Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pelagius Part III

The Theopedia article on Pelagius neatly sums up what seems to have been the main problem with the man's teaching, at least as recorded by (largely Augustinian) church history:

Pelagius believed that the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin (the Fall) were restricted to themselves only; and thereby denied the belief that original sin was passed on (or transferred) to the children of Adam and thus to the human race. Adam's sin merely "set a bad example" for his progeny and Jesus "set a good example" for mankind (thus counteracting Adam's bad example). Pelagianism teaches that human beings are born in a state of innocence with a nature that is as pure as that which Adam was given at his creation.

As a result of his basic assumption, Pelagius taught that man has an unimpaired moral ability to choose that which is spiritually good and possesses the free will, ability, and capacity to do that which is spiritually good. This resulted in a gospel of salvation based on human works. Man could choose to follow the precepts of God and then follow those precepts because he had the power within himself to do so.

The controversy came to a head when Pelagian teaching came into contact with Augustine. Augustine did not deny that man had a will and that he could make choices. But, Augustine recognized that man did not have a free will in moral issues related to God, asserting that the effects original sin were passed to the children of Adam and Eve and that mankind’s nature was thereby corrupted. Man could choose what he desired, but those desires were influenced by his sinful nature and he was unable to refrain from sinning.

Now, common sense would suggest to me that by this account, Pelagius was guilty of some seriously wishful thinking. I know from my own experience how much I depend on God's grace. I know what a mess I should be in without it.

I know from my own experience that it is possible to choose things that, on the face of it at least, cannot be what God would wish me to choose. I know also that it is perfectly acceptable to translate Romans 8.28 as, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (NIV) That has been my experience too: when I have made choices inimical to what I understand to be God's overarching purpose for my life, he has always seemed to bring me back onto that course, very often through the very things that would have seemed to take me away from it.

In the NRSV, of course, the familiar translation of Romans 8.28 is, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (In a footnote the NRSV acknowledges "in all things God works for good" as an alternative translation.) Now the original Greek for "work together" is "sunergeo," and the NIV gives, "works together with those who love him to bring about what is good..." as a footnoted alternative.

This is interesting. If God might be thought of as "working together" with those who love him, then we come face to face with the doctrine of synergism, the idea that, "there are two efficient agents in regeneration, namely the human will and the divine Spirit, which, in the strict sense of the term, cooperate. This theory accordingly holds that the soul has not lost in the fall all inclination toward holiness, nor all power to seek for it under the influence of ordinary motives." (John Hendryk)

I must read some more on this, which I understand to form a considerable part of the theological underpinnings of the Orthodox tradition of hesychasm, and the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Watch this space!

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