Salvian the Presbyter


By Rousas John Rushdoony

 There is no question but that St. Augustine is the far greater church father than Salvian, both in his thinking and in his influence. However, at one point Salvian is clearly Augustine’s superior. Augustine saw the fall of Rome with grief, as a disaster and a theological shock which required great and profound historical analysis to justify. Very painfully, Augustine came to see the purposes of God in the fall of Rome.AAD

Salvian, however, welcomed it: the collapse of Rome was for him evidence of the justice of God and the certainty of His government. Because the sovereign, predestinating God governs all things, Salvian held, a corrupt order will of necessity be judged. Salvian wrote with a hard, blunt clarity. More than anyone else, he saw plainly what was happening; saw it like a trained newsman, and also as a man of faith.olivet discourse

Salvian did not see the Roman Empire as in any sense Christian. It had accepted Christianity only because fighting it was too costly, but its old injustice continued, and its contempt of truth. Church membership had become a formality, a part of one’s role in society. The number of so-called Christians who were not fornicators was few, Salvian charged. In his magnificent analysis of the necessity for Rome’s fall, The Governance of God, written soon after 439 and before A.D. 450, Salvian declared:

The Church herself, which should be the appeaser of God in all things, what is she but the exasperator of God? Beyond a very few individuals who shun evil, what else is the whole assemblage of Christians but the bilge water of vice? How many will you find in the Church who are not either a drunkard or a beast, or an adulterer, or a fornicator, or a robber, or a debauchee, or a brigand or a murderer? And, what is worse than all this, they do all these things almost unceasingly. Moreover, he added, “We offend God all the more under the name of religion, because, having been placed in religion, we continue to sin.” Respectability and sin had become one in the church.

When he discussed Rome, Salvian did so with contempt. Its glories were in the past, and men who insisted on patriotic loyalty were living in the past. For Salvian, the future belonged, not to Rome, but to the barbarian tribes. Barbarians though they were, they were morally superior to Rome. Rome was massive, oppressive injustice. Its tax structure was destroying the people, and its evil had passed the point of no return. People were evicted from their lands and homes for failure to pay taxes, but, with their possessions gone, the tax debt still remained. “Though possessions are gone from them, the tax assessment has not. They lack property, but are crushed by taxes!”

Families fled from Rome to the barbarians to escape the oppression of the tax collectors, regarding the depravations of the enemy as less deadly than those of their own country:

But what else can these wretched people wish for, they who suffer the incessant and even continuous destruction of public tax levies. To them there is always imminent a heavy and relentless proscription.

They desert their homes, lest they be tortured in their very homes. They seek exile, lest they suffer torture. The enemy is more lenient to them than the tax collectors. This is proved by this very fact, that they flee to the enemy in order to avoid the full force of the heavy tax levy.

The real barbarians, said Salvian, are heretics and pagans, lawless men who are vicious, contemptuous of God and His law, who use their power as civil officers to steal from the lower classes, and especially those hypocrites, who, professing Christ, are leaders in the civil evils. Thus, the Romans “are more guilty and criminal in their lives than the barbarians.”

Salvian did not depict the barbarian tribesman as a natural innocent man; he knew better. He did assert that most Romans were worse and with less excuse. As evidence that others knew it as well was the fact that, whereas it was once a prized thing to be a Roman citizen, men now renounced it to flee to the enemy. “They prefer to live as freemen under an outward form of captivity than as captives under an appearance of liberty.” In the districts conquered by the barbarians, the one desire among Romans themselves was to avoid reconquest by Rome.

The fall of the Roman Empire was less a conquest than a collapse. The barbarians numbered only tens of thousands against the millions of Rome. The empire simply had no will to resist, only to enjoy. Rome, Salvian pointed out, was a mixture of wretchedness and luxury, but, on all sides, the major impetus was for pleasure. “We laugh, though we are afraid of death.” Rome, he noted, “is dying, but continues to laugh.”

The more dangerous the plight of Rome became, the greater the interest in pleasure, and especially in the degenerate “games” of the arena or circus. The taste for obscene things was pronounced. In city after city under attack, the games continued inside the walls as people died outside. In Trier, the people shouted with hoarse excitement at the games in 406 while around them the city was falling to the enemy. The shouts of the dying and the sporting crowds mingled. The city was left in ruins, with the deadly stench of the dead everywhere. Salvian, as an eyewitness, described “the nude and torn bodies of both sexes, infecting the eyes of the city as they were torn to pieces by birds and dogs.” The result was “death … from death,” i.e., epidemics apparently resulting from the conditions that prevailed in the ruins. Amazingly, however, the concern of the city was still with escapism and pleasure. “Who can judge this kind of madness? A few nobles who survived destruction demanded circuses from the emperors as the greatest relief for the destroyed city.”Thus, as Salvian noted, “The vices of our bad lives have alone conquered us.”

The gluttony of nearly all is a raging vortex: the life of all is almost a brothel. Why should I speak of brothels? I even think that a brothel is less criminal (than the men whom I have in mind.) For the prostitutes who are in them do not know the marriage bond and therefore do not stain that of which they are ignorant. Indeed, their shamelessness is deserving of punishment, but they are not held guilty of adultery. Add to this, that brothels are few and there are few prostitutes who have condemned themselves to a most unhappy life in them.

The prostitutes were few, but the corrupt public officials, and the corrupt citizenry, were many, and it was with these that the real guilt had lain. The people regarded life, not as a stewardship to God, but as an opportunity for pleasure. The holidays in a year numbered 175, but, during the rest of the year, there was no sense of responsibility, obligation, or a work ethic. The earnest Christians were a small minority.

Adversity had not brought repentance but only a desire for more pleasure. Rome was captive to its own vice before it became a captive to the barbarians, Salvian declared. “I think I have proved sufficiently how punishment has not corrected any people who bear the Roman name.”

Because Salvian believed in God’s predestination of all things, down to the very hairs of our head, this also meant for him that God is indifferent to nothing. “Is it not God who is fully cognizant of all things by perception, who moves all by His strength, who rules by authority, and protects in His bounty?”

Moreover, “As we now affirm belief in God’s future judgment, so do we now teach that God is always our judge in this life. While God governs us, He judges us, because His governance is His judgment.” There is a purpose in God’s government and judgment. “The good are watched over for the sake of preserving them; the evil, that they may be destroyed.” Therefore you, whoever you are, if you are a Christian, must believe that you are governed by God. If you completely deny that you and other Christians are ruled by God, then you must realize that you are outside the fold of Christ.

We must thus accept God’s judgments as an aspect of His providential care. We must furthermore hold fast to the Bible, for “the very words of Holy Scripture are the mind of God.” Man’s reason must be governed by God’s word, not by any autonomous principle of judgment. As we face the problem of a collapsing civilization, Salvian told his readers, we must do it with faith in God’s government:

Why does the whole world come under the sway of authorities, for the greater part unjust? I could answer with reason and with sufficient constancy: “I do not know,” because I do not know the secret counsels of God. The oracle of the heavenly Word is sufficient proof for me in this case. God says, as I have proved in the previous books, that He regards all things, rules all things and judges all things. If you wish to know what you must believe, you have Holy Scripture. The perfect explanation is to hold with what you read. I do not want you to ask why God does as He does in the instances of which I have been speaking. I am a man. I do not understand the secrets of God. I do not dare to investigate them. I am also afraid to pry into them, because, if you desire to know more than you are allowed to know, that in itself is a kind of sacrilegious rashness. Let it suffice for you that God testifies that He Himself performs and ordains all things. Do you ask me why one man is greater and another less, one man is wretched and another happy, one man strong and another weak? Why God does these things I do not know, but my demonstration that this is done by Him should suffice for a full explanation. Just as God is greater than all human reason, in like manner it should mean more to me than reason that I recognize that all things are done by God. There is no need to listen to anything new on this point. Let God alone, the Creator, be sufficient over the reasoning of all men. It is not proper to say of the actions of the divine judgments this is right and this is wrong, because whatever you see and are convinced is the work of God, that you must confess it more than right.

To believe in God with faith means, said Salvian, that a living faith has fruits; it means observing “faithfully the commandments of God.” The Lord has entrusted His people, as His servants, with “goods” which they must not abuse.

You ask, perhaps, what are the goods which God grants to Christians? What, indeed, unless all those things by which we believe, that is, all those things by which we are Christians. First there is the Law, then the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles of the Apostles, lastly the gift of being reborn anew, the grace of holy baptism and the anointment with holy oil. As with the Hebrews of old, God’s chosen and own people, when the dignity of the judges had grown into royal authority, God called the most approved and select men to rule as kings, after they were anointed with oil. Thus it is that all Christians, who, after baptism in the Church, have observed all the commandments of God, shall be called to Heaven to receive the reward of their labor. Because both churchmen and the pagans have alike despised the word of God and have not obeyed His commandments, judgment has come upon Rome.

Salvian’s vision of his times is so clear and sharp that it is easy to forget that he was a man of his times also. He married early in life, and he and his wife Palladia (whose parents were pagan) had a daughter, Auspiciola. Later, Salvian and Palladia separated, to pursue religious vocations, in monastery and convent. Salvian entered the monastery of Lerins and was later ordained. He taught rhetoric at Lerins, and his fellow teachers included Hilary, Caesaruis, and Honoratus. One of the pupils was St. Patrick. Salvian was familiar with the works of Augustine. Salvian lived to be almost a hundred, being mentioned as alive towards the end of the fifth century.

In his view of psychology, Salvian, in his letters, manifests neoplatonic elements and a strongly ascetic disposition. His perspective, however, was essentially biblical, and his account of Rome’s collapse without equal. Salvian, moreover, had a hard realism rarely equaled in church history. He knew that history is warfare, but he saw it as a holy warfare in which he had a part as a soldier of Christ. Nothing can be done by any man to evade that conflict. The word of God is a dividing word, he declared, and men must choose whom they shall serve. His concluding words in The Four Books to the Church, beautifully translated by Dr. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan, declare:

Almost every Divine Word has its opponents. There are as many forms of opposition as there are forms of commands. If the Lord orders generosity in men, the covetous man is angry. If He demands frugality, the spendthrift curses. The evil-doer considers the Sacred Words, his own particular enemies. Robbers shudder at whatever is ordained as to justice. The proud shudder at whatever is ordained as to humility. The drunken resist when sobriety is proclaimed publicly.

The unchaste, foully call God to witness where chastity is ordered. Either nothing must be said or whatever is said will displease someone of the above-named men. Each evil-doer prefers to curse the law rather than to correct his own opinion. He prefers to hate God’s commandments rather than his own vices.

In the midst of these things what do they do, to whom the duty of speaking is ordered by Christ? They displease God if they are silent; they displease men if they speak. But, as the Apostle answered the Jews, it is more expedient to obey God rather than men. I offer this advice to all to whom the law of God is heavy and burdensome, when they refuse to accept what God commands—which otherwise might be pleasing to them.

For, all who hate the holy commands possess within their very selves the reason for the hate. To everyone, aversion to the law is not in the precepts, but in one’s morals. The law is, indeed, good, but the morals are bad. For this reason, let men change their intentions and viewpoints. If they will make their morals commendable, nothing that a good law has ordered will displease them. When anyone has begun to be good, he is unable not to love the law of God, because the holy law of God has that within itself which holy men have in their morals. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.


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