Preamble: Why I’m not too enthusiastic about Christian theology (skip to main entry, Pelegianism)
Reading over material for this update, I came to feel that Pelegianism is a great example of why I’m not overly enthused about the history of Christian theology and its related squabbles.
I could have also asked the related question of how certain dogmas and teachings came into being but I’m pretty sure I only asked about the formation of the Catholic Bible, which differs from other Bibles.
In retrospect, the priest was probably caught off guard. He was a good, educated man who no doubt knew about the various Councils held in early Christianity.¹
Also, the RCIA participants met in the evening. The leader was probably tired after a long day of fulfilling his priestly duties. And maybe he felt he had to answer to the group, not just to me. But still, his answer seemed simplistic at the time.
He replied that certain Biblical books “resonated with the people” and others did not, as if a majority community democratically decided what should and should not be included in the Catholic canon.
This may be true on some level, but the final decisions were made by a select few. Even today, many of the clergy are quick to point out that the Church “is not a democracy.” For the most part, unchanging truths are apparently revealed through some ambiguous process I still don’t fully understand.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not disagreeing with the Church’s basic teachings. But many elaborations, it seems, are questionable and supported through incredibly weak arguments.
A high school student could pick apart some of the arguments upheld by members of the clergy—especially, imo, those concerning why only men may become ordained priests.
Pelegius was a British monk (circa 354–420 or 440 CE) who came to be associated with a body of teachings called Pelagianism. Pelagius, himself, came to deny those teachings that had been linked to him.
So what is Pelagianism?
Pelagianism is the heretical Christian view, loosely associated with Pelagius, that salvation is attainable through one’s own efforts, as opposed to redemption through divine assistance.
Pelagius believed that Adam and Eve’s original sin (as related in the Biblical book of Genesis) was a bad example for the rest of us. But Adam and Eve’s sin did not indelibly stamp sin into every human being born after him.
In other words, Pelagius recast the traditional idea of a universal “original sin” into a more specific “first sin” of Eve.
So sin is something we can avoid by making good ethical choices and following up with good ethical actions. This places full responsibility on the individual, and less emphasis on the need for divine aid. God already gave us the “tools” as it were, to avoid sin by giving us free will. So grace, intercession, intervention, and so on, may occur but are not necessary to avoid sin and to make good ethical choices.²
Jesus sets a good example and offers a means for atonement. But for Pelegians, Christ does not die for the original sin that we, so the traditional teaching goes, inherit from Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God.
Pelegius also rejected infant baptism, a topic often raised by non-Catholics in favor of adult baptism. And he saw the popular Catholic idea of “weakness” as a crutch for not trying hard enough to eradicate bad behavior.
Pelagius was disturbed by the immorality he encountered in Rome and saw Christians using human frailty as an excuse for their failure to live a Christian life.3
In the early 5th century St. Augustine condemned Pelagius’ ideas. Pelagius was accused of heresy and acquitted.
But this was only a reprieve. Pelagius was later charged again in 431 CE, condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. Not necessarily executed, he was banished from Jerusalem to Egypt where he disappears from history.
Pelagius’ ideas have returned, however, in literature and film.4 And although most of his writings are lost, the thrust of his arguments remain intact by the writings of his opponents (most likely biased to make Pelagius look as wicked as possible).5
Postscript: Why I dodge dogmatic obsessives (see also, Preamble)
Why don’t I like studying the history of Christian theology, as mentioned in the preamble?
For one, it seems too abstract. Theological writings also can come off arrogant and mean-spirited. Instead of reading about the ideas a group of men have developed – and the victims they historically were willing to persecute to advance those ideas – I much prefer good, honest histories about political intrigue and battles. Something I can sink my teeth into and possibly relate to contemporary news.
My kind of history may relate to religion and theology but it involves the whole picture. Not just religion. Theology by itself sometimes seems like a conceptual game.6
Maybe that’s a little extreme. I can understand why a given Church wants to get it right. But I think the humility factor must take precedence, not the arrogance or authoritarian factors. And it seems that many who boldly proclaim as correct their view of theology are probably authoritarian personalities hiding behind a plethora of unresolved psychological issues. Can they avoid dealing with their psychological issues by focusing on their apparent “certainty” on every issue under the sun?
I wouldn’t call obsessive dogmatics “losers” because everyone has a role to play in the grand scheme of things. And we’re all imperfect people, after all. But I wouldn’t spend time having a coffee with them, either. Personalities like that can be toxic. And as a spiritually sensitive person, they can make me squirm, maybe even give me a headache.
So I keep a respectful distance. Fortunately, people so different from myself tend to not want to associate with me either. So it usually works out. There are always a few needy or disturbed exceptions. People who just do not take a broad hint. They tend to be more difficult. But again, one can’t waste time with them.
There’s too much love in the world to spend time with regimented haters. We can pray for them. But getting too close only fans the flames of their authoritarian anger.
¹ In fairness, if someone asked me out of the blue, I’d probably refer them to Wikipedia or the online Catholic Encyclopedia.
² I’m not sure if I agree with this. I tend to think that God educates us as to why we are sinning. That is, what we once thought was AOK becomes clearly sinful from the higher perspective of grace. So we can’t necessarily choose correctly from the get-go. We have to be educated by God about making the right choice. To make things more complicated, this probably varies from person to person. God’s expectations may be sometimes be personal and not always universal. That’s why we should really only judge ourselves and not others.
6 Some histories of Christianity, of course, do include political elements and all the Church’s warts. But others gloss over the scheming and iniquity. See, respectively, Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (gritty) vs. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (glossy).
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