Is America 53% Pelagian?

As the pastor of a politically “purple” congregation, I need to tread lightly on the controversy surrounding Mitt Romney’s remarks about 47% of Americans not paying income tax. I am trying my best to transcend the superficial “issue” level of our increasingly absurd political conversation so that I can yank out the theological roots of the bad weeds that we find in our commonly held assumptions. I really believe that America’s problem is fundamentally theological (and it’s utterly bipartisan). One dimension of it is the impoverished understanding of “individual rights” that Ross Douthat and others have linked to the corrosive impact of secularism (which John Milbank correctly categorizes in Theology and Social Thought as a self-disavowing sect of Christian-rooted thought that has gone atheist). Paul Ryan was right to observe that our “rights” have become dangerously stripped of their bark if there is no longer an assumption that we are “endowed by our Creator” with them (and not by whichever majority of Americans happens to be in power). But the irony is that many of the very people who cheer when they hear lines like, “Our rights come from God and nature, not from government,” actually embrace secularism when the question is framed differently. To say that we are a society of “makers” and “takers” is a profession of disbelief in the relevance of the one true Maker. If I believe that everything I have and everything I have used to gain what I have is a gift from God, then He is the only Maker and we are all takers with one Father who commands us to care for each other as brothers and sisters.

I didn’t have space in my already too long introductory paragraph to explain the term that I used in the title: Pelagianism. It is an ancient Christian heresy dating from the 4th and 5th century (warning church history geeks, I’m going to paraphrase and oversimplify). Pelagius was a monk who got into an epic debate with the famous Christian theologian Augustine over the degree to which human nature has been corrupted by sin. Augustine’s conviction was that humans were hopelessly corrupted by nature without the intervention of the grace of God. Pelagius considered sin to be more like a contagious but treatable disease that humans can overcome through their own willpower. In Pelagian thought, Christ paid the penalty for sin on the cross, but humans are responsible for engaging in the spiritual disciplines necessary to gain admittance into God’s presence, having been acquitted of their crimes against Him. In contrast, Augustine might say that not only was the cross necessary to pay for sin, but it also to heal us from sin, which can only happen insofar as we are transformed by the real presence of Christ’s crucified flesh within us.

The Pelagian account is a robust individualism, while the Augustinian  account is essentially a “culture of dependency” in which humans are utterly helpless without Christ’s constant intervention in our lives. The church took Augustine’s side in the debate, but the American spirit is utterly Pelagian. Most (perhaps white?) Americans desperately need to narrate our lives as the stories of people who work hard without any handouts from anybody and gain success if we just put their minds to it and avoid premarital sex and drugs. That is exactly what Pelagius was arguing that humans could do. What’s interesting is that the Mormon theologian Sterling M. McMurrin argues that Mormonism, the only religion to be born in “indigenous” European America, is basically Christianity according to Pelagian terms. So… you might say, what’s the big deal?

Here’s the problem as I understand it. We have two basic choices for how we narrate what happens in our lives. Either my life happens to me as a gift through the perpetual intervention on the part of an infinitely intimate sovereign God who is constantly infusing the world with His love and working through people to shape us into a kingdom of mercy. Or else I happen as a self-reliant, autonomous individually responsible free agent who enters into social contracts with other individuals and owes none of His success to divine intervention but can claim it instead as a reward for hard work. Most American evangelicals say that they believe the former, but they live the latter. And it’s fascinating to watch how emphatically some evangelicals express their doctrinal “belief” that salvation is a gift as the means by which they can be rewarded with salvation. The problem is that the whole point of believing the former is to be saved from living the latter, because individualism is a lonely, God-rejecting existence that ultimately culminates in an eternity spent outside of communion with God.

The American church has been thoroughly corrupted by the hidden taint of the Enlightenment’s secular individualism that is so integral the fabric of our nation’s values. As a result, we have sidestepped the real problem of human existence in a misunderstanding of how our trust in Christ saves us. What we are saved from is self-justification (or if you prefer, spiritual pride), the vicious slavery of needing to be right and prove my worth to other people. This is not some new innovation on my part. Augustine coined the term homo curvatus en se (humanity curved in on itself) to describe the way that we cannot possibly gain an uncorrupted vantage point to interpret the events of our lives or act upon them without being liberated by the mercy of Jesus’ cross. Since we’re rational creatures, we need to “make sense” to ourselves, and we will spin our interpretations of whatever we’ve done that hasn’t made sense in a way that erodes our rationality, unless we have been given the freedom to be wrong by the blood of Christ that justifies our unjustifiable behavior. The “curvature” of our will and reason from which we cannot escape on our own is what I mean by my term self-justification.

The difference between Augustinian and Pelagian thought basically comes down to two completely different views of freedom. To an Augustinian, freedom is the ability to live according to the beautiful flow of the Holy Spirit because I have been liberated by God’s grace from the forces within me that make me behave irrationally, not doing what I most deeply want to do and doing what I hate doing (Romans 7:15). An Augustinian would say freedom is something God gives us to escape what is inside us. To a Pelagian, freedom is simply a presumed default that I enjoy as an individual. I have the resources within me to tame the beasts of my soul’s passions and appetites. I am Invictus. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” The only threat to a Pelagian’s freedom comes from the outside. A Pelagian is free as long as the only tyrant in his life is himself.

There are certainly threats to our freedom that come from the outside, but we lose the freedom that matters more when we assume the delusional perspective of self-reliance. We can call the good things we do our success and hard work, but if we label them instead as blessings and privileges and really mean it, then God can help untangle us from the monstrous magnetism of the narcissism where all of us begin. The freedom that matters is the joy, mercy, and gratitude that fills our hearts when we stop keeping score and surrender to the Savior who says,  “I am the vine and you are the branches… Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

I realize that many American Christians have genuinely experienced the beauty of surrendering to Christ even though they live simultaneously in the world of self-reliance. I’m not sure how exactly Mitt Romney used 53% and 47%, but I suspect most individual American evangelical souls are more than 53% Pelagian and less than 47% Augustinian. I’m not saying that God will revoke your “sinner’s prayer” if you read and enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, but you’re making a farce out of justification by faith if you reduce faith to a checklist of statements to which you say “Yes” instead of confessing your absolute dependence on Christ as savior and Lord (Romans 10:9) not only with your mouth but with your attitude about your fellow “takers” and “mooches” and “beggars” and “ne’er do wells” that you encounter in life’s path. If having been given the unmerited gift of eternal communion with God instills no change in your attitude about other people receiving things they don’t deserve, then you haven’t accepted Christ yet. Try again. (Of course, I don’t believe in the ludicrous idea that salvation happens in an instant so I know that Jesus is always having to re-save me from my narcissism.)

When we claim the good that happens in our lives as an earned reward rather than a gifted blessing, we are making a declaration of independence from God, whether you want to call that Pelagianism in which you believe that God exists but isn’t sovereign or secularism in which you admit that a God who isn’t sovereign doesn’t really exist. No plant can ever say that it gave birth to its own fruit; God Himself grows every fruit that has ever grown through the sun, the soil, and the rain. We are no different than plants. God is constantly filling our world with spiritual nutrients to help us grow. So let’s stop pretending that we’re doing it on our own. Be grateful; be merciful; don’t keep score. That’s how God makes a kingdom that cares for all of its mooches far better than any secular nation-state ever could.

18 thoughts on “Is America 53% Pelagian?

  1. Pingback: A review of my election-related blog posts « Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. There are many problems with your analysis, most stemming from someone somewhere having gently sterilized Augustinianism for you. Augustine didn’t just teach “We need Christ in our everyday lives” as you appear to think. Rather he taught a rigid predestination which eradicated the concept of freewill and personal responsibility altogether.

    I must take great umbrage with your statement that “individualism is a lonely, God-rejecting existence that ultimately culminates in an eternity spent outside of communion with God.” The Old Testament taught collectivism, that God either saves or damns the whole nation (from political bondage or to political bondage or course, not hell) based on what the majority of the nation is doing. The individual is of little import in the OT, its all about the nation. But JESUS (not Pelagius) made it about the individual’s relationship with God. If the whole nation is rejecting God, the individual may still be saved in Christianity. In the OT, that would be viewed as weird.

    Individualism in the Pelagian sense isn’t saying you don’t need God. Its recognizing that God judges you as an individual. He doesn’t hold you responsible for anyone else’s sin, not even Adams. You are judged by what you did. Augustine is still thinking in terms of the teacher who punishes the whole class for what one student does, which is much like the way the OT tends to operate — but the OT’s punishments are physical political bondage not hell, so it makes more sense to operate in that way. When we are talking about eternal hell, it would be the height of injustice to damn someone for Adam’s sin or anyone else’s other than their own.

    “The American church has been thoroughly corrupted by the hidden taint of the Enlightenment’s secular individualism that is so integral the fabric of our nation’s values.” NO! What has corrupted the American church is the opposite of Pelagianism. It is Augustinian. It is the taint of the immoral doctrine of justification by faith alone, of being zapped by grace so that your behavior doesn’t matter. “I’m elect, I’ve been zapped by grace! I’m saved! Now I can boink my neighbors wife with impunity! (Or boink my neighbor himself with impunity!) Woohoo!” That’s Augustinianism, and Pelagius argued in the very beginning that it lead to “moral laxity.” What is America’s problem today? MORAL LAXITY. And what solution to it do the “Evangelicals” offer? Doubling down on Augustinianism! Doubling down on faith-onlyism! Lets double down on the thing that caused the moral laxity to begin with, yeah, that’ll fix the problem!

    • Wow that’s a very interesting perspective that you have. Where are you coming from theologically? It sounds almost Mormon perhaps. It’s definitely not a view I’ve heard with Protestantism, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. We can do an individualist reading of the gospel certainly. It’s the default in American Christianity. But I see the mercy of God as being the basis for authentic human community through the body of Christ. We relate to God personally as members of a body. Moral laxity comes from being defensive about our behavior and then resorting to nihilism when we give up on trying to be good because we haven’t trusted that only God can make us good.

      • “But I see the mercy of God as being the basis for authentic human community through the body of Christ.”

        I think to Pelagius himself mercy and grace were more or less synonymous, as they are in the Old Testament. Pelagius’ only real “heresy” was that he was well read in the Old Testament and the New Testament both, whereas Augustine was over-obsessed with the Pauline epistles and largely ignored the Old. In any case, “grace” in the Augustinian sense is NOT mercy. So I would say you are equivocating. Grace in the Augustinian sense is an enabling power. Grace in Pelagianism is mercy. Pelagius acknowledges that nobody is absolutely sinless (thats why the Eastern councils exonerated him) and that we all need God’s grace in the sense of mercy. What Pelagius denied was that we need Augustinian “grace,” that is, enabling power, or a magic zapping that enables us to believe.

        • Again I think you’ve been exposed to a poisonous radical Calvinism. The softer Augustinian position that I hold is simply this: be thankful when you’re successful instead of self-righteous and always give others the benefit of the doubt instead of looking for reasons to write them off.

      • “Moral laxity comes from being defensive about our behavior and then resorting to nihilism when we give up on trying to be good because we haven’t trusted that only God can make us good.”

        It also comes from the delusion that you have to just sit around and wait for God to zap you with “grace” falsely-so-called and make you good, rather than use the grace he has already given you to progress morally by effort. This is Pelagius’ whole point. For the most part, whatever grace we need to make moral progress, God has already given us. If you are constantly thinking that God hasn’t given you enough yet, so before making any effort at improvement you’ll sit around on your duff waiting for him to give you more, and praying pathetic prayers begging for more, but never using what you have, then that obviously leads to moral laxity. And that’s exactly where Christianity is in the U.S. right now. As to my denominational affiliation, no I’m not Mormon. I was raised in the church of Christ, but don’t really fit there anymore, or anywhere, as I obviously have too high an evaluation of Pelagius to fit neatly anywhere in American Christianity these days.

        • I think the Church of Christ made you bitter. Are they ultra-Calvinist or something? I’m not a Calvinist. I just feel like my life grows richer the more that I view everything I accomplish as a gift from God to thank Him for rather than the basis for being a jerk to someone else who doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as I am.

          • Its an ironic comment because you position is closer to Calvinism. The only way for this “all by grace” stuff to work is if Calvinistic predestination is true. Otherwise, salvation must be syngergistic. If you believe in Jesus and live a good moral life you will be saved. Living a good moral life doesn’t mean sinless. It means trying your best. Basically the principle is that God is not a perfectionist, he doesn’t expect absolute perfection because he created and knows we can’t be perfect. He’s not stupid. The story of Noah’s ark proves this, because after the flood He says “I will no longer destroy the earth for man’s sake, for I know that he is but flesh.” In other words, the fact that I know he is weak will result in me showing MORE mercy not less. To Augustinians (Calvinists are Augustinians) God is a crazy perfectionists who requires outright perfection but because its impossible he fakes it for us (which is contradictory). But to Jews and Pelagians, God is not a perfectionist. He says so right there in Genesis. But just as he doesn’t require perfection, he doesn’t tolerate outright rebellion. That we don’t have to be perfect doesn’t mean we get to take advantage and live profligate lives. This is another point where Augustinianism (Calvinism) fails. Augustinianism asserts God is a perfectionist but because perfection is impossible to us God fakes it for us and then allows us to live profligate lives to boot. That’s absurd. Just believe in Jesus and live a good moral life and don’t worry about Calvinism and Arminianism and all that foolishness.

          • Yes but also don’t judge others but be genuinely thankful for whatever good character that has been created in you through other people God has used in your life to instill it.

          • Yes, of course. But not judging others doesn’t mean joining them in teaching that immoral things are OK, or just turning a blind eye to their propagandizing in favor of evil.

          • I’m not sure what you’re caricaturing here, but if you’re saying that eating and drinking with sinners without calling them out on their sin is “condoning” their sin, then you share the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus.

  3. “…the screaming hypocrisy of five point Spurgeonites who are simultaneously five point Ayn Randians.”

    You couldn’t have said it better Morgan…I really wonder how people who claim to understand grace can still be so ungraceful…I’m thinking that maybe it’s the fatalistic bend of Calvinism…but yet this is another generalization….

  4. Hi Morgan, interesting post as usual. I broadly agree with your societal analysis (though as a UK observer not a US citizen). Being slightly left-wing, I have little time for the ‘self-made’ society, or for looking with contempt on those who haven’t ‘made it’ according to the rules of selfish consumer capitalism.

    However, theologically my own view is that you’re following both Augustine and Pelagius into an unnecessarily simplistic either/or dichotomy. It seems to me that neither Augustine nor Pelagius had it either entirely right nor entirely wrong; that while Pelagius did have an overly optimistic view of human nature and capability, that Augustine (like Calvin after him) also had an overly negative and pessimistic one. To me the truth lies somewhere in between.

    We do of course owe everything to God, and everything we have is a gift; but that would be true in any case, even if we were not utterly fallen, depraved and incapable of good. God is the Creator, we are the creatures. Yet at the same time, even if fallen we are still made in God’s image (albeit now marred to a degree); we still have the light of conscience and are potentially capable of ‘doing by nature things required by the law’ (Romans 2:13-15). As a non-Calvinist I also believe that we have at least a degree of free will. So for me it’s always both/and. We need Christ’s spirit at work in us, as we always have needed; but we also participate with him in the outworking of our redemption – the process of our becoming fully human in his restored image.


    • It’s probably the case that I’m tacking to the “hard right” in my account of divine sovereignty in order to call out the screaming hypocrisy of five point Spurgeonites who are simultaneously five point Ayn Randians. But I do really think that becoming fully human amounts to becoming icons, that is recognizing that our core of goodness comes from beyond us. To say nothing good has its source in us is simply to say that we do not own the goodness that God accomplishes through us.

      • Hi Morgan, thanks for your reply. I do actually agree that becoming human amounts (in one sense) to becoming icons, fully bearing or incarnating Christ’s likeness. But at the same time my view is that, as a free generous gift, God has endowed us with tremendous worth and value ‘in our own right’ (in a sense), and given us genuine autonomy, free will, ability to create beauty and to do good things.

        None of that is to deny that he is always the ultimate source, but we don’t have to be ‘nothings’ for that to be the case. It’s God’s own goodness and generosity that makes us into ‘somethings’ in and of ourselves, rather than mere empty shells.

        Good article though! 🙂

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