Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.01.32

Kevin Uhalde, Expectations of Justice in the Age of Augustine.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.  Pp. 248.  ISBN 978-0-8122-3987-4.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Jamie Wood, University of Sheffield (
Word count: 1679 words

Uhalde's (hereafter U) book is a first-rate piece of scholarship. It deals with a complex issue in an accessible style and offers numerous new insights into existing areas of discussion, while remaining firmly grounded in both the primary and the secondary literature. The work examines the ways in which the bishops of the period 370-430 'explained the failure of justice to themselves and their followers' (p. 2). U charts the complex relationship between the bishops' responsibility for divine justice and their engagement in the day to day business of worldly justice, the failure of which led to the creation of the evidence base upon which U draws. The book is divided into six chapters. I shall take each in turn before making some general observations by way of conclusion.

In the Introduction (pp. 1-15) U lays out the basis for his argument that the creative interaction between theory and practice led to a series of distinctive changes to Christian conceptions of divine justice that accommodated 'the unpleasant reality of worldly justice and its failings' (p. 3). Instead of focussing on debates within ecclesiastical elites, U examines interactions between the church hierarchy and the 'world', exploring the judicial records of the period to discover something about the relationship between contemporary religious beliefs and social practices. U then briefly situates his work within historiographical debates about the 'fall' of the Roman world, the 'decline' of Christianity from a posited Golden Age, the development of a shared legal culture. He summarises: 'The single most outstanding factor of change in the way elites handled justice and the way ordinary people experienced it was the rise in the person of the bishop as an official who bridged the theory and practice of justice' (p. 8), and it is the episcopal figure that U focuses upon throughout the rest of the work. The Introduction ends with a brief outline of the subjects that will form the basis of the four substantive chapters.

Chapter 1 ('Calumny: Well-Known Reasons Why Justice Fails'; pp. 16-43) traces the development of thought about calumny and calumny reform in the legal evidence--both imperial legislation and canon law. U does this in order to gain a perspective on how bishops came to terms with the limits to their authority that became explicit throughtheir failure to restrict the actions of those who would commit calumny. U begins by exploring the well-developed judicial culture within which the bishops of late antiquity had to operate. The history of calumny (a technical term meaning false accusation, but frequently taking on a much broader meaning to encompass anything that might threaten the judicial system and its ability to deliver justice), the various measures that the emperors and their agents took to discourage and punish calumniators and to combat the effects of their actions form the central plank of this analysis. The final part of the chapter (pp. 29-43) explores how such issues were dealt with by the episcopal courts, how the actions taken by the court often proved ineffective in the face of wilful disobedience, and how bishops responded in the face of the failure (aptly termed 'the background of unrelieved uncertainty' by U at p. 43) of their attempts to end the activities of calumniators.

Chapter 2 ('"Judge Like God": What Bishops Claimed to Expect of Themselves'; pp. 44-76), like that which preceded it, examines the disjunction between the ideal and reality. In this case, U examines the tension between bishops' supposed ability to discern the truth and their actual failure so to do. A series of case studies guides the reader through the various ways in which the idealised image was established. It was deeply grounded in established patterns of discourse about Christian authority, particularly the idea that the ideal bishop had the ability to see past deceit, discern the truth and render just judgement. The second half of the chapter (pp. 67-76) outlines the failure of this concept in the face of a series of practical challenges. The familiar enemy, calumny, looms large in this part of the chapter. The risk of false accusation was, unsurprisingly, seen to be particularly high for those committed to a life of ascetic sexual renunciation and strategies thus developed to protect ascetic men and women from calumniators. The chapter closes by looking at Ambrose of Milan's response to the failure of justice, concluding that even this most experienced of operators in the ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical courtrooms 'was content to have left the tension between the ideology of divine justice and the reality of worldly justice not only unresolved, but virtually unacknowledged' (p. 76).

Fortunately for U, other Christian leaders were not happy with unresolved tension and this is the subject of chapter 3 ('Christian Oaths: A Case Study in Practicality Over Doctrine'; pp. 77-104). This chapter focuses largely upon Augustine of Hippo, his fellow bishops and those with whom he exchanged letters, charting in the process the whole-scale adoption of oath-swearing by the church. U begins by examining early Christian attitudes towards oaths and oath swearing. These were often hostile in the early years of the new religion. He then traces the evolution of Augustine's thinking on the matter, from a hard-line attitude of opposition to the practice to one of acceptance. Again, U demonstrates how this development was rooted in Augustine's daily interactions with those ordinary Christians who were wrestling with matters of trust and uncertainty. As in the previous chapters, U moves from an examination of oaths in their numerous social contexts ('The Public Life of Oaths', pp. 80-84) and their early Christian milieux ('Solemn Promises plus Some Exemptions'; 'Exegetes on Swearing', pp. 84-88) to the specific contexts in which his subject, in this case Augustine, confronted the issue. The remainder of the chapter expertly explores Augustine's various interventions on the matter of oaths, charting a gradual development from outright hostility in the mid-390s to the later full-scale absorption of oath-swearing as sacrosanct. This is charted through the detailed examination of a series of inquiries from epistolary correspondents, social interactions in Hippo, and theological musings on the topic. Using Augustine as a microcosm of greater developments allows U to effectively explore pragmatic late antique episcopal accommodations to the practicalities of everyday life: 'Uncertainty was inescapable, trust in society was indispensable, and bishops were the crucial link to God and divine justice' (p. 104).

Chapter 4 ('Mercy not Justice: How Penance Became a Worthy Act of Self-Incrimination'; pp. 105-134) argues that the practice of penance was shaped by some pastors 'around the mandate that Christians become their own judges' (p. 105). In this chapter the temporal focus of the work moves forward into the fifth and sixth centuries. U demonstrates how the bishops of the period strove to refocus the attention of their flocks onto the Final Judgement, the point at which God's ultimate justice would be enacted. Since penance was central to the reception every Christian could expect to receive at the final hour, one of the main concerns in this chapter is the relationship between penance and the pastoral care that bishops were expected to administer to the Christian congregation. As with previous chapters, U explores the pre-history of penance and its reuse by the theologians of late antiquity and the early middle ages. In this case, he explicates the 'heroic' (p. 117) origins of penance--Peter, David, Adam--as well as bishops' attempts to construct idealised images of exemplary contemporary penitents. The analysis concludes by exploring the connections between mercy and justice, discerning a 'major shift in the relationship between popular expectations and episcopal responsibility for the provision of justice' (p. 131). Each individual Christian now had to take personal responsibility for the problems raised by calumny and the social bond. For bishops, penance therefore offered a solution to the problem of 'spiritual calumny' (p. 134) -- the possibility of sin lurking in every heart.

The Conclusion (pp. 135-137) briefly restates U's ideas concerning the centrality of discrepancies between the ideal of divine justice and reality of worldly justice to the development of Christian ideals about how to guarantee the functioning of society. U therefore charts a gradual move from the certainties of the early Church fathers concerning the strict division between right and wrong doctrine to a realisation that the absolute categories of divine justice and salvation made little sense in their new and ever changing world, a realisation rooted in the practicalities following the conversion of Constantine, including the emerging practical, judicial role of the bishop and the need to absorb many thousands of reluctant converts (p. 136).

The main text is followed by a list of abbreviations (pp. 139-141), a detailed set of endnotes (pp. 143-196), an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources (pp. 197-225), and an index (pp. 227-232). The index includes all of the major topics covered in the individual chapters, but could do with a greater degree of cross-referencing. For example, there is no entry on 'Final Judgement' or similar, despite the issue being present in several other index entries.

I found the style of writing highly engaging, although the number of headings and sub-headings within chapters was somewhat irritating at times. While they did break up the text, some of the sections are little more than a couple of paragraphs long and actually divert the reader's attention from the argument. On the whole, the book is probably too short. The result of this was that I was left wanting more, for example, about how the patterns that U so skilfully charted developed further into the early Middle Ages. I would also have liked more on perceptions of the Final Judgement, as this would surely have been the logical final extension of U's examination of conceptions of justice up to the stage of penance.

Despite these minor criticisms, I found this book easy to read, thought-provoking, and illuminating all at the same time. I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone broadly interested in Late Antique religion and society, especially to those working on the emerging role of the bishop and on the legal culture of the period.

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