In Christ of the Celts, J. Philip Newell takes aim at the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius over the question of original sin — a chickenfight that eventually resulted in Pelagius and Pelagianism getting condemned as heretical. Newell sees clear political ramifications in this doctrinal skirmish:
The doctrine of original sin was a convenient “truth” for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling. What the world needed and what the masses throughout the empire required was the truth that they, with their ecclesiastical princes, possessed. Truth was to be distributed from above. It was to be a religion of dependency. And part of the conflict with Pelagius and other teachers in the Celtic mission was that a people who believed they were made in the image of God and were therefore bearers of an ancient wisdom and an unspeakable dignity were not a people that could be easily cowed by power and external authority (p. 20).
Wow. And this has implications not only for politics (secular or ecclesiastical), but also for mysticism: for when we emphasize original sin (and its Calvinist cousin, total depravity), we undermine the promise of deification. For how can we be partakers of the Divine Nature if we are simply filth through and through?
Newell clearly thinks Pelagius needs to be reconsidered and that Augustine’s doctrine of original sin needs to be questioned, if not jettisoned outright. Normally I see the Augustine/Pelagius controversy, like the Calvinist/Arminian controversy among Protestants a millennium later, as an irresolvable paradox, concerning the equal but opposite truths that grace is an entirely unearned gift and we must choose it. But there’s something about Newell’s words that have given me pause. Partially it’s because I just finished reading McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity in which the Greco-Roman “project” of redefining Christianity in terms of Greek philosophy and Roman imperialism casts the Augustine/Pelagius argument in an entirely new light. And it’s partially because just this past Sunday I had a wonderful conversation with one of my Lay Cistercian brothers about the Orthodox understanding of intergenerational sin, which is social rather than metaphysical in nature. In other words, while the sins of the father can result in the children and grandchildren etc. suffering (think of the kind of messes that families with a long history of alcoholism have to contend with), such a reality does not necessitate belief in some sort of “original sin” that is transmitted sexually. Yes, the Psalmist said “in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5), but if we take the historical interpretation of that Psalm at face value, it is the voice of David, wracked with feelings of guilt and shame after accepting responsibility for the death of Uriah. No wonder he felt like he was conceived in sin! In other words, this verse should be read as the poetic lamentation of a guilt-ridden mind, not a statement of metaphysical truth.
Orthodox Christians do not have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for in their mind there was no need for Mary to be conceived without the stain of original sin, since original sin does not exist. The Orthodox and the Celts seem to be on the same side of this debate. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Orthodox retained an understanding of deification, while the western church watered it down to the moralistic concept of sanctification.
I’m curious if anyone who reads this blog knows of a good book or source that can unpack the Pelagian controversy further. So many historical “heretics” have been “rehabilitated” in recent years: Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Meister Eckhart are all historical figures whose works I can display in my mainstream Catholic bookstore with no one raising an eyebrow. I’m not sure if that’s the case for Pelagius, however. He seems to remain on the outs, except for the likes of J. Philip Newell. Am I missing something? Have scholars been re-examining Pelagius and his argument? Newell insists that Augustine willfully misrepresented Pelagius in his attacks on the Celt. I’d like to read more about this, but I’m not sure where to begin.
To me, rethinking the role of Pelagius is at least as huge as McLaren’s invitation to strip away the Greco-Roman distortions of the Gospel. A church without original sin is a church where we can place our focus not on fire insurance for the afterlife but rather learning how to live in heaven here and now, and creating a “colony of heaven” the celebrates our earthy existence rather than seeking to escape it.