I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.
Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church
If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’
*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal
If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.
Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.
By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.
Heresy #3: Pelagianism
What Is It?
You tell me.
See if you can comb the cobwebs of your memory and regurgitate the little bit ‘bout Pelagius you probably learned in European History.
Well, did you not see the kick-@#$ Clive Owen King Arthur movie a few years back? Wherein Arthur gets re-imagined as a virtuous knight precisely because his adoptive guardian was Pelagius? No?
The movie also stars Keira Knightley, an actress who induces if not heretical thoughts then definitely sinful ones.
Okay, for those forgetful and unaesthetic among you, Pelagianism is the heresy which denies the existence of – and therefore power over us- original sin.
Consequently, Pelagianism asserts that people possess the capacity to choose the good through their own unaided, created natures.
Put in more Pauline terms, we can be saved- actually the passive there is incorrect in this case- we can achieve salvation through our efforts apart from God’s grace.
Pelagians can dismiss original sin one of two ways. Either by contradicting Augustinian readings of Paul and dismissing the notion that the sin of Adam is transmitted to us biologically. AKA: Through the S word. Or, by emphasizing certain passages of Paul and declaring that the power of Sin has been defeated on the Cross by Christ.
Already perhaps you can sense why Augustine saw Pelagianism as both an especially pernicious but also an exceptionally thoughtful heresy.
Who Screwed Up First
You don’t get a heresy named after you if you’re not the first or at least most articulate spokesmen for your anathema.
As Clive Owen reminds us, Pelagius was a British theologian who taught in Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Pelagius had the ill fortune to have lived the same time as St. Augustine of Hippo who was even more astute a thinker than he. Zosimus, the Bishop of Rome (which eventually become the Pope’s office) condemned Pelagius in 418.
Nevertheless, Pelagius’ legacy lives on in more than just celluloid, abiding throughout the centuries just as Pelagius insisted Sin did not.
Much like a vaccine, Pelagianism lurks latent throughout the Body of Christ and one could make a solid case that Mormonism is really just Pelagianism dressed up in a short-sleeve, white-button down.
How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?
If you believe that God does not care what religion a person practices so long as that person tries to live a good life, then your mind- or your squishy little heart- has got Pelagius’ fingerprints all over it.
If at a funeral, or in the planning of one, you summarize: ‘__________ wasn’t religious at all but he was a good person, then as compassionate as you no doubt are your logic is that of Pelagius and not the Gospel.
If you teach your kids that the meaning of Christmas is that they better be good- not naughty- or Santa won’t give them any gifts, then you’re not only setting them up to inherit some pretty effed up understandings of God you’ve also, like Pelagius himself, got the definition of grace exactly wrong.
If you presume that Christianity is essentially about ethics (about serving the poor, clothing the naked, waging peace) then you’re definitely showing symptoms of a bad case of Pelagianism.
Not to mention, you’ve confused the Gospel (Jesus’ overcoming Sin and Death and being Raised to the right hand of the Father) and the Gospel’s effects (being set free to live a life like Jesus).
If you issue altar calls, require Jesus prayers or accept only adult baptisms because to be a Christian a person must ‘make a decision for Christ’ then, like Pelagius before you, you’ve over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace and you’ve turned conversion into yet another ‘work.’
If you act as though all non-Christians or non-churchgoers are bad, decadent or morally corrupt and self-righteously think that your participation in church makes you a better person, then you’ve once again over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace in all our lives, believer and unbeliever.
And you’ve forgotten that God’s grace is active everywhere and in every life preveniently; that is, before any of us ever ‘choose’ God.
If you think that ‘real’ Christians or ‘bible-believing’ Christians or ‘faithful’ Christians must believe/vote/think/act this way on that issue, then you’ve been seduced by Pelagius’ reduction of the complexity of the world into right/wrong, black/white issues.
If you see the Eucharist as nothing more than a memorial to a soon-to-be prisoner’s last supper and, for that matter, if you see all of creation in a non-sacramental way then you’ve got some Pelagian germs in you.
After all, God’s grace has more than just a negative connotation. It isn’t only active in our overcoming of our individual sins.
Grace illumines and animates and charges everything last thing around us.
If you say ‘I do’ foolishly thinking you can have a fruitful marriage apart from God then you’re what practical theologians call ‘a Pelagian.’ Pelagius had to have been celibate. Seriously, marriage is hard enough with God.
If you’re not raising your children in a particular faith tradition because ‘you want them to make up their own minds when their older’ then not only are you instead raising them in the faith called ‘American Individualistic Consumerism’ you’re also assuming a Pelagian capacity in your children to grow up ‘good’ and ‘wise’ apart from grace.
If you insist your nation, its leaders or its founders (cherry tree, _____ was really kind to his slaves) always have good and pure motives then you are a Pelagian, refusing to see how the murky reality of Sin and Grace exist in every person, every tribe and every issue.
Likewise, if you ignore that the lifestyles of Western culture are made possible on the backs of the poor in the developing world then…Pelagian.
If your red politics depends on a Horatio Alger myth of every individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps then you’re politics have a bit of Pelagianism in them, ignoring that Sin is more than what individuals do but also what is done, systemically to others.
Of course, if your blue politics depends on depicting the poor and downtrodden as uniformly noble, well-intentioned and ‘good’ your politics are likewise infected with a heresy that is, if nothing else, simply unrealistic.
Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today
Parents (especially of the helicopter, dragon, playdate variety)
Watch Kiera Knightly in King Arthur and be reminded that, despite our good virtue, some sins (lust for example) abide.
To apply this same principle on a more systemic level, watch Django Unchained.
Spy on your kids when they don’t think you’re looking. And notice that Augustine was right, the little bastards have the devil in them.
Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and then remember that it took what’s-his-name several many years after he was ‘found’ to actually stop buying and selling people.
Affirm the caveat postscript that every Methodist ordinand must: ‘….with God’s help.’