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Lecture 16

The Church Fathers: St. Jerome and St. Augustine

There were many ways in which Christianity was made more popular among Roman pagans. For instance, early mystery cults made the Romans more prepared to accept something like Christianity once it made its appearance. The Roman persecutions of Jews and Christians had the unintended consequence of producing a vast and well-known list of saints and martyrs. The Jews had also allowed Christians to use their synagogues. The conversion of Constantine in the early 4th century certainly had an effect on the growth of Christianity. Furthermore, Jesus was a real man, not some mythical figure or hero -- he commanded the faith of the dispossessed. And monasticism provided a religious outlet for those men and women who abandoned Rome and the material world. The monks became the heroes of Christian civilization (see Lecture 19). And evangelicals seemed to be everywhere spreading "good news."

Christianity was also a religion of the written word. It was a religion of the book. The Jews gave the west its oral history in the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, written in Hebrew. And by the end of the second century, Christianity had the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, written in Greek. By the 5th century, complete editions of the Old Testament and New Testament were rare, bulky and expensive. What was usually printed were sections of the Bible: the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) and the book of Psalms, and the first four books of the New Testament (the Gospels), the Epistles of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles.

What we need to take into account is the relationship between the church and classical culture. By the 4th century, it is correct to speak of a Christian literature that had developed around the interpretation, reinterpretation and commentary of the Old and New Testament. The relationship between the church and classical culture was tenuous at best. Christianity had the effect of making a synthesis between the Hebrew and Greco-Roman intellectual traditions. Christianity absorbed Hebrew monotheism and retained the Old Testament as the Word of God. As Christianity evolved, however, it also absorbed various elements of Greek thought -- and such an absorption helps to explain why Christianity succeeded in converting more people of the of the world of Late Antiquity.

To many of the early Church Fathers, classical philosophy was erroneous for the simple reason that it did not emanate from divine revelation. It was secular and pagan. The early Church Fathers complained that whereas Greek philosophers may have argued over words, Christianity possessed the Word, true wisdom as revealed by God. So, the early Church Fathers believed that studying Greek thought would contaminate Christian morality and promote heresy. For the early Church Fathers, there would be no compromise between Greek philosophy and Christian revelation. The early Church Father, Tertullian (150-225) once wrote that "with our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our faith that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides."

However, there were other Church Fathers who defended the value of studying classical literature and philosophy. The classical Greeks could aid in the moral development of children because the Greeks, though pagan, still embraced a virtuous life. Knowledge of Greek thought helped Christians to explain their beliefs logically and enabled them to argue intelligently with critics of Christianity. It was Clement of Alexandria (c.150-220) who brought reason to the support of faith by trying to make Christianity more intellectually respectable. As Clement once wrote in his Stromata (Miscellanies), "thus philosophy acted as a schoolmaster to the Greek, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ."

Using the language and techniques of Greek philosophy, Christian intellectuals changed Christianity from a simple ethical creed into a theoretical system. From this "Hellenization of Christianity," theology was born. Christ was depicted as the divine Logos (reason) in human form. Roman Stoicism was incorporated into the belief that all are equal and united in Christ. 

St. Jerome on the Internet: Resources and TextsIt is clear that the Church Fathers became Christian intellectuals and theologians. Christian theology became even more popular when the Church Father, ST. JEROME (c.342-420), translated the Old Testament and New Testament into Latin. He accomplished this around 400, just ten years after Theodosius had declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Jerome grew up in Italy, studied at Rome, was baptized and served as a personal secretary to the Pope. Throughout his life, he remained an admirer of Cicero, Virgil and Lucretius and he defended the study of Latin literature by Christians. He lived for a while as a hermit in the desert near Antioch. After becoming a priest, he visited Palestine and studied the Scriptures in Constantinople. He eventually became secretary to Pope Damascus and an advisor to a group of men and women drawn to the ascetic life. He left Rome and established a monastery near Bethlehem. He wrote lives of the saints and promoted the spread of monasticism. But his Latin version of the Bible -- known as the Vulgate or common version -- was a major achievement, for Jerome's version of the Bible became the standard version for the next ten centuries, in other words, right down to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

St. Augustine on the Internet: Resources and TextsThe most important of all Church Fathers was Augustine of Hippo, better known as ST. AUGUSTINE. He was born in North Africa and 354 and died at the age 76 in 430. His father was a pagan, his mother a Christian. He was, then, the product of a mixed marriage. He loved his mother dearly, a fact which partially explains his later conversion to Christianity. He was educated at Carthage in North Africa, and very quickly yielded to earthly temptation. At the age of eighteen, he took a concubine or mistress and together they had one child, a son. It was at this time that Augustine was attracted to the heretical teachings of a man called Mani (216-276), who believed that one God could not be responsible for both good and evil. So, there had to be two gods. Such an opinion, of course, is heresy. In 387, and under the influence of men like St. Jerome, and his mother, he became a Christian.

In 399, Augustine was elected Bishop of Hippo, one of the intellectual centers of North Africa. Hippo was also the focus of a lively debate on numerous theological issues. In a certain sense, late 4th century Carthage was similar to the intellectual environment of Athens 1000 years earlier. In other words, Carthage was flooded with new ideas. Augustine spent more than thirty years combating heresy, writing commentaries and interpretations of Christian theology. He wrote the first autobiography in western history, The Confessions. His most important work, however, is The City of God, a massive book written between 413 and 426. The City of God was written to show that it was God's plan that Rome would fall and that Christianity was the salvation of mankind. In other words, according to St. Augustine, history has direction, history has meaning -- the unfolding of God's grand plan.

In The City of God, Augustine brings together the sacred history of the Jewish people, the pagan history of the Greeks and Romans, and the Christian expectation of future salvation. He quotes Herodotus, Plato, Cicero, Tacitus, Aristotle, the Old Testament, the New Testament as well as the interpretations and commentaries of the Church Fathers.

The City of God contrasts two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. He taught that the City of Man -- that is, Rome -- was evil and destined to decline and fall. Augustine saw this with his own eyes. In other words, he was not looking back into history, he was looking at his own present. The City of God was invisible -- it was not of this earth. It was otherworldly. The chosen or the elect -- the true Christian -- should recognize that earthly existence was little more than an illusion. Furthermore, there was a higher reality beyond Rome. That higher reality was the City of God. It was only in the City of God that the chosen would find their final resting place. If any of this sounds like Plato and the Allegory of the Cave, then you are on the right track. Augustine studied Plato -- he was a neo-Platonist. He combined Christianity with Plato's higher reality of Ideas and Forms. In the end, what Augustine accomplished was nothing less than a synthesis of Christianity and classical humanism.

Of course, Augustine did not believe that Christ, by his death, had opened the door to heaven for every soul. Most of humanity remained condemned to eternal punishment -- only a handful of souls had the gift of faith and the promise of heaven. People could not overcome their sins -- moral and spiritual regeneration came only from God's grace, and it was God who determined who would be saved, and who would be damned (the notion of predestination would appear again, with greater force, during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century). Although Augustine's influence was impressive, the Church rejected his idea of predestination, that only a small number of people would find salvation. Instead, the Church emphasized that Christ had made possible the salvation of all. With Augustine, the human-centered outlook of classical humanism gave way to a God-centered world view. The fulfillment of God's grand design became the chief concern of human endeavor.

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