Incurably Pelagian

Karl Barth once described British Christianity as “incurably Pelagian.” Pelagius was a British monk who was pretty high about human nature. Motivational speakers of our era must have liked him. Anyway, sometimes I wonder whether all of us are “incurably Pelagian.” Somehow we could not just accept that Christ is sufficient “for us and for our salvation.” Our prayer to God so that we could be stronger and more faithful and better in our life could be an earnest prayer, but I wonder if it actually masks the underlying assumption that we, indeed, must be better for God before God could accept us fully. Notice that the analogy of rope and thread, which represents the work of Christ for us and our human effort, respectively, even though it says that our thread will not be able to add anything to the solid rope, does require us to hold on to the rope. On the other hand, when Jesus told the parable of a good Samaritan, notice that the victim does not do any single thing in the story. The good Samaritan practically does everything for the victim.

I am not saying that all of us now should go into the equally abominable way of antinomianism, but, likewise, I don’t want us to think that salvation is about us. I’ve read a few works of historical theology, and I noticed how they characterized the age of church fathers where the church formulated its theology and Christology, and the age of Reformation where the church formulated its soteriology. Apart from the underlying assumption that since they have figured it out then theology must be a finished task, which is wrong, by the way, since theology must be sought afresh, this claim is also misleading. I think it is more appropriate to say that the early church fathers formulated an objective soteriology (that Christ is for us and for our salvation — this phrase came from the Nicene Creed) and the Reformers formulated a subjective (i.e., existential or experiential) soteriology (i.e., how Christ is for us and for our salvation). And it is of course in line with the humanistic (in the neutral sense) spirit of the Reformation era. Luther’s question could only be asked by Luther and by no one else. So, when we say that salvation has been accomplished in Christ, we must insist that it is, indeed, a mission accomplished. Thus, the question to be solved is what faith actually is and what role it has in such an objectivist construal of salvation.


11 thoughts on “Incurably Pelagian

  1. rey

    “I think it is more appropriate to say that the early church fathers formulated an objective soteriology (that Christ is for us and for our salvation — this phrase came from the Nicene Creed)”

    If Christ is “for us and for our salvation” then Pelagius is right. Anything that requires predestination is automatically against us. It bars the way for many without giving them so much as a chance. That is not for us. To allow us the chance to decide what to do, to believe or not, to obey or not, and more importantly to live right or not, this is for us while predestination as the most outlandish of all tyrannies can never be “for us.” The lottery is not for me. I play and play and play but never win. My job is for me. I go to work, I do my work, I get paid. The casino is not for me. It is rigged against me. But my job is for me. Even when I slack off and don’t do as much work as I should, I STILL GET PAID!!!!! Hurray! Salvation is kinda like that. If it were a lottery or a casino, as in predestination, as in Augustinianism, then it would be against me, against us. Christ would have died in vain. But if its more like a job where you get paid for working even though you didn’t do as much work as you really should have, where you still get paid even though the work you did do was subpar–well, now its for me, for us. Pelagius was right. And if, as you say, “theology must be sought afresh,” then not only is the theology of Augustine not a “finished task” but neither is Paul’s theology. Even those battles that Paul fought must be re-evaluated by clearer heads in the present, and his errors like Augustine’s must be fixed. Pelagius’ errors too must be fixed through re-evaluation. If Pelagius truly taught that a man can live a totally sinless life, he was wandering in a wilderness without water at this point. We can correct his error: What he meant to say, but was incapable of finding the words to say, is that God is not implacable: God is not under any compulsion to send us to eternity in hell simply for being imperfect. What he meant to say is that imperfect obedience is enough to satisfy God if we seek it wholeheartedly through continual repentance. This modified way of putting Pelagianism makes it right, more right than Pelagius, Augustine, and Paul all combined ever were. We through re-evaluation can arrive at a more accurate theology because we can clearly see the errors of the past (hindsight is 20/20).

    1. dpredie

      imho, rey, u are missing the whole point of the article.

      what septian is trying to say, i believe, is that the argument of pelagian vs determinism (end of 1st paragraph) is, in its core, antropocentric (start of 2nd paragraph). and he would like to shift the focus more theocentric: not just discussing our rights & whats in it for “us”, but more to what is our faith’s constructive “role” in God’s mission (end of paragraph 2). so to bring this down to a debate of pelagian vs agustinian (or worksvsfaith or whatever u want to call it) is totally missing the point.

      i think septian’s sentence u quoted points stark difference between objective theology (of the fathers) & subjective theology (of the reformers) is on the word *that* & *how*, not at all intended to comment anything in the pleagianvssomethingdebate.

      1. rey

        “what septian is trying to say, i believe, is that the argument of pelagian vs determinism (end of 1st paragraph) is, in its core, antropocentric (start of 2nd paragraph). and he would like to shift the focus more theocentric”

        Perhaps this is one point he is trying to make. Yet he also says that Jesus died “FOR US AND OUR SALVATION” per the Nicene Creed. That’s actually a rather anthropocentric statement. “FOR US” men “AND OUR SALVATION.” But if we were to use our brains for a moment (God gave them to us for a reason) we would see that the statement “I don’t want us to think that salvation is about us” is a rather silly statement. We are the ones being saved, so how can salvation not be about us? You cannot abstract salvation and make it all about God. If man isn’t involved, then who is God saving? And if man is involved, then its about man. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son” is not a statement that is totally about God; it is also about man, how that God so loved man that he wanted to save them. It is God who made this anthropocentric, not us. After all, he took on the flesh of man, made himself a man–how can it not be anthropocentric? The incarnation makes it anthropocentric! As the Hebrew writer says “he took not on the nature of angels but of the seed of Abraham”–it is not angelocentric, but anthropocentric, for he took on our nature. To say that looking at salvation in an anthropocentric way is wrong is to say that the incarnation was wrong and God made the wrong choice.

        1. rey

          In addition to the fact that the incarnation makes salvation anthropocentric, showing that God himself is the one that made it anthropocentric, let me say this: Calvinism and Augustinianism in that they constantly attack the anthropocentric view of salvation, not only attack the incarnation (Jesus cannot be truly human, cannot have truly taken on the same flesh as us in these systems, but must be at least semi-docetic even as in ancient Gnositicism) but they also attack man’s special place in the cosmos in the same way as atheism. Atheism says we are nothing to the vast cosmos. In the grand scheme of things, what is man but a spec of dust? Thus saith the atheist. And thus also saith the Calvinist and Augustinian. Man is nothing. Yet, God was anthropocentric enough to take on our flesh, become a man himself, die on the cross for our sins….does this not prove that we are indeed something, that we are indeed important, even CENTRAL, to God? David in a particular song is quite infatuated with the atheistic view that man is nothing and no better than any other part of nature, no better than a bug or a rat, and so rather confused, he says “what is man that thou art mindful of him?” To the one who is deceived by an atheistic worldview in disguise as religion (as Calvinism and Augustinianism are) it is quite puzzling that God would care at all about man. Why would God take on OUR flesh and die FOR US? Are we not just a spec of dust before so vast a cosmos? Are we not just a drop in a bucket? or nothing more than dung before him? Why should he make us CENTRAL to his own inner-life, so central that he, the ruler of the cosmos, would become one of us and die for us lowly specs of dust? The atheist and the Calvinist alike are incapable of even beginning to understand, nay even to appreciate, God’s divine love for man. So they mock with their idiotic doctrines of determinism. To the atheist man’s actions are all determined by the past movements of molecules, and to the Calvinist man is nothing but a puppet. In both cases they debase man, a being so central to God that he became one of us, and in so debasing man, they debase God whose image man bears.

  2. rey

    “On the other hand, when Jesus told the parable of a good Samaritan, notice that the victim does not do any single thing in the story. The good Samaritan practically does everything for the victim.”

    And the point of the story is not to demonstrate how Jesus saves but to show us what to do: “Go and do likewise” Jesus says. How very Pelagian.

    1. dpredie

      imho, the two example septian gave is intended to show the tension between both pelagian (1. rope analogy) & predestination (2. victim in the good samaritan parable), not to indulge in the pelagian debate.

      1. rey

        What is shows is that Augustinians use parables in unauthorized ways. The parable is about who our neighbor is, not how God saves. To use it in the way suggested by the Augustinians is dishonest. Anyone with a shred of respect for the Bible would point out this dishonesty rather than complain at those who point it out.

        1. dpredie

          if i am not mistaken, im just commenting on how u did use the phrase from the text to show, “How very pelagian” (how God saves?) it is, instead of pointing it is about who our neighbor is.

          again i stress to you, i still think the article is NOT attacking pelagian/agustinian NOR defending both, but consider the tension as a FACT of life and seeks how we find something more than the debate/tension: i feel the same sentiment (does not feel this debate is important/necessary)

          if u feel like to indulge more in the defend/attack/debate/tension, please do so. i have no rights to interfere (as u might have some past experience that i do not have that burns you for this topic) and lesser interest to continue.

          however, if you push me to have a final say on these things, its just that for me, both faith and works has its place in our lives. i hope that can somehow satisfy.

          have fun & good luck.

  3. dpredie

    relax bro. i myself dont really like “calvinism” & augustine, but u are overdoing this hahaha.

    how about to know u better, u could tell us a background experience, on how “calvinism” & “augustinian” stereotype that you usually encounter, or u could start, maybe, a blog where u can put ur reflections more systematically? and we can start from there.

    because our theology is a reflection of our lives, its better if we can just share the “context” first, before discussing our “end result” which may never meet before we understand each other’s background.

    1. rey

      I’m not really trying to be argumentative with you. I’m pretty much just thinking out loud. I like where this though on the incarnation has gone. It gives me a whole new appreciation of the incarnation and therefore of Jesus. And I can see why Athanasius placed so much more emphasis on the incarnation itself and its role in salvation than on the cross per se, in Incarnatione Verbe Dei. This was something that in the past sort of bothered me because it was so different from Christian preaching I was used to. But really the incarnation is so much more meaningful than Scripture even points out. It is indeed the defense against all anti-human and inhuman, all cruel, unjust, and tyrannical doctrines. The notion of the solidarity of Christ with mankind is a very important one. And in a time when my faith was very much waning due to over-exposure to Paulinism of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist variety, this accidental stumbling onto the importance of the anthropocentricness of the incarnation is a breathe of fresh air that renews my faith beyond expressible words. Paul says in one place that “there must needs be heresies among you so that those who are approved may be made manifest.” I sort of think that heresies must exist in order to force us to really think and therefore find the truth. For all the evil Calvinism has done, one good thing that comes of it is that in sending the God-loving mind reeling in horror from its evil, it forces him to contemplate God with an intensity that nothing else generates.


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