Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Hood, Bavinck, Augustine, Cicero: The Genealogy of a Quotation


As one of the epigraphs to the first chapter of his Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (which I’m enjoying immensely, by the way, and which I may review at some point in this space), Jason Hood quotes Herman Bavinck as follows:

Homer attributed human properties to the gods; I would prefer to attribute divine properties to us humans.

Now, it is true that Bavinck says that (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 197); but there’s nothing distinctively Christian about such a wish, and when he says it, Bavinck makes it clear that he is quoting Cicero.


The English translation of the Reformed Dogmatics doesn’t give the provenance of the citation, but it comes from Tusculan Disputations 1.26.65: fingebat haec Homerus et humana ad deos transferebat: divina mallem ad nos.

What Cicero says there, however, is not particularly new or novel. Just as the remark is not distinctively Christian, it is not distinctively Roman, either. Criticism of the portrayal of the gods in poetry goes back before the rise of Socratic and Platonic philosophy, at least to the pre-Socratic philosopher (?) Xenophanes, who writes, for instance:

Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another.

Plato makes Socrates sound the same note of criticism in his Republic (cf. especially Book 10).

But did Bavinck get the citation from Cicero himself? He may have, but it was popular as well with that most popular of Western theologians, Augustine, who quotes it at least twice. First, in the first book of the Confessions, when lamenting the immorality of his youthful education, he refers to this passage and offers his own “correction” of it:

Yet which of our gowned masters can lend atemperate ear to a man of his school who cries out and says: These were Homer’s fictions; he transfers things human to the gods. I could have wished him to transfer divine things to us. But it would have been more true had he said: These are, indeed, his fictions, but he attributed divine attributes to sinful men, that crimes might not be accounted crimes, and that whosoever committed any might appear to imitate the celestial gods and not abandoned men.

Then, later in his life, in Book 4 of City of God, again with a “correction” of Cicero:

But, says Cicero, Homer invented these things, and transferred things human to the gods: I would rather transfer things divine to us.The poet, by ascribing such crimes to the gods, has justly displeased the grave man. Why, then, are the scenic plays, where these crimes are habitually spoken of, acted, exhibited, in honor of the gods, reckoned among things divine by the most learned men? Cicero should exclaim, not against the inventions of the poets, but against the customs of the ancients. Would not they have exclaimed in reply, What have we done? The gods themselves have loudly demanded that these plays should be exhibited in their honor, have fiercely exacted them, have menaced destruction unless this was performed, have avenged its neglect with great severity, and have manifested pleasure at the reparation of such neglect.

It is interesting to note that Bavinck, too, cites the passage from the Tusculan Disputations at least in part as a criticism of what the ancient pagans were able to see. Two sentences before the citation we read: “Grace in its true sense was unknown to them because they did not comprehend the essential character of sin, just as, conversely, the character of iniquity remained a mystery to them because the revelation of grace had not illumined them on this issue.” But the sentence immediately before reads: “Thus they managed to hope and wish but never came to a firm belief concerning salvation from all evil.” Thus they did not see everything, but it is clear that they were still able to see something.


One of the aspects of this Ciceronian line of criticism, and its appropriation by Christians through the ages, that is most fascinating is precisely that it was appropriated by Christians. The opposition to certain facets of of Greco-Roman culture was borrowed from Greco-Roman culture, specifically from the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, rather than being a product of Christianity per se; and thus it is grounded not on a “Christian worldview,” but rather on natural revelation, natural theology, and natural reason. Such an appropriation as we find in Augustine demonstrates that ancient Christians, despite their often hostile rhetoric, could find plenty of room, on principled grounds, for overlap with their heathen predecessors and neighbors. This is true as well of modern Christians, and so one still finds fruitful use made of these predecessors and neighbors in Reformed doctors like Bavinck.

And yet just as often the Christian appropriation itself is distinctively Christian–that is, fruitful–as ancient insights are brought into dialogue with the Christian message of sin and salvation. The natural insight obtained by men like Cicero was true insight, but it was not perfect insight. Grace does not obliterate nature, and it also does not leave it where it is, fallen away from the true God: rather, grace restores nature.



By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

5 replies on “Hood, Bavinck, Augustine, Cicero: The Genealogy of a Quotation”

This short study is masterful; the last two paragraphs in particular flow straight out of the analysis and at the same time rightly characterize the fruitful history of appropriating truth—wherever it may be found—into the Christian worldview. By highlighting the resulting transformation of this truth, Hutchinson has also reached out to those who make excessive rhetoric about non-Christians not truly knowing anything.

By this post and many others, you rightly disprove the following tenet (the statement rightly describes covenantal apologetics, but not reality): “In a covenantal approach to apologetics, just as with unbelief generally, we cannot suppose that there are ideas, concepts, notions, affirmations, and the like that we have in common with those who remain in Adam.” Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013), p. 227. cf. pp. 52, 148, 150.

I encourage E.J. Hutchinson to keep posting. Thank-you.

Dear Prof. Van Raalte,

Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading.I’m very interested to read your work on Farel, and, especially as related to this post, on Bavinck and natural law, to which I believe a friend previously directed me.


Dear Jason,

Thanks for reading! As I said, I’m really enjoying the book.


Good post, Eric.

Dr. Van Raalte, thanks for the quote from Oliphint. I haven’t read that work (nor much of his writing). Can you please tell me if there is any further context? It is prima facie not defensible.

In a similar vein, note Machen from The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921):

“The Greek Gods were simply men and women, with human passions and human sins – more powerful, indeed, but not more righteous than those who worshiped them. Such a religion was stimulating to the highest art. Anthropomorphism gave free course to the imagination of poets and sculptors. (214)

And from Christianity and Liberalism (1923):

“Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart…The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism – a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.” (65-66)

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