Jovinian : a monastic heretic in late-fourth century Rome

Jovinian - 18th century depictionJovinian : a monastic heretic in late-fourth century Rome

By NeilĀ Burnett

Master’s Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1996

Abstract: In 393 the monk Jovinian was condemned by a Roman synod under Pope Siricius. The monk had argued from Scriptural evidence that married women were equal in merit with widows and virgins; that they who had been baptised in fullness of faith could not be overthrown by the devil; that eating meats and drinking wine with thanksgiving was no less meritorious than abstention from these things; and that there was one reward in the kingdom of heaven for all those who had kept their baptismal vow.

This paper is a reconstruction of Jovinian’s arguments and motives from the evidence of Jerome’s Against Jovinian. It is also an attempt to understand the context in which Jovinian taught, and the nature of and reasons for the swift condemnation of his views by Pope Siricius and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. I will argue that Jovinian’s views were grounded in a sound and relatively conservative biblical and pre-eminently monastic theology, and show that what gave urgency to Jovinian’s “mission” was a conviction that the rise of the new ascetic enthusiasm was an eschatological sign, foretold, as he believed, by Paul in a text which became the cornerstone of his arguments, 1 Timothy 4.


An important part of this study is a translation, the first made available, of Siricius’ Letter 7, and an analysis of this document which is essential for understanding the Jovinianist controversy. This will be followed by a close look at the other centrally important texts, including Ambrose’s response to Siricius’ letter and to two Jovinianist monks active three years later in Vercelli. I will examine several of Jerome’s letters from the early 380s, when he was an ascetic teacher in Rome, through to the period following the hostile reception of his Against Jovinian at Rome in 393-394. A Catholic theologian, David Hunter, has recently (1987) portrayed Jovinian as an “anti- Manichaean polemicist.” I will argue that this is a distortion arising from the theologian’s desire to defuse the monk’s effective critique of prominent orthodox figures of his day, thereby rendering his vindication less problematic, and will suggest that in the crisis of the Helvidian controversy and the storm of events leading to Jerome’s expulsion from Rome, and in the tension between this new ascetic enthusiasm and Jovinian’s monastic values lay the probable motives for Jovinian’s own conversion from a life of concerted self-denial to a more moderate monasticism, determined above all to avoid the pitfall of self-exaltation associated with extreme ascetic praxis.

I will argue that Jovinian is best understood as a monastic heretic, in opposition to recent scholars who have attempted to vindicate him as an “orthodox” figure for his biblically centered and conservative ecclesiology and soteriology. I will maintain that it is important to de-stigmatize the word heretic, and that only this word can meaningfully apply to Jovinian, who chose energetically to dissent from “normative” Christianity as this was defined by the episcopal hierarchy of his day, and, indeed, by the state that would enforce his exile and possibly his death in 398.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of British Columbia

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