St. Jerome, whose feast day is September 30th, is known by Catholics for several things. Many know the fourth-century priest as responsible for the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, the official biblical text for the Catholic Church for many centuries. Others know of his zeal for the ascetic lifestyle, first in the Syrian desert and later near Bethlehem. And perhaps some know him as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church, a title given on account of his prolific theological discourses and commentaries.
Few, I imagine, know he’s often presented by some Protestants as a proto-Protestant.
Perhaps the most common use of St. Jerome to buttress Protestant theology is the claim that he rejected the deuterocanonical books of the Bible (Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach and Baruch) as less than Scripture. There is some truth to this; unlike many other contemporary church fathers, St. Jerome made a distinction between the Hebrew Bible and the “apocrypha,” calling those books not found in the Hebrew as non-canonical. In his Preface to The Books of Samuel and Kings, St. Jerome includes the following statement:
This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a “helmeted” introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is not found in our list must be placed amongst the Apocryphal writings. Wisdom, therefore, which generally bears the name of Solomon, and the book of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and Judith, and Tobias, and the Shepherd are not in the canon. The first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style.
Thus, assert many Protestants, St. Jerome is proof that some of the most venerable of the Church fathers rejected the same deuterocanonical books later rejected by the Reformers. QED.
Not so fast. St. Jerome’s thoughts on the deuterocanon in his Vulgate must be squared with his statements elsewhere. For example, in his Letter to Eustochium he quotes Sirach 13:2: “For does not the scripture say: ‘Burden not yourself above your power?’” Elsewhere Jerome also refers to Baruch (Letter to Oceanus), the Story of Susannah (Letter to Paulinus) and Wisdom (Letter 51) as Scripture. Moreover, during St. Jerome’s life (c. 347-420) the canon of Scripture was still unsettled and up for debate, and thus his opinion was not in explicit contradiction to Catholic teaching. Several local councils — Hippo, Carthage, and Rome — affirmed the deuterocanon as Scripture, but none were ecumenical and thus binding on the entire Church.
Other Protestants claim that St. Jerome taught sola fide, that central Protestant doctrine that the sinner is justified by grace through faith alone, and that works are thus entirely non-salvific. They will cite his In Epistolam Ad Romanos, in which we read, in Latin, “Ignorantes quod Deus ex sola fide justificat, et justos se ex legis operibus, quam non custodierunt,” which translates to something like, “Being ignorant that God justifies from faith alone, they consider themselves to be just from the works of the Law which they do not keep.” Another cited text is To Minvervius and Alexander, in which St. Jerome writes: “He who with all his spirit has placed his faith in Christ, even if he die in sin, shall by his faith live forever.”
Let’s consider the first quotation, in which the phrase “sola fide” is found. Saint Jerome is talking about Pharisaical Jews during the time of Christ who sought to justify themselves through the Mosaic precepts. Moreover, the “works” Saint Jerome refers to are the “sacrifices of the Law which were shadows of the truth” (quae umbra errant veritatis), rather than works per se as understood by the Protestant Reformers. The second quotation from St. Jerome states that those who with all their spirit place their faith in Christ, even if they die still with sin on their souls, will live forever. Yet there’s nothing uniquely Protestant about this — Catholicism also teaches that people who have faith, even if they die not fully purified from all their sin, will gain heaven, as long as their sin is not mortal.
We must also reconcile the above quotations with what St. Jerome teaches elsewhere, which is more explicitly Catholic. In his Letter to Pammachius, for example, we read:
Do not fancy your faith in Christ to be a reason for parting from her. For ‘God hath called us in peace.’ ‘Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing but the keeping of the commandments of God.’ Neither celibacy nor wedlock is of the slightest use without works, since even faith, the distinguishing mark of Christians, if it have not works, is said to be dead, and on such terms as these the virgins of Vesta or of Juno, who was constant to one husband, might claim to be numbered among the saints.”
Here St. Jerome teaches that both faith and works are required for salvation. He teaches much the same in his Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians, in which he explains: “It should be noted that he does not say that a man, a person, lives by faith, lest it be thought that he is condemning good works. Rather he says the just man lives by faith.” Thus in St. Jerome’s corpus we see a classical Catholic affirmation on the cooperation of faith and works in salvation.
Yes, St. Jerome famously declared that “ignorance of Scripture of ignorance of Christ,” which might — to Protestant ears presuming a certain anti-biblicism in Catholicism — sound like an implicit affirmation of the Reformers’ understanding of Scripture. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course St. Jerome had a high view of Holy Scripture — so does the Catholic Church, of which St. Jerome was a dutiful member! There’s nothing uniquely Protestant about a high view of the Bible, as evidenced by all the Church fathers and ecumenical Church councils.
Finally, any honest consideration of St. Jerome must take into account the entirety of his corpus, which evinces an emphatically un-Protestant theology. In his Letter to Heliodorus, St. Jerome declares his belief in apostolic succession, that the bishops of his own day have authority that derives from the apostles and Christ Himself. He affirms papal primacy in his Letter to Pope Damasus, writing: “I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but Your Blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built.” St. Jerome’s Commentaries on the Epistle to Titus likewise honors the authority of the episcopacy: “while schism separates one from the Church on account of disagreement with the bishop.”
Thus St. Jerome’s understanding of ecclesial authority is decidedly Catholic.
Much of St. Jerome’s other writings are likewise in explicit tension with Protestant teaching. Also in his Letter to Heliodorus, we read St. Jerome’s claim that clergy “confect by their sacred word the Body of Christ,” thus demonstrating his belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. In Against Helvidius, he teaches Mary’s perpetual virginity. Elsewhere in his Against Jovinian, he notes a distinction between venial and mortal sins. St. Jerome also acknowledges the power of priests and bishops to hear and forgive sin in his Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew.
St. Jerome was no proto-Protestant, but as Catholic as they come. Indeed, that’s exactly why he’s Saint Jerome. Yes, there was a time when he questioned the canonicity of the deuterocanon, but over the course of his life he transitioned to a more Catholic understanding of Scripture. He certainly never taught sola fide. And if Protestants wish to claim St. Jerome as their own, they’ll need to claim also his acceptance of apostolic succession, Roman primacy, the Real Presence, Marian devotion, and the sacrament of reconciliation, among other doctrines. In which case, they might as well become Catholic!
(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally on September 29, 2020.)
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