The 4th century Church Father, known as St. Augustine was not proud of his past. His nothing-to-be-proud-about past, fortunately became the basis of his reflections on God, as revealed in Jesus Christ.
I was going through Alister McGrath’s brilliant book named Heresy (London: SPCK, 2009) and came across St. Augustine’s response to the heresy known as Pelagianism, which gave me much hope, in my ministry, as recently as this morning.
Pelagianism, according to McGrath can be summarised in the following arguments (found mostly on page 163) :
- Human beings are completely free to act. To a great extent such an action is imperative for “moral action and spiritual renewal.”
- The behaviour of human beings is not influenced significantly by hidden forces, nor is it restricted by powers that ultimately lie beyond their their control.
- “Any imperfection in human nature that might stop us from acting morally could reflect badly on God.”
- “The significance of Christ needs to be located primarily in his teaching and examples.”
In one of writings, Pelagius goes to the extent of saying, ” No one knows the extent of our strength better than God who gave us that strength… God has not willed to command anything impossible, for God is righteous; and will not condemn anyone for what they could not help” (page 164). Julian of Eclanum (386-455 ACE) is said to have further developed these thoughts in ways that it was turned into a gospel of self-improvement “that was adapted to the norms of the Roman culture,” a “sophisticated self-improvement with a strong spiritual core.”
Till here it sounds great, and I can’t help notice how much it sounds like the self-help books I have read. You have the power within you, given from above! We have been blessed by God with everything we need to make life better! Just do it! Heck, it even sounds like one of my sessions, which I believe are deeply rooted in the Bible.
Augustine takes a different stance, summarised as follows ( found on page 165 onwards):
1. We are created good, but the fact that humanity has sinned, causes contamination to our nature.
2. We seem to have, as a result, an inclination to sin, which is not the result of the divine creation, but of the fall. He suggests that the human will has been “weakened and incapacitated – but not eliminated or destroyed – by sin.”
3. He goes on to say that we need divine grace to heal that will.
4. We are not in control of our sinfulness and it contaminated our life from birth and dominates our life thereafter.
Instead, Pelagianist thought does not agree to human disposition towards sin, adding that failure to choose good and sinning could not be excused on any grounds.
A moment to reflect
I want to stop here and mull with you – isn’t that most often where we find ourselves? We are not ready to accept our failures and sins, and often times do no forgive ourselves for the sins we commit. We berate ourselves on the inability to measure up to God despite the fact that Jesus has done everything he needs to do on the cross? As a pastor, this thought has been the most worrisome. Of course I do believe and accept grace, as Augustine does, yet somewhere, this aim to become perfect like Jesus finding failure is unacceptable to me, pulling one down into the abyss of self-condemnation and disappointment.
At this point, the Pelagian heresy reveals itself as moral authoritarianism, says McGrath. For Pelagius only morally upright persons should be allowed to enter the church, whereas Augustine pictured the Church as a hospital, “where fallen humanity could recover and grow gradually in holiness through grace.” (page 167). It also implied that life on earth was a time for recovery and complete healing will be achieved when we are finally in the presence of God. Till then, the Church must include both the sinner and saint.
These are the words that encouraged me:
“Augustine’s view of humanity is that it is frail, weak, and needs divine assistance and care if it is to be restored and renewed.. Grace, according to Augustine is God’s generous and quite unmerited attention t humanity by which this process of healing may begin… Human nature requires transformation through the grace of God…”
also the following words on page 169:
“God in an act of grace, then came to rescue fallen humanity from its predicament. God assists us by healing us, enlightening us, strengthening us, and continually working within us in order to restore us. For Pelagius, humanity merely needed to be shown what to do and could then be left to achieve it unaided; for Augustine humanity needed to be shown what to do and then gently aided at every point if this objective was even to be approached, let alone fulfilled.”
I needed to hear these words at this point of time in my ministry. I did not want to do build this youth ministry on my own, with the burden that he has given me everything – the circumstances, the possibilities, the gifts, the finance, the creativity… It is too much to do justice to. I wanted to hear that God, in his grace, will guide me, and restore me when I fall, which I was bound to do. I wanted to hear that it was alright to fail, from the God of the Bible. Sometimes it is pastors who preach grace who keep themselves from experiencing any of it.
McGrath’s words on Pelagianism that follows, almost meditative and surely contemplative, are a chilling reflection of how deep rooted these thoughts are in our culture (page 170) :
“Yet Pelagianism continues to be a deep influence on western culture, even if its name means little to most. It articulates the most natural of human thoughts – that we are capable of taking control of ourselves and transforming ourselves into what we would have ourselves be.”
It gives an idealised view of humanity, but Augustine seeks to capture the essence of the human predicament. And that is liberating, especially since, I am not to worry about my failing before God, since my nature is inclined to sin. This must not lead me to taking it for granted but to leaning all the more on his ever-sufficient grace.
Endnote : Disagreement in the Oasis
I do disagree with St. Augustine on his doctrine of Original Sin, just as most of the Eastern, especially Syriac churches would. J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines suggested that the Eastern Church was hardly impacted by his views, taking a different line of thought. I would like to write another post on the human predicament from the eyes of the Eastern Church fathers.
This part of Augustine’s anthropology is definitely an oasis. It is a cool breeze on humid afternoon.
I am encouraged, humbled and strengthened.