Monday, 8 July 2013

Avoiding Pelagianism

This is, as I understand it, a brief summary of the "Scottish" heresy.  Pelagianism is often called the English heresy, but I'm sure Pelagius was a Scot and no doubt Alex Salmond would like to claim him as his own.

Pelagianism states that:
  • Original Sin did not taint human nature.
  • mortal will is still capable of choosing between good and evil without Divine aid
  • Adam set a bad example
  • Jesus set a good example
  • there is no need for grace
  • human free will can attain perfection
  • humans are sinners by choice
  • humans have full responsibility for obeying the Gospel and also full responsibility for every sin.
A modern day pelagian is portrayed as someone who is convinced that they can work out their own salvation.  That through the right prayers, the right discipline, good works and a good life the soul will be judged worthy of Heaven. A modern day pelagian may be caricatured either as a "religious nutter" (a novena, liturgy and rosary junkie) or as an upright member of a church community who goes to church each Sunday, is a fine upstanding member of the community but never examines their own conscience. In either case they are seen to be working for their salvation, but judged to be forgetting God and His mercy and grace.

I have a problem with poo-pooing pelagianism, because like most thing pertaining to come from these Isles it is complex, nuanced and actually worth taking seriously.  Why take a heresy seriously? Well if we don't look it square on, then I fear many more of us will actually fall into a serious trap with regard to our spiritual development.

The thing we must consider is the role of our free will.  Yes pelagianism takes free-will too far and gives it too much power and importance.  However, free will is a gift from God and is something very special.  Without free will, we can not love.  True love is primarily an act of the will and is not the fruit of our sentiments and feelings no matter how noble they may be.  We must will to love God.  We must will to obey the First Commandment above all others.  We must will to love our neighbour. I can't think of a saint who wasn't wilfully stubborn and single minded....

Once we have made this act of the will, we must continually renew that act and in order to avoid pelagianism we must also acknowledge our sinfulness, weakness, fallenness and our total reliance on God and His mercy.  And all of this is very Old Skool Catholicism.  It is the Catholicism of the manuals (see previous post) that tell us not to trust ourselves, that tell us to be disciplined and strive to live a virtuous life, it is the Catholicism that is hard, very hard, often uncomfortable and always humbling work, but work through which Grace can flow.  The problem is, it may be Catholicism that is a bit light on saying that God loves us and that may be why it has fallen out of favour.

However in forgetting this whole package of free will and humility before God, we may be in danger of falling into an equally sinister trap; the trap of presumption.  We presume that God loves us.  OK that is fine.  God really does love all of us, more than we'll ever know.  But then we presume that we're OK. We loose sight of the Gospel message to flee from sin. We presume the Holy Spirit is working in us (in other words, that we are not hindering His working). We loose sight of the need for the Sacraments and the wholesale embrace of the teachings of Holy Mother Church, no matter how uncomfortable they may make us. We make up our own religion, we make up our own god in our image, who is just like us, only better.  And now we've come full circle, because this sort of presumption sounds horridly like pelagianism too!

So, dear reader, my conclusion is that stray from a very narrow path and you will find yourself battling with the briars and brambles of pelagiansism on either side.  

Narrow path through nettles and brambles (Evelyn Simak) / CC BY-SA 2.0

2 comments:

James Jordan said...

"Yes pelagianism takes free-will too far and gives it too much power and importance."

Its not possible to give freewill too much importance. What Pelagianism is really guilty of is taking the Psalms seriously, especially Psalm 119 and on. Pauline anti-law orthodoxy requires you to ignore so much of the Old Testament, and Pelagius wasn't willing to do that. A Semi-Gnosticism was out of the question for him. For Augustine anything else was out of the question, since Augustine couldn't possibly leave his Manichean past completely behind. The question is this:

Is Christianity really based on the Old Testament, or is that just a lie?

Those who beleive it is really based on the Old Testament will be at least Semi-Pelagians.

And everyone who is an Augustinian, no matter how weak of an Augustinian, is by definition saying that its a lie that Christianity is based on the Old Testament, or that the Old Testament is God's word: the secret position of Augustinianism is that the Old Testament is wrong, manmade, a myth, made up by rogue angels, from a lower divinity, etc.

Rita said...

Dear James,

2 Timothy 3:16
"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,"

Therefore Psalm 118 (or 119 as you refer to it) is the inspired work of God through the Psalmist. It speaks of submission to and meditation on the Law of God as revealed by His Word. However, to love the Law does not make one a pelagian or a semi-pelagian. Paul himself is the supreme example of a lover of the Law, a man committed to conforming his free-will to the love of God, by the grace of God. Christ liberates us from the Law in that through submission to Him we become living manifestations of God's Law. True freedom is only found in total submission to God. We are only liberated from the Law by truly following it with our hearts.

The error with Manichaeism, (which I do believe Augustine truly left behind him) is its dualism (spiritual vs material)and its denial of the omnipotence of God.