Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Pelagian Heresy

by Ethan Creamer

Within theology, the free will versus determinism debate has raged for centuries at least since the time of the Early Church Fathers. The heart of the debate is the question regarding the extent of the human will to be able to act morally in order to achieve salvation. The British theologian Pelagius (354–420 AD) taught that the doctrine of original sin was false and that ability to lead a sinless life is real and apparent for all, whilst St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) stressed the need for Infant Baptism and the necessity of divine grace in salvation as a result of original sin which was a result of the fall of man. Pelagius had primarily been disturbed by the attitudes of those in Rome, who would commit sin in the knowledge of doing wrong, but using the excuse of the natural human tendency to sin and then professing faith in Christ to be forgiven, only to sin again. Whilst St Augustine is commonly thought to be a soft determinist in so much as he formulated the doctrine of original sin, stating that the fall of Man has a real and apparent impact upon all humans, and that Adam’s death was a result of sin which is now a common tendency of all humans, requiring free will to follow scripture and grace to ensure salvation, this would be a simplistic and naïve assumption, and I’d suggest misguided. 

At first glance, Augustine’s view contends with a libertarian perspective of complete free will without the addition of an ongoing pre-determined mind-set of proclivity to sin, this is by no means fair to St Augustine nor to the millions adherents to this particular theological belief regarding sin. We can demonstrate that any theist, of the Abrahamic faiths, could not suggest that which Pelagius does. There is an analogy to be drawn, which does demonstrate that Augustine is perhaps not the soft determinist as completely opposed to the ideas of Pelagius, and whilst he was in fact correct as far as his theological ideas on the doctrine of original sin are sound, that he and Pelagius are not distinctly indifferent as you may think upon close inspection, yet Pelagius is the one at grave fault. Pelagius does overlook the actual message of Augustine, and that the ‘Pelagian Heresy’ is in fact aptly named from a theological point of view.

Say, for example, a person was born with the complete lack of use of the legs – such it is their condition they will not walk on their legs even if they willed it so – it would be unreasonable to suggest that they could possibly, even if they really wished to, walk on their legs. Much in the same way is will in itself, if the capability to reach sinless, moral perfection is as Pelagius suggests the case, then we have the ability to be as sinless as God himself, which is clearly a rejection of the fundamental principles regarding the nature of God. This free will Pelagius suggest is limitless. To quote Pelagius: "Now we have implanted in us by God a capacity for either part. It resembles, as I may say, a fruitful and fecund root which yields and produces diversely according to the will of man, and which is capable, at the planter's own choice, of either shedding a beautiful bloom of virtues, or of bristling with the thorny thickets of vices." (Book 1 of Defence of the Freedom of the Will).

The anti-Pelagian Augustine
If a being is defined by its function and nature then at no point can anything regarding them be put into question. If we define the ‘perfect legs’ as being those – putting aside ascetics - legs which will function as they must each time they are willed to be used, than those which cannot manage this are not perfect. Whilst we may say there are many perfect legs by this definition, God is incomparable (such is the difficulty of inference per analogiam). God is no different except that the nature of God is that he is not mimicked, and if we were, in terms of morality to be on equal terms, the very nature and function of God is put into question. Therefore, any entire following of God’s commandants by a mortal being as a result of conscientious and rational free will, which theory suggests will result in salvation, could not possibly be theologically justified, as Pelagius suggests it could. It is a rational argument – provided you are a theist – that we could not possibly be wholly free moral agents such as Pelagius suggests if there is to be a cosmological transcendental order of beings by the nature of the metaphysical existence, such as is suggested by (a) the existence of a heavenly host with an immutable God Supreme and (b) the existence and importance of the immortal human soul, two tenets many theists would accept. That is professing faith in a higher power ipso facto means that you must accept your own imperfection in all areas, including ability to be free to choose, though this does not mean we are not rational, but rather we are flawed but can overcome such flaws using the available innate moral law accessible with human reason so that God can, through his love and sacrifice, redeem us. Thus we conclude that, since ipso facto we cannot match God, that free will which allows us to become like God in regards to morality is an error, leading us back to the ideas of Augustine – that we require divine grace.

The nature or circumstances of our entry to the world in no way suggests that we are even partly determined to act in any certain way – we may very well be inclined to sin, but we can ask for divine grace, accepting through faith the existence and nature of God, the existence of the trinity, we can overcome original sin with the sacrament of Baptism, and receive grace when we accept Christ & live according to that which is in harmony with ius naturale. Human reason and will, guided by faith, is sufficient in obtaining the highest knowledge. Augustine presents the argument that all humans suffer from a unique condition, whereby the nature of being born into the mortal coil is that we are not and can be neither equal nor superior to that which exists in the metaphysical. The physical form we inhabit, as Plato would argue, is an imitation of that from which we originally derive – the Agathon (form of the good) – in the case of Christian theology God the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. If we are created ‘imagio dei’ it is utterly non sequitur to verge on saying, as Pelagius does, we can ourselves overcome imperfection, as mirroring is not the same as being in the image of.  ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ Genesis 1:27 (NIV). Indeed, image does not, and could not, and must not, in any respect equal that which it imitates and to border on such a suggestion is a gross miscalculation. Perhaps Pelagius is in a state of his own form of Eikasia?

In fact, the very free will that had been bestowed upon Adam – may I point out that the nature of the creation story is not up for debate here as symbolic myth vs. literalism has little importance in the spiritual context, (in fact it holds little importance as the argument is preserved regardless) - had been misused, this is not imperfection of God, this is a condition which is to be expected, since teachings of Pelagius which suggest all of God’s creation is good is right only partially in so much as God is good, and Genesis says that his creation is good, but there is a massive overstatement and logical error to suggest that this in anyway means that humans as a result have it within their power to reach moral perfection without some form of grace. Instead this goodness is synderesis, a concept originating with St Jerome and which the Scholastics such as Aquinas claim is the natural, innate, God-given tendency to ‘do good and avoid evil’, and it is not without humans lacking the use of reason consistently which leads a0ny of us into potential misdeeds, which is the tendency also to forget reason in humanity, described by Aquinas as being ‘rather like God in the world’. Original sin is part of the human condition – it is the idea that we have natural tendencies, these tendencies are as real as God is determined to be an immutable, loving entity. If God’s creation is wholly good, which is what Pelagius is very close to suggesting, then why indeed would it not be as good as God himself or potentially be, which again is a theological and logical misconception. The death which came to Adam, through sin, is not by necessity meant physically, it was that analogically death is attributed because he is man. By definition life eternal is an attribute of God, the imitation of God isn’t therefore allowing of life eternal, thus death must come to Adam, because he remains under God, but he chose (metaphorically if you wish), to raise himself to the level of God (as you may well draw comparisons with Pelagius) and this is not metaphysically possible, thus through grace can we seek reconciliation, having had the ability provided to us through Christ.

“Which the Greeks call synderesis: that spark of conscience which was not even extinguished in the breast of Cain after he was turned out of paradise, and by which we discern that we sin, when we are overcome by pleasures or frenzy and meanwhile are misled by an imitation of reason.”  - St Jerome
This fits in with the attributes of God – he is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, and so it must be said that we are to not truly know good from evil – thus anything that isn’t God is in itself imperfect given God is the definition of perfection. To use the via neagtiva; God isn’t imperfect, he isn’t evil, he isn’t unknowing, we are all of these things. A non plus ultra deity is unsurpassable. Therefore, Pelagius’ inference that by free will alone we can follow the commandments of God and thus reach eternal life is utterly misguided – it is instead the will, chosen freely, to attempt good works and to accept Christ as Lord and saviour which allows God to grant salvation. The diffinitio quid rei is thus: God has the ability to perform all conceivable possibilities at any conceivable moment in any conceivable location to immutable and eternal perfection, and the language with which we describe such power is beyond that of our capability, therefore, since leading a sinless life is true by definition in being a perfection, it could only follow that Pelagius suggests by inference, willingly or not, humans have capability to reach moral perfection on earth, this would equate them to a level of divinity. This is highly questionable, or it may result in undue existential questioning of God.

Furthermore, Pelagius suggests that God has allowed us such abilities as a result of scripture and divine revelation, and therefore he wills us to use ability to freely follow them in order to be saved. Whilst one must recognize to criticize scripture/revelation is to set a dangerous precedent if it is to extend so that it is reductio ad absurdum, this view is also a clearly misguided one. Firstly, scripture is not infallible by definition – the stories of the bible are not by virtue of being biblical exempt from question, and arguments regarding the fact of their literalism arbitrary. Questioning scriptural accounts does not undermine religion, quite the opposite in fact. Unless the claim of divine authorship is made, which in itself presents numerous difficulties, when the traditional Roman Catholic view combines sacred texts with Apostolic tradition, then scripture is as open to criticism as any account of religion that has been deductively concluded, i.e. the biblical account of Jesus returning to life is not as cogent as the inherent reasoning behind why it may be possible, why it occurred and the nature of its occurrence, or the implications of such an event notably to those who possess no faith and indeed those with faith still require substantial reasoning to support their belief. Induced, analytic statements which the likes of Aquinas concerned himself with when formulating natural law for example, are those which support religious claims, not a posteriori claims of worldly experience prone to flaws which we find in scripture and which science can attack with great clout as all sensory claims are in themselves subject to question. No attack on sacred scripture is intended, as the Christian need not, or in fact must not, dismiss any miracle or biblical account, as they accept by calling themselves such that the nature of God means that any such account is possible regardless of the criticisms of empiricism. In addition, faith without reason is ignorance, and scripture in itself is not faith and is not solely sufficient in the acceptance of theism. It is to be highlighted that scripture is authored by divinely-inspired human hands (written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), but our innate awareness, the natural and eternal laws by God, thus it is these we must primarily look to with scriptural support, but complete literalism is not a necessity due to the error of mortals in accurately interpreting its meaning, and thus it by no means implies that it is that which we can judge all actions by in order to reach the complete privation of sin even if it was available as is suggested by Pelagius – how could we possibly understand by simply reading the bible which is prone to misinterpretation and translation; the mystery of faith, remains that, a mystery.

The Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] no. 82 Dei Verbum 9)

If we had complete free will to make choices such as Pelagius is suggesting then we are not human but rather if we have the ability to lead a perfect, moral life, we can live in moral perfection, which as even Kant would say, is not a possibility of this life in itself, or thus why would Jesus have been sacrificed, the life everlasting is obtainable as a result of mortal struggle – and is granted only by the grace of God alone. Whilst to be Christian is to act Christ-like, it is as much accepting that divine grace is the very reason Christ had been crucified, therefore divine grace, when sought using free will is the way to obtain salvation. Free will is never enough to lead a sinless life, because as Augustine had stated, the human condition is such that we are sinful, and that the mere suggestion that complete omission of sinfulness is possible is truly a non sequitur statement and indeed perhaps a theological flaw and oversight to constitute ‘Heresy’. 

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