St Jerome: ‘I am a Christian’

Our Assistant Priest, The Reverend Canon Dr Michael Hull, writes:

St Jerome (c. 342–420) is best known for translating the Holy Bible into Latin. His ‘Vulgate’, as it came to be called in the ninth century, was the standard biblical text of the Western Church until the Reformation. Scholars of classical languages and Christian theology alike marvel at his achievement to this day because Jerome wrote with the style of Cicero and the insight of Origen. Yet Jerome was careful to mark the difference between human and sacred wisdom. We would do well to do the same.

In one of his letters, Jerome describes a dream he had. ‘Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: “I am a Christian.” But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also’” (Letter XXII.30). This dream struck Jerome deeply. He was an ardent admirer and proficient scholar of human wisdom, but he was reminded by this dream that the highest wisdom is revealed to us by God Himself, particularly in the Holy Scriptures. 

Jerome came to see more and more clearly that divine revelation in no way demeans or dismisses human learning, yet our wisdom depends upon God’s wisdom, for all wisdom is ultimately of God, and God does not contradict Himself. Furthermore, human wisdom is at its best when it advances our understanding of divine wisdom. For example, when the natural sciences discover the patterns of the solar system or the workings of microbiology, our understanding of God’s creation is advanced, and we are enriched. Or, as became evident with Jerome, when a Christian uses the prose style of Cicero, whom some scholars claim was the greatest stylist of all times, he properly puts into God’s service what is already God’s. Jerome translated the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic of the Old and New Testaments into Latin, the common language of his day, with the finest eloquence he could muster after mastering the biblical languages.

Jerome was bent on translating God’s Word accurately. He wrote that he did not want to be accused of being ignorant of God’s Word. He quoted St Paul to the effect that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1): if we do not know the Scripture, then we do not know the power and wisdom of God, ‘for ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ’ (Prologue, Commentary on Isaiah). Jerome, likewise, did not want his sisters and brothers to be ignorant of Christ. Therefore, with the better part of his earthly life, he devoted himself to translating the Bible is such wise that all could read and profit from God’s Word. Human wisdom, attractive as it is, pales in comparison to divine wisdom but may serve divine wisdom well.

Unfortunately, many Christians have lost the knack of marking the difference between human and sacred wisdom. Sometimes we fail to see that the discoveries of the sciences support the mystery of God’s creation rather than challenge them, as nonbelievers often contend. At other times, we fail to see that sociological, psychological and anthropological theories about humanity are only true insofar as they conform to the created order and to God’s will for his daughters and sons as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. That is because the ultimate truths about us are not discoverable by our senses or our human learning: they are revealed to us by God outwith our five senses and our ‘common’ sense. It is critical for Christians, that is, for you and me to avoid the ensnarement of the sin of pride that pits human wisdom against divine wisdom, as if they were opposed, and even worse, claims human wisdom to be definitive.

You and I would do well to imagine ourselves along the lines of Jerome’s dream. If we were suddenly caught up in the Holy Spirit to stand before God in the brightest of lights, and God asked us who and what we were, we may be caught out in a lie if we claim to be Christians, but in fact, are following anyone other than Jesus Christ or looking for the treasure of divine wisdom elsewhere than in God and in His Holy Word. We must turn to the Holy Scriptures again and again, just as Jerome did—hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting them—so that we are able to say truly: ‘We are Christians!’

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.