Homer, God’s Poet

“Melanchthon Mondays” continues! I had a lot of fun reading and working on this one.

This week’s poem is about Homer and poetic inspiration. Christians, I think it’s fair to say, are used to thinking of inspiration only in narrow terms: the Holy Spirit’s direct inspiration of the Christian Scriptures. 

Of course, there is also a long tradition of poets being inspired by God or the gods as well–chiefly by some Muse or other, but not only by them. We see this even in a common Latin word for “poet” (used twice by Melanchthon below), vates, which primarily means “prophet,” “seer,” “diviner.” Anyone who’s read any of the great epics of Homer or Vergil will recall the invocation of the Muse at the very outset.

One might have thought that Christians must scrap this idea. But the question this poem asks is: What if they don’t? Is there a Christian conception of “inspiration” capacious enough to include broader senses of God-gven speech than the one in play when discussing the books of the Christian canon?

Melanchthon says, “Yes. Yes, there is.”  

Here is how. First, the Latin, which you can find here on page I2b.)

Vera est fama bonos agitari numine Vates,

Nam Deus illorum pectora casta movet.

Virtutis praecepta canunt, ac vatibus auctor

    Tradidit in terris illa docenda Deus.

Largaque cum caelo veniat facundia, rursus

    Eloquii vires altera dona dedit.

Est igitur pietas quaedam cognoscere Homerum,

    Cum bona de superum munera sede ferat.

Now, in English. I have once again attempted to imitate the Latin meter, elegiac couplets.

That good poets are moved by God is a tale that is told true.

    For it is God who stirs song in their virtuous hearts. 

They proclaim virtue’s commands, just as God, the first author, has passed them

    On to the poets to teach–God’s vatic bards here on earth.

That isn’t all: since eloquence comes in its richness from heaven,

    God has given in turn answering power of speech.

Thus it’s a duty divine that we give recognition to Homer,

    Since he bestows the good gifts brought from celestial realms.

We can think of non-Scriprtural inspiration this way: all good gifts come from God. That’s the major premise of his poetic argument. But virtue and eloquence are both good things, and we find both in Homer–there’s the minor premise. Therefore, the conclusion: Homer was moved to speak by God. But what is “being moved to speak” if not “inspiration”? Q.E.D.

This poetic argument happens to provide much of the structure of the poem: major premise (line 2); minor premise a (lines 3-4); minor premise b (lines 5-6). The conclusion, however, has been frontloaded in line 1. In the “logical” place where it belongs (lines 7-8) Melanchthon does something else instead. 

That “something else” is to tell his readers what their response to God’s poets, and Homer in particular, should be. We should honor them with the recognition they deserve. Melanchthon goes so far as to say that this is a matter of religious duty, of pietas. He even makes a coy little joke at the end in reference to the old saw about Greeks bearing gifts (beware!): Homer is one Greek not to be wary of, bearing, as he does, heavenly gifts.

We are not, I daresay, accustomed to think of poets this way. More fool us. If Melanchthon’s way of speaking brings us up short, it may well tell us more about our choked views of God’s ways and works than it tells us about our high view of the Bible.


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