Marius Victorinus on the teachings of James
Writing probably in the 360's A.D., in the days when the canon of Scripture still had a few question marks (one of which concerned the book of James), Victorinus wrote:
Yet Paul could not have learned anything from James (obviously, because he has a different conception of the gospel), nor on the other hand from Peter. He was unable to learn from either man, whether because he remained with Peter for just a few days, or because James is not an apostle and may also be in heresy. But Paul did include that he saw James. Therefore, I saw the new thing that James was bandying about and preaching; but because that blasphemy was known to me and rejected by me, so too it ought to be rejected by you, you Galatians! (From Marius Victorinus' commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, commentary on Galatians 1:19)
Who Was Marius Victorinus?
The very fact that the man needs an introduction is testimony to the fact that he has not weathered the test of time as well as Jerome or Augustine. Yet it is precisely from Jerome and Augustine that we know of him. He was, for much of his life, a pagan (back in the fading days of the Roman pantheon); he was also, like Augustine after him, a professor. Late in life Victorinus became increasingly convinced of the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ and became Christian. It was a much-celebrated public event for the Christian community when this long-standing opponent of Christianity finally became a Christian and submitted to instruction in the Christian faith. Soon afterwards he lost his teaching position in one of the late Roman persecutions of Christians. He spent his time afterward productively, writing treatises against the Arians and some commentaries on the books of Scripture. Victorinus' commentaries on the epistles of Paul may be the earliest written in Latin; scholars debate the extent to which his commentaries influenced those of Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrosiaster (pseudo-Ambrose).
It is common to find comments that Victorinus' writing style was tiresome. The New Advent (on-line Roman Catholic) Encyclopedia calls his style "obscure and burdensome in the extreme." Jerome mentions that Victorinus' works were "written in dialectic style and very obscure language, books which can only be understood by the learned". (De Viris Illustribus, 101).
This, along with his unflattering remarks about James, may account for the fact that his writings had not been well-circulated, and had never been translated into English until quite recently. (In fact, researching this, I was nearly convinced I was going to have to find a Latin copy to work from until it came to my attention that just in the last few years his works have been translated. The English rendition of Victorinus quoted above is from the English translation that appeared in Marius Victorinus' Commentary On Galatians by Stephen Andrew Cooper, Oxford University Press, 2005.)
How Did Contemporaries View Victorinus?
I first met Victorinus in Augustine's Confessions. The example of Victorinus' conversion was held out as an inspiration to Augustine, and he received it as such. Further research shows that Victorinus was also included on Jerome's list of illustrious early writers from which one could learn about Christianity. If some would object that not everyone on Jerome's list was Christian (such as Josephus), it should be mentioned that Jerome made a point to indicate when a writer was not a Christian but had merely written something instructive about the history or practice of Christianity. Jerome nowhere brings Victorinus' Christianity into question. By Jerome's inclusion of Marius Victorinus and by his being used as an example by the early church, we must assume that he was a member in good standing. Likewise, from Jerome's inclusion of Victorinus' commentaries on the epistles, we must assume that Jerome was familiar with them and was in a position to recommend them.
Interestingly, while Jerome's list of illustrious men has a place for Victorinus and for his commentaries on the epistles, Jerome takes the occasion of his own commentary on Galatians to make an unflattering comment about Victorinus. He comments on him as one who was "busily engaged with secular literature and knew nothing of the Scriptures." The full text Jerome's commentary is difficult to come by; it's on my wishful "to-do list" to track down the context. Aside from this comment about Victorinus, the only other point of interest I've learned about Jerome's commentary on Galatians is that Jerome's commentary, in turn, drew opposition from Augustine.
What do we make of Victorinus' comments on James?
The meaningful task for today is to size up the importance of Victorinus' comments on James. Marius Victorinus was, in the final analysis, a minor writer: he had some importance to his contemporaries, but was not a timeless writer like Augustine, whose commentaries on Paul largely superseded Victorinus' commentaries. The point of interest is not whether Victorinus' views were universally held; the point of interest was that he could publish such views about James while remaining a church member in good standing. His views, while controversial now, did not prevent Jerome from him in his list of illustrious men and listing those particular works as the writings which gained him a place on that list. Victorinus' views, if not held by all, were at least within the realm of what was acceptable in the church of his day.
While the translation of Marius Victorinus to English is new, scholars have been aware of Victorinus' comments for some time. Victorinus, as one of the earliest commentary-writers to use Latin, was also one of the earliest to use "sola fide" in discussing justification, and Victorinus has gained some mention in studies of the history of Pauline commentaries. F.F. Bruce made mention of Victorinus' negative comments about James in The Canon of Scripture, and A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography (ed. Henry Wace & William C. Piercy) also makes reference to Victorinus' place in the sola fide discussions.