Thursday, August 15, 2013


Dominic Keech, The Anti-Pelagian Christology of Augustine of Hippo. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780199662234. $125.00.

Reviewed by Stuart Squires, Brescia University (

Version at BMCR home site


Dominic Keech's work has two related themes. The first shows that Augustine was well versed in the writings of Origen of Alexandria. Scholarly opinion since the 20th century has argued that because of his inability to read Greek at a high level, the Bishop of Hippo was unable to fully appreciate Greek Christian thought. As Augustine was forced to ask Jerome for more translations of Origen texts, so this argument goes, it is clear that Augustine was ignorant of the substance of Origen's theology. Keech's text, however, convincingly argues that Augustine was much more familiar with Origen than was previously thought. The second theme is that Augustine used Origen's exegesis of Romans 8:3 ("by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh") as the exegetical springboard in his Christological arguments about Christ's sinlessness in the Pelagian Controversy.

Chapter 1, "Recovering an Augustinian Christology," sets the stage by offering a variety of contextualizing scenes. It first discusses how Augustine's Christology is difficult to encapsulate because he did not write a dedicated text on this issue, and his Christology was not forged in the fires of controversy, as had, for example, Athanasius' Christology. It continues by discussing McGuckin's three stages of Augustine's Christology, and lists 11 terms Augustine used throughout his life to describe Christ, such as Christus Medicus. Then, it offers a literature review, starting with Adolph von Harnack in the late 19th century, that demonstrates how scholars have understood Augustine's Christology. Expanding on scholars such as Evans, Rees, and Clark, this chapter sketches the relationship between the Origenist Controversy and the Pelagian Controversy. Finally, it summarizes the scholarly debate that discusses the "Two Augustines Controversy." Keech sides with Harrison against Brown, but wants to add that Augustine's reception of Origen in the 390s was crucial to his intellectual "development" (p. 23).

Chapter 2, "Augustine and Origen: Fathers of Pelagianism," continues establishing context. The chapter outlines a variety of issues, including: Augustine's understanding of heresy as discussed in De Haeresibus (which shows Augustine's different attitudes between Origenism and Pelagianism), the elementary facts of the Pelagian Controversy (excluding, for some reason, a summary of Augustine's battles with Julian), the Origenist Controversy, and Augustine's letter correspondence with Jerome. The chapter continues by compiling arguments from previous scholars such as Altaner, Bammel, Heidl, and Theiler to show that Augustine's knowledge of Origen's writings was much broader and deeper than most scholars have acknowledged. Keech concludes the chapter by summarizing Augustine's first two works in the Pelagian Controversy, his De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione and De Natura et Gratia.

In chapter 3, "A Divine Humanity in Sin's Likeness," Keech begins to offer his own arguments. This chapter divides Augustine's thinking into three distinct periods. The first period begins with De Libero Arbitrio and ends with Ad Simplicianum, the second period from De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissionein 412 to De Gratia Christi et de Peccto Originale in 418, and the third period starts after Pope Zosimus excommunicated Pelagius and Caelestius in 418 and lasts until Augustine's death. Throughout these three periods, Keech shows how Augustine uses Romans 8:3 as his starting point for his theological anthropology and his Christology. Keech demonstrates that Augustine's theological anthropology shifted during this time from understanding sin as an abstract definition of the movement of the will prior to Ad Simplicianum toward "a more concrete and historicized account, centered on the concupiscentia carnalis of the massa peccati" (104). Augustine's Christological exegesis of this passage throughout these three periods is the basis for his understanding of the virginal conception of the sinless Christ (p. 71).

Whence did Augustine receive this understanding of Romans 8:3? Chapter 4, "Augustine, Origen, and the Exegesis of Romans 8:3," attempts to trace the influence that Ambrosiaster, Ambrose, and Origen had on Augustine. While acknowledging a general influence on Augustine, Keech dismisses Ambrosiaster as Augustine's source for his understanding of Romans 8:3. Turning to the man who baptized Augustine, we see that Ambrose only quotes Romans 8:3 six times, and only one of those times (Explanatio Psalmi37.5) is related to the question of the virginal conception of Christ's sinlessness. This reference, the author shows, is actually a quotation from Origen's 14th homily on Luke. Keech then turns to what is probably the book's most important contribution to show Augustine's dependence on Origen for his reading of Romans 8:3. Although it is impossible to prove definitely, Keech suggests that, in Milan, Augustine had received translations of Origen's works from his friend Simplicianus.

In chapter 5, "Apollinaris Redux? Augustine and the Psychology of Christ," the author returns to Augustine's Christology and Julian's accusation that it is Apollinarian in that Christ's divine nature takes the place of the human soul corrupted by Original Sin. Beginning with a review of Augustine's understanding of Apollinarianism and tracing this knowledge from his Latin predecessors, including Damasus, Ambrose, Hilary, Ambrosiaster, and Jerome, Keech moves to Augustine's understanding of the nature of the human will and shows that Augustine confuses intentional acts and the beginning of disordered desire. Keech then shows that Augustine understands Christ as a human with a perfect divine will and omniscient, but Christ also has a human will that needs to be saved and is similar to the will of sinful humanity. He concludes the chapter by arguing that this can be seen as similar to developments in Alexandrian Christology in that the presence of the Logos obscures the human nature of Christ.

The final chapter, "The Election of the Dominical Human: Augustine and the Unfallen Soul of Christ," turns to Augustine's understanding of the soul's origin. Keech believes that, privately, Augustine held that the soul fell, but Augustine refused to take any firm stance in public. This private belief was influenced not only by Plotinus and Porphyry but, more importantly, from his direct knowledge of Origen's work. The chapter then examines the phrases dominicus homo and homo asssumptus that Augustine often used to describe Christ until 395. After that time—because of Augustine's attentiveness to the controversy swirling around Origen—he abandoned the use of those terms. Finally, the chapter assesses Ep. 140 and De Genesi ad Litteram 10 to show that, later in life, Augustine reverses his prior reception of Origen's Christology. In these texts, Jesus' soul is chosen to become Incarnate because of "its foregoing [sic] goodness and love, on account of which he can assume the 'likeness of the flesh of sin' without subsequent defilement" (p. 235). Keech summarizes Augustine's Christology by claiming that it is "disjointed [and] offering an incomplete Christ to a race condemned and incapable of its own salvation" (p. 235).

Keech's text, while a solid piece of scholarly research, does have a glaring problem. He claims that "Rufinus the Syrian" was Jerome's "puppet in the West" (p. 59) and that Jerome was "suspicious of Augustine as a creeping Origenist and aide of Rufinus of Aquileia, having by 399 heard only of his leaked epistles and receiving only his persistent questions about the heterodoxy of Origen. Rufinus the Syrian becomes the perfect foil for Jerome to tar Augustine with the brush of an Origenist soteriology. This explains why the Liber [De Fide] proceeds to damn the doctrine of Original Sin from the perspective of "an Origenist pre-mundane fall" (p. 59). Keech claims that because of this, Augustine first wrote his De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione as a response to "Rufinus the Syrian" and Jerome and then "was required to re-create his polemical account of Pelagianism afresh, safely obscuring his admiration of Origen in the process" (p. 37). Walter Dunphy has written many articles over the past 30 years on "Rufinus the Syrian" and should be considered the undisputed expert on all things pertaining to him. Several of his articles call into question the foundational assumption on which Keech rests his argument. First, in his article "A Lost Year: Pelagianism in Carthage, 411 A.D." (Augustinianum, 2005), Dunphy has shown that Augustine was completely ignorant of the Liber De Fide; it would be impossible, therefore, for Augustine to have detected any subtle criticisms of his latent sympathies with Origen by "Rufinus the Syrian."1 Second, in his article "Rufinus the Syrian: Myth and Reality" (Augustiniana, 2009), Dunphy has shown that "Rufinus the Syrian" never existed, but that the Rufinus to whom Caelestius and Marius Mercator referred was Rufinus of Aquileia.2 Third, in the same article, Dunphy shows that Rufinus of Aquileia may have been a translator of the Liber, but the Liber probably was not written by one author. Whether or not the authors of the text had any relation to Jerome is also in question. It is surprising that not a single article from Dunphy appears in Keech's bibliography.

Despite these errors, Keech's monograph is an impressively written contribution to the painful project of untangling Augustine's Chistology. It nimbly weaves its way through the Christian landscape of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. This text is an important addition to all who are interested in the reception of Origen by later Christian thinkers, theological anthropology, Christology, Augustine, and the Pelagian Controversy.


1.   Dunphy, Walter. "A Lost Year: Pelagianism in Carthage, 411 A.D." Augustinianum 45, no. 2 (2005): 389-466.
2.   Dunphy, Walter. "Rufinus the Syrian: Myth and Reality." Augustiniana 59, no. 1 (2009): 79-157.


  1. A correction is in order. I did not suggest that Rufinus of Aquileia translated the Liber de Fide. But I appreciate the endorsement of my questioning of the status quo on "Rufinus the Syrian" and the uncritical acceptance of the role of the Liber de Fide.

    1. I apologize if I misunderstand, but the claim on p. 153 seems to suggest that you believe that Rufinus of Aquileia translated it: "This claim that the Liber is a translation by a certain priest Rufinus would certainly lend credence to the idea that it be attributed (as a translation) to Rufinus of Aquileia, ranking it with the many other translations, including many 'concerning the faith,' for which he was well known...With such a title and under the 'authority of a translator of the caliber of Rufinus (of Aquileia), an approximate date for the falsification is ready to hand."