Caesarius of Arles and His Sermons on Christ’s Atonement
Caesarius of Arles and His Sermons on Christ’s Atonement
“Why did our Lord Jesus Christ, the power and wisdom of the Father, effect the salvation of man, not by His divine power and sole might, but by physical humiliation and human struggle? ... What need was there for Christ our Lord to accept his exceedingly difficult Passion, when he could have saved the human race by His powerful word? Why did he assume his incarnation, infancy, the course of his life, insult, the cross, death, and burial for the restoration of man?”
If you think these words were written by Anselm of Canterbury or one of the later Reformers, you may be surprised. They were actually part of a sermon by Caesarius of Arles, a fifth-century bishop in today’s France.
Caesarius was born in Chalon-sur-Saone, France, around the year 470, to a pious family. At 17, he entered the local clergy, probably as a lector. Seeking a stronger commitment, three years later he joined the monastery in Lerins, in a group of islands off the coast of Cannes – a monastery famous as a center of studies and ascetism.
He is described as overly-eager. For example, when asked to oversee the administration of meals, he rationed everyone’s food so drastically that the other monks begged the abbot, Porcarius, to remove him from his position. When the abbot obliged, Caesarius devoted his life to fasting and prayer until he damaged his health. Porcarius then sent him for recovery to a monastery in Arles, a city in southwestern Provence.
There, Caesarius caught the attention of the local bishop, Eonius, who ordained him first as a deacon and later as a priest, and appointed him abbot of a nearby monastery. When Eonius died, 33-year-old Caesarius was called to succeed him.
It was a difficult time to be a bishop. Gaul was overtaken by the Visigoths who engaged in frequent raids of the countryside and came into conflict with other populations, such as the Franks and the Burgundians.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the church was the principal institution left and bishops had to act as judges and administrators. Caesarius did all he could to assist those who came to him for help. He paid off ransoms, negotiated with the Visig oths, and founded what became the most important hospital in Gaul.
His actions, however, were sometimes misinterpreted and he was twice accused (and each time acquitted) of treason against the ruling authorities.
In all this, he didn’t neglect sound doctrine, but organized councils to face doctrinal disputes and to bring better organization to the Christian communities in Gaul. Most famously, he presided over the 529 Council of Orange which condemned the semi-Pelagian views that were popular in much of Gaul. In support of that decision, he wrote a work entitled De Gratiâ et Libero Arbitrio.
On the issue of grace, he was praised by Pope Boniface, who wrote to him, “It appears obvious that our faith in Christ, like all good things, comes to individuals from the gift of divine grace and not from the power of human nature. We rejoice that your brotherhood perceived this truth in accordance with catholic faith, when a council of some bishops of Gaul was held. As you have indicated, they decided unanimously that our faith in Christ is conferred on men by the intervention of divine grace. They added that there is absolutely nothing good in God’s eyes that anyone can wish, begin, do, or complete without the grace of God, for as our Savior said, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ For it is both a certainty and an article of catholic faith that in all good things, the greatest of which is faith, divine mercy intervenes for us when we are not yet willing, so that we might become willing; it remains in us when we are willing; and it follows us so that we remain in faith.”
He is often remembered for his organization of a women’s monastery, which was run by his sister Caesaria. The rules he wrote for that community – although particularly strict – were later adopted by communities of monks.
In his day, he was mostly celebrated as a preacher. Several of his sermons have been preserved because, to instruct other preachers, he allowed his sermons to be copied and distributed as models to follow.
Besides employing familiar images that would engage his hearers, Caesarius filled his sermons with questions that caught the attention and prompted reflection. As Peter Chrysologus did around the same time in Ravenna, Italy, Caesarius limited his sermons to about twenty minutes in length, in order to keep his readers interested and alert.
He died in Arles in 542. His life was recorded by some of his contemporaries in a two-book biography.
Remembered by the Reformers for his stand against Pelagianism, Caesarius of Arles has recently been brought back to our attention by Benjamin Wheaton, author of Suffering Not Power: Atonement in the Middle Ages, as an example of how the doctrine of substitutionary atonement was not forgotten until Anselm of Canterbury.
The questions at the beginning of this blog post were reported by Caesarius as doubts that were sending “many men of little learning into anxiety.” Caesarius’s answer lines up with the Protestant confessions: “Without any doubt, our Lord could have triumphed over the Devil and freed man from that domination by His divine authority. Of course he could have, but reason resisted it, justice did not allow it. ... Now, here it must be remembered that mercy does not destroy justice, goodness does not destroy equity. ... Christ’s death profited man, for by taking death upon Himself Christ paid what Adam owed to God. Truly He became a sacrifice for the sin or men and their progeny. ... Original sin could not have been easily forgiven if a victim had not been offered for it, if that sacred blood of propitiation had not been shed.”
And this was not an isolated discussion. Caesarius took on the same subject of redemption through Christ’s atonement in another sermon: “Rejoice, dearest brethren, because the price of our redemption has been paid. We cost a considerable amount, since He who redeemed us became the purchase price. ... On His cross hung both our ransom-price and our heaven. The creature which formerly had been covered with darkness because of sin returned to the light with the Lord ... That is why He willed to be pierced himself, so that sin might strike us no longer. He delivered up the innocent in order that he might free the guilty.”
Caearius’s faithfulness to biblical teachings such as grace alone and Christ’s substitutionary atonement is refreshing and encouraging as we realize how God has preserved his Gospel even through centuries we have been traditionally considered “dark.”
 Caesarius of Arles, Saint Caesarius of Arles: Sermons, in “Fathers of the Church,” translated by Sister Mary Magdeleine Mueller, The Catholic University of America Press, 1956, p. 62.
 William E. Klingshirn, Caesarius of Arles: Life, Testament, Letters, University Press, 1994, p. 125.
 Benjamin Wheaton, Suffering Not Power: Atonement in the Middle Ages, Lexham Press, 2022.
 Caesarius of Arles, Saint Caesarius of Arles: Sermons, p. 62.
 Ibid., pp. 62-69
 Ibid, pp. 69-71.