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...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. Of course, as you know, your own thesis is subject to devastating attack. Alas, I'm not competent to do it, but I hope someone will step up to the plate.

Blogger Mark said...

Thanks for noticing me, and the link as I've now subscribed (RSS) to your blog. I noticed you've written a bit on atonement and such.

Could you offer some remarks on this.

As I've subscribed here to the comment thread, get emails on comments there, and also have your subscribed if you choose to reply by post, comment here or there I'll see it.


Blogger Andrew said...

The post you asked me to comment on seems to be about Eastern and Western differences in Salvation. There are a number of important soteriological differences between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christian traditions and in your post you highlight original sin and the atonement mechanism. I have an interest in tracing the development of doctrines throughout history and seeing where and why traditions diverged from each other.

With regard to original sin, the worldwide Christian view in the second century seems to have been that the sin of Adam affected his descendants by bringing death into the world, but did not make them guilty nor seriously affect their internal psychology. That view has remained in the East through to the present day. By contrast, the West in the second to fifth century developed progressively a view that saw man as seriously marred, tainted, sinful and guilty as a result of Adam's sin. In the writings of Augustine this idea of the depravity of humanity reaches full flower and he see humanity as a 'lump of sin'. He invents the idea that the free will and power to do good given graciously to man by God at creation has been so thoroughly destroyed that man is unable to do virtually any good at all without God's supernatural intervention. The doctrine of free will was seen as a core Christian doctrine by theologians of earlier centuries, and Augustine was the first Christian to deny it. Pelagius held the orthodox (at that time) view on the freedom of man to do good, and so Augustine's victory over Pelagius on this topic resulted in Augustine's ideas on original sin and the depravity of man gaining an enduring legacy in the Western theological tradition, whereas they have never been held in the East. (Of course, none of this proves what doctrines are correct or biblical)

Models of the atonement have undergone quite a number of changes throughout history and they are my particular interest. You seem a little unclear on the Eastern model(s) of the atonement, which is not surprising since throughout most of their history they have endorsed a number of mutually compatible views (eg Recapitulation / Theosis, Christ as Teacher / Moral Exemplar, Christus Victor / Ransom from Satan). The Western models of the atonement were generally pretty similar to Eastern ones through to the 11th century and Anselm. From that time to the present Satisfaction and then its child Penal Substitution competed with the Moral Exemplar view within Western Christianity. (Augustine and Pelagius predate such controversies though so their views on atonement models are similar.)

You may be interested in my timeline post here in which I trace the development of doctrine through history in brief. You may also be interested in my posts on the system of salvation and primary model of the atonement in 2nd century Christianity.

Blogger Credo In Unum Deum said...

I think jackson is correct. Whenever you pull out the card you did (whatever you want to call it) and smack around St. Augustine and the whole of the Church Tradition, it will come back to smack you. Why are you immuned from your own attack? Are you so objective? Finally, your evident lack of a dogmatic principle leaves you in a less than ideal place to make any judgment about any matter doctrinal; at best, you could opine. But you were quite condemning in tone.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Jackson K. Eskew and Credo In Unum Deum said...

Its funny how Protestants with all their clamoring about Sola Scriptura eat each other alive over whether they submit and assume the position for Augustine, whose writings, last I checked anyway, don't form any part of the canon. You might as well go back to Rome since you hold Augustine to be more trustworthy than Ezekiel 18.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should also not be forgotten that a huge part of the controversy was over Augustine's claim that infants are born guilty of Adam's sin and therefore will burn in hell forever if the die unbaptized. Protestantism may like to pat itself on the back for assuming the position for Augustine on half of what he taught, but it has embraced Pelagius on the other half, even the most radical in attacking Pelagius agree with Pelagius that unbaptized infants DO NOT go to hell. (The only exception is the crazy Calvinists who believe some infants are elect and some non-elect and go to hell.)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

And again, a typical Catholic charge against Pelagius at the time (although unjust) was that he didn't believe baptism was essential to salvation. Today, ALL Protestands agree with him (or the caricature of him) on this point! Fundamentalism is bafoonery that oversimplifies the complex and overcomplicates the simple.


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