Pelagius for the rest of us?

(I tweeted a bit about this earlier, but I thought I might as well write some thoughts into a proper blog post.)

As if to confirm our most stereotypical expectations, a proposal is being put before a diocese of the Episcopal Church in Atlanta to “rehabilitate” Pelagius by reversing the Council of Carthage’s (5th century) condemnation of Pelagian teachings.

Now, I’m willing to believe that Pelagius got a raw deal in being tarred as an arch-heretic. Given the dearth of extant writings, it’s quite possible that he was unfairly targeted by the ecclesiastical powers that be. And certainly modern mainstream Christianity is–for better or worse–more doctrinally latitudinarian than the early church was.

Nevertheless, I can’t shake the impression that, possibly because of the lack of reliable primary sources, Pelagius has become a kind of cipher–a blank screen upon which modern liberal Christians like to project their idealized version of an optimistic, nature-loving, life-affirming Christianity. In other words, the opposite of everything they dislike about Augustinian Christianity (in what is usually caricatured form).

This is similar and even related to the vogue for a vaguely mystical, eco-sensitive “Celtic Christianity” that, again, often bears little resemblance to the real historical deal. Pelagius is often upheld (by J. Philip Newell, for example) as the paragon and forefather of Celtic Christian spirituality.

What ought to tip us off that something fishy is afoot here is that the popular version of Pelagian-Celtic Christianity is strikingly conformable to the concerns of comfortable, middle-class westerners: the affirmation of everyone’s inherent goodness, a rejection of the doctrine of original sin, a generalized eco-spirituality, and a belief in an immanent God that resembles a vague life-force more than the rather demanding God of the Bible.

A good antidote to this whole line of thinking that still takes some of the underlying concerns seriously is Paul Santmire’s Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology. Santmire, a Lutheran eco-theologian, wants to recover theological themes that can support care for the environment, but he also departs from the Matthew Fox-neo-Pelagian crowd at a couple of key points.

First, Santmire strongly affirms that eco-justice must go hand-in-hand with social justice. The slums of the globe’s vast mega-cities teem with millions of desperately poor people for whom the reality of injustice and radical evil are palpable everyday realities. From this, Santmire infers a need for a robust theology of sin and atonement:

[A]lthough Fox talks regularly about “justice-making,” he chiefly seems to be thinking about a revolution of consciousness that is going to transform the world, not unlike the idea of “Consciousness III,” proposed by Charles Reich in The Greening of America during the heyday of the 1960s. In Fox’s major works, we encounter little attention to the often stalemated, anguished struggles of the oppressed, which sometimes can last for decades, even longer, and then, with some regularity, still be lost.

The Christian masses throughout the ages have likewise lived and died with the bitter reality of struggle. Struggle against overwhelming odds has been their daily bread. This is why they have turned again and again to the figure of the crucified, and have struggled all the more desperately in this instance to make sense out of this apparently senseless but nevertheless redemptive death. (p. 22)

A neo-Pelagian gospel of personal self-improvement and consciousness-raising may resonate with a certain small strata of the global elite, but what Santmire calls the “Christian masses” are all too aware that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot save ourselves.”

Further, Santmire commends what he takes to be some of the authentic insights of Celtic Christian spirituality–but these differ rather starkly from the kind of feel-good New Agey themes often associated with that tradition. According to Santmire, the eco-sensitivity of Celtic Christians was rooted in orthodox Trinitarian and Christological affirmations, and these worked themselves out in a fairly severe spirituality that might make some contemporary devotees of “Celtic” Christianity blanch.

Santmire isn’t blind to the flaws of traditional Augustinian Christianity–but he maintains that it preserves important truths and provides resources for a more cosmic and creation-friendly vision (as evidenced by the mature Augustine’s thought, as well as that of Irenaeus, Luther, Calvin, etc.). Traditional theology’s vision is of a creation (human and non-human) in bondage that can only be freed by God’s overflowing, unmerited grace. In Santmire’s view, this speaks much more profoundly and hopefully to our contemporary situation of mass poverty and ecological devastation.


13 thoughts on “Pelagius for the rest of us?

    1. I don’t usually go in for Episcopalian-bashing, but this one was too much to pass up. 😉

      It’s also sort of ironic that folks who are usually preaching acceptance and inclusivity should lionize someone who by most accounts was a rigid moralist and ascetic!

  1. The problem is that social-contextually, Pelagius was of the working class if you will and Augustine was not, he was of the patrician class. Pelagius was a smelly monk very similar to the Desert Elders. Augustine was not.

    Pelagius and his theology which we know only bits about, and what we know sounds like the older Eastern ascetical theology, cannot be conflated with middle class concerns or with Augustine’s. There is a different assumption of grace in Pelagius and Augustine, and it can be argued Augustine created Pelagianism to argue his own view. The thing about the “struggle” we are to take up in Pelagius’ version of grace assumes a graced world. Indeed to be created is itself gift, grace. Grace is the starting point. For Augustine at least in some of his later writings grace needs to break into an ungraced world. I recommend the dissertation of Martha Stortz on Pelagius.

    This is all to say that a Celtic spirituality, of which Pelagius was a part, assumes a participatory soteriology (as does Anglican theology, see the work of AM Allchin) in a graced world and a world nevertheless devastated by sin, and therefore, necessitates a rule of life or ascetical theology as response to the gospel, a way of being that is meant to live in harmony. Emphasis on the patterning, which means yes there are certain ways we share to live by as response to the gospel–and Lutherans buck at this! Anglicans do not–beginning with a common praying. Hence, what is actually lacking in middle class appropriations is not a sense of a graced world, what is lacking is a I would say a Christ-loved and Emmanuel world (Christ being central to the Celtic versions and praying) and accompanying ascetical response that is communal spurred on by the excesses of particular ascetics whose feats remind all of a world utterly dependent on God–like say standing for hours in the cold ocean waves praying.

    1. You mean Pelagius actually believed God created the world? Shocking. i mean, yeah, all Christian theologians say the words, but Pelagius actually believed it, rather than saying “God created the world” but meaning something Gnostic (as Augustine obviously did) like “The demiurge created the world and God is a higher god than him. We sin because we are creations of the demiurge–we must be reborn and become children of the Higher God!”

      1. “…but Pelagius actually believed it, rather than saying “God created the world” but meaning something Gnostic (as Augustine obviously did) like “The demiurge created the world and God is a higher god than him.”

        Um, huh?

      2. You’ve never heard of Gnosticism, seriously? in the year 2011?

        The Gnostics believed that the God of the Old Testament was a lower deity than the God of the New Testament. They of course had their own New Testament, their own gospel(s) and some Pauline epistles that differed a bit from the Catholic version.

        In their view, the world was made by this inferior deity called the Demiruge (Greek: maker) who is also the God of the Old Testament. But Jesus was the son of the “Better God” sometimes called Bythos (depth). (In the book of Revelation a possible cryptic attack on this sort of Gnostic teaching when he says “there are some who have not tasted the depths [of Satan] as they say.”)

        In any case, Augustine from 17 to 26 was a Manichean (a part of a Gnostic sect). When he converted back to Catholicism he clearly brought some Manichean ideas with him. He viewed sex even in marriage as evil (as of course did Manicheus) and more or less saw humanity as evil by nature (as in Manicheanism everything material is evil).

        So, in the back of Augustine’s mind, and tacitly in Augustinianism, is this unacknowledged notion that the Creator God is inferior to the Savior God. He doesn’t literally identify two gods, but the idea is in there somewhere, confused up and all.

        Pelagius, on the other hand, clearly was rigidly a monotheist. He couldn’t conceive of a world so totally inundated by evil as Augustine because he couldn’t somehow separate God into two different gods or principles — one good and one evil — and still maintain a lying claiming in being a monotheist the way Augustine could.

  2. Christopher: thanks for the historical context and nuance.

    I’ve been reading up on John Wesley recently, and he seems to be operating with the kind of “participatory soteriology” that you describe. (Perhaps because he was, after all, an Anglican!) I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with purely “forensic” accounts of salvation, and this is an avenue I’m interested in exploring more.

  3. “…to “rehabilitate” Pelagius by reversing the Council of Carthage’s (5th century) condemnation…”

    The council of Carthage had no real authority, so it doesn’t need to be reversed. It essentially doesn’t exist. Or are all Protestants actually just Catholics in disguise?

  4. Lee


    My bafflement was at what appeared to be your claim that Augustine was explicitly Gnostic, not at the term “Gnosticism,” which I’m plenty familiar with.

    I can agree that Augustine may have had some latent Gnostic/Manichean tendencies that carried over into his thought as a Christian. However, I don’t think this fairly characterizes his mature thought. H. Paul Santmire has a good discussion of this in his “Nature Reborn.”

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