The Latin Fathers and the Word of God

Thus far in considering the early church’s approach to Scripture, we have treated the church as a unity. This it was fundamentally, both in doctrine and in its approach to Scripture. The difference between the eastern Greek-speaking churches and the western Latin-speaking churches were matters of temperament and character, not doctrine. Both branches received the doctrines of the Trinity formulated at Nicea and the Christology of Chalcedon. So also, the church’s doctrine of Scripture, as it was formulated by the church at the end of the early period of church history, was one common doctrine. The principles developed by the early fathers continued in the church into the Middle Ages. The threefold approach of Origen which we considered last time, though it was moderated somewhat and used with more restraint, became the fundamental basis of the church’s approach to interpreting the Scriptures. 

The Greek church however differed in temperament from the West. The Greek church was more speculative in its turn of mind, directing its theological energies toward the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the person and natures of Christ. In a certain sense it exhausted itself in the controversies which surrounded these doctrines, and with this exhaustion, doctrinal leadership and development passed to the West. The line of the history of doctrine runs therefore through the western church, and this is true also of the church’s development of the doctrine of Scripture. 

The western church had a more practical turn of mind. In part this was due to the difference in temperament between the Greek and Oriental peoples of the East and the Romans of the West. While the East gave rise to the heathen philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, Rome devoted itself to law and jurisprudence. These cultural differences also made their presence felt in the development of the church in east and west. The West had not been disrupted by the theological controversies concerning the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ in the same way that the eastern church had been. And so, while the eastern church focused its attention on the truth and significance of the incarnation, the western church directed its thought to the significance of the cross, of the atonement, and of sin and grace. This interest came to a head in the controversy between Pelagius and Augustine in the early 400s. In this controversy, while the church formally repudiated the Pelagian doctrine of free will and the natural goodness of man, it also failed to endorse the truth of total depravity and divine predestination as developed by Augustine. Instead it tried to take a middle position between the two, a semi-Pelagianism. These doctrinal issues in the western church and the attempted compromise between them were to form much of the basis of medieval theology. 

The church was also entering a new era. In A.D. 323, with the complete rise of Constantine the Great to power, the church found peace from persecution under the first Christian Roman emperor, and Christianity soon became the state religion. In the years that followed, the church in the west, particularly as centered in Rome, was more and more submerged by invasions of Germanic tribes into Western Europe. Constantine moved the capital of the empire eastward to Constantinople, leaving a vacuum in power in the West which was soon filled by the church and particularly the bishop of Rome. The Latin-speaking West and Greek-speaking East, already divided by language and temperament, became more and more separated. In 590 Gregory the Great became bishop of Rome and the first real pope of the church in the West. The separation between East and West was to continue until it became formally complete in the middle of the medieval period. 

This has significance for our study of the history of the doctrine of Scripture and its development. It is through the Latin-speaking church fathers that the church’s common doctrinal heritage, also of Scripture, was transmitted to the West. Men such as Hilary of Poitiers, who could read the Greek language, brought into the Latin heritage the views of Origen and the Greek church fathers. By such men the foundation of medieval doctrine was laid in the church. Of these men, two demand our special attention: Jerome and Augustine. These men were contemporaries: Jerome lived from 340-420 and Augustine from 354-430. Both had a profound effect upon the history of the church, though in different ways. 

Augustine stands out for his development of the truths concerning sin and grace, concerning the depravity of fallen man, and concerning God’s sovereign grace. He was perhaps the greatest theologian of the ancient church. Augustine has significance also for the church’s doctrine of the Word of God, and that significance is both positive and negative. Because Augustine did not know either Greek or Hebrew he stands on the foreground, not so much for his exegesis, for which he was not well-equipped, but for his comprehensive understanding of the Word of God in its underlying unity, rooted in the truths of sin and grace. Positively, he led the church to see the Scriptures in their unity, generally following in his work the literal sense of the passage, though occasionally falling into allegory. His theology was not based on isolated texts. Indeed, his inability to read the original languages forced him to approach Scripture in its essential unity and to penetrate that underlying unity as it was revealed in the sovereignty of God and His grace. He emphasized the necessity of taking Scripture as a whole and interpreting Scripture with Scripture. Doctrine was not to be developed from one text alone, a common tactic of heretics, but Scripture as a whole, in its doctrinal unity, must set forth the rule of faith. 

At the same time there is a negative element of his work. Because he was limited in his labors by his lack of knowledge of the Biblical languages, he also emphasized that exegesis was to be governed by the historic interpretation of the church, for the rule of faith included also the church’s traditional understanding and interpretation of the Word of God. This approach, in Augustine’s use of it, had an inherent weakness. 

It is true that the church, in her study of the Word of God as she is guided into the truth of that Word, sets forth that truth in its unity as an organic whole. Our own creeds and confessions give expression to that unity. We do not approach Scripture as theologically neutral or in historical isolation, for the creeds and confessions and the church’s interpretation of the Word of God are the fruit of the leading of the Spirit of Truth. But that work of the church in the past is not infallible. We bind ourselves to it freely because it is a faithful expression of the truth of the Word of God and of the rule of faith.

Augustine’s weakness was that he went a step further, and made the past interpretation of the church and the traditions of the church authoritative for exegesis in such a way as to stymy theological development. Thus, difficult passages which were hard to understand were to be explained according to traditional interpretation. It can be well understood that Augustine, lacking the necessary linguistic tools, needed to adopt such an approach, but the effect was to elevate tradition and the received interpretation of the fathers above Scripture and make it of greater authority than the Word of God. By such a line of thought theological development must necessarily grind to a halt. We find this to be the case in the Middle Ages, that the commentaries of the fathers and the study of the doctrine of the church superceded the direct study of Scripture. The development of the truth under such circumstances stagnated. Augustine was by no means the sole cause of this unhealthy traditionalism, but he aided in its development. 

Jerome also was to some extent a traditionalist in this sense. He was also an ascetic who promoted the monastic ideal which was taking hold of the church. He is unique among the ancient fathers in that he took great pains to learn not only Greek, but also Biblical Hebrew. In his commentaries, which were often hastily written, he follows an eclectic method, doing some of his own work while also drawing much upon the work of those who preceded him. He was well acquainted with Origin’s works as well as others of the Greek fathers, and he served as an instrument of transmission both for their comments on Scripture and for their methods of interpretation. 

Jerome’s major contribution was his translation of the Bible into the Latin language. Various older translations had already existed before his time, but Jerome went back to the original languages to produce a new translation. The fruit of his work was the Latin Vulgate. While far from perfect it had the advantage that, particularly in the Old Testament, Jerome attempted to work directly from the original Hebrew rather than merely translating the Greek Old Testament translation into Latin. In this he departed from the common position of the church which had regarded this Greek translation as if the translation itself were inspired. In doing this he also rejected the apochryphal books which were included in the Greek translation, but not found in the Hebrew. Though he was forced to include them in his translation because of the popularity of these books, yet he denied them the status of Holy Scripture. By his work he gave to the Western church a better translation of the Word of God in the common language of that day than was to be had prior to this time. His translation, the Vulgate, was to serve the church in the West for centuries as the standard Bible.