Sunday, 30 June 2013

Pelagianism vs Augustinianism: Taking the Old Testament seriously?

In an entertaining exchange on a recent post, a correspondent has been attempting to defend modern day Pelagianism (condemned by the Pope recently), arguing that the current renewed enthusiasm for Augustinianism has been destructive for morality, and leads to a failure to take the Old Testament seriously.

So I thought it might be worth setting out a little context for the debate and a response by way of a commentary by St Ambrose on today's (traditional) Matins reading (2 Samuel).


The first problem is one of terminology.

Pelagianism (and the 'semi-Pelagianism' that St Augustine battled against) is, strictly speaking a condemned heresy that was popular in fifth century Britain.  It involves the denial of original sin and the necessity of grace.

A nice summation of the counter view to Pelagianism, reflecting the text of the Council of Orange (529) is contained in St Benedict's Rule, in the Tools of Good Works, where he urges us to "To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself.   But to recognize always that the evil is one's own doing, and to impute it to oneself."

It is not, however, clear, as Dallas Area Catholic points out, that this is the sense that the Pope means when he talks about modern day Pelagianism, which he equates with excessive rigorism and joylessness.

He suggests that the Pope is, perhaps, condemning the idea that one can work one's way to heaven (does he think the SSPX are saying that x thousand rosaries will earn their way out of virtual schism and back into the Church rather than understanding that they are praying for Rome to repent?!), without the need for grace and charity. And of course, that the same idea does, in my view at least, have a certain resonance with the ideology that underpins unfettered Ayn Rand style capitalism.

St Augustine's response

Is Augustinianism the opposite of and only counter to Pelagianism?  Well no.

It is certainly true that those early Councils and papal documents endorsed St Augustine's demolition of Pelagianism.

But that doesn't necessarily mean we have to accept all of the philosophical premises of St Augustine's system taken to their logical conclusion.

Augustinianism has a been given a new lease of life in recent times, not least by Pope Benedict XVI, but there are several other, perfectly orthodox schools of thought have developed in the Church on the nature of grace, most notably in the form of  the Dominican school (Thomism-Banez) and the competing Jesuit (Molina-Suarez) view.

The upshot of that particular seventeenth century debate was that both schools were allowed to persist: the Pope of the day forbade the Jesuits from calling the Dominicans Calvinists, and the Dominicans from calling the Jesuits Pelagians.  Accordingly, there is a certain irony in Jesuit Pope apparently labelling modern day traditionalists as Pelagians...

Taking the Old Testament seriously?

So do you really need to be a Pelagian to take the Old Testament seriously as poster Mr Jordan claims?  Of course not!

The Old Testament, for Christians, needs to be read in the light of the new, and in the light of the Tradition of the Church.

A very nice example of the different approaches possible on this subject is reflected in the commentary by St amborse (St Augustine's teacher) provided in the Benedictine Office on today's readings for Matins, 2 Samuel 12, where the prophet Nathan takes King David to task for his adultery with Bethsheba and murder of her husband:

"...The next few verses in the Bible describe, very touchingly, the conduct of David on the occasion and, afterwards, how Solomon was born of Bathsheba. David composed the Miserere during his repentance. In how many things doth each one of us transgress every hour! And nevertheless not one of all us common men thinketh it well to confess his sin. Yet that strong and great King would not suffer the acknowledgment of his iniquity to remain, even for a moment, hidden in his own heart. With eager confession and bitter sorrow, he admitted that he had sinned against the Lord. Which of you will easily find me now some honoured and wealthy person, who will not take it ill if I rebuke him for a fault whereof he is guilty? But David, amid the splendours of a throne and' the certainty of Divine revelations, when he was rebuked by one of his subjects for his grievous transgression, was not roused to anger, but contrariwise, acknowledged his sin with groans and affliction.

The heart-felt sorrow of David moved the Lord to compassion, so that Nathan said Because thou hast repented, the Lord also hath put away thy sin. The instant gift of pardon declareth the depth of the King's repentance, which was able to obtain the forgiveness of so grievous a transgression. Other men, when they be rebuked of Priests, do but aggravate the heinousness of their sins by the seeking to deny or to excuse them, and thereby make deeper their fall by means of that which should have helped them up. But the saints of the Lord who will to fight a good fight of godliness unto the end and to finish their course by saving their souls, howbeit, they may perchance have fallen like other men, have done so rather through man's weakness than through lust for iniquity, and rise more eager to go on than before. Shame goadeth them on to fly at higher things. So that not only is their fall to be reckoned to have nowise hampered them, but rather to have quickened their speed.

David sinned; and so oftentimes do other kings. David repented with groaning and tears; and so do not oftentimes other kings. He admitted his guilt; he implored forgiveness; he cast himself down upon the ground, and there wept over his crime; he fasted; he prayed; by publishing his sorrow he left an everlasting witness of his acknowledgment. What meaner men blush to do, the King was not ashamed to own. They who are answerable to law are bold to deny their crimes, and too haughty to ask pardon. Not so he, though he could be haled before no earthly judgment-seat. That he sinned was a matter flowing from his nature; that he asked for pardon, his own repentance. To fall is common to all men, but his confession was his own. To transgress thus was nature; to efface his guilt, greatness.

Debate if you will, the nature of the grace that David received in order to make such a heartfelt confession!

Confession before Eucharist!

And not entirely unrelated to this, St Ambrose's commentary is also used at Matins on the Gospel today, the feeding of the four thousand, I suspect because he provides a nice link between the Old Testament reading on the necessity of confession and repentance, and the New, on the Eucharist:

"After that that woman, who is a type of the Church, was healed of the issue of blood Luke viii. 43-48; after that the Lord had sent His disciples to preach the kingdom of God ix. 2, His heavenly tenderness gave food. But consider who they were unto whom He gave it. He gave it not to such as dwell at ease, not to men in cities, not to such as sit in places of worldly splendour, but to men seeking Christ in a desert place. Such as are not given to niceness are they whom Christ receiveth, and unto whom the Word of God speaketh, not of earthly things, but of the kingdom of God 11. And if any bear in them the running sores of fleshly passion, He healeth them."


Kate Edwards said...

James Jordan said:

It is a problem of terminology indeed. For example, "righteous" in the Old Testament doesn't mean "sinless" like it ultimately does in Augustinianism. "Righteous" means a man who habitually does what is right, but of course does occasionally sin. But to Augustinians, especially Calvinists, "Righteous" means sinless.

In the Old Testament "there is not a righteous man alive who never sins" but in Augustinianism "there is none righteous--period." That's a big difference.

"So do you really need to be a Pelagian to take the Old Testament seriously as poster Mr Jordan claims?"

Absolutely. How will the faith alonist take Psalm 119 serious? How will the Gnostic Augustinian antinomians take Psalm 119 serious?

How can anyone who believe in predestination and lack of freewill take any of the Old Testament serious? Its an absolute joke that you would claim you could.

Kate Edwards said...

James Jordan said:

"David sinned; and so oftentimes do other kings. David repented with groaning and tears; and so do not oftentimes other kings. He admitted his guilt; he implored forgiveness"

Anyone who thinks Pelagianism is about denying that you've ever sinned or about refusing to pray for forgiveness, must be smoking crack. That's not what its about.

The debate between Pelagius and Augustine really ultimately was more about infant baptism than anything else. And so the question was when does grace become operative in the Christian's life? Augustine also focused the question on how one disabled by original sin (remember, Augustine was essentially a Calvinist) could ever believe in Jesus. To Augustine, grace comes at the beginning, and enables one to believe. To Pelagius, grace comes at the point of baptism, which being a credobaptist was after belief in his view. So one came to believe without any special grace (he believed on the grace of creation, and of course the external grace of the church's preaching) was necessary for one to believe. But then one was baptized and received a more active grace to help them live the Christian life, a grace that could be equated with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, of course, per passages like Acts 2:38. So the debate had nothing to do with anyone denying grace--that is a strawman. The question is: Do you need a special zapping from a SPECIAL grace (beyond the grace of creation and the preaching of the church) to enable you to believe n Jesus? That was the main discussion. Jansenism and Calvinism have created a strawman.