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Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 359-361 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0039

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David Aers’s latest journey toward ecclesiological understanding makes for an intriguing read. In five densely argued and heavily documented chapters, he provides close and passionately engaged readings of Augustine of Hippo on conversion; William of Ockham on grace, predestination, divine power, and the sacraments; Thomas Bradwardine on these same topics in his attacks on the Pelagianism of late fourteenth-century “modern” theology; Julian of Norwich’s response to her question “What is synne?” in the context of her theology of agency, redemption, and reconciliation; and, in the longest chapter (and in important ways as an a priori concern), William Langland’s theology of sin, grace, and agency. The fact that some of these works are in the vernacular is not of primary importance to their analysis here as theological texts. It is, indeed, one of the valuable contributions of Aers’s work to demonstrate that all of these texts deserve to be interrogated seriously for their theology (xiii–xiv).

“Theology” is, then, the first of the terms used in the title of the study that requires some clarification: Aers’s work in this book is in the field of systematic theology. He is most concerned with the choices authors have made in their arguments touching on the question of agency in the Christian conception of redemption, that is to say, the interplay between divine grace and human action in performing good works in the process of salvation of the human soul. What takes center stage in the analysis are the consequences of these authors’ choices and what they say about the authors’ standing in Aers’s interpretation of the tradition of Christian dogmatics, mainly through Augustine and Aquinas. One will also find Karl Barth quoted here as a primary source defining this tradition alongside medieval authors. It follows, second, that for Aers the word “sin” in the title designates a general state of sinfulness. This conception is not limited to original sin; it includes as well the continuing possibility of the human will to refuse to be drawn to redemption, to act against “the good that is common to all whose source and end is God” (138). But only rarely (see, e.g., 104–5) does the book take into account the exacting and concrete analysis and classification of acts of sinfulness that loom so large in fourteenth-century pastoral thinking. What precisely constitutes a sin, at what precise point an action becomes delegitimized as evil, and what precisely a sinner must do about this to continue in the process of the soul’s salvation as a member of the community of the church—these are ever-present and urgent questions in the moral theology of the later Middle Ages, but they are not part of the tight focus of this study.

The procedure Aers follows is to contrast his own views with recent trends in the scholarship of the authors he is investigating that incorrectly problematize the authors’ place in the contexts of the Christian tradition emphasized here or that have insufficiently focused on the difficulties of placing the authors within this tradition. Charles Taylor’s view of Augustinian radical reflexivity, or semi-Pelagian readings of Piers Plowman, belong to the former category; in the latter are Rega Wood on Ockhamite theology, readings of Bradwardine that uncritically apply the term “Augustinian” to his works, and Denise Baker on Julian’s “correction” of the medieval Church’s “ideology of sin.”

The reader will find many searching and important observations here. The consequences of Julian’s conception of humanity’s two-part soul, a higher portion that remains forever in contact with God, encompassing an unfallen will, and a lower portion that wills to sin, are, as Aers notes, “congruent with the Manichean belief that Augustine recalls” (164). When Julian then equates sinfulness with suffering that cannot transcend itself, rather than with an act of the will turning away from God, the result is a moral vision that shows distinctive differences from common Christian teaching on these topics (157). As Aers further argues, under the pressure of combatting the Pelagian emphasis on human agency in redemption, Bradwardine insisted to such a degree on God’s freedom in offering grace that...



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