Monday, November 12, 2012

Heresy and Orthodoxy

I was reading the November issue of our denomination's magazine, The United Church Observer, and turned to the Question Box column in which reader questions about the church are answered. The answer to question about Celtic spirituality included a discussion of Pelagius:
One of the great proponents of Celtic spirituality was Pelagius, a fourth-century monk and teacher. Pelagius taught that there are two scriptures - creation and the written word - and we need to pay attention to both to live a balanced life. Pelagius believed that God is good, creation is good, and therefore we are good and responsible for our actions. His contemporary, Augustine of Hippo, hated his ideas, teaching that people are filled with sin that can only be taken away by the church. Payment for the removal of such sins was a lucrative business for the institutional church, so Pelagius was excommunicated. Augustinian theology carried on into the Reformation and is still popular today, denying the essential goodness at the heart of every person and of all creation.

My mind reeled, as this answer oversimplifies both Pelagian and Augustinian thought and is mistaken in stating that the fourth century church had payments for penance. It also fails to note that the Augustinian understanding of Original Sin is doctrine in The United Church of Canada. See Article V of the Articles of Faith in the 1925 Basis of Union:

We believe that our first parents, being tempted, chose evil, and so fell away from God and came under the power of sin, the penalty of which is eternal death; and that, by reason of this disobedience, all men are born with a sinful nature, that we have brokem God's law, and that no man can be saved but by His grace.

I had a few discussions with other ministers and church folk online that night. We talked about Celtic Christianity, which was more diverse than is often depicted but did have pockets of Pelagian thought; about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and whether his Arminian position on free will and grace is semi-Pelagian (I say no, as Wesley believed in original sin and the total depravity of humanity); and about how the Question Box column represents Pelagius and Augustine. One colleague, while agreeing that both theologians are misrepresented in the Observer column, said on Twitter that "heterodoxy is preferable to orthodoxy imo (in my opinion)."

I thought about that. I had said online that Pelagianism is a heresy, meaning that historically it has been treated as heretical by the Western church since Pelagius was excommunicated in AD 417. But I didn't mean that any discussion of his position is off limits. There was considerable disagreement when Pelagius was alive over whether his theology was orthodox. It took much lobbying by Augustine to get the Pope to declare it heretical - and it was never condemned by the Eastern church. More broadly, today's church should see any theological debate as healthy. Everything needs to be on the table. Theology is meant to be living, not static. Faith statements can only ever be summaries, and cannot express the entire truth about God. They are never the last word.

The United Church is a merger of Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist and Evangelical United Brethren traditions that were the products of debate within the church. I am descended from Dissenters from the church (although, admittedly, they shut down belief in any doctrines but their own when they left England and founded their New World settlement in Massachusetts).

Friends talking online had also reminded me that the boundaries of what is heretical and what is orthodox are set by those with power in the church. Pelagius had allies among the bishops and their synods, and was in fact declared orthodox by one Pope, but Augustine finally managed to win over enough of the church hierarchy to get Pelagius executed. Such power struggles, and the church's relationship with the secular power, lie behind declarations of which positions are orthodox.

However, in an age when many people who are affiliated with the church are not that familiar with the church's traditions - and, of course, people who are not affiliated have no familiarity at all - any debate must begin with what the denomination's doctrine states. In the United Church we have just gone through a nationwide vote on doctrine, so we should know that explaining what the church believes is important, even if in our denomination our doctrine is not binding on individual members (although candidates for ministry must be in "essential agreement" to be ordained or commissioned, although each of us defines that for ourselves). Our tradition, like other mainstream Protestant denominations, is Augustinian. We can then talk about whether Pelagius had insights on issues of sin and grace that can speak to us today and help us as we seek to follow Jesus Christ.

As an aside, much of what we know about Pelagius comes from the words of his opponents, and many of his writings have been lost in the intervening 16 centuries, so reconstructing his thought can be problematic.

I ended up writing this letter to the editor of the Observer:

I was surprised to read in the November Question Box response on Celtic Christianity that Pelagius was excommunicated for teaching against original sin "because payment for the removal of such sins was a lucrative business for the institutional church." Pelagius was excommunicated in 417; the practice of paying money to commute penance for sin was only beginning 100 years later, and the profitable system of selling indulgences would not reach fruition until the Middle Ages, at least six centuries in the future.

Question Box disparages the theology of Pelagius' contemporary and opponent Augustine of Hippo, while noting that it "is still popular today." It is in fact the doctrine of The United Church of Canada, as Article V of the 1925 Articles of Faith takes the position of Augustine, not Pelagius, on sin.

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