Humphries, Thomas L., Jr. Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. xviii + 237. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-968503-5. Price: £65.00.
In his new monograph from Oxford University Press, Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great, Thomas Humphries argues that by cross-comparing ascetic and doctrinal writings of Late Antiquity on the Holy Spirit, scholars can make new discoveries about the role of the Holy Spirit and its relationship to human beings. His book is impressive, as it finds a healthy balance between an unapproachable level of detail and an overly ambitious survey of Late Antiquity. It arose out of his dissertation at Emory University, and certainly reads like a dissertation in its modular organization, depth of bibliography, and expositional tone. Yet this is by no means a criticism of Humphries’ work; he does not overwhelm readers with citation of current scholarship, and his topic is broad enough to capture a variety of interests. He draws from little-known primary sources such as letters and sermons to make important arguments about underappreciated figures like Fulgentius (d. 533) or Quodvultdeus (d. ca. 450). He often cites long block-quotes of primary text, with all of it still being relevant to his argument. In this way, the dissertation format is quite obvious. However, the text is still eminently readable, written in an engaging style (there is even a Johnny Cash quote for a section heading). Even if the reader is not particularly interested in researching pneumatology, Humphries provides enough background information about the major figures and ideas of Late Antiquity that the book can serve as a great refresher course on the 4th through 6th centuries.
Humphries’ broad and balanced design is also apparent in the arguments of Ascetic Pneumatology, as Humphries never pushes his argument beyond the evidence. He limits his findings to the often-ambiguous nature of the textual evidence, but still takes important steps beyond prior scholarship to improve our understanding of figures like Prosper of Aquitaine (d. ca. 455) and John Cassian (d. 435). Ascetic Pneumatology is a significant text because it synthesizes the development of Trinitarian and anthropological doctrine in Late Antiquity with the ascetic and practical focus of the texts from which it is derived. Although this is no easy feat, Humphries accomplishes his task and demonstrates his broad competency in the thought of the Late Antique Church Fathers.
Ascetic Pneumatology is organized according to themes and figures; conveniently, Humphries often takes a comparative approach, focusing each chapter on the ideas of one thinker in light of the work of his contemporaries. For example, one chapter covers Augustinian responses to Pelagianism or Arianism, while another includes the synthesis of Augustinianism by Fulgentius and Maxentius (early 5th c.). To be sure, the reader is often tempted to ask about monastics and their ascetic pneumatology, “Did anyone think that monks did not include the Holy Spirit in their asceticism? Why bother making this argument?” Yet, Humphries is not a revisionist with a mission of promoting some innovation to Late Antique scholarship. His book is important vecause it fleshes out an unexplored area of research in early monasticism.
Humphries demonstrates the need for a new emphasis on how thinkers of the 4th-6th centuries treated the Holy Spirit, with their growing emphasis on the Holy Spirit as an agent in their asceticism (as opposed to, say, angels). It is very valuable that Ascetic Pneumatology is able to show a connection between the Holy Spirit and the human will on both sides of the Cassian-Prosper argument. Humphries helpfully traces the influence of Augustine’s Trinitarian thought on various thinkers, especially the theologians of Lérins, who, as Humphries proves, received only half of Augustine’s scriptural hermeneutics on the exegesis of Trinitarian Bible passages. The significance of close-reading Gregory the Great’s use of Augustine’s pneumatology throughout his pastoral writing about vices and virtues cannot be overstated; that the “sevenfold spirit” and its gifts are responsible for the idea of seven vices and virtues is a direct corollary to Humphries’ new pneumatological emphasis. Thanks to these and other arguments, Ascetic Pneumatology can be considered an invaluable resource.
Furthermore, because he makes few controversial claims, Thomas Humphries has written a book with few weaknesses. His dissertation-style argument is easy to follow in nine progressive chapters that are ordered chronologically, and make their arguments from rather broad to very specific (as does the progressive thought of the Fathers on whom they focus). Current scholarship is well-represented in his historiography and citations, as seen in a strong censure of applying the term semi-Pelagian to John Cassian’s Conferences, a detailed study of the complex relationship between Pelagianism and Nestorianism, and an insightful word study of Gregory the Great’s grammar of contemplation.
It is difficult to conceive of conducting any theological research on Late Antique monasticism in the future without Humphries’ book as an aid, as a result of its plentiful and specialized bibliography. Its new perspectives on well-researched spiritual and theological texts is also valuable. Humphries contextualizes his work well, which allows it to serve as a teaching text for a graduate-level seminar on Late Antique theology or spirituality. Ascetic Pneumatology surely accords well with the rest of the fine texts from Gillian Clark and Andrew Louth’s Oxford Early Christian Studies Series.
Andrew Jacob Cuff is a PhD student in Church History at The Catholic University in America in Washington, DC. His research focuses on Cistercians and other monastic theologians in the twelfth century.