Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology
David Aers. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2009. 284 pages.
As an ecclesial tradition that focuses on the importance of the church’s activity—evangelism, for example—it is important for Mennonite Brethren to ask ourselves how we understand human agency in salvation. What is the relationship between God’s will and human will, and what does that reveal about Christian ethics? From his location in the English department at Duke University, David Aers offers a theological framework for answering these questions. Though the book is scholarly—the extensive footnotes indicate an exhaustively researched work—its themes and writing style are palatable for anyone interested in theology and church formation. Aers gives an account of Augustine’s theology of agency, sin, grace, and salvation as the basis for his investigation of fourteenth-century conceptions of sin’s repercussions, conversion, and the resistance to conversion. Aers studies writers such as William of Ockham, Thomas Bradwardine, William Langland, and Julian of Norwich, but it is his argument for interpreting Langland through Augustine’s grammar of sin and salvation that makes this book relevant to contemporary Christian practices.
According to Augustine, Christians are converted from the earthly city into the city of God, which has a distinct form of life. The former is motivated by glory achieved through competition, the latter by humility achieved through self-sacrifice. Augustine’s church—which both is and is not the city of God—is a “determinate community of historical beings” (7), albeit mixed with the earthly city. Conversion is not an invisible, purely inward movement but consists in church membership. Indeed, conversions are “made and sustained by human mediations that constitute the body of Christ” (12). Grace, Aers reveals, neither represses storied personality nor eliminates personal conflict with the past. Divine agency is not an irresistible force that carries a person, leaving behind struggle. Despite conversion, old habits and pleasures remain. God’s activity is prior but works with people to transform desires and evoke human agency. Conversion is neither rivalrous—competing agencies—nor autonomous. In short, the processes of conversion disclose a “double agency,” which is a sacrament, a mystery (15). Because human agency is never eliminated, the habits of rivalry and desires for honor will always be present in the church as an intermingled body—hence the continual need within the church to “convert.” Christ guides the process of conversion and delineates Christian life through his kenotic servanthood as both the goal and way for humanity.
Langland sees the extent to which sinful habits have carried on into the fourteenth-century church. Reading Langland through Augustine, Aers exposes sin as social: The community can deform individuals by instilling sinful habits, even though the form of salvation is still social. Langland uses the parable of the Samaritan and Semyuief—the half-dead man—to illustrate the consequences of sin and the gradual healing of grace. The church is in the place of the half-dead man who both acts and is acted upon by Christ’s gifts (sacraments), which free semyuief through the outflowing of double agency. To act according to a free will separate from this double agency is a willed rejection of grace, which remains as the freedom of unbelief. This separation persists in the church such that these same gifts can be used to reject Christ. Following the institutional form of the church is not a guarantee for salvation. The collective consequence of sin is “forming the community to deform its members” (98). Langland illustrates that only Christ’s presence as the suffering servant can reveal the reality that has been deformed by humanity, although restoration does not happen immediately once and for all.
Aers describes our wills as vitiated but not negated. We are wounded, and our agency is bound by sin, but we are only half-dead. We need Christ’s presence, which does not annihilate our humanity because it does not compete. Sin and its consequences endure our attempts at conversion and confession, for we survive as half-dead. Perverted wills enable church practices that reject the love of God and neighbor. Divine resources will not fully quench our desires of domination as long as we’re still human.
The way in which God relates to humanity reveals something about human relations. The model of double agency within the dynamic of sin and salvation could change church dialogue. We will find ourselves talking to those with whom we disagree and we will be tempted to win the other over, to compete with and dominate a differing position. Double-agency helpfully reminds us that we need the perspective and presence of others, which can be resources for discovering the ways in which we have structured the church according to habits of rivalry rather than self-sacrifice.