A Medievalist’s Life: The Pelagian Heresy

So I’m working today on The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. In particular, I’m writing explanatory notes to the Book of Job, which is perhaps the most fascinating and difficult book of the Bible. (For any inclined to reinvestigate the text, I could hardly suggest a better entry than Harold Bloom’s recent book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? — it’s superb.)

Anyway, the Paraphrase-poet does some interesting things with Job. The series of debates between Job and his three “friends” — Zophar, Bildad, and Eliphaz, for instance, doesn’t so much paraphrase the text of the Bible as the theology of the Middle Ages. There’s a loose connection between the two, but it is quite strained at times.

For example, the Paraphrase‘s Job’s refers to Judgment Day and Christ at one point. Textually, we would expect this passage to be a paraphrase of Job’s first response to Bildad (Job 9-10) but it is, instead, more closely related to Job 19. I write in a note:

Job’s reference to Judgment Day here is perhaps surprising given Western associations between this subject and Christian theology, especially as it is derived from the misunderstood Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation). Yet, as Daniel 12:1–3 shows, the doctrine of resurrection and judgment does have some roots in late Jewish thought (for discussion of the history, see Segal’s Life After Death). Beginning with Clement of Rome, Christian exegetes have also pointed to Job 19:25–27 as a reference to Christian understandings of life after death (thus, e.g., Augustine, City of God 22.29), seeing in these “difficult, probably textually corrupt, verses” (NOAB, p. 645) a “locus classicus of the doctrine of resurrection” (Zink, “Impatient Job,” p. 147). By the later Middle Ages, this connection was generally considered factual, no doubt largely due to Jerome’s Christologically-influenced translation of the lines in the Vulgate. Thus “Domesday” also appears in Pety Job; see especially line 255.

Pretty straight-forward exegetical material, this. Not so simple, however, is the appearance, in one of Zophar’s speeches, of the following (lines 14629-34):

For in this werld werkes none so wele
that wott wheder his werke be wroyght
Unto his sorow or to his sele.
For, when the soth is all up soyght,
Of gud werke God dose ylk dele.
Bot He yt werke, the werke is noyght.

[For in this world no one manages so well
that he might know whether his deeds be done
Unto his sorrow or his happiness.
For, when the truth is all made clear,
Good works are done in every part by God.
Unless He works them, the works mean nothing.]

I love theology. This sent me scrambling through texts to write the following:

Zophar’s point, one that does not explicitly appear in Job, is one of deep theological import: whether or not humans can “effect” grace — whether they are capable of doing good without God actually doing the good for them. The question came to a forefront in the early fifth century, as a result of the teachings of the Briton monk Pelagius, who “could not accept that human beings were so corrupted at birth that they could not help sinning” (Bell, Cloud, p. 144). This position brought Pelagius into conflict with Augustine, who believed that the Fall left mankind inherently “fallen, damned, doomed, condemned. At birth we are simply ‘one lump of sin’ and because we are so totally, so helplessly corrupted, we can no more do good of our own power than a blind man can see” (p. 147). Pelagianism was condemned in the West, partly due to Augustine’s reputation, but the issue continued to fester for centuries, requiring repeated condemnations. Thomas Bradwardine, for example, felt it was necessary to write a full treatise denouncing the belief in fourteenth-century England (De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum). As we see here, the Paraphrase-poet is in keeping with the orthodox position.

Yes, this is what I’m doing on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Charleston.

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