- Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology
In his insightful and passionately argued new book, David Aers continues his investigations into the theological significance of late-medieval English literature in which once again Piers Plowman holds pride of place. Long known for a combination of scholarly erudition and an engagement with political issues of class and gender in his writing, in recent years Aers has been increasingly explicit about his desire to distance himself from the “work habitually done in English departments” by announcing his allegiance to more theological “modes of inquiry” (p. xiii). Without fully abandoning his earlier commitments to left-leaning positions on social justice, Aers now evidently writes from distinctly Christian convictions. The book is thus both a work of scholarship and an implicit witness to the author’s personal faith, and he is well aware that not all of his colleagues in the secular academy will sympathize with his religious commitments. However, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss his work—despite some repetitiveness and the author’s occasional habit of adopting a hectoring tone—since his great learning and fine [End Page 259] critical acumen insure that his arguments have much to offer students of latemedieval religious writing.
The book, exceptionally well produced and containing few typographical errors, comprises five chapters that cluster around a set of closely related themes. Chapter 1, “Augustinian Prelude: Conversion and Agency,” examines Augustine’s views on the relations among divine and human agency, grace, and sin. Unlike the shallow Augustinianism of an earlier generation of medieval scholars influenced by D. W. Robertson, Aers’s account is based on his detailed familiarity with an astonishingly wide range of the saint’s voluminous writings. It is also informed by a mastery of modern theological scholarship that few if any literary scholars can match. Augustine’s analysis of his conversion as effected by the cooperation between his will and God’s promptings is emphasized, as well as his scrutiny of the consequences, for both individuals and their social institutions, of the enslavement of the will through habitual sin. Augustine’s subtle and lucid teaching provides the theological framework for the series of case studies that follows. To the extent that the theological positions of fourteenth-century writers are not “congruent” (a favorite word of Aers’s) with Augustine’s views, they are they found to be significantly wanting; of the writers he studies, only Langland survives such a test. Aquinas, who at one point is even described as “a great Augustinian theologian” (p. 67), is frequently cited only insofar as he shares Augustine’s distinctive approach. Modern theologians, especially Karl Barth, are admitted to the fold when they serve to confirm the Augustinian line of argument. Chapter 2, “Illustrating ‘Modern Theology’: Sin and Salvation in Ockham,” analyzes the most influential of the so-called moderni, whose obsession with God’s potentia absoluta leads Ockham to stray from an authentic “Christological” perspective. Chapter 3, “Thomas Bradwardine: Reflections on De Causa Dei contra Pelagium et de Virtute Causarum,” demonstrates that despite Bradwardine’s reputation among modern scholars as a fourteenth-century Augustinian, he makes “a profound break with the Augustinian theology he thinks he is defending” (p. 76) against the moderni, above all for “the lack of sustained Christological theology in his work” (p. 79).
Beginning with Chapter 4, “Remembering the Samaritan, Remembering Semyuief: Salvation and Sin in Piers Plowman (the C Version),” the book turns the rest of its attention to matters of vernacular theology, advancing the argument that Langland’s views are thoroughly congruent with Augustine’s. In making this case he rejects the “hegemonic” view among scholars (pp. 84, 85) who read Langland as Pelagian (or semi-Pelagian) because of his alleged belief that if a sinner “does what is in him” (facere quod in se est) by his natural powers unassisted by grace (ex puris naturalibus), God will reward that effort with his grace. To counter this interpretation, Aers argues that Langland at a crucial juncture of the...