Letter XLII. To Marcella.
At Marcellas request Jerome explains to her what is “the sin against the Holy Ghost” spoken of by Christ, and shows Novatians 892 explanation of it to be untenable. Written at Rome in 385 a.d.
1. The question you send is short and the answer is clear. There is this passage in the gospel: “Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world to come.” 893 Now if Novatian affirms that none but Christian renegades can sin against the Holy Ghost, it is plain that the Jews who blasphemed Christ were not guilty of this sin. Yet they were wicked husbandmen, they had slain the prophets, they were then compassing the death of the Lord; 894 and so utterly lost were they that the Son of God told them that it was they whom he had come to save. 895 It must be proved to Novatian, therefore, that the sin which shall never be forgiven is not the blasphemy of men disembowelled by torture who in their agony deny their Lord, but is the captious clamor of those who, while they see that Gods works are the fruit of virtue, ascribe the virtue to a demon and declare the signs wrought to belong not to the divine excellence but to the devil. And this is the whole gist of our Saviours argument, when He teaches that Satan cannot be cast out by Satan, and that his kingdom is not divided against itself. 896 If it is the devils object to injure Gods creation, how can he wish to cure the sick and to expel himself from the bodies possessed by him? Let Novatian prove that of those who have been compelled to sacrifice before a judges tribup. 57 nal any has declared of the things written in the gospel that they were wrought not by the Son of God but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils; 897 and then he will be able to make good his contention that this 898 is the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost which shall never be forgiven.
2. But to put a more searching question still: let Novatian tell us how he distinguishes speaking against the Son of Man from blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. For I maintain that on his principles men who have denied Christ under persecution have only spoken against the Son of Man, and have not blasphemed the Holy Ghost. For when a man is asked if he is a Christian, and declares that he is not; obviously in denying Christ, that is the Son of Man, he does no despite to the Holy Ghost. But if his denial of Christ involves a denial of the Holy Ghost, this heretic can perhaps tell us how the Son of Man can be denied without sinning against the Holy Ghost. If he thinks that we are here intended by the term Holy Ghost to understand the Father, no mention at all of the Father is made by the denier in his denial. When the apostle Peter, taken aback by a maids question, denied the Lord, did he sin against the Son of Man or against the Holy Ghost? If Novatian absurdly twists Peters words, “I know not the man,” 899 to mean a denial not of Christs Messiahship but of His humanity, he will make the Saviour a liar, for He foretold 900 that He Himself, that is His divine Sonship, must be denied. Now, when Peter denied the Son of God, he wept bitterly and effaced his threefold denial by a threefold confession. 901 His sin, therefore, was not the sin against the Holy Ghost which can never be forgiven. It is obvious, then, that this sin involves blasphemy, calling one Beelzebub for his actions, whose virtues prove him to be God. If Novatian can bring an instance of a renegade who has called Christ Beelzebub, I will at once give up my position and admit that after such a fall the denier can win no forgiveness. To give way under torture and to deny oneself to be a Christian is one thing, to say that Christ is the devil is another. And this you will yourself see if you read the passage 902 attentively.
3. I ought to have discussed the matter more fully, but some friends have visited my humble abode, and I cannot refuse to give myself up to them. Still, as it might seem arrogant not to answer you at once, I have compressed a wide subject into a few words, and have sent you not a letter but an explanatory note. 903
Novatian, a Roman presbyter in the middle of the third century, held that the “lapsed,” who had failed during the persecutions, could not be readmitted to the church. His sect upheld an extreme moral puritanism, as is shown in the speech of Constantine to their bishop at the Council of Nicæa: “Acesius, you should set up a ladder to heaven, and go up by yourself alone.”56:893
Matt. xii. 32.56:894
Matt. xxi. 33.56:895
Matt. xviii. 11.56:896
Matt. 12:25, 26.57:897
Matt. xii. 24.57:898
Viz. denial of Christ by Christians.57:899
Matt. xxvi. 74.57:900
Matt. 26:33, John 13:38.57:901
Joh. xxi. 15-17.57:902
Viz. Matt. xii. 32, quoted above.57:903