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Plato (left) and Aristotle in Raphael's 1509 fresco, The School of Athens
Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.
Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)

Semina Verbi or Seeds of the Word is a cultural project aimed at examining the ways in which the Christian Gospel in particular, and the Word of God in general, have influenced the cultures of mankind, or how the cultural and creative expressions of mankind can have seeds of truth which are related to the Truth of the Word of God.

Origins of the expression

Early Christian apologists

The expression goes back to Justin the Martyr and to Clement of Alexandria.

Saint Justin (100-165 AD) affirms in his Second Apology:

For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself and at popular opinion and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it. But they who contradict themselves on the more important points appear not to have possessed the heavenly wisdom, and the knowledge which cannot be spoken against. Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them...

And Saint Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) affirms in his Stromata:

For, like farmers who irrigate the land beforehand, so we also water with the liquid stream of Greek learning what in it is earthy; so that it may receive the spiritual seed cast into it, and may be capable of easily nourishing it. The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell. For, in my opinion, it is fitting that the seeds of truth be kept for the husbandmen of faith, and no others. I am not oblivious of what is babbled by some, who in their ignorance are frightened at every noise, and say that we ought to occupy ourselves with what is most necessary, and which contains the faith; and that we should pass over what is beyond and superfluous, which wears out and detains us to no purpose, in things which conduce nothing to the great end. Others think that philosophy was introduced into life by an evil influence, for the ruin of men, by an evil inventor. But I shall show, throughout the whole of these Stromata, that evil has an evil nature, and can never turn out the producer of anything that is good; indicating that philosophy is in a sense a work of Divine Providence.

While Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 AD), in his Praeparatio Evangelica, affirms that the Greeks were clearly influenced in their philosophy by the Hebrew Scriptures, thus affirming from another point of view that the best in human culture was influenced by the Word of God:

THE preceding Book, which is the tenth of the Evangelical Preparation, was intended to prove by no statements of my own, but by external testimonies, that as the Greeks had contributed no additional wisdom from their own resources, but only their force and elegance of language, and had borrowed all their philosophy from Barbarians, it was not improbable that they were also not unacquainted with the Hebrew Oracles, but had in part seized upon them also; seeing that they did not keep their hands clean from theft even of the literary efforts of their own countrymen...

Moreover in the same Book we learned by the comparison of dates that they were very young in age as well as in wisdom, and fell very far short of the ancient literature of the Hebrews.

Such were the contents of the preceding Book: but in this present one we hasten on at once to pay as it were a debt, I mean the promise which was given, and to exhibit the agreement of the Greek philosophers with the Hebrew Oracles in some if not in all their doctrinal theories.

The patrologist Berthold Altaner writes in regards to Justin the Martyr and his expression “seeds of the Word”:

Con la sua teoria del λόγος σπερματικός [logos spermatikos] Giustino getta un ponte tra la filosofia antica e il Cristianesimo. In Cristo apparve, in tutta la sua pienezza, il Logos divino, ma ogni uomo possiede nella sua ragione un germe (σπέρμα) del Logos. Questa partecipazione al Logos, e conseguente disposizione a conoscere la Verità, fu in alcuni particolarmente grande; cosí nei Profeti del giudaismo e, fra i greci, in Eraclito e Socrate. Molti elementi della verità sono passati, cosí egli opina, nei poeti e nei filosofi greci dell’antica letteratura giudaica, poiché Mosè era ritenuto lo scrittore assolutamente piú antico. Di conseguenza i filosofi, in quanto vissero e insegnarono conformemente alle regole della ragione, furono dei Cristiani, in un certo senso, prima della venuta di Cristo. Tuttavia solo dopo questa venuta i Cristiani sono entrati in possesso della verità totale e sicura, priva di ogni errore. Il pensiero teologico di San Giustino è fortemente influenzato dalla filosofia stoica e platonica

— Berthold Altaner, Patrologia, Marietti, 7ª ed., 1977, pp. 70-71

Roots in the Gospel and the New Testament writings

Jesus of Nazareth compared himself to a sower of seeds when he proclaimed the Parable of the Sower to the crowds of people listening to Him.

3 And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, 6 and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. 7 Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. 8 But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. 9 Whoever has ears ought to hear.” ... 18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. 20 The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. 21 But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. 22 The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. 23 But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

— Jesus of Nazareth, Gospel of Matthew 13:3-9,18-23

The speech of Saint Paul to the Athenians in the Areopagus is emblematic, as he refers to a known greek poet in order to make his point about the Gospel of Jesus, as well as making reference to their religious traditions:

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols. 17 So he debated in the synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there. 18 Even some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion. Some asked, “What is this scavenger trying to say?” Others said, “He sounds like a promoter of foreign deities,” because he was preaching about ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection.’ 19 They took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, “May we learn what this new teaching is that you speak of? 20 For you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new. 22Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:“You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. 26 He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, 27 so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. 30 God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent 31 because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead.” 32 When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.” 33 And so Paul left them. 34 But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

— Acts of the Apostles 17:16-34

Magisterial Teachings of the Catholic Church

The Doctrine of the Seeds of the Word interpreted as truths of the Gospel being spread throughout human culture is also present in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The Decree on Missionary Activity Ad Gentes affirms:

In order that they may be able to bear more fruitful witness to Christ, let [Christians] ... acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of men among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions; let them gladly and reverently lay bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden among their fellows.

— Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes, Ch. II, art. 1, n. 11

Similarly the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium states:

Whatever good or truth is found amongst [those men who have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God] is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.

— Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 16

The Declaration on non Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, uses the simile of a ray of light to express the same concept:

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. ... The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

— Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate n. 2

In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the metaphor Seeds of the Word and the theme Praeparatio evangelica were also used by the Popes.

Pope Paul VI, in the apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, states:

[Non-christian religions] are all impregnated with innumerable "seeds of the Word" and can constitute a true "preparation for the Gospel", to quote a felicitous term used by the Second Vatican Council and borrowed from Eusebius of Caesarea.

— Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 53

Pope John Paul II, in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, writes:

The Fathers of the Church rightly saw in the various religions as it were so many reflections of the one truth, "seeds of the Word", attesting that, though the routes taken may be different, there is but a single goal to which is directed the deepest aspiration of the human spirit as expressed in its quest for God and also in its quest, through its tending towards God, for the full dimension of its humanity, or in other words for the full meaning of human life.

And the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting from Lumen Gentium, states:

The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."

Overview of the areas touched on