Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Rehabilitation of Pelagius?

My attention was recently drawn to a resolution by the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta proposing a study that would lead to "honoring the contributions of Pelagius."  Resolution R11-7 reads:

Contributions 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

For those unaware, Pelagius' views were soundly condemned by the Council of Carthage of 418 as heretical. The followers of Pelagius, in the early part of the fifth century, taught that man is not sinful by nature and that he can be saved by an act of his own will, albeit aided by God's grace.  The confessions of the Lutheran church have long recognized the error of Pelagius and have therefore condemned it as well:

"Our churches condemn the Pelagians and others who deny that the vice of origin is sin and who obscure the glory of Christ's merit and benefits by contending that man can be justified before God by his own strength and reason." - Augsburg Confession, II, 3 (Original Sin)

"Our churches condemn the Pelagians and others who teach that without the Holy Spirit, by the power of nature alone, we are able to love God above all things, and can also keep the commandments of God in so far as the substance of the acts is concerned." - Augsburg Confession, XVIII, 8 (Free Will)

"Against the Pelagians, Augustine maintains at length that grace is not given because of our merits." - Apology, IV, 29 (Justification)

"We likewise condemn the Pelagian error which asserts that man's nature is uncorrupted even after the Fall, and especially that in spiritual things its natural powers remained wholly good and pure." - Epitome, I, 13 (Original Sin).

"We also reject the errors of the crass Pelagians who taught that by his own  powers, without the grace of the Holy Spirti, man can convert himself to God, believe the Gospel, whole-heartedly obey God's law, and thus merit forgiveness of sins and eternal life." - Epitome, II, 9 (Free Will)

Given these sound, historic, condemnations it never occurred to me that Pelagius would have his defenders in this day of age, at least among those in Christian denominations.  Yet I would not be surprised either, especially in a time when heretics are rediscovered and promoted as possessors of hidden and suppressed truths.  The blog Sojourning Spirituality even posted an article entitled "Thank You, St. Pelagius."   Like the resolution printed above, they also claim that "Pelagius' wisdom has been ignored and suppressed because of his label as a 'heretic' by the Roman Church. But modern scholars are discovering that he wasn't as radical as the Roman Church made him out to be. And his theology wasn't as naive as Augustine made it out to be. So it's high time for a re-claiming of Pelagius and his theology."  Still, they readily admit that "our human condition isn't defined by original sin."  So is denial of Original Sin heresy or not?

Another article claims that "two ecclesiastical synods, two popes, at least thirty-two bishops and several influential Christians could not find anything wrong with Pelagius' doctrinal stances."  If such is the case it doesn't remove the fact that for nearly 1,600 years the church has upheld the condemnation of his teaching.

Of course the resolution above is only proposed.  One can hope that sane minds will see the confusion here and reject it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I love to write (which is why I started this blog).  However, going the next step and submitting something for publication always seemed like too big of a step.  This past January, however, one of my professors handed back a paper I'd written the previous summer and made the comment that he thought what I had written was "publishable."  That finally gave me the impetus to give it a try.  What did I have to lose?  I reformatted the paper, doubled checked it again, and sent it off to LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology What a surprise when the Reformation issue arrived this past week and I saw that they had published it!  The article is entitled "Romans 7: Personal Struggle, Defense of the Law, or Israel's Struggle?"  It arose out of a class studying the "New Perspective on Paul."  As one of the 'token' Lutherans in the class (at this Anglican seminary) I decided to defend Luther against the newer 'perspective.'  My professor did not entirely agree with my final conclusion, but he was gracious enough to appreciate my argumentation. 

If you have ever considered publishing something, be it a full length academic treatise, an article for a popular magazine, a poem, or anything else, I encourage you to take the step and go for it.  For most of my life I left what I wrote tucked away in file folders or among the countless documents on my hard drive.  My professor gave me the push late in life to make that next step, and that is one of the benefits of going back to school, regardless of your age.  We need to be challenged to push ourselves, especially as we get older and more inclined to 'play it safe.'  Will I ever submit something for publication again?  I'm not sure, but at least I know I can, and that was an accomplishment in itself. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Imprecatory Psalms

Imprecatory psalms present a challenge.  The call for judgment and punishment on one's enemies, to the Christian ear, sounds harsh and excessive.  This morning my devotions involved Psalm 109, a primary imprecatory psalm.  Obviously the verses contain very harsh calls for hardship and suffering upon the "wicked man," possibly more than most psalms.  The 'psalm prayer' at the end in my breviary tried to soften the tone as it reminded the hearer that Jesus "blessed" those who cursed him and asked the Father to forgive those who nailed him the cross.  Still, the psalm does not bless the wicked man.  In fact, it asks that his "sin be always before the LORD."  How do we reconcile such language with our faith?

Although in no way coordinated with the cycle of readings, it so happened that one of the lessons to be read for today was from James 2.  The final verse of the reading seemed to throw light on the dilemma posed above: "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment."  A careful reading of Psalm 109 will reveal that the "wicked man" of this psalm is a godless man devoid of mercy. He "loved cursing," and put it "on like a garment."  He "did not remember to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy and sought to kill the brokenhearted."  The psalmist does not come before God to seek revenge for his bruised feelings or to even the score.  He simply recognizes that those who reject the mercy of God and treat others with a harsh and unfair judgment should be judged by their own standards.  They do not recognize the mercy of God, so clearly they do not want it.  So let them be subject to the same conditions they impose on the world.  One might recall at this point Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23ff.  When the servant was initially brought before his lord for a settlement of his accounts, he begged for mercy.  Out of compassion the master forgave the servant's debt.  However, when that same servant later found a fellow servant who owed him money, he showed no mercy, even though the man begged just as sincerely.  And how does the Lord respond here?  "'You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt."  

The wicked man of Psalm 109 seems no different than the wicked servant of Matthew 18.  God shows mercy to the humble of heart who desire mercy.  However, to those who harden their hearts and reject His mercy, He gives them up to their base mind and allows them to face the conditions under which they wish to subject the world.  They have chosen this judgment, not God, for they chose the conditions.  Of course, those who cannot accept a God who is both loving and just will still find such judgement inconsistent and unfair.  They will see in Psalm 109 yet another reason to reject a God who seems almost hypocritical.  Yet that would be unfair in itself and also contrary to how we respond.  Justice, properly served, not only punishes the lawbreaker, but it ultimately serves to protect the innocent.  To have no justice in our world would result in chaos.  Thus, true love seeks to protect the innocent, even when it means punishing the wicked.  But note that the punishment is equal to that which the wicked chooses for others.  God merely says, if you want to live in a world of no mercy, then so be it.  I would have shown you mercy, if you asked.  But since you don't, I give you your request.