A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Did Pelagius Get a Raw Deal?

In light of the series I have been posting on heresy, I think the following article from David Gibson and posted at  RNS is interesting. What do you think?
"Pelagius who?" you might ask. Answer: the fifth-century Christian writer, preacher and spiritual director who was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage for denying the doctrine of Original Sin.

Pelagius was known as an ascetic and a holy man, but his alleged views that humans were not stained by original sin and did not need grace to work toward salvation made him anathema to the likes of Saint Augustine (and the Calvinists, later on). Other early church fathers and polemicists were not fans either.

Saint Jerome's arguments against Pelagius included the charge that the tall and corpulent Irishman (or "Scot," as the epithet then had it) was "stuffed with Scottish porridge" (Scotorum pultibus proegravatus) and therefore suffered from a weak memory.

But Pelagius has enjoyed something of a comeback these days, with modern Christians often focused on building self-esteem rather than emphasizing the depravity of the soul, and bumper-sticker theology like "Jesus is my best friend" replacing John Edwards' "sinners in the hands of an angry God" sermons.

So it is that we get this news from the Episcopal (Anglican) Church:
The Diocese of Atlanta has been asked to rehabilitate Pelagius.

Delegates to the diocesan convention will be asked to reverse the condemnation of the Council of Carthage upon Pelagius, and to explore whether the Fifth century heretic may inform the theology of the Episcopal Church.

Resolution R11-7 before the convention states in part:

"Whereas the historical record of Pelagius's contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition;"

"And whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God's creation, and whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans, Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition."
Great news. Why? For one thing, there is a chance that Pelagius may have got a raw deal way back when, and it would be important to revisit the issue and to learn about early Christian history, which no one seems to recall terribly well.

I'm not much of a Pelagian, or neo-Pelagian, if you couldn't tell. But I do think that it's great when Christians argue about doctrines and dogmas and things that really matter, rather than the usual argments over whether praise music is dreck or the cantor's Latin pronunciation is off. (Both are likely true. Done.) It's too easy to slip into heresies without thinking about it.

They were fighting in the streets over Arianism. How about an "Occupy Carthage" movement, starting in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta in the 21st century? It could be good to re-fight these battles every millennium or so, to clarify what a religion believes. But we need to know history in order to repeat it. Or not.


John Mark said...

The wiki article on Pelagius paints him as opposed to the Manichean influence he saw in Augustine's theology, and says that he was/is considered by some to be orthodox in his understanding of how man is saved.
I am not Pelagian or semi-Pelagian but I think his work (what little there is, apparently) might be worthy of investigation given the context he lived and worked in.

John Meunier said...

The Roman Catholic Encyclopedia has this summary of the canons of the Council of Carthage, which condemned Pelagianism:

Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.

New-born children must be baptized on account of original sin.

Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.

The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.

Without God's grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.

Not out of humility, but in truth must we confess ourselves to be sinners.

The saints refer the petition of the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses", not only to others, but also to themselves.

The saints pronounce the same supplication not from mere humility, but from truthfulness.