More on Pelagians and Myself

There have been some comments (finally!) on my post about Pelagians, so I should set the record straight on a few things. If you are here for Pelagians and sex, you can skip the stuff about me and scroll down to the bold words “Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex”.

First, I have rightly got into trouble for this:

“Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.”

That was gall, not righteousness. Mea culpa.

Second, I have been accused of two things: never having read Augustine and being “one of the Calvinist illiterates who believes whatever [my] deranged pastor tells” me. So, these require full treatment, I feel.

  1. I have not, it is true, read much of Augustine. I have read The Confessions, various homilies, On Grace and Freewill and things he says about demonology. Oh, and portions of De Doctrina Christiana and of On Marriage.
  2. I am not Calvinist. This is an amusing thought, given this post and this post amongst others. I wish I were more easily labelled (does Franciscan Orthodox — Eastern — Wesleyan Prayer-book Anglican even cover enough bases?), but if we wish to concern ourselves with grace & freewill, I prefer the imperfect ideas of John Cassian’s 13th Conference, sometimes called “Massilianism” (NOT the Eastern heresy “Messalianism”, an unrelated thing) or “Semi-Pelagianism”. Catholic scholar Boniface Ramsey prefers to see Cassian as Semi-Augustinian; Eastern Orthodox Scholar AMC Casiday wishes to eliminate all “semi’s” from the discussion and read the authors on their own terms.
  3. Also, I don’t believe whatever my pastor tells me, deranged or not. I’m unfortunately critical of most sermons, although those at my local church do better than many elsewhere.

Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex

I will agree with my opponent, rey, that Augustine and the tradition that follows from him, as well as many of the Fathers, had a confused view of sex. While I disagree categorically with diagnosing any historical person as “a classic case of insane transference whereby a nutcase asserts that everyone else is as messed up as he is” or even as necessarily sexually deviant — except in cases such as Nero, and even then the record is incredibly biased against him — because we don’t know enough about him. The only non-modern people we really know that much about are Cicero and the merchant of Prato, and I don’t think we should diagnose them, either.

Augustine’s animosity towards intercourse no doubt comes from his own previous years with a concubine with whom he had at least one child. At the point of his conversion, although St. Monica wished to arrange a marriage with a lovely young lady, Augustine devoted himself to the monastic life (contra rey: “He remarried a wealthy Catholic woman, and this helped him achieve the status of bishop. [To be bishop, you needed wealth.]”) We know of this from the most popular text of Late Antique Latin Christianity, The Confessions. That the only sex Augustine ever had was in a more or less sinful state (concubines are a foggy area even to ancient Christians sometimes) no doubt helps contribute to his views on sexual intercourse.

Concerning Augustine on sex in marriage, see “On the Good of Marriage.” Here we see some rather convoluted things, and it is clear that Augustine would prefer a world without sexual intercourse, but he has to admit that it is not actually sinful in marriage. Given the enormous quantity of Augustine’s corpus, he may have said elsewhere that sexual intercourse in marriage is evil; I know that Aquinas at least implied it in the 13th century. Indeed, it is rather absurd to imagine that living like a celibate with your own wife is the best pathway; yet he still concedes that having intercourse is allowable. That which is allowed is not sin, is not evil.

This odd sort of teaching is the sort of thing that comes from monastic discourse throughout the Mediterranean and Near East and is not peculiar to Augustine. People seem to imagine that, while it’s okay to have sex and raise children, it’s best to be celibate. I have discussed this issue in relation to St. Gregory of Nazianzus here. I do not agree with these people (much to my wife’s relief). If Julian called St. Augustine out on this silliness, this is a good thing.

Regarding rey’s statement that one needed wealth to be a bishop in Late Antiquity, I would like evidence. I do not think that this is true. One certainly tended to need class, but class and wealth are not the same thing. If we consider how many poor ascetics were made bishop, I cannot see how wealth is a prerequisite to the office of bishop.

Moving on to grace. Rey says, “Grace is not magic power to enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.” No one ever said that it is. Gratia, lexically, as my opponent has said, is favour. It is:

Favour which one finds with others, esteem, regard, liking, love, friendship

as well as:

Favour which one shows to another, mark of favour, kindness, courtesy, service, obligation (Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary; I don’t yet have the OLD — apologies).

In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D. we also find this amongst the usual suspects:

any benefit or blessing from God.

Gratia in the second sense involves action. If an Emperor shows favour to me, he is likely to use his power to help me. For example, we could say that when St. Savvas entreated the Emperor Justinian for help in his monasteries against dissenters and raiders, Justinian showed his favour, his gratia, to St. Savvas by helping reorder the monasteries and build a fortress against the raiders. This is favour, is it not?

So, when we say that we are saved by God’s grace, that means that God has done something to help us. We are saved by God’s favour, which inevitably involves action. When we say that God’s grace helps us to do good, that means that he, through his favour towards us, chooses to help us do a good action. Grace is not power, no, but it implies the use thereof.

Grace is not, however, as the lengthy comment contends, mercy. There is no hint of mercy within the lexical range. Latin words for mercy are clementia and misericordia. These all have to do with having pity upon someone. Indeed, mercy and favour are related; they are not synonymous.

All of this is to say that, for a Latin-speaker, God’s grace would most certainly have helped us do good as a real possibility.

And Greek only bolsters our case, as we note the third meaning of charis in the LSJ:

in concrete sense, a favour done or returned, boon, charin pherein tini confer a favour on one, do a thing to oblige him

When Paul speaks of being saved by God’s grace, he does not mean that God saves us by his mercy. He means that God saves us for no merit of our own. He looks upon us with favour, “not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences” (BCP). Or, to bring out my evangelical youth, “When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing” (the Newsboys).

Given that grace has both the sense, in Late Latin as well as in Greek, to be both favour and action done out of favour, then verses such as Noah having found grace in God’s eyes are clearly not about God giving him power to do a good action. This is a different question altogether, for it is another use of the same word within its lexical range. Words have nuance, and we always need context. To imagine that grace always means mercy is illiterate, in my opinion.

Re Col. 4:6: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man,” I would argue that LSJ’s first definition of charis — outward grace or favour, beauty — works best. Let your speech be always beautiful and favourable to others.

The problem with Pelagianism is the assertion that God will not help us do good. Pelagians teach that our will is untarnished and capable of doing good all the time and doing enough good to save us. God’s grace, whether favour or mercy, does not help us in this endeavour. Woe to me, if I am the only responsible for my salvation! I know the weight of my sins. How can I be free of them save by the favour of God that pardons my offences?

Most of the second comment our friend rey made is about my alleged Calvinism. It does, however, include this:

The Celtic church was Pelagian.

This may be true. I, personally, only have the evidence from the Venerable Bede concerning Germanus’ visit to Britain in the 5th century that was meant to stamp out Pelagianism. I do know, however, that the big seventh- and eighth-century issues as we see in the Life of St. Cuthbert seem largely to be about the date of Easter and monastic foundations, not Pelagianism.

We must remember that the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval/Byzantine world was still very connected, even with a few barbarian kingdoms around. The Celtic monastic foundations (ie. Iona) included in their libraries Latin editions of the Mediterranean Fathers such as Basil & Co (Basil’s is the only name I can remember). Furthermore, according to an article I read a couple of years ago, they had much in common with St. Maximus the Confessor (Eastern theologian of the 600’s).

If the Mediterranean Church chose to do away with Pelagianism, despite any politicking that inevitably went on, it did so for good reason. These reasons were ultimately not those given by Celtic Daily Prayer in the original post. They were the issues of grace and freewill. The Celtic Church was connected to the Mediterranean Church, and if she leaned more towards John Cassian than towards Augustine, she was in good company (see the ENTIRE EASTERN CHURCH).

The Eastern Church, however, also turns away from Pelagianism even as it anathematises Augustinian doctrines of predestination as heresy. From what I’ve seen, in some poems from Iona, the life of St. Columba, the Voyage of Brenden, Patrick’s autobiography, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and so forth, the insular Celtic Church was not at odds with the Mediterranean Church and out-and-out Pelagian but, rather, had many things in common with the Eastern Church, which also explains the clashes in the seventh-century, since Latin West and Greek East were starting their own clashes at about the same time.

Note also that if the Mediterranean Church was not monolithic by any means, neither were the Celts on these Isles. Thus, even if many were Pelagians, it is likely that many weren’t, just as many in the Mediterranean world were not Augustinian.

Finally, rey took exception to my statement:

Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost.

Apparently, this is “illiteracy mixed with lies,” because Gen 3 “shows how apes became human.” If we are to read Gen 3 literally, this reading cannot work. And if we are to read Gen 3 allegorically, we are in sparse company when we read it that way. I do not even know where to begin figuring out the hermeneutics that led to rey’s position.

So, I shall state the following instead. Rey says that the Fall is “a Manichean myth handed down by word of mouth among the illiterates since Augustine’s time.”

According to St. Irenaeus (I am likely to blend in Athanasius — apologies), the second-century apologist (a full two centuries before Augustine), humanity was created in innocency. This is what we see in the chapters before Genesis 3. Our forebears naturally did what was right, but were like children. They did not know really know right from wrong. They could not fully perceive. However, God had a plan that He would strengthen them and enable them to grow into understanding. Then they would be like Him, knowing right from wrong.

But the humans, in their greediness, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before their time. This led to them gaining knowledge they were not prepared for, and as a result led to death which is the separation of our soul from our body, an unnatural event.

As a result, we have lived out our lives in a world of pain and toil, growing into the maturity that God gives us through his grace but without the ease of the Garden. God will recapitulate all things at the end of time, as effected through the Incarnation and Second Coming, restoring things to a better state than before we fell. Because we fell, God’s Incarnation as a man also involves his suffering and dying, so that he may taste of all we have tasted and may be a sacrifice for our sins and the conqueror of death.

This narrative, this world of recapitulation, makes more sense to me than a world where God told us not to eat the tree through reverse psychology so that we would gain “moral capacity, the ability to know right and wrong and to CARE.” That eating from the tree then and there was God’s plan. And if eating from the tree was God’s plan all along, why did he proceed to curse the man, woman, and snake? Furthermore, if Gen 3 teaches neither Fall nor Curse, why is there a curse in it? Interpreting the curse may be difficult, but denying it is avoiding what is there before us on the page.

This view of Gen 3 leaves us in a world that is as it was meant to be. A world with a God who wants cancer and war and hatred and violence. Why? Because there is no fall. We are living our lives exactly according to God’s plan. With the fall, we have a frame of reference, that this beautiful, tragic world is great but could be greater, and was meant to be so. With the fall, we have redemption. Without the fall, the Cross is meaningless, redemption impossible.

With the fall, we also see why it is that we do not do what we want to do.

Playing Nice

I would like to call out rey for not playing nice. Endlessly referring to one’s opponents in a debate as “illiterate” is not nice or fair. Calling their ideas “lies” is not fair.

Assuming that your opponent is one thing and then writing from that frame of reference based upon a single thing he wrote one evening in less than half an hour — that’s just bad argument. Especially when said opponent has an entire website right in front of you that could show you several things, such as not being a Calvinist, such as having read a certain amount of Patristic literature, such as knowing Latin and Greek. Just for starters.

Also, saying, “Well duh,” does not count as playing nice.

And talking down to people throughout the entire comment is not playing nice.

Why play nice? Because playing nice helps people listen to you. Not playing nice makes them decide to take you to town and have many knee-jerk reactions to everything you say. People get angry all the time at Augustine for not playing nice. I would argue that, while clearly being as heretical a Pelagian as ever there was, you have played the game as an Augustinian this round, rey. Too bad.

If you wish to argue with me about Predestination & Freewill, my thoughts on John Cassian’s doctrine are here and here.

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A brief note on Pelagians

I was  surprised tonight to read this in Celtic Daily Prayer:

But soon [Pelagius] was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur. (141)

Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.

Now, I know that almost every heresiarch had a group in the 20th century seeking to rehabilitate his memory and prove his true orthodoxy, including Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius. I have not read books on Pelagius himself, but Pelagianism, those things for which he got in trouble, is something of a different story than the caricature produced by people who imagine that “Celtic” Christianity is something special and unique, different from imperial, “Catholic” Christianity in the Mediterranean, represented by free spirits like Pelagius rather than horrible men like Augustine.

First, lots of women read Scripture. This is not part of the substance of any argument that could have brought Pelagius down, given St. Jerome’s tendency to be surrounded by virgins, some of whom could read the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Second, I understand that the question is not whether the image of God is present in new-born children but whether those children, like adults, are fallen and in need of redemption. The orthodox answer is that, yes, children are fallen; thus do we baptise them. Yes, they are in the image of God. We all are.

Third, even Augustine would agree that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. What makes sex dirty is the fact that it is through sex that the man transmits the original sin of Adam. No doubt in his more Neo-Platonist moments, Augustine would also argue (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) that sexual intercourse is not always a good thing because it involves passion, not reason, and reason is the best part of a human. Part of the solution to this “problem” of sexual passion (as I believe explicated by Tertullian) was to say that Adam could engorge his membrum virile at will, rather than having it beyond the power of his reason.

We are not polluted by sexual activity, but our sin has irrevocably polluted it, since it is the means whereby sin is transmitted. This, as I understand it, is the Augustinian position.

To return to the second point, the Northumbria Community maintains that Augustine sees us as “essentially” evil. If we are to consider terminology, this is inaccurate. The Augustinian human being is not “essentially” evil; that would mean evil by essence, by nature. God does not create evil things. Human beings are necessarily evil, due to the fall of original sin.

Our essence is marred by evil, but not innately evil. This is how God is able to redeem us. Remember that for someone with so strong a Platonic background as Augustine, evil is essentially non-being. It is the absence of the good. Therefore, we cannot be evil by our own essence, or essentially evil. We can have a lack of good where it ought to have been. We can have ourselves marred so badly by evil that only a strike force from the heavenly realms can save us in a rescue mission (cf. Irenaeus and Athanasius). But this is not being “essentially evil” as the Northumbria Community contends.

Now, to say we are all evil in our very selves seems like a very pessimistic view of humanity to our “enlightened” ears. It is my contention that Augustine formulated it so very sharply because he was dealing with the very real, dangerous ideas of Pelagius’ followers (if not of Pelagius himself).

God’s grace, according to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, does not help us do good. We can not only choose God for ourselves (what most Calvinists think when they hear “Pelagian”), we can live a perfect, sinless life and attain salvation just as Christ lived of our own free will. God does not give us his grace in this endeavour. If He were to do so, He would contravene our free will and our good actions would be null and void.

Pelagianism (even if not Pelagius) teaches not simply that we can do good without God, but that we can be good without God. It teaches that we do not need God’s grace at any stage of our salvation because we have the capability within ourselves to live a holy life free of divine intervention.

This is not biblical orthodoxy. Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost. We need God’s grace to be saved. Now, some of us may fall in line with the Massilians (not Messalians who are heretics) like St. John Cassian and believe that there is some sort of synergy between our will and God’s (that’s a terrible way of putting it; read it for yourself); others may fall in with Predestinarians like St. Augustine of Hippo.

We all believe that we cannot be perfect without God’s help. We all believe that Christ is unique and “Adam” is more than a bad example, that our genes are hardwired for sin. Some of us believe in total depravity. Some of us don’t, believing that we can do good deeds without God. But we do not believe that we can save ourselves.

Believing that you, yourself, all alone, can save yourself free from God’s divine intervention is heresy.

We call it Pelagianism.

Whether or not Pelagius himself believed it, it’s the real reason he was condemned, not the mocking caricature provided for us by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayer.

“Learning Theology with the Church Fathers” by Christopher A. Hall

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers is Christopher A. Hall’s sequel to Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (the third in the trilogy is Worshiping with the Church Fathers).  In this book, Hall examines various theological questions, taking the question of the divinity of Christ as his jumping-off point.  The examination of the question at hand is always narrowed to certain Church Fathers, never the entire corpus of Patristic thought on each issue, an approach that keeps the book to a reasonable, readable length.  For example, in the chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, he draws principally from St. Athanasius.  In “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, our guides for the journey are St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Other issues Hall sheds Patristic upon are the two natures of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the question of sin & grace, providence, the love of God, Scripture, ecclesiology, and the Resurrection (the final one).  He realised whilst writing that the topics covered weren’t enough, that something more needs to be said.  The third volume will help us draw nearer to the mind and life of the Fathers, for these men were not mere academics but practising, preaching, and worshipping pastors—thus, the question of Patristic worship is important.

The best things about this book are:  i. It blew my mind.  ii. It made me want to read more of the Church Fathers.  Each of these will receive a post of its own later.  Some other, more general comments on the book are the order for today, however.

My favourite chapters of this book were those that dealt with what I think of as theology proper—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Thus, “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, “Christ Divine and Human”, and “On the Holy Spirit” especially, although “God’s Wise and Loving Providence” helped draw me closer to an understanding of impassibility, a doctrine I am not yet comfortable with.  This may be that I do not fully understand what it means for God to be impassible; it may be that I am clouded and biased by my 21st-century ways; it may be that the Fathers are wrong.  The last option makes me very uncomfortable, because I tend to agree with things they all agree about.

One of the aspects of Patristic thought that this book helps to draws out is its focus on real, live theology.  These days, a lot of people talk about something called “theology”, but it’s really a Christian or biblical approach to certain issues—such as eco-theology and ethics, but even at times ecclesiology, sacramental theology, liturgical theology.  Very rarely do we say, “Gee, who on earth is God?”  The Fathers did.  Who is Jesus?  How does the nature of who Jesus is affect the way we live, think, are saved?  Who is the Father?  Who is the Holy Spirit?  How on earth are there three Gods and one God all at the same time?  The Fathers addressed these foundational issues, and then from this truly theological framework—one always rooted in the foundations of Scripture and tradition—dealt with other issues, such as justification and ethics.

Hall attempts to give Nestorius and Pelagius a fair hearing in this book, but at no point does he act as though the teachings attached to their names are legitimate orthodoxy.  This is a dangerous but admirable trait.  When we look at these figures of church history, we have to realise that every saint was also a sinner, and every sinner a potential saint.  And sometimes people said things that they didn’t necessarily mean, or hadn’t thought through properly, or expressed badly, or their followers took their arguments to their logical, heretical conclusions.[1]

Sometimes you want more than a mere exegesis of the Fathers as they exegete Scripture and tradition, bringing them to bear on the theological questions at hand.  Sometimes I want to know more than just what this one Father taught, more than just this one thought on a question.  Sometimes I want to see objections to these thoughts, or counter-arguments to objections in my mind, or a thorough “modern” rationale for these ideas.  At times, these elements are lacking, but not always.  When they are present, Hall sometimes takes too long going about it, and this may be why he avoids it sometimes.  It may also be that his mind did not conceive of the same counter-arguments to the statements of the Fathers as mine did.  However, this is not meant to be a complete display of all of Patristic thought on these questions, nor even on all questions, since some never even arise.

The authors presented by Christopher A. Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers are all major thinkers of the Patristic age, and their thoughts tend to be representative of the ideological climate surrounding the theological questions he addresses.  This book, as a result, is a good book to inspire people to explore the field of Patristics and Patristic theology further.


[1] This happens today with certain types of Calvinist.

Things That Go Over Heads: Grace & Freewill

One of my friends commented that my last post went over his head.  So, let’s try to sort out the content of said post.

We begin with the discussions of Grace & Freewill.  In our minds, as we look at theology in the West during Cassian’s day, two large figures arise surrounding this question: Pelagius, the heretic in favour of our ability to be saved by our own free will, and St. Augustine of Hippo, champion of salvation by the predestined grace of God.

Pelagius and his followers (some of whom went farther than he), as I understand it, taught that we only inherit Adam’s sin by bad examples.  We are born sinless and we can, through moral striving and ascetic effort, live a sinless, spotless, perfect life.  Our will is incapable of doing wrong; only our reason can do so.  We will wrong things only because we reason incorrectly.  Furthermore, of our own free will, not only can we live a perfect life, we can turn to God in faith.  God does not help the believer in this regard; to do so would be to obliterate his free will.  Since our wills are entirely good, we don’t even need God’s help!  God’s grace does not help the Christian turn in faith and be saved.

That is a heresy.  It is called Pelagianism; it is the heresy of pulling yourself up into heaven by your bootstraps.

St. Augustine, on the other hand, preached that God has predestined His elect for salvation.  We cannot will the good, since our wills are tarnished by the stain of Adam’s sin — for in Adam, as St. Paul says, all die.  Yes, we are saved through faith, but this faith is still bolstered by grace.  God’s grace enables us to have the faith whereby we are justified.  God is sovereign to save, and we are not.  No amount of effort and moral striving will save us from our sins; we are saved only by God’s grace, the grace that, in fact, enables us to live moral lives.

This is orthodoxy.  It is called predestination and is common to John Calvin and Martin Luther.

John Cassian, however, acknowledges that the Bible seems to say that we can, of our own free will, turn to God.  He also acknowledges that, due to our utter sinfulness, we require grace to be saved.  Throughout his works, as I mentioned, he runs counter to Pelagianism by stating the necessity of Grace in the ascetic life and that the monk must needs turn to God and his grace to be able to live as he should.  He gets into trouble, nonetheless, for stating that there is the possibility that someone could have the seed of faith and of turning to God of his own free will.  He qualifies this by saying that the grace of God takes this little seed and helps it germinate in the life of faith.  Cassian warns against Pelagianism on the one hand and extreme forms of predestinarianism (such as predestination unto death) on the other.

Cassian is accused by his opponent Prosper of Aquitaine — one of the men who helped forge Mediaeval “Augustinianism” — of directing many attacks against St. Augustine despite publicly approving of the African bishop.  Prosper is wrong.

Today, John Cassian is accused of being a “Semipelagian.”  Semipelagianism is half Pelagianism.  I don’t think it exists.

(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.

Semipelagianism

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.