The Curious Case of St. John Cassian
St. John Cassian, in his 75 year life lived at the turn of the fifth century, interacted with every major Christian figure of the Patristic Age, founded monasticism in the West, laid the theological foundation for the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, wrote the papal brief for the position of the Roman See at the Third Ecumenical Council, and wrote the most read work of devotional piety in late antique and medieval Latin Christianity. He is more likely than not the first saint ‘canonized’ by a Pope of Old Rome. Nonetheless, today, nearly no one has heard of him. His name has been removed from the popular Western calendar, and outside of the Provence, his feast day is not regularly celebrated by Western Christians. Those who have heard of him, primarily Protestants of a Calvinist stripe, hold him as the historical personage in which all of Christianity went wrong (a slander similar to the way in which some Orthodox scholars have treated St. Augustine of Hippo). How exactly this happened is one of the real curiosities of Church history and patristics.
Born ca. 360 in Scythia (modern day Romania) and given the name Cassianus, the saint first emerges in history some 20 years later. Having journeyed to Palestine (specifically Bethlehem) and entered the monastic life (there given the name ‘John’), Cassian journeyed with his friend, St. Germanus, to Egypt, there to study the more rigorous and (already at that early date) more traditional way of life of the desert. St. John there overstayed the release he had been given by his monastic elder by a period of several years, and this seems to have led to a situation in which he was no longer able to return to his original monastic home. Around the year 400, he and St. Germanus made their way to Constantinople. There they were ordained (St. Germanus a presbyter and St. John a deacon) and were part of St. John Chrysostom’s inner circle of clergy during his initial period as archbishop. Cassian’s specific task was the oversight of the treasury, which included both overseeing moneys managed by the Church and various objects and vessels of great value of ecclesiastical use. At the infamous Synod of the Oak, it was St. Germanus who brought Chrysostom’s response to the case against him and argued it against his opponents. When those efforts failed, St. John Cassian was dispatched to Rome to seek the support of the Pope of Rome in restoring St. John Chrysostom to his see.
After his journey to Rome, St. John Cassian settled in the West after forming a friendship with the Archdeacon Leo (later St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome). He was ordained a presbyter, and was charged with bringing the monastic life of the East to Western Europe. He did so by two means: First, by establishing the Monastery of St. Victor in Gaul (what is now Marseilles to be precise) and second through the composition of his work The Institutes of the Cenobitic Life. The latter is a treasure trove of historical information, as St. John systematically compares and contrasts the traditions of Egypt and Palestine in all aspects of monastic life, and offers suggestions as to how the basic principles involved might find indigenous expression in Western Europe. The latter portion of the Institutes consists of a discussion of the ‘Eight Evil Thoughts’, which would later become the Seven Deadly Sins as they are known in the Western tradition. After concluding that work, St. John Cassian began another, his most famous, The Conferences. This work is really a collection of 24 shorter works, written as dialogues between St. Germanus and various of the Desert Fathers during St. John’s time in Egypt. These 24 Conferences were published in several small batches, one of which, comprising Conferences 11-17, would become the primary source of the controversy concerning St. John’s life and work.
The second decade of the fifth century in the West was rocked by one primary doctrinal controversy, that surrounding Pelagius, the British monk who had begun travelling the major cities of the Empire, preaching repentance, and focusing uncompromisingly upon every human being’s accountability before God. Most alarmingly, he proclaimed that Divine Grace was not necessary for salvation. Grace was, for Pelagius, a sort of fall back plan, a source of forgiveness for the lapsed. But for him the goal and purpose of the Christian life was never to lapse, and he claimed it was perfectly within the province of even fallen humanity to live a sinless and perfect life without any supernatural assistance and thereby attain to salvation. It was clear to many, chief among them St. Augustine, that this was heresy. Until this time, however (meaning the first two Ecumenical Councils and their related local councils), orthodoxy and heresy had been focused on conceptions of the Holy Trinity and the person of the Son in particular, not matters related to the path of salvation as such. Having brought Pelagius before the Holy Synod of Jerusalem for condemnation, Augustine was astonished that they cleared him of charges after only examining him regarding the Holy Trinity and the Creed. This set the Bishop of Hippo to writing, and his Anti-Pelagian works (quite literally) fill volumes. Finally, in 418, St. Augustine was successful in having Pelagius and his false teachings anathematized by the Council of Carthage.
In the process of arguing against Pelagius, however, St. Augustine had adopted (or at least seemed to adopt as a position from which to argue) the opposite extreme position. He seemed to argue for a form of Predestination and Reprobation in which human beings were completely passive in their salvation (as the flesh was a source only for concupiscence) and lived their entire lives of relative sanctity or wickedness playing out a pre-existing divine plan. At its extreme, St. Augustine even made the statement that the Holy Spirit had to constantly restrain the human flesh of Christ’s impulses in order to keep Him from sinning. These ideas were just as disturbing to many segments of the Church as those of Pelagius had been. It was especially disturbing to many of the fledgeling monastic communities in the West, whom St. John Cassian was serving. Therefore St. John composed Conference 13, “On Divine Protection”, in which he sets forward the basic principle of synergy in the Christian life. Pelagius was wrong that fallen man can do good and act under his own natural powers. Likewise, however, St. Augustine was wrong that God acts upon a passive (or actively fighting to fulfill opposite impulse) humanity. Rather, at the center of St. John’s text, every Christian ought, to quote St. Paul, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” The Divine Energies are the beginning, end, and basis of salvation, but do not negate, overpower, or snuff out the human.
At the end of his life, St. John Cassian’s final writing task was his Treatise Against Nestorius. Composed in 430 at the behest of Archdeacon Leo, the Treatise is really a sort of brief for the Pope of Rome explaining to him what the issues were with Nestorius’ Christology to allow him to prepare for what became the Third Ecumenical Council. Interestingly, in order to explain the Christological issues that St. Cyril had against Nestorius to a Latin audience, St. John connects Nestorius’ heresy to that of Pelagius. In the same way, he argues, that Pelagius separated the Divine Energies, God Himself, from His Creation, Nestorius was attempting to separate the Divine person of the Son from Christ’s human nature in a way which makes salvation impossible. Because of this connection drawn by St. John, at the Third Ecumenical Council, the anathema against Pelagius was renewed by the entire Church at the same time that Nestorius was condemned.
At the time of St. John Cassian’s repose in 435, there was no question whatsoever that he was in the full communion of the Church, and that he had been one of Her greatest spiritual teachers. Even those partisans of St. Augustine who had attempted to argue back against Conference 13, like Prosper of Aquitane, took issue with only ‘the author of the Conferences‘, being unwilling to speak St. John’s name in a negative light. A century and a half later, St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, was so devoted to St. John’s memory that he had his relics at the monastery of St. Victor placed in a silver coffer of his own design, inscribed with ‘Saint John Cassian’. Thomas Aquinas, as was common in many monastic orders of the Medieval West, read portions of Holy Scripture and portions of the Conferences every day as part of his prayer rule. In the East, not only was St. John’s sanctity unquestioned, he is the only Latin author whose work is included in the Apophthegmata, the collection of sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.
Then, during the Protestant Reformation, the history of the Christian West was rather cleverly revised. The project, of course, of the Reformation was to attempt to return the Western church to its original state, after centuries of corruption and creeping error. St. Augustine, as a Church Father, was looked to, especially by the Calvinist ‘wing’ of the Reformed camp as one of the purest sources of doctrine from the perceived height of the Western Church’s theological power and influence. While St. Augustine’s theology still undergirded much of the doctrine of the West, the positions expressed (especially in the extreme form there presented) in the Anti-Pelagian writings were no place in evidence in the theology of a Gabriel Biel. Rather than concluding, as is accurate, that those views were corrected partially by St. Augustine himself in his Retractions, partly by other Fathers like St. John Cassian, and in the greatest part by the guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit through history, the Reformed instead concluded that there was a historical move away from an original predestinarianism and monergism during St. Augustine’s time or afterward, and that this movement formed part of the corruption of the Western church which was in need of reform. As he was the first and most prestigious respondent to St. Augustine’s views, St. John Cassian became an obvious target.
Seeing St. John Cassian’s position of synergism as a sort of ‘compromise’ between the human monergism of Pelagius and the Divine monergism of St. Augustine, the 16th century Reformed coined a new term: Semi-Pelagianism. Though they now had a good term linking St. John, ironically, to the man whose heresy he had actually brought to universal condemnation, historically speaking in both West and East, it was St. John’s position which had clearly won the day not only in terms of subsequent history (which the Reformed could write off as tainted) but also amongst his peers in the fifth century, many of whom were simultaneously being looked to by the Reformed as pillars of orthodoxy. In order to complete the historical revision, then, the early Reformed lit upon an episode that took place 100 years after St. John’s death, connected to him only in that it involved a subsequent generation of monks at the monastery in Marseilles which he had founded.
In the early 6th century, a heresy known as Massilianism had arisen in the Provence. In essence, the monastic clergy in the area were postponing baptism for recipients out of a belief that baptism, seen as the first interaction of the human person with divine grace sacramentally, must be merited by the recipient. In practical terms, an initiate to the Christian faith had to repent, amend his life, and become morally pure in advance in order to be worthy of being baptized. This was seen at the time to be a form of Pelagianism in that it held as a necessary presupposition that a person could somehow, apart from divine grace and the life of the Church, perfect him or herself in order to be worthy of reception into the Kingdom. This particular heresy was condemned by a local council, the Second Council of Orange, in 529. The Council was careful, however, in addition to recondemning Pelagianism, to also condemn the concept of reprobation (or predestination to damnation) on the opposite extreme, and to clearly teach that holy baptism has as its primary effect the remission of sins.
Despite the fact that the Reformed deny baptismal regeneration (that baptism actually forgives sins) and that they believed in the doctrine of reprobation so clearly anathematized by the Second Council of Orange, they re-branded Massilianism as a type of Semi-Pelagianism, then used the coincidence of Marseilles to tie this ‘Semi-Pelagianism’ to St. John’s (albeit quite different) supposed Semi-Pelagianism in order to assert that St. John Cassian’s views were condemned by the Second Council of Orange, casting St. Augustine’s most extreme positions as ‘the patristic viewpoint’. Despite its lack of basis in fact and the incredible tenuousness of its logic, this narrative prevails to this day in nearly all Protestant treatments of the topic. To compound the issue, rather than muster to St. John’s defense, the Rome of Trent yielded him completely, such that this narrative is even now frequently found in Roman Catholic sources, choosing to remove him from their calendar and defend only their (then) current teaching on merit and infused created grace. In truth, such a defense may have been impossible in the 16th century, as the theological categories in which Rome then spoke had ‘progressed’ so far beyond the mind of the Fathers as to render much of their work unintelligible (especially the Eastern Fathers).
Aside from the gross distortions of Christian history in the West and the slandering of a great and holy man, this re-characterization of St. John Cassian has had one particularly disastrous effect: It has deprived Christians of some of the greatest spiritual writing in the Church’s history. St. John composed all of his works in Latin, and so the East has known (and loved) him only through Greek quotations, excerpts, and summaries. His works in their entirety, in the original Latin, were entrusted to the West, and after the 16th century, they were largely abandoned. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this is the fact that even a resource such as Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers contains only portions of the Institutes and the Conferences. In fact, the first complete translation of the Conferences into English was published only in 1997. Fortunately, Christians of our era are finally in a position to reclaim these works, this portion of our shared history, and the man St. John Cassian himself.
The Rev. Fr. Stephen De Young is Assistant Pastor of St. George Orthodox Cathedral of Charleston, West Virginia.