In this episode, Kurt discusses with Augustine Casiday the importance of historical theology.
Kurt: Good day to you and thanks for joining me here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It’s a pleasure to be with you here again the week after Thanksgiving weekend. Last week, I was down in the city of Nashville visiting family and so Seth Baker, who is a regional associate of Defenders Media filled in for me from afar and gave a talk on the importance of apologetics in the enterprise of evangelism at large and Seth has some experience there on the college campus in Eastern New Mexico and he is a gifted young fellow and I’m glad that he’s part of our team and hoping that perhaps someday he might have a bigger part here on the Veracity Hill podcast. If you haven’t had a chance go back and listen to that episode. I think it was on the shorter end, maybe thirty minutes or so. And if you’re unfamiliar with why we might consider how defending the faith has anything to do in telling people about Jesus then I definitely want to encourage you to go and listen to that episode. Two weeks ago we had on, I forget how she qualified herself, Chris, Valerie Tarico. Wasn’t quite an atheist, but coming from a non-religious background, I know she’s given public talks on coming out of a fundamentalist background, but I forget how exactly she labeled herself.
Chris: I think it was a very kind of broad spiritualist.
Kurt: Broad spiritualist. That might be right. At any rate, I actually had someone advise me not to have her on because she I think has come off brash in some of her other talks and after the fact I went on YouTube to see that, but I thought our conversation went well. Interestingly enough, we found some common ground about how we should interpret the text, although we have ultimately come to different conclusions about the text, I thought the conversation was beneficial, and it’s good because that people of different worldviews can come together and have civil dialogue. We need more of that in today’s world.
Kurt: I want to encourage people to go back and listen to that episode that was two weeks ago so it would have been episode 71. Today is episode 73. For the love of historical theology. We are talking about what historical theology and specifically an area that’s been of interest to me in my research, but before we get into that I have to show you here this very fine looking USB flashdrive so this is the Veracity Hill USB flashdrive and if you become one of our monthly supporters at $20 a month, you get this flashdrive pre-loaded with some of our favorite episodes. We’ve already had some people sign up to get this. It’s a thank you gift for being one of our financial partners. This program could not exist and much less continue to grow without your support so we want to encourage you to help us to bring the program to a wider audience and as a thank you gift for donors at $20 a month or more we will send you this USB flashdrive preloaded with our favorite episodes and let me say this too. It’s not just a flashdrive. Get this. So for people that have newer iPhones with the USBC charge, look at that. I don’t know, Chris, if you can’t quite zoom in there, we’ve got the USBC on top so you can plug it right into your phone and listen to your episodes. Kind of nifty way of carrying around episodes without taking space on your phone. Otherwise, if you do have a podcast app, you can listen to the program at any time you’d like and I want to encourage you to do that. If you are one of those people, I also want to encourage you to write us a review on iTunes or Google Play, it helps to spread the word when new people encounter the podcast, they want to know what other people think and we’d love to get your review.
Today again, we are talking about the love of historical theology and joining me on the show today is one of my favorite historical theologians, Dr. Augustine Casiday. Augustine. Thank you so much for joining us on the program today.
Augustine: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Kurt: Yes. So you’ve written numerous works, various journal, tens of journal articles, books either authored, co-authored, or edited, some very important works on John Cassian for instance. I think he was part of your doctoral research back many years ago.
Augustine: That’s right.
Kurt: And you’ve written on Eastern Orthodoxy and it’s just, I was telling you before the show, I highly admire you, your work, your fine mind, and I think I’ve asked you this before, but I could tell I think, that you had studied, you came from a classical education background. Is that right?
Augustine: Yeah. That’s right. I started off when I was about 13 learning Latin and I’ve kept it up ever since, but my academic background is somewhat varied. I have, I’m from Alabama…
Kurt: You don’t sound like you’re from Alabama.
Augustine: No. No, I don’t. I’m an alumnus of the University of Alabama, the Iron Ball was a bitter pill to swallow, but that’s okay. When I was there I studied psychology, my first degree is in psychology, and I also studied to a greater level classics and philosophy, then I got a Master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1999 and that degree was in classics, Latin and Greek, and in 99, in I think it was August, might have been September of 99, I relocated to the U.K. and I’ve lived here ever since. I came to Durham in the northeast of England and between 99 and 2002 I was working on the doctoral thesis which as you say rightly was about John Cassian. Then I spent year as a post-doctoral fellow in Cambridge, the University of Cambridge, then back to Durham for a second post-doctoral fellowship. After that I was in Wales for about eight years I think, possibly nine years. Honestly, I lose track. Now I live in Glasgow.
Augustine: Eighteen years I’ve been here and I don’t know. I like it very much. The thing about being an academic is its easier to find work where you are than it is to make big transitions unless you’re some kind of superstar or all-star and what I’ve just described wasn’t exactly planned out or carefully orchestrated. It just sort of evolved that way and I don’t think I specifically said, but I should, that the doctoral research I did was in theology so that was the kind of final evolving of my interests…
Kurt: Professional, academic….
Augustine: Yeah. That’s right.
Kurt: But being there in the U.K., you went to some of the finer institutions to study historical theology. You were in a good spot.
Augustine: I mean Durham has gone from strength to strength in the time, in the past twenty years I would say, so it’s really good, and it was a remarkable place and still is, still is.
Kurt: That’s great. I want to talk, I’m sure we’ll talk more about John Cassian, I guess over there you say Cassian, but before we talk about him and maybe some other figures in this area of mutual interest to us, I want to talk about historical theology in general and first, let me ask you this. What would we consider is historical theology?
Augustine: That’s a great question. It’s an interesting subject area, because it’s very dynamic, very active, and there are lots of people participating in it, but I am not aware of many attempts to evaluate it, to describe it. I hesitate to use the word define it, but it’s a subject of enormous interest to me as a practitioner and I think that the way I like to approach these kinds of questions is, first of all, as someone interested in the circumstances of the past, so that in a kind of hermeneutic way, I am conscious of the difference between my situation as a reader of a text, because almost everything I do is textual, and the origins and transmission of that text that have brought it to my attention and the point I’m trying to make about the hermeneutic is that I want to suspend any confidence that I have that my own instincts and intuitions will inherently guide me toward a sound interpretation of the text.
Kurt: If I’m getting this right, historical theology is an attempt to really go, if you will, ad fontes, back to the source to understand what these historical figures, specifically say church leaders, believed about any given topic. Is that right?
Augustine: I’d say so, but you know over the last little while that I’ve been doing this, one of the topics that’s come into sharp focus for me has been the transmission and the development, the evolution, of themes across the historical period. I mention that because it seems to me one of the difficulties in historical theology as a subject area is that a lot of people who are at work in that area have probably a greater interest in literature as a subject area than they do in theology and it becomes very easy in that kind of situation to treat the text as an object in isolation. Now, counter to that, what I have had to do in a couple of cases which are very high level sort of academic and hopelessly boring…
Kurt: But you mean brilliantly….
Augustine: No. That’s awfully kind of you, but honestly, it’s not. What I’ve had to in a couple of cases is I’ve had to work backward and think about how the interpretation of particular texts or documents or figures has become fixed over time. Have you ever heard of a scholar of the works of Augustine of Hippo called Gerald Bonner?
Kurt: Oh. Absolutely. Yes.
Augustine: Okay. I had the good fortune of talking with him and meeting him and discussing things with him. He was retired in Durham before I arrived, but he was an incredibly generous man and a very talented interpreter and a good teacher. I remember distinctly something he said once. He gave a paper at one of our seminars. The example is a little dated, but make an allowance for that. He suggested that people would often have an idea of what, for example, Marx had said in Das Kapital, without ever having read, and I’m sure there are other examples that suggest themselves. I[NP1] suppose, if I were being really naughty I could suggest that a lot of people think they know what the Bible says without ever having read that.
Kurt: Well, yeah. That’s true.
Augustine: For instance. Anyway, the point that Professor Bonner was making and the point that stuck with me and has interested me in a lot of other ways ever since is how we come by these ideas, how it happens that people who are completely innocent of any direct exposure to any given major thinker, leader, figure, will nevertheless, feel perfectly entitled to make sweeping claims about that person’s thinking, that person’s influence or what have you. In a way, I see historical theology as a mode of interrogating what we take for granted and of engaging in the interpretation of the text in a way that is informed by a serious interest in the differences between the point of origin and the text and its various stages in its transmission and us as the modern readers.
Kurt: Yeah. So if I can try to summarize here, your concern and mission and rightly so is to look at areas when there might be a position held by pastors, lay level, or even academics, where they make a certain claim about what so and so believed, but how that doesn’t necessarily actually fit with what that person believed and we can think of a number of different examples and so as we get into talking more about some historical figures, I know that there are a couple of works out there, and especially one of them I have here, this book Grace for Grace, published by the Catholic University Press of America is a great book that tackles this head on. It’s one of the ideas regarding the label of a semi-Pelagian and so at least, and feel free to tell me about your experience, in my experience, a semi-Pelagian is someone who attempted to bridge a gap between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius and they were people that believed that man could devoid of God’s grace take a first step towards salvation. Is the description of a so-called semi-Pelagian accurate with what you’ve seen out there?
Kurt: Maybe I’m getting too technical.
Augustine: Alright. That is an accurate description of the category. Yes.
Kurt: But does that reflect the historical truth?
Augustine: mmmmmm. No.
Kurt: Yes. And I agree with your assessment.
Augustine: That is to say that there might be some people who have held that view, but what you have just described accurately and concisely is a pin portrait that was initially sketched by someone who had set himself against the views that he was describing.
Kurt: That is to say he built up a straw man. Right?
Augustine: Yes. Exactly. Straw man. That’s right. To a certain extent, he is interacting with and engaging with sources that we don’t actually know very much more about. That is to say, his criticisms contain the only remaining traces of otherwise lost documents. In those instances, we’re faced, those of us who do this from a scholarly point of view, are faced with a challenge of trying to extricate the texts that he is attacking from the attack that he makes on them. That’s in some cases. In other cases, most particularly John Cassian, we have an incredible amount of primary material written by Cassian and that enables us to look at the criticisms that are made and if you like, to criticize the criticisms.
Kurt: So, let me take a step back here. Is the person that you have in mind that have created this straw man and here we’re not talking about say, the originator of the semi-Pelagian moniker, which was some thousands years after the fact.
Augustine: That’s right.
Kurt: But the original person who built up the straw man. So you have in mind here, and correct me if I’m saying the name wrong or really the town that he’s from or area, Prosper of Aquitaine?
Augustine: Yeah. Aquitaine. That’s right. That’s who I’m thinking of.
Kurt: And so for those unfamiliar with these two historical figures…
Augustine: Which is almost certainly all of you.
Kurt: Let’s take a step back here and before we get to Prosper, let’s first talk about John. Who was John Cassian? Where was he from? What were his ideas? Why is he a figure that we should maybe consider cracking the primary works open to understand?
Augustine: As with a lot of people who lived this long ago, our information on certain points is not as unambiguous as we would like. When you try to build up an account of who he was, there are a couple of things that are very clear and there’s an awful lot more that is subject to debate. I don’t happen to have any strong views that are idiosyncratic about him so I’ll tell you what I think is generally agreed and maybe flag up a couple of the points of disagreement. He was probably born in or around the 350’s or 360’s. Where he was born, however, is a matter of some debate among specialists. There are two major schools of thought on this point. One is that he was from Gaul, modern-day France. The other view is that he was from Scythia, which is modern-day Romania. Now, what both of those places have in common is that they were both bilingual areas, areas that is to say where Latin and Greek were spoken. That’s worth mentioning because wherever it was he was born, wherever it was he grew up, he became a monk in Bethlehem. From Bethlehem, he and a traveling companion who might have been a cousin went to Egypt to see how monasticism in the heartland if you like, in the place where they did it properly.
Kurt: So to use the analogy, if you want to learn how to farm, here in the United States, you’d go to the heartland. You’d see how farrmers farm and you’d learn from the best.
Augustine: That’s right.
Kurt: In this case with Cassian, he went down to Egypt to learn how to be a monk and to learn from the best of the best.
Augustine: Yeah. That’s right. There’s a possibility that he was sending letters back to his monastery in the holy land and it can’t be established with any kind of confidence or certainty, but it is just possible that the material that he wrote and dispatched and sent back was the beginning of his two great collections. The first of them in the order in which he wrote them, the first of them is called the Institutes, the Institutes, the full title is the Institutes Of The Coenobia or the Common Life and the second one is called the Conferences. It’s kind of an interesting, the texts themselves have an interesting relationship. He begins the Institutes by explaining the meaning of particular things that monks do, the way monks dress….
Kurt: The daily lifestyle.
Augustine: That’s right. It almost looks like, in that case, it almost looks like at the beginning of the work something that could be used as a template for running an actual monastery.
Kurt: So it was an instruction manual…do you want to run a monastery? Here’s how to do it.
Augustine: Yeah. Of a sort. It’s pretty close. About halfway through the Institutes though the balance shifts from explaining the signifance of things different monks do toward relating what he had encountered and heard when he was in Egypt. The thing to draw to your attention about this is that about thirty years had elapsed from the time he was traveling in Egypt to the time he was writing the material. By the way, he was writing it in or around Marseilles, modern-day France.
Kurt: And it takes awhile to travel back in the late 300’s, early 400’s, to go all the way from Egypt all the way around the Mediterranean.
Augustine: It does, and I haven’t mentioned that after around the year around 400 he spent at least a little bit of time in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, in the company of….
Kurt: John Chrysostom.
Augustine: There we go. Yeah. That’s right. So, his life takes in much of the Mediterranean basin, I think that’s fair to say. What he’s done is he has written up his recollections of conversations that he had. He has specifically chosen topics that he wants to relate to his readers in Latin, in the West, and he’s done this, he specifically says in order to promote and encourage better monastic practice, which if you know this kind of literature, will perhaps sound familiar to you because that is a very similar rationale to what we find at the beginning of the Life of St. Antony by Athanasius[NP2] . Another book, which is purporting to describe how it’s done properly by the people who really know their stuff, the kind of all-star team, in this case, particularly Antony, but the preliminary letters in the Life of Antony indicates that it was written to promote good practice in the west.
Kurt: This is definitely something that still has relevance to this day in the west because while monasticism is something that’s more appreciated in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Roman Catholicism, it certainly seems to be something lacking in Protestantism. Before we go to a break, why don’t I ask you that? Why is it do you think that Protestants don’t have much interest in monasticism?
Augustine: I don’t know that I’m particularly well-placed to answer that question. I tend to sort of gravitate people who do have an interest and I can tell you that there are some exceptions. While what you say is generally true, there are Anglican monastics. There are Lutheran monastics. There is a modern movement that I understand occurs in Baptist communities that is monasticism in all but name.
Augustine: Yeah. It is. I’ve got, not a an awful lot of experience with that, but I think what you’re talking about is probably part of the heritage of Luther, of Calvin, of the Reformers, who had a particular line of criticism against what they took to be the excesses and the problems of some of the institutional forms of European Christianity. Monasticism is certainly one of them.
Kurt: We’ve got to take a break here. Ian who’s watching us on Facebook writes, “So we have a text describing monastic living in 4th century Europe? That’s fascinating. I didn’t know we had something like that.
Augustine: Oh yes.
Kurt: Indeed. And there’s more to it so Ian, keep sticking with us. We’ll take this two and a half minute break from our sponsors.
Kurt: Thanks for sticking with us through that short break with our sponsors. I am here today talking to Augustine Casiday who is a historical theologian and a fine one at that I should say.
Augustine: You’re killing me.
Kurt: Augustine, you wouldn’t know this, but for listeners of the program would, I haven’t spoken much on my doctoral research and that’s, of course, been intentional, and so I think a few weeks ago, part of my talk that I gave at an event, I talked about Vincent of Lerins and his interest in preserving orthodoxy, lower-case o, as you know, and so I talked a little bit about him then, but now also we’re talking about Cassian and so these are figures that I’ve been studying for a number of years now and I’ve read your works. I can’t say I’ve read all of your works. You’ve got many, and some in areas outside of my area so…
Augustine: I don’t think I’ve read them all either.
Kurt: Before we took the break, we were talking about John Cassian and his life and his interest and his writings and we see that Ian has learned something new following us on the livestream. Thanks again Ian for doing that. Before we get back into that discussion about John Cassian and then talking about who Prosper was and why studying historical theology is an important question even for us Protestants. I’m a Protestant and I see how this is a field that is really lacking in study of theology. Nevertheless, before we go further into the discussion Augustine we have a sixty second game here that I purposely did not tell you about.
Augustine: No. You did not.
Kurt: It is called Rapid Questions. These are just very simple basic questions, kind of goofy questions, that we ask first-time guests on the program and so you’ve got to answer them as quickly as you can. I know that you’re an academic and you like to think hard about these questions so we’ll see how quickly you can get through them. Are you ready?
Augustine: No. But let’s go ahead.
Kurt: Okay. I will start the game clock and when you hear the first beep, we’ll go. What’s your clothing store of choice?
Augustine: House of Fraser.
Kurt: Taco Bell or KFC?
Kurt: What is your favorite sport?
Augustine: Oooh. Gosh. Baseball I think.
Kurt: Great answer. Where would you like to live?
Kurt: What is your favorite holiday?
Kurt: What is your favorite movie?
Augustine: Oh my goodness. Favorite movie. The Godfather.
Kurt: Have you ever planked?
Kurt: Do you drink Dr. Pepper?
Augustine: Not often. No.
Kurt: This one’s easy. Have you ever driven on the other side of the road?
Kurt: Would you drink a Dr. Pepper if it were handed to you?
Kurt: Good. I like it. What’s one thing you’d keep if you’re stranded on an island?
Augustine: My sense of humor.
Kurt: The Hokey Pokey, Electric Slide, or the Macarena?
Augustine: Oh my goodness. That’s a tough one. The Macarena.
Kurt: Okay. Very good. Well, Augustine Casiday. Thank you so much for playing that round of rapid questions.
Augustine: You’re welcome.
Kurt: That’s great. You did fine. That was excellent. Wonderful. You’re quite academically minded which is a great gift and we’ve had some other folks that are very much inclined that way and they’ve struggled with the questions, but you were fine. So you said basbeall is your favorite sport. Tell me more about that. Why is it?
Augustine: Gosh. Because when I was growing up we used to go to watch the Braves, we used to go to Atlanta to watch the Braves play. I really enjoyed that and when I lived in St. Louis for awhile we would go and see the Cardinals.
Augustine: Yeah. I know. I know.
Kurt: I’m a Cubs fan.
Augustine: I know. I like it. I enjoy the experience of being there and watching it. I’d probably be rights should have said football, but I just think a baseball game is a lot more enjoyable an experience, being there and watching it.
Kurt: By football there are you referring to American football….
Augustine: Yes I am. The whole time.
Kurt: Yes. Yes. College football is huge in the South.
Augustine: Yes it is.
Kurt: It’s a big thing. For some people it’s a religion even.
Augustine: No. It’s much more important than that.
Kurt: Okay. So let’s get back to today’s topic. We are talking about the love of historical theology and why historical theology is something that folks should be interested to pursue studying and by way of a fine example of how historical theology is an important endeavor, we’ve been talking about John Cassian, a monk from the 2nd half of the fourth century and the 1st half of the fifth century. Late 300’s, early 400’s, for those following along there, and he had this life where he learned about monasticism in Egypt which was the monastic heartland, I’m going to steal that, by the way, Augustine, and moved and started a monastery himself in southern France and so you were clueing us in about his Institutes, the instructions that they provided but also just relating what he had learned from Egypt, but also tell me about his conferences. What are those about? What are the conferences?
Augustine: The conferences are a continuation of the presentation of the second bit of the Institutes where he is reporting, relating, the teaching that he encountered, so standard format is that he describes where he and Germanus, his traveling companion, where they were, and who they met with, and there’s a little bit of sort of stage setting as was needed. He might explain who someone is or something like that. They go and they meet an elder, an experienced, and they have a conversation. Usually the conversation begins with Germanus putting a question to the elder so that the elder will explain it. Cassian himself doesn’t actually relate his own contributions to these conversations very often. I mentioned a little while ago that the writings are roughly thirty years after the traveling in Egypt so that has lead to a fairly brisk conversation amongst academics and scholars about how reliable the accounts are. I have to say my position has been pretty consistent over the years. I don’t see any reason to change my view. My view is that Cassian explicitly says in his covering letters, the prepatory letters, because he wrote the Conferences in three batches. He says that he is going to be relating things that are useful for his readers, and I take that as Cassian’s not so subtle indication….
Kurt: Of authoritorial creativity if you will.
Augustine: No. I think that’s right. He’s actually saying at that point, that he has things that he thinks that his readers need to know about, and I think that that is as much an acknowledgment that what we’re getting here is not intended to be read as a kind of stenographic record.
Kurt: Not word for word.
Augustine: That’s right. In fact, this is the kind of bean counting exercise that makes scholarship so tedious, but I did go through, I went through the entire text, thank goodness these things are available digitally and it can be done a lot more quickly than it would have to be done manually and I looked for how many times he used any Latin words that indicate a direct quotation. Almost never. Almost never. There are almost no cases where he says he’s giving the very words of anyone or anything like that. What he’s doing instead is he presenting these teachings and he is choosing teachings that will be relevant for his readers so he’s nowhere said that he is providing a verbatim account of the teachings of his people. Right? But, all that said, but we also have other writings from other people who are contemporaries of his and those writings can give us some sense as to whether or not his, that is Cassian’s accounts, are plausible. By and large, it’s my view, my position, that they are plausible. It’s unlikely, it seems to me, that these are works of pure fiction.
Kurt: Sure. So getting back to the discussion if you will between Cassian and Prosper, tell me who is Prosper? Why is he an important figure during this era, the era of the debates of Augustine and Pelagius or shortly thereafter, and why Prosper’s writings should be of interest to us.
Augustine: Who is he? He is a hack. He is a second-rate, journalistic, nobody. That’s who he is. But he takes it upon himself to alert Augustine, who is still alive when this whole thing kicks off, about some teachings he has encountered and how he has taken upon himself to represent Augustine’s teaching and there’s actually a brief correspondence between the two of them. The difficulty here is the writings that survive from Prosper of Aquitaine, they don’t, to my way of understanding, portray him as a particularly insightful person. It’s interesting. The book that you flashed up a minute ago, Grace for Grace, the main editor of my book is my friend Alexander Hwang. He thinks much more highly of Prosper than I do and I am perfectly prepared to accept that his arguments are reasonable and they’re sound, but you see the thing that Prosper does is he tries to reduce absolutely everything to a single yes or no question and once you reach that point, everything is nice and tidy and monochromatic.
Kurt: In this context specifically, you mean to say here that for Prosper you’re either an Augustinian or you are a Pelagian.
Augustine: That’s right.
Kurt: And this is how he interprets Cassian and subsequently tells Augustine of Hippo about, and views them as in that lens, so maybe his communication to Augustine is a little off from reality as to what Cassian really believed.
Augustine: I think it is and the reason I think he’s off is because what he has done is, he has attempted to interpret one of the Conferences in particular, Conference 13.
Kurt: 13. That’s the big one.
Augustine: The big one. Yeah. The big one. The one on grace. He offers an interpretation of it, a kind of treatise of his own, and he shows us how he reads it. He gives us a specimen of his interpretative technique, and from my time as an academic if an undergraduate had presented something like that to me I would have marked it up really heavily and I would have probably given it about a C-. It’s just not that good. It’s okay, but it’s amateurish. I don’t know if this is something that’s come across, but I do want to make the point, what’s Cassian doing, the reason Cassian drew my attention in the first place, is he’s telling stories, which is exactly what the monks in Egypt are doing we know from the other literature we’ve got, and in telling these stories, he is communicating certain values, he’s communicating certain propositions, that are ethical, that are theological, that are to do with the interpretation of Scripture, that are to do with the practice of Christian virtues, and he’s doing it in the medium of telling a story. There’s a kind of freshness to it because it’s not a treatise. There’s a freshness to the way he relates his messages that is fantastic, but as with stories more generally, the text is open to interpretation to a much greater extent than a formal treatise would be. I think that where Prosper makes a big mistake is he attempts to
Kurt: Treat it as a different genre than what it is.
Augustine: Exactly. As you say. This incidentally is, I think, a pretty good example of how historical theology can be important. What we do, in reading this material, is we pay attention to things like the genre of the text and we look for other examples and we compare it to other more or less contemporary accounts and we try to avoid duplicating the mistake of a clumsy interpretation of the sort that I have to say, Prosper’s treatise against Caspian is a fantastic example. It’s a really, really, good example of a really, really, bad way of interpreting
Kurt: It’s a good example of what not to do.
Augustine: It is an excellent example of what not to do.
Kurt: And so, for Prosper he was so mistaken that he believed Cassian and the other monks who were leaders in southern France, he believed that they were literally the remnants, or remains of Pelagius, and so he communicates this to Augustine of Hippo and nevertheless, Augustine says that these guys are catholic orthodox brothers. They’re not heretics, so that’s good. But insofar as Prosper still communicated these ideas, there might be some straw men here and there.
Augustine: I think so. I think you’ve got it right. It’s an argument that will recur again and again and again.
Kurt: And again and again and again and in different labels.
Kurt: You’re a Calvinist or you’re an Arminian.
Augustine: Yeah. Oh, exactly. And it also turns up in the Catholic counter Reformation, and incidentally, it’s also very much on display in a lot of encounters between Eastern Christians and Western Christians of various sorts. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say that, for example, the Orthodox Churches are semi-Pelagian, and that’s absolutely nonsense. It is demonstrably false, but because the categories don’t mesh really neatly, there is, again this powerful drive to simply things and to reduce everything down to a single answer to a specific question and that strikes me as, it’s technically in certain circumstances it might have value, but it’s probably not the preferred option for a general strategy so anyway….
Kurt: It’s because yeah these theological ideas often times require nuance and when we try to shoehorn ideas into boxes, all the nuances might not fit and so sadly, the case is then that throughout time poor labels continued on and applied to different groups of people and it just doesn’t do justice to the reality.
Augustine: I think that’s a very good statement. Yeah. I think it’s also worth considering that there are genres that convey and communicate in different modes and those modes when they are used might be capable of expressing experiences and insights that aren’t necessarily translatable into another genre. Take for example, hymns, or poetry, or in the case of Cassian, stories. Not just Cassian, but in the case of Cassian, in the sayings of the desert fathers, in the spiritual and beneficial tales, devotional literature. These are, I would suggest, forms of art and in much the same way that a particular painting, for example, might be profoundly moving and might convey an experience that is not easily reduced into words, there are I think similar experiences, there’s a similar availability even in using words of expression that is particular to the literary form. People don’t write poetry because they aren’t able to write prose. Some of the finest poets are actually capable of writing beautiful prose. They write poetry because that form is particularly suited to what they are trying to create and it seems to me that the richness of the message of Christianity is such that it would be a mistake to try to restrict it and confine it simply to treatises.
Kurt: This is all very good stuff and a real encouragement to pursue studying historical theology. With just the few minutes that we have left in today’s program, Augustine, tell me, why is it that someone who’s say, even just fairly interested in these themes, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Augustine and Pelagius. Why is it that they should check out the book that you’re co-editor, Grace For Grace, and if you’ve already forgotten why they should, I’d be happy to say so.
Augustine: The thing is that if you say it you’re almost certainly going to embarrass me. I will say the thing is there is a perennial concern for explaining how humans relate to God that goes right to the core of Christianity, a religion of system of beliefs, as a set of practices, and the essays, chapters, in the book that you’re shamelessly promoting I must say.
Kurt: It is a great book!
Augustine: I’m really really pleased you think so and I will certainly let Alex know.
Kurt: It is arguably the best book out there on the Semi-Pelagians.
Augustine: Oh gosh. I don’t know about that, but the thing is as you will see in the chapters in that book, the problem of how humans relate to God is fleshed out with particular intensity during this period. Some of the chapters in there are fairly far removed. We have a contribution from a colleague based in Germany that is essentially about how this is reflected in the Eastern Christian church of a slightly later period. When you start to think about morality and about ethics, then the argument that they were having has immediate relevance. Is it possible to have a robust Christian morality if everything that is good is attributable only, and this is the key, only to God, and that I think what genuinely separated Prosper for example from Cassian. Prosper’s example to that question is yes you can and Cassian’s answer is much more doubtful. That we participate with God in a kind of steward like mode, that God creates and we tend and cultivate. That, I think, that example is, I find pretty helpful and I think it’s one of the reasons that I find Cassian very very appealing.
Kurt: And he uses the farmer analogy….
Augustine: So do the Pelagians..
Kurt: Right. Although and I’m glad you brought that up so we’ll just quickly just touch on that. Cassian wrote against the Pelagians.
Augustine: Yes he did.
Kurt: Just briefly, tell me a little bit about that.
Augustine: Okay. The basic idea here is that he considered the autonomy of the human person that was central to Pelagius’s message, he considered that to be heretical basically. The kind of language that we encounter in the broadly speaking Pelagian literature including things that were anonymous, they were written anonymously, is language like the strong inner citadel, and the idea that runs through the Pelagian material which is sometimes described as being optimistic is that humans are capable of doing good spontaneously, but that’s actually not so much what interests Cassian. What interests Cassian is the Pelagian assumption about how humans work that says that God cannot affect a change in the person’s life. The particular text is on the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh in the Pelagian literature, but what Cassian says is that’s nonsense. By our nature, the way that we are created and constituted, our integrity isn’t diminished when God interacts with us. In fact, it’s enhanced. That’s the nature of Cassian’s anti-Pelagian argument.
Kurt: And I think that’s a very important piece because it illustrates that there weren’t any Pelagian sympathies…
Kurt: These fellows weren’t trying to create a bridge between the two different camps. They advocated for a tradition that existed for many years before Augustine of Hippo or Pelagius.
Augustine: Let me just add one small point.
Augustine: To what you’ve just said because you’re quite right. I’d just add to what you said that the mistake that Prosper promoted, the one that really really matters is not so much about the misrepresentation of Cassian. It’s that there were just two sides. There weren’t. There were lots of people who debated against Pelagius. Augustine is only the best known of them. The first shots in the argument are fired by Jerome.
Kurt: Jerome. Right.
Augustine: Jerome is not an Augustinian. Cassian is not an Augustinian. It’s a mistake to think there are only two options here. It was a multi-lateral debate and that is lost if you accept Prosper’s account of the debate.
Kurt: Very good. We’ve run out of time. This has been a great pleasure for me to sit down here today to talk with you, Dr. Casiday, about the importance of historical theology and then in particular looking at this one incident where historical theology really does a great service to discovering the truth, the theological truths and themes that people believed back in the day. I want to thank you for coming on the show today.
Augustine: It’s been my pleasure absolutely.
Kurt: Great. God bless you and I’m sure we’ll be in touch.
Augustine: Good. I look forward to it. Take care.
Kurt: Bye bye. That does it for the program today. I am grateful for the continued support of our patrons. Those are people that just chip in a few bucks a month and again if you want to become one of our partners at $20 a month, you can get this very nifty USB flash drive here and it will come pre-loaded with some of our favorite episodes. I’ll hope you’ll consider becoming one of our financial supporters and we will send one of these to you pronto. I’m also grateful for the continued support of our sponsors, Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, The Illinois Family Institute, Evolution 2.0, Fox Restoration, and Non-Profit Megaphone. I want to thank our tech producer, Chris, for all of his great work today manning the livestream, and I want to thank our guest Dr. Augustine Casiday. Really, if you want to check him out we’ll have the link to his academia.edu website. You can see all of his wonderful writings if you’re interested to do that and finally I’d like to thank you for listening in and being part of our conversation and for ultimately striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.
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