Tuesday, July 09, 2024

More About Eternal Security In Jerome

In a post several weeks ago discussing some support for eternal security found in Jerome, I mentioned that I was waiting for the publication of an English translation of his Letter 119. That translation was delayed, but recently came out (Thomas Scheck, trans., St. Jerome: Exegetical Epistles, Volume 2 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2024]). I've now read it.

Jerome wrote the letter in 406, a few years before his commentary on Isaiah that I cited in my earlier post and about a decade before a later work with material in it that's similar to what he wrote in his Isaiah commentary. So, if the letter in question expresses Jerome's position (see below), it may represent an earlier, less developed view he held on the subject.

The letter cites a lot of comments from earlier authors. There's disagreement over whether the section in question (7) is Jerome's expression of his own view or something he's citing from another source. The translator thinks the section expresses Jerome's perspective, and I've seen a few other scholars say the same (a majority of the scholars I've seen comment on the subject). If Jerome is citing another source, that source would be Acacius, a bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century (successor of Eusebius, the famous church historian) and a longtime Arian (though not consistently). From my own reading, I lean toward the conclusion that Jerome is citing Acacius' view, not his own. Jerome suggests at times that he's citing others' views rather than giving his own, which makes less sense if the lengthy comments in section 7 are Jerome's. And the comments in that section of the letter seem different enough from what Jerome says elsewhere to lead me to think it's more likely that somebody else made the comments. Furthermore, the section that explicitly comes from Acacius (6) has him presenting a "first" interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:51, so it would make sense for the "second" interpretation in the section that follows (the section this post is focused on) to also be from Acacius. Furthermore, Jerome comments in section 8 about the length of Acacius' comments and how he'd commented on 1 Thessalonians 4. I didn't notice any citations of 1 Thessalonians 4 in section 6, but it is mentioned in section 7. And if sections 6 and 7 both came from Acacius, then Jerome's remark about the lengthiness of Acacius' comments makes more sense. So, I think section 7 probably represents the perspective of Acacius. We have reason to think Jerome held a position somewhat similar to that of Acacius on matters related to eternal security, and it would be possible for Jerome to combine some comments of his own with those of Acacius, so distinguishing between the two sources here seems less important accordingly.

Below is a relevant portion of section 7 of the letter, followed by some comments from the translator, then some comments of my own and a discussion of something Jerome wrote elsewhere. In Letter 119, he's discussing some New Testament passages that mention how some Christians will be alive at the time of Jesus' second coming, whereas other Christians will be dead ("asleep"). Acacius (or Jerome) is likening the Christians who are alive at that time to Christians who are more righteous and is likening Christians who are dead or asleep to less righteous (more sinful) Christians. So, the references to those who are living, sleepers, etc. have that significance:

Therefore, it is better to understand spiritually what is written and to recognize that sleep in the present passage [1 Corinthians 15:51] is not the death by which the soul is separated from the body, but is sin after faith and an offense against God, and sleep after baptism. This is what he was speaking about when he wrote to the Corinthians: “Therefore many among you are infirm, and a large number have fallen asleep”; and in another passage: “Then they also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Though they are dead, they will not perish with an unending death, since they are not being retained by a mortal crime, but by a light and small sin. Another saint also wished to avoid this and said: “lest perhaps I sleep in death.” For it is the sleep of sin that leads to death, and there is another sleep of transgression, which is not grazed by death. Therefore, the one who has lived by that life which says: “I am the life”— for indeed “our life is hidden with Christ in God”—will never be separated from it, nor will he sin continually unto death. He is said to be of the living, and always with the living, of whom the Savior also attests in the Gospel of John in mystical words: “He who believes in me shall not die forever.” Whence also the Apostle tracked the footprints of his Lord and taught these things to his disciples, which he had learned from his teacher. Therefore, “We shall not all sleep.” For he will not sleep who guards his heart with all watchfulness, and is vigilant concerning the commands of Christ. He is mindful of his commandment that says: “Watch, because you do not know at what hour the thief will come”; and in another place: “Do not give sleep to your eyes nor slumber to your eyelids, so that you may be saved as a wild goat from the bands, and as a bird from the snares.” Since, therefore, certain ones do not sleep, who always live in Christ, and watch, it follows that in no way would everyone sleep, but on the contrary everyone would be changed not with the change of glory, which properly is owed to the saints, but with that change by which this corruptible is made incorruptible; so that he can receive either eternal rewards or eternal punishments. But also if someone should have slept in Christ, and should have fallen asleep with the sleep of carelessness, he ought to hear what has been written: “Shall not he that sleeps rise again?” But he who does not sleep, but watches, and always lives in Christ, will go from life to life, or he will be taken up into the clouds to be always with the Lord. Among such sleepers was Lazarus, about whom the Lord says: “Lazarus, our friend, sleeps.” And he said to Martha about this sleeper: “He that believes in me, even if he be dead, shall live; and every one that lives and believes in me, shall not die for ever.” For he who trusts in Christ with his whole mind, even if, as a fallen man, he should be dead in sin, lives by his own faith forever. So death is universal, and is owed equally to believers and to non-believers; and everyone equally will rise again, some unto eternal confusion; others, due to the fact that they believe, unto eternal life. And thus it can be the case that one who believes in Christ does not die; and even if he be dead, he will live forever. (pp. 108-110 in Scheck's edition)

In a note attached to the last sentence above, Scheck writes:

O’Connell admits that this passage appears to support the doctrine of “mercyism,” of which Jerome has been accused. The Eschatology of St. Jerome, 157. But relying on Alberto Vaccari, “Il testo I Cor. 15, 51,” Biblica XIII (1932): 75–76, O’Connell counters that Jerome is not giving his own views here, but is still transcribing Acacius’s views. To me it appears that Jerome is speaking in his own name in Ep. 119.7. Brian Daley appears to concur in this, citing this passage as evidence that for Jerome “at least all those who believe in Christ will ultimately be received, by God’s mercy, into heaven.” The Hope of the Early Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 104. (n. 86 on p. 110)

Acacius (or Jerome) distinguishes between lesser and greater sins and says of the Christian who sins "nor will he sin continually unto death". That seems to imply either an inability of any sin to be mortal for a Christian or some kind of perseverance of the saints that involves avoiding sins that would be mortal. He cites 1 Corinthians 11:30 as an example of Christians sinning, yet remaining Christians, which means that something as bad as "eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner" and being "guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27) apparently doesn't cause a loss of justification in Acacius' view (or the view of Jerome).

Even if Jerome is expressing Acacius' view rather than his own in this part of the letter, which I consider likely, we should keep in mind that Jerome is presenting Acacius' view as an acceptable option for a Christian. The letter cites a variety of interpretations of some Biblical passages Jerome was asked about, and it's unlikely that he would have included Acacius' interpretation if Jerome thought that interpretation wasn't an option for a Christian. So, at a minimum, this part of the letter gets at issues like whether any form of eternal security was circulating in ancient Christian circles and whether such a belief was considered an acceptable option for Christians.

One of the lines of evidence that Jerome believed in some kind of eternal security, a line of evidence I didn't discuss in my previous post linked earlier, is what he says about some related issues in his commentary on Amos 7:4-6:

When the prophet had seen this, he did not say to the Lord, as above, “Be merciful, I beg,” but Be silent, or “cease.” He says this to entreat by his pleas the one whom he had now seen starting to speak to cease, especially since there is no one else who is able to raise up Jacob who is lying, a little one, and humiliated. Only the Lord can do this, he who is able to lead back to the land of Judah those who were captured and carried away to Chaldea. For to be sure once and for all we have applied the ten tribes, which were called Israel, to the person of the heretics, and to the two tribes, over which Judah had control, to the church and to the sinners of the church, based on the prophet Hosea and the psalmist, who says: “The sons of Ephraim, who bend and shoot with the bow, have returned on the day of battle.” The sinners of the church confess the right faith, to be sure, but because of the filth of their vices they require purifying flames. Therefore the Lord now shows that he is calling for fire as judgment so that the fire may test the quality of each one’s work and that which is written may be fulfilled: “Walk in the light of your fire and in the flame which you have kindled.” On this basis it is also said to Babylon: “You have coals of fire; you will sit on them. These will be a help to you.” Also in the psalm, a deceitful tongue and one filled with lies is said to require purification by the fire of coals: “What will be given to you, or what will be added to you for a deceitful tongue? The sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals that lay waste.” From these coals of the altar the coal of the two Testaments is taken with tongs, and it cleanses the unclean lips of Isaiah so that he is able to prophesy the word of the Lord.

But fire is summoned for judgment, and it devours first the deep, that is, all kinds of sinners, wood, hay, straw, and afterward consumes all at once a part, that is, it comes to the holy ones of the Lord, who are regarded as his possession and his portion. For it is time for judgment to begin from the house of the Lord. And in Ezekiel it is commanded to those who would undergo punishments: “Begin from my holy ones.” And we read in the apostle: “If someone’s work burns, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but nevertheless in such a way as if through fire.” Since all of us are in sin, and we are subject to the truth of judgment, the Lord will have compassion on us, and because we are little ones, he will raise us at the time of the resurrection, or he will raise us, who were lying in the vices, through the virtues. This is what the Lord promises and says: But also this will not be. And quite appropriately he said but also this because he had already said above “This will not be.” For “he will not be angry to the end, nor will he threaten forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor paid us back according to our iniquities. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our iniquities from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so has the Lord compassion on them who fear him.” (in Thomas Scheck, ed., Commentaries On The Twelve Prophets, Volume 2: Jerome [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2017], 374-75)

Notice the characteristics in Jerome's comments that I mentioned in my last post on the subject. Notice, especially, the appeal to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, a passage mercyists made much use of, which Augustine repeatedly interacted with when responding to them.

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