Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?

For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.

I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?

Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.

Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.

The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.

Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.

If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.

Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.

Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.

When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?

Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.

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2 thoughts on “Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

  1. The Donatists weren’t angels either. They murdered catholic priests. The debate between Augustine and the Donatists was about ecclesiology. I can somewhat understand Pelagius and Jerome’s strict ascetical views. Christianity went from being a minority religion to one with state endorsement. Heroic Christianity made way for a more mediocre Christianity. Compromises were made. While I have problems with some of the 4th century developments, we can’t excommunicate people for not being heroic. I have a lot of problems with Christians who desire a smaller purer church. An Augustine scholar of the last century referred to Augustine as a champion of Christian mediocrity. Hence his predestinarianism I suppose. Politics played a role but theology played a larger role. What is the church? What does the gospel demand? What is the role of grace in a Christian’s life? Scholars need to take theological difference more seriously. The ones involved in the debates certainly did. Very stimulating post.

    • Hi Fariba,

      Indeed, the Donatists were no angels (especially not Circumcellions). I believe those who reduce ecclesiastical disputes to power struggles would, of course, agree. I think there’s a bit of both going on much of the time because human beings are flawed. For example, the initial furor over Pelagius and Caelestius was driven by theology, whereas as Pope Zosimus’ excommunication of them was possibly driven by power since he admitted them communion and then only excommunicated them after everyone else reacted with consternation.

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