St. Jerome And Origen

St. Jerome And Origen October 4, 2021

El Greco: Saint Jerome As Scholar / Wikimedia Commons

One of St. Jerome’s sources for his theological writings, especially his commentaries on Scripture, was Origen. Despite the way Jerome, Theophilus of Alexandria, and others fought against Origenism, they could be found engaging Origen, such as when they were needing insight into difficult passages of Scripture. They understood Origen’s contributions to Christian theology was important and that they could and did learn from him. Their dispute was over various details of Origen’s thought and not all his principles or contributions to Christian theology. Theophilus, it would seem, was willing to admit this, as he was known to continue his study of Origen’s writings despite his fight against Origenism. Jerome, on the other hand, did not like it when this was pointed out to him. He fought hard against such a notion, as his former friend Rufinus found out. Nonetheless, if one reads through his extant homilies, one could find many sentiments which seem to connect with Origen and questions which Origen raised in his writings.

Jerome, for example, pointed out God’s nature is sweet and good, and sinners experience it as bitter because they make God that way for themselves. “God is sweet by nature; they who move Him to bitterness are sinners, and they make God bitter for themselves. God does not change His nature, but sinners make  God their bitterness.”[1] God does not change; God always is sweet and good. What is experienced by sinners, therefore, is not what God is by nature; we could say, rather, they experience God through the lens they have made of their sin which reflects that sin back unto themselves. What is fundamental is that we recognize that God is good, and God remains pure and good despite what  we experience as a result of our sins.

This unchanging goodness of God is a goodness which includes God’s love for all creation. God does not desire that any should suffer eternal perdition. Why, then, does Scripture often talk about sinners perishing? Taking up the Psalms in many of his homilies, Jerome answered  this question in the following manner: the person will be preserved and will not perish, however, God will work with them so that in the end, they will no longer be a sinner and it is in this way the sinner is said to perish:

‘But the way of the wicked vanishes.’ That does not mean that the wicked will perish. If they repent and do penance, they too will be saved. When the Apostle Paul was persecuting Christ and His Church, he was wicked. If the wicked perish, there is no chance for their repentance. It does not say that the wicked shall perish, but the way of the wicked vanishes, that is, wickedness shall perish. Not the wicked, but wickedness itself; not the one who was wicked will perish, but while he is repenting, wickedness vanishes. [2]

Thus, it is not the person, but the wickedness of the person, which will be overcome, and in such a way, as they will no longer sin, the sinner is said to perish. If the person perished, they would not be able to repent. But God desires to save them,  and so God will always preserve them from annihilation so that they have the chance to repent. In this fashion, Jerome hoped that when sinners experienced the hardship which they created for themselves, they would eventually be converted: “In the same way that wax melts and does not lose its nature but softens, so may the enemies of God not perish, but lay aside their hardness and be converted unto repentance and be saved.” [3]

While Jerome did not say all will be saved, it is also clear that behind his words, there is the hope that all could be saved. This is why no one is utterly destroyed. The fiery punishment is meant to eradicate wickedness so that those who have been attached to sin can cast it aside, repent, and in this way, have their wickedness eliminated. Purified in such a manner, everyone should be able to become as God intended them to be. Now, all of this seems to be an answer to Origen who talked about the fiery chastisement, and in doing so, raised the question how it could be said that the sinner would eventually no longer exist:

For shortly from the present time will be the completion and the fire chastising sinners after the completion that will make the sinner no longer. How will the sinner be no longer? Let someone who can make an examination do so. [4]

It would seem that in his thoughts, expressed in his homilies, Jerome made this examination for himself. Thus, he stated that the attribution of being a sinner, with the wickedness which a sinner engages, is what the fiery chastisement eliminates. And since there is some good in all of us, it is also why the person behind the sin remains. Origen, of course, hinted at this, offering his readers the means so that they could make this kind of analysis, such as when he wrote, “For if we commit a sin that passes away, we shall pass away, but if we do justice that does not pass away, we shall not pass away, but we shall stay along with the justice that stays.” [5] Since no one is fully evil, there is good in all, there is justice in all, and so there is always something which will remain once sin and all that is contaminated by sin has been eliminated by God. Jerome took the hints given to him by Origen, and answered Origen in a way which hints at the notion that all the punishments given to us by God come, in part, from ourselves, and their purpose is not pure punishment, but rather to work for restorative justice. Origen, of course, would also use this as a foundation for his own systematic thought, showing us that as there is an end to sin, there is also an end in God’s punishment and “rejection” of us:

And to the extent that we sin, to such an extent God rejects us from himself and from his oversight. But if the sin reaches such an extreme that we could not fall any farther, God rejects us to an end and it is no longer possible for anyone to be pushed away farther. [6]

And in this way, insofar as we are sinners, we die, only to find ourselves raised up and restored to life. “God’s work is to kill me, insofar as I am a sinner, so that when he kills me, insofar as I am a sinner, he makes me alive. And I will seek God after dying to sin.” [7] This notion can be seen reflected in what we quoted above from Jerome’s homilies, when he said that the hardened hearts will be changed so that the person will be changed in a way similar to the way wax becomes pliant when heated up, so that through such purification, all that made one resist God will be eliminated so that what is left can be and will be saved by God.

Jerome was influenced by Origen, and even after his fight against Origenism, that influence is evident throughout his writings. It is not that he accepted all of Origen’s theological opinions. Clearly, he didn’t, just as he modified what he received from Origen so it could and would fit his own interpretation of the Christian faith. While, in some commentaries, especially early in his career, Jerome did not hide his engagement with Origen, later, after his fight with Origenism, he continued to do so but without sufficient attribution. It is probable that sometimes he did this, not consciously, but unconsciously, as Origen had shaped the way he studied Scripture and engaged theology. Jerome was not the only one to be like this. Augustine, it is clear, despite his rejection of Manicheanism, was influenced by it throughout all his life  (which is why, many suggest, Augustine had difficulties dealing with the relationship between grace, nature, and free will).  The past is always with us. What we study and learn will always be with us. We will reshape it to meet every new circumstance we find ourselves in. We will modify it when we think elements of what we believed or were taught were wrong. But we still have a context from which we came, and what we studied in the past will influence us and how we think today. Rufinus was correct in his assessment of Jerome: Origen was a major source of his ideas. Jerome can often be seen, as we see here, taking on a thought of Origen and providing the analysis which Origen said was needed. Sadly, he did not like this revelation and so he reacted harshly to it whenever someone discussed it. He didn’t want to be accused of being a heretic. He should have realized, however, if he could be following Origen and taking on Origen’s thought in ways which were orthodox, then others could do so too; the issue not be whether or not someone engaged Origen,  but how one did so, whether or not one adapted Origen to fit orthodoxy or not. If he could have seen this, perhaps things would have been different, and we would not have lost as many of the writings of Origen (and the Origenists) as we did.

[1] St. Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume I (1-59 On the Psalms). Trans. Marie Liguori Ewald, IHM (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 51 [Homily 7].

[2] St. Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume I (1-59 On the Psalms), 13 [Homily 1].

[3] St. Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume I (1-59 On the Psalms), 50 [Homily 7].

[4] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms: Codex Monacensis Graecus 314. Trans. Joseph W. Trigg (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2020), 96 [Homily 2 on Psalm 36].

[5] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms, 97 [Homily 2 on Psalm 36].

[6] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms, 180 [Homily 1 on Psalm 73].

[7] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms, 348 [Homily 5 on Psalm 77].


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