Jerome: God's Grace for a Gifted Gruff

October 5, 2023 at 7:07 PM

     Have you ever met someone with an insufferable personality, someone whose mere presence seems to grate on not just your nerves but also on the collective patience of everyone around them? You’re not alone. If you had lived in the latter part of the fourth or early part of the fifth century, you might have found such a character in Jerome, a figure whose personality was, by all accounts, a perplexing blend of brilliance and, at times, unmistakable irascibility.


     Biographers of Jerome all overwhelmingly agree that he simply was not a very likable fellow. And if you think that’s a harsh assessment, take the word of the monks from five different monasteries who disbanded after he tried to live alongside them! At one such place, where the membership since Jerome’s arrival had been reduced from 300 to 50, a most frustrated Abbot exclaimed, “If we keep you here a day longer, Jerome, we shall all cease to exist!”[1]


     Jerome had a heart for truth, to be sure. He was a staunch defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy. He had a keen mind and a quick wit. Sadly, as F.F. Bruce notes, Jerome was “a man insensible of propriety.”[2] In one of Jerome’s correspondences, he rudely advised a certain member of the clergy that he ought to cover his face in public, since “it is the sort of thing that frightens small children.”[3]


     Abraham Kuyper, paying a compliment to his young student Herman Bavnick’s budding scholastic aptitude, once remarked, “I predict, my son, that you will be another Jerome for us.” Bavnick, well aware of Jerome’s personal temperament, is said to have quipped, “If I should become such, sir, please slap me good!”[4]


     Church historian Philip Schaff says of Jerome, “he united so great vanity and ambition, such irritability and bitterness of temper, such vehemence of uncontrolled passion, such an intolerant and persecuting spirit, and such inconstancy of conduct, that we find ourselves alternately attracted and repelled by his character, and now filled with admiration for his greatness, now with contempt or pity for his weakness.”[5]


     Indeed, in spite of his faults, God used Jerome powerfully for the good of Christ’s church. Jerome wrote powerful polemics against the errors of Origen and the heresies of Pelagius. He compiled commentaries on several books of the Bible. But perhaps Jerome’s most enduring contribution was his translation of the Scriptures into Latin.


     In Jerome’s day, though much of the Eastern church spoke Greek, the Western church was primarily Latin-speaking. The various Latin translations of Scripture which existed at that time were poor quality and incomplete. To Jerome, this was an unacceptable state of affairs, for “ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ!”[6]


     As a diligent scholar of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, Jerome worked tirelessly over two decades to create an accessible and largely faithful translation of the Old and New Testaments, so that those in the Western part of the church could read the Scriptures for themselves. This work became known as the Latin Vulgate, and was read and loved for a thousand years! In fact, in the later medieval period, the Vulgate started to become too well loved, but that is another story for another time.


     Yes, Jerome certainly struggled in the area of personal friendships. Yet at every point, God saw fit to bring fellow believers into his life who were willing to endure his antics. He was patiently mentored by Gregory of Nazianzus. Augustine refused to take offense at his sharp jibes in correspondence, still counting him as a friend and extending him the right hand of fellowship. Pammachius, a Christian statesman, both supported Jerome in his scholarship and repeatedly admonished him to be more prudent with his tongue.


     J.C. Ryle once said, “Our Lord has many weak children in his family, many dull pupils in his school, many raw soldiers in his army, many lame sheep in his flock. Yet he bears with them all, and casts none away. Happy is that Christian who has learned to do likewise with his brethren.”[7]


     So Christian, do you have any “Jeromes” in your life? Will you write them off as useless for the kingdom of God simply because they rub you the wrong way? Or will you bear with them, be grateful for the giftings God has bestowed upon them, and patiently exhort them to grow in Christlikeness?


[1] Grant, George. Jerome of Jerusalem (Lecture). 8th Annual History Conference, 2003.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Schaff, Philip. History of The Christian Church, Volume III. Charles Scribner & Co, 1867.

[6] Jerome. Commentary on Isaiah (Preface). Newman Press, 2015.

[7] Ryle, John Charles. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. John. Robert Carter and Brothers, 1874.