Tuesday, January 12, 2016

50 Shades of Pelagius

This is one of the most important things I wrote. Fundamentally, this is connecting the bad anthropology and Christology of Pelagius to the resultant political theology of the modern Christianized nation-state. I updated parts where new learning improved the overall argument. I am not as reliant on Augustinian thinking, while still appreciating the bishop's work, and his paradigm of 'two-kingdoms'. He certainly understood the biblical tension more than others throughout history.


In his later years, Augustine spent a majority of his time trying to combat teaching from a British Monk. While he spent more time wrangling with mutations from the monk’s disciples (i.e. Julian of Eclanum), Pelagius has gone down in much history of the church of Jesus Christ as a villain. His deficient anthropology and christology led him to some deeply flawed views. Of course, I’m not given to simple black/white characteristics, and I’m sure there were good points that he made.

Pelagius came to Rome from his monastery somewhere on the British Isle and was terrified by the moral laxity. Followers of Jesus Christ were engaged in Pagan-like lives with little love. He believed this sprung from the recent popularity of Augustine and his many writings, one of which, The Confessions, had a line that irritated him the most. Augustine wrote: “Give what you command, and command what you will”.

While I find nothing wrong with this statement (it properly makes God the beginning, middle, and end of salvation), Pelagius interpreted this as rank fatalism, a return to the Manichaeans, and left people as they are with no encouragement to seek after the path of life. It was this frustration that started Pelagius’ campaign to have Augustine refuted, rebuked, and challenged. While Pelagius was rather successful when he had died, and his disciples had carried on his work, he never officially received recognition in the West or East. However even though his memory is generally condemned, his spirit lives on in manifold ways.

Pelagius taught that while man had stumbled in the Garden, it did nothing to humankind deep-down. Adam had set a horrible example and men have followed in his wake ever since. So the Lord would shed His grace and return a people back to Himself. What this meant was that God would provide another example, and by doing such, men would choose to turn away. Thus the Mosaic Law, and ultimately, the Evangelical Law (what Christ taught and did) would be the example for men to find their way back to paradise. This framework would condition his use of apostolic phrases (i.e. grace, faith, atonement).

While there are many implications to this brief, and incomplete, summary, the major premise is that regarding the Fall. Where Augustine would explore, and lament, the radicalism (that is how thorough-going) of the Fall, Pelagius did not believe in its totality. Pelagian teaching certainly accommodated for corruptibility and in no-wise denied the presence of evil. Such would misunderstand Pelagius to some kind of Pollyanna-esque creature. He certainly witnessed wickedness, but saw it as lapse instead of slavery. Man could be good with enough motivation, enough focus, and enough planning. There was no fundamental evil state that Man existed in. This is perhaps more disturbing. Why would man turn to sin so vilely if man only needed a corrective example? The implications could be staggering.

There isn't much truth in Pelagius' teaching. He didn’t understand Paul’s cry in Romans 7 about the thorough going fallenness that was present within him. Death attacked the Apostle; his soul and body tore themselves apart, being conflicted by confused loves and wants. What Pelagius missed was that only the Lord of Life could turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Here Augustine was correct in challenging such teachings as not only contrary to the witness of Scripture, but the witness of reality. The love of God poured out is no mere law-giving, but law-inscribing. It is transformative.

So I stand with the bishop against Pelagius, and against the reincarnations of the monk in this battle. Another was between Erasmus and Luther on the place of the will. Erasmus believed the personal use of will remained free and untainted, but in need of correction and learning to be properly good. Luther rejoined that the will is not a free-floating agent but inextricably tied up with the human heart. It is either maintained by the love of God which is from Christ or not which is of the devil. Luther's anthropology may be in need of correction, but he reacted against a Humanist infatuation with the possibilities of mankind. Both sides of this debate highlight interesting deficiencies in the reigning theological paradigms of the day. However, Luther's rebuttal highlights a diminished view of the Fall.

 Here, Luther might seem a compatriot here. However, I want to apply this Fall more deeply. I want to bring the implications deeper beyond the Human heart, and explore what it might mean for a wider definition of 'Creation.  Mankind was corrupted, but so was the rest of the world-order. This includes societal structuring and the spirits in the things man makes. I do not believe that fallen angels are only extra-human forces that we call societies, cultures, cities. However, we'd be fool to neglect that they are well engaged in them. There is a transcendent presence in collectives. The State, the corporation, the institution, all of these are more than the mere sum of their parts. They are, in part, what Paul refers to as ‘Powers and Principalities’, and they too are fallen.

A true prophet I’ve lately appreciated has been William Stringfellow. Here’s an excerpt from his work An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land:

American pietism- both in the social gospel and in evangelicalism- is entranced with a notion that the Fall means the consequences of mere human sin, without significant reference to the fallen estate of the rest of Creation.

In my own words, much of American Protestantism has not plumbed the depths of the Fall enough and is insufficiently aware of the effects of human sin. They limit it to the actions of humans without considering the intoxicating and overwhelming deluge of power present in the Powers around us. I wonder if that is how many Christians can speak of their sinfulness, or confess the redemption found in Christ, and then proceed, without a second-thought, to engage in systematic wickedness.

Partially, I suppose that’s the beauty of the mechanized, Model-T society that we live in. Everyone does their own small, seemingly inconsequential part, and the whole conveyor belt moves along. So John Doe only creates metallic casings, which are used to house bombs, which are sold to a military, which are used to murder. John goes home without a second thought, never considering he is participating in conquest and murder. He is told society doesn't exist, he is a monadic individual that has no shared responsibility with the repercussions of his activity.

This interconnectivity of events would drive anyone insane. But it's an interconnectivity we are called to discern and thoroughly meditate on. I’m calling for discernment in a world of white noise and mind-numbing images. So, many American Christians may confess Jesus Christ, but be drunk on the spirits of Americana. How many have subjected the King’s love-command to maintaining the American Dream? This is not mere ignorance or incompetence, but calls for an understanding that the forces which stand over men are also a part of a Fallen World. It was a Roman State and a Jewish Temple establishment that put the Messiah on the Cross. It was not mere men working, but the darkened powers, and behind that the Serpent himself. Thanks be to God that even such potent malevolencies are beneath His hand! Even these were a part of the victory of Life.

This naive and anthro-centric view of the Fall has plagued Protestantism from the gate. It is a great delusion that many sacral christianities dabble in. In thinking they can control Caesar's throne, they’ve misunderstood the root-nature of a Fallen world awaiting redemption. In fact, it would be my contention that, in this regard, many Anabaptists are more thoroughly biblical than the Magisterial Protestants. Not all, especially those who create little enclaves of self-righteousness in their cultural ordinances, but some. However, the Anabaptist tradition has done more than most in perceiving the possibility of corruption in power, especially when with the best intentions.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that in regards to the Powers, much of Lutheranism is fatalistic and Manichaean and much of the Reformed are thorough going Pelagians.

The former view accepts, on its face, the natural order as it is. Now this might manifest in outright hostility to Nature as useless for telling of God, but that is Lutheranism's fringe (and now Barthian) wings. Rather, it is usually taken as proscriptive for the Kingdom of Men. Thus, a dualism is created in as much as you do your duty to God and your duty to the State. This is an abuse of “rendering unto Caesar…”, and creates a secular sacralism. When Paul’s social commands (i.e. to husbands, wives, slaves, masters etc.) are understood as merely validating social conventions, they have a confused Christology. This is the bread-and-butter of creating Sunday Christians, and a vast and pervasive nominalism. In this vein, Nazism was able to command as it did with little resistance from the majority of Christians.

The latter view is probably the most pervasive in America due to the much stronger legacy of the Reformed on this continent. The idea is that institutions can be used for good, and, with Romans 13 misunderstood as paradigmatic and prescriptive,  can be put to task for maintaining the Kingdom of God.

Without getting into my own understanding of Romans 13, let two things be said. This passage is not cut off from the rest of the letter or the canon. 1) It must be understood in light of Romans 12 and its call to mercy and returning good for evil. 2) It must also be seen under the light of the demonic images in Revelation 13 and the prophetic testimony throughout the OT against the corruptions of the institutions of Israel.

What ends up being done is evil, all in the name of good. The Pelagian concept of the Powers takes manifold forms, some that come to mind are: Temperance Movement, Social Gospel, White Man’s Burden, Moral Majority, Ku Klux Klan etc. It is the same spirit that drove the Puritans to build a new Israel in New England, and the Boers to build a new Israel in South Africa. It led Oliver Cromwell to butcher the Irish Papists at Drogheda. Cromwell planned to create a pure, protestant society, but left a bloodbath. The intentions are good, and like Pelagius, are capable of making good observations and critiques. But it ignores the radical corruption present in Creation. Thus, a man-made Heavenly City becomes another Babel project. Many times these intentional projects become twice, at least, as evil as the parent they separated from. Elizabethan England was a paradise in comparison to the political rigidity of New England.

Now, it would be easy to rebuke me and call me too thoroughly cynical. The recognition of corruption does not speak to the thing being inherently evil; rather it speaks to its original goodness. You can’t call something broken if that’s how it was supposed to function. Powers, like men, were meant for something more.
Thus we don’t see a rejection of kings in Scripture, but reassigning it to an Eternal Prince who would sit on His father David’s throne. We don’t see communities denied, but constantly called to reform. The Lord Jesus speaks of the spirits of communities in the first chapters of Revelation. Even the churches of Christ could lose their candlestick, how much more institutions that are bound to the slavery of death, and are awaiting judgment to be destroyed with the Devil.

So, just as the disciples are in the world, and love other people, even though they are fallen, we are to interact with Powers. It’s not an exact correlation, so don’t read it that way. My point is that the call isn’t to quietism, it’s walking with eyes wide open. It means rejecting the allure of power. It is discernment on how intoxicating the thought of fixing the world through such means can be. Consider that God’s condescension is most mysterious and awe-inspiring because He is Lord of all. He is Almighty became weak, and in such exercised the true power.

Now I don’t deny that, as we see in Daniel, that someone might be placed in a position of power, and such is a terrible blessing. Thankfully he persevered by the grace of God, but Daniel did not seek out this position, nor did he revel or glory in it. He trembled, for power is a helluva drug. The luxuriousness of Babylon was a constant thorn. Daniel is a true saint who spoke truth to power.

The Powers around us are fallen; we must not be fooled to think otherwise. To do so would be to give into the naivety of Pelagius. Instead, we rely, every step, on the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We are pilgrims in a world of Babylons, called to speak truth in an age of Babel

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