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Recovering Pelagius: Diocese of Atlanta Seeks to Reinstate 5th Century Heretic

Recovering Pelagius: Diocese of Atlanta Seeks to Reinstate 5th Century Heretic at Diocesan Convention
The church needs to reclaim his voice in our tradition, says rector

"Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse man's foul concupiscence, Or cry down Sin Original, or that The love of God did man predestinate." From a 17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius.

By David W. Virtue
October 19, 2011

If the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, Rector, the Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta, has his way, the 5th Century heretic Pelagius, declared so by the Council of Carthage, will be reinstated at the next and final Diocese of Atlanta annual meeting presided over by Bishop Neil Alexander.

Nearly 500 clergy members and parish delegates will gather in Rome (Georgia) Nov. 4-5 for the 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta and vote on reinstating Pelagius who denied original sin as well as Christian grace.

Pelagius was an ascetic who denied the need for divine aid in performing good works. For him, the only grace necessary was the declaration of the law; humans were not wounded by Adam's sin and were perfectly able to fulfill the law apart from any divine aid. He denied the doctrine of original sin as developed by Augustine of Hippo. Pelagius was declared a heretic. His interpretation of a doctrine of free will became known as Pelagianism.

According to Pattison, the historical record of Pelagius's contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire and their ecclesiastical dominance. "An understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition."

Pattison wants to see Pelagius's "restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God's creation, and that the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans.

"The church needs to reclaim his voice in our tradition," concluded Pattison.

On hearing the news, retired South Carolina Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison expressed disdain. "As one considers the theologically inept accommodation to the secular world there should be no surprise that Pelagian doctrine of the will's freedom without grace would be dug up again. A world losing its trust in God will compulsively trust in the human will to obey if it is sufficiently rebuked, exhorted, threatened and scolded. No wonder Richard Hooker and St. Augustine called it a 'cruel doctrine'."

In his book "The Cruelty of Heresy"Allison writes, "The broad stream of Western thought since the 17th Century has been characterized by a confidence more congenial to Pelagianism than at any time in history. And Pelagianism is the banana peel on the cliff of Unitarianism."

Former Newark Bishop John Shelby's Spong 12 Theses is Unitarianism writ large.

A tongue in cheek activist layman in the Atlanta diocese said, "It's delightfully revealing that Bishop Alexander's last diocesan council will consider a resolution to memorialize, which is the first step toward official institutionalization, an infamous heretic. Revealing, because now that civil rights, women's ordination, and same-sex marriage are TEC sacraments, giving blessings to recognized heresy just makes sense and shows how much vitality and forward momentum that transformative change still has in TEC."

He whimsically noted that they should be ashamed of themselves for taking so long to respond to the call of "theological exploration" in the name of Pelagius.

"Just as the Diocese of Atlanta names its upcoming youth summit "Finding Grace By Adjusting Our Perspective," we should next expect a diocesan holy day named for heretic Pelagius, "because we are called to live into our baptismal covenant by adjusting ourselves and our attitudes to new perspectives about those suffering heretics who have been excluded for too long from our common faith in the unity of the resurrection and coexistence with our multicultural Interfaith partners."

Pelagius taught that the human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he believed that God's grace assisted every good work. Pelagius did not believe that all humanity was guilty in Adam's sin, but said that Adam had condemned humankind through bad example, and that Christ's good example offered humanity a path to salvation, through sacrifice and through instruction of the will. Jerome emerged as one of the chief critics of Pelagianism, because, according to him, sin was a part of human nature and we couldn't help but sin.

Allison in his book notes that Pelagianism teaches that the human will has the power to break the bondage of sin. It is best understood as a theological synonym for "nagging," or confidence that the law requires no more than humans can do. Therefore Pelagian Christianity is characterized by exhortation and scolding. Confidence in the power of human will leads to confidence that the defeat of sin can be effected by means of fear. The underlying confidence in the power of the human will to make one sinless is Pelagian."

Recent attempts to defend Pelagius as a misunderstood orthodox flies in the face of history. The Diocese of Atlanta must roundly reject this resolution or face skidding on the banana peel into Unitarianism and over the cliff.


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