Monday, August 06, 2007

Between Augustine and Pelagius: A Middle Way

This post at He Lives led me to think again about Pelagianism.

I have a dirty little secret to admit. I have some sympathy for Pelagius.

Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, rejected the doctrine of original sin. He held instead that each human being is born innocent and without taint of sin. A consequence of this is that each of us has within himself the resources to resist temptation and thus live a sinless life. Thus for Pelagius we are born as were Adam and Eve in the garden. Neither our will nor our intellects are corrupt when we are born. Rather we all have within us the ability both to know the good and to follow it always.

Why would a Christian say such things as this? Pelagius' reason was simple. He held that, if we come into the world with a nature ruined by Adam's sin, our later sins are inevitable and thus not culpable. The plausibility of this is difficult to deny. Do we hold someone responsible for something that could not help but do? Do we punish them when their act was inevitable?

I do agree with the claim that we are not culpable for that which we cannot ourselves help but do. Thus I think that a just God would not punish us for our sins if they grow out of an innate sin-nature. But am I forced to reject the doctrine of original sin? I am not. I embrace it. (Indeed I think that, of all bedrock Christian doctrines, this is the one whose truth is most clearly visible in the world around us. We are ruined creatures, as is plain to see.) But how then do I avoid the conclusion that God punishes those who could not help but sin? My answer is simple: in the end all are saved, and God punishes no one.

I am a universalist. Salvation is not only held out to all. Salvation is given to all. (Of course it is not given to all in this life. Thus I hold that it is possible to gain salvation in the life to come.)

To my universalism, I conjoin an Augustinian account of grace. Only by God's grace are we able to escape our sin-nature, and that grace is a free gift no one ever merits. We either accept that grace, or we do not. If accepted, we begin the upward path of sanctification. If not, we remain mired in sin.

Thus I should say that I am mostly Augustinian with a bit of Pelagianism mixed in. With Augustine, I hold that original sin is only too real, and that only by grace do we escape it. With Pelagius, I hold that God would not punish us for our sin-nature and the sins that inevitably follow from it. Thus I reject an assumption made by both Pelagius and Augustine, the assumption that some are damned. Pelagius held that all have within themselves the ability to live sinlessly and that God punishes those who freely chose to disobey God's commands. Augustine held that no one has within himself the ability to live sinlessly, and that God extends the gift of grace to only some and damns the rest. (I always found this bit of Augustine morally repugnant.) I hold that no one has within himself to live sinlessly and that only by God's grace do we escape sin. But I hold that, in the end, all receive God's grace and thus that, in the end, all are saved.

How, then, do we preserve that bit of Pelagianism that is plausible (the bit that denies culpability where there is no freedom to refrain from sin) but embed it in an Augustinian view of grace? We become universalists. (I've expressed my attraction to universalism before. See here for instance. It is my one little bit of unorthodoxy.)


C Grace said...

Hi Franklin,

"It is my one little bit of unorthodoxy"

Actually your view on sin is more Orthodox then Catholic. :) The Orthodox Church does not hold to Augustine's idea of original sin and believes that we are in fact born guiltless. No child has guilt imputed from Adam's sin. (thus there is no need in the OC for the immaculate conception of Mary)

What we are born with is a propensity to sin that without the healing manifestation of Grace is irresistable. Adam in the garden was perfectly free. He, even without grace, was not constrained to sin, but once he obeyed Satan he condemned the rest of the human race to be in bondage to Satan, sin and death. As long as the image of God within us remains darkened, we cannot resist sin.

(Are you sure you don't want to become Orthodox? Every time I come over here you are sounding more Orthodox and less Catholic.) :)

Franklin Mason said...

If I understand Augustine, he would have us make a distinction. The sin-acts of Adam are not imputed to anyone. But our original natures were ruined by Adam's sin, and though when we are born there are no acts of sin yet imputed to us, our natures are in such a state of ruin that sin is inevitable. (For Augustine, it seems to work in this way. The faculty of desire and of will are defective. We desire what we ought not, and the will consents to that evil desire and leads us to sin. Repeated such acts of will inevitably lead to the formation of evil habit, and though the formation of those habits involved acts of will, those habits become so entrenched that on our own we could never root them out.)

If I understand, then, Augustine's view is the Orthodox view; and it is the current Catholic view too, I think. Orthodoxy and Catholicism mostly agree on these matters.

Ken said...

Franklin, this is an interesting post, but I see a couple problems it:

First, on original sin: It would seem that the concept of an “age of accountability” would seriously undermine your argument. If it is true that human beings are only culpable for those sins freely committed after they are (mentally) old enough to understand the consequences of their actions, I don't see how the fact that we all have sinned in the past does anything to diminish our culpability for those sins we continue to commit.

To go even beyond that, is damnation required by any past sin, or only if one continues to embrace sin into eternity? It is certainly true that, over time, our sins become so ingrained that we cannot, ourselves, "root them out," but is there not a difference between recognizing this and asking for God's grace, and accepting (or even embracing) sin's inevitability, and rejecting that grace? Is the sin that damns (if there is such) an individual action, or the overall trajectory of one's life? Eternity is a long time to either allow God to continue working on you, or to reject him and move the other way.

Second, and along those lines, on universalism: I think this view underestimates just how pervasive sin really can become in a human soul. Regardless of how we became infected with sin, it seems a simple fact that many people not only consciously choose it, but actively rebel against any attempt to condemn or reform them. Unless you propose that God completely override the wills of such people, then it is surely not only possible, but nearly inevitable, that at least some (perhaps many) human beings will so thoroughly turn themselves against God as to damn themselves. If God cannot justly override someone’s will to damn them, can he justly override it to save them?

I would also add that while I agree that all humans inevitably sin, I wonder if it really is sin itself that’s inborn. Rather, it seems to me that we are born with the ability to sin, not the necessity to do so. But since we are also born into a system that is so thoroughly corrupted by sin (to be specific, the sins of other people), we all do in fact become infected by it from an early age. In this way, the sins of our fathers are, in fact, visited upon us, but that seems to be rather different than saying that we cannot (by nature) avoid sin.

jdavidb said...

But our original natures were ruined by Adam's sin, and though when we are born there are no acts of sin yet imputed to us, our natures are in such a state of ruin that sin is inevitable.

If this is what the Catholic Church means, then I am at a loss as to what baptism for infants is supposed to accomplish.

My outside understanding is that the Catholic Church teaches infants are born guilty of sin, and therefore need to be baptized if they are going to go to heaven.

So nowadays the teaching seems to be that infants are not born guilty of sin, but that original sin now means that we have a ruined nature that makes sin inevitable. Okay, so infants aren't baptized because they are guilty of personal sin, but because they have original sin, and baptism is supposed to take that away.

Okay, that's great ... so why doesn't baptism actually take away this inevitable sin? Why aren't these infants like Adam and Eve, and immaculately conceived Mary, and anyone else who was conceived without a sin nature?