"[My relationships were] like I was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When I’d get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted me to ad lib. But I had never gotten the hang of that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. I always blew the lines." ~ from my horrible first novel "Learn How To Pretend." (unpublished)(obviously)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Augustine vs. Pelagius: The Doctrine of Sin Smackdown

“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end, nothing at all is left.  ‘The wages of sin is death’ is Saint Paul’s way of saying the same thing.
“Other people and (if you happen to believe in him) God or (if you happen not to) the World, Society, Nature – whatever you call the greater whole of which you are a part – sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within yourself. […] ‘Original Sin’ means we all originate out of a sinful world which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves the center of the universe, pushing away centrifugally from that center everything that seems to impede its freewheeling. More even than hunger, poverty, or disease, it is what Jesus said he came to save the world from.”
- Frederick Buechner

Who’s picking up the tab for this mess? That is what the doctrine of hamartiology tries to explain. Harmatiology is study of things relating to original sin and two of the early players in the game were Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius. It is believed by some that the penalty of Adam’s sin was eventual death. Because humanity shared in that guilt, it would share in the punishment as well. Augustine’s view on the matter was based on Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (NIV). This verse is interpreted as meaning that all of mankind has sinned due to its relation to Adam. Augustine saw all of humanity as present, in a seminal sense, at the fall – guilty by association. He developed this concept of seminal presence from a passage in the letter to the Hebrews. “One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Hebrews 7:9, 10 – NIV).

Augustine of Hippo

Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, provides an interesting contrast to the Augustinian view. Pelagius was a British monk whose life was as different from Augustine’s as was his theology. Far removed from the wild, sensual and worldly life Augustine knew, Pelagius’ life was still and simple. Apparently, he did not suffer the intense spiritual conflicts that Augustine did. The two met in Africa in the early fifth century and disagreed over ideas of original sin and free will.

Pelagius’ view of sin was that because every soul was created directly by God, each was innocent and untainted by Adam’s sin. In fact, he felt that a sinless life was possible. Pelagius taught that the only sin imputed to a person was the sin that they themselves committed. Because of this, man did not share the Adamic penalty of death. Pelagius argued that, in fact, Adam would have died anyway. He saw Adam’s fall as the story of a bad example. And, a bad example is just what Pelagius saw as being the problem with humanity – poor education, and bad examples. Man did not need God’s grace to be saved. It was helpful, but Pelagius felt that everyone had the ability to choose between right and wrong.

Augustine saw man, prior to the fall, as being in a state of natural perfection, bearing the wisdom, holiness and immortality imparted by God at creation. Quite contrary to the Pelagian view, Augustine taught that once the decision to sin came into the picture, Adam was unable not to sin.  This sinful disposition became a hereditary nature, passed on from generation to generation.

Augustine felt that God’s grace was absolutely essential for salvation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9 NIV). Augustine felt that this grace was required to even believe the gospel. It was given to fallen man, not because he believed, but so he could believe.

Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by the Synod of Jerusalem. Likewise, his views were condemned as heretical by the Council of Carthage in 418, and the Council of Ephesus in 431. An adapted view, known as semi-pelagianism, emphasizes the role of free will and God’s grace in salvation. The fall, this view declared, weakened – but did not destroy – the free will of man. Semi-pelagianism eventually saw realization within the medieval Catholic Church. In modern times, the Pelagian view is popular with the Unitarian church. Meanwhile, Augustine’s views of sin and grace are seen in the modern reformed and Calvinist traditions. Modern interpretations of both views seem to mince words, straining gnats while swallowing camels. The point that sin is bad for us right now seems to be missed altogether. Perhaps in Frederick Buechner’s vivid description of how sin creates gaps between us and those around us, those who don’t (and do) follow God can find an honest reason why we should care. His view shows us that it is not just a case of someone who’s had their fun trying to tell us what to do. Sin creates a gap between us and everything else that is. To sin makes us alone and separate from the rest of the universe to the point that we might as well be dead. Perhaps St. Paul was right in his assessment of sin’s wages after all.

Works Cited

Enns, Paul P.  The Moody Handbook of Theology.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1989. (311-312, 423)

“The Holy Bible: New International Version”. Wheaton: International Bible Society/Zondervan Corporation. 1972

Buechner, Frederick. A Seeker’s ABC.

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