Biblical literalism + magisterial inertia = sacramental Pelagianism?

I’ve been reading through Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in which he spends a whole lot of time arguing emphatically why unbaptized infants deserve to go to hell because of Adam’s sin. It seems like the damnation of babies was a huge sticking point for Pelagius and his followers and part of why they were inclined to say that the doctrine of original sin was ridiculous. The core of Augustine’s argument against Pelagius rests upon a literal interpretation of John’s two verses describing the salvation of the two sacraments — 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” and 6:53: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” Though I don’t have time to trace the historical development of this literal attribution of salvation to sacramental observance, I cannot help but wonder if Augustine’s Biblical literalism and the magisterial inertia of the church in following his claims uncritically led to the formulaic view of the sacraments which created the atmosphere of “Pelagian” salvation by works that triggered the Reformation. I realize I’m being mischievous, but the irony is too delicious.

Here is what Augustine wrote in context:

Now they take alarm from the statement of the Lord, when He says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God; because in His own explanation of the passage He affirms, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” And so they try to ascribe to unbaptized infants, by the merit of their innocence, the gift of salvation and eternal life, but at the same time, owing to their being unbaptized, to exclude them from the kingdom of heaven. But how novel and astonishing is such an assumption, as if there could possibly be salvation and eternal life without heirship with Christ, without the kingdom of heaven! Of course they have their refuge, whither to escape and hide themselves, because the Lord does not say, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot have life, but—“he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” If indeed He had said the other, there could have risen not a moment’s doubt. Well, then, let us remove the doubt; let us now listen to the Lord, and not to men’s notions and conjectures; let us, I say, hear what the Lord says—not indeed concerning the sacrament of the laver, but concerning the sacrament of His own holy table, to which none but a baptized person has a right to approach: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” What do we want more? What answer to this can be adduced, unless it be by that obstinacy which ever resists the constancy of manifest truth? [Augustine, A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants 26.20]

The Biblical literalists of Protestant fundamentalism often make fun of Catholics for thinking that sacramental practices are “magical.” That’s because they don’t read John 3:5 or 6:53 literally. Their Biblical literalism, insofar as it’s a practice and not just a slogan, is mostly applied to the book of Romans. Augustine’s message for us is that unless you’re a selective Biblical literalist, you’d better baptize your babies as soon as they pop out because without that water, they’re going to hell. It’s true that a literal interpretation of John 3:5 and 6:53 applied as Augustine applied it creates a conflict with Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” and the other sola fidei passages, because it makes salvation contingent on a work. Even if you say that God is the one who does the work that counts through the sacrament, we (or our parents) have to do work in order for us to receive God’s gift of grace.

So I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to speculate that Augustine may have laid the groundwork for “Pelagian” works-righteousness in his debate with Pelagius because of the combination of Biblical literalism and magisterial inertia, which are the two principal ways in which human knowledge is idolized at the expense of being able to receive God’s infinite wisdom through the testimony of His scripture. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not seized it” (John 1:5). That’s a verse I can take literally, because it captures the epistemological gap between our knowledge and God’s wisdom. When we try to seize His light for the sake of our power, we end up with a fistful of darkness, because no divinely inspired word of God can be reduced to a single univocal, “literal” meaning; each word is perpetually pregnant with new wisdom that it births for those who are patient and humble.

When I have more time, I’ll try to defend why I think a forensic account of original sin is ludicrous, 1600 years of Western Christian tradition notwithstanding. I just don’t see Augustine’s proof-texts (there seem to be only three verses) providing adequate justification for such a significant doctrine when “death” could have
“entered the world through Adam’s sin” in more than one way. Pelagius actually makes a whole lot more sense in his understanding of sin as a widespread contagion that infects us all inevitably rather than Augustine’s understanding of original sin as a hell-deserving offense against God that we supposedly committed through Adam and are rightly judged for, etc, because we were an infinitesimal part of Adam’s semen before we were born.

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About Morgan Guyton

I’m the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.wordpress.com Derek Rishmawy

    It’s often been remarked that the dispute during the Reformation was between Augustine’s doctrine of grace and his doctrine of the church. The issue of literalism is troublesome because the term itself means different things to different people. For the Reformers a “literal” reading of Scripture was something more along the lines of a “grammatical-historical” sense instead of an allegorical one. Within that “literal” reading would be contained the recognition that different phrases, figures of speech, stories, etc. weren’t actually intended to be read in that “literal”, or rather, “literalistic” fashion.

    As for a juridical doctrine of original sin…I’m still wresting with it. I definitely believe in original sin in the sense of corruption. The imputation of Adam’s guilt is tougher for me and the only way I’ve see it work is in a more covenantal framework, rather than Augustine’s seminal theory.

    • Morgan Guyton

      And that’s where covenantalism makes me crazy. Based on the texts that Augustine uses, I just don’t see forensic original sin. Of course, I absolutely can go along with the notion of inherited corruption and not just “influenced” corruption, per Pelagius.

      • http://derekzrishmawy.wordpress.com Derek Rishmawy

        Well, that’s my thing, you kinda have to see the better arguments.

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  • Junly

    The real issue is an issue of canon. With Matthew teaching Pelagianism and Romans teaching Augustinianism, how do you decide between the two? Here are some possible ways:

    (1) Matthew was a REAL apostle, one who walked with Jesus during his life, so I choose Matthew over Paul.
    (2) Paul says he “labored more abundantly than them all” so he’s the greatest apostle and I choose him over Matthew.
    (3) Matthew records Jesus’ actual words; Paul just twists the Old Testament; so I choose Matthew.
    (4) Paul lets me sin sin sin and still be saved so I choose Paul.
    (5) Matthew requires morality so I choose Matthew.

    Here are at least 5 ways people make the choice. But the reality is everyone makes the choice!

    • d

      Trespass and sin are separate as can be seen in the following passage.
      Although trespass is sin act, sin exists in and of it’s self.
      The following make it clear it was not just act’s committed but the spirit of disobedience.
      That spirit is not a external to man but internal.

      “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” Ephesians 2:1-10

      John Wesley Sermon 44
      “The Scripture avers, that “by one man’s disobedience all men were constituted sinners;” that “in Adam all died,” spiritually died, lost the life and the image of God; that fallen, sinful Adam then “begat a son in his own likeness;” — nor was it possible he should beget him in any other; for “who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean” — that consequently we, as well as other men, were by nature “dead in trespasses and sins,” “without hope, without God in the world,”

      It should be noted St. Augustine’s conversion was after his embrace and rejection Manicheism and study of Neo-Platonism.
      Romans 5 does not stand alone.

      • Morgan Guyton

        You continue to be aloof to the distinction which I am making between inherited guilt and corruption. As I said, the former is ridiculous; the latter makes sense. The latter is exactly what Wesley is affirming here.

      • d

        So are we to assume when we are told “all are guilty and fall short” there is no guilt involved?
        Pelagius would relent on two of his initial positions. the third was adressed at the Council of Trent.( Fifth session)
        Automatic translation (propagatione) of sin.

        Luther:
        But what, then, is original sin? According to the Apostle it is not only the lack of a good quality in the will, nor merely the loss of man’s righteousness and ability. It is rather the loss of all his powers of body and soul, of his whole outward and inward perfections. In addition to this, it is his inclination to all that is evil, his aversion against that which is good, his antipathy against light and wisdom, his love for error and darkness, his flight from and his loathing of good works, and his seeking after that which is sinful. Thus we read in Psalm 14:3: “They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one”; and in Genesis 8:21: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Actual sins essentially consist in this that they come from out of us, as the Lord says in Matthew 15:19: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” But original enters into us; we do not commit it, but we suffer it. We are sinners because we are the sons of a sinner. A sinner can beget only a sinner, who is like him.”

        • Morgan Guyton

          We are in a predicament from which we need to be delivered, but God does not attribute blame falsely to people. The Catholic church was wrong in its doctrine on unbaptized babies even though it maintained that doctrine for a good 1500 years.

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