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.