Friday, November 4, 2011

Rehabilitating Pelagius

A resolution submitted to the Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta asks the Council (in the words of George Conger) "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." Here's the original resolution:

R11-17 Contribution of Pelagius

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 And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

Submitted by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, Rector, the Church of the Epiphany

I see from the diocesan website that the Council amended part of the resolution as follows:

Amended as follows (otherwise unchanged):

Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta recommend that the bishop appoint and oversee a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor understand the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in to our tradition

Conger reminds us of who Pelagius was and why he was condemned by the Council of Carthage:

A British monk, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith. Mankind possessed an unconditioned free will and was able to obtain his own salvation through personal betterment rather than grace, he argued. In the Letter to Demetrias, Pelagius argued that Adam’s sin was not what caused us to sin. Humans were born good, but over time became wicked through voluntary acts. “Over the years our sin gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.”

The Council of Carthage in 416 [sic] condemned Pelagius’ teaching. Augustine argued that the British monk’s teaching contradicted Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13 because Pelagius located the capacity “to will and to do” what pleases God in human nature rather than in God’s grace. (On the Grace of Christ, V.6 and VI.)

(Citing Alan Jacobs' Original Sin: A History, I touched on some of the problematic aspects of Pelagius' rejection of original sin in a previous posting.)

So what have been some of the initial reactions in response to this resolution? Here's Conger again:

The proposed resolution has brought mixed responses from the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies chat room, with some ridiculing the notion that the Diocese of Atlanta believed itself capable of redefining church doctrine. However, other deputies have endorsed the resolution saying it gives a breath of Celtic Christianity to the Episcopal Church and enhances the church’s theological diversity.

One person says this on Conger's website:

I can just see the headlines in some newspapers if the Diocese of Altanta really does formally state that Pelagian views are fine as part of the diversity of TEC: “Diocese of Atlanta denies the concept of original sin.” But it does seem as though our Presiding Bishop agrees with Pelagius as described above–we’re all born good and in need of kind teachers, rather than a savior. And if people act selfishly or worse, it can be attributed to their upbringing, rather than anything inherently wrong in the human condition.

Rod Dreher responds to the resolution by simply saying: "It’s not heresy, dear, it’s enhancing diversity."

David Gibson offers quite a different response in a posting entitled "Cool News of the Day":

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 arguments 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.

A couple of responses to Gibson's piece are interesting, like this:

I commend the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta for their initiative in ‘rehabilitating’ Pelagius. It seems to me that “Command and control” motivation took precedence over dialogue and truth finding as Augustine (of Hippo) provided the ecclesial sword so profoundly taken up by Constantine to establish the “imperial” church. Pelagius taught that “right ordering” of self was the key to bettering one’s relationship with God. Augustine, on the other hand, seemed to deny the intrinsic goodness of self and creation and promoted “abnegation, mortification and self-denial” - the emptying of self (does God really want an empty vessel returned to “Her”?). If there was a heretic here is is more likely Augustine, and his motives were suspect as well.

(I note that Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom goes a long way towards rebutting the whole "command and control" thesis so central to the hermeneutic of suspicion's approach to this period of Church history.)

And there's this:

There is a great tendency in modern theological circles to elevate the arch-heretics of the ancient church to the status of Fathers of the Church, though their views were repudiated by the Fathers of the Church. So, if the Episcopal Diocese of Atalanta has their way, not only Pelagius, but Origen, Severus of Antioch, Theodore of Mopsuetia, Arius, Apollinarius, Sabellius, etc. will now be added to the list of church fathers and maybe venerated as saints. ...

The Blessed Augustine erred in his insistence on grace and denying of free will. But that does not prove that Pelagius and his followers, like Julianus, were right. It is also important to note that though the eastern churches couldn’t figure out what the problem with Pelagius was, Pelagius and Julianus were still condemned by the Synod of Jerusalem in 416 (if memory serves). Pelagius was not a saint and should not be elevated to that rank nor should he be ranked as a church father. He was just as wrong (if not more so) than Augustine.

And looking at things from across the pond in the Church of Ireland, BC at Catholicity and Covenant writes:

That reference [in the resolution] to "our birthright as Anglicans" is somewhat interesting, not least in light of the words Article 9: "Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) ...". One assumes that the Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of Atlanta is fully aware that it does not have the authority to act in a manner contrary to the church catholic and the Anglican tradition. Right?

I guess we'll find out soon enough!


Anonymous said...

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?
For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

(Romans 14:10-12 ESV)

Bryan Owen said...

Hi George. While I appreciate the paraphrasing and quoting of Holy Scripture, it would be helpful if you could say something specific about the point you'd like to make with reference to the content of this posting.

Anonymous said...

Come on Bryan dont be so polite its an inane and annoying practice and I stand guilty of it today (it bugs me when others do it). I just happened to be pondering this passage today before I read your blog post (which I enjoyed) and out it splurted, in a maybe relevant manner but poorly used.

I have to say I find the topic or rather that so much time and effort has gone into the topic by some somewhat bemusing and I guess that is judgemental in itself. I would ask them what is your motive, for I doubt Pelagius cares and why do you need to rehabilitate someone before you can be 'informed' by them, especially someone who has been dead for a long time and will ultimately be judged by someone who really counts (thats my token attempt at making my first post relevant).
That this topic comes so closely on the heels of your 'Grim milestone' blog only confirms that we all could do with some rehabilitation of our priorities and I a sinner stand well and truly condemned on that count.
Am enjoying the variety of your topics though there is plenty of food for thought in them. (apologies again for the first post, wont happen again :D )

Bryan Owen said...

Hi George. Thanks for sharing a bit more about your thoughts on all of this. And I'm glad you're finding some food for thought in my postings!

Christopher said...

Without going into the merits or demerits of this resolution or determining there was nothing to ponder in Pelagius' few survivng writings that might be problematic, I do think it important to note that there is a lively scholarly and theological debate on this matter and that what Pelagius taught and how Augustine presented what Pelagius taught and Pelagianism are three distinct areas for investigation.

And that does not need to imply that those who posit rehabilitation are unorthodox. From what we know of Pelagius' writings, he assumed grace and so may not have thought it necessary to argue grace--grace was obvious ground, and this assumption of grace is very similar to that of teachings on the matter in the Orthodox Churches.

Note that Pelagius' later defender Julian of Eclanum was found of no problem to Eastern theologians and bishops whom Augustine tried to rally to his side. We must also remember that the whole of the late-Augustine's theory of grace was not wholly accepted by the Second Council of Orange relating to predestination. And we can be thankful that bit of fatalism was ignored just as we can be thankful that the Articles dropped double-predestination for the more Lutheran single-predestination to life, a God in whom is only "yes" which is distinct from our response which may be yes or no. And with that, to note, there are some problematic areas in Augustine's writings on these matters in his later life related to grace, which can sometimes suggest grace is an alien invader rather than having always been at work in God's creation even amidst the fragments of the Fall. I would note that Irenaeus own take on these matters is far more positive than Augustine as well, even amidst the fragments, and influenced our Caroline Divines immensely.

It is also important for us to note that the Orthodox Churches do not accept Augustine's understanding of Original Sin and the understanding of grace that goes with it, and in many areas on grace and sin, these Churches understanding do not read as very far from what we do know Pelagius taught from the few bits of writing we have.

Pelagius in this regard may be like Theodore of Mopsuestia whom we must distinguish from Nestorianism.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Christopher. Thanks for your thoughts.

I appreciate your efforts to draw on history to balance the record on this matter, even as I have reservations about the possible motives that may be driving this particular resolution. I could be wrong about those motives!

You cite what "the Orthodox Churches do not accept." I think we Episcopalians/Anglicans should be very careful in citing the Orthodox, particularly in matters we think may support our positions (and given my attraction to Eastern Orthodoxy, I'm putting myself on notice here).

We need to bear in mind that, from an orthodox Eastern Orthodox perspective, you and I don't belong to a real church. We are, at best, faux Christians. And that was true a long time before women's ordination. And in the wake of what has unfolded with our General Convention since 2003, our status as faux Christians has only deepened with the Eastern Orthodox, thus hammering more nails into the coffin that proves we are Episcopalians/Anglicans are, at best, heretics (with both Pelagius and Augustine scoring higher marks than the current leadership of the Episcopal Church!).

Fr. Reich said...

I really, really, really, really wanted this to be a joke...

Bryan Owen said...

It's not clear to me if the resolution itself was defeated, or if only the amendment to the original resolution was defeated.

Christopher said...

I take your point on the Orthodox Churches, and I should add that with this I had intended to point to the Greek Fathers. And by that, to point out that we have to be careful in thinking a strict Augustinian understanding on these matters is universal or catholic, particularly where we as Anglicans are apt to draw as much on the Greek Fathers as the Latin Fathers, and have historically done so in our theologies and rites.

A strict Augustinianism is not universal, and was not even among our own Caroline Divines who were greatly influenced by Greek Patristics, which are ours as much as they are the Orthodox Churches, being a common inheritance if we take Andrewes seriously, whom I do. Jeremy Taylor, for example, would not agree with Augustine's interpretation of Romans as "in Adam" all have sinned to mean inherent tendency to commit evil rather than proneness to sin, and he accounted infants innocent. Hooker's own sense that we are of ourselves apt but not able, but able by grace is also not a pure Augustinianism as we have inherited it especially through Lutheranism and Calvinism. Which is to say in our separation our being created imago dei has been fragmented (Irenaeus) but not erased AND that God continued and continues all along to work amidst the fragments of the "created good" for the good. At times, a strict Augustinian account becomes a swoop in grace in which nothing "created good" is left to work with, granting that "created good" is itself pure gift, that is, from grace.

And it important to make a distinction on Original Sin between Original Punishment or Original Death and Original Guilt. Augustine held the two together, Greek Patristics do not, and neither do several of our own Caroline Divines. And that bears mightily on how grace is understood to work and be at work, and hence, our own intra-Anglican debates on these matters often termed "Calvinist" or "Arminian."

I think Augustine brilliant and on mark that grace is ground for our doing at all. I think he may have misunderstood that that other theologians assumed this and went from this assumption to practice.

As the resolution, have you talked with any of the formulators?

Anonymous said...

The resolution was defeated.

--Matt in GA

Robert F said...

What I hear Christopher saying is that Augustine has come to play too large a role in much of the Western Church for how we think about Original Sin and, as a result, our theology concerning this issue, and our understanding of the nature of grace, have both become not only unbalanced but less than fully Catholic. If that's what the resolution was meant to address than I for one would not oppose it, because I think Christopher is correct: Augustine was a theological giant, and as a giant is wont to do, he cast a very long shadow that has obscured different understandings, including the ones that Christopher includes in his comments. But like Bryan, I do not think that is what this resolution is addressing. The people who formed this resolution are saying that the church that framed the Creeds, adopted the canon of Scripture and provided the lexicon for our theological language were in captivity to imperial politics and more or less intentionally suppressed theological voices that would have threatened their hegemony. If such a resolution were actually to succeed, whatever success might mean in this context, their next resolution might be to receive the Gospel of Thomas into the canon, and for the same reason that they seek to "rehabilitate" Pelagius. You have to admire their audacity, which is a truly American characteristic.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarification about the ultimate fate of the resolution, Matt.

Christopher, I greatly appreciate your follow-up comments and I agree with you about the ways in which our Anglican forebears (thankfully!) diverge from aspects of Augustine's thought on sin and grace. Yes, Augustine is brilliant. But I find some aspects of his theology quite troubling. While I accept an understanding of original sin, I cannot and do not accept that God would cast unbaptized infants into hell for all eternity. And I think that Augustine so closely ties original sin to human sexuality and procreation that his theology comes dangerously close to affirming Gnostic and Manichaean views repudiated by orthodoxy.

Since the intentions for the resolution were clearly stated in its original formulation, I see no reason to ask for clarification from the formulator. And it's precisely because the intentions are sufficiently clear to me that I agree with Robert F's reading that this resolution reflects a deeply-rooted suspicion - not just of a theologian like Augustine - but ultimately of the foundations of the orthodox Christian faith as though they are manifestations of will to power rather than carriers of the truth of revelation. If this is correct, then what's going on here is the view that orthodox Christianity is not inspired by the love of God and revealed truth, but rather by a ruthless desire to maintain power and control at virtually any cost.

So if it's Pelagius who gets "rehabilitated" today, why not call Athanasius into question and "rehabilitate" Arius tomorrow (thereby opening the doorway for officially tinkering with or abandoning the Nicene Creed)? Or why not call into question what's really going on with the Gospel according to John in order to "rehabilitate" Gnostics like Valentinus, a project which Elaine Pagels has attempted to undertake (I have briefly responded to her project in a previous posting here).

Ultimately, where does such a project of "rehabilitation" end? And who decides?

Anonymous said...

Love you guys this is great reading (tks Bryan)

Bryan Owen said...

On a lighter note, check out The Ghost of Pelagius.

C. Wingate said...

You can see the legislative history of the resolution here. I note that the committee basically stripped all positive language from the text of the resolution as a first step towards its defeat. It's not unreasonable to assume that this might have been one eccentric's cause. Better keep those Pelagian detectors warmed up, though.

Christopher said...

I will say that it is far better in my opinion to embrace with a reserved mind that theological truth has sometimes emerged through politics, sometimes even ugly politics. Anglicans, of all Christians, should be comfortable with this sort of unsettling ambiguity given our own history is a very mixed bag.

To me this is not a sign of failure, but a powerful sign of the greatness of the Holy Spirit working amidst our failures to draw one another into deeper conversation, rising amidst our fragments to reveal truth amidst our rancour--and even our sin. Peter Brown, no slouch as a historian and certainly not one moved to quick assumptions, himself notes several times that Augustine did indeed press political moves in his struggle with Pelagius and then Pelagius' followers. And that this may have squelched the possibility of a , a debate that in part at least moved slowly in a health direction at II Orange and finally at VII where a careful reading of the current Catechism shows an understanding closer to the Orthodox. Note also that Vincent of Lerrins, whom we love to quote, is considered among the so-called Semi-Pelagians and not partial to Augustine's theology on this matter.

I don't think denying that politics happens in toto helps a cause for theological truth, and I don't think we need to shy away from the ugly that sometimes happens in these struggles. And that sometimes ugly may not serve truth well. As it was noted on another blog by Fr. Sean Lotz, in this particular struggle the polarization between Pelagius and Augustine moved both of them farther from a "wise center" and they both perhaps said and wrote things that were not their best. That kind of historical generosity need not imply failing to determine that one or the other is correct. In this one, though I think a wise center would have likely drawn Pelagius and Augustine together in conversation with the Greek Fathers. After all, Rowan Williams himself has written a fine book that is sympathetic of Arius without approving Arius' Christology.

So, irrespective of the assumed understanding and motives of those who composed this resolution, engaging it in a an open, generous orthodoxy--which has much wiggle room on the matter of the operations of grace, seems more constructive than a reverse hermeneutic of suspicion that comes off as defensive and sour. Creedal Christianity, at least as I experience it is joyful, life-affirming, creation-loving, and I think that worth sharing.

Bryan Owen said...

Christopher wrote: "Creedal Christianity, at least as I experience it is joyful, life-affirming, creation-loving, and I think that worth sharing."

I fully agree, Christopher! I would add that creedal Christianity is not only worth sharing, but also worth defending against its detractors and revisers. Being joyful and life-affirming does not mean abandoning norms and boundaries, or shying away from the struggles of ecclesial politics.

You note that "unsettling ambiguity" and "even ugly politics" can serve as "a powerful sign of the greatness of the Holy Spirit working amidst our failures to draw one another into deeper conversation, rising amidst our fragments to reveal truth amidst our rancour--and even our sin." I think that can certainly be true, but perhaps is a discernment reached only retrospectively.

I'm far more cautious when it comes to those who, in our own day, claim the warrant of the Holy Spirit for celebrating and promoting the "unsettling ambiguity" of doctrine unmoored from the tradition's consensual reading of scripture and the creeds, some of whom also wage "ugly politics" against those who don't agree with them. And while I realize that you care very little for what I write on this blog, the truth is that whether in its "progressive" or "conservative" forms, I have no desire to join the Church of the Ugly Party, even if the evolving "progressive orthodoxy" that cannot tolerate questioning or dissent seems to make people think they have little choice but to go there.