St. Jerome: Church and State in the 4th Century

James Shiel introduces Jerome, a charming letter-writer and worldly-wise mentor of fashionable proselytes, a learned theologian and fiery controversialist. He lived through a critical period in the history of Western civilization, when the Church established its authority and Rome was sacked by a barbarian foe.

The correspondence of Eusebius Hieronymus fills the first of the nine volumes in Migne’s edition of his collected works. In human interest, however, it excels all the Biblical exegesis and controversial pamphlets in the other eight. These letters possess a great deal of charm. We find Bishop François de Sales, himself a fine letter-writer, advising a correspondent: Oui-dà, mafille, lisez cheremènt les epttres de Saint Jerome: vous en trouverez qui sont bien belles.1 Erasmus, too, declares that Jerome was capable of ousting even Cicero from his affections.

Jerome’s life and letters are intimately bound up with the general history of the fourth century; and, if one may dare to simplify its complexity, that dramatic history involved a triple process. The Empire renewed its administration while becoming Christian; the Christian Church itself, newly emancipated, developed a crisis of internal dissension; finally, the barbarian inroads on the Empire shattered the administration but left the Church in its stead.

These political, ecclesiastical and military issues were interwoven; and it is difficult to separate them. But the central nerve of all was religion, pagan or Christian; theological theory played a surprisingly important role even in military affairs. Yet the whole drama covered little more than one long lifetime. Constantine adopted a Christian standard to inspire his army in 312 and, the next year, proclaimed religious toleration. In 323 he became sole ruler and founded his new city. A restoration of paganism was attempted by Julian in 362, but Theodosius definitely established Christianity in 391. Then, in 410, Alaric the Goth sacked Rome.

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