Fortitude of martyrs

Daily Reading for January 22 • Vincent, Deacon of Saragossa, and Martyr, 304

Both Prudentius and Augustine of Hippo were unequivocal about the amount of divine help Vincent received from the moment of his speech to the emperor, since the fortitude of martyrs was considered miraculous. Prudentius also enhanced the miraculous quality of Vincent’s remaining constant during his ordeal by vividly describing the tortures, leaving no doubt that they would have been unendurable. Since it would have been against the nature of the flesh to withstand cheerfully this kind of punishment, Vincent managed it not by his human efforts but by the power of God working through him, suspending the natural laws of pain and human weakness. Thus God’s grace was even more impressive.

Augustine argued even more strongly that Vincent received the power from God to endure his tortures, and there was an important intellectual reason for him to do so: the bishop was engaged in a theological controversy—against Pelagianism—that would shape Christian thought even more profoundly than did his Donatist attacks. Pelagianism was about salvation, whether one could be saved by one’s own efforts (indeed, one’s free will) or whether humans were incapable of refraining from sin without God’s help.

In 410, the British monk Pelagius traveled through Augustine’s home of Hippo, expressing his view that salvation could be obtained by free will. In accordance with this strong belief in free will, Pelagius believed that people had to strive to do good, because they could. Augustine adamantly opposed Pelagius’s view, believing that humans did not have the strength to avoid sin. . . .

Since they were written in the few years after he began his attacks on Pelagianism, Augustine’s sermons on St. Vincent were deeply influenced by the controversy. For Augustine, Vincent’s achievement could not have been the result of his free will and personal courage. Instead, the bishop stressed the miraculous power of God’s grace: “If human endurance is considered in this passion, it begins to be incredible; if divine power is acknowledged, it ceases [to] be amazing.” He returned to this theme in his next sermon arguing, “How can corruptible dust endure against such enormous torment, unless God lives within him?” Thus, by the beginning of the fifth century, the narrative of the martyr that had previously been used to combat idolatry was now brought by Augustine to combat a newly perceived threat to the church, Pelagianism.

From The Blood of Martyrs: Unintended Consequences of Ancient Violence by Joyce E. Salisbury (New York: Routledge, 2004).

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