What have we been told about Pelagius?

My last five posts have been about the Augustinian iteration of Original Sin in Western Christianity and questions surrounding its usefulness in the postmodern world. During the same time, I was perusing a book called Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community, Ireland and to my surprise came upon this write-up about Pelagius, Augustine’s adversary on this subject. I am going to quote it in its entirety. When I was in seminary the ultimate trump-card in a dispute was to call someone ‘Pelagian.’ Once you did that, you won. But is it possible our take on Pelagius has been a bit truncated in the Augustinian-drenched theology we’ve been handed? Is it possible Christian theology needs a better, more fully Biblical doctrine of humanity than the version of Original Sin Augustine taught?

“Pelagius (c.350-418) August 28.   We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian teaching today!

Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer and soul-friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first – even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul-friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’

But soon he was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur.

Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy – on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, and declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 they persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church then was obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgement, and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.

Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view-point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!”*

There are quite a bit of things we could say about all this, concerning the affect of politics, cultural prejudice and personal dislike swirling around this debate between two early theologians. But I will limit myself to saying: we are 15 centuries out from Augustine. Do we really want to allow this one man to dictate directions in Western theology simply because he held sway in majority positions and the Protestant Reformers liked him?

*(Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. HarperOne: 2002. Northumbria Communty Trust Ltd.)

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Postmodern Considerations on Original Sin PART FOUR: non-Western theology

Our discussion of Original Sin, Creationism, and literal interpretations of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” took a turn toward how different theology will look when written outside the cultural matrix of Greco-Roman thought, so common in Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian theology.

My friend:   I’ll give you that doctrine has changed or evolved through time, there are some pretty universally held truths that have been in play since shortly after the canon was established. Namely, trinitarian doctrine, incarnational doctrine and the doctrine of sin and salvation. Btw, I wouldn’t claim that the doctrine of creation, the fall, and original sin is merely a motif. They are doctrines that have historically been taught by the church.

Me:  I want to say that doctrines need to be enunciated/interpreted in ways that mean something understandable here and now. Original Sin and its ramifications look a lot different before – and East of – Augustine than after. And all those doctrines have been shaped primarily in the context of Greco-Roman culture and its fallout. So now, when Asian and African, and Native American cultures start wrestling with Christian theology, I want to be as aware of their right to work through doctrine within the context of their cultures as has already happened in “our” Greco-Roman culture. I don’t expect their theology to look nearly as Greco-Roman as ours. And I don’t think that makes it any less Christian. To do so would be to be stupendously emic and fail to apply any etic sense to our own situation.

My friend: Is that syncretism?

Me:   We’d be less than honest if we didn’t think our baptism in the early centuries with Greek Philosophy wasn’t a kind of syncretism. So, if you interpret the Bible through the matrix of non-Greco-Roman cultures, and you use their matrixes like we used Greco-Roman, some people would certainly yell syncretism, but I don’t think it is. If Christianity had moved predominately East into India instead of West into Greece/Rome in the early centuries, and if the creeds had been formed in India or Vietnam, we’d sure have nothing that sounds like the Nicene!  So, I think it takes some serious calm sitting back and watching and listening and waiting to hear a generation of non-Western scholars argue each other out before people like us start saying “syncretism.” Listen to what Clement of Alexandria (lived c. 150-215 AD) said about Greek philosophy. If a former Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist said this about their former religion, would we accuse them of syncretism?

Clement of Alexandria said this: “Before the Lord’s coming, philosophy was an essential guide to righteousness for the Greeks. At the present time, it is a useful guide toward reverence for God. It is a kind of preliminary education for those who are trying to gather faith through demonstration. ‘Your foot will not stumble,’ says Scripture, if you attribute good things, whether Greek or Christian, to Providence. God is responsible for all good things: of some directly, like the blessings of the Old and New Covenants, of others indirectly, like the riches of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy too was a direct gift of God to the Greeks before the Lord extended his appeal to the Greeks. For philosophy was to the Greek world what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ. So philosophy is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” (STROMATEIS 1.5.28.I-3)

If Clement can say this about Greek Philosophy (and certainly Christian theology written for centuries bore the express stamp of Greek philosophy in its wording and cultural matrix), then can’t we say the same thing about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and indigenous religions?  Constructing Christian theology within the matrixes of these worldviews is no different than what Western theology in the Christian tradition did with Greco-Roman philosophy. If it is syncretism, then western theology is entirely syncretistic. I won’t call it that. I think the more apt phrase is ‘culturally incarnational.’ And, we shouldn’t expect that all of them will be infatuated with Augustine’s version of ‘original sin.’

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART THREE

I meant to get back to this a lot sooner, but life intervened. This is Part Three of some thoughts on the doctrines of Original Sin and the Fall as they’ve come down to us in the West, predominantly with Augustine’s influence in mind, and how those doctrines are intertwined with Creationism, vs. evolution, etc. A Facebook conversation got this all rolling; here are some more of a sort of stream-of-consciousness response I wrote:

One more thing. I don’t want to suggest that evolution is the opposite of Creation. I don’t even think Darwin thought that. I assume any evolution that (perhaps) did occur, was set in motion by God. Also, I don’t want to assume that the world is how God made it nor wants it, of course not! I don’t see God using evolution in Creation is the same as saying the world full of violence, idolatry and rebellion is how God made it nor intends it to be. Many people have suggested that death’s entry into the subject refers to spiritual death, though this is nuanced, but meaning that natural death was an original part of the world. When snow geese eat grass, they kill it, because they don’t graze, they pull it up by the roots. Literalizing no death in the natural world in Genesis 1-3 would mean originally snow geese didn’t kill grass when they ate it. That seems a stretch regarding everything we know about the natural world. Rather than perfect, in the sense of flawless and deathless, this view goes, God made a world still in development, with the ultimate goal being perfected when even the physical death in the current world will be swallowed up. This take (not described very well by me in a small space) may not be one everyone wants to utilize, but if it helps people find Jesus, get over the hurdle of a view of the natural world they feel is as absurd as the medieval ascending spheres of perfection, I’m for letting people hold various views toward Creation etc so these things don’t unnecessarily bar them from coming to Christ. I’ve seen people stand three feet from me in intellectual anguish because they wanted to follow Christ but thought they had to be Young Earth 6 Day Creationists, and as scientists, they couldn’t be that intellectually dishonest with themselves. When I said, regarding the stories in Genesis 1-3, (true story) “It looks like a poem, I don’t feel the point is we need to take it literally, we need to learn what it says about us” their relief was visible. They’ve been happily and visibly serving Jesus ever since.”

At this point a close friend said: “I never espoused the idea that a belief in Creation is necessary for salvation. All I said was that disavowing a more literal interpretation of creation by God leads to some doctrinal hurdles that are difficult to overcome. If we’re talking about throwing doctrine out to save souls, I’m a bit Leary of that for a few reasons: 
1-if we toss out doctrine that makes people feel uncomfortable so that they are more easily reached, at what point do we stop throwing doctrine out? What about when they say, “I feel like I can’t accept the singularity of Jesus for salvation because that would be intellectually dishonest because I’m a comparative religions major”? Are we to accept pluralism and universalism? Are we to become Unitarians?”

This is a response I run into fairly often, the idea that if we work on any particular doctrine, everything will come crashing down. Or that working on a doctrine is the same thing as throwing it out altogether. I respond with this:

All of our theologies are in their 10th iterations, as they’ve been worked over again and again for centuries. And I think orthodoxy has been quite wide, so I’m not suggesting throwing out any doctrine necessary for someone to believe in Jesus, eventually there would be nothing left to believe of course! But I certainly don’t ascribe to the slippery slope analogy, as if nothing can change because everything might change! Fact is, “faith seeking understanding” has morphed Christian theology in radical ways over the centuries. If Augustine didn’t think Gen 1-3 needed to be taken literally, I think we can safely say someone considered orthodox can still believe in Jesus successfully without holding to a literalistic take on Adam and Eve and yet still not be accused of being logically and doctrinally inconsistent. As Steve Estep has written, the Apostles’ Creed states the Who of Creation, not the How of Creation.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest doctrine doesn’t matter. Though Jesus does indeed seem to indicate he offered “an easy yoke and a light burden”. What I think about doctrine is that we have habits of getting attached to specific iterations of them and sticking with that long after their meaningfulness in communicating the Gospel has passed for the culture. The continual re-work of the Atonement theories is the perfect example, Once one theory stopped being a viable explanation for a culture, they worked on another one that would make sense in their context. We are living in a stream of moving water, and doctrine has not been some once-for-all-passed-down-through-the-ages kind of thing. It gets re-worked, re-thought, amended and re-worded. In short, we learn. The idea that doctrine has remained untainted and unchanged for 2000 years and lately some liberals have attacked it… is untrue –  it’s been evolving all along! Since we still know Jesus is King, and Savior, and telos, I don’t see the problem. And when you let people of other cultures do theology without forcing them to pass through the Greco-Roman matrix, you’ll get theology that looks A LOT different than ours! More on that next time.

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART TWO

A facebook post by my son concerning whether Adam and Eve were literal historical figures, or mythic literary devices for teaching us something theological, evolved into a discussion of Original Sin. A beloved friend of ours asked the following questions:

1-if Adam and Eve were merely literary devices, and we all evolved, what is your doctrine of humanity, with specific regard to the biblical statement that we are created in the image of God, and thus the apex of creation (God clearly gives humans a place above all other creatures, but slightly lower than Angels). 
2-where does sin (specifically, original sin) enter the picture if there are no first parents to lead us in death?
3-if you can’t explain why we have sin, then you can’t explain why we need a Savior.
4-if you can’t explain why we need a savior, then why do we need Jesus?

These are questions that come to many peoples’ minds when we come to this subject. Here is part of my response:  I don’t have to have a cogent doctrine of Original Sin to know humanity has a sin problem. In fact, I don’t have to have Augustine’s doctrine at all, as neither the OT (according to the rabbis and the Calvinists) nor the Eastern church have. Eastern Orthodoxy has no problem explaining the need for a Savior to save us from sin, death, hell and ourselves without ascribing to Augustine’s idea, which I liken to punishing a kid for being born with Down’s Syndrome, morally repugnant. Humanity can certainly be made in the imago dei and God can yet do it via evolution if He wants. Augustine himself did not take Genesis 1-3 literally.

I don’t need “first parents” to lead me to sin, I figured it out pretty much on my own, which makes me ACTUALLY guilty, rather than something I inherited unsuspecting. Every OT scholar I can think of holds that the two creation stories in Genesis 1-3 appear to be hymns or poems, and surely  mythic origins stories designed to explain our dilemma. If Reformed guys complain that the OT is too Pelagian in dealing with sin, it’s all the more reason I think we need a serious re-write to our assumptions about ‘original’ sin. Neither Judaism nor Islam have a problem explaining human waywardness and guilt without a doctrine of Original Sin, and both recognize the need for God’s forgiveness. Atonement doctrines can survive without Augustine’s interpretation of Paul on inherited depravity.

So, OS and The Fall and all that work as motifs to explain what’s up. They’ve been tied virtually materialistically to various atonement theories. But of course we all know it’s not literally “seed” or we’d just laser that gene out of the genome, no big. All the various ways we could interpret Fall and OS and atonement aside, the part I am not clueing in on is the whole “gotta have this brick or the whole wall falls” piece. Everyone can look around and see we’re bad. Israel has a story that explains it. Paul uses those images to explain what Jesus did on the cross. It’s all good. Turning all those images into literal cosmic science seems unnecessary to me, as long as we “get” it. “It” being – we have a problem, we are estranged from God, we keep doing bad stuff, and Jesus sets us free and restores us, His Spirit enabling us to live new lives. From Isaiah on, there are all kinds of profound images for what that is… but taking any of those images, or picking a handful, and creating a 5 step doctrinal assembly line that starts with Fall or OS and ends with our accepting the atonement seems to, I don’t know, mistake the wineskin for the wine. We need set free by Jesus, we’ve done bad things (some worse than others), and need to stop and if the West’s particular arrangement of some of these doctrines gets in the way of people seeing Jesus (being confounded by some of the crazier aspects of Augustine on OS, etc) then I’m like why not do what Christians have been doing for 20 centuries… work out some new theology?

We’ll still end up with something that uses biblical images to explain what’s up, but it’ll end up with something that makes a bit more sense to people in this milieu. Instead of effectively saying “now to believe this, you’ve got to reformat your mind the way people were thinking in Geneva in 1550 or Hippo in 450.” Anyway, from where I’m currently sitting, since a being capable of morality and love has to have freedom, I think free will explains the presence of sin better than OS and the Fall. Adam chose to sin before the fall happened, and without being afflicted with original sin. We are all able to do that, just like Adam did. Perhaps Pelagius got a bad rap, railroaded politically. The Patriarch of Jerusalem heard him out and said “I got no problem with this.” Lest we suspect that the Church can’t overlook something for centuries, let’s not forget that neither the Apostles’ nor Nicene Creed mentions, for all their brilliance, that we believe in love!!!!! Iconography of Adam and Eve getting forgiven first  among humanity  is profound and beautiful, but that doesn’t make me take it literally.

More next time, in Part Three.

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin

I was going to post a three part series on International Development and Guns: Economics, Violence, and Governance – but I seem to have lost it in my computer somewhere. So let’s talk about Original Sin.

We all prioritize some texts over others in Scripture. Everyone does this, all traditions. I’ve never known any Christian who gave as much weight to the chapters of mildew laws in Leviticus as they do to John chapter 3 or Romans chapters 5-8. When we sideline or ignore substantial passages in order to protect a particular rendition of a doctrine, (what in economics is called an ‘externality’), we end up charge-able with cherry picking our way through the Bible.

Something Christians have always done for 20 centuries is re-work doctrines when it becomes evident that the cherry-picking simply can’t be sustained. Whatever stimulates it in the discoveries or politics of the day, things get to the point where the old iteration of that doctrine can’t stand the weight of the externalities it can’t explain, and Christians go to work again on that doctrine. It seems pretty evident to me that our Augustinian version of “Original Sin” is in need of some serious re-think if a doctrine describing human depravity is going to make much sense to postmodern people. Saying that  everyone should be sent to hell for being born with a condition they had no control over, won’t stand up to moral scrutinizing today. And my problem with Augustine’s version is not that it’s old. I’m all for Paleo-Orthodoxy. Considering how many other doctrines have come under serious re-work, I’m surprised this version of OS (“Original Sin”) survived the Reformation seemingly unscathed.

So my 22 year old son started a facebook discussion due to something he posted from a theology class he’s in at college. I slid into it and it evolved into a detailed discussion concerning what is on the chopping block when it comes to OS. Here’s the quote that started it all off:

“Recent research in molecular biology, primatology, sociobiology, and phylogenetics indicates that the species Homo sapiens cannot be traced back to a single pair of individuals, and that the earliest human beings did not come on the scene in anything like paradisal physical or moral conditions. It is therefore difficult to read Genesis 1–3 as a factual account of human origins. In current Christian thinking about Adam and Eve, several scenarios are on offer. The most compelling one regards Adam and Eve as strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.”- Daniel Harlow “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an age of Evolutionary science.”

I’ll pick up from there next time.

Very Happy for Rob Bell

So my postmodern, emergent, half-hippie son was home for the holidays with his fiancée and since he keeps up with such things, he knew that pastor/writer sensation Rob Bell was airing the first episode of his new TV show on the Oprah Network. (The fact that I just actually typed the words ‘Oprah Network’ is strange in the extreme to me.) So, he says to us, back over Christmas break, “The new Rob Bell show is on tonight!” So there we were taking it all in.

And I am very happy for Rob Bell. How good it was to see him doing something he is so good at, and obviously enjoys. The show is like a long, extended Nooma video: Rob doing what he does best, talking to people creatively and in ways that resonate, about the deepest longings and pain in their lives, and how God comes into all that. I am delighted to see him doing something like this with his time.

Those who hate him, vilify him and thrill to the word “heretic” will, I am sure, expend lots of valuable Kingdom time talking about how horrible he is. Despite the fact that the only identifiable moment in the hour in which a self-appointed heretic hunter could possibly cry about was when Rob spoke about ‘the Universe wanting you to be whole’, instead of saying “God” or “Jesus,” I am confident people will delight in finding tons of things to count as awful heresy or motive throughout his show. It’s so overboard and boring to hear people go on about how awful he is, it’s ridiculous.

But in terms of “the universe,” the Wisdom literature explores personified wisdom at God’s side during creation delighting in His work and in mankind. Wisdom is the power through which God makes the Universe, according to extended passages in the Proverbs; what the Greek philosophers called the underlying rational principle of the cosmos, the divine logos. Both John and Paul described Jesus as precisely this – the logos, through which the universe was created and in whom all things cohere, hold together, sustaining the universe’s existence, the very wisdom of God. If John had any idea what the meaning of the word logos meant, the underlying principle in the universe, which can be connected to and conformed to, then it is indeed accurate, in a way, to say ‘the Universe’ wants you to be whole. Or, at least to say ‘the underlying principle the universe is held together with… wants you to be whole.’

Cheers, Rob.

Structuration and Christian Theology PART THREE

CS Lewis said this about scientific theories – once enough externalities (he didn’t use the word, but it means things unexplained by the current theory) pile up so high that the current theory can’t sustain the weight, people go hunting a new theory that will be able to carry the freight of the externalities. It’s not, Lewis argued, that the new theory is actually more true than the old theory, but it serves the questions or discoveries of the current generation better in explaining what they see.

I think what Lewis said about scientific theory is also true about theology. That’s why it changes.

I believe God’s Spirit at work in this interplay, responding to the ways human society develops in its freedom. It’s a much more  “responsive” picture of God’s interaction in His world, rather than a controlling, deterministic one. (This kind of picture of God  doesn’t mean God doesn’t intend to do some things He said He will do, but it looks more to kairos moments rather than chronos pre-scheduled ones). So, a Structuration look at theology would say: as human societies have developed and advanced they have developed their theology to keep up. It’s a parallel view to progressive revelation’s view of the Bible wherein the Mosiac Law gives a deeper understanding of God than Abraham had, which is in turn deepened by the relational insights of the Psalms, developed further –with a deeper level morality – by the Prophets, and finally revealed far, far more accurately in the “mirror image of the Father,” Jesus. Just as the view of progressive revelation says God revealed more of His nature (or the Israelites came to understand more) as time went by across the pages of the Old Testament, and finally most definitely in Jesus, so in Structuration theory we would say our theology understands more about what God is like as time goes by, or at least apply what we know better to our century’s specific issues.

As to the question: “is our theology getting better, more accurate?” Well, in certain areas, hopefully. For example, I do believe that our theology that “Slavery is bad. Period.” is better than theological systems that allowed for slavery. We have a better theology of slavery than the Bible does. Period. Does anyone want to argue that?  We have worked out the implications of the  Bible’s theology of women further than the people in the Bible did.

However, in general, although the development and survival of societies should typically tend to direct their theology in ways that promote well-being, (as I think has happened for both women and slavery), as Lewis said about scientific theory, I don’t know that our theology is necessarily always truer than former ones, but it serves the current generation in more wholesome ways than ones from eras which no longer work, no longer answer pressing questions we have before us. Theology will continue to morph and change in ways, hopefully true to the Gospel, but also answering the questions of each generation in meaningful ways, as time goes on.  Christians with a huge variety of theology have been in love with God and trying their best to do what Jesus says to, for 20 centuries. This is why changes in theology don’t bother me overmuch.