Saturday, January 27, 2007

Redefining Heresy (Part 2): Augustine Sets the Standard

A quintessential pursuit of heresy occurred in the 4th and 5th century. Today those old battle lines are discussed and dissected from seminary pulpits. The heretic has few writings, not because he did not write, but because they were destroyed by his detractors. The hero on the other hand is still commonly quoted, and republished today. All we know of the heretic is his name, a little history, perhaps a few brief writings, and his effective defenses against the accusations.

His name is defamed as a great heretic in Christian history, but not because we know what he taught, but because of who accused him, and what they said about what he taught.

Augustine is remembered as the hero, and Pelagius the heretic, and the methods of the pursuit of a heretic has been outlined for us down through the ages on the basis if this story.

Pelagius came from Britain (perhaps from Wales) to Rome, and saw rampant immorality, and even a laxity of morality in the Roman church. He came as a moralist. He perceived the teachings of Augustine on the nature of sin and grace to be detrimental toward encouraging holiness. At some point in the interactions Augustine responded by accusing Pelagius of heresy, and with his influence, and that of others had Pelagius brought before councils on heresy charges. Over the years, two ecclesiastical synods, two popes, as many as thirty-two bishops and many influential Christians found nothing wrong with Pelagius' teachings.

There is evidence that many of the anti-pelagian writings of the church fathers quote Pelagius and make a variety of arguments against points which it is unlikely that Pelagius intended.

Jerome refers to Pelagius as "the huge bloated Alpine dog" who must be "battered with the club of the spirit."

Even after being exonerated many times, Augustine, Jerome, and others kept pursuing some final verdict of Heresy.

Was Pelagius a heretic, or simply a reformer who considered the teachings of the more influential Augustine to be detrimental to a practical life of holiness, and thereby was aggressively pursued unjustly? We can not be sure, but this we do know: He was not pursued on his lifestyle, because Augustine remarked on his piety. He could never really be clearly pinned down on teaching heresy, and that is why he was repeatedly exonerated.

Could it be that the accusations which fly today, often for misunderstanding, and exaggeration, and mixed with name calling are justified in the early church fathers, who potentially used similar fallacies of logic to name the heretics in their day?

We can not be sure, yet we still name the heretic by defining his beliefs through other's words, and we name the defender of the faith by listening to what he says about himself, and what his friends have to say about him. It seems to me that things have not changed, and they may not until disagreeing parties can learn to sit down with one another, and talk, and listen, and truly understand what each other are saying.

Who's the heretic? The one who teaches something misunderstood, or the one who accuses the teacher, maybe even falsely?

Aberrant Christianity is an issue of unethical behavior, as much as it is an issue of strange doctrine. One can not separate the two, yet the pursuit of Pelagius appears to do just that.

I have seen accusers get away with unethical behavior, and be rewarded for it. Is this the fruit of 2,000 years of heresy hunting? I should hope not.


Adam Gonnerman said...

Great post. I've always loved church history, and you're making me want to review the section dealing with Pelagius. I'm absolutely no fan of Augustine. He'd have me burned at the stake or drawn and quartered.

Pastor Phil said...

That makes eight of us Adam. We'd both be drawn and quartered.

carl said...

Pardon my ignorance... what's the deal with Augustine? oh and if Jerome ever called me "a huge bloated alpine dog that needed to be battered with the club of the spirit" I'd have no idea what he's talking about and so then decide to take it as a compliment.

Webb Kline said...

Interesting Phil. Phil is interesting. Phil, this is interesting.

While I've never read anything about Pelagius, it has always been my understanding that Augustine and Theodosius were essentially responsible for Constantine's politicization and institutionalization of Christianity. Is this not where the church ceased being missional and became attractional? Is this not the point where they began engraving crosses on their swords and theologically making Jesus into the warrior God? Was this not the time period that began the justification for killing in Jesus' name? Combined with Hellenistic theology, was it not under the leadership of Augustine that being missional--associating with the world--became heresy? I could go on, but I'm not enough of a historian to claim authority on these things.

But, if I am somewhere close on this stuff, then could it be that Pelagius was simply God's prophet called to warn Christendom that it's faith was being hi-jacked by Augustine et al? For Chritians, who had been persecuted by the Roman govt for so long, to suddenly find their religion endorsed by the same man who had persecuted them, must have seemed as nothing short of a miracle to them. Perhaps Pelagius saw what was going down and that is why he was labeled a heretic.

Intersting Phil. Phil is interesting. Phil, this is interesting.

Pastor Phil said...

Interesting response you interesting fellow.

Actually I like your thinking quite a bit. I am not a fan of Augustine, but he has been quite the hero in many theological circles.

I am not sure of his influence on Christianity and swords either.

hylander said...

web kline,

I do not think you will find those assumptions you are making about Augustine referenced in "The History of the Christian Church," by Schaff; who, by the way, is one of the foremost authorities regarding church history. Augustine is one of the very few post apostalic fathers to be well accepted by all the 3 major branches of christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant). Actually you would find that not only is Augustine a guardian of orthodoxy, and known as the "Doctor of the Church", but he is a great example of what it means to be "missional" e.g. learning the barbarian's language and then teaching and witnessing to them by way of contextualizing the "Gospel" to them. Additionally, he taught exhaustively on the subject of the "sovereignty" of God and emphasized God's Grace extensively in his writings. You bet, I am a big fan of Augustine. I realize that that not all of his theology in every particular area was perfect, neither is mine, or yours, or even Phil's. And, that is ok when dealing with those secondary, non-cardinal, or non-sacred doctrines. But, of course, we could turn the tables and play the drawn and quartered game because those who have subscribed to the teachings of Augustine have sadly and unfortunately been on the receiving end of those same very things.

Pelegius and Augustine certainly had their moments. They tried to reconcile as best they could regarding their differences. As a result, we have semi-pelegius theology, which dominates evangelical christianity today. Of course, that was not always the case historically. Reformed theology has been in the shadows for the past couple centuries in my opinion. But, today, even though semi-pelegius theology dominates the theology circles, I continually to see reformed theology and those who prescribe to it attacked both verbally and in writing. Thankfully, no one is getting drawn and quartered or burned at the stake today, but come on, really, what is the difference once one is labeled and disinfranchised from the rest of the christian community.

Okay, I think I am done with my rant for now. I just want to get across that we must keep things in perspective. Although I am suspect of most things "emergent" does not mean that I throw out the baby with the bath water. I do try to glean something out of what the emergent/conversation leaders are saying. I listen, check it out like a berean, keep the fruit, chuck out the chaff, and then move on.

As prayerfully and humbly as I try, I do pray and re-write much of what I type on blogs before I hit the enter key to post. I certainly hope that God is honored by what I say and pray that my brothers are edified. I realize I am not as irenic in my tone sometimes, but again I do hope that my polemic nature is laced and received in grace.



hylander said...

After I posted the above, I remembered a fun little quiz I came across. The quiz is entitled, "Are you a heretic?"

I will place the URL for your enjoyment. Take the quiz and then post your results.

Are You a Heretic?


hylander said...


that link is broken for some reason, I'll just leave the actual URL here. Sorry, you will have to use the old "copy/paste" method due to my mess up :)



Bruce said...

Some people protect the faith and fight heretics.
Some people do bad things.
Therefore all heretic hunters are creepy.

Now, that can't be it, is it?

Isn't it important to preserve the content of the faith? Sure it is. It's also important to live righteously and godly in this present age as we await the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But protecting the faith doesn't wait for perfect people to do it--any more than anything else in the church waits for perfect people to do it.

Sometimes natural-cures people come up with ways to cure cancer or whatever, with their special brand of snake oil. They will--honestly--teach their followers to do ordinary things well, like brushing their teeth, eating right and exercising. Their followers might feel better, and get all confused. Surely mean spirited and obese attorneys for the Commonwealth/State/FDA ought to presecute snake oil claims, even tho they are no models themselves.

So if Pelagius is saying that people don't need the Holy Spirit, or don't need to be justified, or that we don't need the sacrifice of Jesus for living with God in this life--did he say these things?--then, Houston, We have a problem.

If Augustine and the orthodox folks are mean spirited and hostile to joy, well, we have another problem.

I'm trying to get to the bottom of this too, btw. I'm just reluctant to take a condemned guy as a model for theology. Not alway, just "reluctant." I pay attention to Luther, Calvin, Knox, and 20th Century Pentecostals.