The size and importance of Christian history

St Bernard, c. 1450, in Musée de Cluny, Paris. My photo

Part of learning what I call ‘Classic Christianity’ as a means towards rejuvenating your spiritual life is discovering not only the theology and worship and devotional practices of the past but also learning the story of Christian history. A few months ago, I was struck by how much of it there is, and why, therefore, this is an important field of study and reflection for the thoughtful Christian.

It all started with Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle. At one point he stops to take count of the time since various events, such as from Creation, Abraham, Jesus, that sort of thing. And the time from Abraham to the Incarnation of the Lord is about 2000 years.

Most of the Old Testament, except for the very beginning of Genesis, takes place in those 2000 years. And all of it was written in those 2000 years. The Old Testament is the telling of the faithfulness of God towards his chosen people and the revealing of his character through his interaction with human history, whether through prophets, poets, priests, or kings.

We are now 2000 years the other side of Jesus Christ. We and Abraham, who is the beginning of the Covenant, are the same distance from the Saviour temporally. This is worth thinking about if you believe that the God of Christianity who is present here today is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We have 2000 years of the history of God with his people up to the coming of Christ. He has not abandoned that people. And if he is the same sort of God, who made himself known from Abraham to the Apostles, he will probably be acting in the same sort of ways (unless you’re a specific type of Dispensationalist, I guess).

This means that Christian history is not simply the record of A-Z, how we got from Jesus to Pope Francis and Billy Graham. While the writing of it is not Scripture and therefore not revelatory in the same way, it is still the story of God’s faithfulness to his people.

A careful, reasonable, yet prayerful reading of Christian history is a way of accessing the story of God and His people. Learning the stories of the saints and theologians and councils and heretics and attempts at reform and monastic foundations and so on and so forth is a way of learning how God has acted and still acts today.

I hope, therefore, that you will take an interest in the stories of the Church, from the martyrs like Sts Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna to the mystics like Sts Hildegard von Bingen and Gregory Palamas, to the reformers like Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer, to missionaries like St Patrick and Bruchko (Bruce Olsen). Their stories will show us the living God who is still here, who has always been here, who will stay with us forever.

Saint of the Week: Palladius of Ireland

This is partly an attempt to get the Saint of the Week off the ground, partly a commemoration of St Patrick’s Day.

Palladius looks oddly Victorian here …

Today I (sort of) read the fifth-century Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine. In the year 431, he tells us:

Palladius, having been ordained by Pope Celestine, was the first bishop sent to the Scots believing in Christ. (trans. A. C. Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul, p. 68)

Now, if you’re not really paying attention (especially to dates), you are likely to take that as a reference to missionaries to Scotland. But it’s not. It’s a reference to a missionary to the Scots, who, at this stage, would have been a people group living in Ireland.

The Chronicle of Ireland gives us much the same thing for 431 (as do most [all?] other chronicles that touch on Palladius):

The kalends of January. In the 431st year from the Incarnation of the Lord, Palladius was ordained bishop by Celestine, bishop of the city of Rome, when Aetius and Valerius were consuls, and was the first to be sent to Ireland so that they might believe in Christ, in the eighth year of Theodosius [II]. (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, p. 63)

One would hope that the next year would be more informative about this not-so-famous bishop for the Irish. We get:

The kalends of January, AD 432. Patrick, i.e. the archbishop, came to Ireland and began to baptize the Irish in the ninth year of Theodosius II, in the first year of the episcopacy of Xistus, 42nd bishop of the Roman Church, in the fourth year of the reign of Lóegaire son of Niall . (This is the reckoning of Bede, Marcellinus and Isidore in their chronicles.) (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, pp. 63-4)

In its ensuing chapters, The Chronicle of Ireland gives us information about St Patrick’s mission. But the first we hear of Palladius is also the last.

My well of primary sources for early Irish history having now run dry, I turn to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer, a trusty book if ever there was one; it comes complete with a bibliography for each entry, after all. According to this source:

Palladius seems to have landed and worked mainly in Wicklow, where three places, Tigroney, Donard, and Cilleen Cormac (near Dunlavin), claim to be churches founded by him. His apostolate was not of long duration and was soon forgotten; it was in the interest of those emphasizing the role of Patrick that it should be. It seems likely that Palladius went from Ireland to Scotland, whether from distaste for his task or from the hostility which he encountered, or both, is not clear. He died there and the place of his death is claimed to be Forddun and there is still a cult of him in Aberdeen. It seems certain that Palladius and not Patrick was the first bishop to work in Ireland, that he is not to be identified with Patrick, that the evidence for a papal mission of Palladius is stronger than that for Patrick, and that a Scottish tradition that he preached in Scotland for twenty-three years is unreliable.

So there are the rest of the details we know about Palladius. What I think is most important, regardless of the task of sorting out the Palladius-Patrick chronology (which would require getting a hold of some other chronicles), is that Patrick is not the first missionary in Ireland. Not only that, neither Patrick nor Palladius is the first Christian in Ireland. Our earliest reference to Palladius is contemporary, and according to it, there were already Irish believing in Christ.

Palladius’ job was to go and be their pastor, their shepherd, to oversee the work and life of the Christians there, and to help link them with the wider Christian world. He seems to have given up on the Irish and gone to Scotland, but his little entry in Prosper is still of great significance for students of Christianity in Ireland.

His feast is July 7, so maybe you should drink a green beer in Palladius’ honour this July.

Leo and Attila

Besides being author of the famous Tome and orchestrator of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Pope Leo I is most famous for meeting with Attila the Hun and stopping him from sacking Rome. We first hear of this in Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicon for 455:

Now Attila, having once more collected his forces which had been scattered in Gaul [at the battle of Chalons], took his way through Pannonia into Italy. . . To the emperor and the senate and Roman people none of all the proposed plans to oppose the enemy seemed so practicable as to send legates to the most savage king and beg for peace. Our most blessed Pope Leo -trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube. (cf. Medieval Sourcebook)

The Liber Pontificalis makes this encounter with Attila pretty much the most important thing in Leo’s pontificate. And why not?

Well, it certainly wasn’t a big deal to Leo, it seems.

Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Prosper published the entry for 452 in 455, I would doubt that this ever happened. I would say that Prosper had made it up to glorify his great hero Leo (second only to Augustine for this Augustinian) or that Prosper, way over in Gaul, had been misinformed.

I would say such because the evidence is a bit weak. Leo wrote eight letters in 452 that have come down to us, on 27 January, 22 May, 11 June, and 25 November. He preached an Epiphany sermon (Serm. 37), a Lent sermon (Serm. 45), two Holy Week sermons (Serm. 62 & 63), an Advent sermon (Serm. 19), and a Christmas sermon (Serm. 28). He seems to have been in Rome for much of the year. The trip to meet up with Attila must not have taken up a lot of time.

Leo’s episcopate lasted for nine more years after Attila left Italy. Leo wrote many more letters and preached many more sermons that have come down to us. In none of these does he mention an encounter with Attila.

If Prosper is correct about this encounter, what does that say about Leo?

Something good, I reckon.

(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.