20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 20

Soul mates

Hugh Lloyd Jones

Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies J. N. D. Kelly (Duckworth, £10.00) John Calvin: A Biography T. H. L. Parker (I M. Dent, £5.95) Jerome counts, together with Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, as one of the four Doctors of the Church. In medieval and renascence times his reputation for sanctity as well as learning was enormous. Artists loved to depict him as an austere and emaciated figure in a cardinal's costume, studying in his desert hermitage with his lion for protector. In fact, Jerome was never a cardinal; the title became current during the sixth century, and the Sacred College was not instituted until the eleventh. The lion seems to have been transferred to Jerome from the legend of St Gerasimus of Palestine. The famous period of hermetic isolation in the desert was a brief and untypical episode in the saint's career. He knew how to make the most of it, like a fashionable headmaster of the 'thirties who commemorated a brief interval between headmastership and bishopric spent in a comfortable Southampton parish by printing a book of sermons called A Parson in Dockland.

Jerome's literary eminence is not quite of the kind his title as a Doctor of the Church may suggest. He does not count as an original theologian; Dr Henry Chadwick has written that "he was no thinker". He was a violent and often unscrupulous controversialist, who covered his antagonists with scurrilous abuse. His tone in polemic has reminded some of Housman; his success in persuading wealthy ladies to devote large sums to good causes of his own choosing may recall Dr Frank Buchman.

Dr Kelly in his learned and extremely readable life of Jerome has not tried to conceal this unfavourable aspect. But he has also brought out and documented the remarkable qualities and achievements which make Jerome an important figure in Latin literature as well as in the history of the Church. Born probably in the early forties of the fourth v century (Dr Kelly's arguments for putting his birth ten years earlier do not persuade me), Jerome had an excellent education in those among the Latin classics fashionable in his day; he knew intimately Virgil and Cicero, Sallust and Terence, but read little Juvenal and no Tacitus. In 374 he dreamed that he was hailed before a Judge who sternly warned him that he was not a Christian but a Ciceronian. So he took off for the desert round Chalcis in Syria, a favourite haunt of hermits. Two years later he was in Antioch, in touch with scholars and moving in the best ecclesiastical circles.

In the desert he had greatly improved his grasp of Greek; and though he was not acquainted with the Greek classics, he became highly proficient in biblical and patristic literature. At this time the Latin literature of Christianity had little to show by comparison with the Greek; during the third century Tertullian had been the only writer of high quality whom the Western Church could set against the great Greek Fathers. The Church badly needed an interpreter who could impart in readable Latin the results of Greek theology and scholarship, in particular the great biblical commentaries of Origen; this need Jerome was able to supply. He added to his Greek learning an unusual command of Hebrew, so that he was able to follow up his Latin version of the Four Gospels with one of the entire Old Testament. With the addition of renderings of the rest of the New Testament by other hands, the Vulgate came into being.

After a brief but interesting stay at Constantinople. Jerome made his way to Rome, where he enjoyed the confidence of the formidable Pope Damasus. At one time he was even spoken of as a possible successor to the Papacy, but after the death of Damasus his enemies got the upper hand, and his Roman• stay ended in scandals and recriminations. In the company of one of his wealthy patronesses and her daughter, Jerome took off for the Holy Land, where his friend and fellow-translator but later enemy Rufinus was already established with his protectress in a monastery on the Mount of Olives. Jerome settled down in Bethlehem, where he became in effect the abbot of a • monastery, and poured out a stream of translations, commentaries and polemical writings. He quarrelled bitterly with Rufinus and the local bishop, and took part in various controversies with unvarying acrimony.

Augustine enlisted him as an ally against Pelagius, the heretic who challenged the doctrine of original sin. He also savagely attacked Jovinian, whose treatise he described as "vomit which he has spewed up". Jovinian had doubted whether ascetics were necessarily better than people who led normal lives, and also denied that Mary continued to be a virgin after the birth of Jesus. This was anathema to Jerome, who wrote to his patronesses of the pleasures of virginity with the unctuous relish of a spiritual pornographer.

Whatever his faults, Jerome was a learned scholar and a brilliant writer, one of the greatest Latin authors of the age. Calvin too was a learned scholar and an admirably lucid and intelligent writer; yet when one reads the life of Calvin, now well presented by a leading authority on the subject, Jerome with all his distasteful qualities seems almost sympathetic.

Little is known of Calvin's private life; his personality survives in his writings and his acts. Df Parker is not an historian but a theologian, and he aims to describe Calvin's theology, in the awareness of its relevance to modern times. He is a most exact and careful scholar; but since he has not presented Calvin in relation to the historical and social background of his time and since his style, while admirably clear, has an aseptic dryness reminiscent of his subject, his book is hardly suited to a wide audience. But his account of Calvin's doctrines is of great interest. Born at Noyon in Picardy in 1509, Calvin had an excellent education at the University of Paris. One must remember that he was trained as a church lawyer, for his approach to the Scriptures retained a legalistic element. The commentary on Seneca's treatise on clemency which he published at the age of twenty-three seems like the production of an Erasmian humanist, which in a sense Calvin was and did not cease to be. Yet what interested him most about Erasmus was his work to make the Bible accessible to all Christian readers.

Calvin's great work, the Christianae Religionis Institutio, which he repeatedly revised, is designed to accompany and to supplement his numerous commentaries on books of the Bible. This makes-it hard to single out any particular ideas or doctrines as the central core of his theology; yet many people have found its most

distinctive feature to be his doctrine of predestination. He found something not unlike it in the Stoic Seneca; but the most obvious influence here is that of Augustine, whom he quotes oftener than any of the other Fathers. Dr Parker thinks there was little substantial difference between their opinions on this matter.

Calvin left the Roman Church because he thought it no longer recognisable as the Church of God; it paid no attention to the Gospels, arid had given the Sacraments a form counter to their true character. Yet in his view, "t° separate from the Church is to separate frog' Christ". The important question was, how to recognise the true Church, and here Calvin was prepared to trust his own judgment. Jerome had thought that in the apostolic age tishoP and 'presbyter' were synonymous, each church being governed by a committee of coequal presbyters; Calvin agreed with him, and la Geneva from the late thirties on was able t° carry the theory into practice.

Jerome was not in a position to punish his adversaries by invoking the civil power; Calvla was more fortunate. He was responsible for the burning of Servetus, who held unorthodox opinions about the Trinity and like Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin. "On the toleration or the punishment," Dr Parker writes, "there will be a difference between the consensus of opinion in the twentieth and in the sixteenth century. Our imaginations shudder at the terror and agony of the wretched victim. Their sense of order was horrified by the threat of souls destroyed bY false doctrine, of Churches torn asunder int° parties, of the vengeance of God displayed IWO/ them in war, pestilence, famine." The attitude which Dr Parker finds typical of the age of Calvin is perhaps rather commoner in our owa time than he seems to imply, but it is not in the Christian Churches that most of these men s spiritual descendants are to be found.