BMCR 2007.07.05

Tradition and Theology in St John Cassian. Oxford Early Christian Studies

, Tradition and theology in St John Cassian. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xiv, 303 pages).. ISBN 9780191538087 $99.00.

Table of Contents

The writings of John Cassian (c. 360-435) have never wanted for acknowledgement: monastic authors from Benedict of Nursia to Adalbert de Vogüé have commended him for his discernment on the causes of sin, his understanding of contemplation, and his profound insights into the spiritual life. Yet at the same time, from the mid-fifth century, Cassian’s writings have been under a cloud of suspicion, and even his most ardent admirers have been forced to dodge or explain away the suspicion that he was tainted with the heresy of Pelagius. In this important and self-consciously revisionist work, A.M.C. Casiday sets out to convince the reader that not only was Cassian not a Pelagian of any sort, but, as well as being a master of spirituality, he was an adept and indeed profound theologian.

Casiday seeks to correct several views, perhaps most importantly the idea that somehow theology and spirituality are two separate things and that, while Cassian might be a fine and insightful spiritual guide, his theology is suspect. Casiday argues that in fact spirituality and theology are two sides of the same coin, and Cassian is a master of both. The introduction sets out the goals of the book: that Cassian was an “adept promoter of a monastic tradition of theology” (3); that his works are theologically informed right down to their very foundations; and that he was no Pelagian of any sort.

If Cassian is the hero of this work, then the villain is no doubt Prosper of Aquitaine. It was Prosper who tarred Cassian with the brush of semi-Pelagianism, and so Casiday’s first task is to examine that charge. To this end, he considers the Pelagian controversy and Prosper’s own place in it. While Casiday states, perhaps a little too simplistically, that the contest is often viewed as a debate between Augustine and Pelagius, he argues that this paradigm does not really fit our evidence, that Pelagius’ opponents came in many stripes, and that Prosper’s self-appointed position as arbiter of the Augustinian heritage should be questioned. Casiday argues quite convincingly that Prosper’s understanding of Cassian is defective (19), that Prosper consistently misrepresents Cassian’s position on the nature of grace and free will, and that his great attack on Cassian — the De gratia Dei et libero arbitrio contra Collatorem — is filled with erroneous quotes from Cassian’s works and passages mendaciously ripped from context. Casiday also examines the works of some of the other “Provençal Masters” — Vincent of Lérins, Faustus of Riez, and Valerian of Cimiez — and comes to the same conclusion: that while Prosper is a master in “deploying the hermeneutics of suspicion” (28), his understanding of the anti-Pelagianism of these writers makes clear that he was “a second-rate theologian who was a first-rate controversialist” (41). In fact, what Casiday demonstrates throughout the first half of this chapter is that these Provençal Masters, including Cassian, were themselves engaged in a battle against both Pelagians and Predestinationists, that they recognized Augustine as a theological authority, and that they made abundant, if not uncritical, use of the writings of the north African bishop.

The second half of the first chapter is devoted to an argument that the monastic dimensions of Augustine’s theology have been under-appreciated by scholars. Here, Casiday hopes to show that both Cassian and Augustine shared a Mediterranean ascetic koine that they used in their analysis, discussion and ultimate rejection of Pelagianism. Casiday finds much more in common between Cassian and Augustine than is usually thought, including some aspects of a common anthropology, and concludes that both men were monastic theorists “whose theological writings we can understand properly only by taking into account the impact such a life must have had on their thinking” (68).

Chapter Two, “Cassianus versus Pelagianos” begins with an examination of Pelagian beliefs. Building on the work of scholars who have argued that there was no uniform ‘Pelagianism’ Casiday examines the spectrum of beliefs of those who have been put in the Pelagian camp. He shows how Cassian’s anthropology, theology of grace, and christology were “fundamentally at odds” (73) with Pelagian teachings. Even in Cassian’s earliest work — The Institutes — Casiday argues that the will has a much more problematic function than most Pelagians would ever admit; and in Conference 12, Casiday shows how Cassian rejected the belief in an unsullied will. Throughout his works, in fact, Cassian speaks of the inevitability of sin, and though he can envision sparks of good will not directly caused by God, he notes that such sparks are hopelessly inadequate and direct divine intervention is needed for any real spiritual progress.

The last section of the chapter sounds a theme that will not be taken up until the end of the book: Cassian’s christology. Here, Casiday notes that Cassian categorically rejects any reduction of Christ to a role model for Christians, a position which he accuses the Pelagians of endorsing. But Cassian will use the sometimes suspect term “homo assumptus” — a term associated not just with Origen, but also with Theodore of Mopsuestia, and later adoptionists — as a grounding for his own christology. And, despite the problematic nature of the term, Casiday again concludes that there was no common ground between Cassian and the Pelagians: while both were keen on promoting moral reform, their messages were fundamentally opposed.

The second half of this chapter examines Conference 13 vis-à-vis Pelagianism. It has long been read as Cassian’s response to Augustine’s De correptione et gratia, but this leads to a problem in dating. Traditionally, this conference, and the rest of the second set that were published along with it, were dated to a period before Honoratus became bishop of Arles in 426, but this means that there would not have been time for Cassian to respond to the Augustinian tract. Owen Chadwick resolved this problem by redating the beginning of Honoratus’ episcopate, but Casiday rejects his argument in favor of the earlier date for a number of reasons, but especially because he does not read in Conference 13 much evidence of anti-Augustinianism at all. Instead, he suggests that Cassian was in fact responding both to a letter Prosper says he had written and to a “brisk trade in homespun Augustiniana” (117), including currents of Predestinationism, that had taken root in Gaul. Thus, he concludes, Cassian was not involved in a battle against Augustine and his teachings, but rather he was “preoccupied with a different, ascetic task: cultivating a kind of humility inconsistent with Pelagian preaching” (118).

Chapter Three seeks to find a place for Cassian in the milieu of the Egyptian monastic tradition. Casiday is in part responding here to scholars who have attacked Cassian’s reliability as a source for understanding the traditions of the Desert. These scholars, at least according to our author, have created an idealized Desert populated by anti-intellectual Coptic peasants. They have contrasted this ‘authentic’ Egyptian monastic tradition with the teachings of over-intellectualized, foreign, hellenized, and philosophical monks like Evagrius Ponticus. Instead, Casiday finds Egypt filled with monks participating in literary and philosophical culture, receptive to contemporary currents in exegesis and theology, and more than open to receiving outsiders from other traditions. (Casiday makes the important and common-sense point that if the ‘locals’ were so hostile to outsiders, why did foreigners like Evagrius settle among them?) There is a wealth of evidence showing that Egyptian monasticism was intellectually vibrant before, during, and after Cassian’s visit, that monastic authors and their audience continued to be receptive to broadly ‘Origenist’ trends, and that almost all of our knowledge for this comes from Coptic writers. He concludes therefore that Cassian’s teachings do not represent some aberration of true Egyptian monasticism, but rather that we must take his reports of Desert life, spirituality, and theology seriously and see in Cassian a valuable source for Egyptian monasticism.

Chapter Four discusses Cassian’s teachings on prayer, and it has two goals: the first is to show how Cassian explains the apostolic admonition to pray constantly (1 Thess 5:17); the second is to assess Cassian’s place in the eastern monastic tradition on prayer. Although Cassian believes that prayer is the ideal means to avoid sin, it is also most desirable in itself. In Conference 9, abba Isaac discusses a hierarchy of prayer — supplication, vows, intercession, and thanksgiving — and, although each type of prayer is appropriate for any person at any time, the monk must attempt to advance in this ontological scheme. For abba Isaac, the means to progress from one level of prayer to the next is through praktike, that is, through asceticism. Casiday highlights the sad story of the monk Serapion, who, when the anti-Origenist decrees, with their attack on anthropomorphism, were read in his monastery, cried out that they have taken his God from him. Isaac makes clear that while Serapion had achieved the highest ascetic state, his lack of knowledge, of theoria, had led him down a blind path. For Cassian, then, right practice was not enough: ascetic prowess, no matter how super-human, is unsustainable without right belief. Thus, Cassian links the two intimately together: asceticism is not a prerequisite to theoria, but rather its necessary partner, and perfect praktike, while never completely attainable in this life, must always be striven after. And the combination of the two makes the life of the monk a constant prayer. But, for Cassian, none of this is possible without the constant help of the Holy Spirit as well: humans cannot attain either praktike or theoria without its help, because of the inherent weakness of the will. Thus, Casiday explains, while Cassian had a profound interest in the Holy Spirit’s involvement in our life of prayer, he has correspondingly little interest in Christian heroism and self-sufficiency.

Chapter Five offers a careful reading of Cassian’s polemic against Nestorius, the De incarnatione Domini. It is a work that has almost universally been either pilloried or ignored, and those who do read it have accused Cassian of shameless distortion of the Nestorian position. But Casiday argues convincingly that the few scholars who have examined Cassian’s christology have misunderstood it. For instance, Casiday shows that at no point did Cassian ever deviate from an orthodox position. Although he uses language that at times is unlike that of such fathers as Athanasius, and his approach differs, Cassian firmly endorses the teachings of the fathers and the councils. And Casiday examines Cassian’s methods as well, and finds in the structure of the treatise an important clue to Cassian’s methods of working: for instance, roughly the first half of the text is a tour de force of biblical exegesis. For Cassian, the Bible is “fundamentally a testament of Jesus Christ’s actions in history” (242), and thus he is able to weave the various strands of Scripture into a consistent and convincing account regarding Christ, his work in human history, and his nature. For Cassian, right belief depends on right interpretation of Scripture, and that in turn brings spiritual knowledge. Such knowledge is twofold, consisting of, once again, praktike — improvement of morals and purification from faults — and theoretike, which consists of the contemplation of things divine. The former cannot be attained without ascetic struggle, but such struggle alone does not guarantee contemplation. Cassian firmly argues that no one can understand Scripture without Christ: without Christ, there is no reason for praktike, there is no correct exegesis, there is no spiritual knowledge, there is no theoria. Thus, Nestorius, with his false understanding of the nature of Christ, cannot possibly understand the Bible appropriately. In the end, for Cassian, “a tight and life-giving explication of Scripture is possible only for those who are living a holy life; and … the holiness in question, while it may be found in diverse callings, is authenticated by the Church” (247). Thus, Cassian’s christology is intimately connected to his monastic works: it systematically draws together not just the disparate christological teachings in The Institutes and Conferences, but it makes clear the christological foundations for the teachings about praktike and theoria found earlier.

The book ends with a brief conclusion summarizing Casiday’s main arguments, and two short appendices, one on the influence of Prosper on modern scholarship, and one discussing Cassian’s position on miracles.

Almost all of Casiday’s arguments are persuasive, and certainly his main thesis — that Cassian needs to be taken seriously as a theologian of the first rank — convinces. This reviewer, however, found a few problems. The work of earlier scholars is sometimes mocked (eastern Christian claims that theosis is their exclusive cultural patrimony are “risible”, on p. 59; Grillmeier’s pages on Cassian’s christology are “more truculent than they are learned”, on p. 223), a practice which leaves the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable. This, of course, might be the result of a young and very bright scholar feeling that he has to take on 1500 years of tradition in his effort to rehabilitate his hero. Also, the social science format for the footnotes makes checking references more burdensome than it should be — should a reader really be expected to remember that Brown 1972b is the article on Manichaeism rather than on Pelagius, without having to engage in the cumbersome task of checking the twenty-nine page bibliography? Although Casiday clearly knows Robert Markus’ The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, 1990), I was disappointed that he does not fully engage in tackling Markus’ belief that both Augustine and Cassian were defenders of Christian mediocrity. He appears to take both sides at various points in the book, but perhaps this is because Casiday is offering something more nuanced: his Cassian sees the monastic life as both the vita angelica and an ongoing struggle against sin; it offers a foretaste of heaven, but only in bits and pieces; the rewards of prayer are available to all no matter what their place in Christian society, and are attainable only through a lifetime of ascetic effort.

I should conclude by reiterating that Casiday’s Tradition and Theology in St John Cassian is an important book. It will help awaken us from the dogmatic slumber Prosper of Aquitaine has cast over us, and allow us a new appreciation of Cassian not as a tiresome transmitter of Evagrius Ponticus or a misleading teller of tales from the Egyptian Desert, nor even as a spiritual guide and a monastic master, but as a creative, ambitious, and even, dare one say, systematic theologian, whose works — all of them and not just The Institutes and Conferences — deserve a high place in the canon of western thought.