BMCR 2009.02.46

Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy. Oxford Early Christian Studies

, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. xix, 316. ISBN 9780199279784. $99.00.

In the latter half of the fourth century the monk Jovinian became the center of a bitter ecclesiastical controversy regarding the relative value of asceticism, particularly sexual renunciation. Jovinian’s principal opponents were Pope Siricius, Ambrose, and Jerome, the latter publishing a particularly vicious attack against Jovinian in two books. Although condemned as a heretic for his views at synods in Rome and Milan in 393, the controversy surrounding Jovinian and his views continued, drawing Pelagius, Augustine and other writers into its orbit, writers who would seek to temper Jerome’s harsh critique of the condemned ‘heretic’. David Hunter’s monograph is the only full-scale treatment of Jovinian in English, providing a comprehensive investigation and analysis of Jovinian and his opponents, the background to their debates, and the late Roman social context in which rival versions of orthodoxy and heresy clashed.

Hunter divides his book into three parts: the first part, ‘Jovinian and his World’, comprises two chapters. The first chapter is an exercise in ‘Reconstructing Jovinian’: as Jovinian’s own writings have perished (the lamentable result of his condemnation as a heretic), it is necessary to sift through the writings of his opponents in an attempt to piece together Jovinian’s authentic views. Although the most important source for this critical enterprise is Jerome’s extensive refutation of Jovinian, Hunter begins with an examination of Pope Siricius and Ambrose on chronological grounds: the earliest mention of Jovinian is found in Siricius’ letter reporting the condemnation of Jovinian by a Roman synod, while Ambrose writes that Jovinian had fled to Milan following his condemnation in Rome, thereby indicating that the synod in Milan followed the synod in Rome. However, when Jerome published his attack on Jovinian in the spring of 393 he did not mention either synod, although he did refer to Jovinian’s condemnation in Rome in a letter regarding the reception of his work the following year. That Jerome does not mention Jovinian’s condemnation by the Roman and Milanese clergy indicates to Hunter that the synods took place at roughly the same time as Jerome was writing, that is, the spring of 393 (earlier scholarship had suggested a date of 390 for Jovinian’s condemnation). Having established the chronology of the controversy, Hunter moves on to an exposition and analysis of the central ‘four propositions’ of Jovinian as reported by Jerome, whose refutation of Jovinian provides many direct quotations from his opponent. The four propositions are as follows (p. 26):

1. Virgins, widows, and married women, once they have been washed in Christ, are of the same merit, if they do not differ in other works.
2. Those who have been born again in baptism with full faith cannot be overthrown by the devil.
3. There is no difference between abstinence from food and receiving it with thanksgiving.
4. There is one reward in the kingdom of heaven for all who have preserved their baptism.

Hunter’s discussion of these four propositions underlines the ‘sacramental and ecclesial foundation’ of Jovinian’s criticism of contemporary asceticism and sexual renunciation. In these four propositions ascetic merit is displaced by the common gift of salvation to which all Christians have access through the sacrament of baptism. A common baptism, rather than degrees of ascetic performance, therefore exerted decisive influence on Jovinian’s conception of salvation. It was this emphasis on the equality of all the baptized, and its concomitant rejection of an ascetically-determined hierarchy, that Jovinian’s opponents found so objectionable.

Hunter’s second chapter, ‘Jovinian and Christian Rome’, examines the more public and social aspects of Jovinian’s critique of asceticism within the context of late-fourth century Rome. This chapter begins with a survey of fourth-century criticisms of asceticism and monasticism, noting that as the fourth century neared its close the monastic rejection of marriage posed problems to pagans and Christians alike. Hunter describes the manner in which sexual renunciation necessarily entailed a rejection of the aristocratic elite’s social values; even aristocratic Christians would look askance on the celibate as a threat to ‘the continued vitality of civic life’. Hunter demonstrates the way this ‘novelty’ of asceticism, however, was adopted by the Roman aristocratic elite in a process of ‘assimilation and accommodation’ that would allow ascetic behaviour and ascetic piety to serve specifically Roman principles and values, resulting in a situation in which asceticism and aristocratic culture each shaped the other (e.g., the well-known wealthy ‘ascetics’ who had renounced marriage or embraced virginity while continuing to live as only those who owned extensive properties and numerous servants could).

The second part of the book, ‘Jovinian, Heresy and Asceticism’, begins with a chapter devoted to the background of the Jovinianist controversy, surveying Christian traditions of asceticism and heresy in the first three centuries, beginning with Jesus and Paul, and continuing with the Pastoral Epistles, Irenaeus, Tatian, and Clement of Alexandria. Noteworthy is the manner in which Hunter demonstrates that by the end of the second century, largely as a result of the influence of writers like Irenaeus and Clement, Christian ‘orthodoxy’ was inseparable from a rejection of radical encratite ideals (encratite theology taught that sexuality originated as a result of the introduction of sin into the world and was never a part of God’s original creation: the rejection of sex thus supported the quest to regain ‘the pristine purity of paradise’) and the acceptance of marriage. And yet Hunter traces the manner in which this second-century settlement would be largely overthrown by the third-century writers Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen, who introduced key features of encratite theology into their own treatments of marriage and sexuality, and who exerted significant influence on figures such as Ambrose and Jerome. The result was three streams of tradition: radical encratism completely rejected sexual activity, while moderate encratism allowed marriage and sexual intercourse even as their value was severely limited, and those following in the tradition of the Pastoral Epistles, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria rejected radical encratism as a heresy, maintaining that sex and marriage were both fundamental to a Christian understanding of creation and redemption. The second chapter of this section examines the relationship between encratite theology and heresiology in the fourth century, paying particular attention to the actual spread of Manichaean Christianity and the manner in which ‘Manichaean’ had become a stock accusation in the heresy-hunter’s arsenal, as well as the works of the prominent heresiologists Epiphanius of Salamis and Filastrius of Brescia. The chapter concludes with an examination of Ambrosiaster’s treatise ‘On the Sin of Adam and Eve’, which, along with the writings of Epiphanius and Filastrius, served to indicate the extent to which questions of the body, sex, marriage and original sin were still disputed in the fourth century, while also figuring prominently in accusations of heresy against the promoters of ascetic piety. In this regard Hunter makes it plain that Jovinian would have been promoting his own critique of ascetic piety within an established and recognizable heresiological tradition, a tradition which rejected the radical encratite assertion ‘that sex was a symptom of original sin’. The final chapter takes up the question of ‘Mary Ever-Virgin’: Jovinian had called Ambrose a Manichaean for defending Mary’s virginitas in partu (the doctrine that Mary’s virginity remained physically intact even in the act of giving birth to Jesus), indicating again to Hunter something of Jovinian’s anti-heretical concerns in disputing questions of ascetic piety. Hunter traces the development of this doctrine, demonstrating the extent to which biblical apocrypha, such as the Odes of Solomon and the Ascension of Isaiah, but above all the Protevangelium of James, provided the basis for subsequent doctrine regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity. Hunter also nicely connects the themes in these texts to classic radical encratism, so that Mary becomes the perfect fulfillment and model of the encratite ideal. And while the doctrine of Mary’s virginitas in partu did not have widespread support in the first three centuries of Christian tradition (appearing mainly in the apocryphal works mentioned above and being criticized by Tertullian and Origen, who wished to emphasize the fully human character of Jesus’ birth), it had certainly begun to feature prominently in Ambrose. Hunter’s analysis shows that Ambrose had made Mary’s virginity a pervasive feature of his soteriology and ecclesiology, so that virginity became the model for humanity’s redemption from sin and stood atop a hierarchy of ascetic merit. This hierarchy of ascetic merit, with virginity at the top, was sure to conflict with Jovinian’s claim that by baptism all Christians share a common ecclesial holiness.

The final section of Hunter’s book, ‘Jovinian and his Opponents’, begins with a chapter examining the critiques that Siricius, Ambrose and Jerome leveled against Jovinian. From Hunter’s investigation it emerges that each of these three writers had their own unique reasons for rejecting Jovinian’s four propositions: Siricius was mainly interested in bolstering clerical authority and enforcing the discipline of clerical celibacy, and while Ambrose shared this concern he also demonstrated a particular interest in female virginity, and Hunter suggests that Jovinian’s views may have threatened the prominent authority of a bishop active ‘in the recruitment, veiling, and supervision of consecrated virgins’. Finally, Jerome, unlike Siricius or Ambrose, was interested not simply in the sexual renunciation of clergy following their ordination, but rather in promoting the prestige of the monk-priest: Siricius was reluctant to accept monks immediately to the episcopate (preferring instead the usual progression through the clerical cursus honorum), while Jerome felt that the bishop’s easy acceptance of many married men into the clergy already demonstrated a level of laxity unbefitting the ordained ministry. As a result, Jerome’s ruthless attack on Jovinian was interpreted by many as of its first readers as a scandalous treatment of marriage, if not quasi-heretical. The response to Jerome’s repudiation of Jovinian forms the subject of Hunter’s final chapter, in which he traces the development of a mediating position between Jovinian and Jerome in the following decade. Figuring prominently here are Pelagius and Augustine. Interestingly, while Pelagius departs from Jerome by rejecting the radical encratite notion that sex is somehow bound up with sin and the Fall, he nevertheless explicitly opposes Jovinian on the matter of an ascetic hierarchy, promoting the view that virginity, sexual continence and marriage all merit different rewards in heaven. Augustine, on the other hand, in his two small treatises De bono coniugali and De sancta virginitate (Hunter follows Hombert in dating both to 404 rather than 401) introduced a new element into the discussion of a hierarchy of ascetic merits. While agreeing that celibacy was superior to marriage (against Jovinian), and yet insisting that marriage was indeed something good (against Jerome), Augustine destabilized the utility of a sexually focused ascetic hierarchy by positing the existence of virtues superior to sexual renunciation, such as readiness for martyrdom.

Hunter’s study of the Jovinianist controversy is an admirable contribution to the study of late antique Roman society. Contemporary scholarship has developed quite an elaborate literature on asceticism and sexual renunciation in late antiquity, as well as on the development of orthodoxy and heresy. Hunter’s monograph provides invaluable—indeed, required—reading on both counts. While past scholarship on Jovinian tended to wear its prejudices on its sleeves, Hunter’s treatment moves beyond the partisan readings that characterized previous treatments by Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars and provides a nuanced, balanced and comprehensive treatment of Jovinian’s background, opponents, and legacy, while also providing the definitive exposition and analysis of Jovinian’s own theological and heresiological aims. In doing so Hunter has not only advanced our understanding of ‘Marriage, Celibacy and Heresy in Ancient Christianity’; he has also provided us with a wonderful example of what the best scholarship in late antique Christianity ought to look like.