NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 23.3
There's some great lines in the extract from Tom Lee's manuscript today — some by Tom, and some by some of the figures from history he quotes. The central focus is on Augustine and Pelagius. How much of our Christian attitudes to sin, and so many other things, have been borne out of the personal struggles — and failings — of men who were projected into powerful positions?
Barbarians at the Gate, Predestination & Erotic Penitence. Part 23.3
Pelagius — that great mountain-dog through whom the devil barks...
At the end of the fourth century a Briton, believing himself to be orthodox, began an influential heresy of his own. As the doctrines of Pelagius spread he attracted the attention of the greatest Western thinkers. "That great mountain-dog through whom the devil barks", was Jerome's colorful description of him, and most of the leading clerics of the day agreed.
Britain, a risky though prosperous colony throughout the Roman occupation, was at a low point. Twice soldiers stationed there had been proclaimed emperor by their troops. Neither succeeded but Britain got a name for sedition, and it was an expensive country to maintain, as plundering tribes of Picts, Welsh and Irish necessitated numerous and well-equipped garrisons. Pelagius did not help the country's reputation. He denied original sin, claiming that Adam would have died whether he succumbed to the devil or not. He took his beliefs to Rome and gathered a strong body of supporters.
At issue was the freedom of man's will and the manner in which the grace of God operates. In general the east, while not denying the grace of God, believed in the freedom of man's will and in the ability of the individual person to do what God commands. John Chrysostom insisted that men can choose the good and that when they do so grace comes to their aid to reinforce them in their effort to do what God commands. In the West however, even before the time of Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian and Ambrose had declared for what became known as Original Sin. Ambrose taught that through the sin of the first man, all Adam's descendants come into the world tainted with sin. "Adam perished and in him we all perished", he said. He held that no one is conceived without sin. The newborn infant arrives sinful.
Augustine went much further than Ambrose, probably in part because of his sullied personal history of sexual guilt and deep anguishes. His conscience tangled fatefully on the barbed wire of his private life, demonstrating that a love relationship where the affection has been unequal is a power relationship; and the less loving partner always ends up the most self-righteous.
Rational free choice — a gift from God for his own good, and his chief peril!
Augustine believed that he had been sought by God's grace until he could not but yield to it. He believed that in the beginning angels and men were created rational and free, the only created beings of whom that could be said. In the beginning, Augustine maintained, true to his Neoplatonic background, there was no evil anywhere. What we call evil, he said, was merely the absence of good. A person's capacity for rational free choice, he held, was man's highest quality, a gift from God for his own good, and his chief peril. Only men and angels had rational free choice. They can exist without being wicked, but because they alone possess free will, only they can be wicked. Adam, he said, had fallen into sin by his free choice, an act of pride, the desire to put himself at the center rather than God. Because of his own experience, Augustine saw this degradation especially in sexual lust.
But Augustine was far more pessimistic than that. He believed that having fallen, man could not recover by his own effort. He is still free, but only free to sin. The sin of Adam, so Augustine believed, passed on to all Adam's descendants, the entire human race. We can be rescued only by a second birth and this can only be by a fresh act of God, the grace of God. This grace of God was in Christ, who was God incarnate, fully God and yet fully man. The man Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man. Born of the Virgin Mary, he was not stained by the sin of copulation that accompanies normal human generation, and lived and died without sin. Christ is thus the second Adam, for in him God made a new start.
Augustine was convinced that all men share the sin of Adam and therefore deserve judgment. Of His great mercy, however, God has predestined some to salvation. The others he has destined to the punishment that their sin deserves. Augustine gloomily predicted, "The majority of humans will not be among the blessed". Only the celibate could achieve the state of grace that had existed in the Garden of Eden. It followed therefore that if it was sinful to find enjoyment in sex, then the great majority of ordinary people were sinners.
It is notorious that Tertullian referred to women as "the devil's gateway" and that Augustine held that woman had to be married to man, who was made in the image of God, before she too could be recognized as in that image.
It was in St. Paul that Augustine claimed to find a theology of sexual behavior that made sense of his own troubled experience, in the exhortation to those who had wives to "live as though they had none" (1 Cor 7,29) and in his permitting marital sexual activity only "by way of concession" (v. 6), which Augustine's Latin translation rendered as "by way of forgiveness". If even Christian sexual activity needed forgiving, this must be on account of the lust and lack of control that inevitably accompanied it in fallen man, and, indeed, were required as necessary evils for it to be effective. Thus the only feature that could make it pardonable was the express purpose of producing offspring, as God had commanded: "He who has lawful intercourse through shameful lust is putting evil to good use". The "most excellent" form of marriage was obviously that of "brotherly society", for "what father would agree to hand his daughter over to the lust of another man if it were not for children?"
Augustine advocated baptism of infants as the only way of washing away original sin. He taught that both baptism and the Lord's Supper are necessary to salvation. By God's grace men are enabled to do good deeds which God rewards as though they were theirs. Yet, even if we are baptized and partake of communion and live a spiritual life we may not receive the gift of perseverance and thus may not be amongst the elect. To believe that one is of the elect is pride, a renewal of the first sin.
In numerous problem areas Augustine's views were to be, and to remain, highly influential. He declared to be absolutely wrongful, suicide, abortion, lying, and contraception. He established the distinction between mortal and venial sins. He was the founding father of the Christian doctrine of a just war. And yet, paradoxically, he gave definite articulation to the moral principle that a good end does not justify an evil means. Criticized for his intolerance, he declared: "Anger is the daughter of hope". He was not always a consistent thinker. Often wrong, he was never in doubt.
With the sack of Rome, Augustine realized that a good deal more than the city's sense of security had been lost. The whole proud Roman way of life and thought had been defeated. The attitude to life that had been expounded by Virgil and Cicero and which had dominated the whole world-empire, with the cities of Rome and Constantinople as its two principal points of focus, had received a mortal wound from which it was not likely to recover. His answer was to write Civitas Dei, the City of God, in which he was capable of scabrous humor (musical farts), regretfully dismissing the old city as a monument to human selfishness and substituting the Church as the future focus for all men. He took an almost utopian view of the possibilities of a society totally obedient to God, its citizens a united family seeking the good of the whole, while all together sought the good of the individual. Though calamities might occur, God would use them to disentangle His city from evil and to train its citizens in the art of self-sacrificing love.
A "spiritualized Karl Marx"...
Augustine's earthly vision was that of a spiritualized Karl Marx. He believed Everyman was the prodigal son — our longing for God merely homesickness. The heart of religion for Augustine was the sovereignty of the divine glory. Man was made in order to acknowledge that glory in worship, and can find authentic happiness no other way. The misery of our-race is the result of a persistent quest for happiness in the wrong way and in the wrong places.
Under the existing circumstances his book wielded enormous impact, leading to an increasing influence of the church in politics. There was not much difference between East and West. Even the so-called Caesaro-papism of the East did not prevent the Emperor from recognizing the Patriarch of Constantinople as co-partner with him even in secular administration. There were indeed times when the bishop seemed in effect the dominant partner.
In the West, owing to the constant contact with the barbarians, the church played a dominant role from the fifth century onwards. The secular arm of government worked mostly under ecclesiastical advice. It seemed that the City of God might become really effective on earth. The Church trained the new nations in the relics of the old classicism; it taught them Christianity; it helped to weld them into one empire. Even when the Pope and Emperor each wielded a sword of authority, it was the former who consecrated the latter. Hence was derived the apparent unity of society that became typical of the Middle Ages.
Some of Augustine's views were elaborated and sharpened by his opposition to those known as Pelagians, especially Pelagius himself, his associate Caelestius, and the bishop of Eclanum, Julian. Pelagius was prompted to speak out when, about 410, he heard a bishop quoting from Augustine's Confessions: "Thou commandest continence; grant what thou commandest and command what thou wilt". The use made of these words seemed to Pelagius to undermine moral responsibility. It appeared to him a manifestation of Manichaean pessimism. As a result he wrote his own commentary on St. Paul's words about Adam and sin, in the Epistle to the Romans, to make it clear that there is no hereditary transmission of sin passed down since the fall of Adam through the reproductive process.
According to Pelagius we sin by a voluntary imitation of Adam's transgression, corrupted by environment and wrong choices, but not by any fault inherent in nature. He regarded it as a disastrous concession to the Manichees to claim that man can be so corrupt that he is powerless to obey God's commands. The very notion of morality required that all sin had to involve personal assent, and thus there could not be any evil in a newborn child. He believed that Baptism was still necessary, as the Gospel of John stated that the unbaptized will not be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, but he thought it monstrous to suggest that a merciful God would consign them to hell. He supposed that there must be some intermediate place, a limbo of natural happiness.
Pelagius was accused of denying man's need for grace, and otherwise monstrously misrepresented in the ensuing controversy. He was not greatly helped by his friend Caelestius who was much more forthright and less tactful in expressing his views. But he was not very far from Augustine's position when he stated "He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent". Augustine was given to rhetorical statements not always consistent with the theology he expressed.
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