Friday, January 11, 2008

Being "fair" to Pelagius

This article caught my eye, in which the writer says:
In all fairness to Pelagius, one does not get the sense that he set out to intentionally subvert the true meaning of Grace within the New Testament.
Even when the writer is trying to be "fair" to Pelagius, the best he can do is say that Pelagius didn't really mean to teach terrible heresy. Whereas the writers' view of Augustine is:
St. Augustine, one of the most stalwart and adept defenders of the Faith in the history of the Church.

Such views seem typical of what is often written at the level of popular theology. The controversy is judged against the context of modern orthodoxy, and Augustine is made the hero and defender of orthodoxy and Pelagius the villain. The agenda of such presentations is to endorse and promote orthodox modern views on the subjects of sin and salvation, and Pelagius is judged for failing to hold modern doctrine.

In my opinion such views are ridiculous. Historical controversies ought to be seen in the context of history not modern theology. The facts of history are that Augustine was a massive doctrinal innovator in virtually every area of doctrine and Pelagius held what was roughly orthodox doctrine at that time. Augustine managed to use his political influence to get Pelagius condemned and this had a massively influence on subsequent Western Christianity. The top Lutheran doctrinal historian of the 20th century has called it "an injustice that made history" (Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 313). Augustine's use of a serious Latin mistranslation to support his views is also infamous among scholars of historical doctrine. From a historical point of view it is clear that Pelagius was right and Augustine wrong.

However most theological articles aren't interested in mere facts of history, but only in labeling and condemning people based on whether other people agree with the author's own beliefs. For modern protestants and catholics, Augustine's doctrines agree better with their own than Pelagius', so the facts of history and Pelagius be damned. The thought that their own modern views have been inherited from Augustine's unjust victory over orthodoxy fifteen centuries ago does not seem to enter their mind...