Don’t Be Surprised if You Make Some Mistakes

Jerome wrote:

And if the ingenuity of perverse men finds something which they may plausibly censure in the writings even of evangelists and prophets, are you amazed if, in your books, especially in your exposition of passages in Scripture which are exceedingly difficult of interpretation, some things be found which are not perfectly correct?

– Jerome, (to Augustine) Letter 72 in Augustine’s Letters, Chapter 3 (Section 5 in the Latin)

Jerome is being something of a grouchy old man in this letter, but his points are important.

1. Perspicuity is About the Necessary Things

Not every passage of Scripture is equally clear, and we should not be surprised if sometimes our understanding of the relatively difficult parts is sometimes mistaken. The necessary things, however, are clear, as the early church recognized:

What do I come in for, you say, if I do not hear some one discoursing? This is the ruin and destruction of all. For what need of a person to discourse? This necessity arises from our sloth. Wherefore any necessity for a homily? All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain. But because ye are hearers for pleasure’s sake, for that reason also you seek these things.

– Chrysostom, Homily 3 on 2 Thessalonians, at 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10

2. What’s more, each of us has sin.

Jerome’s argument seems to be that wicked men intentionally twist even the simplest Scriptures. Thus, if we have some degree of sin in us, we should not be surprised that we may sometimes err in our interpretation of a difficult passage. Jerome’s comment reminds one immediately reminded of Peter’s warning:

2 Peter 3:16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

Incidentally, this verse explains the primary reason why we have so many varied interpretations of the Scriptures. Note that Peter does not simply say that the perverse men twist the difficult portions of Paul’s epistles, but “the other scriptures” as well. Yes, there are some difficult things in Paul’s epistles. And we should not be surprised if we sometimes ignorantly err with respect to their interpretation. Nevertheless, we ought to avoid the path of the unlearned and ungodly.

Athanasius provides us with an example of such men twisting the Scriptures:

But since those whose only pleasure is to gainsay what is said aright, or rather what is made by God, pervert even a saying in the Gospels, alleging that ‘not that which goes in defiles a man, but that which goes out [Matthew 15:11],’ we are obliged to make plain this unreasonableness,— for I cannot call it a question— of theirs. For firstly, like unstable persons, they wrest the Scriptures [2 Peter 3:16] to their own ignorance.

– Athanasius, Letter 48

Augustine provides us with another example:

“From Thy Temple in Jerusalem, to Thee kings shall offer presents” (ver. 29). Jerusalem, which is our free mother, [Gal. iv. 26.] because the same also is Thy holy Temple: from that Temple then, “to Thee kings shall offer presents.” Whatever kings be understood, whether kings of the earth, or whether those whom “He that is above the heavens distinguisheth over the dove silvered;” “to Thee kings shall offer presents.” And what presents are so acceptable [Oxf. mss. “more acceptable than.”] as the sacrifices of praise? But there is a noise against this praise, from men bearing the name of Christian, and having diverse opinions. Be there done that which followeth, “Rebuke Thou the beasts of the cane” [Or, “pen” (of cane), calami.] (ver. 30). For both beasts they are, since by not understanding they do hurt: and beasts of the cane they are, since the sense of the Scriptures they wrest according to their own misapprehension. For in the cane the Scriptures are as reasonably perceived, as language in tongue, according to the mode of expression whereby the Hebrew or the Greek or the Latin tongue is spoken of, or the like; that is to say, by the efficient cause the thing which is being effected is implied. Now it is usual in the Latin language for writing to be called style, because with the stilus it is done: so then cane also, because with a cane it is done. The Apostle Peter saith, that “men unlearned and unstable do wrest the Scriptures to their own proper destruction:” [2 Pet. iii. 16.] these are the beasts of the cane, whereof here is said, “Rebuke Thou the beasts of the cane.”

– Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 68 (Latin Psalm 67), at Psalm 68:29 (editor’s footnotes placed in brackets)

Clement of Alexandria too has some examples to provide. He states:

But, as appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child, as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not. For some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin. [A reference to the sickening and profane history of an apocryphal book, hereafter to be noted. But this language is most noteworthy as an absolute refutation of modern Mariolatry.]

Now such to us are the Scriptures of the Lord, which gave birth to the truth and continue virgin, in the concealment of the mysteries of the truth. “And she brought forth, and yet brought not forth,” [Tertullian, who treats of the above-mentioned topic, attributes these words to Ezekiel: but they are sought for in vain in Ezekiel, or in any other part of Scripture. [The words are not found in Ezekiel, but such was his understanding of Ezek. xliv. 2.]] says the Scripture; as having conceived of herself, and not from conjunction. Wherefore the Scriptures have conceived to Gnostics; but the heresies, not having learned them, dismissed them as not having conceived.

Now all men, having the same judgment, some, following the Word speaking, frame for themselves proofs; while others, giving themselves up to pleasures, wrest Scripture, in accordance with their lusts. [2 Pet. iii. 16.] And the lover of truth, as I think, needs force of soul. For those who make the greatest attempts must fail in things of the highest importance; unless, receiving from the truth itself the rule of the truth, they cleave to the truth. But such people, in consequence of falling away from the right path, err in most individual points; as you might expect from not having the faculty for judging of what is true and false, strictly trained to select what is essential. For if they had, they would have obeyed the Scriptures. [Nothing is Catholic dogma, according to our author, that is not proved by the Scriptures.]

– Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 16 (Editors’ footnotes placed in brackets – note that the “sickening and profane history of an apocryphal book” is a reference to the Protoevangelium of James)

Finally, for I would not wish to burden you with too many examples, we see something similar in Tertullian’s writings. Note well how he recognizes that this twisting of Scripture is not simply an unintended consequence of Scripture but one of the purposes God has for His Holy Word:

These were the ingenious arts of “spiritual wickednesses,” [See Eph. vi. 12, and 1 Cor. xi. 18.] wherewith we also, my brethren, may fairly expect to have “to wrestle,” as necessary for faith, that the elect may be made manifest, (and) that the reprobate may be discovered. And therefore they possess influence, and a facility in thinking out and fabricating [Instruendis.] errors, which ought not to be wondered at as if it were a difficult and inexplicable process, seeing that in profane writings also an example comes ready to hand of a similar facility. You see in our own day, composed out of Virgil, [Oehler reads “ex Vergilio,” although the Codex Agobard has “ex Virgilio.”] a story of a wholly different character, the subject-matter being arranged according to the verse, and the verse according to the subject-matter. In short, [Denique. [“Getica lyra.”]] Hosidius Geta has most completely pilfered his tragedy of Medea from Virgil. A near relative of my own, among some leisure productions [Otis.] of his pen, has composed out of the same poet The Table of Cebes. On the same principle, those poetasters are commonly called Homerocentones, “collectors of Homeric odds and ends,” who stitch into one piece, patchwork fashion, works of their own from the lines of Homer, out of many scraps put together from this passage and from that (in miscellaneous confusion). Now, unquestionably, the Divine Scriptures are more fruitful in resources of all kinds for this sort of facility. Nor do I risk contradiction in saying [Nec periclitor dicere. [Truly, a Tertullianic paradox; but compare 2 Pet. iii. 16. N.B. Scripture the test of heresy.]] that the very Scriptures were even arranged by the will of God in such a manner as to furnish materials for heretics, inasmuch as I read that “there must be heresies,” [1 Cor. xi. 19.] which there cannot be without the Scriptures.

– Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 39 (editor’s footnotes placed in brackets)

To God then be the glory, for His Word that accomplishes exactly what He intended (Isaiah 55:11),


9 Responses to “Don’t Be Surprised if You Make Some Mistakes”

  1. Jennie Says:

    Turretinfan,that the very Scriptures were even arranged by the will of God in such a manner as to furnish materials for heretics, inasmuch as I read that “there must be heresies,” [1 Cor. xi. 19.]This, the fact that God uses His word to give light but also to confirm those who love darkness, should make us fear God, but it probably will only serve to separate those who already do from those who don't. My husband and I come from a Baptist background (though I was a RC as a young child) that tritely repeated that 'the fear of God doesn't mean you are afraid of Him but that you have a great respect for Him.' We later realized the error of that thinking, and know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that the more we fear Him the more we also love Him and His ways.

  2. Jennie Says:

    Turretinfan,I have a question or two about the quote from Clement in your post. I haven't read much of the Church Fathers so I'm not used to the way they speak, and don't have an overall idea of what each one believes, so I am confused about what Clement is trying to say about Mary. Is he saying that he believes Mary is a perpetual virgin, and that she did not give birth normally? It almost seems like he is contradicting himself here: But, as appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child, as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not. For some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin. Also, then he seems to be using an error (the idea of Mary as a perpetual virgin; at least I believe it is an error) to prove a truth (that the scripture sometimes conceives but does not bring forth). Am I misunderstanding him here?I also want to ask where I should begin to read the Fathers as a novice; which version and which Fathers should I start with?

  3. Turretinfan Says:

    Hi Jennie,Clement is being a bit complicated. First of all, note that "puerperal" is the word, and not "perpetual." Puerperal means basically post-natal.As everyone knows, Mary conceived as a virgin. Later she gave birth to Christ. If a normal baby were to come out the birth canal of a woman whose virginity was intact, the baby himself would break through the membrane to make a passage for himself.The apocryphal writing referenced by Clement basically proposes that Jesus was born in a flash of light and that a midwife examined Mary afterwards, and she was still physically intact (which would mean she did not give birth normally to a normal child).Clement seems to be proposing that this kind of idea is an example of the Gnostics getting an idea from Scripture but not fully knowing Scripture. Of them conceiving of an idea from Scripture, but not by a union with Scripture.There's an analogy there to Mary who conceived a child but without union with a man.One interesting aspect of this discussion from Clement is his rejection of the idea of in partu virginity, meaning that Mary remained a virgin even while giving birth to Jesus.Some modern Roman Catholics (like Ludwig Ott) have tried to downplay the traditional Roman Catholic view that lines up with the apocryphal writing and against Clement.-TurretinFan

  4. Jennie Says:

    Hi TurretinFan,Now you're misunderstanding me; I've given birth 5 times, so I did get the part about 'perpueral':) To me it sounded like Clement was saying Mary was NOT in a perpueral state because he said 'when she was not.' So it was confusing me. You are saying Clement DID believe she was in a perpueral state, and that she was NOT a perpetual virgin?

  5. Turretinfan Says:

    Sorry for the misunderstanding, Jennie.Yes, I can see what you mean. There's some ambiguity to the way that sentence is phrased. In view of his following comments, I would consider the "although she was not" to be a reference to what these Gnostics thought, as opposed to what the fact of the matter was.In denying their account, he does appear to be denying the in partu virginity, which is part of the "perpetual virginity" bundle. That is not the same, of course, as Clement having something to say about whether Mary subsequently knew Joseph. He calls her "true and continue virgin" which may well mean that he affirmed that she did not have any relations with Joseph after Mary's birth. I don't recall him speaking directly or explicitly about that subject.

  6. Jennie Says:

    Thanks TurretinFan,I think I've got it now; Clement believed Mary gave birth naturally, but did not have relations with Joseph; is that right?Any recommendations on my earlier question about where to start reading the Fathers?

  7. Turretinfan Says:

    As to giving birth naturally, yes. As to having relations with Joseph, I'm iffy. The idea that she did not have relations with Joseph may have developed fairly early on, and it is possible that Clement thought that. If one assumes that Mary was immensely holy and that virginity is more holy than marital relations, it is easy to see how someone could try to find room in the Biblical accounts for a perpetual virginity view.

  8. Joe Heschmeyer Says:

    TurretinFan, Clement is actually arguing the opposite – what Jennie originally thought. I readily admit it's not immediately obvious, though. If you're interested, Part II of my post today addressed that (which is how I came across your post):

  9. Turretinfan Says:

    Thanks for letting me know what you think, Joe!

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