Monday, October 08, 2007

The Semi-Pelagian Self

I have to admit that I like Pelagius. Hey, he was a Briton. I differ with the man on a number of fronts as well. Like the rest of his generation he held to baptism as a passage of grace. He was ascetic in his personal spiritual exercises but probably accepted those that weren't. He believed that pieties could be lived that were not required. But I agree with Pelagius where most disagree with him.
His popular reputation as a heretic is primarily on two fronts, (1) his denial of original sin (which I, with him, deny) producing a lack of necessity for infant baptism and (2) his belief in the possibility of holiness (which I also aver). He did support infant baptism but for very different reasons.

Why would I suggest that the arch heretic of Augustine's wrath should be considered on those very points that give the orthodox fits? I grew up in a home that centered itself on the Word of God and on the practical handling of that Word. My parents did not hold anything because the historic church told them it was decided thus. My father has taught for many years that Romans 7 was St. Paul recounting his life as an unbeliever. This challenged a proof text of those who wished to have it describe the necessary sinfulness of the believer. Interestingly, if you read Jacob Arminius on Romans 7, he says the same. More to our topic, if you read Pelagius' commentary of Romans (Oxford University Press) he also makes the same suggestion. For you followers of tradition, it is the faith of my fathers and I come by my Pelagianism tribally. Actually, I too find this an irresistible force in the Scriptures. Reading Pelagius one finds a mind traveling along rational paths with the Word of God as his guide while with Augustine you feel like you are in a vortex of allegory and still tainted by his rejected Manichee gnosis. Pelagius is more modern.

The notion that Pelagius believed that man could be sinless without conversion (which I don't hold) stemmed from his view of the distinction of ability, volition, and actuality. Summed up it is more like man could but wouldn't and didn't. Pelegius' disciples like Coelestius ramped up that claim to the extent that Pelagius denied that teaching explicitly at the Synod of Lydda (415)
" I say again, that these opinions, even according to their own testimony, are not mine; nor for them, as I have already said, ought I to be held responsible. The opinions which I have confessed to be my own, I maintain are sound; those, however, which I have said are not my own, I reject according to the judgment of this holy synod, pronouncing anathema on every man who opposes and gainsays the doctrines of the Holy Catholic Church."

Pelagius states his position to the same Synod with these words.
"But we never said that any man could be found who at no time whatever, from infancy to old age, had committed sin: but that if any person were converted from his sins, he could by his own labour and God's grace be without sin; and yet not even thus would he be incapable of change ever afterwards. As for the other statements which they have made against us, they are not to be found in our books, nor have we at any time said such things."

Those Christians who desire holiness and see such promise in the Holy Scriptures find a common thread in Pelagius.


Matthew N. Petersen said...
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Matthew N. Petersen said...

Just a couple of comments.

"His reputation as a heretic is [half] based...on his belief in the possibility of personal holiness." You demonstrate he believed in personal holiness. You do not demonstrate his opponents believed there was no personal holiness. Seeing as Catholics and Orthodox object to Lutherans (wrongly I might add) that Lutheran theology precludes personal holiness--and point to precisely this supposed lack of personal holiness in Lutheran dogmatics as an inovation--I highly doubt his reputation for being a heretic is based on his belief in the possibility of holiness.

Your complete lack of understanding of your opponents' positions is showing.

Did Pelagius believe in personal holiness? Perhaps he is considered a heretic because he did. Or perhaps because he believed in "One God the Father almighty maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible." Or any of a number of other fully orthodox positions he held. Perhaps, indeed more likely, he is considered a heretic for positions he differs with the Fathers.

Second, you praise Pelagius as "more modern." Does that mean he rejected hierarchy? Or believed the cheif virtue is unselfishness?

This may just sound like I'm being picky, but particularly on the first of those, you reject the modern position precisely because it is modern. As you have said, everyone believed in hierarchy until the enlightenment, and that includes (since they lived before the enlightenment) the Apostles.

But similarly before the enlightenment no one believed in your method of interpretation, save perhaps Pelagius. No one, including Christ and the Apostles, as we can see from their method of interpretation. The fact is, if Galatians weren't in the Bible, you would scoff at St. Paul's taking Sarah and Hagar allegorically, and if the example weren't Christ's own, you would scoff at the idea that David's eating the showbread might be relevant to Sabbath issues (or whatever it was that Christ applied that to, I cannot seem to find the passage right now).

In short, if your argument for hierarchy holds any weight, so does the argument against your method of interpretation. And even more so, since we can at least claim that we are seeking to be disciples of Christ in all things, including his reading of Scripture.

Moreover, your particularly strong rejection of any sacrament (not mind you your affirmation of justification by faith alone, something Lutherans believe, nor of grace alone, something every Christian (save Pelagius) has throughout time affirmed) is very strongly linked to your understanding of the cross, which is directly linked to your understanding of governance. I cannot claim that the Cross is Christ's giving Himself--body and soul--wholly to us because the cross is the wrath of God satisfied. I cannot say the Christian Life is by nature corporate (though the Bible seems to suggest it is--it's not you nor I, but the Church who is the Fullness of Him Who fills all and is in all, individually we are but, to use St. Paul's analogy, bricks in the temple). For the Cross is our individual reconciliation to God's governance. You can say you don't believe in authority, but you have built your whole philosophy on authority--an authority, even an argument you reject in other circumstances--and likewise you condemn as heretical positions you do not understand, nor have really ever tried to understand, based cheifly on that appeal to authority.

The Oracle said...

I was just sayin'... oh, nevermind.

Tiffany said...

I know nothing of Pelagius other than what I read here. And forgive Matthew, could not make it through your commentary. But give hearty Amen to the possibility of holiness in the Christian life. And if that is semi-pelagian, then let us all be more so.

Matthew N. Petersen said...

I suppose perhaps that last post was too argumentative and not so much on the topic of the post.

But it seems you should have an initial dislike of Pelagius. He was charged with teaching that salvation is not by grace alone. Even in the quote you give, he denies grace alone. "he could by his own labour and God's grace be without sin."

Augustine was defending your cherished doctrine of grace alone. Pelagius was denying it. He and Augustine agreed that we are actually saved, and actually made holy. They disagreed over whether we were made holy by grace.

Tiffany said...

Matthew, like I said, I know nothing of Pelagius except this post, but my initial thought to your object is
Phil 2:12-13, "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of [his] good pleasure."

It seems that the grace of God and the labor of the individual are not two opposites on the spectrum. Perhaps though I am misunderstanding your objection based upon my limited knowledge of the position being debated. If so, please feel free to ignore me and I shall go back to being barefoot in the kitchen. :)

Matthew N. Petersen said...


You're right, there is some way that salvation is from us. And as a great Augustinian pointed out, the Bible says "Turn to God, and He will turn to you" and it is silly to encourage us to do something we cannot do.

But, for the orthodox, part of actually being holy would be being free. Thus the council that condemned semi-Pelagianism said that being joined to Christ is the only remedy for an enslaved will. Perhaps Pelagius was not understood by his contemporaries, but to them it seemed he was saying we can make a beginning of good works, and God finishes up what is lacking. Again, perhaps they misunderstood him, but they were arguing for justification by grace. Their difference with Pelagius (or with what the associated with Pelagius) was not over the existence of holiness; but about "by grace."

Jesse Broussard said...

Mr. Wilson, I was curious about a few things, and please--I do not desire to be impudent or argumentative, but rather I desire to achieve clarity.

First, without original sin, what was the purpose of Christ's death? Merely an example?

And secondly, do you hold to the infallibility of Scripture?

Finally, are you related to Mr. Douglas Wilson?

Thank you for your response.

In Him,
J. Broussard