Final Examination of
for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Friday, December 7, 2012
10 a.m., Caldwell Room 125
Reassessing Pelagianism: Augustine, Cassian, and Jerome on the Possibility of a Sinless Life
Director: Dr. Philip Rousseau
The classic understanding of the debate commonly called the “Pelagian Controversy” is that grace was the central issue at hand. This view may be traced back to Augustine, whose superior rhetorical skills successfully established the debate on his terms. As a result of this narrow, Augustinian lens, an assumption has been passed down through the centuries that his opponents were an organized and centralized movement bent on corrupting Christianity.
This understanding, however, is dismissed today. Scholars now understand that the men who have been put under this umbrella term had a variety of interests and concerns. They, however, still have tried to determine a common theme that unites these men. A variety of responses have been given: an affirmation of free will, denial of original sin, preserving divine justice, defending the efficacy of baptism, and ethical concerns. These answers are inadequate as the single and only cause of the controversy. A more fruitful answer, as Michael Rackett has shown, is that the tie that bound these men together was the claim that it is possible to live a life free of sin.
Although scholars have begun to investigate the variety of ways that sinlessness was understood by Pelagius, Caelestius, and Julian of Eclanum, little work has been done with this question regarding their interlocutors.
This dissertation intends to fill this lacuna by analyzing Augustine, Cassian, and Jerome concerning the possibility—or impossibility—of living a life free of sin. By doing so, it will attempt to accomplish several goals: (1) it will construct a narrative of how these fifth-century Fathers reacted to their opponents’ claim of the possibility of sinlessness. (2) It will then demonstrate that the theological views of the Church Fathers were not uniformly Augustinian; they were much more diffuse and variegated than previously argued.