Friday, April 1, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Pelagianism

Just when I think we've surely finished all my "favorite" heresies, we come upon another one that I just adore! This week was Pelagianism--named for Pelagius. At is core, this heresy is a denial of original sin. Basically, Pelagius, an early 5th-century British monk, was a strict moralist, who refused to accept the increasingly popular description of human nature that Augustine and other like him were putting forward: depraved, evil, incapable of good. Pelagius, as J. N. D. Kelly writes, was "concerned for right conduct and shocked by...demoralizing pessimistic views...of human nature." Augustine wanted the world to know just how hopeless humanity was without God's help, and Pelagius wanted the world to know that Augustine was wrong.

Naturally, as history unfolded, Pelagius was wrong, and Augustine won the day. What interests me, however, is why that matters to a 21st-century Christian. So here we go...

Pelagius was very, very, very fond of free will. He believed that humans did not inherit Adam's sin through birth but instead through his example. In other words, just because Adam sinned doesn't mean that I am a sinner before I am born. "That's ridiculous," Pelagius said. Human beings have within themselves a completely free and independent will that enables them to make either good choices or bad choices--the former leading to salvation and the latter leading to damnation. Simple enough, right?

For Augustine, the human will, though free, was only free to make bad choices. That was original sin--the human condition. Ever since the fall, humankind has been unable to make the right choices on its own. Only with God's help can human beings take the first step (or any other step) towards God. Salvation, therefore, was purely a gift of grace. Pelagius, however, didn't think so. For him, to leave everything in the hands of God was a denial of free will. As far as he was concerned, Augustine's "free will" was free in name only.

And in many ways that makes sense. Do we really believe that newborn babies are inherently wicked? Do we really believe that we inherit original sin by virtue of some mythical story that "took place" in the Garden of Eden? Isn't that a little ridiculous? Wouldn't it be better to say that humanity consistently fails because we consistently make bad choices not because we're inherently evil? Does anyone other than Augustine really think that unbaptized infants burn in hell because of the unwashed stain of original sin? Does God--the God of forgiveness--really hold us responsible for the sins of Adam?

Well, good points, all of them. Pelagius had a strong case. Where he went wrong, however, was to see original sin as a skewed expression of a guilt-laden theology rather than as a beautiful foundation upon which God's mercies are built. As Augustine argued, a belief in original sin makes God's grace real. If, as Pelagius claimed, we could theoretically get ourselves to heaven through right actions and choices, why do we need God's grace? Jesus' death and resurrection, therefore, would only be a reminder of "right choices" and not a means of life-changing grace. When we emphasize the universality of human brokenness (call it "original sin," the "human condition," or "fallen human nature") we also, by necessity, emphasize the importance of God's love. A strict moralist like Pelagius can only emphasize the importance of ethical behavior. But that's not Christianity--it's the Boy Scouts.

Actually, I believe that a strong belief in original sin is more compatible with contemporary, "progressive" theology than Pelagianism. If we eliminate the concept of inherited sin, we're left with a human brokenness that is only expressed in specific instances of moral failure--the "sins" we commit on a daily basis. But who gets to decide what's sinful in those instances? My baptist friends up the street have a different approach to Scotch than I do. Am I sinning? Are they? Who's right, and who's in need of forgiveness? Well, by deemphasizing the specificity of sin and stressing its absolutely universal nature, we discover a shared need of forgiveness. (I'm not ready, though, to posit a positive claim for ethical behavior. What's right and what's wrong will have to wait for another post.) In the 21st century, when we find ourselves fighting over issues of human sexuality--what's sinful and what's God's gift--I think we've actually lost touch with original sin. A higher doctrine of our shared brokenness leads to lessened conflict over individual behavior--whether sanctioned by the church or not.

Lots to think about. Here's the slide show. Enjoy!

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