The Medieval Review 10.01.15

Aers, David. Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 284. . $38.00 978-0-268-02033-0.

Reviewed by:

Fritz Kemmler
University of Tuubingen

This is a highly specialized and also a highly personal book. David Aers, responsible for both English and Religious Studies, investigates the difficult and hotly debated aspects of sin, divine grace and salvation with special reference to Piers Plowman and Julian of Norwich. In his discussion, he offers a wide panorama of theological commentaries, ranging from Augustine to Karl Barth (and beyond). As I am a mediaevalist by training, not a theologian, I will concentrate in particular on some of the issues of argumentation raised by Aers.

In order to illustrate the quality and validity of some of the theological arguments taken up and evaluated by Aers, I wish to point to the theme "conversion" and "interiority" as illustrated on pp. 17-19. Commenting on Luke's account of Peter denying Christ during his interrogation in the house of the high priest, Augustine, drawing on Ambrose, observes: "The action which scripture reports, [...] took place interiorly; it took place in the mind; it took place in the will. By his mercy the Lord in a hidden manner helped him, touched his heart, recalled his memory, visited Peter with his interior grace and produced passion of the inner man which moved him to tears." Ironically, Augustine here also refers to the reliability of the Gospel account. What both Augustine and Ambrose are not really interested in, it would seem, is the full text of the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 22:60-61): "et ait Petrus homo nescio quod dicis et continuo adhuc illo loquente cantavit gallus / et conversus Dominus respexit Petrum et recordatus est Petrus verbi Domini sicut dixit." It is somewhat surprising that the crowing cock-- a clear exterior sign--has been suppressed in this account of conversion and interiority. This selective approach to the text of the gospels--some theologians may be tempted to point out the necessity of removing (later) interpolations-- for the sake of construing a (novel) argument is a typical feature not only of theological commentaries.

Chapter two (25-54) is devoted to William of Ockham and aspects of his legalistic mode of argumentation. Aers succeeds convincingly in demonstrating that Ockham's central concepts constituting the "new theology" result in the sidelining of Christology. This "new theology" is further investigated in chapter 4, devoted to a discussion of the theme of sin and salvation in the context of Piers Plowman.

Chapter three (55-81) offers an examination of the anti-Pelagian positions Thomas Bradwardine, for a short period archbishop of Canterbury. Aers argues convincingly that Bradwardine, too, sidelines Christology in favour of his theory of the sacraments administered--and indeed administrated--by the powerful organisation of the medieval church. In view of the importance of the sacrament of penance ever since the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, this position is not at all surprising.

Piers Plowman is the central text in chapter four (85-113), a text analysed and interpreted against the intertextual context Aers has so successfully established in chapters one to three. In doing so, Aers concentrates his argument on two episodes in Piers Plowman: the Parable of the Good Samaritan (C-Version, Passus XIX) and the Trajan episode (C-Version, Passus XII). In a careful analysis Aers succeeds admirably in demonstrating clearly that Langland's attitude to sin and salvation requires Christology to be brought to the centre again. With reference to the tradition of medieval commentaries on the Bible based on the allegorical method of interpretation, the good Samaritan can signify both Christ and the priest in his role as confessor applying the remedy provided by the sacrament of penance to the wounded Christian. However, as I have already pointed out in the first paragraph, only the narrative of the parable of the good Samaritan is made use of by both the commentators and Langland himself. In the gospel of Luke, the parable has a very precise context constituting the meaning and significance of the narrative: the way to eternal life (salvation). And this way is defined in Luke 10:27 as the unconditional love of God, "ex toto corde tuo et ex tota anima tua et ex omnibus viribus tuis et ex omni mente tua" as well as "proximum tuum sicut te ipsum." Thus, the biblical narrative has clearly two objects as far as the workings of love are concerned. And it also clearly illustrates, Luke 10:29, that the debated issue is "proximus meus," rather than "amor dei." And, to complicate matters still further, this "proximus" turns out to belong to one of the fringe groups. All in all, Langland's use of the parable of the good Samaritan comes dangerously close to what he himself criticises in the "Prologue" (58) with reference to the practice of the friars: "And glosede the gospel as [hym] good likede..."

A different approach to salvation and sin can be found in the fifth chapter: Julian of Norwich's concept of the "divided soul" with a "higher part" inhabited by a "good will" and a "lower part" inhabited by a "bad will" ( Revelations of Divine Love , chapter 37). Julian of Norwich, moreover, offers an interpretation of sin that is in direct contrast to the teaching of St. Paul: For Julian, sin constitutes "wurshype" (ch. 38) whereas sin according to St Paul entails "death" (Rom. 6:23: "stipendia enim peccati mors"). For Aers, Julian's approach to salvation and sin is clearly outside the mainstream theological tradition stretching from Augustine even to our own times: "For Plotinus and Julian there is a higher part of the soul that never falls but continues its divine contemplation, even though the fallen part of the soul is quite unaware of this. It is not at all clear to me that such a version of the soul and ontology is compatible with Christian teaching [...] about God, creation, sin, and redemption in Christ through the Holy Spirit" (157).

It is possible to understand the feeling of uneasiness expressed here by Aers the theologian, especially against the background of the mainstream tradition of the debate on salvation and sin he has presented so carefully in his thought provoking book.