Have yourself a merry non-Semi-Pelagian Christmas
Research released this fall illuminated something I’ve had a hunch about for some time: Many Christians, even those who claim they hold orthodox belief, actually have theological convictions that aren’t congruent with the Church’s traditional teaching. In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising. We all have a tendency to believe that what we believe is right because, well, we’re the ones who believe it. So then what we believe must be orthodox. Of course, that’s a non sequitur. But sin in our lives leads us to one non sequitur after another, does it not?
This particular research showed divergence from orthodox teaching in a number of areas, but the one that showed the largest gap between the Church’s teaching and research participants’ belief concerned the work of God’s redemptive grace. In the research, two-thirds of the participants said that we’re reconciled with God by our own initiative and then God responds to our initiative with grace. So, we first seek God out and only then does God’s mercy and forgiveness become operative in our lives. This has its own internal logic based on Enlightenment constructs of individualism, fairness, and reciprocity (the old quid pro quo, as it were). It makes sense to us. It sounds like it should be the way God works. It has a certain truthiness to it, as Stephen Colbert might say. As Americans who are steeped in deep internal codes of personal responsibility, we like the idea that we have a co-starring role to play in our own drama of redemption. The problem is: That’s NEVER been the orthodox teaching of the Church.
And that brings us to the 5th century Englishman, Pelagius. Yes, he was a Brit, so we Anglicans have to claim him. He’s in our spiritual family tree. He’s like that crazy great uncle we have that no one in the family wants to acknowledge, but own him we must. Pelagius contended that humans first choose God by their own personal gumption. Our sin, original or otherwise, did not, according to Pelagius, impair our ability to choose wisely by choosing God. In other words, we must choose to appropriate the benefits of God’s grace through the power of our own will. This came to be known as Pelagianism. Two Church councils, first in 418 A.D. at Carthage and then in Ephesus in 431 A.D., rightly rejected Pelagianism. A century later a spinoff of Pelagianism, known rather non-creatively as Semi-Pelagianism, became popular. This sought to affirm the orthodox teaching about humanity’s original sin, while at the same time still insisting that we must take the initiative for God’s grace to be operative. In 529, the Council of Orange said “nice try Semi-Pelagianists,” and rejected their views.
As I listen to Christians in America, it seems to me that the vast majority of us are de facto Semi-Pelagianists. God’s grace makes us uneasy. Grace doesn’t feel right or fair. It’s like we’re getting something we don’t deserve or didn’t have to work for at all; that we didn’t get it the old-fashioned way by earning it.* It’s as if someone gave us something exceptionally amazing at Christmas, something it turns out that we really loved and needed, and it’s not that we just forgot to get him anything in return, we actually chose not to get him anything at all. EXACTLY. And, for me, that’s what puts the “merry” in Christmas.
The Rt Revd Scott Anson Benhase is the X Bishop of Georgia.
* It’s really more like the other guy is getting something he doesn’t deserve. “What the hell did he do to deserve grace? I went to the soup kitchen 50 times last year!”