Monday, March 9, 2009

Dueling Duo over Pelagius

From time to time I like to post what I call "Dueling Duos".

Pelagius wanted Christians to live according to the Gospel instead of according to the Roman Empire. His theology demanded change. It questioned the status quo of the increasingly institutionalized Church in Rome. It made those in power uneasy. It made the morally lax look responsible for changing their own lives. It made people realize they were wasting the gift of life, which God gave humanity, by choosing sinful behaviors. It made this charge to every Christian: "You must avoid that broad path which is worn away by the thronging multitude on their way to their death and continue to follow the rough track of that narrow path to eternal life which few find."

Pelagius' theology was a realistic description of human responsibility and God's graciousness. It wasn't perversely optimistic like the Social Gospel movement and it wasn't perversely pessimistic like Augustine. It was a "third way" between the two extremes. Pelagius says it well in his own words: "I did indeed say that a man can be without sin and keep the commandments of God, if he wishes, for this ability has been given to him by God. However, I did not say that any man can be found who has never sinned from his infancy up to his old age, but that, having been converted from his sins, he can be without sin by his own efforts and God's grace, yet not even by this means is he incapable of change for the future."


Peter Brown, Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University:

"Pelagianism had appealed to a universal theme: the need of the individual to define himself, and to feel free to create his own values in the midst of conventional, second-rate life of society. In Rome, the weight of convention was particularly oppressive. The families, whose members Pelagius addressed, had lapsed gradually into Christianity by mixed-miarriages and politic conformity. This meant that the conventional 'good man' of pagan Rome had quite unthinkingly become the conventional 'good Christian' of the fifth century. The flamboyant courtesies of Late Roman etiquette could pass 'Christian humility'; the generosity traditionally expected of an aristocrat, as 'Christian almsgiving'. 'It is better to give than to receive' was a popular tag; but, like all Biblical citations used to ease the conscience, no one could quite remember where it came from! Yet these 'good Christians', 'true believers,' were still members of a ruling class committed to maintaining the Imperial laws by administering brutal punishments. They were prepared to fight tooth and nail to protect their vast properties, and were capable of discussing at the dinner-table both the latest theological opinion, on which they prided themselves as experts, and the kind of judicial torture they had just inflicted on some poor wretch.

In this confusion, the harsh, firm message of Pelagius came as deliverance. He would offer the individual absolute certainty through absolute obedience...The Emperors use the same desperate language when insisting that their laws must be observed, that Pelagius will use when speaking of the laws of his God. ...To him [Augustine] it seemed that the new claims made by the Pelagians, that they cold achieve a church 'without spot or blemish', merely continued the assertion of the Donatists, that only they belonged to just such a church...[T]he victory of Augustine over Pelagius was also a victory for the average good Catholic layman of the Later Empire, over an austere, reforming ideal." (pp.346-349)

"For, no matter how self-consciously Christian the Pelagian movement had been, it rested firmly on the bed rock of the old ethical ideals of paganism, especially Stoicism. Its moral exhortations had appealed to a classical sense of the resources and autonomy of the human mind" (p.369).

"As we have seen, the difference between Augustine and Pelagius was capable of ramifying from the most abstract issues of freedom and responsibility, to the actual role of the individual in the society of the Later Empire. The basic difference between the two men, however, is to be found in two radically different views on the relation between man and God. It is summed up succinctly in their choice of language. Augustine had long been fascinated by babies: the extent of their helpflessness had grown upon him ever since he wrote the Confessions; and in the Confessions, he had no hesitation in likening his relation to God to that of a baby to its mother's breast, utterly dependent, intimately involved in all the good and evil that might come from this, the only source of life.

The Pelagian, by contrast, was contemptuous of babies. 'There is no more pressing admonition that this, that we should be called sons of God.' To be a 'son' was to become an entirely seperate person, no longer dependent upon one's father, but capable of following out by one's own power, the good deeds he had commanded. The Pelagian was emancipatus a deo; it is a brilliant image taken from the language of Roman family law: freed from the all-embracing and claustrophobic right of the father of a great family over his children, these sons had 'come of age'. They had been 'released', as in Roman Law, from the dependence on the pater familias and could at last go out into the world as mature, free individuals, able to uphold in heroic deeds the good name of their illustrious ancestry: 'Be ye perfect, even as Your Father in Heaven is perfect.' (p.352-3).

Peter Brown Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (University of California Press, 2000)

Challenging the empire? If we take Peter Brown seriously, hardly. Not "perversely optimistic"? Ludicrous. Pelagianism did not offer the gospel; it offered human security contingent upon my own ability to act. As such it did not 'challenge the empire' or what Scripture calls pattern of 'the world' rather it wholeheartedly embraced it.

Certainly Pelagius believed in sin, even the liberal believes in sin. The issue, as with modern day liberals, is the definition of sin. For Pelagius it was a minor flesh wound of sorts from which one could recover, enabled post-grace to persevere and rise above such incomperances based on one's own efforts and abilities. As Peter Brown puts it: "For Pelagius, human sin was essentially superficial: it was a matter of choice. Wrong choices might add some 'rust' to the pure metal of human nature; [cf. Pelagius ad Dem. 8] but a choice, by definition, could be reversed [cf. Pelagius ad Dom. 3]" (Brown, p.368).

So here's the question: what kind of historiography is at work in the first quote?

No comments:

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...