Tuesday, March 06, 2007

On Heresy

Heresy is a widely misunderstood concept. It refers, of course, to active disagreement with the formal doctrinal teaching of the Church from people and groups within the Church. So, the teaching that Mohamed was a prophet of God, for instance, while it contradicts Christian doctrine, is not, strictly speaking, heresy, because nobody (to my knowledge, at any rate) within the Christian community espouses that teaching.

If one imposes a purely political analytical map on Christian history, it is evident that orthodoxy and heresy are synonyms for winners and losers. An objective scholar is professionally bound to see it that way. A Christian teacher or pastor, on the other hand, is professionally bound not to see it that way, but, rather, to embrace the Church's formal teaching as an insider, as one with a bias. The faithful in Christ have a moral duty to make every conceivable good faith effort to submit their conscience to the teaching authority of the Church. (And when I say "the Church," lest their be any confusion, I'm not referring to the opinion of a voting majority of one province's synodical gathering at a particular moment in time, but to the consensus fidelium over several generations.) This is not Roman; it is just Catholic. Which is to say it is Anglican.

In this context, I found the following comment on the HoB/D listserv more than telling:

It occurs to me that this is deja vu all over again. History is repeating itself. We are in the midst of the Pelagian Controversy--the Celtic Catholic monk who had a high doctrine of human nature and the fiery North African Bishop who saw the world through the lens of 'original sin'.

The author of these remarks is an experienced rector of an Episcopal parish. She has an M.Div. from an accredited seminary. She's no slouch. Could she have meant to make herself such an easy target?

Some quick background: Pelagius believed that human nature is a little tainted, but not completely corrupted, by Sin. So we need a boost, a hand up, from God, but once we get some momentum, we can bridge the gap on our own. Jesus is, then, not so much a Savior as a motivational speaker. Augustine countered with his developed doctrine of Original Sin. Pelagius was ultimately declared a heretic; Augustine of Hippo was declared a saint and doctor of the Church.

What continues to amaze me is that a pastor under ordination vows can adopt even a neutral attitude toward the Pelagian controversy, let alone one that appears to favor the heretic. A professor at a public university can do that. A Christian priest doesn't have the option.

Granted, some of the ancient heresies, and their corresponding orthodoxies, seem a little arcane to contemporary ears. It takes some resolve and skill to draw out their practical spiritual implications. But this isn't one of them! It profoundly affects how we evangelize, because it affects just what the "good news" is. Are we "blind wretches" by nature (per Amazing Grace), or are we just a little bit morally challenged? Is Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, or is he a life coach who can help us get over the rough spots?

Many have suggested that crypto-Pelagianism is the spiritual Achilles heel of both Anglicanism and the British nation. I won't necessarily argue that point, but it does tend to make me a little hyper-vigilant about this particular form of heresy.


Unknown said...


I've often wondered if people have really thought through the implications of Pelagianism. If human nature is, with a little help from God, capable of perfection under its own volition, then the committing of sin becomes more intolerable. There's no excuse for it. And, indeed, what little we do know about Pelagians suggests that they didn't treat human failure with terribly much compassion.

They also hated the invocation of saints as it suggested to them the widespread practice in the late Roman Empire of people using the power of the nobility to get them off the hook in courts. Despite how harsh Augustinian sounds, and how optimistic Pelagianism seems, the pastoral reality was quite the opposite.

Mark Clavier+

Daniel Martins said...

Excellent observations, Mark.

As this thread continues to play our over on HoB/D, there is a contingent contending the Pelagius was misunderstood and has been unjustly tarred by history. Here is what I wrote:
"New every morning is the level of my surprise at what it is possible to find on this listserv. I have no wish to enter a theological or historical debate about Pelagianism or Pelagius. But I do want to flag the "process" issue here, which is how some contemporary Episcopalians, including educated clergy, apparently feel themselves at liberty to reopen long-settled theological controversies. From an objective standpoint, yes, "history is written by the winners," as a comment has already observed. But pastors and teachers within the church do not have a duty to be objective. In fact, we have a duty to *not* be objective, but to embrace the formal teaching of the Church with some degree of intellectual humility--as an insider, as one with a bias, not as a neutral observer and judge. There is an obligation to "think with the Church" on these things. The fact that there is a presumed freedom to not do so is troubling to me, and, I think, emblematic of some of our current presenting problems."

Unknown said...


It's such a simplistic view of history into which so many buy, and one based primarily upon sentimentality (like so much else in the Church these days). If Pelagius had won, you could imagine the same people talking about poor old Augustine, and his lost form of Christianity. The prime example of all this is the fad of Celtic Christianity. I mean, you want to have a harsh system, revive Celtic Christianity with its horrendous penitentials!

All of this is why I think the most important initiative in the Communion right now is the one to address theological education. Until we start producing again clergy who can tell the difference between scholarly arguments and popular ones, between reform and fad, and between meat and rubbish, the Church is simply going to stagger from one daft contraversy to another.

Goodness, now I'm beginning to sound like my old man....


Daniel Martins said...

Mark, may I ask you to email me privately? I've got something I want to ask you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You have done an enormous disservice to Pelagius, Dan, and thus called into question the integity of the professional writer even in anonymity.

I strongly urge you to read the posting from the Celtic Book of Prayer on my web page.


And, this little bending of the rules of posting things written on HOB/D is not amusing.

Unknown said...


I think it well worth reading from a variety of sources regarding Pelagius. Certainly, much of what we know about him comes from the victors--and Augustine's account is awfully charitable in comparison to Jeromes!--but that doesn't mean that Pelagius himself was the paragon of virtue, either. As a matter of fact, because the victors did much of the writing, we can't really say much of anything with confidence about him. Its not like there is a treasury of secret writings out there. Indeed, scholars must try to tease out what they can from Jerome, Augustine, what snippets remain of Pelagius' writings, and the works of his followers. Not much to go on.

As Peter Brown points out, one of the problems of Pelagianism is that it created a two-tiered Christianity. The followers of Pelagius were not know for being terribly compassionate towards fallen men and women, while treating the "perfect" with great deference. If we can amend ourself through our own work, when we fail we have no one else to blame but ourselves. The influence of Pelagianism on Celtic Christianity produced horrendous penitentials that came down hard on everything from sexual immorality to sneezing during the Divine Office.

Conversely, the doctrine of Original Sin was the great equalizer. Doesn't matter who you are, what your sex, your station, etc. all are born very far gone from righteousness. All must apply for the medicine of grace.

Finally, I know of no evidence that Pelagius exemplified some of the more popular aspects of Irish Christianity, particularly the soul-friend. Most scholars tend to agree that Pelagius was a Briton, perhaps even educated at the great "seminary" of Betys-y-coed in northern Wales. Welsh Christianity lacked many of the more romantic aspects of Irish Christianity, having not been given the opportunity to develop it during the Irish, Pictish, and Saxon raids.

In the end, Pelagianism tended towards a type of Puritanism not unlike that of the 17th century. It quickly died in Britain and was renounced by the end of the 6th century (if memory serves me right) in Ireland. When Augustine of Canterbury arrived in the 6th century it was long dead. If it couldn't thrive on its own in Britain, where Roman rule and coercion had vanished in 409 AD, then it must never have been terribly popular.


Anonymous said...

Since I haven't posted anything here over the past couple of days I figured I would throw in my two cents.

To echo what Father Dan has said while speaking through my jargon-y bullhorn: if our historiography is not taut enough the Christian faith becomes Unitarianism. I can find any rationale to re-engage all of what we may call heilsgeschicte. After the contrived date of 1054 and more so the Reformation re-deciding The Tradition becomes much more problematic. One of the worst ways to do this is to use the classic Marxist (+Hegel) categories to paint Pelagius as the proletarian world-historic figure and the misanthropic Augustine as the bourgeoisie world-historic figure. As I said to some effect in a previous post: the majority or the powerful are not a priori wrong or evil. In fact wrong people are wrong and evil people are evil. Now this is complicated in history by the right people being right and being too direct in their use of power. In the end, I just want to be on record as saying that the doctrinal prejudices that we have inherited from The Church are not a factor of violence in their essence. If we are to believe otherwise and that it is somehow our Christian "duty" to do so then you will have removed your frame of reference for what "duty" is to begin with.

Now, with that being said, I have made in my last paragraph a frightening weapon, which we as Anglicans ought to handle most gingerly. Where we plant the historiographical flag will shape how we represent the Gospel and thereby risk losing it. The thematizing Elizabeth has chosen can unwind any council, any Father, and even the cannon. I guess my meta-hermeneutical warning is: he with the least blood on his hands is dying for the whole Jesus.

Fort Worth

Richard M. Wright said...

Concerning the "bending of rules about posting things from the listserv", and perhaps I misunderstand the rules and how Fr Dan may have broken them, but I first encountered the quote *on Elizabeth+'s blog* (http://telling-secrets.blogspot.com/, scroll to "Narrow Shafts of Divine Light"). There we read that Susan Russell was the first to extract and post the quote. We also get to read what Brad Drell wrote to Elizabeth+.

Perhaps as one who does not subscribe to HoB/D I misunderstand these rules. But I trust others can see why I was perplexed by her scolding.

Daniel Martins said...

To Elizabeth Kaeton (if you're still out there): Bending the rules? You mean like you did quoting an HoB/D post by Kendall Harmon on your blog last week? I seem to recall other instances as well, but haven't presently got the time to track them down.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


I'm still here. And, I'm still keeping - not bending - the rules. I do want to thank Mark for his balanced presentation of Pelagian vs. Augustinian theology. It was a lovely antitdote to the hysteria that has been flying around most of the conservative blogs. Gives me hope that we might actually be capable of civility in the church, even throught "the troubles."