Vol: 1 N°. 2 13-18
Comunicando el pensamiento religioso a través el discurso polémico: disputas teológicas en la cristiandad norafricana en los siglos IV y V
Communicating Religion through Polemic Discourse: Theological Disputes in North African Christianity of the Fourth and Fifth Century
The six articles in the current issue of Humanitas Hodie are dedicated to different aspects of polemical literature originating in Christian North Africa of the fourth and fifth century—the region and period in which the founding fathers of Christian thinking lived, Augustine of Hippo (354-430). He is our point of departure to reflect upon the question about how polemical literature at that time shaped essential notions within Christian theology and philosophy.
In antiquity, it was not uncommon that Christian theologians presented their beliefs in the shape of polemic literature. When we take a look at the earliest Latin Christian authors, this polemic background is already prevalent: both Tertullian and Minucius Felix wrote their works primarily in order to defend Christianity against a pagan audience—the so-called apologetic literature. Yet, the genre of polemical literature remained important throughout the history of the Church. This polemical discourse served three goals for the Christian leaders of that period. All these aspects have their role in establishing a more cohesive group identity—internally, as a faith all members share; externally, to differentiate the own position from that of others. First, polemical literature delivers theologians or religious communities at large the opportunity to articulate more clearly or explicitly develop their own doctrines. Second, the polemicist hopes to render his opponent, who is seen as a genuine threat for the community, harmless, and attempts to convince his opponent to join his orthodox cause. Third, polemical literature grants the community the argumentative means to strengthen itself against the adversary, during the time of the religious controversy. Additionally, beyond the contemporary bounds of the debate, it solidifies internal coherence.
In Antiquity, the African Church in particular deserves attention because of its vast literary production, in which polemical literature takes a significant part. Moreover, some Christian polemics were unique for the Roman North African provinces, such as the Donatist and Pelagian controversies; and although anti-Manichaean polemics were found throughout the Christian world and beyond, the specificity of African Manichaeism has often been underlined. Finally, we have to point out the tension between the Catholic African Church and the Arianism of the Vandal invaders. This last controversy came to an end when the Vandals conquered the Latin North African provinces and put a temporal end to the Catholic Church there.
This thematic journal issue will thus focus on the religious polemics in fourth and fifth-century North Africa. Our articles will discuss the following religious adversaries of the so-called Catholic orthodoxy, with Augustine as its protagonist: Donatism, Manichaeism, Pelagianism, and Arianism. Themes of interest are those outlined above. 1) We will study how polemical debates functioned as an opportunity to develop theological and philosophical doctrines; 2) we will analyse the historical circumstances of these controversies. In other words, what realistic threat did their adversaries pose to the Catholic faith Augustine forcefully defended? 3) we will investigate the efficiency of the polemicists’ argumentation, and the consequences of these religious debates and polemical literature, both as internal and external identity-marker of the Catholic community/communities of North Africa.
Joseph Grabau focusses on the Donatist controversy in his article “Defining ecclesia: Augustine of Hippo’s anti-Donatist use of John 19:23-24 (on Christ’s ‘seamless tunic’).” This article seeks to contextualize Augustine of Hippo’s interpretation of two verses of the Johannine Passion, John 19:23-24, within the North African legacy of biblical reception and especially in dialogue with Donatist positions on the nature of the Church, its relation to Christ, and its role in the present world. The principal questions to be addressed here are: first, how does the ‘tunic of Christ’ serve as an inspiration for symbolic interpretation among Latin authors; and, second, how does such a ‘typological’ reading of John 19:23-24—and its antecedent in the text of Psalm 21:19—occur within the broader field of Augustine’s anti-Donatist polemic? In presenting relevant evidence, Grabau begins with a non-African source, apparently the first completed Gospel commentary in Latin of Fortunatianus of Aquileia, where the ‘tunic of Christ’ receives not only a symbolic interpretation, but also one that suggests an anti-heretical (or anti-schismatic) background. The argument then proceeds, chronologically, to evaluate Augustine’s various references to the tunica desuper texta, found principally in his popular sermons and Tractatus in Iohannis Euangelium (Tractates on John), as well as Epistula 76, which is addressed to a Donatist audience. As the evidence shows, while Augustine’s essential approach to the image of Christ’s tunic (uestis) never radically departs from his earliest readings, differences of emphasis later appear, which introduce new questions of his anti-Donatist ecclesiology and biblical hermeneutic. How, for example, does his eventual interest in the words per totum, as verse 23 continues, affect his understanding of Christ’s redemption, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the extent of the Church ‘throughout the world’ (toto terrarum orbe diffusam)? In this light, although one may begin to suspect that Augustine advocates a form of universalism, his ‘catholicity’ is a more fair and accurate description of this effort to surmount Donatist exclusivism. Between these two extremes, Augustine’s ‘Catholicism’ may be detected even within the limited horizon of this pair of verses and their relationship to the Church in North Africa.
Aäron Vanspauwen addresses anti-Manichaean polemics in his contribution “Selection and adaptation: the polemical treatise De fide contra Manichaeos in dialogue with Augustine’s Manichaean adversaries.” De fide contra Manichaeos (On Faith, against the Manichaeans) is a polemical treatise against the Manichaeans. It is attributed to Evodius of Uzalis, a friend and contemporary of Augustine. The most important sources of De fide are Augustine’s anti-Manichaean writings. This article situates the argumentation of De fide within the broader framework of the polemics between Manichaeans and the “Catholic” African church at the end of the fourth/beginning of the fifth-century. More in particular, it illustrates how De fide made use of Manichaean testimonies provided by Augustine. A first part of the article discusses several significant historical questions about the treatise. Subsequently, the debates between Augustine and his Manichaean adversaries are introduced. The third and most important section deals with several key arguments in the Manichaean-Catholic debate, and how De fide responded specifically to Manichaean testimonies in its argumentation. The conclusion offers a critical evaluation of De fide’s purpose as a pragmatic compendium of anti-Manichaean arguments. The comparative analysis of this article heightens insight in the following aspects of the African Church in Late Antiquity. First, it reveals the modus operandi and concerns of Manichaean preachers in their appeal towards a Christian identity. Second, the inquiry into the selection of arguments from Augustine’s oeuvre illustrates the reception of Augustine’s polemical (anti-Manichaean) works in a contemporary patristic text. Although, in general, Augustine’s example is followed rather faithfully, De fide did have the opportunity to correct or complement Augustine’s earlier statements. Third, the efficiency or, conversely, the futility of De fide’s and Augustine’s anti-Manichaean endeavour can be evaluated.
Giulio Malavasi turns our attention to Augustine’s anti-Pelagian polemical discourse. His article “Pelagianism as novelty in Augustine of Hippo” makes clear that the Pelagian controversy was not merely a theological dispute, but also a rhetorical boxing match. One of the rhetorical tools deployed by Augustine is his argumenta tion that the Pelagians introduced new doctrines. Novelty or newness is proclaimed by Augustine as one of the essential features of the Pelagian heterodoxy. We see this heresiological definition of ‘newness’ especially used by Augustine both in his specialized theological/polemical treatises of the Pelagian controversy, and in some of his sermons intended for a broad audience of that same period. First, Malavasi offers an overview of the most important passages in which Augustine rejects Pelagian ideas as novelties. The main problematic novelties identified by Augustine are: the denial of original sin in new-born infants, the distinction between eternal life and the kingdom of heavens, and the positive evaluation of carnal concupiscence, in particular by Julian of Aeclanum. Second, Malavasi compares Augustine’s polemical strategy with that of other anti-Pelagian protagonists: Jerome, Orosius, and Marius Mercator. These three actually stressed that Pelagianism is the heir and successor of older heretical movements. Different from Jerome, Orosius, and Marius Mercator, Augustine claims that the Pelagians invented something completely new, incomparable with previous heterodox tenets. As such, Augustine’s polemical accusation of ‘novelty’ is a new polemical strategy. Augustine’s accusation that the Pelagian doctrines are new inventions strengthens the traditional character of his own position—in line with the Bible and the Patres.
Matthew Knotts studies in “Augustine’s conception of divine incorporeality in homiletic and polemical contexts” Augustine’s thinking on God’s incorporeality, a doctrine he mainly developed in reaction against Manichaean and Arian reflections in this regard. Augustine’s decision to enter the Catholic Church was strongly influenced by his understanding of divine incorporeality, a concept to which he was introduced in the mid-380s in Milan. This means that God is not subject to time and space in any way. This metaphysical commitment enabled Augustine to answer several of his objections to Christianity. Shortly after his baptism, Augustine applied this understanding of the divine to his critiques of the Manichaeans. In this article we see how, decades later, this doctrinal commitment was developed and expressed in his homiletic corpus and in his polemics against the Arians. Knotts looks at sources from the 390s, and then homilies mostly from the second decade of the 400s. This enables us to see how the theme of incorporeality is further developed and deployed in homiletic and polemical contexts. Thus, two closely related themes emerge. First, Augustine holds that we must not think of the generation of the Son according to an earthly logic; we must not seek temporal duration in eternity. Second, we must possess the intellectual humility to realise that our earthly categories are not sufficient for thinking about God. Augustine opts to confess his ignorance of what it means for the Son to be eternal, and rather grounds his theology in scripture. These are two major points that arise in Augustine’s critique of the Arians. We shall also see how the Gospel of John forms a locus theologicus for Augustine. The development of divine incorporeality figures in Augustine’s homilies and polemics as a way to neutralise his opponents and provide further resources for his audience.
Pablo Irizar’s article is entitled “Augustine’s Non-Polemical Reading of Philippians 2.6-7” The Hymn to the Philippians contains two verses (specifically Phil. 2:6-7) predicating the forma serui (form of a servant) and forma dei (form of God) of Jesus Christ. Although it was initially a liturgical hymn, scholars have relentlessly tracked the role of vv. 6-7 in the development of an orthodox (and eventually pro-Nicene) Christology within early Church polemics. However, the interplay between exegesis and orthodox Christology in the thought of Augustine, much of whose Christology is the outcome of post-Nicene anti-Arian polemics, remains unclear (according to M. Barnes). Given the centrality of the hymn to Christology, this article analyses and determines if and to what extent the anti-Arian polemics shaped Augustine’s exegesis of Phil 2:6-7. Accordingly, a two-pronged question is raised: In what sense(s) was Phil. 2:6-7 shaped (a) by the anti-Arian controversy and (b) by contexts outside the controversy? The method adopted to answer the question is thematic-contextual, thereby allowing latitude to best account for the gathered data, and is three-fold: first, all entries of Phil. 2:6-7 and related lemmas are collected; second, the entries are classified according to thematic contexts (Christological themes and (non)-polemical roles); third, the use/function of Phil. 2:6-7 in these contexts is compared within the Augustinian corpus and vis-à-vis Augustine’s direct predecessors (Hilary of Poitiers, Marius Victorinus, Ambrosiaster, and Ambrose of Milan). The results of this research are presented in two parts. For the sake of chronology, and to better appreciate by way of contrast Augustine’s use of Phil. 2:6-7, the first section succinctly analyses the general trends that emerge in the use of the Hymn to the Philippians in Augustine’s predecessors. The second part offers a case study on the use/function of Phil. 2:6-7 in a non-polemical and then in a polemical context within the Augustinian corpus. Bluntly stated and by way of conclusion, the study offers evidence to suggest that the anti-Arian polemics in fact do not shape Augustine’s exegesis of Phil. 2:6-7.
Finally, the last article was penned three decades ago by the eminent Augustine scholar Agostino Trapè. It was originally published as “Un libro sulla nozione di eresia mai scritto da Sant’Agostino” (Augustinianum 25, 1985, pp. 853-865). Trapè’s article deals with a topic of paramount importance for the history of Late Antique Christianity: quid faciat haereticum? What makes a person a ‘heretic’? Trapè offers the answer Augustine of Hippo formulates to this question. Augustine, in fact, wrote a treatise, De haeresibus (On Heresies), upon the request of Quodvultdeus, devoted to this question. Unfortunately, only the first book was effectively written, describing the heresies of the past up to the most recent threat of Pelagianism. The first half of Trapè’s article reconstructs the historical framework in which Augustine’s unfinished De haeresibus needs to be placed. The work was interrupted due to the necessity of finishing the Retractationes (Revisions) and the anti-Pelagian Contra Iulianum opus imperfectum (Unfinished Work against Julian). Furthermore, Augustine’s death in 430 prevented him to finish all these three works. Therefore, the second book of De haeresibus, in which Augustine should have explained the features of a heretic, was never written. The second section of the article, by far the most original and important, starts exactly from this lacuna. Trapè tries to reconstruct Augustine’s heresiological thought from his surviving literary corpus in order to answer the initial question. Within the Augustinian perspective, there are four main characteristics that constitute the heterodoxy of a ‘heretic’: (1) the falsity and (2) novelty of his teaching, (3) the obstinacy or stubbornness with which a heretic continues to remain in his doctrinal error, and, finally, (4) his aversion against the manifested catholic doctrine. A final note is dedicated to the explanation of when a catholic doctrine can be considered as well established: a doctrine is certified and traditional either when it is attested in the creed, either when it is subsequently proclaimed by the magisterium of the Church after a doctrinal controversy, as for instance proceeded in the case of the Pelagian controversy.