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REVIEW
from issue no. 05 - 2010

The great Pelagian conception: Christianity is an education


“It is clear that Jonas feels sympathy for the conception of Pelagius because he feels it closer to Stoicism and a certain kind of Judaism. In fact, after saying that for Pelagius the grace of Christ consists in ‘inducements to the will not active helps’ and that ‘they are not a transformation of man but an education of man’, he exclaims in admiration: ‘This is the great Pelagian conception’. This is the crux of the book and of Jonas’ thinking”. Nello Cipriani reviews Problemi di libertà [Problems of freedom] an unpublished text by Hans Jonas


by Nello Cipriani


Hans Jonas’ <I>Problemi di libertà</I>,
edited by Emidio Spinelli, Nino Aragno Editore, Torino 2010, 466 pp., EUR 35.00

Hans Jonas’ Problemi di libertà, edited by Emidio Spinelli, Nino Aragno Editore, Torino 2010, 466 pp., EUR 35.00

Earlier this year the publisher Aragno brought out an unpublished text by the philosopher Hans Jonas of Jewish origin (1903-1993) in an Italian translation by Angela Michelis and with the original English text in the appendix, edited by Emidio Spinelli. The work, entitled Problemi di libertà, is a collection of lectures given by Jonas at the New School for Social Research in New York in the spring of 1970. In these lectures the philosopher makes an acute analysis of the way the idea of freedom first developed in Greek philosophy, especially in Aristotle and the Stoics, and later in Christianity after passing through Judaism. The first six lectures are devoted to the scrutiny and exemplification of the idea of freedom in the Greek philosophers, the seventh notes the new features introduced by Judaism, the remaining seven lectures analyze the thought of St Paul in the Epistle to the Romans in chapter seven, but especially the thought of Saint Augustine.
Particularly interesting are the pages where Jonas, starting from the doctrine of creation, discusses the difference of the “Jewish-Christian conception of man from the classical Greek conception, of which the Stoics were representatives” (p. 337). In Stoic philosophy, which sees the world dominated by fatalism, “the problem of freedom is translated into the problem of achieving a maximum of inner independence with a kind of retreat from the relevance of the external engagement of man” (p. 324). The world is seen as a living being absolutely sufficient to itself, capable, through the immanent logos, of bringing into order all the conflicts that occur in it because of the incessant becoming of things. Man is like a compendium of the world in which he lives: he, too, through reason is able to dominate all the impulses from the outside that threaten his peace of mind. For the Stoics, then, “the real freedom of man consists in what they call my complete power of giving assent to, or withholding assent from, anything that offers itself” (ibid.). It depends solely on me “to say yes or no, to accept or reject” (p. 325), and this power will be achieved “through a process of inner self-education and self-discipline” (ibid.). In conclusion, according to Jonas, the Stoics’ “is a very courageous morality and it asserts human freedom in the face of Fate while contracting the dimension of relevance into the rational ego of man” (p. 326).
With the faith in creation, taught by the Hebrew Bible, the world and people lose their autonomy and self-sufficiency: all creatures owe their existence to God the Creator. Man, however, according to Genesis, is created in God’s image and as such is enabled to govern other creatures and discern good from evil. The image, therefore, Jonas notes, “means that which man may become, may make himself into, provided he makes a proper use of this power, for the power to discriminate between good and evil is not merely an intellectual power to recognize good and evil but a power of choice, a capacity for choosing” (p. 342). “So the freedom of man’s moral will is the essential thesis for the possibility of man’s conforming to his divine original” (ibid.). In Judaism, therefore, “man is an extremely questionable being” (p. 343): he has the ability to be a son of God but also to be the opposite. The fact that he was created in God’s image entails a duty to be holy as God is holy. Precisely for that purpose the Jewish people were given the Law, which was “imposed on man as an obligation and burden and at the same time as a great concession to his limited stature” (p. 344). However, another major problem for the believer arises with the Law: “how can I face the examination of God, before whose eyes nothing is hidden? A conception of tremendous consequence in the history of man’s self-understanding comes into being here, i.e., that there is One before whom nothing is hidden, so that what I may like to think about myself or may flatter myself with, may not be true in the eyes of this One who sees everything and is bribed or deceived by nothing… It was the Hebrew prophets who first discovered that the objective side of the Law is not the only one, but may go together with a forgetfulness of God or with a spirit far from the true will of God… It is at this point that the Christian problem of the human self and human freedom came to be formulated, first by Paul and later by Augustine” (p. 345). According to Jonas, the apostle Paul diminished the salvific value of the Law, to exalt the cross of Christ. For this purpose he stressed the inherent pride of man, because of which even those who try to be righteous before God take complacently to themselves the merit of his justice. This innate pride, then, is said to be due to the corruption of our nature resulting from the sin of Adam, the first man. “Thus,” says Jonas again, “the Christian problem of freedom rests on this basic non-empirical, non-philosophical, unverifiable, in one sense atrocious but in another sense very impressive doctrine of the helplessness of man’s nature in the face of the moral Commandment” (p. 347). Were we capable of fulfilling the Law, not only in the letter but in the spirit, we could find salvation by ourselves, but then Christ would have died in vain. “In the Jewish conviction,” he continues, “the Law, with all the pitfalls it may have, yet offers the means of satisfying what God asks of man, which is not beyond man’s capacity. It is Christianity that opens up the abyss. Each one somehow carries an abyss in himself, the abyss of original sin, which somehow poisons whatever we try with our own unaided powers… Only by way of Grace is an amnesty possible” (p. 348). Jonas recognizes that some rabbis have also speculated on the “Fall” of Adam. And admits that “surely we are no longer in Paradise, and mankind is in toil and suffering, and all of this is the consequence of the Fall” (ibid.). However, “this consequence was never understood in the extreme sense that we have all lost our moral capacity through the Fall of Adam. The human way remains essentially what is was before, and although it is no longer innocent, man has retained the power of free choice” (ibid.)
With Paul, this certainty was lost and the development begun with him ended with Augustine. Here lies the break between Pauline and Augustinian Christianity both with Stoicism and with Judaism: the denial of the power of free choice. Jonas on several occasions criticizes the Bishop of Hippo for straining the thought of Paul, making him say what he does not say. In the anti-Pelagian controversy, as a result of his previous Manichaean experience, he is said to have exacerbated Paul’s pessimism, taking it to extremes. But the claim that Jonas advances on several occasions is that this type of Christianity met with resistance within the Church and was in fact unknown to Christ: “The sermons and the famous words of the Lord are not in themselves the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine of the Church is a doctrine concerning the role of this Jesus who is conceived as the Christ for the salvation of man” (p. 357).

King David and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, main door of Fidenza Cathedral (Parma) [© Foto Scala, Firenze]

King David and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, main door of Fidenza Cathedral (Parma) [© Foto Scala, Firenze]

What to say about all this? The first thing to note is that the reading of Augustine made by Jonas is inaccurate on many points. He argues that Augustine at first, during his anti-Manichean period, acknowledged to man under the law, namely the Jew, goodwill, understood as love of justice, then, under pressure from the Pelagians, he denied it, to assign it to grace, and thus the change of seeing in the words of Saint Paul is explained: “The Law is spiritual, but I am a creature of flesh and blood” (Rm 7, 14) no longer man under the Law, the Jew, but also man under grace, the Christian and the apostle himself. Well, as I said, there are many inaccuracies in these claims.
First, it should be noted that man under the Law, considered by Augustine, is not exactly the Jew as opposed to the Christian, who would be man under grace. For him every man of flesh and blood is under the Law, and the Christian, even if made spiritual in baptism by the gift of the Spirit, remains “under the Law if he abstains from the work of sin out of fear of the punishment threatened by the Law and not out of love of justice, not yet free and detached from the will to sin” ( De natura et gratia contra Pelagium 57, 67). A confirmation of this way of thinking is given by the exhortation, addressed to the monks of his monastery to observe the Rule “not as slaves under the Law but as free men under grace” (Regula ad Servos Dei 8, 48). Even Christians, then, may be under the Law, even if they are required to change to the regime of grace, that is to grow in love and inner freedom, with the help of God’s grace and through personal effort. On the other hand, Augustine had always believed that in ancient Israel there were spiritual men, such as “the patriarchs, prophets and all those Israelites through whom the Holy Spirit gave us the aid and comfort of the Scriptures” (De doctrina christiana III, 9, 13). Thus, one cannot identify man under the Law with the Jew and man under grace with the Christian.
Secondly, goodwill, which during his presbyterate Augustine acknowledged to man under the Law, that is man of flesh and blood, does not consist in love of God and justice, as Jonas tries repeatedly to show, straining the thought of the Christian writer (cf. pp. 388-390 and p. 397). It consists only in wanting to avoid sin or to obey the Law for fear of punishment, which does not suppress the desire to sin. This is clear from the fact that already in his anti-Manichean period, that is before becoming bishop, Augustine attributed the love of God and of justice to grace. Indeed he wrote so in his commentary on Rm 5, 3: the Apostle “says that we have this charity [the love of God] by the gift of the Spirit and shows that all those good things which we might attribute to ourselves we must attribute to God who, through the Holy Spirit, has deigned to bestow grace” (Expositio quarumdam propositionum ex Epistola ad Romanos 20). In the revisions of his works he also notes that “in the books On free will, that were not written against the Pelagians, who did not yet exist, but against the Manicheans, I was not entirely silent on the grace of God, which the Pelagians seek to get rid of with execrable impiety” (Retractationes I, 9, 4).
Thirdly, the change in Augustine’s thinking on the origin of goodwill motivated by fear of punishment, did not, contrary to what Jonas claims, occur in the controversy with Pelagius and under his pressure, but many years earlier. Already at the beginning of his episcopate (396-397), in fact, responding to certain questions from Simplicianus, Ambrose’s teacher and his successor in the See of Milan, after quoting the words of Saint Paul: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling. It is God who, for his own generous purpose, gives you the intention and the powers to act” ( Phil 2, 12-13), Augustine comments: “Here he clearly shows that goodwill itself is stirred in us by God”, and shortly afterwards he adds: “If indeed we wonder whether goodwill is God’s gift, it would be strange if anyone dared deny it “(De diversis quaestionibus ad Simplicianum I, 2, 12). In fact, well before the advent of Pelagius, Augustine was convinced that goodwill is both the work of God and the work of man, because “in one way God grants the will, in another what we have asked. He wanted in fact that willing be His work and ours: His, the calling, ours, following the call” (ibid. I, 2, 10).
Finally, it is true that only during the controversy with the Pelagians did Augustine admit that the “I” of Rm 7, 14 could also include man under grace, and hence St Paul himself, but as he says, he took this step not because he was compelled by the arguments of the Pelagians, but because he had found that other authoritative expositors of Scripture, in particular Cyprian and Ambrose, had preferred for that exegesis (Retractationes I, 23, 1). On the other hand, I repeat, the change did not consist of depriving man under the Law of goodwill, which for some time he had claimed for the grace of God. He simply realized that all men, even the most spiritual, as St Paul certainly was, while they dwell in a mortal body have not yet arrived at perfect peace and are necessarily subject to temptation. The Apostle bears witness when he writes that he is not yet come to perfection and is straining forward ( Phil 3, 12-13) and especially when he confesses that “so that I should not get above myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to batter me and prevent me from getting above myself. About this, I have three times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me; but he has answered me, ‘my grace is enough for you: for power is at full stretch in weakness’ (2 Cor 12, 7-9)”.

“Augustine had always believed that in ancient Israel there were spiritual men, such as ‘the patriarchs, prophets and all those Israelites through whom the Holy Spirit gave us the aid and comfort of the Scriptures’ (De doctrina christiana III, 9, 13). Thus, one cannot identify man under the Law with the Jew and man under grace with the Christian”
As can be seen, the reconstruction of Augustine’s thought made by Jonas leaves much to be desired. There is a lack of precision at various points and not on points of minor importance. However his lectures raise some questions which require a response. First, why did St Augustine come to support the thesis that even the first steps in faith (the initium fidei) and goodwill are the work, not only of the person, but also of God’s mercy, whereas previously, following other ecclesiastical authors, he had assigned it only to the will of man? Jonas, as I mentioned, several times repeats that the change made by the Bishop of Hippo was due to pressure from the Pelagians (p. 396), he even speaks of “a Pelagian trap” into which Augustine is alleged to have fallen (p. 398). Whereas we have seen that the change had occurred long before Pelagius appeared on the scene. He himself gives the reason for the change in his response to Simplicianus. In his exegesis of the Epistle to the Romans, he writes: “One does not grasp the intention of the apostle and all of the justified, through whom we were shown the meaning of grace, if not because ‘if anyone wants to boast, let him boast in the Lord’ ( 1 Cor 1, 31)” (De diversis quaestionibus ad Simplicianum I, 2, 21). Commenting on the words of the Apostle, he explains in one of his last works that Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr of Carthage, understood them in the sense that “we must not boast of anything, because nothing is ours” (De dono perseverantiae 14, 36). So it was especially Cyprian’s exegesis of St Paul’s words that enlightened and drove Augustine to deny the autonomy of the human will for good. He understood that all the goods that man has and all the good that man does come from God, though in different ways. While Pelagius exhorted the young and noble Demetriade to feel proud of her virtues, because they were the only things that belong only to humans. Augustine repeated with St Paul: “if anyone wants to boast, let him boast of the Lord” ( 1 Cor 1, 31). Man can boast of nothing, can claim no merit before God, and must always be grateful to God, “giver of all good” (Regula ad servos Dei 8, 49). This is not to say that man does nothing: without his willing he cannot believe, cannot love, nor even less do any good work. But man’s will is not moved to good, unless “it is prepared by the Lord” (Prov 8, 35, according to the Septuagint).
Jonas acknowledges that the subject treated by Augustine belongs to faith and not philosophy. To support this, indeed, he goes too far when he states categorically that “the attitude of the philosopher must be a non believing one” (p. 409). Now, one does not understand why the philosopher should not believe, as if faith did not have its reasons. Even the philosopher can reasonably believe and try to understand through reason the content of faith. This was precisely the principle of Augustinian thinking: believe in order to understand ( crede ut intellegas). However, I agree with Jonas, when he adds that “you cannot make phenomenological sense of the statement ‘my present state is characterized by the love of God poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit’” (ibid.). Nevertheless, precisely because we are dealing with issues of faith, it seems to me that he should have gone deeper into Augustine’s thinking on the basis of biblical teaching and Christian tradition. It is quite evident, however, that Jonas feels sympathy for the conception of Pelagius, because he feels it closer to Stoicism and a certain kind of Judaism. In fact, after saying that for Pelagius the grace of Christ consists of “inducements to the will, not active helps”and that “they are not a transformation of man but an education of man” (p. 415), he exclaims in admiration: “This is the great Pelagian conception” (ibid.).
“Pelagius not only overlooked an essential aspect of Christianity, but did not even recognize certain key elements in the religious experience of ancient Israel, since already in the books of the Old Testament God is seen not only as the educator of His people but also as He who helps, renews, and transforms the hearts of men”
This is the crux of Jonas’ book and thinking. He has no difficulty in admitting that God can help man with moral teaching and the forgiveness of sins, but along with the Pelagians he strongly opposes the idea that God can act on the will to transform it (see pp. 392-393). “For Augustine,” he writes, “the divine Love becomes a magical power in man himself… The divine Love is a transfiguring or transforming power without which man would still be lost in spite of the revelation of the Gospel and the call to faith” (p. 407). What Jonas shows he has not understood, as Pelagius and his followers had not understood, is that the Christian experience does not consist in compliance, radical as it may be, with a morality imposed from outside and observed moreover under threat of punishment or promise of a prize. Christian experience is a personal encounter with God, a filial relationship with him, whereby the believer does everything for His praise. Pelagius, in addition to the gifts from God to human nature ( gratia creationis) and the gift of the Mosaic Law, allowed that there was a grace of Christ, consisting in the teaching and the example of perfect justice: love of one’s enemies. Augustine also recognizes these types of grace. But does not consider them sufficient. Jesus Christ for him is not only the greatest teacher and the most perfect model of justice: he is the friend and brother who gave his life for us and calls us to live with him, for him and in him, for the glory the Father. To believe in Christ, he said, is to love him, join him and become members of His body, which is the Church (see Sermones 144, 2, 2). To go through such a lofty and enveloping experience, obedience and imitation are not enough, there has to be personal communion, which is born and nourished by love, the gift of Christ himself. In other words, in Christ is revealed the Father’s design of uniting men in Him through the gift of His Spirit, which spreads His love in hearts (cf. De Spiritu et littera 29, 50). One cannot understand Augustine’s teaching on grace unless one considers it in the light of this revelation, completely overlooked by Pelagius.
Jonas admits that “Augustine was right in feeling that there is something not... quite Christian [in the position of Pelagius]” (p. 397). In my opinion, however, he could and should have said more. Pelagius not only overlooked an essential aspect of Christianity, he did not even recognize certain key elements in the religious experience of ancient Israel, since already in the books of the Old Testament God is seen not only as the educator of His people but also as He who helps, renews, and transforms the hearts of men. It is enough to remember the Psalmist’s prayer: “Give me back the joy of your salvation, sustain in me a generous spirit” ( Ps 51, 12), or the other: “Keep my steps firm in your promise; that no evil may triumph over me” (Ps 118, 133). Here and in similar texts the Psalmist does not beg to be instructed on the path to take, but asks God to renew his heart, so it may not yield to evil. Not only Augustine refers often to the prayer of the Psalms in support of the necessity of grace, but Pope Innocent also appeals to it in denouncing the Pelagian error. In a letter to the African bishops he writes: “So, the heretics who affirm the futility of grace must necessarily condemn the prayers of the Psalmist. David in fact should be accused of not knowing how we should pray and of not even knowing his very nature because, even admitting he knew that nature has in itself the capacity to do good, how is it he kneels before God in prayer and implores Him not only to help but to help him continually, asks Him not to turn away His gaze from him and throughout the Psalter praises and invokes the help of God?” ( Epistolae 181, 6, in the correspondence of Augustine).
To the prayers of the Psalter are added the prophecies of the ancient prophets. In the book of Jeremiah the annunciation of a new covenant echoes, whereby God will put His laws in our hearts and inscribe them in the minds of men (cf. Jer 36, 32). The prophet Ezekiel is even more precise: in messianic times God will give the Israelites a new heart, take away their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh, because He will put His spirit into them, so that they live according to His statutes and observe and practice His laws (cf. Ez 36, 26-27). Well, it is precisely these texts from the Prophets that confirm Augustine in his teaching. In De Spiritu et littera he writes “What then are the laws of God written by God himself in the heart, if not the presence of the Holy Spirit, which is the finger of God, through whose presence the love that is the fullness of the Law and the fulfillment of the Commandment is poured into our hearts?” (De Spiritu et littera 21, 36). Highlighting the differences between the Old and New Testaments, he says: “The Law is there written on the tablets, here in our hearts, because what frightened them from the outside, here produces pleasure within, and what there makes Man offender for the letter that kills, here makes him lover for the Spirit that gives life”(ibid. 25, 42).
It is a real pity that Jonas has paid so little importance to the books of ancient Israel, mentioning only a few aspects and neglecting others. The spirituality of the Prophets and the Psalms is much richer than Judaism reduced to a kind of stoicism revisited, and such a reduction does not help one see the elements of continuity between the Old and New Testament that St Augustine carefully stressed.
King David and another prophet, statues by Benedetto Antelami, Parma Baptistry

King David and another prophet, statues by Benedetto Antelami, Parma Baptistry

Even less successful is the attempt to oppose the teaching of the Church to that of Christ or see in Christianity a Pauline and Augustinian current opposed to the Gospels or other New Testament writings. Jonas traces the fact that Augustine presents Christ as a physician and grace as a balm that heals to Manichean influence (see p. 367). But in Matthew’s Gospel it is Jesus who says: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick; I came to call not the upright, but sinners” (Mt 9, 12-13). Much consideration in St Augustine’s thinking on grace is given to the petitions contained in the Lord’s Prayer, given in the Synoptic Gospels: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. Pelagius, Augustine notes, “locates the mercy and medicinal healing of the Savior only in the fact that God forgives us sins committed in the past and not in the fact that He helps us avoid them in the future. It is here that he is wrong, with serious consequences: he, although unaware of it, distracts us from watching and praying that we enter not into temptation, arguing that it is absolutely in our power to prevent that from happening” ( De natura et gratia contra Pelagium 34, 39). There are stronger statements yet on the action of God in man in the Gospel of John. Here Jesus says: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (Jn 6, 44), words that make St Augustine exclaim: “Wonderful exaltation of grace!” (In Evangelium Ioannis XXVI, 2). Again in the same Gospel Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15, 5).
These are only some examples that show adequately, I think, that on the doctrine of grace one cannot oppose within Christianity a Pauline-Augustinian current to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel.
In conclusion, despite whatever criticism can be made, I think that Jonas must be credited with having addressed the difficult issue of freedom with courage and passion, reaching some conclusions one can fully endorse, such as when he writes that “the Christian problem of freedom is actually the problem of subjectivity, which has been conceived in its purity only in the Judeo-Christian philosophy of man, in a way in which it was not conceived in the Greco-Roman philosophy of man… according to this new view the problem is not lodged in the relation of man to external nature or to society, but in the relation of man to himself and to the absolute. Therefore, the problem becomes one of man’s will much more than of his actions. The problematic of the will as the locus of man’s freedom was born, then, with the turn from paganism to Christianity, and in the Augustinian anti-Pelagian struggle it reaches its first great determinative form which was also, for some centuries, its decisive form” (p. 424).


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