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 honorunderstand the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice into 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!