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On The Government Of God by Salvian

III. Salvian's Literary Work

Gennadius' list shows that, while much of Salvian's work has been lost, the books that remain are probably the most individual and the most interesting to us. The writings of several other early Christians present such titles as On the Value of Virginity, A Book in Exposition of the Last Part of Ecclesiastes, and books On the Sacraments. One title is obscure, the book to Salonius Pro eorum merito satisfactionis, or Pro eorum praemio satisfaciendo. The variants in the text of Gennadius indicate that the obscurity is of long standing in the manuscript tradition. In my translation I have followed Ebert's conjecture of peccatorum for eorum, which at least makes possible a conjectural translation of the title -- For the Satisfaction of These Sins, a book that might conceivably have been a companion volume to that On the Government of God.

Of the homilies written for bishops, and the influence of sermon writing on Salvian's general style, I have already spoken. It is possible, as Peter Allix suggested, that the anonymous poem on Genesis formerly ascribed to Tertullian may be part of the lost Hexameron of Salvian; the poem is, however, of slight importance, and its identification as the work of our author would be chiefly valuable as an indication of his wisdom in not publishing other verses. Only nine of the letters are preserved; of these I have already spoken. The ninth, addressed to Salonius, is of special interest, since it explains both Salvian's purpose in writing his four books Against Avarice, and his reasons for publishing them anonymously. Salonius feared that since the work was issued as the Address of Timotheus to the Church against Avarice, it might be mistaken for an apocryphal work of the |Apostle| Timothy.

Like the Government of God, the invective Against Avarice was written because of Salvian's deep conviction of the dangers inherent in the persistent vices of men who called themselves Christians. Avarice was a besetting sin of many Romans, and had infected not only members of the church, but its clergy, even to the bishops themselves. The resultant neglect of the true service of God, and of the spiritual and material welfare of the church, led Salvian to |burst forth into words of lamentation| addressed to the church to which the offenders belonged. His failure to attach his own name to the book he explained not only by his desire to avoid vain glory in a service to God, but also by his conviction that the obscurity of his name might detract from the influence of his words. The pseudonym Timotheus (|Honoring God|) was chosen to indicate the motive of the work: |Indeed, the writer thought it fitting that, writing his books for the honor of God, he should consecrate the title to his divine honor.|

In spite of this letter, and of Gennadius' ascription of the work to Salvian, its anonymity was preserved in modern times, for it was published by Sichardus at Fol near Basel in 1528 as. the work of Bishop Timotheus, in a collection entitled An Antidote against the Heresies of All Ages.

While no one who reads the treatise Against Avarice can doubt the sincerity and depth of feeling with which it was written, the work is a curious document of the times. Avarice was considered one of the deadly sins. But it is hard now to avoid seeing some self-interest on the part of the church in the constant exhortations to the rich to give all their goods to the church in order to win remission of their sins. In its simplest form, this is the admonition of Christ to the rich young man: as it is elaborated to produce a surer conviction in the minds of fifth century Midases it is perilously close to the purchase of absolution. Some modern writers have thought the book more likely to encourage the avarice of the church than to discourage that of churchmen; others have seen in it an anticipation of the later satires against the greed of the clergy. The irony that is never far from Salvian's writing is even more marked than usual in this indictment, but the unprejudiced reader is not likely to see in it an intention of actual satire. Nor is it sufficient to dismiss it, as Teuffel does, simply as a ballon d'essai. It was clearly written in all seriousness, albeit in bitterness of heart, with the earnest hope of exerting a salutary influence against a chief evil of the times. The author employed the arguments that experience had taught him were most likely to be effective.

That this work was written before the completion of the treatise On the Government of God is shown by the quotation from it in the latter; it may with some probability be assigned to the years 435-439. The words of Timothy to the church must have aroused much anger among ecclesiastical leaders, and apparently this antagonism made Salvian rather sensitive to criticism, though none the less determined to attack the vices of his day. That his later books would not be less fearless because of any hostility thus aroused, he showed in his concluding paragraphs, in which there is not a little of his own spiritual biography:

All human work is unworthy in comparison with the future glory. So nothing ought to seem hard and austere to Christians, because whatever they offer to Christ is in return for eternal blessings; what is given is vile when that which is received is so great. Nothing great is paid to God by men on earth, in comparison with the supreme gift of heaven. It is hard for misers to lavish their wealth. What is strange in this? Everything is hard that is demanded of the unwilling. Almost every divine word arouses animosity -- there are as many hostile schools as there are teachers.

If the Lord orders men to be generous, the miser is angry; if he exacts parsimony, the prodigal curses. The wicked consider the sacred speeches their enemies; robbers shudder at what is written about justice, the proud at precepts of humility; the drunken oppose the request for sobriety and the shameless the command of chastity. So we must either say nothing, or expect that whatever is said will displease one man or another. Any wicked man would rather execrate the law than amend his character; he would rather hate precepts than vices.

Meanwhile, what do those men do who have been given by Christ the duty of speaking? They displease God if they are silent, men if they speak. But, as the apostles said to the Jews, it is better to obey God than man. This is the advice I offer to all to whom the law of God seems heavy and onerous, even if they do not entirely refuse to receive it, in order that those things may please them, which God ordains. All who hate the sacred commandments have the cause of their hatred within themselves. Every man's dislike of the law is due not to its precepts, but to his own life; the law indeed is good, but his habits are bad. So men should change their attitude and their point of view. If they make their habits worthy of approbation, nothing that the good law enjoins will displease them. For when a man has begun to be good, he cannot fail to love the law of God, which has within it that which holy men have in their lives.

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