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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
On Christian Doctrine: Chapter 14

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 14.—Beauty of Diction to Be in Keeping with the Matter.

30.  And so much labor has been spent by men on the beauty of expression here spoken of, that not only is it not our duty to do, but it is our duty to shun and abhor, many and heinous deeds of wickedness and baseness which wicked and base men have with great eloquence recommended, not with a view to gaining assent, but merely for the sake of being read with pleasure.  But may God avert from His Church what the prophet Jeremiah says of the synagogue of the Jews:  “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land:  the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests applaud them with their hands; 1953 and my people love to have it so:  and what will ye do in the end thereof?” 1954   O eloquence, which is the more terrible from its purity, and the more crushing from its solidity!  Assuredly it is “a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces.”  For to this God Himself has by the same prophet compared His own word spoken through His holy prophets. 1955   God forbid, then, God forbid that with us the priest should applaud the false prophet, and that God’s people should love to have it so.  God forbid, I say, that with us there should be such terrible madness!  For what shall we do in the end thereof?  And assuredly it is preferable, even though what is said should be less intelligible, less pleasing, and less persuasive, that truth be spoken, and that what is just, not what is iniquitous, be listened to with pleasure.  But this, of course, cannot be, unless what is true and just be expressed with elegance.

31.  In a serious assembly, moreover, such as is spoken of when it is said, “I will praise Thee among much people,” 1956 no pleasure is derived from that species of eloquence which indeed says nothing that is false, but which buries small and unimportant truths under a frothy mass of ornamental words, such as would not be graceful or dignified even if used to adorn great and fundamental truths.  And something of this sort occurs in a letter of the blessed Cyprian, which, I think, came there by accident, or else was inserted designedly with this view, that posterity might see how the wholesome discipline of Christian teaching had cured him of that redundancy of language, and confined him to a more dignified and modest form of eloquence, such as we find in his subsequent letters, a style which is admired without effort, is sought after with eagerness, but is not attained without great difficulty.  He says, then, in one place, “Let us seek this abode:  the neighboring solitudes afford a retreat where, whilst the spreading shoots of the vine trees, pendulous and intertwined, creep amongst the supporting reeds, the leafy covering has made a portico of vine.” 1957   There is wonderful fluency and exuberance of language here; but it is too florid to be pleasing to serious minds.  But people who are fond of this style are apt to think that men who do not use it, but employ a more chastened style, do so because they cannot attain the former, not because their judgment teaches them to avoid it.  Wherefore this holy man shows both that he can speak in that style, for he has done so once, and that he does not choose, for he never uses it again.



“And the priests bear rule by their means.” (A.V.)


Jer. 5:30, 31 (LXX.).


Jer. 23.29.


Ps. 35.18.


Cyprian, ad Donat. Ep. i.

Next: Chapter 15

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