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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Gratia Et Certamen: The Relationship Between Grace and Free Will in the Discussion of Augustine With the So-Called Semipelagians by Donato Ogliari (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium, 169: Peeters; dist. David Brown Book Co) Magisterial study conceptually carefully crafted, historically nuanced and theologically deft.

The issues involved in the discussion between the monks of Hadrumetum/Marseille and Augustine range from questions of initium fidei and naturae bonum, to the understanding of predestination. The monks' reaction to Augustine's doctrine of absolute sovereign grace must be seen as a plea in favor of a harmonizing approach, where human commitment is also envisaged as playing, at times, a primary role. In the light of a dialogical synergism, of a unitarian and cosmic view of God's oeconomia salutis, and relying on a strong ascetic framework, the monks biggest fear was that the implications of Augustine's predestinarian view would jeopardize the importance of the struggle for perfection, the meaning of God's universal salvific will, of Christ's redeeming action, and finally of the Church. The different theological traditions to which Augustine and the monks appealed play also a significant role, as do the specific social and religious context in which they respectively moved.
Excerpt: It is necessary at this stage to clarify the method and the specific aim(s) of the present work. First of all, our investigation is restricted in time and range in that it is limited to the initial stage of the controversy, namely to the time in which the issues on grace, free will and predesti­nation were tackled in Africa and Gaul during Augustine's life time. We will not take into consideration the second and longer stage of the con­troversy, which stretched into the 6th century, right up to the 2nd Council of Orange (529). This second stage will be referred to in the Epilogue, in which we will give a brief summary of the Nachgeschichte of the con­troversy up to 529.

One of our main purposes is to assess the historical and theological framework in which the debate started and developed, yielding a unique contribution to Western theology and culture, the repercussions of which continue up to this day. For this reason a genetic methodology will be applied to help us retrace the Sitz-im-Leben in which the discussions between Augustine and the monks of Hadrumetum, and those between Augustine and the monks of Provence, took place. It is clear to us that Augustine was rather alien to some teachings and attitudes which were part of Eastern Christian and monastic culture and with which, con­versely, the monastic settlements (particularly in Southern Gaul) were conversant. Since we are convinced – as Aristotle once pointed out – that when things are observed from their origins and followed through in their development, they can be perceived and elucidated more clearly, we have deemed it necessary to retrace on a larger scale (when that is possible) the influences that have determined the line of thought of the two parties at the beginning of the so-called Semipelagian controversy. Analogously, and on a smaller scale, this genetic methodology will be applied to the literary production of the dramatis personae, according to a chronological order. This has been somehow more evident with regard to Augustine's vast literary output, in which possible developments of thought (where a development is present at all) can be detected and reasoned in the light of a historical and logical approach. The relatively modest literature produced by the monks of Hadrumetum and Southern Gaul, among which the works of Cassian occupy a prominent place, does not lend itself to an "inward" genetic methodology. For this reason we will try to understand the position of the African and Gallic monks in the light of the insights that their writings disclose, particularly in the light of the ascetic and theological connections they enjoyed with the pars Orientis.

The Massilians' link with the eastern thought in the matters of theol­ogy and asceticism brings us to the other important, not to say central, aim of our research, namely the conviction (perceivable in various ways all throughout the pages of the present work) that the ascetic/monastic perspective of the anti-Augustinian party played a major role in the so-called Semipelagian controversy. We believe that the debate between Augustine and the African and Gallic monks was not so much affected by theoretical premises or pre-suppositions about the relationship between grace and free will as by the attempt to define the potentialities and/or the limits of human effort within the framework of the Christian "struggle" for perfection. In fact, as we have hinted at in the title of this work, we believe that the underlying concern that runs across the debated issues finds its full expression in the way in which the relation-ship between divine benevolence (gratia) and spiritual struggle (certamen) is understood. Such a concern pertains primarily to the very mean­ing and "function" of "agonism", viz. ascetic and monastic effort, in the life of the believer. In our opinion, it is precisely through the rationale of the ascetic/monastic undertaking and the struggle for perfection that the position of the African and Gallic monks vis-à-vis Augustine's concept of grace, faith and predestination, can be properly assessed, both intel­lectually and spiritually.

Attention will be also paid to the Pelagian tenets, at least in as far as the monks' attitude intersected with them, particularly in questions strictly connected with the ascetic drive and the moral commitment demanded by it. Even if the African and Gallic monks considered them-selves anti-Pelagian, we cannot rule out the existence of an "ascetic thread" that, more or less unconsciously, made for a mutual sympathy and understanding when it came to actual involvement in Christian life. We thus surmise that the monks of both Hadrumetum and Southern Gaul had probably shared the ascetic endeavour characteristic of Pelagianism, without having to share the doctrine that it purported, for, as it has been suggested, it was perfectly "possible to reject the letter of Pelagianism but still be seduced unawares by its spirit". It is not at all unlikely, in fact, that the high moral standard and the masculine spirituality encour­aged by Pelagianism may have had a positive impact on our monks. Nevertheless, we should not expect to find direct, literal influences. As for the relationship with Eastern theology, also with regard to Pelagian-ism we can detect some affinities, reminiscences and parallels which, in this particular case, probably go back to a common background. At times, however, the result of the comparison between the arguments will simply confront us with their irreconcilability or with the impossibility of finding a coherent and unassailable solution. Like a jig-saw puzzle, some of the pieces may turn out to be missing whilst others simply do not fit, leaving us with the inkling of a possible (but still pending) solu­tion. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that when the history and development of monastic asceticism and culture cut`across the path of complex theological problems, the latter are not simply viewed or solved from a dogmatic point of view. On the contrary, they are approached from within a specifically monastic ethos, an ethos which besides tend­ing to the preservation of the riches of tradition (even in matter of doctrine), tries to assimilate these riches in a manner that nowadays would probably be defined as "practical" theology. This is an attitude which maintains all its relevance in a monastic setting.

Last but not least, we have deemed it necessary, in the course of the present work, to deal with the "re-discovery" of Paul's letters (above all his letter to the Romans), which from the second half of the 4th cen­tury began to play an increasing role in theological discussions, includ­ing that between Augustine and the Massilians. Although the Christological debate was not over (the dogma of the theandric nature of Christ will be solemnly proclaimed at the Council of Chalcedon, in 451) the Christian writers were confronted with the re-emergence of vital questions linked with the "absolute" mediation of Christ for the attainment of salvation, and its significance for the life of the believer, vis-à-vis the understanding of God's grace, his universal salvific will and his gratuitous election, on one hand, and the "relative" mediation of the Church, on the other. Paul will become more and more a privileged locus in which to look for enlightenment and solutions to the under-standing of God, the divine direction of the cosmos and the meaning of man's life both in this world and in the next.

Regarding the more concrete application of our research, we will ini­tially focus our attention on the content of the writings that deal with the relationship between grace and free will, both in Augustine and the monks of Hadrumetum, who were the first to react openly to some aspects of the bishop of Hippo's doctrine of grace, vis-à-vis the role of free will (Chapter 1). The historical and theological background will be analysed with the aim of better understanding the significance of the African monks' reaction to the bishop of Hippo. The following issues will be developed: the particular quest for perfection that was built into the ascetic-monastic ideal, its rise and diffusion, and the propagation of an Augustinian monasticism existing beside a non-Augustinian monasti­cism, of which the monastery of Hadrumetum was an example. Apart from the Ep. 217, written by Augustine to Vitalis, a cleric of Carthage, who had raised problems similar to those that the monks of Hadrumetum would eventually raise, the starting-point of the controversy must be seen as the vivid disagreement provoked in the community of Hadrume­tum by Augustine's letter-treatise to Sixtus (Ep. 194), a former supporter of the Pelagian movement. The handling of the crisis is well known, thanks to the survival of an epistolary exchange between the bishop of Hippo and the superior of the community of Hadrumetum (Epp. 214-216). Augustine's treatises De gratia et libero arbitrio and De correp­tione et gratia', in which the bishop of Hippo directly addresses the problems raised by the monks, contained an expounded explanation of the role of free will, the nature and necessity of grace, the need for and the meaning of reproof (vis-à-vis God's gift of perseverance), the signif­icance of predestination, the emphasis on God's role in redemption, the issue of Adam's non-perseverance and the question of the two economies of grace, concerning respectively the first Adam, and the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

Our investigation will then concentrate on the rise of Massilianism, seen from its historical and theological background (Chapter 2). The rise and development of monasticism in Provence, especially in Marseilles and Lérins, will be studied with particular reference to John Cassian, the most representative spokesman of the Massilian communities at the time of the debate with Augustine. Close attention will be paid to Cassian's view on grace and free will, as it is to be found in his monastic writings, the De institutis coenobiorum and the Conlationes, and more specifically in his Conlatio 13. We will attempt to prove that this particular confer­ence was written in direct reaction to some of the assertions made in Augustine's De correptione et gratia, the work held responsible for fuelling the opposition in Southern Gaul. Mention will then be made of the two Gallic laymen Prosper and Hilary and the information they passed on to Augustine concerning the Massilian position (cf. Epp. 225 and 226); information which in turn caused the bishop of Hippo to reply in the De praedestinatione sanctorum and the De dono perseuerantiae. In these two writings Augustine comes to terms with such ques­tions as the role of grace with regard to the beginning of faith (initium fidei), the teaching on predestination (with a particular focus on the example of the gratuitous predestination applied to Christ and the bap­tized infants), and the grace of final perseverance.

After having set both the works of Augustine and Cassian in their own context, and after having revisited their content, the next step will be to retrace the pre-history or the theological background that made the Mas­silian resistance to Augustine possible (Chapter 3), seen through a "bird's-eye" view of the mutual interplay of grace and free will in the pre-Augustinian theological tradition. This overview is meant to give us a better insight into how these concepts have influenced Christian doctrine and affected its development, and to contextualize Augustine's "innovative" position and the more traditional position held by the Mas­silians. Our survey will emphasize the synergetic teaching of the Eastern theologians whose influence, through Origen and Evagrius, had reached Cassian and the Gallic monastic communities. As mentioned above, in fact, one of our main goals will be to show how much the monks of Provence, through the mediation of Cassian, owe to Eastern theological tradition; their comprehension of the co-operation of divine grace and human agency, considered within the framework of the ascetic/monastic struggle for perfection, should be understood in this light. Our attention

will eventually be drawn to the specific issues that reveal a substantial difference between Augustine's and Cassian's approach, namely the questions of the naturae bonum and the initium fidei. Whereas Augus­tine's main concern was to deal with the issues at stake by endeavouring to answer the question of "how" decayed man might become free, Cass­ian continued to adopt the eastern viewpoint, according to which, God's saving activity takes place within a "cosmic", "unitarian" and "paideu­tic" process in which mankind takes an active part. The influences on Cassian's thought, gleaned from his theological, monastic and cultural background, particularly the Origenian-Evagrian theological systems, the spirituality of the Fathers of the desert, and the philosophy of the Stoa, will be investigated and taken into account.

Strictly speaking, the relationship of grace and free will cannot be divorced from the problem of predestination, and apart from the specific writing devoted to it (the De praedestinatione sanctorum), this problem also appears in several other of Augustine's works. We will devote a special section (Chapter 4) to this controversial issue. It is well known that the bishop of Hippo developed an independent thinking on this sub­ject, quite apart from the traditional teaching of the Church. In fact, in the eyes of his adversaries (and the Massilians too shared their view), his approach smacked of fatalism and was reminiscent of his earlier adhe­sion to Manichaeism. For that reason we will attempt to re-discover the original understanding of predestination and divine election in the early Christian tradition as it appears in Scripture, but particularly as it was understood by Paul. A comparison will then be drawn between Augus­tine's novel view, based on the sister doctrine of original sin, and the doctrine of irresistible sovereign grace. Some of the problems ensuing from Augustine's concept of predestination, will be taken into consider­ation and discussed: the interplay of prescience and predestination (which, in Augustine's view could no longer be seen as synonyms), the inference of a praedestinatio gemina and a consequent asymmetrical theological determinism, the meaning of such concepts as massa damnata / massa sanctorum and certus numerus electorum, the problem of divine justice vis-à-vis divine mercy, and the restricted interpretation of 1 Tim 2,4 over and against the indisputable proclamation of God's universal salvific will.

The Conclusion or final evaluation (Chapter 5) will highlight once more the differences of approach between Augustine and the monks of Hadrumetum and Southern Gaul. We will pin-point the difficulties they were confronted with in attempting to solve the questions in debate, and the impasse they eventually led to. We will also try to show how the

different attitudes held before scriptural revelation, the received tradition of the Church, as well as the social and ecclesiastical climate of the times and the monastic phenomenon, influenced and shaped the theolog­ical thought of both Augustine and the Massilians.

Finally, those who have some familiarity with Augustine's works are all too well aware of the obstacles the reader is sometimes confronted with. The lack of systematisation, the tortuousness of his thought, often interrupted by long parentheses or by the introduction of other issues, and the many repetitions in his writing, frequently frustrate any expecta­tion of finding a linear explanation. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that such "interference" prevents the enquirer from mak­ing hasty judgements, or reaching apodictic and one-sided conclusions. It also acts as a reminder that the author's reiteration might well repre­sent his insistence on the importance of some of his insights. Moreover, it must be said that the repetitions occasionally give birth to some significant nuance eventually seen as important to the understanding of a particular thought. Guided by this concern, the content of the primary sources related to our topic will be presented following the layout allotted them by their respective authors, even though we are aware that, at times, this might give the impression of a lack of order and a repetitiveness to the work.

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