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.

1 comment:

Pr Mark Henderson said...

But Donald, in liberal Anglicanism everyone 'must have a voice'...except the orthodox, that is :0(

Its pretensions and wealth notwithstanding, liberal Anglicanism has become a sect.