Wednesday, September 07, 2016


On Theologians Ignorant of Ancient Languages

Erasmus, Adages I vi 1 to I x 100, translated and annotated by R.A.B. Mynors (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), p. 212 (I ix 55 Illotis manibus = With unwashed hands, also referring to I ix 54 Illotis pedibus ingredi = To enter with unwashed feet):
Either proverb will properly be used of those who plunge into some undertaking full of self-confidence or ignorant of what they ought to know; for instance, anyone who assumes the office of a prince with no equipment of virtue or wisdom or experience of affairs, or sets out to interpret Holy Scripture untaught and unpractised in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and indeed in the whole of antiquity, without which it is not only foolish but impious to undertake to treat of the mysteries of theology. And yet, outrageous as it is, this is now common practice. Equipped with a few frosty syllogisms and some childish sophistries, where (Heaven help us) do they draw the line? Where do they not lay down the law? What problems are insoluble? Could they but see the merriment, or rather, the sorrow that they cause to those with some experience of the ancient tongues and of antiquity, could they see the monstrosities that they produce and the shameful errors into which they fall continually, they would surely be ashamed of their headlong incompetence and return even in old age to the rudiments of a liberal education. Many men come to a right conclusion unaided by the laws of dialectic, to say nothing of the quillets of sophistry. There was sense and wisdom among mortals, even before the idol of these people, Aristotle, was born. No one ever understood another person's meaning without a knowledge of the tongue in which that meaning was expressed. And so St Jerome, when he had decided to interpret Holy Scripture and was determined not to take up such a task with unwashed feet, as the saying goes — I ask you, did he equip his mind with sophistic rubbish? With Aristotelian principles? With nonsense yet more nonsensical than this? Not he. How did he start then? With incalculable efforts he acquired a knowledge of the three tongues. The man who is ignorant of these is no theologian, he treats divine theology with outrage, and with both hands and feet in very truth unwashed he does not take up this most sacred of all subjects, he profanes it and defiles it and outrages it.
In Latin:
Vtrunque prouerbium recte vsurpabitur in eos, qui vel audacius vel parum instructi rebus his, quibus oportuit, negocium inuadunt. Veluti si quis principis munus capessat nulla neque virtute neque sapientia neque rerum vsu prae|ditus. Aut si diuinas literas interpretari conetur Graecae, Latinae et Hebraicae linguae, denique et omnis antiquitatis rudis et imperitus, sine quibus non stultum modo, verum etiam impium est theologiae mysteria tractanda suscipere. Quod tamen, heu nefas, iam passim plerique faciunt, qui frigidis aliquot instructi syllogismis et puerilibus sophismatis. Deum immortalem, quid non audent? Quid non praecipiunt? Quid non decernunt? Qui si possent cernere, quos risus vel potius quem dolorem moueant linguarum et antiquitatis peritis, quae portenta proferant, in quam pudendos errores subinde prolabantur; nimirum puderet illos tantae temeritatis et vel senes ad prima literarum elementa redirent. Multi recte iudicant absque dialecticae praeceptis, vt ne dicam sophisticis cauillis. Sapiebant mortales et prius quam deus istorum Aristoteles nasceretur. Nullus vnquam sententiam alicuius intellexit ignarus sermonis, quo sententiam ille suam explicuit. Proinde diuus Hieronymus cum constituisset arcanas interpretari literas, ne illotis, vt aiunt, pedibus rem tantam aggrederetur, quaeso, num sophisticis nugis instruxit ingenium? Num Aristotelicis decretis? Num his etiam nugacioribus nugis? Minime. Quid igitur? Inaestimabili sudore trium linguarum peritiam sibi comparauit. Quas qui ignorat, non theologus est, sed sacrae theologiae violator. Ac vere manibus pariter ac pedibus illotis rem omnium maxime sacram non tractat, sed prophanat, conspurcat, violat.

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