain all the wisdom of the world. Minucius Felix  a pleader in the Roman courts has ransacked all heathen literature to adorn the pages of his Octavius and of his treatise Against the astrologers (unless indeed this latter is falsely ascribed to him). Arnobius  has published seven books against the Gentiles, and his pupil Lactantius  as many, besides two volumes, one on Anger and the other on the creative activity of God. If you read any of these you will find in them an epitome of Cicero’s dialogues. The Martyr Victorinus  though as a writer deficient in learning is not deficient in the wish to use what learning he has. Then there is Cyprian.  With what terseness, with what knowledge of all history, with what splendid rhetoric and argument has he touched the theme that idols are no Gods! Hilary  too, a confessor and bishop of my own day, has imitated Quintilian’s twelve books both in number and in style, and has also shewn his ability as a writer in his short treatise against Dioscorus the physician. In the reign of Constantine the presbyter Juvencus  set forth in verse the story of our Lord and Saviour, and did not shrink from forcing into metre the majestic phrases of the Gospel. Of other writers dead and living I say nothing. Their aim and their ability are evident to all who read them.

You must not adopt the mistaken opinion that, while in dealing with the Gentiles one may appeal to their literature, in all other discussions one ought to ignore it; for almost all the books of all these writers — except those who like Epicurus are no scholars — are extremely full of erudition and philosophy. I incline indeed to fancy — the thought comes into my head as I dictate — that you yourself know quite well what has always been the practice of the learned in this matter. I believe that in putting this question to me you are only the mouthpiece of another who by reason of his love for the histories of Sallust might well be called Calpurnius Lanarius.  Please beg of him not to envy eaters their teeth because he is toothless himself, and not to make light of the eyes of gazelles because he is himself a mole. Here as you see there is abundant material for discussion, but I have already filled the limits at my disposal.

IMAGE CREDIT: Albrecht Durer – St. Jerome in His Study