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.

The NT doesn’t support our Western doctrine of Original Sin

In Luke 5:31-32 (HCSB) – Jesus says “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s very clear here that Jesus considered some people in his generation to be in right standing with God already, before the atonement on the cross. The Book of Hebrews lists many, many heroes of faith who were righteous long before Jesus came. But the way most of us understand the idea of original sin is that everybody on the planet has some sort of cosmic evilness in them that makes God furious and the only way to get out of an eternity of hell is to be lucky enough to hear about Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.  So, the point of Jesus’ coming is this: everyone in the world is born with a condition God is furious at, so he is sending everyone in the world to hell, (like punishing a kid for having Down’s Syndrome) and Jesus comes as the medicine so you can go to heaven.

It’s like we’ve changed stories. Because you would never read the Old Testament cover to cover and come away with that idea: that the point of the story is that God is sending everyone to hell due to original sin, unless they confess the Messiah, whereupon the can go to heaven.  You would never even remotely come away with that idea from reading the Old Testament. The storyline in the Old Testament is that Yahweh created the world and it is being despoiled by violence and idolatry and evil and God wants people to live rightly in His world. So it’s like we’ve switched storylines in between the Testaments.

So the question is, is there a change of story, or are we mis-reading our New Testaments? Logically, Jesus the Messiah came to solve the problem presented in the Old Testament: to put God’s world right. Much Protestant theology, however, acts as if Jesus came to solve the problem OF the Old Testament: as if the problem is the way people related to God in the Old Testament (the Law) which now has to be remedied (by grace).

While grace and the atonement are certainly central realities in the New Testament, I think we’ve gotten mixed up about the storyline. I will say it again: the Old Testament never remotely suggests that the central story of the world is that all humanity is sinful and going to hell and can only go to heaven if they accept the Messiah. No, the Messiah is coming to set the world right, including the people in it. This is a story about this world, not an insurance policy for lucky insiders regarding the afterlife.

Sources of Christian Pessimism and How Wesley Saw It

In the last post I wrote about the optimism the Gospel brings to my life.  In fact, as I read back some of these blogs, I don’t like that my sense of irony, playful sarcasm and critique sound pessimistic. I think people who follow Jesus and work for His Kingdom have every reason to be the most upbeat, optimistic, hope-filled people on the planet. I want to caveat about contexts where great persecution or starvation persist, although, incredibly, folks there seem to have a much better handle on joy than we in the comfortable West do!

I do, however, run in many western Christians who are very gloom and doom, even in their theology! For sure, childhood experiences, temperament, or wounds in life cause pessimism. However, I suspect there are also a couple of theology reasons: first, some versions of Reformed theology have a pretty gloomy view of this life on earth, and we just need to hold on until we get to heaven. For the record, I’m not laying that at Calvin’s door.

Secondly, the predominant American view of St. John’s Apocalypse/ the Book of Revelation is so awful, nearsightedly tied to newspaper headlines (even though that approach has utterly failed for twenty centuries!), and pessimistic, that it’s no surprise people assume things will get worse and worse and then the end ( a comment Jesus makes about Jerusalem and the Jewish-Roman War, but taken by Americans and those they influence to mean something at the end of time, which of course must be our time, since it’s all about us!).

Fortunately, a look at history refreshingly shows that the world is not getting worse and worse. The leaven of the Kingdom of God has indeed been working its way through the batch of dough. The influence of the Way of Jesus has had marvelous results in the last 2,000 years.  Our mis-use of the Apocalypse brings pessimistic, and often very fear-driven, worldviews that shadow peoples’ lives and folks miss out on a lot of joy. The Gospel gives us every reason to be optimistic, upbeat, and hope-filled.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists understood this. In his sermon The General Spread of the Gospel, after leaving no stone unturned describing the ills of the world and fallen-short Christianity, Wesley then goes on to argue, using profuse Scripture, that God is wonderfully at work in the world and that surely the power of the Gospel is such that we can have great hope that the whole world will come to faith in Christ:

in general, it seems, the kingdom of God will not “come with observation;” but will silently increase, wherever it is set up, and spread from heart to heart, from house to house, from town to town, from one kingdom to another. 

…. And in every nation under heaven, we may reasonably believe, God will observe the same order which he hath done from the beginning of Christianity. “They shall all know me, saith the Lord;” not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God;) but “from the least to the greatest;” that the praise may not be of men, but of God. Before the end, even the rich shall enter into the kingdom of God. Together with them will enter in the great, the noble, the honourable; yea, the rulers, the princes, the kings of the earth. Last of all, the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children,” and “enter into the kingdom of God.

…. All unprejudiced persons may see with their eyes, that He is already renewing the face of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises, until he hath put a period to sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and re-established universal holiness and happiness, and caused all the inhabitants of the earth to sing together, “Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” “Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever!”

In this sermon, he even goes as far as to attempt to predict the order, the geographical sequence of nations in which the Gospel would succeed, first to last! Humorous as that seems, one thing for sure, the power and grace of the Gospel made Wesley an optimist.