(St.) John Cassian: Pt 2, Controversy

Rehabilitating John Cassian

I hope my last post made you more interested in this late antique monastic writer.  By the time I’m through with Cassian, we will have seen the controversy as well as the legacy of this great writer, and hopefully you will take more interest in him and the Desert Fathers who inspired him.


In the 1600’s, people decided to delineate in very clear ways the arguments surrounding grace and free will from Late Antiquity.  The position of John Cassian, which makes some allowances for free will, was declared “Semipelagian.”  He has barely recovered, especially amongst those Protestants so very fond of John Calvin.

The chief culprit in casting Cassian as a Semipelagian is Prosper of Aquitaine’s reading of Conference 13.  Now, Conference 13 does contain statements that someone of an extreme predestinarian view would take issue with.  However, these ideas are by no means Pelagian.  What he says is that sometimes, there will be the seed of the will to turn to God that happens independent of grace.  However, he goes on to declare that God takes this seed and strengthens it and uses it for salvation.  This Conference, rather than being Semipelagian or even (as Boniface Ramsey puts it in the introduction to his translation) “Semiaugustinian”, seeks to deal with the question of grace and free will by making allowances for both.  Nowhere does Cassian take issue with St. Augustine.

In fact, Cassian is thoroughly anti-Pelagian, despite what Prosper of Aquitaine might say.  He sees the human will as being totally corrupt and in need of the regenerative work of God.  He notes also that we are daily in need of God’s grace as we seek to live the Christian life.  The ascetic life cannot produce any fruit without the water of God’s spirit.  Pelagianism, on the other hand, believes that the will is perfect and incapable of sinning and that if one reasons properly, one can will to be good without the intereference of God’s grace.

Finally, what struck me as I read Cassian, very aware of the accusations of Semipelagianism, was how much he stressed the necessity of God’s grace in our lives, the fact that we cannot be saved apart from this grace, that without grace we fall into sin, that without God’s grace we rarely, if ever, will the good, that God can even convert the heart of the willing with His sovereign power.

John Cassian is no Semipelagian, Pelagian, or Augustinian.  The opposition to Pelagius was not a large, united behemoth with St. Augustine of Hippo at its head.  Instead, it was a multifaceted creature composed of various Christians who saw the reality that we cannot save ourselves and thus stood against this doctrine.  I prefer Cassian’s teaching to Augustine’s, because Augustine’s has been taken over by zealous Calvinists who carry it too far for my comfort.  Cassian leaves room for the reality of free will without denying the fact that God is sovereign to save and that it is grace alone that saves us.

For a fuller exposition of these difficulties, read AMC Casiday, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, especially pp. 17-29, 72-118.

In John Cassian (2nd ed), Owen Chadwick’s treatment of this monk’s involvement in the debate includes this enlightening paragraph that all, Augustinian, Massilian, “Semipelagian”, Calvinist, Arminian, should think on:

Christianity demands that the human personality shall be surrendered into the hands of God, that there be no reserve.  Even if a tiny portion, an artus bonae voluntatis, is kept out of the sphere of God, something has been felt by Christian experience to be incompatible with the idea of redemption.  Yet Christianity also demands that the moral personality shall be independent, that God does not work upon the will with impersonal, machine-like control, so that the soul is a puppet pulled hither and thither by strings from heaven. (135)

His Reliability

Having laid to rest the question of Semipelagianism, the question of his reliability surfaces.  To this day, people interested in the history and origins of Christian spirituality tend to look back at the incipient days of monasticism in Egypt as being the best there is.  There is, indeed, much wisdom in the Desert.  Thomas Merton once said that every time there is a renewal in the church, the Desert is there.

John Cassian claims, in The Institutes and in The Conferences to present the practices and teachings of the Desert Fathers.  If this claim is not verified, then, even if he has much of value to say, he will not be regarded very highly.  People will more likely go to the different collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, spurning Cassian has having tainted the tradition and not being pure, therefore not worth their time.

However, Cassian does seek to be loyal to the tradition of the Desert Fathers, something we see in his preface to The Institutes, and asserted by Chadwick (p. 22).  We also note that some of his stories and sayings are found in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (D. Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, p. 94).  Although one of those stories (that of watering the stick) may have an earlier form than the one in the collections of Sayings, Burton-Christie and the people he footnotes generally assume that the Cassianic form is one that has been modified from the original, that Cassian has changed the pure tradition of Egyptian wisdom.

That “pure tradition” is embodied in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, or Apophthegmata, all of which are short stories or sayings attributed to various Desert Fathers.  These Sayings floated around orally for a long time; Casiday puts the first Greek collection to c. 530-60 (p. 158); Sr. Benedicta Ward, in the Foreword to her translation of the Greek Alphabetical Collection,* says that collection was assembled around the end of the 500’s (xxix).  Ward says in the introduction to her translation of the Latin Systematic Collection** that it was translated from Greek in the mid-sixth century (xxxi).  I have nothing bad to say about the Sayings; much wisdom is found in them and undoubtedly a fairly accurate — though stylised — view of much of the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers.

Nevertheless, John Cassian writes his works down a full century before the Apophthegmata are written down.  Thus, his versions of stories in common may, in fact, be truer.  Or perhaps the tradition included more than one version.  We cannot simply write Cassian off as having changed the tradition when he differs from the Sayings.  Burton-Christie, howeve, also levels the charge that Cassian has likely changed the tradition because of how long his Egyptian abbas speak (p. 94).  Once again, I do not see it as either/or.  I believe that Cassian is offering a different view of the same tradition.  There were undoubtedly times, especially when visitors such as Cassian and Germanus came seekin wisdom, that the abbas delivered long conferences yet other times when they gave only a short, pithy saying.  It is the short, pithy saying that will survive in oral tradition to be recorded in something such as the Sayings, not the longer conference; this is notable in the fact that Cassian gets 8 brief Sayings in the Greek Alphabetical Collection.

Some object, saying that Cassian’s ideas are too Evagrian, too Origenist, too intellectual, too psychologically nuanced.  There exists an imagined dichotomy, as Casiday puts it, between “simple Coptic churls v. degenerate Greek intellectuals.” (159)  However, as David Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk, Casiday (as cited above), and Steven D. Driver in John Cassian and the Reading of Egyptian Monastic Culture, this dichotomy is utterly false.  Many copts were educated or at least literate, and they dwelt in community with the more “sophisticated” such as Evagrius of Pontus.  So-called “Evagrian” teachings are found across the tradition, even in the illiterate Didymus the Blind.  Although there were undoubtedly differences amongst the Egyptian monks, the Copt and the Greek lived side by side and were part of the same theological, ascetic tradition.

Therefore, when we take these factors into account (see the books mentioned above for more thorough treatments), we see that John Cassian, although he may have changed a few things, is still a representative of the Egyptian monastic tradition.  He is also, mind you, an original thinker and a great synthesiser of many strands of thinking.  Nevertheless, he is worth reading for his teaching on the spiritual life, although he must still be used with caution as a source for Egyptian monastic practices, for he did not set out to write a history of the monks of Egypt but to pass on the Egyptian tradition for use by monks in Gaul, something he was quite successful at.

*The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1984.

**The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks.  London: Penguin, 2003.


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