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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A review of Roger Hertzler's exposition of Jerome's Instructions for Fabiola's Penance

Counter Roger Herzler's latest book, Dear Pastor: A Plea for honesty About Divorce and Remarriage is now on my desk. Having read half a dozen different books on this topic over the past 25 years, I was surprised to see him take an angle I hadn't seen before: he focuses on the long-term interaction between Jerome and a woman named Fabiola.

Now, unless you are really up on your hagiography, you've probably never heard of Saint Fabiola, whose feast day is December 27. Considering that she allegedly founded the first public hospice in the West, one would think she'd have her name on the front of more medical buildings.  At any rate, this is not what makes her worthy of Roger's mention. Oh, no. She comes into his sights for the sole reason that she was twice married, and twice divorced--and why. But on the specifics of those events--and the reasons behind them--Roger's account comes into conflict with much of what can now be read about Fabiola, dating back to the first extensive treatment of her in a 2-volume biography of Jerome by French historian Amandee Thierry in 1867.

Fabiola was a Roman noblewoman from the gens Fabia. On that all sources agree, and that her birth date is unknown; her feast day is (naturally) based on the date of her death in 399 or 400 (the Anno Domini dating system not yet being in place, it's impossible to be precise to the very year).
About the year 394 AD, a church leader named Jerome received a letter from a fellow pastor asking for counsel. A woman named Fabiola had committed her life to Christ, he wrote, and desired to enter into communion with them as a congregation. The question he had in regard to the marital status of this woman. Fabiola was happily married, it seemed, but not to her first husband. She had been married before, but had gotten divorced and then married again while her first husband was still living. What should he tell this woman who was applying for membership in the local body, and more importantly, in the body of Christ?
So begins Chapter 1 of Dear Pastor. But how much of this is based on the actual record, and how much did Roger read into the story? Let's begin by listing the assertions, sentence by sentence.

"About the year 394 AD, a church leader named Jerome received a letter from a fellow pastor asking for counsel." First of all, it's only a bit of a stretch to call Jerome 'a church leader.' He was an ascetic, a Bible translator, and a missionary to the poor. Whatever authority he held in the church at large was not due to any office, but rather to the respect that his command of the Scriptures engendered. "A fellow pastor," on the other hand, goes way too far. The person in question was Amandus, later Bishop of Bordeaux. Unlike Jerome, he actually served a congregation. The language Roger uses attempts to set a modern scene to the question, which starts us astray from the very first sentence. And he goes from there:

"A woman named Fabiola had committed her life to Christ, he wrote, and desired to enter into communion with them as a congregation." Now, Amandus never mentioned the woman's name, but from Jerome's eulogy of Fabiola it's pretty clear that she was the woman in question. We don't have Amandus' original letter, but here is Jerome's reply, as quoted in the Appendix directly from Letter 55 of the Works of Jerome, edited by Philip Schaff :
I find joined to your letter of inquiries a short paper containing the following words: “ask him, (that is me) whether a woman who has left her husband on the ground that he is an adulterer and sodomite and has found herself compelled to take another may in the lifetime of him whom she first left be in communion with the church without doing penance for her fault. [this apparently written by Fabiola herself, attached to a list Amandus' Bible questions]”

As I read the case put I recall the verse “they make excuses for their sins.” We are all human and all indulgent to our own faults; and what our own will leads us to do we attribute to a necessity of nature. It is as though a young man were to say, “I am over-borne by my body, the glow of nature kindles my passions, the structure of my frame and its reproductive organs call for sexual intercourse.” Or again a murderer might say, “I was in want, I stood in need of food, I had nothing to cover me. If I shed the blood of another, it was to save myself from dying of cold and hunger.”

Tell the sister, therefore, who thus enquires of me concerning her condition, not my sentence but that of the apostle. “Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband, so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then, if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress.” And in another place: “the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” The apostle has thus cut away every plea and has clearly declared that, if a woman marries again while her husband is living, she is an adulteress.

You must not speak to me of the violence of a ravisher, a mother’s pleading, a father’s bidding, the influence of relatives, the insolence and the intrigues of servants, household losses. A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another.

The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: “whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery.” Mark what he says: “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer. Wherefore the apostles seeing how heavy the yoke of marriage was thus made said to Him: “if the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry,” and the Lord replied, “he that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” And immediately by the instance of the three eunuchs he shows the blessedness of virginity which is bound by no carnal tie.

I have not been able quite to determine what it is that she means by the words “has found herself compelled” to marry again. What is this compulsion of which she speaks? Was she overborne by a crowd and ravished against her will? If so, why has she not, thus victimized, subsequently put away her ravisher? Let her read the books of Moses and she will find that if violence is offered to a betrothed virgin in a city and she does not cry out, she is punished as an adulteress: but if she is forced in the field, she is innocent of sin and her ravisher alone is amenable to the laws.

Therefore if your sister, who, as she says, has been forced into a second union, wishes to receive the body of Christ and not to be accounted an adulteress, let her do penance; so far at least as from the time she begins to repent to have no farther intercourse with that second husband who ought to be called not a husband but an adulterer. If this seems hard to her and if she cannot leave one whom she has once loved and will not prefer the Lord to sensual pleasure, let her hear the declaration of the apostle: “ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils,” and in another place: “what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial?”

What I am about to say may sound novel but after all it is not new but old for it is supported by the witness of the Old Testament. If she leaves her second husband and desires to be reconciled with her first, she cannot be so now; for it is written in Deuteronomy:
“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her; then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die which took her to be his wife; her former husband, which sent her away may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”
Wherefore, I beseech you, do your best to comfort her and to urge her to seek salvation. Diseased flesh calls for the knife and the searing-iron. The wound is to blame and not the healing art, if with a cruelty that is really kindness a physician to spare does not spare, and to be merciful is cruel.
Now, there are several works from the pen of Jerome that do mention Fabiola, in addition to the eulogy fully quoted by Roger. In fact, the two were friends, and Fabiola traveled to Bethlehem to visit him not long after he wrote this letter. Thierry weaves them all together, shifts the chronology around a bit, and ends up with a woman whose most important decision in life was to become a nun. Naturally, we don't expect someone who isn't a lifelong Catholic to take the same approach. But still, Roger peers at Fabiola's life through the thick spectacles of his own sitz im leben:

"The question he had in regard to the marital status of this woman. Fabiola was happily married, it seemed, but not to her first husband. She had been married before, but had gotten divorced and then married again while her first husband was still living."

Roger Hertzler begins chapter 5,
 When Jerome gave his counsel that Fabiola needed to separate herself from her second marriage in order to be right with God, was he trying to introduce some radical new teaching? Was he trampling underfoot that which had been taught by church leaders prior to him? Or was his counsel in harmony with what the church as a whole had believed up until that point? The following quotes from A Dictionary of Early  Christian Beliefs show us a glimpse of how this subect was viewed by certain church fathers who had lived prior to Jerome:
 In accordance with the modern twist he gives the story, Roger is rather careful not to point out that  church leaders of Jerome's day believed it was wrong to be married twice, period: even after the death of the spouse, they considered a second marriage to be immoral:

"With the utmost strictness, we excommunicate digamists, as bringing infamy upon the Paraclete by the irregularity of their discipline. The self-same liminal limit we fix for adulterers also and fornicators; dooming them to pour forth tears barren of peace, and to regain from the Church no ampler return than the publication of their disgrace (Tertullian, De puditicia, 1)."
This quote, found in full in the Dictionary, is conspicuously absent from Dear Pastor, though Roger quotes Tertullian's other writings extensively--more times than any other Church Father.

"What should he tell this woman who was applying for membership in the local body, and more importantly, in the body of Christ?"

"Applying for membership" is quite the anachronism here. Rome had already come under the control of the State Church, and Faviola had no doubt long since become a member. What she was asking for was communion without penance--a totally foreign idea to a member of the modern Protestant movement.

Okay, so the style of Roger Hertzler's book is decidedly contemporary, and he views the ancient church through his modern glasses: So What? The real question is, "Are modern Christians bound by timeless principles first promulgated by Jerome in his writings concerning Fabiola?"

I'll hold off on the answer to that question, as I have yet to see anyone from the other side of the question make even so much as a passing mention of Fabiola. Until they do, I must concede the field to Roger Hertzler.

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. --Proverbs 18:17 ESV

UPDATE DEC 26, 2012
I'll go ahead and give a quote here--from Asterius, a 4th-century Bishop of Amasea--that will probably be brought up in future discussions of this topic. It's not all that well known, having been published in 1904 and long out of print. But it's now available online, at this website
"You who change your wives as readily as your garments; who build bridal chambers as often and as easily as you build booths for feasts; who marry money, and deal in women; who if provoked a little immediately write a bill of divorcement; you who leave many widows while you are yet alive; believe me, marriage is terminated only by death or adultery."

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